Blooming in Early July: Great Rhododendron

With the gasoline and gunpowder gang’s biggest holiday of the year now upon us, wouldn’t it be nice to get away from the noise and the enduring adolescence for just a little while to see something spectacular that isn’t exploding or on fire?  Well, here’s a suggestion: head for the hills to check out the flowers of our native rhododendron, the Great Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), also known as Rosebay.

Great Rhododendron
The Great Rhododendron is an evergreen shrub found growing in the forest understory on slopes with consistently moist (mesic) soils.  The large, thick leaves make it easy to identify.  During really cold weather, they may droop and curl, but they still remain green and attached to the plant.

Thickets composed of our native heathers/heaths (Ericaceae) including Great Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, and Pinxter Flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides), particularly when growing in association with Eastern Hemlock and/or Eastern White Pine, provide critical winter shelter for forest wildlife.  The flowers of native heathers/heaths attract bees and other pollinating insects and those of the deciduous Pinxter Flower, which blooms in May, are a favorite of butterflies and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Pinxter Flower in bloom
A close relative of the Great Rhododendron is the Pinxter Flower, also known as the Pink Azalea.

Forests with understories that include Great Rhododendrons do not respond well to logging.  Although many Great Rhododendrons regenerate after cutting, the loss of consistent moisture levels in the soil due to the absence of a forest canopy during the sunny summertime can, over time, decimate an entire population of plants.  In addition, few rhododendrons are produced by seed, even under optimal conditions.  Great Rhododendron seeds and seedlings are very sensitive to the physical composition of forest substrate and its moisture content during both germination and growth.  A lack of humus, the damp organic matter in soil, nullifies the chances of successful recolonization of a rhododendron understory by seed.  In locations where moisture levels are adequate for their survival and regeneration after logging, impenetrable Great Rhododendron thickets will sometimes come to dominate a site.  These monocultures can, at least in the short term, cause problems for foresters by interrupting the cycle of succession and excluding the reestablishment of native trees.  In the case of forests harboring stands of Great Rhododendron, it can take a long time for a balanced ecological state to return following a disturbance as significant as logging.

Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Ruffed Grouse
Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) may be particularly sensitive to the loss of winter shelter and travel lanes provided by thickets of Great Rhododendron and other members of the heather/heath family.  (Vintage 35 mm image)

In the lower Susquehanna region, the Great Rhododendron blooms from late June through the middle of July, much later than the ornamental rhododendrons and azaleas found in our gardens.   Set against a backdrop of deep green foliage, the enormous clusters of white flowers are hard to miss.

Great Rhododendron Flower Cluster
Great Rhododendrons sport an attractive blossom cluster.  The colors of the flower, especially the markings found only on the uppermost petal, guide pollinators to the stamens (male organs) and pistil (female organ).
Bumble Bee Pollinating a Great Rhododendron Flower
To this Bumble Bee (Bombus species), the yellowish spots on the uppermost petal of the Great Rhododendron may appear to be clumps of pollen and are thus an irresistible lure.  

In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, there are but a few remaining stands of Great Rhododendron.  One of the most extensive populations is in the Ridge and Valley Province on the north side of Second Mountain along Swatara Creek near Ravine (just off Interstate 81) in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.  Smaller groves are found in the Piedmont Province in the resort town of Mount Gretna in Lebanon County and in stream ravines along the lower river gorge at the Lancaster Conservancy’s Ferncliff and Wissler’s Run Preserves.  Go have a look.  You’ll be glad you did.

Great Rhododendron along Route 125 near Ravine
Great Rhododendron along Route 125 along the base of the north slope of Second Mountain north of Ravine, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
Great Rhododendron along Swatara Creek
Great Rhododendrons beginning to bloom during the second week of July along Swatara Creek north of Ravine, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.  Note how acid mine drainage continues to stain the rocks (and pollute the water) in the upper reaches of this tributary of the lower Susquehanna.

Five Best Values for Feeding Birds

Despite being located in an urbanized downtown setting, blustery weather in recent days has inspired a wonderful variety of small birds to visit the garden here at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters to feed and refresh.  For those among you who may enjoy an opportunity to see an interesting variety of native birds living around your place, we’ve assembled a list of our five favorite foods for wild birds.

American Goldfinches in drab winter (basic) plumage visit the trickle of water entering the headquarters pond to bathe and drink.  In addition to offering the foods animals need to survive, a source of clean water is an excellent way to attract wildlife to your property.

