Archive | October 2016


Cardinal waits his turn

Cardinal waits his turn

Most of Georgia is suffering through drought conditions. For example, in my neck of the woods, not a drop of rain has fallen on my yard during the past 42 days. When it is this dry, our backyard birds and other wildlife need water to bathe and drink more than ever before.

With this in mind, if you want to do something that will be a tremendous benefit your bird neighbors, and provide you with excellent bird watching opportunities, keep that birdbath that has been bone dry most of the summer full of fresh, clean water.

If you do not have a birdbath, buy one. The best birdbaths are shallow (one to one and half-inches deep).

If you don’t want to go to the expense of buying a birdbath, common items such as trashcan lids, pie and cookie pans, and plant saucers, can be used as substitutes.

It is always a good idea to place a birdbath fifteen or more feet from a shrub or other cover, as this will reduce the chances that hungry predators will capture the birds drawn to your backyard oasis.

It is important to keep a birdbaths clean. Often birds foul the water by leaving behind feathers and droppings. In addition, algae often grow in a birdbath when the water is not regularly changed. This poses a health risk to the birds. With that in mind, periodically clean your birdbath with a stiff brush and weak bleach and water solution (one part bleach to ten parts water). After cleaning the birdbath, thoroughly rinse it out before refilling.

With weather conditions this arid, once you fill up a birdbath, it should not take long before the first of what will prove to be a steady stream of birds will begin arriving. These visitors will include cardinals, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, brown thrashers, chipping sparrows, eastern towhees, eastern bluebirds, northern flickers, brown-headed nuthatches, and many others.

During the past few weeks, my wife and I have been amazed how many and often birds have used our four birdbaths. I have seen up to six species of birds bathing and drinking at the same time.

Right now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, creating a backyard oasis is arguably the single most important thing that you can do for your bird neighbors.



Cardinal partaking on the American Beautyberry plant

Cardinal partaking on the American Beautyberry plant

Throughout most of the year, the American beautyberry is a native shrub that goes unnoticed. However, from the moment its fruits begin to ripen in late summer, birds and humans find them impossible to ignore.

The American beautyberry’s gaudy, bright lavender-colored fruit seemingly advertise themselves to resident and migratory birds alike. When migrating songbirds stop and begin looking for food to fuel their fall migration, being able to find nutritious food quickly is extremely important. This enables the birds to expend a minimum amount of energy and time before resuming their southward trek.

Since beautyberries will remain on the shrub well into winter, they also provide food for birds when it is often scarce.

Beautyberries are eaten by a number of our backyard favorites such as American Robins, Baltimore Orioles, Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Towhees, Wood Thrushes, Northern Cardinals, Gray Catbirds, and Brown Thrashers.

In exchange for serving as a source of food for birds, the plants have their seeds scattered widely when the feathered diners expel them in their droppings.

In my yard, mockingbirds vigorously defend fruit-laden American beautyberry plants from other birds. Late one summer, two Baltimore Orioles landed on a hummingbird feeder hanging outside my office. Their sudden appearance provided me with a perfect opportunity to photograph these handsome birds. However, just as I was about to snap my first picture, a mockingbird, that had been defending a nearby beautyberry bush, swooped down on the orioles and scared them away.

In backyard settings, American beautyberries can be planted in a shrubby border or as an occasional shrub.

They can be grown in a wide range of soils, as well as in both partial shade and full sun. In addition, they require much less water than many ornamental plants. In my yard, they are growing in sunny locations with their roots anchored in dry, hard Georgia red clay.

Most beautyberry plantings are established using containerized plants or pass-along plants obtained from a friend. Beautyberry plants can, however, be propagated from both cuttings and seeds.

Beautyberries typically grow four-feet tall in shade and eight-feet tall in full sun. Although it is not necessary to prune the plant, if pruning carried out in late winter, berry yields will be increased since berries are produced on new wood.

The plant’s attractive dark-green foliage turns yellow to reddish-purple in autumn.

The beautyberry’s small flowers are pale, lilac-colored. However, its unusual, brightly colored berries and pleasing fall foliage make it an attractive landscape planting. As such, if you are looking for wildlife food plant that will also provide a touch of unusual fall color, the American beautyberry may just be the ticket.







