OAKS ARE IMPORTANT BUTTERFLY AND MOTH HOST PLANTS

              Our backyards are home to an amazing variety of butterflies and moths.  In recent years, homeowners have been trying to provide these fascinating insects with a variety of plants that serve as host plants.  Most of these efforts have focused on establishing herbaceous host plants.  Ironically woody plants such and shrubs are trees are rarely recognized for their value as host plants even though, they often host more butterflies and moths than any other plants found in an average yard.  Leading the list of trees that serve as host plants for moths and butterflies in Georgia are native oaks.

 

       Throughout the country, native oaks host at least 557 species of moths and butterflies.  More than 20 species of oaks are native to the Peach State.  Many of these oaks commonly grow in our backyards. 

 

       Here is a short list of some of the butterflies and moths that use oaks as host plants:  red-spotted purple, Horace’s and Juvenal’s duskywing, banded hairstreak, white M hairstreak, clymene moth,  imperial moth, cecropia moth, rosy maple moth, and polyphemus moth.

      If you are interested in providing host plants for a wide variety of moths and butterflies make sure, your home landscape includes one or more species of native oaks.  With that in mind, do an inventory of the trees growing in your yard.  If you already have willow, water, white, live, or other species of native oaks in your yard, you already providing a wide variety of butterflies with a place to lay their eggs.  If not, when you are planning additions to your yard add a native oak to the list.  This one investment will yield dividends for years to come.

 

HEARING THE WHIP-POOR-WILL’S CALL IS ONE OF THE PERKS OF COUNTRY LIVING

     There are many reasons why my wife and I enjoy country living. One of the benefits of living beyond the glaring lights of town is each year we are treated with the dawn and dusk calling of the whip-poor-will. My wife heard our first whip-poor-will on the morning of March 28.

       Well before the rays of the rising sun began dissolving the darkness of night, she took our family dog out for a bathroom break. While she was waiting for Sassy to take care of business, she heard an oft-repeated whip-poor-will, whip-poor will call of a male whip-poor-will. The bird was calling from far out in the woodlands located west of our home.

       When she returned to the house, she told me of her experience. Since I wanted to hear the bird too, I had every intention of jumping out of bed and going outside to listen for the nocturnal vocalist. However, for some reason, I drifted off the sleep for about a half an hour. When I awoke, I scurried outside to listen for the bird.

       During the brief time that passed between my wife reporting her experience and my finally going outside, the dawn chorus had begun. Consequently, a cacophony for bird songs filled the air. The loud chorus of untold numbers of birds coupled with the sounds made by vehicles going up and down the highway made trying to hear the far away calls of the whip-poor-will difficult. However, eventually I was able to hear the sound of this member of the goatsucker family.

       Remarkably, legends tell us the term goatsucker stems from a once popularly held belief whip-poor-wills drank milk from goats. It was also believed that this act of thievery caused the unfortunate goats that suffered this fate to go blind.

       Folks that have taken the time to count how many times a whip-poor-will calls report that the bird will repeat its name upwards of 400 times in a row. The frequency of this bird’s calls suggested his vocal efforts were falling far short of this lofty figure.

       During the early part of the twentieth century, if you did not live in the Georgia mountains, you were unlikely to hear a whip-poor-will. However, over the years the whip-poor-will has been expanding its breeding range. As such nowadays whip-poor-wills can be heard throughout much of the northern half of the Peach State to just south of the Fall Line. However, even if you do not live in this area, you still have a slim chance of hearing whip-poor-wills in the remainder of the state.

       I hope that you will be treated to the call of this rarely seen bird. Although he incessantly repeats it call, far too few of us get to hear it.

       Later in the morning when I called when I called a close friend to tell him I had heard the first whip-poor-will of the spring he lamented that he used to hear the bird’s pleasing call. However, since much of his neck of the woods has been developed, it has been years since he has heard one.

       When I hung of the phone, my excitement was tempered with thoughts of what he is missing.

A PLACE TO RELIEVE THE STRESS CAUSED BY COVID 19

        Each passing day brings news reports of the continued spread of the COVID- 19 virus and its horrible impact on people throughout our state, nation, and world. As a result, we all have to cope with increasing levels of anxiety, stress, and fear. Each of us has different ways in which we try to cope with these frightful times. One of the best ways I have found to deal with it is embark of a journey of discovery in my backyard. I would like to share with one such treks.

