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.
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.
When the very first ruby-throated hummingbirds begin arriving in backyards across the state food is at a premium. This is because most of the flowers at that are blooming in early spring do not produce an abundance of nectar. As such, rubythroats must find other sources of food. In addition to our feeders, many hummingbirds rely on the sugary sap that collects in holes drilled in 246 species of native trees by the yellow-bellied sapsucker.
In case you are not familiar with this winter migrant, it is a woodpecker best known for drilling shallow holes in live trees. Often these holes are arranged in circles surrounding the trunk of a tree. Sap flowing through the tree collects in these cavities. In fact, in some cases, you can actually see where it oozed out of the cavities and dripped down the trunk of the tree.
The sap is a major source of food for the woodpecker. The sapsucker is able to dine on the sap because its tongue is equipped with an odd brush-like structure that it uses to collect the sticky liquid and bring it into its body.
Although sapsuckers often vainly try to discourage other wildlife from robbing their tiny sap-filled reservoirs, wildlife such as Carolina chickadees, squirrels, butterflies, moths, and ruby-throated hummingbirds often avail themselves of the food. Since the sap contains amino acids and sucrose, it is an ideal food for hungry hummingbirds.
It appears the food provided by the yellow-bellied sapsucker is more important to hummingbirds than we once thought. For example, rubythroats have been observed tailing sapsuckers through wooded areas seemingly to learn the location of active sapsucker wells. In addition, hummingbirds have been recorded actually trying to thwart other birds from feeding on trees containing sapsucker sucker holes.
It has also been demonstrated the northward migration of the yellow-bellied sapsucker closely mirrors that of the ruby-throated hummingbird. It should also be noted that when the rubythroats that nests in the northern limits of their breeding range, few nectar plants are blooming. This necessitates the birds to rely heavily on the sap collected in sapsucker wells to survive until nectar-bearing plants begin to bloom.
Chances are, if you have fruit or other hardwood trees growing in your backyard, they have been visited by the yellow-bellied sapsucker.
I guess you could say that when it comes to feeding hummingbirds early in the spring, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and we are the ruby-throated hummingbird’s best friends.
When late winter begins releasing its icy grip on the on the landscape I am constantly listening for sounds that herald the coming of spring. One sound that I am hoping to hear is the song of the brown thrasher.
In spite of the fact the temperature hovered in the low 30s, one of the first birds I heard as I stepped outside my home Saturday morning (March 7) as the sun was just beginning to rise above the horizon was a song uttered by a brown thrasher. I must admit I was both surprised and happy to hear the bird’s pleasant melody. In fact, it so startled me, I had to convince myself I was not listening to a northern mockingbird. However, after listening to the songster for a couple of minutes I was sure I was indeed being serenaded by a brown thrasher.
I hear the brown thrashers more often than I see it. This comes as no surprise since they stake out its domain in and near the shrubby border surrounding my yard. As such, unless you can recognize their rambling, complex song, thrashers can be easily overlooked. However, in springtime when males are courting females they will sing atop a high perch. However, since the brown thrasher’s song sounds much like the more often seen and heard northern mockingbird, it is easy to assume you are listening to a brown thrasher. Since we hear mockingbirds sing so often, even when a thrasher is singing from upon high, we might not even look up to take a glimpse of this accomplished minstrel.
It is actually very easy to separate the vocalizations of the brown thrasher and the northern mockingbird. All you have to remember is the brown thrasher typically utters a rambling series of phrases twice.
One of the earliest descriptions of the brown thrasher’s song was penned by the famous American naturalist Henry David Thoreau. In his well-known book “Walden, or, Life in the Woods,” published in 1854, Thoreau recalls a time when he was hoeing a row of beans as a brown thrasher kept repeating, “Drop it, cover it up, cover it up, — pull it up, pull it up, put it up.”
The Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s modern version of the song is “Plant a seed, plant a seed, bury it, bury it, cover it up, cover it up, let it grow, let it grow, pull it up, pull it up, eat it, eat it.”
The mockingbird, on the other hand, usually repeats the phases in its song three times.
The next time you are taking a walk about in your backyard and hear what sounds like a mockingbird, listen carefully the songster just might be listening a brown thrasher.
Now that I have heard a brown thrasher singing, seen the and realize I should spot my first ruby-throated hummingbird in a little over a week, I know spring is knocking at my backdoor. The only thing that would make things better is spring’s arrival will finally end the weather pattern that has dumped far too much rain on Georgia during the past several weeks.
