BUTTERFLIES AT A FEEDER?

     For years, I have fruitlessly tried to attract butterflies to a feeder.  During that time, I would occasionally see a red-banded hairstreak, cloudless sulphur, or American snout perched on a hummingbird feeder.  However, I was never convinced any of these butterflies were actually feeding.

      I have even hung specially designed butterflies feeders in my gardens.  Much to my chagrin, the butterflies ignored them too.  Then, for reasons I do not understand, during the past week cloudless sulphurs have been feeding regularly at one of my Perky Pet Four Fountains Feeder. 

       It all started about a week ago.  While working in my office I noticed a single cloudless sulphur obviously nectaring at one of the feeding ports on the feeder.  When I spotted a single cloudless sulphur feeding at the feeder during each of the next two days, I realized that this was not an accident; a butterfly was selecting the artificial flower as a source of food.

       The next day, when I walked to my office, I was greeted to the astounding sight of seven cloudless sulphurs actively feeding at the feeder.  I have seen at least that many cloudless sulfurs feeding there every day since.

       I find it interesting that whenever a hummingbird shows up to feed, the cloudless sulphurs scatter.  However, within minutes of the hummingbird flying off, the cloudless sulphurs return and resume dining.

       I cannot explain why the butterflies are feeding at this feeder.  I have used it for a number of seasons and never saw a single cloudless sulphur visit it.  In addition, cloudless sulphurs have been feeding each day at zinnia, Turk’s cap, scarlet sage, and lantana plants.

       Obviously, I have a lot to learn about the feeding habits of the cloudless Sulphur.

WELCOME TO THE TOOTHPICK GRASSHOPPER

Literally hundreds of different creatures live in our backyards.  One reason we do not seem many of them is they are masters of disguise.  One such animal is the toothpick grasshopper.

       This odd grasshopper looks unlike any grasshopper you have probably ever seen.  It is slender and looks much like a twig, plant stem, or blade of grass and is pointed.  Consequently, if it remains motionless, more often than not, you will walk by and never see it.  However, if you happen to see something out of place shaped like a sliver, has eyes and three pairs of legs, you have probably discovered a toothpick grasshopper.  

       The toothpick grasshopper often lives its entire life on its favorite food—tall grass.  However, from time to time it will venture out into a grassy lawn.   

       If this grasshopper is flushed, it tries to either hop or fly away.  Should it fly, it will not go far as its wings are very short.

       I first met the toothpick grasshopper in my backyard some nine years ago while on a walkabout the back of my property with my daughter and wife.  Needless to say, we had no idea such a bizarre insect was living in the yard.

       The other day I encountered my second toothpick grasshopper while participating in a butterfly count on the Rum Creek Wildlife Management Area.  In the meantime, I have seen literally hundreds of grasshoppers, but not a toothpick grasshopper.  This tells this is because I am not very observant, its camouflage is very effective, or it is an uncommon resident in my neck of the woods.

       Keep your eyes peeled, you may have toothpick grasshoppers living in your yard too.

AMERICAN BEAUTYBERRY FRUITS CATCH YOUR EYE

       You cannot help but notice the American beautyberry in late summer and fall.  Although this deciduous shrub is inconspicuous throughout most of the year, when its fruits are ripe, they are impossible to ignore.

       The beautyberry’s fruits (actually drupes) are unlike anything else that you might find displayed in your backyard and beyond.  The plant’s showy fruits appear in clusters around the multitude of stems that characterize this native plant.  The berries are round and bright violet.  The color is so unique, I cannot think of another plant that produces similar fruit.

                   I have a number of American beautyberries growing in my yard.          Since I did not transplant all of them, I am certain they were planted by any one of a number of birds the relish their fruit as much as I enjoy gazing at the berries.  I will never know which of my avian neighbors planted these shrubs since more than 40 species of birds gobble up the fruit.  The list of potential culprits includes the northern mockingbird, northern cardinal, gray catbird, brown thrasher, northern bobwhite, eastern towhee, and American robin.

       When given a chance, the opossum, armadillo, raccoon, and others will also eat their share of the gaudy berry-like fruits.

       The American beautyberry will grow in partial shade and full sun.  It grows in a wide range of soil types and does not require a lot of water; however, it does best in moist soil.

       I learned long ago, there is no perfect plant.  Such is the case with the American beautyberry.  This hardy plant has a tendency to spread even without the assistance of my wildlife neighbors.

       If you do not already have American beautyberry growing in your yard, you might want to try it.  It will add to the plant diversity of your wildlife haven, provide food to the wildlife living in your backyard, and add a swash of unique color to your landscape.

THE MONARCH IS BUT ONE BUTTERFLY THAT MIGRATES

        The plight of the monarch has focused our attention on the annual fall migration of this gorgeous black and orange butterfly. Since the butterfly’s population has plummeted some 90 percent, backyard butterfly watchers are keeping a close eye on the numbers of monarchs that flutter through their backyards each spring and fall.  While this epic event it taking place, the largely unrecognized migration of a broad mix of other butterflies is also taking place.

