YOU MAY NOT HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR YARD TO SEE SPRING MIGRANTS

      I suspect that most folks that enjoy birding would like to make the trek to Texas’ High Island to witness the spring songbird migration.  If you catch conditions just right, in a single day, you can get up close and personal to 30 species of warblers and literally scores of vireos tanagers and other birds.  While this small island is the one of the very best places to see spring migrations, if you have the right habitat, you can see a kaleidoscope of songbirds from March into May pass through your own yard.

       As migratory songbirds move northward, they make a number of stops before they reach their breeding grounds.  These bits of critical habitat are referred to as stopover areas.  Songbirds rest and refuel at these locations.  Backyards offering the birds the proper food, water, and cover can serve as stopover sites.

       The vast majority of migratory songbirds rarely visit feeders stocked with seeds and suet.  However, can you attract them if you offer them the foods that will help fuel their spring migration flights.  By far, the most important foods eaten by spring migrants are insects.  However, the bulk of the insects consumed by the birds are the larvae of moths and butterflies (commonly referred to as caterpillars).

       Most of these caterpillars feed on tree leaves.  Therefore, if one or more of the trees that serve as hosts for moths and butterflies is growing in your yard, the better are your chances of attracting spring migrants.

       When it comes to hosting moths and butterflies not all trees are created equal.  The worst trees are introduced ornamentals.  Some of these trees do not host any moths and butterflies.  Studies have shown ornamentals produce 35 times less caterpillar biomass than native trees.

       Here is a short list of some of the native trees that host the most species of moths and butterflies.  The numbers of species of moths and butterflies that each tree hosts are found in parentheses.  This list was developed by Dr. Doug Tallamy. 

       In Georgia, oaks (557) serve as host plants for more butterflies and moths than any other group of trees.  Other important hosts to lepidopterans are cherries (456), willows (455), birches (411), poplars (367) crabapples (308), maples (297), alders (255), hickories (235), elms (215), pines (201), hawthorns (168), beeches (127), dogwoods (118), and sweetgum (35).

       Should you find that none of these trees are in your yard, if you want to have your yard serve as a spring songbird stopover site, consider planting one or more trees found on this list.  The small investment in time and labor this requires will pay huge dividends for decades to come.

       If you already have one or more of the caterpillar producers growing in your yard, from now into May, periodically scan the tree foliage for migrants.  How long the migrants stay is largely dependent on the amount of food they find.  If your trees don’t harbor many caterpillars, migrants might stay and feed for only a day.  Conversely, if caterpillars are abundant, migrants may linger for three or more days before moving on.

       If you are lucky, one morning you may walk outside and see your trees alive with a dozen or more warblers gleaning insects for your trees’ foliage.  While you might see far more species at High Island, the fact that you spotted these birds in your yard will make the experience extra special.

       

OFFERING HUMMINGBIRDS NESTING MATERIAL

        If you are looking for a gift for hummingbird devotees, a hummingbird nesting kit may be the answer.

       You can purchase kits from several companies or make your own.  Each kit consists of a wire suet feeder and a supply of nesting material.  All of the kits I checked out online contain either raw or processed cotton.  Some even include kapok and lichens.

       Currently hummingbird nesting kits are rarely employed in Georgia.  In fact, I only know one couple that annually offers cotton to ruby-throated hummingbirds .  They have told me that, on several occasions, they have seen female hummingbirds collecting cotton from their wire cages.  They also mentioned hummingbirds have a definite preference for loose cotton over cotton balls.  Perhaps this is because the birds find it more difficult to pull fibers out of a compacted ball.  Who knows?

       I suspect, in most locales, hummingbirds have little problem finding plant down to line their nests.  If that is the case, you might ask yourself,  “Why would anybody want to offer ruby-throated hummingbirds cotton?”  One reason might be having an ample supply of cotton fibers available to line their tiny nests makes the female’s arduous job of constructing a nest a little easier.  However, it may be because hummingbird fans simply want to experience the exhilaration that stems from watching a hummingbird actually use “their” cotton to construct its nest. 

       I know it would make my day!

A TIGER SWALLOWTAIL NECTARING ON ROCK FLOWERS?

      Today when I stepped out of my garage, I flushed a male eastern tiger swallowtail from my gravel driveway.  Later when I returned to the house, I found the handsome male tiger swallowtail had returned and appeared to be actively feeding on what might be described as rock flowers. 