The selections on our list are foods that provide supplemental nutrition and/or energy for indigenous species, mostly songbirds, without sustaining your neighborhood’s non-native European Starlings and House Sparrows, mooching Eastern Gray Squirrels, or flock of ecologically destructive hand-fed waterfowl.  We’ve included foods that aren’t necessarily the cheapest but are instead those that are the best value when offered properly.

Bread, “bargain” seed mixes, and cracked corn can attract and sustain large numbers of House Sparrows and European Starlings.  Both are non-native species that compete mercilessly with indigenous birds including bluebirds for food and nesting sites.  Though found favorable for feeding Northern Cardinals without attracting squirrels, the expensive safflower seed seen here is another favorite of these aggressive House Sparrows.  Ever wasteful, they “shovel” seed out of feeders while searching for the prime morsels from which they can easily remove the hulls.  Trying not to feed them is an ongoing challenge, so we don’t offer these aforementioned foods to our avian guests.

Number 5

Raw Beef Suet

In addition to rendered beef suet, manufactured suet cakes usually contain seeds, cracked corn, peanuts, and other ingredients that attract European Starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels to the feeder, often excluding woodpeckers and other native species from the fare.  Instead, we provide raw beef suet.

Because it is unrendered and can turn rancid, raw beef suet is strictly a food to be offered in cold weather.   It is a favorite of woodpeckers, nuthatches, and many other species.  Ask for it at your local meat counter, where it is generally inexpensive.

Raw beef suet is fat removed from areas surrounding the kidneys on a beef steer.  To avoid spoiling, offer it only in the winter months, particularly if birds are slow to consume the amount placed for them.  If temperatures are above freezing, it’s important to replace uneaten food frequently.  The piece seen here on the left was stored in the freezer for almost a year while the rancid piece to the right was stored in a refrigerator at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit for just two months.  You can render raw beef suet and make your own cakes by melting it down and pouring it into a form such as cupcake tin.  But do it outdoors or you’ll be living alone for a while.
A female Downy Woodpecker feeds on raw beef suet stuffed into holes drilled into a vertically hanging log.  Because they can’t be cleaned, log feeders should be discarded after one season.  Wire cage feeders though, can usually be scrubbed, disinfected, dried, and reused.
Pesky European Starlings might visit a raw beef suet feeder but won’t usually linger unless other foods to their liking are available nearby.
This male Downy Woodpecker has no trouble feeding on raw beef suet packed into holes drilled into the underside of this horizontally hanging log.  Starlings don’t particularly care to feed this way.
Unusual visitors like a Brown Creeper are more likely to stop by at a suet feeder when it isn’t crowded by raucous starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels.   This one surprised us just this morning.
Below the feeders, scraps of suet that fall to the ground are readily picked up, usually by ground-feeding birds.  In this instance, a male Eastern Bluebird saw a chunk break loose and pounced on it with haste.

Number 4

Niger (“Thistle”) Seed

Niger seed, also known as nyjer or nyger, is derived from the sunflower-like plant Guizotia abyssinica, a native of Ethiopia.  By the pound, niger seed is usually the most expensive of the bird seeds regularly sold in retail outlets.  Nevertheless, it is a good value when offered in a tube or wire mesh feeder that prevents House Sparrows and other species from quickly “shoveling” it to the ground.  European starlings and squirrels don’t bother with niger seed at all.

Niger seed must be kept dry.  Mold will quickly make niger seed inedible if it gets wet, so avoid using “thistle socks” as feeders.  A dome or other protective covering above a tube or wire mesh feeder reduces the frequency with which feeders must be cleaned and moist seed discarded.  Remember, keep it fresh and keep it dry!

Niger (“thistle”) seed is very small, so it is offered in specialized feeders to prevent seed from spilling out of oversize holes as waste.
An American Goldfinch in winter plumage feeding on niger seed from a wire mesh feeder.  By April, goldfinches are molting into spectacular breeding feathers.  Niger seed can be offered year-round to keep them visiting your garden while they are at maximum magnificence.
American Goldfinches in August.  This tube feeder is designed specifically for goldfinches, birds that have no difficulty hanging upside down to grab niger seed from small feeding ports.
During invasion years, visiting Pine Siskins favor niger seed at feeding stations.
Like goldfinches, Pine Siskins are quite comfortable feeding upside down on specialized tubes with perches positioned above the seed ports.  Seeds dropped to the ground are readily picked up by ground-feeding birds including Mourning Doves and Dark-eyed Juncos.  Periodically, uneaten niger seed should be swept up and discarded.

