CEDAR WAXWINGS HAVE ARRIVED IN OUR BACKYARD
For the past few weeks, winter visitors have been arriving in our Middle Georgia backyard. Yesterday cedar waxwings made their first appearance.
While my wife and I were checking out the plants growing in containers on our deck, I activated my Merlin Bird Identification App. In in matter of seconds, the app detected the call notes of a cedar waxwing. Once the bird’s name appeared, I looked for the bird(s) in the trees and shrubs growing nearby. When I did not see one, I decided that Merlin had made a mistake.
Seconds later, I was proven wrong when a flock of a couple of dozen cedar waxwings swooshed in from the northwest and landed in the top of a tall red cedar tree. As the birds flew from limb to limb searching for the tree’s small berries, a slightly smaller flock joined them. We watched the birds disappearing in and out of the cedar’s thick canopy, for a few minutes, when without warning the cedar waxwings took to the air and flew over the house.
Although cedar waxwings visit our yard each winter, we do not consider them a feeder bird simply because they have never visited our feeders. Here they feed exclusively on red cedar and mistletoe berries.
However, data collected through Project FeederWatch indicate they will dine on dried fruits. One of their favorite dried fruits is raisins. There are reports that cedar waxwings can devour a half a pint of raisins in a matter of minutes. The birds will also eat halved and chopped apples and other fruits.
Although these gregarious birds do not feast at our feeders, they do visit our birdbaths to both drink and bathe.
If cedar waxwings do not visit your backyard, it could be due to the fact you are not offering them anything to eat or a place to bathe. With that in mind, consider planting a red cedar and/or other native trees and shrubs that retains their fruit throughout the winter in your area of the state.
In addition, keep your birdbath full of clean water throughout the winter. This will benefit cedar waxwings and your other backyard winter guests.
BACKYARD SECRET—WHEN IS IT TIME TO REMOVE DEAD ZINNIA PLANTS?
By this time of the year the zinnias in my gardens have, in large part ceased blooming. While there are scattered colorful blossoms here and there, most of my once beautiful flowers and plants have been nipped by an early frost. All that remains of the zinnias are brown stalks and the withered remains of the flowers they once displayed to hungry pollinators.
When each of us is faced with this situation, we must decide if we should go ahead and cut or otherwise remove the drab remains of these garden favorites. Many gardeners immediately remove the dead plants in an attempt to beautify their garden. However, I am one of those backyard gardeners that leave the plants standing.
This is done because I realize that a number of birds dine on zinnia seeds. Here is a list of some of the birds that eat the seeds of dead zinnias: American goldfinch, chipping sparrow, house finch, purple finch, cardinals and pine siskins.
I keep an eye on this unorthodox food source and remove the dead plants only after the birds have extracted all of the seeds they harbor. When this occurs varies from year to year.
With that in mind, I hope you will refrain from rushing out and removing your zinnia plants as soon as they are killed by cold weather. If you leave them, you just may catch a glimpse of a bird feeding on the seeds located in the withered remains of the past summer’s zinnia blossoms. If you do, you might find the dead zinnias not as unattractive after all.
BUCKEYES—HANDSOME, SHUNNED BY WILDLIFE, AND STEEPED IN FOLKLORE
In the fall, the seeds of countless plants are more abundant than at any other time of the year. Some argue that none is more pleasing to the eye than the buckeye. While it is largely shunned by wildlife, it is coveted my many Georgians.
I have a red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) growing in my yard. Each year this small deciduous tree produces a crop of large reddish brown seeds called buckeyes. Each plum-sized buckeye appears to be hand-polished. The seeds get their name from the round grayish scar (hilum) found on one side of each seed. To many, this area (where the seed connects to the husk that covers the nut while it is developing) resembles the pupil of a deer’s eye.
When you gaze at a buckeye, it looks like it should be a great wildlife food. In truth, the vast majority of wildlife species don’t eat buckeyes. In fact, squirrels are the only native species known to dine on buckeyes on a regular basis. White-tailed deer, for example rarely do more than nibble on them. However, feral hogs are said to eat them.