       Would you believe that well more than a dozen other butterflies that you are apt to see in your Georgia backyard also migrate? 

       Here is a list of some of these amazing insects: American lady, painted lady, common buckeye, red admiral, cloudless sulphur, little yellow, cloudless sulphur, sachem, question mark, fiery skipper, mourning cloak, gulf fritillary, long-tailed skipper, ocola, queen, and American snout.

       By far, the monarch stages the longest migration of all North American butterflies.  This migration can measure some 2,500 miles in length. The migrations of other butterflies that visit our backyards are much shorter.  In addition, all the while monarchs are winging their way south, some butterflies such as the fiery skipper and some cloudless sulphurs are actually flying in the opposite direction.

       The migrations of most of these other butterflies is so subtle you would never notice them until one day you wonder where all of the American snouts, gulf fritillaries and others have gone, while the numbers of individuals of other species such as the painted lady have increased.

       However, migration cannot account for all of the fluctuations in butterfly populations that take in our backyards at this time of the year.  Since most of our butterflies are sedentary, as days get progressively shorter, they simply do not produce any more generations (flights).  Most butterflies overwinter as an egg or pupa. 

       Aside from the monarch, the most obvious migration we are likely to witness in this neck of the woods is that of the cloudless sulphur.  Using the sun as their compass, migrating cloudless sulphurs fly approximately twelve miles a day. 

       During this time of year, cloudless sulphurs are drawn to the red blossoms of Turk’s cap growing in my yard.  They are also fond of scarlet sage, pineapple sage, and zinnias.

       One major difference between bird and butterfly migration is that the same birds that were raised and fed in our yards this year might return next spring.  However, none of the monarchs, cloudless sulphurs, red admirals and other migrating butterflies that graced your property this spring and summer will ever return.

       While we measure the lifespan of birds in years, the average butterfly lives no more than a month or less. Consequently, the butterflies that appear in our backyards the following year are ancestors of those that nectared at our flowers this year.

       During the next few weeks, I hope you will see many monarchs in your yard.  If you do, that might be a sign monarch populations are on the rebound.  However, don’t forget to look for those other backyard butterflies that also migrate.  Although they will never grab the headlines like the monarch, they are truly fascinating members of our backyard wildlife community and very much deserving of our attention.

      

BACKYARD SECRET: WATER IS A BIRD MAGNET

        Believe it or not, you can attract more birds to your backyard with water than food.  Some homeowners have used water to attract as many as 65 species of birds to their backyards. 

       Even though birds have been known to travel up to two miles to bathe and drink, many birds simply do not visit backyards that lack water. 

       As such, if you do not have a water feature in your backyard, consider adding one.  Something as simple as a birdbath will make a big difference.  Simply make sure you purchase a birdbath that has a gently sloping bottom that has a depth of no more than 1.5″ – 2″ 

WHAT IS THAT?

 Ever since my daughter was a little girl, she has been fascinated with the natural world.  It mattered not whether we were on vacation or just exploring our backyard, her inquisitive mind and sharp eyes enabled her to find something fascinating wherever we happened to be.  More often than not, she would be the first to make such a find.  As such, on a recent visit, it was no surprise that, while walking around the deck of our home with my wife, she spotted something hanging from beneath one of the deck rails.  Immediately she exclaimed, “What is that?

       Below one of the rails, she just happened to notice what looked very much like a small, brown paper bag measuring an inch or so in diameter.  The object was suspended from the rail by a number of slender filaments.

       Within minutes, my granddaughter and I joined my wife and daughter on the porch.  Each of us marveled at how well the small, round object was camouflaged dangling next to the deck’s brown wood.

YELLOW GARDEN SPIDER EGG SAC - House - 26 Aug 2018 (1)

       As has been the case so many times over the years, finding a backyard treasure perked our curiosity.  We just had to find out what we were looking at. 

       I suggested it might be a spider’s egg case.  Armed with this possible identification, my wife searched the internet looking for photos of spider egg cases.  In just a few minutes, she emerged from our home office and announced she was convinced it was a yellow garden spider’s (Agiope aurantia) egg sac. 

       I then retreated to my natural history library to learn more about the yellow garden spider and its egg sac.

       Leafing through the pages of several books I learned the female yellow garden spider creates one to four of these impressive egg cases per year; most are constructed from late summer to fall.  Working under the cloak of darkness she lays anywhere from 300 to 1,000 or more eggs on thin sheets of silk.  She then wraps them up forming a tough, brown silk ball.  The rugged covering protects the eggs from both the elements and predators.

       In the spring, the young spiders emerge from the egg sac and venture out into the world.  As you might expect very few of these tiny spiders survive long enough to reproduce.  Some of the spiders eat each other, still others are caught by predators such as mud daubers and birds. SPIDER WEB - BLOG - 25 May 2018

       It was truly amazing how our daughter’s backyard discovery led to a memorable event shared by three generations of our family.  In addition, it reinforced our appreciation for the amazing variety of life that lives just outside the backdoor.

       I guess you can see why I will never tire of hearing a family member say, “What is that?”