BABY SNAKES OR SOMETHING REALLY WEIRD

 What do you think is the weirdest animal that lives in your yard?  Perhaps it is a spider, millipede, scorpion, or beetle.  Then again, it may be a land planarian.  Among the other names given this bizarre critter are soil planarian and arrowhead flatworm.

       Once you spot a land planarian, you can readily see why these critters are often mistaken for snakes.  They are shaped like a snake, have triangular heads, display broad dark lines that run down the length of their bodies, and can grow upwards of ten inches long.  However, if you examine them closely you will see they are covered with mucous, don’t have any eyes and are not covered in scales.

       The land planarian’s mouth is located about half way down the underside of its body.  Instead of eyes, this animal has eyespots that can only detect light.

       The body is covered with a heavy layer of mucous.  This mucous enables the flatworm to keep its body moist.  A flatworm will die if it loses water that amounts to more than 45 percent of its body weight.  As such, land planarians live in cool, moist spots such as under logs, rocks, and forest litter.  Around our homes, we most often find them under potted plants, or beneath objects stored on the ground like tarps and lumber.  Other than that, we occasionally see them on the surface of the ground when heavy rain saturates the soil.

       The land planarian eats a variety of invertebrates such as insect larvae, slugs, and earthworms.  While gardeners appreciate the fact they destroy plant pests, they don’t like them eating earthworms as they help aerate the soil.  In addition, anglers trying to keep a worm bed or folks that raise earthworms commercially hate them because they have been known to wipe out earthworm populations. 

       Oh, by the way, if they cannot find enough prey, they will cannibalize one another.

       This flatworm feeds by restraining its prey with a coat of slimy mucous.  Once it is subdued, the planarian extends its pharynx out of its mouth and into its victim and sucks out its body fluids.

       This odd critter employs two forms of reproduction.  It can lay eggs in a small cocoon (the eggs hatch in 21 days); however, it primarily multiplies by the process of fragmentation.  The process takes place once or twice a month. 

       Fragmentation occurs when a planarian attaches the tip of its tail to an object and simply pulls away.  Remarkably, the detached piece of tail is capable of moving about and will actually grow a new head within only 10 days!

       The planarian’s amazing ability to regenerate has long been of interest to biology students and medical researchers alike.  Unbelievably, a piece of a planarian, amounting to as little as 1/279th of its body, is capable of regenerating a totally new planarian in a matter of weeks.  You can cut a planarian’s head and half and the animal goes about its business sporting two complete heads. 

       Years ago, planarians were carried to the International Space Station to determine what effects, if any, the environment has on such things as their power of regeneration.  In one experiment, after an astronaut sliced a planarian’s head in half, the animal regenerated two heads in only five weeks time.

       Planarians are currently being employed by researchers involved in biomedical research studies focus everything from human aging, memory, and diseases to genetics.

       You can add the ground planarian to the list of exotic plants and animals that have been inadvertently brought to the United States.  In this case, it is believed this native of Indo-China they were shipped around the world during the 19th century hidden in soil accompanying nursery stock.

       Since the beginning to the 20th century, the flatworm has been located living in greenhouses across the country.  It has since been found in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and a number of other states.  It is thought the worms were introduced to these locations in potted plants sold in the nursery trade.

        While it is clear we could easily live without this critter, like it or not, there is little chance we will ever rid ourselves of the odd introduced animal.  In the meantime, countless folks will continue to be shocked when they lift up a pot and see what looks like a bunch of baby poisonous snakes poised to strike.  Just remember, if these weird animals are slimy and lack eyes, they will not bite.

BACKYARD SECRET: THE CATERPILLAR’S AMAZING GROWTH RATE

Some caterpillars exhibit an unbelievable growth rate.  Believe it or not, the caterpillars of some butterflies actually double their weight every two days.  If a human baby had a similar rate of growth, it would weigh a ton in just 14 days!

THE RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD’S DISPLAY FLIGHT

         One of the most fascinating animal behaviors can you see in your backyard is the display flight of the male ruby-throated hummingbird.

         Over the years, I have been fortunate to witness this fete on a number of occasions.  However, until last week I had never observed it three separate times in a matter of a couple of days.

        This acrobatic maneuver is unmistakable.  The male will repeatedly fly to and fro in a wide U-shaped arc.  Often the male is so adept at retracing the path of his previous arc it appears he is coursing along an unseen track.