Number 3

Striped Sunflower Seed

Striped sunflower seed, also known as grey-striped sunflower seed, is harvested from a cultivar of the Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), the same tall garden plant with a massive bloom that you grew as a kid.  The Common Sunflower is indigenous to areas west of the Mississippi River and its seeds are readily eaten by many native species of birds including jays, finches, and grosbeaks.  The husks are harder to crack than those of black oil sunflower seed, so House Sparrows consume less, particularly when it is offered in a feeder that prevents “shoveling”.   For obvious reasons, a squirrel-proof or squirrel-resistant feeder should be used for striped sunflower seed.

Striped sunflower seed.
A male House Finch and a Carolina Chickadee pluck striped sunflower seeds from a squirrel-resistant powder-coated metal-mesh tube feeder.
An American Goldfinch in winter plumage finds striped sunflower seeds irresistible, even with niger seed being offered in an adjacent feeder.
A Tufted Titmouse visits a feeder stocked with striped sunflower seeds.
Northern Cardinals readily feed on striped sunflower seeds, especially those that fall from our metal-mesh tube feeders.
An Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has no choice but to be satisfied with striped sunflower seeds that spill from our wire-mesh tube feeders.

Number 2

Mealworms

Mealworms are the commercially produced larvae of the beetle Tenebrio molitor.  Dried or live mealworms are a marvelous supplement to the diets of numerous birds that might not otherwise visit your garden.  Woodpeckers, titmice, wrens, mockingbirds, warblers, and bluebirds are among the species savoring protein-rich mealworms.  The trick is to offer them without European Starlings noticing or having access to them because European Starlings you see, go crazy over a meal of mealworms.

Dried mealworms can be offered in a cup or on a tray feeder.  Live mealworms need to be contained in a steep-sided dish, so they don’t crawl away.  Unless you’re really lucky, you’ll probably have to place your serving vessel of mealworms inside some type of enclosure to exclude European Starlings.
A male Eastern Bluebird tossing and grabbing a dried mealworm.
A female Eastern Bluebird with a dried mealworm.
A pair of Eastern Bluebirds.  The value of mealworms is self-evident: you get to have bluebirds around.

 

To foil European Starlings, we assembled this homemade mealworm feeder from miscellaneous parts. The bluebirds took right to it.
It frustrates the starlings enough to discourage them from sticking around for long.
If you’re offering dried mealworms, a source of clean water must be available nearby so that the bluebirds and other guests at your feeder don’t become dehydrated.

Number 1

Food-producing Native Shrubs and Trees

The best value for feeding birds and other wildlife in your garden is to plant food-producing native plants, particularly shrubs and trees.  After an initial investment, they can provide food, cover, and roosting sites year after year.  In addition, you’ll have a more complete food chain on a property populated by native plants and all the associated life forms they support (insects, spiders, etc.).

In your garden, a Northern Mockingbird may defend a food supply like these Common Winterberry fruits as its sole means of sustenance for an entire winter season.  Having an abundance of plantings assures that in your cache there’s plenty to eat for this and other species.
The American Goldfinches currently spending the winter at our headquarters are visiting the feeders for niger and striped sunflower seeds, but the bulk of their diet consists of tiny seeds from the cones on our Eastern Hemlock trees.  At night, birds obtain shelter from the weather by roosting in this clump of evergreens.
While the Eastern Bluebirds visiting the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters are fond of mealworms, the bulk of their diet here consists of these Common Winterberry fruits and the berries on our American Holly trees.
Cedar Waxwings are readily attracted to red berries including Common Winterberry fruit.
Migrating American Robins visit the headquarters garden in late winter each year to devour berries before continuing their journey to the north.

Your local County Conservation District is having its annual spring tree sale soon.  They have a wide selection to choose from each year and the plants are inexpensive.  They offer everything from evergreens and oaks to grasses and flowers.  You can afford to scrap the lawn and revegetate your whole property at these prices—no kidding, we did it.  You need to preorder for pickup in the spring.  To order, check their websites now or give them a call.  These food-producing native shrubs and trees are by far the best bird feeding value that you’re likely to find, so don’t let this year’s sales pass you by!

More than a Mint Dish

On a snowy winter day, it sure is nice to see some new visitors at a backyard feeding station.  Here at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters, American Robins have arrived to partake of the offerings.

American Robins feed on peanut hearts and chopped apples.