       Recently after watching the noon news present the update on the numbers of cases of the pandemic in Georgia, I grabbed my camera and went outside to take a walk about. I was greeted with bright sunshine and balmy zephyrs. Standing on my deck, I was taken aback by a colorful collage created by the blossoms of jonquils, native and ornamental azaleas flowering dogwood, and other plants. After drinking in the beauty of this living mural, I began my walk.

       One of the first things that caught my eye was a pipevine swallowtail nectaring at both yellow and orange blooms borne on native azaleas. I just had to stop and photograph this scene. A short time later, I just happened to notice a dragonfly flying just about my lawn. From time to time, the insect would land. Each time the dragonfly touched down, I was able to snap a few pictures as well as study the relative small aerial hunter. It was obvious that this was a species I had never seen in my yard before. The dragonfly was a female blue corporal.

       Moving on I stopped in my tracks when a silver-spotted skipper landed in a patch of purple dead nettle. This marked the first time this spring I had seen this butterfly.

       As I continued to walk, I noticed something different every few minutes. During one circuit, I spotted a eastern tiger swallowtail. During another circuit, I spied a cloudless sulphur. Carpenter bees seemed to be everywhere.

       In subsequent trips around my yard, I stopped to study and photograph the fresh blossoms of flowering dogwood trees, bluets, and a native thistle.

       Throughout my brief time afield, I was treated with the soothing songs of chipping sparrows and pine warblers singing from the tops our tall loblolly pines.

       When I finally ended by backyard walk, sat in a chair on my deck, and began reviewing all that I had seen during my brief half hour backyard journey, Mother Nature surprised me with one final event. From around the corner of the house, a mockingbird appeared carrying a stick and quickly disappeared into the bowels of a nearby shrub.

       I must admit, I wished that I could have extended my visit with my backyard neighbors; however, I had to address a few other demands on my time. However, when I went back inside, I was totally relaxed and convinced I need spend in my yard every day.

       While aside of practicing social distancing, there is little that I can do to help thwart the spread of the terrible Covid-19 virus, I am certain that my backyard wildlife haven will help me deal with our uncertain future.

       If you have your own wildlife haven, I hope you will visit it and your backyard neighbors often. I am certain each trip will help you unwind and strengthen your bond with the natural world during these turbulent times.

THE GREAT PURPLE HAIRSTREAK IS AN OFTEN OVERLOOKED BEAUTY

        Each spring nature treats us to a kaleidoscope of beautiful plants and animals ranging from butterflies and moths to flowers and birds. In fact, with so many beautiful things to look at, nobody can appreciate them all. As a result, far too many stunning natural jewels go unseen. Take the case of the great purple hairstreak. It maintains its anonymity because its wingspan only measures 1-1.7 inches and it spends most of its life in the tops of trees. Consequently, although it is one of the most gorgeous butterflies we are likely to see in our backyards; it is safe to say most of us never spot one.

       Recently my daughter stumbled across one basking on the lawn surrounding the place where she works. When she stopped to take a closer look at the butterfly, its beauty took her aback.        The butterfly appeared to be what butterfly enthusiasts refer to as “fresh.” This means the butterfly recently emerged and was sporting undamaged wings cloaked with all of their scales.

      If you see a male great purple hairstreak basking, it is something you will not soon forget. This is because the butterfly’s wings are a bright metallic blue and literally seem to shine in direct sunlight.

       The upper side of the female great purple hairstreak is blackish in color and displays a limited amount of metallic blue.

       Being an amateur photographer, one of the things on my bucket list is being able to photograph the dorsal side of a male great purple hairstreak. However, since the only time you are likely see the topside of this butterfly is when it is flying or basking, my chances of photographing it from above are limited. Consequently, all of my photos of it show the ventral side of the insect.

       The undersides of the butterfly’s wings are best described as blackish in color and highlighted with red spots near when the wings join its body. In addition, a series of blue spots adorn the undersides of the hindwings.

       Lastly, short, fragile tails extend from the trailing edges of the hindwings. If you look carefully at a great purple hairstreak you will likely see the butterfly moving these fragile tails back and forth. It is believed this is done to distract would-be predators. Supposedly, a bird or other predator is more apt to strike at the moving tails and not the insect’s head and body. This would give the butterfly a chance to escape before the predator realized its mistake.

