SURPRISED TO SEE A MONARCH ON A FROSTY MORNING

         Today I awoke to a thermometer reading of 32˚F. This marks the first day the temperature has plummeted to the freezing mark this fall.  While I do not have any idea how long the temperature hovered this low, I know it could not have been too long since none of the plants flowering in my backyard showed any signs of frost damage.

When I ventured outside for the first time on this sunny, cool day the temperature had risen to 57˚.  Much to my surprise the first creature I saw this morning was a monarch butterfly.  The monarch was nectaring on the purple blossoms displayed on two butterfly bushes.

Needless to say, I was startled to see a monarch on such a cold morning since even on a sunny day, monarchs are rarely seen when the air temperature is in the 50s.  When it is cloudy, this magnificent butterfly often does not take to the air until the air temperature reaches 60˚.  That being the case how was this butterfly out and about feeding?

More than likely it must have spent the night roosting nearby in a location where the temperature remained above freezing.

In autumn, when monarchs are passing through the south on their way to Mexico they seem to prefer to roost in pecan and oak trees; especially those growing close to a nearby source of nectar. These trees offer protection from the wind and their dense foliage provide places to roost that at are often warmer than the air temperature.

During the past few years, I have noticed that late in the afternoon during the monarch migration, monarchs will nectar on one particular butterfly bush growing on the north side of my home.  Just beyond my driveway stand three water oaks.  Several times as the sunlight melted away, the monarchs would flutter up into the oaks and vanish from sight.  While I am not positive this is their nighttime roost, I suspect it is.

Wherever the monarch I saw this morning roosted, it could not move until the temperature rose above 40˚.  As the temperature slowly climbed, the butterfly had to crawl to a sunny spot and open its wings and bask in the warming rays of the sun.  The butterfly’s black scales and abdomen enabled to it to absorb the heat needed to raise its body temperature.  Once its flight muscles reached 55˚ degrees, the monarch was capable of flight.

I am certain the monarch I saw this morning is now miles away from my backyard.  As the sun begins to dip below the horizon this afternoon, I hope it finds another suitable roost site and the night will not be as chilly as it was last night in Monroe County.

GRAY SQUIRRELS ARE GREAT ATHLETES

      For those of us that enjoy feeding birds and other wildlife in our yards, it will come as no surprise that the gray squirrel is one of the most accomplished animal athletes living just outside our backdoor. Let’s take a quick look at a few examples of this animal’s remarkable athletic prowess.

       If a cat or dog surprises a gray squirrel while it is foraging for seeds beneath one of our feeders, it can run away from this domestic predator at a speed of 14 mph. Once it reaches a nearby tree it can then scamper up the tree at 12 mph.

       Gray squirrels are also great jumpers. They can leap six feet or more from one branch or tree to another. They can also vault a distance of 16 feet when dropping down from one limb to another. In addition, a squirrel can spring vertically at least five feet high. To put this accomplishment in perspective, if we had this ability, we could leap upward from a sidewalk to the top of a five-story building.

       Is it any wonder, gray squirrels are prospering amid all of the threats posed by humans and their pets in backyards, cities and towns across the Peach State?

BLUEBIRDS NEED WINTER ROOST SITES

        Since the weather has abruptly changed from being more like autumn than summer, my wife and I have been seeing eastern bluebirds inspecting some of our nesting boxes.  I am certain the birds are not checking out potential nesting sites–it is much too early for that.  The birds may be just curious, or perhaps the onset of cold nights has triggered a search for suitable roost sites.

       In addition to the bluebird, a number of familiar backyard birds also roost in cavities and nesting boxes including screech owls, woodpeckers, tufted titmice, brown-headed nuthatches, and Carolina chickadees.  In the case of the bluebird, they typically roost alone in warm weather.  However, when temperatures dip below freezing, a cavity or nesting box might harbor anywhere from a couple to more than 20 bluebirds. 

       The advantage of nesting together is the birds share their body heat.  During an extremely frigid night, the additional heat offered by a group of roosting birds may spell the difference between life and death.

       With that in mind, as we enter the harshest portion of the year, keep an eye on your nest boxes.  There is a good chance one more bluebirds or other cavity-nesting birds are roosting in a box erected to provide a place for them to nest.

       The best times to look for such activity is late in the afternoon when the birds are going to roost, or first thing in the morning when they are leaving for a day of foraging.

       You can also peek inside a box.  If you see some downy feathers scattered about the bottom of a box, chances are birds are roosting there.

WHAT NATIVE PLANT SEEDS ARE IN THE TUFTED TITMOUSE’S WINTER DIET?

       Throughout the winter one of the most frequent visitors to our backyard feeders is the tufted titmouse.   Invariable these birds fly in snatch a single sunflower seed and then fly off to either cache it away for another day or chisel it open with their sharp black beak. As such, it is easy to believe sunflower seeds are the only seeds consumed by this feisty songbird. The truth of the matter is these permanent residents eat a surprising variety of wild seeds.

