Ever since my daughter was a little girl, she has been fascinated with the natural world. It mattered not whether we were on vacation or just exploring our backyard, her inquisitive mind and sharp eyes enabled her to find something fascinating wherever we happened to be. More often than not, she would be the first to make such a find. As such, on a recent visit, it was no surprise that, while walking around the deck of our home with my wife, she spotted something hanging from beneath one of the deck rails. Immediately she exclaimed, “What is that?
Below one of the rails, she just happened to notice what looked very much like a small, brown paper bag measuring an inch or so in diameter. The object was suspended from the rail by a number of slender filaments.
Within minutes, my granddaughter and I joined my wife and daughter on the porch. Each of us marveled at how well the small, round object was camouflaged dangling next to the deck’s brown wood.
As has been the case so many times over the years, finding a backyard treasure perked our curiosity. We just had to find out what we were looking at.
I suggested it might be a spider’s egg case. Armed with this possible identification, my wife searched the internet looking for photos of spider egg cases. In just a few minutes, she emerged from our home office and announced she was convinced it was a yellow garden spider’s (Agiope aurantia) egg sac.
I then retreated to my natural history library to learn more about the yellow garden spider and its egg sac.
Leafing through the pages of several books I learned the female yellow garden spider creates one to four of these impressive egg cases per year; most are constructed from late summer to fall. Working under the cloak of darkness she lays anywhere from 300 to 1,000 or more eggs on thin sheets of silk. She then wraps them up forming a tough, brown silk ball. The rugged covering protects the eggs from both the elements and predators.
In the spring, the young spiders emerge from the egg sac and venture out into the world. As you might expect very few of these tiny spiders survive long enough to reproduce. Some of the spiders eat each other, still others are caught by predators such as mud daubers and birds.
It was truly amazing how our daughter’s backyard discovery led to a memorable event shared by three generations of our family. In addition, it reinforced our appreciation for the amazing variety of life that lives just outside the backdoor.
I guess you can see why I will never tire of hearing a family member say, “What is that?”
The coneflower’s value to wildlife is widely recognized. It is a source of food for native pollinators such as native bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. In addition, long after its blooms fade, American goldfinches and other birds feed on the plant’s prickly seeds.
Those of us that plant this plant in our gardens enjoy the beauty of it uniquely shaped, colorful flowers. However, according to many herbalists, the value of this plant to humans may go far beyond its pleasing appearance. It has been purported to be beneficial in treating a wide variety of ailments. For example, it has been reported that chemicals found in the coneflower a natural antibiotic and even enhance white blood cell counts.
While I cannot substantiate claims of its medicinal values, I can attest to its value to wildlife. This year, for example, my wife and I enjoyed watching bumblebees and carpenter bees daily visiting the blooms of coneflowers growing in our backyard. In addition, the flowers produced by these plants were particularly popular with common buckeyes. In fact, this year we saw more common buckeyes on coneflowers than any other plant growing in our backyard. Numerous times, a single flower hosted four or more buckeyes.
In a recent blog, I noted that one of the great joys of backyard wildlife watching is sharing your observations with others. This prompted Debbie Menard to report one of her most interesting recent wildlife sightings. I found her report so interesting I thought I would share it with you.
Debbie is one of the few folks I know that offers safflower seeds on her menu of food offerings at her backyard bird cafe. Since gray squirrels do not relish the oily seed, it is sometimes used as an alternative to sunflower seeds. For some reason, gray squirrels seem to shy away from this odd seed.
In fact, it is a seed that only a handful of backyard birds will routinely eat. The seed appears to be eaten most often by the northern cardinal. The short list of other species that will eat safflower seeds includes the likes of downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmouse, mourning dove, Carolina chickadee, blue jay, finch and the white-breasted nuthatch.
One day this summer Debbie watched a white-breasted nuthatch pluck a safflower seed from a feeder and characteristically fly off with it in its bill. The bird landed on the trunk of a large white oak tree. Once there, the bird made a few modifications to the bark of the tree. Once the bird was satisfied with its handiwork, it wedged the seed in the cavity it had created and flew away.
This was the first time Debbie have ever seen a white-breasted nuthatch engage in this fascinating behavior.
What a great sighting!
Keep your eyes peeled, a white-breasted nuthatch, or some other bird, may be caching seeds in your backyard right now.
I honestly believe that the enjoyment we all receive from watching wildlife is greatly enhanced by simply sharing our sightings with others. This concept was recently reinforced when I gave a talk about hummingbirds to the Southern Wings Birding Club in Lawrenceville.
