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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.

WHY NOT PLANT A LIVING SUNFLOWER FEEDER?

       Everyone that feeds birds is very familiar with sunflower seeds. In fact, I would venture to say it is the seed most often fed at seed feeders. Literally tons of sunflower seeds are sold specifically as birdseed. Typically, we offer sunflower seeds to our bird neighbors in variety of traditional types of feeders ranging from feeding tables to hoppers. If you want to add a new facet to your feeding regime, why not plant a living sunflower feeder?

       Last year my wife and I stumbled across this idea when she planted a strip of ornamental sunflowers in our backyard. She sowed a strip of sunflowers along the inner edge of a long meandering flowerbed that snaked its way across a small portion of our yard. The mixture she planted included five varieties of sunflowers that were purported to represent a kaleidoscope of autumn colors and sizes. The mixture lived up to its billing. Some of the plants attained a height of only two to three feet. Others grew to be seven to eight feet tall. The sunflower blooms ranged in color from pale yellow, orange, and burgundy to red. To tell you the truth, I had no idea sunflowers came in some many attractive colors.

       Our initial plan was to let the seed heads dry at they finished blooming. During the winter, we intended to offer the seed heads to the birds visiting our feeders. As it turned out, the birds had other plans for our attractive strip of sunflowers. Before the sunflower seeds (technically called fruit) had a chance to dry, birds began plucking them from form the plants’ large seed heads. This transformed the sunflower patch into a living sunflower feeder.

      

       By far American goldfinches ate more ate more seeds than any other birds. However, house finches and northern cardinals also ate their share.

       To say the least, we were not disappointed with the way things turned out. The sunflowers were simply gorgeous and the birds seemed to relish extracting unripe kernels from the seed heads.

       We particularly enjoyed watching male American goldfinches, in full breeding plumage, visiting the sunflower seed heads on a daily basis. What a treat! Like most of you, most of the American goldfinches we typically see dine at our feeders in winter. At that time of the year, they are a drab yellowish-green.

       If you decide to plant a living sunflower feeder in your backyard this summer, we suggest that you dedicate a patch of ground solely to sunflowers. The sunflowers are easy to grow, however planting them in close proximity to a variety of other much shorter plants proved to be a mistake. By the time the sunflowers were blooming the shorter plants were shrouded out by the taller sunflowers.

       If you decide to plant a living sunflower feeder, I hope it will bring you as much enjoyment as the one we planted last year brought us.

HEARING THE WHIP-POOR-WILL’S CALL IS ONE OF THE PERKS OF COUNTRY LIVING

     There are many reasons why my wife and I enjoy country living. One of the benefits of living beyond the glaring lights of town is each year we are treated with the dawn and dusk calling of the whip-poor-will. My wife heard our first whip-poor-will on the morning of March 28.

       Well before the rays of the rising sun began dissolving the darkness of night, she took our family dog out for a bathroom break. While she was waiting for Sassy to take care of business, she heard an oft-repeated whip-poor-will, whip-poor will call of a male whip-poor-will. The bird was calling from far out in the woodlands located west of our home.

       When she returned to the house, she told me of her experience. Since I wanted to hear the bird too, I had every intention of jumping out of bed and going outside to listen for the nocturnal vocalist. However, for some reason, I drifted off the sleep for about a half an hour. When I awoke, I scurried outside to listen for the bird.

       During the brief time that passed between my wife reporting her experience and my finally going outside, the dawn chorus had begun. Consequently, a cacophony for bird songs filled the air. The loud chorus of untold numbers of birds coupled with the sounds made by vehicles going up and down the highway made trying to hear the far away calls of the whip-poor-will difficult. However, eventually I was able to hear the sound of this member of the goatsucker family.

       Remarkably, legends tell us the term goatsucker stems from a once popularly held belief whip-poor-wills drank milk from goats. It was also believed that this act of thievery caused the unfortunate goats that suffered this fate to go blind.

       Folks that have taken the time to count how many times a whip-poor-will calls report that the bird will repeat its name upwards of 400 times in a row. The frequency of this bird’s calls suggested his vocal efforts were falling far short of this lofty figure.

