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ZEBRA HELICONIANS HAVE BEEN RARE AUTUMN TREATS

     The appearance of a zebra heliconian (also called a zebra longwing) in our backyard, has always been special treat.  However, for reasons I do not fully understand, my wife and I have seen more of the beautiful black and yellow-striped butterflies this year than ever before.

       We saw our first zebras of the year back in August.  After a long hiatus, they began appearing weeks later on a regular basis.  Invariably, once they reappeared we never spotted more than one zebra heliconian at a time.  However, during the past few weeks we have been regularly seeing at least two at a time.  Two days ago, for the first time ever, we startled to find four of them feeding at bright orange Mexican sunflower blossoms.  Oddly, the day before a friend told me he had seen four in his yard.

       The zebra heliconian is a year-round resident in Florida southward through Central America.  Zebra longwings can also be found along the southern Gulf Coast of the United States all the way to Texas.  In fact, this Neotropical butterfly can be observed somewhere in the United States throughout the entire year.

       During the summer, in spite of the fact they normally doesn’t range far, many zebra longwings begin drifting northward far from the Sunshine State.  As such, each year, they are regularly seen in South Carolina.  In fact, sightings have been made as far north as New York.

       The field guides tell us that, in Georgia, this butterfly is most often seen in the Coastal Plain.  However, the truth of the matter is, in most years, as few will show up in backyard throughout the Lower Piedmont.  This year, for example, I have received reports of them being seen from Grovetown, Forsyth, and Woodland. 

       The zebra longwing has the distinction of having the longest continuous life span as an adult of any butterfly found in the United States.  While most adult butterflies live only a few weeks or less, the zebra longwing’s adult life extends for six or more months.  This longevity undoubtedly allows them to roam as far as they do.

       One of the things I find most fascinating about zebra longwings is they congregate at nighttime roosts.  These aggregations are called crèches and can number anywhere from 25-30 individuals.  Typically branches or Spanish moss are chosen for roost sites.  Such locations are sometimes used by the butterflies for days on end.

       I would dearly love to find a zebra longwing crèche this year.  Meanwhile, although I don’t know how long the Johnsons will be able to enjoy watching zebra heliconians drifting about our backyard, every time we see them, we will consider the event a rare autumn treat.

WHAT AND HOW MUCH FOOD DO PEOPLE FEED BIRDS EACH WINTER?

       For decades, Project FeederWatch has been surveying bird feeding activities throughout the United States and Canada.  The data collected has provided biologists with valuable insights into the habits of people that feed birds as well as the possible impacts of bird feeding on bird populations.  Here are a few of the findings of this monumental study.

       On the average, participants in the FeederWatch Project feed in excess of 300 pounds of seeds and 20 pounds of suet and bird “pudding” each winter. 

       By far, the most common offering proved to be mixed seed.  In addition to mixed seed, the foods fed most often were suet, black-oil sunflower, and niger seed.

       The study also found the feeders most popular among FeederWatch participants were hanging feeders (98%), suet holders (83%), and raised platforms (68%). 

       How does your own bird feeding activities compare to the results of this survey?

BACKYARD SECRET – BLUE JAYS COMMUNICATE WITH THEIR CRESTS

       We all recognize that blue jays communicate with one another using a wide variety of calls; however, it is less widely known that these noisy birds also communicate with their cohorts using their crests.  In fact, you can learn much about a blue jay’s state of mind by looking at how high a jay’s crest is held above its head.

       Blue jays use their crests to demonstrate its level of calmness and aggression.  For example, the next time you see one or more blue jays placidly feeding in your yard, undoubtedly, their crests will be held close to their heads.  However, if a family cat comes into their view; their crests will instantaneously become erect.  On the other hand, should the cat turn around and walk in the other direction realizing the feline no longer poses a threat; the birds’ crests will drop.  Similarly, if a blue jay is startled by the arrival of a bird the blue jay perceives as a competitor for the food it is dining on, such as an American crow, the jay will erect its crest.  By the same, if a cardinal alights near a feeding jay, the blue jay might not raise its crest at all. 