       The answer to this question is obviously no.  Although we often see butterflies seemingly feeding on moist sand, soil, pavement, and rocks, they are definitely unable to extract calorie-rich food from these lifeless surfaces.

       The butterfly illustrated in the accompanying photo was actually using his long, coiled proboscis to sip much-needed sodium and other minerals found on the gravel. Often these minerals originate from the materials themselves.  In other cases, they originate from the unseen residues left behind by dead plants or animals.  Family pets or wildlife that urinate or defecate on the hard surfaces can also deposit the minerals.   

DISCOURAGING NEWS FOR MONARCHS

       According to a recent, article that appeared in The Wildlife Society’s e-Wildlifer, this past winter the population of monarch butterflies found in their wintering grounds in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico dropped by roughly 26 percent.

       Researchers attribute the decline, in large part, to a dramatic increase in illegal logging.  While these activities have long been a problem, this past year it resulted in the removal of four times more of the firs and pines used by the butterflies as roosting sites than are typically lost.  As a result, surveyors were only able to find the butterflies overwintering in only 2.1 hectares of habitat.  To put this in perspective, the previous year monarchs wintered across 2.8 hectares of forests.

       Monarch experts also believe that trees killed by beetle infestations, drought, and windstorms contributed to the decline.

BACKYARD SECRET — IT IS POSSIBLE TO TELL ONE DOWNY WOODPECKER FROM ANOTHER

       It is common knowledge that the male downy woodpecker has a red patch on the back of its head.  Female downies lack such a patch.  Knowing this, you can easily tell a male from a female downy woodpecker.

       However, did you know that you could distinguish between individual downy woodpeckers?  Remarkably, this is possible.  It seems that the black and white pattern displayed on the back of the head of each downy woodpecker is slightly different from that displayed by any other downy.  

       With that in mind, if you photograph or sketch the patterns displayed on the napes of each downy woodpeckers seen at your feeders, you can learn all sorts of neat things regarding the downy woodpeckers that feed in your yard.  You can determine how many individuals use your feeders.  It would also be possible to discover if some birds are more dominant.  You name it.

       This technique is similar to the one used by biologists to differentiate between individual zebras.  In the case of zebras, each animal has its own distinctive pattern of black and white stripes.

A GREAT TIME TO LOOK FOR THE WHITE-HEADED PROMINENT

   March is not a great month for butterfly enthusiasts.  At this time of the year the seasons transition from winter to spring.  As such, temperatures remain are cool and nectar is often hard to come by.  This translates into few butterflies flitting across our backyards.  However, there is any number of moths that can be seen this month.  One of these fascinating creatures is the white-headed prominent (Symmerista albafrons).

       During March this small (wingspan 1 19/64-1 47/64 inches) moth is commonly flying about backyards across the state.  This is especially true if its host plants (oaks) are growing nearby.

       Finding one is not difficult at all.  Instead of stumbling around in the dark looking for it, it will come to you.  Let me explain.  This moth is attracted to outside lights.  Therefore, it is most often seen perched on the side of a house beneath outside lights that are glowing in the dark.                                               If you spot one, the first thing you will notice is that its wings are folded over its back.  This will permit you to see a distinctive toothed, white spot running down the edge of its folded wings.  Since this month is extremely tame, it will allow you to view it from a close range.  In fact, it will often permit you to touch it.

       I find it amazing that the white-headed prominent can be seen on chilly spring evenings.  Recently, I found on perched below an outside garage light when the temperature was only 55˚F.  

       If you are a butterfly enthusiast, you should explore the world of moths.  The diversity of moths than can be seen in a backyard is astounding.  In fact, far more different species of moths inhabit your yard than butterflies.

       If you want to venture into the amazing world of moths, this evening before you sit down to watch your favorite television show, turn on the outside garage lights.  Then when your program pauses for a commercial, walk outside and see if your lights have attracted any moths.  If some moths have been drawn to the lights, don’t be surprised if one of them is a white-headed prominent.

AM I REALLY BUYING A NATIVE PLANT?

       Since most wildlife gardeners are finding room in their gardens for native plants that benefit hummingbirds, bees, moths and other wild pollinators, it is important that they know what they are buying.

       The first thing to keep is never buy plants actually taken from the wild.  Always buy native plants from reputable plant dealers that sell plants grown in nurseries.  The ensures that wild populations of native plants are not decimated.

