LOOK FOR WIDOW SKIMMERS PATROLLING YOUR YARD

        Today when I walked on to my deck for the first time,

        I flushed a dragonfly that had perched atop a pole supporting one of the plants growing in a container.  The distinctive color pattern on its wings and body color told me it was a widow skimmer (Lebellula luctuosa).

      The male widow skimmer (called a king) is one of our most recognizable dragonflies.  It is a medium-sized (1.2 – 2 inches long; with a 1-1.5-inch wingspan) dragonfly with wings marked with black and white blotches.  The black blotches extend outwards from its body toward the tips of its wings.  Much narrower white markings are located just beyond the black blotches.  The insect’s body is powder blue.

       In contrast, the wings of the female (called a queen) are marked with a single dark blotch on each wing.

       While this dragonfly is most common along the borders of lakes, and swamps, it also ventures into our backyard.  The widow skimmer is most common in the summer but can also be spotted in the spring and autumn.

       This distinctive dragonfly lives as an adult for just a few weeks.  During this time males establish a territory up to 250 square acres which it vigorously defends again the intrusions of others.

       The widow skimmer habitually uses perches. The black skimmer I spotted today flew off and returned to the same perch several times in a few minutes.

       If are you interested in photographing a widow skimmer, all you have to do is to stand motionless a short distance away from a favorite perch and wait for it to return.  This saves you having to scamper about the yard trying to snap a picture.

       The widow skimmer feeds a wide variety of small soft-bodied invertebrates such as spiders, flying ants, hover flies, and even mosquitoes.   Prey is snatched from the air with its legs.

       If you spot a widow skimmer in your yard, don’t be afraid of it.  Widow skimmers do not attack or bite humans.  Just enjoy its beauty and mastery of the air as it patrols the air space above your lawn and gardens.

 

BACKYARD SECRET—THE HUMMINGBIRD DOESN’T CATCH FLYING INSECTS AT THE TIP OF ITS BILL

        We routinely see hummingbirds using their long slender bill to feed on the nectar stored in flowers and feeders.  However, most of us have never seen a hummingbird trying to catch flying insects.  Until recently those that have witnessed this fascinating behavior believed that the hummingbird uses its long slender bill to pluck insects out of the air at the tip of its bill.  Recent research has shown that this is not the case.

        Experiments conducted by Gregor M. Yanega and Margaret A. Rubega have discovered that the hummingbird actually catches small, elusive flying insects at the base of its bill. Two University of Connecticut researchers made this remarkable discovery by photographing hummingbirds feeding on flying fruit flies.  The revelation was revealed they used a video camera capable of recording images at a rate of 500 frames per second.

       The video revealed that as a hummingbird opens its beak to engulf its prey, its lower bill miraculously bends down from the tip to a point roughly halfway down this bill.  This enhances the chances the bird will capture a hapless fruit fly,

       Once again researchers equipped with modern research tools have demonstrated that when it comes to the natural world, often things are not what they appear to be.

A SHORT LIST OF PLANTS THAT HELP FEED POLLINATORS IN HOT, DRY CONDITIONS

    For weeks, much of Georgia has been suffering drought conditions.  If that was not enough, this past week, temperatures soared above 100ºF, and heat indexes topped out at 122ºF at my Middle Georgia home. When this occurs, it is extremely difficult for pollinators such as butterflies, bees, wasps, beetles, and others to collect enough nectar to meet their needs.  One of the reasons for this is it is a struggle for nectar plants to stay alive in our backyards and elsewhere. Even if they are successful stay alive, they often either don’t bloom or produce little nectar. Here is a short list of the plants growing in my backyard that have not been phased by this year’s extreme growing conditions and have done the best job of providing the pollinators with nectar.

   Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – This low-growing, hardy perennial bears clusters of white flowers.  The pollinators that visit this plant are native bees, butterflies and others.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) – My wife and I are fond of this plant because it is easy grow, beautiful, its blooms last a long time, and it is a super source of nectar for a variety of insects.  Although it is often touted as a good butterfly plant, we have noticed, in our yard, it is more often visited by tiny bees, flies, wasps, and other pollinators.