       How high a jay erects its crest is indicative of its perceived level of threat or agitation.  For example, if a blue jay notices a hawk circling in the sky some distance away, it may not fully raise its crest.  However, once the hawk flies close enough to where the jay senses it poses an imminent threat, its crest will then become fully erect.

 

IDENTIFYING ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAKS IN FALL CAN BE TRICKY

       Whenever male rose-breasted grosbeaks magically appear at our feeders in the spring, it is difficult to mistake them for any other bird.  No other birds are cloaked in striking black-and-white plumage and also display bright crimson red chevrons on their breasts.  However, when they pass through Georgia in the fall, identifying them can be a challenge.

       The reason for this is the adults are in their nonbreeding plumage when they arrive at our feeders.  In addition, they are accompanied by adult and immature females, as well as immature males.  Whereas immature females are difficult to separate from adult females, the still look pretty much alike.

       Things are a bit trickier when it comes to distinguishing immature males from adult males.  However, the best way to describe an adult male is that it appears to be a washed out version of an adult male in breeding plumage.  In addition, there are subtle differences between adult and immature males that are often difficult to separate in the field.  Immature males will look much like the females, however they will sport varying amount of a rose wash on their breasts that is buffier than the breasts of the females. 

       Most years I only see rose-breasted grosbeaks in the spring.  However, others, like Ron Lee, entertain the birds during both seasons.  Such has been the case again this year.  Whereas Ron has been seeing these stunning migrants for quite some time this autumn, they have avoided my feeders.

       Ron has been kind enough to share with us the accompanying photo of a male rose-breasted grosbeak.  Ron took the picture taken October 10, 2020.

       With time running out on their fall migration schedule I suspect Ron’s photo is the only rose-breasted grosbeak I am likely to see this autumn.

AMERICAN HOLLY IS DIFFERENT

       At this time of the year, both resident and migratory birds are feasting on a variety of colorful berries such as American beautyberry and pokeberries.  However, have you noticed birds are not flocking to a native plant that produces one of the most colorful berries–the American Holly?

       Nowadays if you peer into the foliage of an American holly, you will discover that the berries that are synonymous with winter and Christmas are still green.  Even when they ripen, it will be a while before birds begin dining on these shiny red berries.  In fact, in most years, American holly berries will remain on the tree well into winter and provide birds with a valuable source of food long after the last beautyberry or pokeberry has been gobbled up.

       Among the reasons birds do not seek out holly berries when they first ripen is they are rock-hard and very bitter.  It is only after the berries have been exposed to one or more frosts do they begin to soften up.  Their exposure to cold weather also breaks down the chemicals that make the so bitter.  Even then, they are not considered a choice food.  American holly berries are not rich in many nutrients, although they are high in fats and oils.

       However, when birds have little else to eat, they will dine on dine on holly berries.  For birds that rely heavily on fruits and berries, holly berries can mean the difference between life and death. 

       A woman in Walton County once told me that, in winter, she often decorates her window boxes with branches of American holly covered with its showy red berries.  She went on the say that one-winter birds did not eat a single berry the entire winter.  However, one extremely cold March day a flock of robins descended on her yard.  Before the flock departed, the birds had eaten every single berry that had adorned the holly boughs placed in her window boxes.

       In addition to the American robin, among the more than two dozen species of birds that eat American holly berries are the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, northern mockingbird, wild turkey, and northern bobwhite.

       This is just another example of the fact that we need to provide a wide variety of plants that provide food and cover for birds throughout the entire year. 

MY BACKYARD MOCKINGBIRD IS FACING A DILEMMA

 My wife and I have made a concerted effort to incorporate a wide variety of wildlife food plants into our home landscape.  Our goal has always been to provide our wildlife neighbors with a wide variety of foods throughout the entire year.  For one reason or the other, we never set out any American beautyberry plants.  However, years ago we found one growing alongside a backyard fence.  I am certain a bird unknowingly dropped a seed there as it perched on the fence.  Since then from late summer into fall and sometimes-even winter, the plant has been festooned with bountiful crops of round, bright lavender berries (actually, they are drupes).  This forces a host of birds to make some difficult dining decisions.      

