THE JUNIPER HAIRSTREAK CAN BE SEEN IN OUR BACKYARDS

       The juniper hairstreak is one of our more elusive butterflies; in spite of the fact, it ranges across most of the state except in portions of Southwest Georgia.  This is unfortunate because this small (wingspan roughly one-inch), butterfly possesses unique beauty.  When you see a juniper hairstreak, the thing that jumps out at you is the jewel-like olive green color that covers most of its wings. 

       Juniper hairstreaks are often difficult to find anywhere, let alone in backyards.  However, last summer I saw more juniper hairstreaks in my yard than I had seen in my entire life.  My good fortune is appears linked to my transplanting mountain mint plants in four locations in my backyard.  During much of August 2020, I could consistently find juniper hairstreaks nectaring at the mountain mint’s tiny blooms.

       Prior to last summer, I would only occasionally find juniper hairstreaks nectaring on the blossoms of white clover in my backyard.  However, I would often go a year or more without seeing one.

JUNIPER HAIRSTREAK ON MOUNTAIN MINT

       I did not understand why this is the case since several large red cedars grow in my large backyard.  Red cedar is the juniper hairstreak’s host plant.  It seems juniper hairstreaks do not venture far from the trees, preferring instead to spend the majority of its time in the trees aromatic foliage. 

       In fact, I have often read that the best way to see a juniper hairstreak is to flush one by shaking a limb or tossing a dead branch in the into the canopy of a red cedar.  Although I have tried this trick many times, it only worked once.

       The juniper hairstreak nectars on a variety of flowering plants, although for some reason, I have never seen a juniper hairstreak feed on any of the large array of nectar-bearing flowers in my yard.  That is until I planted mountain mint.

       If you long to see a juniper hairstreak and red cedars grow nearby, you might want to plant mountain mint in your yard.  The native is hardy an easy to grow.  If you do add this plant to your yard, set it out in a place where it will not compete with other nectar plants, as it will spread.

       Once you spot the first juniper hairstreak in your yard, you will wish you had made its acquaintance a long time ago.

TURKEY VULTURES CAN SEEMINGLY GLIDE FOREVER

       There are no hard and fast rules as to what can be included on a person’s yard list.  I have friends that count every bird they can see while standing in their yard.  Others list only those birds that land on their property.  I am one of those that list all of the birds that either land or pass through the air space above their yard.  Consequently, although I have never seen a turkey vulture land in my yard, it has earned its way on my list because it routinely flies through the air space above the Johnson homestead.

       However, to say it flies above my yard is like saying Ted Williams was a baseball player.  The truth of the matter is Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters of all time.  By the same token, the turkey vulture’s ability to glide above the ground seemingly forever is unmatched by any other Georgia bird.

       Ornithologists tell us that the turkey vulture can actually glide for up to six hours without once flapping its wings.  During this time its shadow can pass over 200 miles of the Georgia countryside.  Sometimes the bird flies low enough over our backyards for us to see its distinctive red head.  At other times, it can soar above the clouds at elevations of 20,000 feet or more.

       These are amazing fetes for a bird with a six-foot wingspan yet only weighs up to four pounds.

       I cannot count the number of times I have stopped working in the yard just to watch a turkey vulture glide over holding its wings in a shallow V above its head.  Often when this happens, for a brief moment, my imagination takes flight and I find myself wishing that I could soar like a turkey vulture.  Then reality sets in I return to the reality that I will forever remain earthbound.     However, in my mind, any bird that can take me on a flight of fancy without ever touching down in my yard deserves to be on my yard list.

FEEDING BROWN THRASHERS

       Attracting brown thrashers to feeders is a difficult proposition.  However, as tough as it is nowadays, during the early 20th century, sighting brown thrashers eating at feeders was an extremely rare event.

       One of the difficulties we face trying to entice the birds to our feeders is brown thrashers prefer to feed on the ground.  In fact, they rarely visit hanging feeders at all.  However, they will sometimes feed on feeding tables and platform feeders.

       The birds that do show up at our feeders seem to prefer dining on mixed seed and millet scattered on the ground.  Occasionally they will also dine on the likes of black-oil sunflower seeds, cracked corn, millet, and wheat.  Recently I saw a brown thrasher fly off with a small piece of bread.

           BROWN TRASHER AT BIRD PUDDING

       The one food that the brown thrashers in my yard favor above all others is a bird pudding laced with peanuts and peanut butter.  In fact, I would so far as to say that well more 90 percent of the times I have watched brown thrashers visiting my bird feeding area they fed on this greasy food. 

THE REST OF THE WOODPECKER BACKYARD SECRET

       After reading my latest post concerning how much force a pileated woodpecker can endure without harming itself a fellow blogger chastised me for not explaining how this is possible.  In hindsight, I indeed did leave a major part of the story untold.