Why isn’t it a wildlife favorite? The answer is the buckeye contains a chemical known as glycoside; a derivative of glycoside is known to be poisonous. For some reason, this poison does not affect gray squirrels. However, it is poisonous to livestock and humans. Deer will usually avoid buckeyes but will occasionally nibble on them.
On the other hand, many people covet buckeyes.
According to a number of folktales, buckeyes can do amazing things such as bring good luck and even cure diseases.
Consequently, some say that carrying a buckeye will a person good luck only if it is carried in the right pants pocket.
According to folklore, rubbing a buckeye will cure asthma, headaches, arthritis and rheumatism. However, if you want a buckeye to cure your rheumatism, you must carry it in your left pocket of your pants.
If you have a buckeye tree that produces a bounty of buckeyes, don’t sell them as good luck charms. If you do, technically speaking, you might be charged with false advertising. This is because supposedly, if you sell a one of these magical seeds, it loses its power to provide the buyer with good luck.
MILKWEED PLANTS ARE OFTEN CONTAMINATED
When it became abundantly clear, the monarch population was in decline private citizens, government agencies, and conservation groups launched an international effort to save this spectacularly beautiful butterfly. One of the problems facing the monarch is a lack of the milkweed. The milkweed is the monarch’s only known host. For quite some time, thousands of us have been trying to remedy this problem by planting native milkweeds in our yards. In response to the high demand for milkweeds, commercial nurseries expanded the propagation and marketing of these important caterpillar plants. However, a recent study conducted by the Xerces Society and the University of Nevada found many of these plants are contaminated with chemicals that are potentially harmful to monarchs.
The researchers tested the foliage of 235 milkweed plants sold at 33 nurseries scattered across the United States. The researchers were trying to determine if any of these plants harbored chemicals that might be harmful to monarch caterpillars.
The study revealed the plants were contaminated with 61 different pesticides. As many as 28 different pesticides were found in or on individual plants. Another startling discovery was an average of 12.2 pesticides was found per plant.
Ironically, plants advertised as “wildlife friendly” were not contaminated with fewer pesticides. Instead, many actually harbored more of the deadly chemicals than those not so labelled. In fact, with respect to one pesticide, milkweed plants that were supposedly sold as being wildlife friendly had a greater chance of being contaminated with a dose of it that exceeded the known sub-lethal concentration.
Matt Forister, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno expressed his feelings regarding these alarming findings this manner, “In many ways, they are as contaminated or worse than plants growing on the edges of agricultural fields. That was quite a surprise to me.”
To date, the potential impacts of only 9 of the 61 chemicals on the monarch are known. However, the scientists pointed out that 38 percent of the samples contained high enough concentrations of the chemicals that could affect the monarch’s ability to eat and migrate.
Where does that leave those of us that purchase these plants? The researchers recommend that we encourage the nurseries where we buy milkweed plants to sell only pesticide free plants.
In addition, Aimee Code, Pesticide Program Director at the Xerces Society went on to say, “It’s important to keep gardening for pollinators for the long term. Just take steps to reduce pesticide exposure: cover new plants the first year, water heavily, discard the soil before planting, as it may be contaminated, and avoid pesticide use.”
THIS APP IS A MUST FOR BACKYARD BIRDERS
If you want to easily elevate your bird identification skills to a new level, I suggest that you download into your smart phone the free Merlin Bird ID app. This app is designed by the Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology to simplify bird identification.
One of the best ways to learn to identify birds by sight and sound is to be fortunate enough to have a mentor that can guide you through what at first seems to be a complex and confusing process. If you are like me, when you started out on this lifelong journey, you had to teach yourself the nuances of bird identification using nothing more than a Peterson field guide and a vinyl long-playing recording of bird calls. Nowadays beginning and veteran birds alike can benefit from a variety of birding tools that make birding easier than ever before. One of best of these tools I have stumbled across is the Merlin Bird ID app. When you download Merlin into your iPhone, you are carrying an electronic mentor around in your pocket.