       During the early part of the twentieth century, if you did not live in the Georgia mountains, you were unlikely to hear a whip-poor-will. However, over the years the whip-poor-will has been expanding its breeding range. As such nowadays whip-poor-wills can be heard throughout much of the northern half of the Peach State to just south of the Fall Line. However, even if you do not live in this area, you still have a slim chance of hearing whip-poor-wills in the remainder of the state.

       I hope that you will be treated to the call of this rarely seen bird. Although he incessantly repeats it call, far too few of us get to hear it.

       Later in the morning when I called when I called a close friend to tell him I had heard the first whip-poor-will of the spring he lamented that he used to hear the bird’s pleasing call. However, since much of his neck of the woods has been developed, it has been years since he has heard one.

       When I hung of the phone, my excitement was tempered with thoughts of what he is missing.

A PLACE TO RELIEVE THE STRESS CAUSED BY COVID 19

        Each passing day brings news reports of the continued spread of the COVID- 19 virus and its horrible impact on people throughout our state, nation, and world. As a result, we all have to cope with increasing levels of anxiety, stress, and fear. Each of us has different ways in which we try to cope with these frightful times. One of the best ways I have found to deal with it is embark of a journey of discovery in my backyard. I would like to share with one such treks.

       Recently after watching the noon news present the update on the numbers of cases of the pandemic in Georgia, I grabbed my camera and went outside to take a walk about. I was greeted with bright sunshine and balmy zephyrs. Standing on my deck, I was taken aback by a colorful collage created by the blossoms of jonquils, native and ornamental azaleas flowering dogwood, and other plants. After drinking in the beauty of this living mural, I began my walk.

       One of the first things that caught my eye was a pipevine swallowtail nectaring at both yellow and orange blooms borne on native azaleas. I just had to stop and photograph this scene. A short time later, I just happened to notice a dragonfly flying just about my lawn. From time to time, the insect would land. Each time the dragonfly touched down, I was able to snap a few pictures as well as study the relative small aerial hunter. It was obvious that this was a species I had never seen in my yard before. The dragonfly was a female blue corporal.

       Moving on I stopped in my tracks when a silver-spotted skipper landed in a patch of purple dead nettle. This marked the first time this spring I had seen this butterfly.

       As I continued to walk, I noticed something different every few minutes. During one circuit, I spotted a eastern tiger swallowtail. During another circuit, I spied a cloudless sulphur. Carpenter bees seemed to be everywhere.

       In subsequent trips around my yard, I stopped to study and photograph the fresh blossoms of flowering dogwood trees, bluets, and a native thistle.

       Throughout my brief time afield, I was treated with the soothing songs of chipping sparrows and pine warblers singing from the tops our tall loblolly pines.

       When I finally ended by backyard walk, sat in a chair on my deck, and began reviewing all that I had seen during my brief half hour backyard journey, Mother Nature surprised me with one final event. From around the corner of the house, a mockingbird appeared carrying a stick and quickly disappeared into the bowels of a nearby shrub.

       I must admit, I wished that I could have extended my visit with my backyard neighbors; however, I had to address a few other demands on my time. However, when I went back inside, I was totally relaxed and convinced I need spend in my yard every day.

       While aside of practicing social distancing, there is little that I can do to help thwart the spread of the terrible Covid-19 virus, I am certain that my backyard wildlife haven will help me deal with our uncertain future.

       If you have your own wildlife haven, I hope you will visit it and your backyard neighbors often. I am certain each trip will help you unwind and strengthen your bond with the natural world during these turbulent times.

RED BUCKEYE IS A GREAT NATIVE HUMMINGBIRD NECTAR PLANT

  The goal of any hummingbird gardener should be to provide a wide variety of nectar plants that ensure hummers will have sources of nectar throughout, as much of the year is possible. The red buckeye is a native shrub that yields an abundance of nectar early in the spring. If you are considering planting a red buckeye in your yard, here is some information that should help you decide whether or not this plant is right for your yard.

Buckeye, Red (Aesculus pavia) – Type of Plant – shrub or small tree; Height – 20+ feet; Blooms – March to May; Soil – well drained, moist soil types are best; Light – partial shade to full sun.

BALTIMORE ORIOLE SIGHTINGS

        Just when it appeared Baltimore orioles would not make an appearance at Georgia feeders this winter, within the past two weeks, two bird enthusiasts reported they are hosting orioles at their backyard feeders.  Up until then the only Baltimore oriole report I had received this winter came from a woman the feeds birds in her backyard in Tennessee.