For this flock of robins, which numbered in excess of 150 individuals, the contents of this tray were a mere garnish to the meal that would sustain them through 72 hours of stormy weather.  The main course was the supply of ripe berries on shrubs and trees in the headquarters garden.

Their first choice—the bright red fruits of the Common Winterberry.

American Robins strip the fruits from a Common Winterberry.
Eat fast or lose your turn.
Irresistible crimson delights.
Cedar Waxwings get their share too.
Robins will linger until nightfall to feed on winterberries.

After cleaning off the winterberry shrubs, other fruits became part of the three-day-long feast.

Robins eating Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum species) fruits.
The blue-gray berries of junipers are attractive to robins, waxwings, and bluebirds.
The American Holly (Ilex opaca) is a favorite of berry-loving birds.  Its evergreen foliage provides cover and roosting sites for wintering birds.

Wouldn’t it be great to see these colorful birds in your garden each winter?  You can, you know.  Won’t you consider adding plantings of native trees and shrubs to your property this spring?  Here at the susquehannawildlife.com headquarters we mow no lawn; the lawn is gone.  Mixing evergreens and fruit-producing shrubs with native warm-season grasses and flowering plants has created a wildlife oasis absent of that dirty habit of mowing and blowing.

You can find many of the plants seen here at your local garden center.  Take a chunk out of your lawn by paying them a visit this spring.

Want a great deal?  Many of the County Conservation District offices in the lower Susquehanna region are having their annual spring tree sales right now.  Over the years, we obtained many of our evergreens and berry-producing shrubs from these sales for less than two dollars each.  At that price you can blanket that stream bank or wet spot in the yard with winterberries and mow it no more!  The deadlines for orders are quickly approaching, so act today—literally, act today.  Visit your County Conservation District’s website for details including selections, prices, order deadlines, and pickup dates and locations.

Evergreens like this Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) are essential to the survival of many species of wintering birds.  Plant evergreens in clumps, the bigger the better, to provide birds with thermal protection against the cold winds of winter nights.
County Conservation District Tree Sales offer bare root evergreens like this Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) in packs of five or ten.  Buy a bunch.  Spend this year’s lawn treatment money on them.  Then, get them planted immediately after pickup in the spring and in a few years you’ll have a nice grove of evergreens for wildlife habitat, a wind break, or a privacy screen.
Groves of mixed evergreens among deciduous woods, grasslands, farmlands, or suburbs are ideal cover for wintering wildlife.  These stands attract many species of migrating and nesting birds as well.  Seen here, left to right, are Eastern White Pine, Norway Spruce (Picea abies), and Eastern Red Cedar.  Though not a native species, the Norway Spruce is frequently used for conservation and ornamental plantings in the northeastern United States due to its appealing attributes and lack of invasive characteristics.
Feeding wildlife is great fun.  But remember, if you’re running a hotel for animals, you’ve got to offer more than an after-dinner mint to your tired and hungry guests.  Let’s get planting!

County Conservation District Tree Sales

Consult each County Conservation District’s Tree Sale web page for ordering info, pickup locations, and changes to these dates and times.

Cumberland County Conservation District Tree Seedling Sale—deadline for prepaid orders Tuesday, March 30, 2021.  Pickup 1 P.M. to 5 P.M., Thursday, April 22, 2021, and 8 A.M. to 2 P.M., Friday, April 23, 2021.  https://www.ccpa.net/4636/Tree-Seedling-Sale

Lancaster County Conservation District Tree Sale—deadline for prepaid orders (hand-delivered to drop box) 5 P.M., Friday, March 5, 2021.  Pickup 8 A.M. to 5 P.M., Thursday, April 15, 2021.  https://www.lancasterconservation.org/tree-sale/

Lebanon County Conservation District Tree Sale—deadline for prepaid orders  Thursday, March 11, 2021.  Pickup 9 A.M. to 6 P.M., Friday, May 7, 2021.  https://www.lccd.org/2021-tree-sale/

Perry County Conservation District Tree Sale—deadline for prepaid orders Wednesday, March 24, 2021.  Pickup 10 A.M. to 6 P.M., Thursday, April 8, 2021.  www.perrycd.org/Documents/2021 Tree Sale Flyer LEGAL SIZE.pdf

York County Conservation District Seedling Sale—deadline for prepaid orders Monday, March 15, 2021.  Pickup 10 A.M. to 6 P.M., Thursday, April 15, 2021.  https://www.yorkccd.org/events/2021-seedling-sale