       Studies have shown that plant material (mainly seeds) comprise anywhere from 70 to 75 percent of the tufted titmouse’s winter diet. In addition to the sunflower seeds we enthusiatically provide them they also gobble up the seeds of American beech, locust, loblolly and longleaf pine, hickory and oak (such as water, live, post, turkey willow).

       It should be noted they also dine on the seeds of the pecan (not native to Georgia).

FEMALE MONARCHS ARE BETTER FLIERS THAN MALES

      One event that backyard wildlife enthusiasts look forward to each autumn is the migration of the monarch butterfly. During the fall of the year, these beautiful butterflies stop and feed in our backyards as they make their way to their winter home in Mexico. This epic flight takes a tremendous toll on these gossamer-winged insects.

       Ever since it became apparent monarch populations have plummeted to a fraction of what they once were, researchers have been scrambling to learn as much as they can about this fascinating insect. The results of one such study recently conducted by University of Georgia, Odum School of Ecology researchers provide us with answers as to why female monarchs are better fliers.

       When the UGA research team compared the wings of male and female monarchs, they discovered some notable differences. It seems the females’ wings are thicker, and somewhat smaller. In addition, their flight muscles are smaller and lighter.

       One might think having larger and heavier wing muscles, coupled with thinner and lighter wings would benefit the males. Actually, the reverse is true. The males’ larger and thinner wings are more susceptible to damage. Their wings also forced to bear more weight per square inch than those of the females.

       In essence, this means female monarchs are more efficient fliers than males. This, in turn, enhances the chances of the females surviving the autumn migration.

BACKYARD SECRET—BLUEBIRDS ARE MORE COMMON IN GEORGIA IN WINTER THAN AT ANY OTHER TIME OF THE YEAR

         Here in the Peach State, the eastern bluebird is often associated with spring and summer. This is the breeding season for the gorgeous blue-colored bird–a bird that nests in all of Georgia’s 159 counties. Although thousands of bluebirds nest throughout the state, the total size of the bluebird population flying about during these months pales in comparison to the numbers of birds that winter here.

        This is because Georgia is a favorite winter home to thousands of bluebirds that migrate here from their breeding grounds far to the north. Here they intermingle with our resident bluebirds. When this happens, our bluebird population swells significantly. How much does it increase? A study conducted just south of Georgia offers some insight into this matter. Researchers in the Tallahassee area found that during the winter the local bluebird population in their study area increased 100 percent.

QUESTIONS CONCERNING CREPE MYRTLE

       When I posted a blog concerning the value of crepe myrtle to wildlife, a blogger posed her concern that I had wrongfully maligned this popular ornamental, and wondered what the basis of my opinion was.

       It seems when crepe myrtle is blooming in her yard bees converge on the plant’s colorful flowers. She went on the say that when she deadheads the first crop of blooms to encourage a second blooming, when a new crop of blossoms bursts forth the bees return to once again feast.

       To say the least, I was surprised to learn that the bees in her backyard are drawn to crepe myrtle blossoms in large numbers. The crepe myrtles that grow in my neck of the woods are rarely visited by bees. This could be explained by the fact that she grows varieties such as Lipan, Tuscarora, and Dynamite. I am not familiar with them; they may produce an abundance of pollen and/or nectar. I do not know the name of the crepe myrtle rooted in my yard; however, I am sure it does not produce much of value to pollinators. I have seen wild pollinators feeding on the honeydew secreted by the aphids that live on the plants.

       I should also mention I have seen American goldfinches eat crepe myrtle seeds.

       In addition to producing little food, crepe myrtle is an exotic plant is invasive in many sections of Georgia. When it “walks away” from the place where it is planted, it can usurp habitat originally occupied by native plants. Typically, the native plants it supplants are of more value to wildlife than exotics.

       I am not the only wildlife biologist that does not consider crepe myrtle to be a great wildlife plant. Here is what Dr. Doug Tallamy, professor and chair of the University of Delaware’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, has to say about crepe myrtle, “Crepe myrtle is an enormously popular landscape plant because it has a nice habit, beautiful flowers, and lovely bark. But it contribute almost nothing to the food webs in your garden. If every plant is your yard were a crepe myrtle, you would have no food webs, and, thus, no birds, butterflies or other beneficial wildlife”

       If you enjoy the beauty offered by crepe myrtles in your yard, and the varieties you plant provide bees and other wildlife with food, continue to cultivate them. Meanwhile, plant some native plants that evolved alongside the native pollinators and other wildlife in your area. If you do, I think you will find they will be of great value to your backyard wildlife neighbors. In addition, you will be contributing to restoring the natural ecology of your yard.