More often than not, when people erect a bird-nesting box in their Georgia backyard they do so in hopes it will be used by eastern bluebirds. The truth of the matter is bluebirds do not nest in every backyard. For example, they typically refrain from nesting in cities. They also avoid wooded areas. They much prefer nesting in more open sites often found at the fringes of urban areas, and the wide-open spaces of the rural countryside.
However, if your yard is characterized by scattered trees or the presence of nearby woodland, erecting a box there might be just perfect for a pair of Carolina chickadees.
If you decide to construct a Carolina chickadee nesting box, you can build it to the specifications of a typical bluebird box with one exception—drill the entrance hole 1 1/8-inches in diameter.
If, on the other hand, you want to buy a Carolina chickadee nesting box, you will probably find it difficult to find one. This problem can be easily remedied by purchasing a standard bluebird box and installing an inexpensive 1 1/8’inch hole guard over the traditional 1 1/2-inch entrance hole cut in the box.
This will do a couple of things. First, it will prevent larger cavity nesting birds from nesting in the box. It will also prevent squirrels from destroying the box by trying gain access to it by enlarging the entrance hole.
In a few weeks, ruby-throated hummingbirds will be making the long trip from their winter home to Georgia. Those hummers that fly across the Gulf of Mexico have long are arduous flight without having the luxury of stopping to rest or refuel.
Depending on where they take off and land, this migratory flight spans anywhere from 500 to 600 miles of open water. In order to successfully make the flight, a rubythroat must beat its wings some 2.7 million times. To top it all off, a hummingbird may use only 3/40th of an ounce of fuel.
My wife and I have noticed the last birds to our seed feeders are typically cardinals. Long after the chipping sparrows, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and house finches have gone to roost male northern cardinals seem to glow in the fading light of the day. Once the cardinals finally call it quits for the day, as much as we probably don’t like to think about it, a number of unwanted guests are apt to visit our feeders under the cloak of darkness.
To some extent, which animals will visit our feeders depends on where you live in the Peach State. For example, if you reside in North Georgia or a handful of other locations scattered around the rest of the state where black bears make their home, during the warmer months of the year you might have a visit from a black bear.
For the rest of us, our feeders are more likely to be visited by rodents, raccoons, opossums, and white-tailed deer. Believe it or not, coyotes and foxes are also known to frequent feeders at night. In most cases, these animals are attracted to seeds that have been flipped out of feeders or scattered on the ground. That being the case, one of the best ways to discourage nocturnal visits by these furry critters is to clean up any seed left on the ground. This task can be made less daunting by putting out only as much seed as your think the birds will eat during the day.
Deer can often be thwarted by not feeding inexpensive seed mixtures that often contain corn. Corn is a favorite deer food.
If marauding bears are a problem, you will have to take your feeders down before sunset. If you don’t, you stand the very real chance of having feeders destroyed our hauled off into the woods.
You might find it surprising to learn birds use most of their energy just to keep warm. Studies have demonstrated that roughly 90 percent of the energy birds derive from the foods they eat in the wild and at our feeders is used by their bodies to keep warm. This leaves them with precious little energy devoted to reproduction and growth. This is in stark contrast to the green anoles, toads and other reptiles and amphibians living in our backyards. It seems they are able to employ 90 percent of the energy obtained from their diets directly into growth and reproduction.
Remarkable as it may sound birds bathe in the winter to keep warm. In fact, bathing during this our coldest season of the year is actually more important to birds than it is in summer. This may seem hard to fathom at first. However, when you stop and think about it, bathing at this time of the year makes a lot of sense.
A bird’s feathers help insulate it from the cold. These feathers provide the most insulation when they are clean and properly groomed. If you were to look at the feather of a bird through a microscope, you would find that each feather is equipped with a myriad of tiny barbs or hooks. The barbs on adjacent feathers interlock with one another forming barrier that helps to hold body heat in and cold air out.
As a bird goes about feeding and flying, these barbs become “unzipped.” When this occurs, the feathers’ ability to insulate a bird from frigid weather diminishes.
After a bird takes a bird in your birdbath, it will spend considerable time preening its feathers. During this process, the bird uses its bill interlock the feathers once more. Once this task is accomplished, the bird is better able to deal with winter’s blustery weather.