       The first report originating from the Peach State came from a woman that describes herself as an amateur birdwatcher living in the Virginia Highlands area of Atlanta.  She first saw a female Baltimore oriole January 21.  The bird was seen inspecting Hot Meats sunflower seeds at one of her seed feeders.

         As soon as the bird flew away, she immediately put out half of an orange.  Much to her delight a couple of hours later, the bird returned.  The oriole has revisited the orange several times a day since it first dined on the citrus.

       On January 27, she sent me an update on the status of the bird.  Accompanying the message was a fabulous picture of the oriole eating grape jelly.  She wrote that the bird had been coming to feed in her backyard frequently since her initial sighting on the 21st.  She went on to say the bird was eating grape jelly from an oriole feeder she bought a year ago.  Although neither a hummingbird nor oriole ever used the feeder before, her new winter guest visits it regularly.  She fills the feeder with grape jelly water instead of nectar.

       The second report that I received was sent January 26.  This message came from a wild bird enthusiast that resides in Warner Robins.  She reported spotting two Baltimore orioles.  The homeowner wrote, “Yesterday I saw a bright orange and black bird at my suet feeder.”  The next morning she observed what appeared to be the same bird dining on suet.  However, in the brief time it took her to grab her camera and return to the window, the bird disappeared.  Much to her delight, in a few minutes, a second Baltimore oriole appeared.  The plumage of this bird was much duller.

       Wow! I wish a Baltimore oriole would show up at my home this winter.  Although I have a small container of grape jelly waiting for them in the corner of one of my platform feeders, nothing resembling an oriole has visited it.  However, the fact three orioles have recently shown up at two locales this late in the winter, gives those of us that have not seen an oriole in our backyards hope one may still make an appearance before spring arrives.

      

GREAT GEORGIA POLLINATOR CENSUS

       Some of our most fascinating and important backyard wildlife neighbors are pollinating insects.  Unfortunately, populations of many of these critters are declining. In an effort of assess the number of these pollinators across the state, the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension is conducting the first Georgia statewide pollinator census.  The count will be held August 23 and 24, 2019.

       Becky Griffin, UGA Extension school garden and pollinator census coordinator is inviting private citizens, families, clubs, school classes and other groups to cooperate. 

       The count is fashioned after the highly successful Great Backyard Bird Count.  Consequently, whereas you do not have to be an expert in bird identification take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, you don’t have to be able to identify the insect pollinators that visit your garden.  Participants are simply asked to separate pollinators into eight groups (carpenter bees, bumble bees, honey bees, small bees, wasps, flies, butterflies/moths, and other insects.  An easy to understand online guide to these insects can be downloaded from the Great Georgia Pollinator Census website (GGaPC.org).

       Here is what you need to do to participate:

  • Visit the Great Georgia Pollinator Census website and download the GGPC Observation Sheet. The sheet can be used to record your sightings.
  • Select a single plant growing in your yard that you know attracts pollinators.
  • Count the pollinators landing on the plant during a 15-minute period.
  • Visit the website once more and upload the results of your count.

       I sincerely hope that you become citizen scientist and participate in the state’s first-of-its-kind pollinator count.  If you do, you will be helping conserve these valuable insects.

       If you have any questions regarding the census, contact mailto:Becky Griffin at beckygri@uga.edu.

THE GREAT BACKYARD BIRD COUNT BEGINS NEXT WEEKEND

   If you are looking for a great way for you and your family to become citizen scientists without leaving your home, take part in the 2019 edition of the Great Christmas Bird Count. All you have to do is record the birds you see in as little as 15 minutes at least once during the four-day count period.   This year the Great Backyard Bird Count begins Friday February 15 and runs through Tuesday February 19.

        The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada sponsor the count.

        The count enables biologists to monitor the status of bird populations in the United State and abroad. These data are also proving invaluable in assessing the impacts of weather and habitat change on bird populations.

        The scope of this survey has changed dramatically since its inception in 1998. What was initially a survey conducted in North America, the project has gone global. This past year 214,018 volunteers from more than 100 countries took part in the count.

        As you might expect, most of the checklists (108,921) submitted in 2018 were sent in from the United States. However checklists were turned in from countries such as Columbia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Costa Rica, and Mexico to name but a few.

