Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Beauty of Native Wildflowers

By Anna Autilio
Lead Environmental Educator

In 2018, we mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. In honor of this milestone, nature lovers around the world are joining forces to celebrate 2018 as the “Year of the Bird.” March’s call to action is to cultivate gardens full of native and wildlife-friendly plants...

Here in Vermont, it might be hard to imagine gardening when there are still a few inches of snow on the ground. But it’s never too early to plan! This year, participants in the Year of the Bird’s 12 months of action for wildlife are making an effort to plant native flowers—and you can too!

Planting native plants is a simple and highly effective way to make a positive impact on the environment--just as important as recycling, turning off lights, and using less water. The Audubon Society has even made it incredibly easy to find which plants are native to your area, and which nurseries sell them. Type in your zip code to their Native Plants Database, and discover hundreds of trees, flowers, shrubs, and vines that are native to your neighborhood.

Think native flowers aren’t as colorful and pretty as exotics? Think again. Here are just 5 (and it was hard to choose!) of the most beautiful native Vermont flowers to grace your garden with this spring:

This gorgeous perennial bluebell attracts hummingbirds with its sweet nectar, and without the constant refilling your plastic feeder requires. Known also as the "harebell" in the British Isles, this plant grows native across the northern hemisphere. Durable and opportunistic, Bluebell-of-Scotland will grow well in sun or shade, in cooler climates like New England, and actually flourishes in dry, nutrient-poor soil. You may already know of some patches growing out of cracks in stone walls.

Aster blooms are a sign of the arrival of fall in New England, and those beautiful, multi-colored flowers will stay out through October to greet the changing leaves. They love a moist, acidic soil in part shade. Providing nectar for monarch butterflies, the aster also is a source of food for seed-eating birds, including sparrows and finches.

Though smaller than our modern image of a "sunflower", this forest-dwelling perennial blooms bright and confident even in dry, sandy soils. In sun or shade, just like any sunflower the bloom deflects toward the source of light, tracking the sun throughout the day. Woodland Sunflowers will bring countless birds to your yard, among them cardinals, waxwings, warblers, orioles, wrens, and thrushes, as well as caterpillars and butterflies.

Named for the cluster of white or lavender-tinged two-lipped flowers that are thought to resemble turtle’s heads, this perennial is also a late summer bloomer that grows best in wet, acidic soils. It is the host plant of the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly, and attracts a variety of nectar-loving birds, including vireos, hummingbirds, and thrushes.


Lobelia is a showy, bright blue flowering plant that blooms in late summer. Its counterpart, also native, the Cardinal Flower, is brilliant red and sports the same tube-shaped flowers. Though toxic to humans, this plant attracts a wide variety of birds, including hummingbirds, orioles, cardinals, thrushes, wrens, and vireos, as well as caterpillars and butterflies. One important requirement is wet soil—this plant will not tolerate droughts.

What is your favorite native plant in your area? Share your pictures!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Tiny Patient: Rehabilitating an Eastern Screech Owl

by Anna Autilio, Environmental Educator
and Grae O’Toole, Wildlife Keeper

The screech owl could barely open his eyes at first.
Early in the new year, a tiny treasure arrived at the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation—a beautiful Eastern Screech Owl in need of some serious care.

The bird was found in Orwell, VT, over 65 miles from VINS, but the family who found him knew he needed medical attention. They suspected he had flown into the side of their house, which is a sadly common cause of bird injuries. They often cannot tell a clean glass window from safe passage through their forest home, and end up colliding with it.

On intake to the rehabilitation clinic, our wildlife keepers found the owl was quite dehydrated and lethargic, but in good body condition and a healthy weight (over 200g!). Beyond this, he clearly had severe head trauma. His eyes were closed and he was reluctant to open them, but both pupils were responsive to light--a sign that he could still use them.

A fluorescein stain shows the eye ulcer (green patch).
To see if there was any further damage to the eye, the rehabbers conducted a fluorescein stain, a test which allowed us to see the starts of several ulcers which could impair the owl’s vision. The owl was given eye drops and pain medication, and injected with fluids to help re-hydrate him. A blood sample showed he was otherwise healthy, so the “focus” of his treatment became his eyes! 

After 2 days, the little owl was eating all on his own. On his one-week anniversary in the clinic, his eyes were stained again, this time revealing one of the ulcers in his right eye had gotten much larger. This was a bit of a setback, so the eyes drops and pain meds continued.

But, only for another week. A third stain showed that the ulcer had completely resolved! In the meantime, the owl was eating well, his eyes were more open, and he was active and alert. Finally, it was time to move the screech owl to an outdoor enclosure.

Ready for his live prey test!
The Eastern Screech Owl is now awaiting the chance to take his final test as a patient at VINS—the live prey test. This involves releasing a live mouse into the enclosure with the owl, and waiting to see if he can capture it. This is a very important part of the rehabilitation process for raptors that have suffered severe head or eye trauma, because their vision or mental state could still be impaired enough that they are unable to capture prey on their own. Without the ability to hunt for itself, the owl would starve.

If he catches the mouse, he passes the test, and will be released back into the wild shortly afterward. We hope to release him near where he was initially found, so that he can settle back into his own home territory.

Curious about our other owl patients at the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation? Join us on Saturday, February 24th or Sunday February 25th, 2018 for VINS’s Owl Festival! Register for the event here