A Backyard Peeping Tom

Eastern Box Turtles

 

Ecology In the Suburbs: Saving Nature In Your Own Backyard

The coffee was percolating early one morning when I found my husband Michael with binoculars, staring intently into the backyard. Since I stopped using pesticides and herbicides ten years ago, my backyard has become a haven for all kinds of wildlife. I wondered what Michael was staring at.

It wasn’t deer or foxes or birds that had captured his attention. Over the years, I’ve nudged Michael to appreciate the wonders of nature, and he’s become an avid turtle watcher. Ten years ago, Michael didn’t like the idea of letting our backyard go wild. He didn’t like me encouraging the moss on the northern exposure rather than struggling with grass. Now the backyard with its velvet green is the perfect place to spot turtles, making their morning journey from one wooded area to the next in search of breakfast.

Turtles live 50 years, some even up to 100. The Eastern box turtles that we’ve found in our backyard were likely around well before this neighborhood was built thirty years ago.

One box turtle is definitely not the same as another. We’ve come to recognize them by the various markings on their shells. The males have red eyes, the females brown.

This morning we saw something new. Turtles are solitary animals, and we’ve seldom seen more than one at a time. But this morning we witnessed two turtles biting and fighting.

Ultimately, one turtle lost the fight. He actually wound up flat on his back. We watched him struggle for ten minutes, unable to right himself. Venturing into the yard, we saw that it was a turtle we didn’t recognize. Pinky, the victor, was close by.  Michael righted our new visitor and was instantly in good spirits as the turtle ambled off.

He’d saved a life – as a doctor, always a good way to start the day.

While we finished our coffee, I did a little research on my cell phone.

A Smithsonian article revealed something unexpected. What we had seen was less of a turtle fight and more of a turtle tryst. Indeed, the article reported that a male will sometimes die after copulation if he flips over and can’t get right side up again.

This discovery was embarrassing to some degree. Michael and I were not simply nature lovers enjoying the wonders of backyard ecology. In creating a hospitable environment for flora and fauna, absent herbicides and pesticides, attracting bugs and groundcover for wildlife, we’d apparently become something much more insidious, maybe even sordid –

X-rated turtle watchers, spying unnoticed on a tender turtle moment.

I kept this information to myself, unsure of the implications.  Were we nature lovers – or peeping toms?

But Michael was not bothered by the revelation. After I told him what we’d been watching, what most upset his scientific soul was that we hadn’t captured it on video.

We’re still debating on a name for the new turtle he rescued.

We’re thinking, “Casanova.”

Mexican Migrants In My Backyard: Monarch Butterfly Migration

Art of a Monarch butterfly Garden, Watercolor by Ann Litrel

Now that my boys are grown and gone, I sometimes feel like the only kid left outside in our neighborhood. When I see a turtle, I run out to take a picture and give it a name. (So far I’ve named eight.) When my husband finds a cool bug like a writing spider or praying mantis, he knows to send me a picture because it makes me happy.

And in September every year, I go out in my garden to look for monarch caterpillars in my milkweed.

Passing neighbors no doubt wonder what I’m doing – a middle aged lady with sketchbook and camera, crouching down to stare at something no one else can see. That’s okay. As the world becomes more developed, I’m interested in what small animals, bugs and critters can survive in my yard – a tiny oasis of wild plants and flowers in the middle of a big subdivision.

Who Feeds Them?

When I was a kid, every first grade classroom had a glass fish tank for hatching monarch butterflies. Every kid got to see the caterpillar form a chrysalis and hatch two weeks later into a grown butterfly.

Nowadays, the monarch butterfly’s annual flight to and from Mexico appears in innumerable documentaries. It’s named one of the world’s “ten great animal migrations.” What you might not know is that the entire migration takes four generations to complete. The female butterfly that flies north from Mexico in spring to mate, lay her eggs, and die, is the great grandmother of the butterfly that makes its way back south in the fall to hibernate. He or she will roost sleeping with millions of its fellow monarchs, and then fly north in the spring to mate and start the cycle all over again.

Fifty years ago, milkweed was common along roads and in fields. It’s the only plant that monarch caterpillars will eat. In my small hometown in the Midwest, we could always find a stand of milkweed – with caterpillars – to bring to class for the annual hatching.

This was not true for my sons. In the manicured subdivision where we live now, anything that vaguely resembles a natural field is sprayed or mowed down to create the appearance of conforming green. Outside subdivisions in rural areas, most farms use herbicides, killing the strips of wildflowers between fields that used to feed and host butterflies in their migrations.

Home Owners Form a Grassroots Rescue Operation

Across the country, many people have joined together to fill the gap, swelling into a grassroots movement to plant Monarch waystations in their own gardens. These small plots and patio pots include nectar flowers for butterflies, and host plants for caterpillars to eat. In an amazing feat of species survival, even a tiny spot of asters can call a monarch down from the sky to feed, and lay their eggs if they are so fortunate to find a milkweed.

As I write this article, I take a break every few hours to watch a baby monarch caterpillar eat milkweed I’ve placed in a jar. By the time this magazine appears, the caterpillar will have made its chrysalis and hatched. And hopefully, I will see it spread its wings and take off on its flight for a long winter’s sleep in Mexico.

Plant a Monarch Waystation This Fall for Next Spring

Nectar Flowers for Adult Butterflies

  • magenta Echinacea
  • purple Liatris
  • gold Black-Eyed Susan
  • pink Joe-Pye Weed
  • yellow Sneezeweed

Host Plants for Monarch Caterpillars

  • Common milkweed
  • Butterfly weed

Online sources for native plants:

www.easywildflowers.com
www.nichegardens.com

 

Monarch caterpillar feeding on a milkweed leaf in this Georgia suburbs garden.

Just hatched: a baby monarch caterpillar feeds on a milkweed leaf in my Atlanta suburban garden.