        When to checklists were tallied it was determined 6,310 species of birds were seen. Remarkably, these birds represent more than half of the species of birds in the entire world.

        Here is the list of the ten species whose names appeared most often on checklists in 2018: northern cardinal (48,956), dark-eyed junco (43,742), mourning dove (43,412), American crow (40,959), blue jay (37,549), downy woodpecker (36,495), house finch (34,766), black-capped chickadee (21,942), and house sparrow (31,884), and European starling (28, 683).

        Interestingly, the most numerous species seen last year was the snow goose. Some 4,957,118 of the large white and black waterfowl were sighted.

        If you would like to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, the first thing you need to do is decide how many areas you want to survey. It is totally up to you where and how many areas you wish to conduct your count efforts. Most folks simply count the birds they see in their backyards. Others survey several areas. Next, go online and register for this year’s count. I should note the count is free.

        The only stipulation is you survey a spot for a minimum of 15 minutes. A count can be conducted at a location only once or every day during the four-day count period.

        After you complete a count, you simply submit your data online (birdcount.org). After I submit my data, I like to pull up the map that displays the data collected throughout the state in real-time.

        Since you only submit data for the birds you can identify, practically anybody can take part in the survey.

        For details concerning how to register and conduct your count(s) visit the Great Backyard Bird Count website.

        I sincerely hope you will take part in this year’s count. If you do, you will be birding with a purpose and have a lot of fun along the way.

THE DAWN CHORUS IS A MUSICAL EXTRAVAGANZA

       One of Mother Nature’s most exquisite concerts is the dawn chorus.  This event takes place across the state each day throughout the spring.  In spite of the fact it can be heard in rural areas, suburban neighborhoods and cities alike, it remains largely unappreciated.

       This is due in large part to the fact it is staged when many of us are still in bed.  The event can begin as early as 4:00 a.m. and is largely over by the time the sun peeks above the horizon.

       During this magical time of day, the air is awash with bird songs.  In fact, in many locations, so many birds will be calling it is difficult to tell one songster from another.    

       The music is created almost exclusively by the males of scores of songbirds including the likes of American robins, mockingbirds, brown thrashers, vireos, wrens, bluebirds, wood pewees, wood thrushes and many more. 

       While their songs vary widely, they are all singing for the same purpose.  They are putting all other males of their species on notice that they have set up a breeding territory in that locale and they had better not even think about entering their realm and try to steal their mates. 

       Females, on the other hand, are intently listening to the males’ songs.  It seems they are attracted to the males displaying the finest, loudest, and most energetic vocalizations.

       If you have the desire to be in the audience for a dawn chorus, you have to forgo some sleep and be sitting in a lawn chair in your backyard well before daylight.  If you get up early enough, you will hear the open volley of sound made by just a few birds.  However, as dawn approaches more and more birds will begin calling. Once this loud crescendo of sound reaches its peak, the symphony will begin to fade.  By dawn, you will hear nothing more than a smidgeon of the birds you heard an hour or so before.

       Of course, the numbers of birds contributing to the dawn chorus will vary widely from place to place.  For example, if you reside in a rural area, chances are you will hear more birds than you will in a subdivision.  However, regardless of where you live you will hear more birds than you probably ever imagined live close by.

       This fact was borne out recently on a visit to my daughter’s home. She lives in a large subdivision near Augusta.  During the day, I   typically hear a half a dozen or so birds calling around her home.  However, recently one morning I got up around 5:00 a.m. and stood on her front porch for a few minutes.  As soon as the front door closed behind me, I was immediately amazed by how many birds I was hearing.  One of the principal species singing was the American robin.  Robins seemed to be calling from everywhere.  There seemed to be dozens of robins within earshot.  However, by the time the school bus was pulling into the neighborhood, things had returned to normal and the songsters were engaged in their normal daily routines.

       Here are a couple of things to listen for if you are in the audience for more than one spring chorus.

        The participants in the spring chorus will change throughout the spring.  Early on, the songsters will be resident birds.  As spring moves toward summer, they will be joined by Neotropical migrants. 

       In addition, if you find your seat well before the concert begins, you will note different species will pipe in earlier than other species.

       Believe me; all it takes is being in the audience for one dawn chorus to realize it is truly a musical extravaganza.