       Also, be certain you are purchasing the correct plant.  You can never be sure what you are getting when you refer to a plant only by its common name.  Many different plants often share the same common name.  For this reason, always provide a dealer with both the plant’s common and scientific name.  This eliminates any ambiguity as to what you have in mind.

       It is also important to know whether you are purchasing a hybrid.  Often hybrids do not produce the same amount of pollen and/or nectar as the original form of the plant.  The reason for this is during the hybridization process the focus is often on developing varieties that display traits the plant breeders feel are improvements on the natural form of the plant.  In many cases, in the attempt to attain these goals, the variety’s ability to produce nectar and/or pollen is either lost or diminished.  If you purchase a hybrid and later discover it does not benefit wild pollinators you are not going to be happy.

       Therefore, before you purchase a hybrid, do a little research, and make sure it produces nectar and pollen.

MORE NEST BOX INFORMATION

        In response to the recent blog regarding the placement on birdhouses in backyard settings, one of our fellow bloggers requested information concerning the minimum size of entrance holes recommended for the species mentioned.  Realizing many others might have the same question, below you will find this information.  In addition, I have included the recommended  minimum height a box should be placed above the ground for each of these eight species.

Species Minimum Hole Size Height Above Ground
Eastern Bluebird 1.5″ 5′
Carolina Chickadee 1 1/8″ 5′
Tree Swallow 1 3/8″ 5′
Tufted Titmouse 1 1/8″ 5′
Carolina Wren 1.5″ 5′
House Wren 1 1/8″ 5′
Great Crested Flycatcher 1.5″ 6′
Brown-headed Nuthatch 1 5′

BIRDHOUSES ARE OFTEN PLACED TOO CLOSE TOGETHER

     Nesting birds are often very territorial.  As such, when one pair spots another pair of the same species trying to nest too close to their nesting site, conflicts emerge.  With that in mind, one of the reasons why birds do not use birdhouse in some yards is boxes are placed too close together.  When nesting boxes are packed in too closely, some birds of the same species will fight with one another and sometimes end up not nesting at all.

      NESTING PAIR OF BLUEBIRDS

       With this in mind, here is a list of some of the birds that commonly nest in Georgia backyards and the recommended spacing between boxes designed avoid territorial battles.

Eastern Bluebird – Minimum of 100 yards.

Carolina Chickadee – 30 feet

Tree Swallow – 35 feet

Tufted Titmouse – 580 feet

Carolina Wren – 330 feet

House Wren – 100 feet

Great Crested Flycatcher – 1 box per 6 acres

Brown-headed Nuthatch – 1 box per 6 acres

       Keep in mind that some species tolerate birds of another species nesting close to their nest.  For example, eastern bluebirds will allow Carolina chickadees to nest well within 100 yards of their nests.  In this case, if a Carolina chickadee nest box  is equipped with an entrance hole measuring 1 1/6th of an inch in diameter, bluebirds would never try to nest in a birdhouse with an entrance hole that small. 

TOOLS TO EASE CLEANING UP FEEDING AREAS

      Although we know, it is imperative that we keep the ground below bird feeders free from seed hulls, droppings, and wet seeds; we don’t always do something about it.  One reason for this is it is not an easy task, especially when you have to dig out seeds and hulls imbedded in thick grass.  With that in mind, I want to tell you about two tools that I have found really help make completing this necessary task a whole lot easier.

       I use a small garden rake and an industrial long-handled dustpan.  Being only seven inches wide, the rake’s spring steel teeth make it easy for me to rake out the droppings, seeds, and hulls hidden beneath the grass growing beneath my feeders.  I then simply rake them into the long-handled, large capacity dustpan and pour them in a cardboard box of plastic trash bag.

       These two simple tools have eliminated my having to bend over.  In addition, I am able to clean my two bird feeding areas in a fraction of the time I once devoted to this task.

       If you have been putting off cleaning your feeding areas, now is the time to change your ways.  This need is been amplified by the fact regular rainfall and daytime temperatures that have been are soaring into the 70s and low 8os have created perfect conditions for the growth of the bacteria, fungi, and protozoan parasites that cause the majority of the disease outbreaks among our backyard birds.  

       As a result, reports of sick and dying birds at feeders are on the rise.  Using the two tools, I have just mentioned, spending a few minutes cleaning up the area beneath your feeders will help ensure that the birds feeding in your yard will not be the next site of an outbreak of salmonella, aspergillosis, avian pox, conjunctivitis (finch disease), or trichomoniasis.