       There is no simple answer to this question.  The truth of the matter is a number different factors work together to enable a woodpecker is able to hammer a tree with a force some 1,000 times the force of gravity without injuring itself.  To begin with, the woodpecker’s brain is oriented in such a manner that it is better able to absorb force from the front.  In comparison, the human brain is far better able to cope with forces from below.  The woodpecker’s brain also fits tightly into its cranium.  This prevents the brain from easily moving about.  The woodpecker’s aspect of the woodpecker’s hyoid bone also plays a critical role.  This bone actually loops around the head of the woodpecker and helps dampen the force exerted on the bird when it hammers into the wood of a tree.  A number of “spongy” plate-like bones found in different spots in the skull help spread out the force of a hammer-like blow.

       The design of the bill is also important.  Upon close examination it is obvious that the lower bill is a bit larger that the upper bill.  Why is this important?  Since the upper mandible is shorter than the lower mandible the force of the bill striking the wood passes through lower jaw before it reaches the bird’s skull.  Whereas the force exerted on the upper bill is cushioned by spongy bones found at its base.

       The fact that the woodpecker’s chisel-like bill is self-sharpening is also an important asset.  Since is bird’s bill is always sharp the bird can hammer into wood using less force than would be required if its bill was dull. 

       It is also important that the woodpecker make every attempt to strike its bill directly at the wood.  This helps ensure that the force of the strike originates from the same direction.

       It is also important that woodpeckers possess strong neck muscles.

       Research conducted by Chinese scientists was able to quantify how successful the complex design of the woodpecker’s head is in muting the extremely high forces it has to withstand.  Their findings demonstrated that these modifications are so effective in transferring forces down the woodpecker’s body the head receives only 0.3 percent of the initial force of a blow.  That is remarkable.

      

BACKYARD SECRET: NO INJURIES FOR PILEATED WOODPECKER

       When a pileated woodpecker is drumming against a tree, it generates a huge amount of force.  A human would experience the same amount of force if they were moving at a speed of 16 mph and smashed headfirst into a wall.

       If this happened to one of us, we would undoubtedly suffer a number of serious head and neck injuries including a concussion.  Yet the pileated woodpecker can drum against trees 17,000 times per day without suffering any injury whatsoever.

DO AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES PREFER UPSIDE DOWN FEEDERS?

 

       One of the benefits of feeding birds during the summer is that it enhances our chances of seeing male American goldfinches decked out in their striking black and yellow breeding plumage.  If you feed these beautiful birds at this time of the year, do you offer them nyger (thistle) seeds in a traditional upright feeder or one that requires them to feed while hanging upside down?

       Over the years, I have fed nyger seeds to goldfinches in feeders that require them to display their considerable acrobatic skills to pluck the seeds from the feeders by clinging to the feeders above the feeding portals.  More frequently, however, I employ feeders that allow them to feed while they are perched upright.  American goldfinches have used both feeder designs.

       However, I have often wondered whether American goldfinches prefer feeding from one type of feeder or the other.  Apparently, others think about such issues too since research has focused on this very subject.  According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, these studies have found that, when given a choice they prefer to feed while standing upright.

       The whole idea behind suet and nyger feeders designing feeders to be accessed while bird hang upside  down is to discourage unwanted birds such as starlings, grackles, and blackbirds from gorging on the food.  Fortunately, I have never found the need to thwart them from eating this luxury menu item.  Consequently, since I now know American goldfinches prefer feeders that allow them to stand upright as they feed, I am going use only nyger feeders that permit them to do so.  Perhaps this will encourage a few more American goldfinches to visit my backyard this summer.  If it doesn’t, I can always pull the feeders that require the birds to hang upside down feed out of storage and once again offer the goldfinches a choice as to where they want to dine.

BACKYARD SECRET–HUMMINGBIRD FEEDERS CAN HELP SUPPLY SUGAR BUT NOT REPLACE FLOWER NECTAR

       According to some reports, in backyard settings, hummingbird feeders are capable of daily supplying hummingbirds with the same amount of sugar produced by 2,000-5,000 flowers.  While this is indeed amazing, hummingbird fanciers should not lose sight of the fact the sugar water offered in feeders cannot replace nectar produced by flowers.  This is because naturally manufactured nectar is laden with nutrients and minerals needed by these tiny birds to stay in top physical condition.

       Attempts to maintain captive hummingbirds on sugar water alone have not been successful.

A MEMORABLE ENCOUNTER WITH A MISSISSIPPI KITE

       We all have our share of memorable encountered with wildlife in our backyards.  However, when my daughter called yesterday to relate what had just happened to her, I was amazed–it was unlike anything I had ever heard of before.

