Archive | October 2018

A FEW HALLOWEEN MYTHS LINKED WITH OWLS

       Since long before the first Halloween, witches and owls have been linked together in some truly bizarre myths. 

       For example, the Romans and Greeks once believed witches could actually transform themselves into owls.  Other folk tales tales say witches used owls as messengers.

       Owls have also been viewed as harbingers of bad luck and even death.  One myth tells us bad luck will befall anyone that hears an owl hoot three times.  Another claims the only creatures that can live with ghosts are owls.

       Even to this day, many people find the calling of an owl unnerving.  However, should the trick or treaters that invade your neighborhood hear the calls of a great horned, barred, barn or screech owl, the sounds can make their nighttime adventure a little more exciting.

LOOK FOR RED-BELLIED WOODPECKERS CACHING FOOD

        Although the red-bellied woodpecker is notorious for caching food, backyard wildlife watchers rarely see this fascinating behavior.  However, if you would like to watch a red-bellied woodpecker in the act of storing food, there is no better time to do so than right now.

The reason for this is, in spite of the fact that the woodpecker caches food throughout the entire year, it does so more often during the fall.  With that in mind, during the next several weeks, whenever you see a red-bellied woodpecker carrying something in its bill, follow its flight.  If the bird happens to land, see if it tries to shove the item into a tree crack or crevice (the bird will even stash food in wood posts and buildings), more than likely you have witnessed caching. The list of items stored by this woodpecker includes acorns, nuts, seeds, fruits, fruit pulp, kernels of corn, suet, peanut butter, whole peanuts, and even insects. 

   It has been reported that a captive red-bellied woodpecker even cached toothpicks and nails.

       For some reason, unlike many birds that cache food, the red-bellied woodpecker rarely vigorously defends its stored its  food treasures from would-be robbers.

       If you happen to witness a red-bellied woodpecker caching food, please let me know.

MIGRATING MONARCHS NEED OUR HELP TOO

       From the reports I received this week, a wave of monarchs was apparently migrating through Middle Georgia.  In addition, it was encouraging to hear that most of those reporting the appearance of these large orange and black butterflies were seeing more monarch than they had seen in years. 

       For example, my wife and I saw no fewer than seven monarchs at one time in our yard.  While that might not seem remarkable, during the fall, in recent years, we have not seen more than two or three at time visiting our flowers. A friend that lives in Lamar County said she was thrilled to discover 15 monarchs nectaring on ageratum late one afternoon.  She went on to say this was far more than she had seen on her property in years.  In another instance, a friend that lives in McDonough reported seeing many monarchs flying along the highway while driving from his home to Jonesboro.  He was excited that this was more monarchs that he had seen in long time.  Yet another friend reported larger than normal numbers of monarchs showing up in his Monroe County yard. 

       The appearance of monarchs in Georgia backyards in autumn points out the need for all of us to ensure that these iconic butterflies have plenty to eat on their epic journey to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico.  This extremely long migration can take as long as two months.  During this flight, monarchs touchdown in many places as they travel anywhere from 25 to 100 miles a day.  At each stop they need to be able find enough food (nectar) to restore their fat reserves that fuel their long journey to their winter home, survive the winter, and then return to the United States.

       Some researchers feel that the ability of monarchs to find enough nectar along the fall migration pathway is extremely critical to the survival of the species.  As such, we all need to put out the welcome mat to America’s favorite butterfly as it moves south.  The best way this goal can be accomplished is to grow a variety of fall-blooming nectar plants in our backyards.  If we all offer a helping hand, we can create a series of stepping stones monarchs can use as they cross the state each autumn.

       The problem is the nectar plants in many backyard gardens across the state are pretty ragged by this time of the year.  As such, they do not provide monarchs with nearly as much nectar as they could.

       When the monarchs arrived in my yard this year they were greeted to a mix of flowers including butterfly bush, zinnia, cosmos, scarlet sage, Turk’s cap, mountain mint, liatris, ageratum, goldenrod, and lantana.  By far, the monarchs most often fed at butterfly bush blossoms.  The next most popular plant visited was lantana.  Interestingly, while monarchs preferred ageratum at my friend’s house in Lamar County, they never visited it in my yard.  In addition, while they have fed at Georgia mint growing in my yard in past years, they did not visit it this year.

       This points out the fact that we need to provide migrating monarchs with a variety of nectar plants.  When this is done, chances are the butterflies will find one or more plants in just the right stage of blooming to provide them with much-needed nectar.

       If you are interested in adding some autumn bloomers to your landscape to help southbound migrating monarchs, here are a few of the other nectar plants reported to attract monarchs in fall: Mexican sunflower, ironweed, aster, marigold, blanket flower, and petunia.

       If you have noticed monarchs feeding at other flowers in your yard at this time of the year, I would appreciate knowing about it.

THE POKEWEED IS A GREAT SOURCE OF FOOD FOR BIRDS

                Whenever we discuss feeding birds in a backyard setting invariably the discussion centers around offering birds seeds, suet, and other offerings in feeders hung outside our homes.  While supplemental feeding is important, the foods provided by native plants is often far more valuable to our feathered neighbors.  One of these native food plants is the common pokeweed.

                One of the reasons it is rarely mentioned is because few people are inclined to plant pokeweed in a garden.  Although it possesses colorful stems and berries, I suspect most homeowners deem this large, gangly perennial plant unworthy of growing alongside a bed of zinnias, or towering above their roses.  However, the plant’s reputation of being a weed belies its value as a plant that produces food relished by a host of birds.

                For this reason, my wife and I permit pokeberries to grow in idle spots around the perimeter of our property.  These are places we where we allow native vegetation to flourish.  These areas are occasionally mowed to prevent the intrusion of tree saplings.  We also remove any foreign invasive plants that happen to appear.

                If you decide to encourage pokeweed plants to grow in an idle corner of your property, you will have the opportunity to view scores of hungry birds dining on plant’s dark purple, juicy berries.  The birds you are most likely to see are year-round residents such as northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers, eastern bluebirds, European starlings, mourning doves, American crows, red-bellied woodpeckers, and northern cardinals.  In preparation for, and during their fall migrations, birds that nest here and elsewhere in North America, also gobble up pokeberries to help fuel their hazardous journey to their wintering grounds.  The list of neotropical migrants that dine on pokeberries includes the gray catbird, eastern kingbird, wood thrush, Swainson’s thrush, veery, summer tanager, and hooded warbler.  Later when the migratory birds that winter in the Peach state arrive, they rarely pass up the opportunity to feed on what pokeberries remain.  These birds include the likes of the hermit thrush, cedar waxwing as well as fox and white-throated sparrows.

                Chances are you have never seen some of these birds in your backyard.  With that in mind, if you want to enhance your chances of catching glimpses of these birds without leaving the confines or your property, while providing a nutrient-rich source of food for birds and other wildlife, find a place for common pokeweed on your land.

 

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.