        At times, the bottom of the arc brings the male so close to the head of a perched female you are convinced he is going to collide with her.  As he approaches the seemingly unperturbed object of his affection, the buzzing sound created by the air passing through his tail and wing feathers becomes appreciably louder.  This dramatic display is designed to convince the female he is a suitable suitor.  However, the only time she gives him the time of day is during a handful of days prior to her laying a clutch of two eggs.

        After I enjoyed the sight of a male rubythroat engaged in an aerial display, I related the story to my wife.  She said she had never been lucky enough to see the display.  Remarkably  the very next day, while we were both standing on our deck a male suddenly appeared and performed the aerial fete in front of us.  In fact, one side of the U-shaped arc was so close to our heads I thought he was going to collide with us.

         A couple of days later my daughter was standing on the deck with us when she suddenly exclaimed,  “What is that hummingbird doing?”  I looked up and could not believe my eyes–a male rubythroat was once again engaged in a display flight.

        Observing three ruby-throated hummingbird aerial displays and being able to be with my wife and daughter when they both witnessed their first courtship displays is something I will never forget;  this is backyard wildlife watching at its best.

THE AMERICAN GOLDFINCH IS A STAR AT FEEDERS IN SUMMER

       There was a time in the not too distant past when the only bird most folks fed during the summer was the ruby-throated hummingbird.  The bird readily takes to feeders filled with sugar water.  In exchange, they provide homeowners with the opportunity to enjoy seeing this flying jewel on a regular basis.  If that isn’t enough they also treat us to countless hours of enjoyment watching them fuss with one another and displaying their aerial skills.     

        Nowadays feeding seed-eating birds during the summer is also becoming increasingly more popular.  Although the birds can easily exist without our seed offerings, feeding birds that eat seeds in the summer allows us to enjoy the comings and goings of birds we once regularly saw only during the colder months of the year. 

        Most of the birds that are attracted to summer seed feeders are birds we are all familiar with such as house finches, American goldfinches, cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, eastern towhees, chipping sparrows, and others.  However, in the minds of many, the bird that immediately stands out as the star of the daily show played out around feeders is the American goldfinch.

        The reason for this is the male American goldfinch is dressed in his breeding plumage.  The golden radiance of the bird reaches out and grabs your attention.  Bedecked with a black cap, wings, and tail, it appears nothing like the drab yellowish-green bird we feed at our feeders in winter.

        Although both male and female American goldfinches commonly visit feeders in summer, the female retains its subdued colors.  As such, she will look pretty much the same as she does in the winter.  

        As we, all know, in winter, American goldfinches gather in flocks that can make short work of a feeder stocked with black oil sunflower seeds.  Don’t expect to see large flocks of American goldfinches at your summer feeder.  The flocks have long disbanded and scattered across the countryside.  This means you are most likely going to see one or a just a few birds come to your feeders.  However, often long before I see these beauties make their entrance onto your backyard stage; you just might hear them announce their arrival by calling, “Just look at me! Just look at me!”

        If you decide to try your hand at trying to attract an American goldfinch or two to your feeder this summer, stock it with black oil sunflower seeds.  Since you will not be feeding as many birds as you do in winter, don’t put out a lot of seed.  It is also a good idea to buy your seeds in smaller bags.  This will help prevent the stored sunflower seed from becoming infested with insect pests.      

        Once you see a male American goldfinch at your feeder this summer it will be easy to believe that, it is not the same bird you watched hulling sunflower seeds on cold winter mornings.  You will also wish that it retained its gold and black plumage throughout the entire year.

      

BACKYARD SECRET: NORTHERN CARDINALS NEST MORE THAN ONCE EACH YEAR

Now that June has arrived, many birds have completed nesting this year.  Such is not the case with the northern cardinal.  Peach State cardinals will nest up to three times a year.  They sometimes nest for the first time in March.  Second and third nesting attempts follow through early July.

DOES HOT WEATHER AFFECT BACKYARD BUTTERFLIES?

        During the past few weeks, record high temperatures have been documented throughout Georgia.  On numerous days thermometer readings as high as 100˚F and above have been recorded.  Needless to say, these high temperatures are having a profound effect on each of us.  However, have you wondered if this torrid weather is having an impact on the behavior of our backyard butterflies?  The truth of the matter is butterflies fare far better than we do when in temperatures reach or exceed the century mark.