After I made my presentation, the club’s president asked all present to share some of the fascinating sightings they had made since their last meeting. He made sure everyone had a chance to contribute by asking each member, in turn, to contribute to the conversation.
A few people talked about the birds they had seen on recent trips to far off locations in quest of adding birds to their life lists. As these folks described seeing such unusual species as red-necked phalaropes, I am sure I was not alone in hoping that one day I too would be able to make a similar trek.
While such reports were thoroughly fascinating, what impressed me most was the fact that everyone was eager to tell stories about the birds they see on a daily basis in or nearby their own backyards.
The reports ranged from a woman seeing an American bittern perched on a utility line near a small marsh flooded by recent rains, to a man that told how raccoons had become so fond of the nectar in his hummingbird feeders; he had to take the feeders inside every night. One member described how brown thrashers rummaged through the top of a tree he cut down in his backyard as he worked nearby. Several people spoke about the fascinating behavior of the Carolina wrens that inhabit their yards. A remarkably large number of hawks were the subjects of many reports. I found it interesting to hear one-woman talk about feeding blue jays and how they come looking for her when they want to be fed. Still others discussed seeing everything from blue-gray gnatcatchers to indigo buntings in their yards.
As people shared their experiences, the room was full of laughter and fellowship. It was obvious to me all of the members genuinely felt they were contributing to the discussion. Even after the meeting had closed, people were still talking with one another about birds and other wildlife.
It was also great to see more experienced birders interacting with beginners. Everyone was learning from one another. As such, they are gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural world. There is no doubt in my mind the quality of the life these people enjoy is enriched by the wildlife they see on a daily basis.
If there is a bird or nature club in your neck of the woods, attend one of its meetings. If a club is not located nearby, consider starting one. Either way, if you do, you will be better for it.
Increasing numbers of Georgia homeowners are striving to give our native bees a helping hand. Some of the most popular things they are doing to help these valuable insects include providing them with nesting habitat, reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides, and planting native plants that produce both pollen and nectar. If you are looking for another way to promote the native bee population in your yard and neighborhood, simply mow your yard less often.
Ecologists working for the United Forest Service made this recommendation after monitoring bee activity during the summer in 16 yards located in Springfield, Massachusetts. They compared the number of bees found in these yards and learned there was more bee activity in lawns mowed every two weeks than those mowed weekly. In addition, the greatest bee diversity was found in those lawns mowed every three weeks.
The ecologists attributed their findings to the fact that yards mowed every three weeks hosted more plants that provide the bees with pollen and nectar.
Amazingly, during the study the researchers identified 111 species of insects, including 25 percent of the bees known to occur in the Bay State.
The Susannah Lerman, lead author in a paper based on the study recently published in the journal Biological Conservation, stated, “We can all contribute to improving bee habitat in our own backyards.”
If you do not enjoy pushing or riding a lawnmower around your yard any more than I do and want help give the bees a boost, you might want to mow your yard less often.
Remarkably, mourning dove nesting can take place in the Peach State throughout the entire year. The nesting season usually kicks off in south Georgia in February. Nesting is at its peak throughout the state from mid-May to July and normally winds down in mid-October.
On the average, a female mourning dove will nest three times during this long nesting season.
Recently I posted a blog describing the multitude of butterflies, hummingbirds and other nectar feeders using the plants blooming in eight containers sitting on the deck of my Monroe County home. When I posted that blog, I wondered if this backyard scene could be any more beautiful or intriguing. This week the arrival of a single bird clearly demonstrated it indeed could.
Last week my wife noticed petals were littering the floor around the pots containing zinnias. At first, we thought this was simply a sign the flowers were beginning to fade. The next day, however, she spotted a male American goldfinch plucking seeds and petals from the zinnias’ blossoms.
The bird returns to ravage the zinnia blossoms several times a day. Each time he departs, he leaves a new crop of colorful petals strewn like confetti about the floor of the deck. By now, he has dismantled so many blossoms; the zinnia plants are not nearly as beautiful as they were a week ago. We know the plants will regain their beauty once a new crop of buds opens up. In the meantime, we are convinced the premature demise of the flowers is a small price to pay for the daily shows put on by this handsome, hungry backyard resident.
Since we first noticed an American goldfinch feeding on the zinnias growing on our deck, I have also seen them dining on zinnia seeds in the long narrow butterfly garden near my office. Goldfinches are also eating dried black-eyed-susan seeds in a small garden located along our driveway.
It is interesting to note that all the while goldfinches have been dining at flower seed heads, few of the birds have visited two feeders stocked with sunflower seeds.
In recent weeks, others have told me they have noticed goldfinches eating zinnia and coneflower seeds in their yards. I would not be surprised if this is happening in your backyard too.