THE VANGUARD OF THE MONARCH MIGRATION HAS REACHED MIDDLE GEORGIA

      Late last week the first monarch of the fall fluttered into the Johnson backyard. Since that time, I have seen monarchs seven more times. Seeing these handsome orange and black butterflies is a sure sign the vanguard of the 2019 autumn migration has reached Middle Georgia. Although I am elated to see these amazing butterflies, I fear that this year these long-distance migrants will have a difficult time finding enough food to fuel their flight on south.

       The reason for my concern is for many weeks we have been suffering through a terrible drought. This severe weather has stressed or killed plants growing across the rolling southern Piedmont countryside and in backyards alike. This has significantly reduced the amount of nectar available to monarchs and bumblebees and other nectar feeders.

       If you doubt this, assess the availability of nectar in your own backyard. Even in a good year, fewer nectar plants are blooming in most backyards in autumn than during the summer. This year, however, this year’s drought has made the situation much worse.

       With that in mind, the yards that will offer these hardy migrants the most nectar are those that feature plants that do not require a lot of water. If there is a paucity of such nectar sources in your yard, I hope you will make an effort to remedy this situation.

       One simple way to enhance the availability of nectar plants in your backyard is to grow plants in containers. For example, during the summer my wife sows zinnia seeds in pots sitting on our deck. As a result, currently some of our plants most visited by monarchs, gulf fritillaries and other nectar feeders are zinnias.

       Here is a list of the plants growing about our yard that are currently visiting in the Johnson backyard: lantana, ageratum, butterfly bush, scarlet sage, zinnia, goldenrod, and verbena.

       Keep in mind, providing food for southbound monarchs is every bit as important as offering them an abundance of host plants.

BUTTERFLY FEEDERS

       Not too long ago, one of our blog followers wrote that she had recently purchased a butterfly feeder and was requesting tips that might help her attract butterflies to her new feeder. 

       I must admit that over the years I have tried several different models of butterfly feeders in my yard.  Each one was designed to offer the insects a sugar water solution.  In spite of the fact I placed the feeders in a variety of locations, I was not able to attract a single butterfly to any of them.

       That being said, butterfly feeders do work for lots of folks.  With that in mind, I am convinced I have yet to find the right feeder, location, and/or food that appeals to these beautiful insects in my neck of the woods.  Consequently, here is a brief list of some the techniques others have employed to attract butterflies to their backyards:

       ● Have realistic expectations; the butterflies that most often visit feeders are those that prefer eating dining on such things as animal droppings, tree sap, and rotting fruit.  Therefore, you are more apt to attract a pearly-eye, red admiral, or question mark to your feeder than an Eastern tiger swallowtail or one of the sulphur butterflies.

      ● Carefully follow the directions provided with your feeder.  For example, some of the feeders I have tried recommended sugar solutions stronger than the formula commonly used to feed hummingbirds.

     ● It is always a good idea to change the solution in your feeder after a rain.  Rainfall can seep into the feeder and dilute the fluid’s sugar content.

    ● Protect your feeder from an ant invasion.  As such, use the same technique you employ to thwart ants from reaching your hummingbird feeders.

   ● Keep your feeder clean.  As is the case with hummingbird feeders, fungi and bacteria can spoil butterfly nectar.

  ● Finally, if you are unable to attract butterflies to your feeder, move it to another location.

       If you have been successful in attracting butterflies to a butterfly feeder in your backyard, please let us know what works for you.  I am sure that many folks would love to know the secret to your success.

ALERT: FALL MIGRANTS ARE STILL PASSING THROUGH OUR BACKYARDS

        When October arrives, many of the songbirds such as the orchard orioles that entertained us with their beauty and songs during much of the spring and summer have long since passed on south.  Fortunately, permanent residents such as mockingbirds, cardinals, towhees, Carolina wrens and others still offer us great backyard wildlife viewing opportunities.  However, over the past week or so a couple of our fellow bloggers have taken the time to report their sightings of migrating songbirds that at still passing through the Peach State.

       Ron Lee has been hosting rose-breasted grosbeaks at his feeder during the past several days.  

       At the same time, Walter Brown was lucky enough to see a female American redstart and several yellow-throated vireos.

       If you would like to increase your chances of spotting a southbound migrant or two just outside your backdoor, there are a couple of things you can do.  For example, keep your feeders stocked with seed (rose-breasted grosbeaks are particularly fond on sunflower seeds). 

       However, more different species of birds can be drawn to your backyard with water than seeds.  With that in mind, keep birdbaths full of clean water.  Better yet, install a mister or dripper over your birdbath.  Moving water acts like a bird magnet.

       If you are successful in attracting migrants to your personal wildlife haven during the next few weeks, please let me know.  I am sure many other bloggers will also love to hear of your success.