        Butterflies are cold-blooded animals.  This means their body temperature varies according to the temperature of the air around them.  Most butterflies are capable of flight when temperatures range from 60-108˚F.  However, they fly best when in temperatures between 80-100˚F.  At the other end of the spectrum when their body temperature dips into the mid-60s and below, few are capable of flight. 

        Keep in mind, butterflies can somewhat regulate their body temperatures through behavior.  Consequently, butterflies will bask on vegetation and rocks on cool mornings.  When engaged in this activity they will flatten out their wings.  This enables them to absorb the sun’s rays and warm their bodies to a point where their flight muscles can efficiently move their wings.  Conversely, butterflies can actually suffer from heat shock when temperatures range from 105-110˚F.  Consequently, when it gets exceedingly hot they often escape to shady areas and hold their wings upright.

 

        This explains why this is not a good time to be butterfly watching during the hottest part of a very hot day.  We do not have any business being outside when it is that hot anyway.


 

MEMORIAL DAY RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS

        For many years right around Memorial Day, I have received reports from homeowners throughout the state reporting the numbers of hummingbirds visiting their feeders dramatically increase.  Although it is great to have squadrons of rubythroats zooming around our yards, many hummingbird experts are scratching their heads trying to figure out why the birds are so abundant at that time of the year.  This year is no exception.

        The first ruby-throated hummingbirds begin arriving throughout much of Georgia in late March.  Typically, at this time of the year it is unusual to host more than two to four birds at a time.  At the peak of migration, you are lucky if you see six of eight of these aerial acrobats in your backyard.  Most of these linger only long enough to refuel before resuming their migration to points north.

        Once the migration has passed males and female scatter across the countryside and settle into breeding territories that possess a combination of suitable nesting sites and ample food supplies.  Once a male chooses a section of real estate, he spend the rest of his time trying to attract females.  These breeding territories rarely exceed an acre to two.  Consequently, if a male doesn’t select a territory that includes your yard, you might not see any hummers visiting your feeders for a month or two.

        If another male hummingbird happens to venture into a male’s breeding habitat, the interloper is attacked and usually driven off.  For this reason, during the peak of the breeding season, you are not apt to spot more than one ruby-throated hummingbird male using the same feeder.

        While male hummers are beating up on one another, the females are busy with the serious business of either incubating a fragile clutch of black-eyed pea-sized eggs or raising their first brood of the year.  During the 10-12 days that females are incubating eggs, they spend most of their time on the nest.  As such, they have little time to visit feeders.

        Once the eggs hatch, females are kept extremely busy finding enough food to feed their young.  During the approximately three weeks the young are preparing for their first flight, females are foraging for nectar as well as small, soft-bodied insects and spiders.  These animals provide the much-needed protein necessary for the development of the young.  As you might expect, females will visit our feeders more often during this time.

        Since most of the state is in the peak of the ruby-throated hummingbird nesting season, I think you can see why it is seems odd to have swarms of hummingbirds patrolling our feeders right now.  Some suggest perhaps this invasion is due to the fact hummingbird nesting was early this year, and the year’s first brood are now joining their parents at our feeders.  However, based on my observations, this theory doesn’t hold any water.  My banding efforts in prior years during this time frame revealed that all of the birds I captured in my backyard were adults.  This year, although I have not done any early banding, I have not seen any immature birds at my feeders.

        Another possible explanation is these the birds are late migrants.  This seems unlikely since some rubythroats actually begin their southward migration in July.  This leaves precious little time for the birds to reach their nesting grounds, establish breeding territories, and raise their young.  However, since very little hummingbird banding is conducted at this time of the year in the Peach State, this theory cannot be disclaimed or proven.

        A more plausible explanation is this dramatic change in hummingbird behavior is linked to another extremely dry spring.  Once again, this year Georgia was treated with winter temperatures that were well above normal.

       As a result, flowering plants bloomed much earlier than normal in many parts of the state.  This was followed by increasingly dry conditions throughout much of April.  A lack of rainfall has persisted throughout the month of May.  This has further reduced the number of nectar-rich blooms available to hummingbirds.  According to this theory, this situation has created a food shortage for hummingbirds and other nectar feeders.  Even in the best of times, a hummingbird must often venture far and wide to feed themselves and their young.  Our feeders offer hummingbirds with abundant sources of food that can be obtained with little effort.

        If this is the scenario that is playing out this year, it will be interesting to see how this affects the success of the birds’ first nesting efforts.  In the meantime, if hummers are not currently swarming around your feeders, be patient.  Hummingbirds will be jousting with each other around your feeders in about a month. If, on the other hand, you are lucky enough to have hummingbirds draining your feeders daily, don’t worry about why they are there, just sit back, and enjoy the show.