       One feature that immediately catches your eye when you spot one of these butterflies is its orange abdomen. Supposedly, this is a warning to predators that it is distasteful.

       The best butterfly gardens offer butterflies host plants and to nectar-rich flowers. While we can offer great purple hairstreaks a supply of nectar, we cannot plant its host plant. The reason for this is its host is mistletoe. With that in mind, if you see mistletoe growing atop a tree such as oak growing in your yard, there is a good chance great purple hairstreaks are living in your neighborhood.

       I should note that during the spring I most often see the great purple hairstreak nectaring on purple dead nettle (see accompanying photo). Purple dead nettle is an invasive introduced plant most homeowners would call a weed.

       If you do not happen to spot a great purple hairstreak this spring, all is not lost. Great purple hairstreaks can be spotted throughout the state from March to early November.

BACKYARD SECRET — ONE OF OUR FOUNDING FATHERS CREATED THE COUNTRY’S FIRST DETAILED BIRD LIST

       It goes without saying Thomas Jefferson is one of our most beloved Founding Fathers. While we are all aware of many of his multitude of interests, skills, and accomplishments, chances are you did not know he was fascinated with birds.

       His deep interest in birds led him to pen a publication entitled Notes on Virginia in 1787. In this work, he listed less than 130 species of birds known to live in that section of the country. Historians tell us this represents the first detailed list of birds compiled in this country.

SAPSUCKERS HELP FEED HUMMERS IN EARLY SPRING

       When the very first ruby-throated hummingbirds begin arriving in backyards across the state food is at a premium.  This is because most of the flowers at that are blooming in early spring do not produce an abundance of nectar.  As such, rubythroats must find other sources of food.  In addition to our feeders, many hummingbirds rely on the sugary sap that collects in holes drilled in 246 species of native trees by the yellow-bellied sapsucker.

       In case you are not familiar with this winter migrant, it is a woodpecker best known for drilling shallow holes in live trees.  Often these holes are arranged in circles surrounding the trunk of a tree.  Sap flowing through the tree collects in these cavities.  In fact, in some cases, you can actually see where it oozed out of the cavities and dripped down the trunk of the tree.

      The sap is a major source of food for the woodpecker.  The sapsucker is able to dine on the sap because its tongue is equipped with an odd brush-like structure that it uses to collect the sticky liquid and bring it into its body.

       Although sapsuckers often vainly try to discourage other wildlife from robbing their tiny sap-filled reservoirs, wildlife such as Carolina chickadees, squirrels, butterflies, moths, and ruby-throated hummingbirds often avail themselves of the food.  Since the sap contains amino acids and sucrose, it is an ideal food for hungry hummingbirds.

       It appears the food provided by the yellow-bellied sapsucker is more important to hummingbirds than we once thought.  For example, rubythroats have been observed tailing sapsuckers through wooded areas seemingly to learn the location of active sapsucker wells.  In addition, hummingbirds have been recorded actually trying to thwart other birds from feeding on trees containing sapsucker sucker holes.

       It has also been demonstrated the northward migration of the yellow-bellied sapsucker closely mirrors that of the ruby-throated hummingbird.  It should also be noted that when the rubythroats that nests in the northern limits of their breeding range, few nectar plants are blooming.  This necessitates the birds to rely heavily on the sap collected in sapsucker wells to survive until nectar-bearing plants begin to bloom.

       Chances are, if you have fruit or other hardwood trees growing in your backyard, they have been visited by the yellow-bellied sapsucker. 

       I guess you could say that when it comes to feeding hummingbirds early in the spring, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and we are the ruby-throated hummingbird’s best friends.

      

RED BUCKEYE IS A GREAT NATIVE HUMMINGBIRD NECTAR PLANT

  The goal of any hummingbird gardener should be to provide a wide variety of nectar plants that ensure hummers will have sources of nectar throughout, as much of the year is possible. The red buckeye is a native shrub that yields an abundance of nectar early in the spring. If you are considering planting a red buckeye in your yard, here is some information that should help you decide whether or not this plant is right for your yard.

Buckeye, Red (Aesculus pavia) – Type of Plant – shrub or small tree; Height – 20+ feet; Blooms – March to May; Soil – well drained, moist soil types are best; Light – partial shade to full sun.