Merlin helps to visually identify birds in two ways. For example, you can name a bird using a photograph. Simply take a picture of the bird and run it through the app’s photo processing feature, the picture will be compared to literally thousands of digital photographs in Cornell’s massive photo library. In a matter of seconds, Merlin will make suggestions as the bird’s identity.
If you don’t have a picture of a bird, you can determine the bird’s identity by answering three simple questions relating to its size, color and habitat. In a matter of seconds, Merlin processes your answers and generates a list (complete with photos) of possible matches.
The feature that I am most fond of is the song/call identifier. If you hear a bird singing from a dense shrub or treetop and wonder what bird is producing the distinctive sounds, Merlin is ready to solve the mystery. All you have to do to use this feature is hold out your phone and tap the record button. The device uses your iPhone’s microphone to detect the songs and calls filling the air all around you. The app records these sounds and compares them to the bird songs housed in Cornell’s extensive audio library and develops a list of possible matches (complete with photos). The matches pop up on your phone’s screen. Often you will be amazed at what the device detects. Whereas you might have thought the calls and songs coming from the trees and shrubs around your house were made only by mockingbirds and cardinals, only to discover white-eyed vireos, pine warblers, and a wood thrush were also lurking nearby. On more than one occasion, the app has identified up to ten species of birds vocalizing in my backyard on a spring morning.
At the end of each recording session, you can compare the app’s identifications with the recordings of each species in question and decide whether or not Merlin was correct.
Keep in mind these are tentative identification. However, based on my limited experience using the app, I have found the sound identification feature has been accurate over 90 percent of the time.
The Merlin app also has a variety of other features that I did not describe. With that in mind, for more information regarding this powerful birding tool, go online and read about Merlin’s entire suite of features.
It is truly amazing that the app is packed with so much information. Can you believe the app is free?
If you give the app a try, let me know what you think of it.
IT’S TIME TO PRUNE TRUMPET CREEPER VINES
One of the keys to transforming a backyard into a hummingbird haven is providing hummingbirds with an abundance of food throughout the year. One of the plants that is often used to meet this objective is a native vine named trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans). This vine is so favorited by ruby-throated hummingbirds it is often called hummingbird vine. However, like many hummingbird food plants, it requires some care. In the case of the trumpet creeper, this Georgia native needs to be pruned annually; and now is the time to do so.
Trumpet creeper does well on trellises, arbors, and fences. However, since it grows rapidly it should never be planted near a building. To prevent this from happening, trumpet creeper vines need pruned annually. Also, pruning back the vines will stimulate them to produce more nectar-laden flowers.
As such this is one of the chores you need to accomplish before leaves begin to appear. By doing so, you will be enhancing the beauty of your hummingbird haven and help ensure ruby-throated hummingbirds will have an abundance of nectar this year.
IT IS TIME TO REMOVE VINES AND TALL PLANTS GROWING NEAR NESTING BOXES
Before we know it, spring will be here, and birds will be nesting in the nesting boxes we have erected for them. Among the chores we all need to tackle in preparation for this year’s nesting season is trim back the vines, saplings and shrubs growing close to each of our nesting boxes.
One of the main reasons why this should be done is it helps protect the birds nesting in our boxes from arboreal snakes (those that climb trees). Snakes such as the rat snake are capable raiding nesting boxes erected on poles. For that reason, it is always best to mount nesting boxes on poles equipped with predator guards. However, even the best predator guards cannot protect a nest if vines encircle the pole or tall vegetation is growing nearby. Such plants create a veritable superhighway for snakes trying to raid a nesting box. Even if vegetation is not actually touching a box or pole, a snake can circumvent a predator guard and gain access to adults, eggs and/or young birds by simply climbing up nearby vegetation and then extending their body the distance between their head and the box.
For this reason, we need to make every effort to cut back tall vegetation in a wide circle around each nest. While we are creating this protection zone, any branches growing close to the top of the box should also be trimmed away. Snakes are also capable of using a canopy of branches to gain access to a nesting box.
Taking a little time to perform this simple task can give the birds nesting in our boxes a better chance of being successful.