   BUTTERFLY BUSH (Buddleia davidii) – This introduced deciduous shrub a veritable butterfly magnet. This past week I spotted five butterflies on one of our butterfly bushes feeding at the same time.  This was notable because it marked the first time I had spotted that many butterflies feeding together this year.   From spring into the fall, it consistently draws more butterflies than anything else we grow.  The plant feeds butterflies, moths, bumblebees and other pollinators.

   Red-hot Poker (Kniphofia) – This large herbaceous perennial sends up an abundance of large spikes topped with clusters of long tubular flowers.  We find the blooms are more often visited by hummingbirds than bees and other pollinators.

       I hope you will share with me your list of nectar/pollen producing plants that have done well this year.

BACKYARD SECRET—THE GRAY SQUIRREL’S FRONT TEETH NEVER STOP GROWING

        A gray squirrel’s front teeth are constantly being worn down. If this was not the case, they would quickly wear down and lead to the animal’s premature death.  This fate is prevented because they are constantly growing at a rate of approximately six inches per year.

BIRDS LOVE BLACK CHERRIES

       Many birds are so fond of berries and fruits they will travel some distance to eat them.  Even birds they we do not associate with such foods will go out of their way to find and eat them whenever they are in season.  My daughter Angela recently learned that one of these birds in the great crested flycatcher.

       Birds living in most subdivisions find wild foods hard to come by.   However, Angela has a black cherry (Prunus serotina) tree growing alongside the fence that separates her and her neighbor’s backyards. Somehow the tree escaped the bull dozer, or perhaps sprouted from a seed left behind by a bird that dined on black cherry sometime in the past. It is now old enough to annually produce a crop of pea-sized, shiny red to almost black fruits.

Black Cherry Tree || Photo credit: Angela Dupree

       Angela has seen many different species of birds descend on the tree in May and June to chow down on the juicy fruits.  However, recently she heard an unfamiliar bird call coming for the tree.  She immediately pulled up her Merlin bird identification app.  The app identified the bird as a great crested flycatcher.  She could not believe it!  She had never seen a great crested flycatcher in her yard before.  Needless to say, you would not expect to find this bird in a subdivision.

       Wanting to make sure Merlin had correctly identified her visitor; she sat down and waited for the bird to appear.  In a matter of minutes, the bird came into view—it was indeed a great crested flycatcher.  The bird was plucking black cherries hanging from the tree’s slender branches.

       Knowing that the great crested flycatcher primarily eats insects and other invertebrates she went online to see if black cherries are also consumed.  She learned that Georgia’s only flycatcher that nests in a cavity does indeed eat black cherries.

       Angela also learned that more than 40 other birds also eat the fruit of the black cherry tree.  Among the other birds that also dine on the juicy fruit are the summer tanager, eastern bluebird, woodpeckers, mockingbird, brown thrasher, and gray catbird. 

       My daughter is convinced that she would probably have never seen a great crested flycatcher in her yard if it wasn’t for the fact that a cherry tree was not there.  With that in mind she plans on keeping closer tabs on the birds that visit this great native tree.

       Angela realizes she will never know if the hungry great crested flycatcher flew in from the woods hugging a stream at the base of the hill well away from her home or elsewhere.  I guess it really doesn’t really matter from whence the bird came.  The important thing is it that it found this special tree and provided her with an unforgettable memory that prompted her to embark on a journey of discovery that led to her having greater appreciation for a tree that is too often considered to be nothing more than a weed.

BACKYARD SECRET—ZEBRA SWALLOWTAIL CATERPILLARS ARE CANNIBALS

     One of the most striking butterflies that flutters about our yards is the black and white striped zebra swallowtail.  One of the reasons that it is far less common than the eastern tiger swallowtail is probably linked to the fact that it has only one larval host plant—the pawpaw.  On the other hand, the tiger swallowtail uses a variety of plants as hosts for its caterpillars.

     Faced with often scarce larval food plants, one of the ways that zebra swallowtail maximizes the numbers of caterpillars that reach adulthood is its caterpillars sometimes act as cannibals.  Let me explain.