       

A HUMMINGBIRD AND CHICKADEES BROUGHT BACKYARD SURPRISES

        I learned a long time ago to expect the unexpected whenever I venture into my backyard.   Recently two events that took place in my backyard in the same afternoon once again demonstrated you never know when you are going to witness something special.

        In this case, I walked outside to take a close look at an extremely large cluster of long, tubular-shaped orange, red, and yellow blossoms poised atop one of our red-hot poker plant’s long flower stems.  While standing within six feet of the large torch-like floral cluster, a ruby-throated hummingbird suddenly flew in and began feeding on the backside of the cluster of flowers.  I could tell the bird was there because the tips of its wings projected beyond the sides of the flowery torch.  I stood transfixed, savoring the opportunity to be standing so close to the feeding bird.  All the while the bird fed I was hoping its feeding activities would bring it around to my side of the torch.  I would like to report my vigil was rewarded; however, the bird eventually flew off without circling the blossoms.  As it flew away, I could see the bird was an adult male rubythroat.

        About an hour later, I went outside to see what else was going on outside my backdoor.  This time when I reached the top of the steps leading from the deck into the yard, an adult Carolina chickadee perched in a nearby dogwood caught my eye.  Since the bird seemed agitated I began looking about to see if the family cat was nearby.

        Although I did not spot the cat, I saw four young chickadees flying from plant to plant.  The birds had obviously just fledged from a nearby log nesting structure.  Not wanting to stress the young birds, I watched the birds from the deck.  It was obvious the youngsters were testing out their wings for the first time.  They flew very slowly, never attaining an altitude of more than six feet.  These flights were short and ended in clumsy landings.

        Fearing my presence would alert the cat to what was going on, coupled with my desire not to hinder their initial attempts to fly, I went back inside.  An hour or so later I went returned outside and was pleased the new squadron of chickadees had moved on.

        I could not believe how fortunate I was to enjoy two fantastic wildlife adventures in the same afternoon.  While I always find something of interest whenever I make a backyard trek, it is not often that I experience two very special encounters with my backyard neighbors within hours of each other.

        What a day!

MEET THE RED ADMIRAL

        The red admiral is one of our most recognizable butterflies.  This is because this dark, medium-sized (1.75-2.50″) butterfly displays striking reddish orange bands across the tops of its wings.

        The red admiral flies rapidly from spot to spot.  It often lands on the ground, the sides of our homes, large flowers, you name it.  There it will often flatten out its wings and bask in the sunlight.

        Whenever it lands on a flower, do not assume it is nectaring.  The red admiral is a butterfly that only occasionally seeks nectar from blossoms.  Instead is prefers to dine on the sugar found in plant sap.  In fact, the largest concentration of red admirals I have ever seen was feeding on a gaping wound on the trunk of a willow tree.  Sap was oozing from the spot where a large limb broke off the tree the night before during an intense thunderstorm.         

        The butterfly will also dine on the juices oozing from rotting fruit.  I have also encountered red admirals seeking nourishment from dry dog food.  In addition, to the chagrin of many, it will also visit piles of dung. 

        The list of red admiral host plants includes pellitory, nettles, and false nettle.

        Since red admirals are now flying about backyards throughout Middle Georgia, I am sure they can now be seen in other parts of the state too.  If you have not seen one yet, you have plenty of time to make the acquaintance of this butterfly this year.  This strong flyer can be seen in Georgia from March through early November.

        I must admit I do not see as many red admirals as I would like, however, whenever I do spot one it is a special treat.  If you encounter your first red admiral this year, I am sure you will understand why I am so fond of this butterfly.

BACKYARD SECRET – LITTLE-KNOWN NEST PREDATORS

        Now that the nesting season is in full swing, the birds nesting in our backyards face formidable odds trying to fledge their young. As we all know, many nesting attempts end in failure due the fact predators eat both eggs and young.
       A list of the better-known nest predators includes crows, blue jays, raccoons, rat snakes, and opossums. However, there are a number of other animals that also eat eggs and/or nestlings. For example, would you believe deer mice, flying squirrels, and eastern chipmunks also raid bird nests?
      I find it amazing that cardinals, mockingbirds, bluebirds, and other backyard nesters are able to raise as many young as they do.