       This is particularly true of the mockingbird that patrols our backyard.  A few weeks ago, I spotted the bird, as it was swallowing pokeberries.  When I unwittingly interrupted its meal, the diner immediately flew to an American beautyberry growing some distance away.  Upon landing, while keeping a close eye on me, it commenced eating beautyberry after beautyberry.     

  Later in the day, I saw it again eating suet from a feeder hanging near my office.  Whenever it flew away from the suet, house finches, cardinals, and Carolina chickadees flew in to eat their share of the fatty food.  In just a few moments, the mockingbird reappeared and scared the interlopers away.  The mockingbird definitely did not want to share food with other birds.

       On previous occasions, I have witnessed the bird defend plants bearing pokeberries and beautyberries from the likes of thrashers, cardinals, gray catbirds, American robins, and towhees.

       Since it is impossible for a single bird to defend all three of these sources of food, throughout the entire day it is faced with the dilemma of deciding of what and when to eat.  The appearance of the American beautyberries simply acerbated this bird’s problem.  

                    Mockingbird & American Beautyberries

 

If you are like us and never got around to planting American beautyberry in your yard, don’t wait for a bird to plant it for you.  Take the initiative and plant one yourself.  This native shrub is easy to grow.  The only maintenance it requires is cutting the stems back each winter. 

       You will enjoy its strikingly colorful berries and experience the satisfaction of knowing you are helping feed a wide variety of birds and mammals.  In addition, you will find that you have created a dining dilemma for mockingbirds and other birds that relish its berries.  Believe me, that is not such a bad thing at all.

THE AMERICAN LADY

       One of the most common butterflies my wife and I are seeing in our backyard right now is the American lady (Vanessa virginianus).

       The American lady is a medium sized butterfly with a wingspan that measures from 1.75 – 2.4 inches wide.

       The American lady is a beautiful butterfly. From above the butterfly is reddish orange in color. Its forewings are bordered black. The tips of the forewings are also adorned with white spots.

       The American lady is gorgeous regardless of whether you see it from above or below. However, I personally find it most attractive when it holds its wings above its body while feeding. When you look at the ventral side of the butterfly in this position the first thing that catches your eye are two large eyespots. The underside of the wings also features a complex pattern of creamy white lines that will immediately remind you of a spider web. What a combination!

       The only butterfly that it can be confused with is the painted lady. Whereas there are a couple of subtle differences in the appearances of the painted lady and the American lady, the easiest way to separate the two is by counting the number of eyespots displayed on the trailing edge of the ventral side of the wings. The painted lady is decorated with four small eyespots whereas the American lady has but two large eyespots.

       Depending on where you live in Georgia, you may see American ladies flying from late January into November. Folks residing in the southern half of the state see them earlier and later in the year than those living in North Georgia.

       American ladies prefer to fly in open areas such as roadside, fields and meadows. Fortunately for us they are also commonly found in our backyards.

       American ladies nectar at any a number of ornamental and native plants. However, in our backyard, they are primarily nectaring at coneflowers and Miss Huff lantana.

       When you approach an American lady don’t be surprised if it flies away much sooner than an eastern tiger swallowtail. It is a bit skittish. However, if you stand motionless, often the American lady will soon return and land close by.

       Among the host plants used by the American lady are cudweed, some asters, and pussy-toes.

PLANT NOW TO FEED BUTTERFLIES AND HUMMINGBIRDS FROM LATE SUMMER INTO FALL

       If you want to ensure that butterflies, hummingbirds and other nectar feeders can find plenty of food in your backyard from late summer into fall, now is the time to sow a late crop of zinnias and Mexican sunflower seeds.

       Currently the gardens of most Georgians that plant for pollinators are awash with color and food (pollen and nectar). However, by late September and October many of these same beautiful pollinator havens will be far less colorful and offer hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators less food. In spite of trying to prolong the blooming period of cut-and-come-again plants, the numbers of flowers being produced will often dwindle by late summer. Other flowers will have simply ended their blooming period and will not blossom until next year.