     Female zebra swallowtails typically lay a single egg on the underside of a pawpaw leaf. However, at times they will lay two or more eggs on the same leaf.  When this happens and the eggs hatch one of the young caterpillars will often devour its rival. This cannibalistic behavior ensures it will not have to share precious food with a rival.

GOOD NEWS FOR MONARCHS

       For the past several years, it seems that the only news we heard regarding monarchs was discouraging.  Consequently, I was elated when Mexican butterfly experts recently reported that 35 percent more monarchs arrived in the pine and fir forests in November 2021 west of Mexico City which serve as their winter home than in 2020.

       Interestingly, these estimates are not determined by counting individual butterflies. Instead, they are based on the total acreage occupied by monarchs roosting in massive groups on the limbs of trees in this precious habitat.

       According to the Mexican government’s Commission for National Protected Areas, this past winter monarchs roosted on seven acres of forested habitat located high in this critical high mountaintop habitat.  Although this doesn’t sound like much during the winter of 2020-2021 monarchs roosted on only 5.2 acres.

                                MONARCH BUTTERFLY

      Gloria Tavera, the regional director of Mexico’s Commission for National Protected Areas, reports that in 2021 monarchs began departing for their summer breeding grounds in February.  For reasons that are not understood, these colorful orange and black butterflies left much later this year (they typically leave in March).  According to Tavera, “We still had butterflies in April.”  She went on to say, “It remains to be seen in next year’s figures whether that strategy worked for them.”

THIS APP IS A MUST FOR BACKYARD BIRDERS

         If you want to easily elevate your bird identification skills to a new level, I suggest that you download into your smart phone the free Merlin Bird ID app.  This app is designed by the Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology to simplify bird identification.

       One of the best ways to learn to identify birds by sight and sound is to be fortunate enough to have a mentor that can guide you through what at first seems to be a complex and confusing process.  If you are like me, when you started out on this lifelong journey, you had to teach yourself the nuances of bird identification using nothing more than a Peterson field guide and a vinyl long-playing recording of bird calls.   Nowadays beginning and veteran birds alike can benefit from a variety of birding tools that make birding easier than ever before.  One of best of these tools I have stumbled across is the Merlin Bird ID app.  When you download Merlin into your iPhone, you are carrying an electronic mentor around in your pocket. 

       Merlin helps to visually identify birds in two ways.  For example, you can name a bird using a photograph. Simply take a picture of the bird and run it through the app’s photo processing feature, the picture will be compared to literally thousands of digital photographs in Cornell’s massive photo library.  In a matter of seconds, Merlin will make suggestions as the bird’s identity.

       If you don’t have a picture of a bird, you can determine the bird’s identity by answering three simple questions relating to its size, color and habitat. In a matter of seconds, Merlin processes your answers and generates a list (complete with photos) of possible matches.

      The feature that I am most fond of is the song/call identifier. If you hear a bird singing from a dense shrub or treetop and wonder what bird is producing the distinctive sounds, Merlin is ready to solve the mystery.  All you have to do to use this feature is hold out your phone and tap the record button. The device uses your iPhone’s microphone to detect the songs and calls filling the air all around you.   The app records these sounds and compares them to the bird songs housed in Cornell’s extensive audio library and develops a list of possible matches (complete with photos).  The matches pop up on your phone’s screen. Often you will be amazed at what the device detects.  Whereas you might have thought the calls and songs coming from the trees and shrubs around your house were made only by mockingbirds and cardinals, only to discover white-eyed vireos, pine warblers, and a wood thrush were also lurking nearby.  On more than one occasion, the app has identified up to ten species of birds vocalizing in my backyard on a spring morning.

       At the end of each recording session, you can compare the app’s identifications with the recordings of each species in question and decide whether or not Merlin was correct.

       Keep in mind these are tentative identification. However, based on my limited experience using the app, I have found the sound identification feature has been accurate over 90 percent of the time.

       The Merlin app also has a variety of other features that I did not describe. With that in mind, for more information regarding this powerful birding tool, go online and read about Merlin’s entire suite of features.

It is truly amazing that the app is packed with so much information.  Can you believe the app is free?

       If you give the app a try, let me know what you think of it.