Did you know the eastern phoebe was the first bird banded in North America? This historical event took place in 1803 when John James Audubon placed silver threads on phoebe nestlings. The following spring Audubon found two of the birds carrying silver threads nesting close to where they were banded.



Ailanthus Webworm moth (Atteva aurea)

One of the prettiest insects that can currently be seen in your garden is an extremely small moth named the ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea).

This mite is less than a half inch long and has a wingspan of roughly an inch. However, what it lacks in size, it more than makes up in beauty. This slender orange moth is distinctively marked with four bands. Each band is comprised of tiny irregular black-bordered, light-yellow squares.

Since this day-flying moth produces several generations (flights) a year, you are likely to see it visiting your flowers from spring through fall. I spot them in autumn more than at any other time of the year. Currently, I am most often find this little jewel feeding on goldenrod.

Although this moth is native to South Florida, it has expanded its range throughout most of the United States. This range expansion was brought about by the introduction of the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima). This import from china has been widely planted in both urban and suburban areas across the country. Sadly, this import has proven to be highly invasive. As a result, it has become naturalized in Georgia and elsewhere.

It seems that the ailanthus webworm moth’s main host plant is the paradisetree (Simarouba glauca). However, as it turns out, ailanthus webworm moths adopted the tree of heaven as host plant. This allowed the tiny moth to follow the tree of heaven across America.





Last week I wrote that rose-breasted grosbeaks are currently migrating southward through the Peach State.  A couple of days ago, a friend responded with a note telling me that she and her husband were hosting both rose-breasted grosbeaks and zebra longwings in their backyard. That is truly something to cheer about!

       The zebra longwing (also referred to as the zebra heliconian) is the state butterfly of Florida. It is also a permanent resident in the Sunshine State.  However, each summer some zebra heliconians venture far into Georgia.  When they appear, they are usually seen in mid to late summer.

       This butterfly is most often spotted in the Coastal Plain; however, it will occasionally venture into the Piedmont.  I see one in Monroe County every few years or so.

       If you have never seen one of these distinctively marked butterflies, you are in for a real treat.  Their wings do not have what you would probably characterize as being a butterfly shape; instead they are elongated. 

       The butterfly’s 3-3.5-inch black wings are marked with pale yellow stripes.  The zebra longwing uses these long wings to leisurely glide across your yard and travel long distances.

       This butterfly is very different from most other butterflies in a number of ways. Perhaps the most intriguing difference is that it has the ability to eat pollen.  Most other butterflies eat nectar, plant juices, and the like, but not pollen.   

       In addition, whereas most of our butterflies live only a few days or months, the zebra can live up to six months. 

       In addition, they gather at communal roosts for the night.  These roosts are sometimes used for months on end.  They often roost on branches or Spanish moss.

       On the few occasions that I have seen this yellow and black butterfly, it was visiting lantana.

       If you have seen both zebra heliconians and rose-breasted grosbeaks this year, please let me know.  Hosting both species at the same time is a treat I hope many of us get to enjoy.  



Male Rose-breasted grosbeak spotted tonight at our backyard feeder. The red splotches in the background are Turk's cap blooms.

Male Rose-breasted grosbeak spotted tonight at our backyard feeder. The red splotches in the background are Turk’s cap blooms.

The rose-breasted grosbeak is one of our favorite feeder birds. However, since it only nests in Georgia in the hardwood forests found in the higher elevations of the Blue Ridge Mountains, most of us only get to see this striking bird during its spring and fall migrations.

A couple of weeks ago Debbie in Forsyth reported one at her feeder. However, my wife spotted the first rose-breasted grosbeak in our yard October 3.

The male rose-breasted grosbeak is easy to identify. It is our only bird that has black and white plumage and a bright red triangle on its breast.

Females are a little trickier to identify as they look much like a very large sparrow with brown upperparts and wings. Its breast is off white and streaked with brown. She also displays a white line over her eye.

The birds that are currently passing through the state are en route to their winter home which extends from Mexico southward into South America.

If you would like to give yourself a chance to see one of these birds fill one of your feeders with black oil sunflower seeds.

While it is possible to see a migrating rose-breasted grosbeak just about anywhere in the state, your chances are better if you live in the western portion of the Peach State.