       This situation can cause problems for all pollinators, including migrants making their way south on their fall migrations. This list of migrants includes several butterflies such as the monarch as well as ruby-throated hummingbirds.

       One way you can assist these critters this year is to plant more zinnias and Mexican sunflowers. Since both plants require somewhere from 60-70 days to go from seed to flower, you need to plant seeds for these plants right now.

       Both can be planted in beds. I can personally attest to the fact that zinnias also do extremely well in containers.

Long-tailed Skipper nectaring on Mexican Sunflower

     Since my wife and I have never planted Mexican sunflowers in containers, I don’t know how they do in that situation. I suspect because they grow so tall, they would more than likely require staking.

       Last year my wife and I enjoyed great success planting a second crop of zinnias. They attracted many butterflies, including monarchs, and hummingbirds. In addition, they added needed splotches of late color to our gardens.

       If you decide to try this practice, I think you will be pleased with the results. I know monarchs, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and scores of other pollinators will benefit from your efforts.

WHEN DO BACKYARD BIRDS BATHE?

       My wife and I maintain three birdbaths for the benefit our backyard bird neighbors. As you might expect, many factors such as season and weather influence when and how often birds use these manmade structures.

       Although birds bathe in the winter, they often limit their bathing during frigid weather. On the other side of the coin, many species seem to increase their visits to birdbaths during hot weather.

       A number of years ago, I happened across several wood thrushes bathing in a puddle that had formed in a country road during a sudden summer thunderstorm. To this day, I still wonder why these beautiful songsters chose to bathe immediately after the passing of the storm.

              In addition, birds also seem to be influenced by the presence or absence of other birds. My personal observations suggest that some species seem to prefer to bathe alone, while others do not mind sharing a bath with other species. For example, when a mockingbird or blue jay flies in to take a bath, other species that are already bathing immediately scatter. It is obvious that they do not wish to bathe at the same as these larger, more intimidating birds. More often than not bathing chipping sparrows will leave when eastern bluebirds arrive. However, I have seen chipping sparrows bathe alongside house finches.

       By the same token, birds of the same species often have no problem bathing with others. Northern cardinals often bathe together as do eastern bluebirds.

       Birds can be seen bathing throughout the entire day. Some birds seemingly bathe immediately after leaving their nighttime roosts. By the same token, others appear to bathe just before flying up to roost for the night. In between, most birds are not hesitant to take a bath any time during day.

       For some reason, I long harbored the notion birds bathed but once a day. I have no idea why I felt that way. However, studies involving color-marked birds have revealed that some species such as the tufted titmouse sometimes bathes as many as five times a day.

       As you can see, we have much to learn about bird bathing. In an effort to quench my personal interest in this behavior, I have begun recording information regarding incidences of birds bathing in my yard. I guess that is the biologist coming out in me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LEOPARDS ROAM OUR BACKYARDS AT NIGHT

       Many members of our backyard wildlife community are rarely seen simply because they are creatures of the night. One such nocturnal animal is the giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scibonia).

       The giant leopard moth did not earn its name because it a ferocious hunter like the leopard that roams the wilds of Africa and Asia. It is called the leopard moth because its white wings are covered with leopard like spots that vary from black to blue.

       Male leopard moths are larger than females. The wingspan of the males measure some 3.6 inches, whereas the wingspan of females average about 2.25″

       If you decide to embark on an expedition into your backyard one night in search of the giant leopard moth, your quest would probably not be successful. It seems that the best way to find a giant leopard moth is to look for it hanging on the outside walls of your home beneath a security lights. It seems these large handsome insects are attracted to lights. However, if you find one or more leopard moths, they will probably be males. Females do not visit lights nearly as often as the males. Some people have reported finding upwards of dozen giant leopard moths near light. However, I have never found more than one at a time in my neck of the woods.

       If you begin checking your security lights for giant leopard moths, you will notice that many other moths are drawn in by the lights. This will give some appreciation of the amazing diversity of moths that inhabit your yard. In fact, it is safe to say; far more moths live in your backyard than butterflies.