       This wildlife encounter took place in one of the most unlikely places imaginable.  She lives in a large subdivision in Columbia County just west of Augusta.  In spite of the fact little wildlife habitat exists in this community; over the years she has been able to attract an amazing array of wild critters.  In fact, I tease her over the fact that she often sees wildlife that rarely venture into my backyard located in the country.

       It seems that around 11:00 a.m. on 3 July, as she was mowing her front yard she noticed that she was flushing both grasshoppers and dragonflies.  Suddenly she saw the shadow of a large bird flying over her head.  Looking up she was surprised to see a Mississippi kite flying back and forth.  She had seen Mississippi kites flying high above her yard on a number of occasions.  What made this event different was this bird was flying only fifteen feet or so above the lawn.  The bird was so close she could peer into the bird’s eyes as well as see that the talon-tipped toes on its yellow feet spread wide-open ready to capture prey.

       Some people would be unnerved to see a bird with a 44-inch wingspan flying so close to them.  Such an experience might cause them to conjure up scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film, The Birds.

       Never one to be afraid of wildlife, she simply wondered why the bird was flying so close to her.  Then when to bird swooped down to catch an insect, she quickly realized that the Mississippi kite was actually hunting.  Apparently, it noticed the large insects she was flushing with each pass of her lawnmower, and flew closer to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity.

       Mississippi kites feed primarily on large insects such as dragonflies, grasshoppers, beetles, cicadas, bees, and moths.  Small mammals, snakes, lizards, and birds are also eaten from time to time.  Using their strong feet, Mississippi kites capture and eat their prey on the wing.  However, they sometimes will even hunt from a perch or walk about on the ground trying to catch food.

       In times past, Mississippi kites would feed on insects that took to the air as bison grazed prairie grazes.  Nowadays they will follow livestock and mowing machines and take advantage of the insects they flush.  However, until now, I had never heard of a Mississippi kite hunting above a person mowing their lawn.

       If you have an open yard and live anywhere in Georgia’s Coastal Plain to just north of the Fall Line (the birds’ primary nesting range in Georgia), you just might look up one early summer day and see a Mississippi kite following you around the yard.  If you do, don’t panic; just enjoy a truly rare and memorable wildlife encounter.

BE ON THE LOOK OUT FOR YOUNG HUMMINGBIRDS VISITING YOUR FEEDERS

       As we all know, summer is the peak of the ruby-throated hummingbird season.  During the next two and a half months, we will see more hummingbirds at our feeders than at any other time of the year.  These birds are adult males and females and their young.  Have you ever wondered if it is possible to adult from immature rubythroats?

       Although we can all tell an adult male rubythroat (it has a red gorget) from a female (white throat), unless you capture the females and closely examine their bills, it is next to impossible to separate immature from adult females.  Such is not the case with the young males. 

       The throats of immature male ruby-throated hummingbirds are marked with a series of dark feathers arranged in rows that extend down the neck of the bird.  Typically, by August one or two red gorget feathers will appear in the center of the bird’s throat.  These feathers remind me of the stick pen commonly used by men to decorate their ties.  As time goes on, more red feathers appear near the center of the young male’s throat.  By the time, the hummingbirds leave in September a young male may display twenty or more gorget feathers in addition to the distinctive lines of spots.  When he returns next spring, the dark streaks on its throat will have disappeared and he will sport a full red gorget.

       Each summer I find it interested to see when I see the first hatching year male hummingbird finally arrives at my feeders.  It is a sign that hummingbird numbers are on the upswing.

IT IS POSSIBLE TO TELL ONE BLUE JAY FROM ANOTHER

        I have long been fascinated with trying to tell one individual bird of the same species from another.  When it comes to some species, the only way this is possible is when one bird has an unusual feather (e.g. color, feather, injury) that distinguishes it from others of its species.  In other cases, birds of the same species may exhibit slight variations in their basic color patterns.  For example, a few weeks ago I posted a blog that discussed a technique that allows an observer to identify one male rose-breasted grosbeak from another by the subtle differences in their red chevrons.  A similar technique allows you to tell one blue jay from another.

       The blue jay is undoubtedly one of our most easily recognized birds.  All blue jays seem to appear exactly alike.  However, if you take the time to study the black necklace-like pattern displayed across the bird’s throat, face, and nape, it becomes apparent that this pattern varies widely between blue jays.  In fact, once you begin focusing on this feature, you will wonder why you never noticed these differences throughout the many years that you have been watching the comings and goings of blue jays in your backyard.

       A quick way for you to appreciate this fact is to pull up a collection of blue jay photos on your computer.  If you do, in a matter of seconds, it becomes apparent that each blue jay has its own unique black necklace.

       If you photograph the blue jays visiting your birdbath and feeder, don’t be surprised if you discover you are hosting more blue jays than you ever realized.