A BROWN THRASHER HERALDING THE IMPENDING ARRIVAL OF SPRING

      When late winter begins releasing its icy grip on the on the landscape I am constantly listening for sounds that herald the coming of spring. One sound that I am hoping to hear is the song of the brown thrasher.

       In spite of the fact the temperature hovered in the low 30s, one of the first birds I heard as I stepped outside my home Saturday morning (March 7) as the sun was just beginning to rise above the horizon was a song uttered by a brown thrasher. I must admit I was both surprised and happy to hear the bird’s pleasant melody. In fact, it so startled me, I had to convince myself I was not listening to a northern mockingbird. However, after listening to the songster for a couple of minutes I was sure I was indeed being serenaded by a brown thrasher.

       I hear the brown thrashers more often than I see it. This comes as no surprise since they stake out its domain in and near the shrubby border surrounding my yard. As such, unless you can recognize their rambling, complex song, thrashers can be easily overlooked. However, in springtime when males are courting females they will sing atop a high perch. However, since the brown thrasher’s song sounds much like the more often seen and heard northern mockingbird, it is easy to assume you are listening to a brown thrasher. Since we hear mockingbirds sing so often, even when a thrasher is singing from upon high, we might not even look up to take a glimpse of this accomplished minstrel.

       It is actually very easy to separate the vocalizations of the brown thrasher and the northern mockingbird. All you have to remember is the brown thrasher typically utters a rambling series of phrases twice.

       One of the earliest descriptions of the brown thrasher’s song was penned by the famous American naturalist Henry David Thoreau. In his well-known book “Walden, or, Life in the Woods,” published in 1854, Thoreau recalls a time when he was hoeing a row of beans as a brown thrasher kept repeating, “Drop it, cover it up, cover it up, — pull it up, pull it up, put it up.”

       The Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s modern version of the song is “Plant a seed, plant a seed, bury it, bury it, cover it up, cover it up, let it grow, let it grow, pull it up, pull it up, eat it, eat it.”

       The mockingbird, on the other hand, usually repeats the phases in its song three times.

       The next time you are taking a walk about in your backyard and hear what sounds like a mockingbird, listen carefully the songster just might be listening a brown thrasher.

       Now that I have heard a brown thrasher singing, seen the and realize I should spot my first ruby-throated hummingbird in a little over a week, I know spring is knocking at my backdoor. The only thing that would make things better is spring’s arrival will finally end the weather pattern that has dumped far too much rain on Georgia during the past several weeks.

BACKYARD SECRET–THE RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD POPULATION IS DOING WELL THROUGHOUT THE USA

       Experts estimate the breeding population of the ruby-throated hummingbird is roughly 20 million birds. It is interesting to note that at least 16.8 million of these birds spend a portion of the year in the United States. The population of rubythroats that nest in the Southeast increased one percent per year from 1966-2005.  Currently the ruby-throated hummingbird population in Georgia is considered to be stable. This is great news for the millions of folks that enjoy watching these amazing birds.

HUMMINGBIRD SEASON IS SET TO BEGIN

       On crisp March mornings, the leafless woodlands surrounding my Middle Georgia home reverberate with the gobbling of wild turkey gobblers. As the month moves forward and their loud pronouncements increase, the first hummingbirds of the season will appear in my backyard without any fanfare. If you are like me, the first hummingbird of the year seems to magically appear out of nowhere often when we least expect to see one.

       Thoughtful hummingbird hosts, we will have a feeder stocked with sugar water waiting for the hungry, long-distance travelers. Often though, this is not the case and the first hummer of the season is seen hovering at the vacant spot where a feeder was hung the previous year. If you don’t want to feel like a heel for letting the tiny bird that journeyed so far to reach your backyard down, I strongly urge you to put up at least one feeder as soon as possible.

The first hummingbirds to arrive in the spring in my neck of the woods arrive around March 18. Good friends that live close by in Lizella have seen hummingbirds are their feeders as early as March 15. As you might expect Georgians that live in South Georgia, see their first hummingbirds of the year much earlier in March and even in February. Friends living in North Georgia tell me they may not see their first rubythroat until April.

       If you share my passion for hummingbirds, I am sure you are keenly looking forward the spotting your first ruby-throated hummingbird of the year. Whenever it drops in for a long drink of sugar water, let me know. I would love to share the big event with fellow bloggers.