BACKYARD SECRET: THE CHIPPING SPARROW WAS ONCE CALLED THE HAIR BIRD

Back in the day when horses were our main form of transportation, the chipping sparrow was called the hair bird because horse hairs were often found woven into their nests.  Nowadays since horses have given way to cars, chipping sparrows rarely use horsehair to construct their nests anymore.  However, deer and cow hair are sometimes found in the nests of this common sparrow.

CLOUDLESS SULPHURS SWARMING TURK’S CAP

        The cloudless sulphur is a common resident in my backyard.  However, from late summer into fall, it is one of the most abundant butterflies my wife and I see nectaring at the flowers growing in our flowerbeds.  However, the numbers of cloudless sulphurs we spot throughout most of the spring and summer pale in comparison to what we are seeing right now.

        A couple of days ago, as soon as I stepped out onto my deck, my eyes were immediately drawn to all of the cloudless sulphurs feeding or hovering above our Turk’s cap.  When I approached the plant it seemed cloudless sulphurs were everywhere.  This prompted me to try to count the multitude of butterflies that had congregated on this single, sprawling shrub.  This proved to be quite a chore, as I could not see the entire plant at one time.  However, after several attempts the best that I could do was count at least 28 of the large, bright yellow butterflies.

        The cloudless sulphurs had descended on this perennial shrub to feed on the nectar harbored in its brilliant red, swirled flowers.  

        Until recently, the clear yellow butterflies had to share this bounty of nectar with a swarm of ruby-throated hummingbirds.  In fact, before most of these amazing little birds moved on south toward their winter homes, rubythroats far outnumbered cloudless sulphurs dining at this drought-resistant shrub.

        This sight of so many clear yellow butterflies feeding at the stunning red flowers against a backdrop of dark green leaves is truly breathtaking.  However, as much as I wish this spectacle would not end, I know, from experience, I had better enjoy it while I can. Soon many of these butterflies will continue towards their winter home.

        If you want to set the stage for this colorful event in your backyard, make a point of adding Turk’s cap to your home landscape.  If you do plant Turk’s cap in your yard, have a little patience.  There is no way you are going to attract large numbers of cloudless sulphurs right away.  In my case, as the shrub grew larger from year to year, it produced more blossoms, which, in turn, caught the attention of more cloudless sulphurs.

        If you are eventually as successful in attracting as many cloudless sulphurs as I have been, I am certain you will feel your patience was handsomely rewarded.

CHANGING WATER IN ANT MOTES HELPS THWART THE SPREAD OF WEST NILE VIRUS

       The recent news of two cases of West Nile virus being diagnosed in the Georgia has heightened the fear that this dreaded disease might show up in our neighborhoods.

       Public health officials have advised that, since the disease is spread by mosquitoes, we can all help thwart the disease is by reducing the places where mosquitoes lay their eggs. One of the easiest ways for homeowners to accomplish this is by ensure water is does not collecting in open containers.  When folks police their yards for buckets and other containers that collect water, they often overlook a potential place of mosquitoes to lay their eggs that is hiding in plain sight.  What I am referring to are ant motes.     

       For years, ant motes have been used to prevent ants from converging on hummingbird feeders.  In case you are not familiar with an ant mote, it looks much like the plastic lid of an aerosol can.  A wire runs through the center of the bottom of the mote.  It is hung, with the open end of the mote facing up, between a feeder and a shepherds hook or other support.  Once in place it is filled with water.  It works because ants trying to reach a feeder will not swim across the water in the mote. The downside of this simple device is it can also serve as a great place for mosquitoes to lay their eggs.  Consequently, if we want to protect our hummingbird feeders from ants and not encourage mosquitoes that might potentially carry West Nile virus, all we have to do is to empty the water in a mote every two to three days.  This will prevent mosquito larvae swimming about in an ant mote from developing into adult mosquitoes.

RAT SNAKE FOUND KINKING IN BACKYARD

        You never know what you are going to find in your backyard.  An example of this is a snake Beverly Castleberry recently encountered a couple of weeks ago in her yard. 

       This snake was black and measured roughly three feet long. Although it looked like a black rat snake, the snake’s skin appeared to be braided. (Zoom in on the photo to see the kinks). 

 Soon after making her discovery, Beverly sent me a picture of this unusual snake.  After examining the picture, I was certain I had never seen anything like it. 

       As it turned out, the snake was indeed a black rat snake.  What made it appear so different is it was exhibiting a behavior called kinking.  The black rat snake is one of several snakes that assume this bizarre posture.  When threatened, rat snakes sometimes don this folded or braided pose as a form of camouflage.  Supposedly, to a potential predator, a kinked snake looks like nothing more than a stick, and will pass on by without attacking the motionless reptile.

       Thanks Beverly for sharing your experience and picture with other backyard wildlife enthusiasts.

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.