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BACKYARD SECRET–PURPLE MARTINS HELP CONTROL FIRE ANTS

       Purple martins are known to eat at least 79 species of insects including dragonflies, flies, bees, moths, and butterflies. However, I would be willing to guess you did not know they also dine on fire ants.

       It seems purple martins target mating male and queen fire ants. One group of researchers studying the feeding habits of purple martins found fire ants were captured during 32 percent of the birds foraging trips. The ants accounted for 31 percent of the insects taken. In addition, fire ants comprised 27 percent of the biomass consumed by the birds and their young.

       Based on these data, the scientists estimated purple martins consume some 1.7 billion fire ants annually across the United States.

MOUNTAIN MINT IS A GREAT PLANT FOR POLLINATORS

       Over the years, my wife and I have been planting a diversity of nectar/pollen-producing plants in our gardens. This has been done in an effort to provide our backyard pollinators with sources of food throughout the year. This approach has offered us the opportunity to watch pollinators feed at a parade of plants from week to week as well as season to season. As the blossoms of one plant wither and die, pollinators redirect their attention to plants that are currently blooming. Right now, many of these pollinators are visiting mountain mint (Pycnanthemum sp.), one of the more recent additions to our landscape.

       Mountain mint is a native perennial herb that grows two to three feet tall. Eight species of this hardy plant are found in the Southeast. Plants grow two to three tall. They exist in a variety of soil conditions, including the dry clay soil found in our yard. While the plant does best in moist soil types, it is drought tolerant. Mountain mint will grow in partial shade as well as full sun.

    Mountain mint has a unique, eye-catching appearance. What makes this plant stand out is the fact that the leaves growing just below its flowers look like they have received a dusting of powdered sugar. In fact, to me, this foliage is far more attractive than the plant’s small white-purple blooms. In fact, these blossoms or so small you might overlook them if they were not arranged in clusters.

       However, though mountain mint plants won’t win any awards for beauty, the fact that it blooms from June into October makes it an important source of food for wild pollinators.

       Speaking of awards, in 2013 the Penn State Extension Service evaluated 88 pollinator-rewarding perennial plants for their importance to pollinators. At the end of the trial, mountain mint (P. muticum) received the highest rating for longevity of flowers, diversity of pollinators that use the plants, and the most insects attracted during the trials. In one trial, 76 insects visited the plants in just two minutes.

       I am not surprised at these findings. When my wife and daughter found our mountain mint blooming a few days ago, they saw a stand of mint being visited by three species of butterflies (juniper hairstreak, red-banded hairstreak, and pearl crescent). They competed with the likes of thread-waisted wasps, hornets, and bumblebees.

       One thing I like about mountain mint is that it is easy to grow. A friend gave us some mountain mint plants two summers ago. We set them out and kept them watered. The very next year the plants produced a crop of flowers.

       If you like to create dried arrangements, you will love mountain mint. Each fall after the flowers have disappeared, you are left with scores of unique prickly, round, brown seed heads displayed on long stems.

       Mountain mint is a plant that definitely deserves a place in your flower gardens.

THE SUMMER TANAGER’S ODD FOOD CHOICE

       One of the many birds that inhabit our backyards during the spring and summer is the summer tanager. Although it is one of our most beautiful backyard residents, it is a bird that lives there in relative anonymity. This is because it rarely visits our feeders and regularly feeds out of our sight within the thick canopies of tall, leafy trees. If we were able to peel away the leaves and watch a summer tanager feed, we would be soon discover that this striking bird has an odd food preference.

       Like a number of our other summer avian residents, the summer tanager dines on a wide variety of foods. Its varied diet includes fruits and berries in addition to a host of various invertebrates such as grasshoppers, cicadas, spiders, moths, and butterflies. However, the thing that separates the tanager from many birds is its affinity for bees, hornets, and wasps. In fact, it is so fond of them it is sometimes called the bee bird.

       Remarkably one of the bird’s favorite foods is the paper wasp. Summer tanagers are known to eat the adult wasps and also rip open their nests and feast on the wasps’ larvae.

       More often than not, we rarely catch a glimpse of a summer tanager hunting for insects that can deliver a painful sting to bird or man alike. From time to time though, summer tanagers can be seen perched closer to the ground near a beehive waiting for the chance to snatch a worker honeybee flying to or from the hive.

       The summer tanager is able to avoid being stung by grabbing hold its prey and flying back to a nearby perch. Once there it pounds the hapless insect against the branch until it is dead. It then proceeds to wipe the lifeless insect on the branch. This removes the bee’s stinger and other body parts that are inedible. Once this food preparation is completed, it swallows the bee whole and awaits the chance to feed again.

AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES FEED ON SCARLET SAGE SEEDS

       One lesson I learned many years ago is some of the most fascinating wildlife sightings take place when you least expect it. Such was the case last Sunday. My wife and I had just finished dinner when she called out, “Come here, you have got to see this.”

       As soon as I heard her entreaty, I rousted myself out of my favorite chair and walked to the doorway leading to our sunroom. Once there she directed my gaze to a planter full of potted plants standing alongside the rail bordering the far side of the deck.

       As soon as I was able to locate what my wife was pointing at, I was surprised to see a female American goldfinch pulling apart the seed heads of a scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea). As we watched, the bird expertly extracted each unripe seed and immediately devoured it.

       Once I saw what was going on, I retreated to the house, grabbed my camera, and returned. Since this was the first time I had ever witnessed this behavior, I desperately wanted to photograph the event. Knowing that the bird would fly away if I opened the sunroom door, I slowly moved as close to the windows as I could and took several pictures through the sunroom’s windows. Knowing full well how difficult it is to photograph birds through window glass, I realized my chances of being able to take decent pictures were low. Remarkably, when I later reviewed the photos, I was surprised to find the photographs exceeded my expectations.

       A few minutes later a male American goldfinch flew in to enjoy the feast taking place no more than 10 feet away from us. This provided me with the opportunity to photo both birds from the comfort of my sunroom. What a treat!

       As we watched the birds feed, I could not help but wonder why they chose to feed on the scarlet sage’s tiny, green seeds when a feeder stocked with black oil sunflower seeds was no more than 20 feet away.

       We watched this fascinating drama play out for several more minutes before something scared the birds away. As the goldfinches flew to a stand of trees, we were left with several super photos and memories of how a pair of goldfinches made a Sunday afternoon extra special.

       I am so glad my wife just happened to notice what was taking place just outside our backdoor.

       Keep your eyes peeled as natural dramas are taking place in your backyard every day. However, you will never see them unless you take the time to look for these special happenings.

       One final note: if you will type the words “scarlet sage” in the search engine bubble located in the upper right corner of the blog and hit return key, two other blogs I have written about wildlife use of scarlet sage will pop up.

CAN URBAN AREAS AFFECT BIRD MIGRATION?

       Growing numbers of backyard wildlife enthusiasts share the opinion that they are not seeing as many birds visiting their backyard feeders during the winter as they did in years past. It is a widely accepted fact that the total numbers of North American birds have declined dramatically in recent decades. However, other factors may also be having a deleterious impact on the numbers of birds that winter in the Georgia. The results of a recently completed study published in Conservation Biology identified one possible reason for birds apparently altering their migration patterns.

       Accord to the study’s lead author Anne-Sophie Bonnet-Lebrun, “This showed that urbanization can have an effect on migratory behavior of birds.”  

       This conclusion was reached after analyzing banding data involving 12 partially migratory species. These species may or may not migrate every year. The researchers found that, of the species banded, the European starling, American Goldfinch, evening grosbeak, and purple finch were the birds that would most likely winter within the breeding range. However, urbanization increases the likelihood that common grackles, European starlings, house finches, and white-throated sparrows will also remain in their breeding areas too.

       The researchers suggest that warmer temperatures, coupled with food availability provided by the presence of bird feeders, and other foods found within urban areas offer birds ideal places to winter.

       Further research is needed to determine if urban areas are affecting the migratory patterns of other bird species.

BLACK BEARS AND BIRD FEEDERS — A RECIPE FOR TROUBLE

        Some 5,100 black bears live in the state of Georgia. While they are not what you would call backyard wildlife, during the warm months of the year, they are known to make forays into backyards in search of food. When this happens, it does not bode well for the bears or us.

       Although black bears are seen throughout the state, biologists have discovered Georgia is home to three distinct bear populations. One population calls the north Georgia mountains its home. A second population lives in central Georgia in the Ocmulgee River drainage. Another population roams in and around the vast Okefenokee Swamp in the southeast corner of the state.

       Naturally, those Georgians that live in or nearby any one of these populations has the greatest chance of having a bear show up in their yards. However, they can be seen in some unexpected locales such as urban areas like Atlanta and Macon. With that in mind, it is a good idea to know what you should do to discourage bears from visiting your yard.

       Most black bears appear in backyards looking for food. Being an omnivore a black bear can eat just about anything. Since the animal cam possess an excellent sense of smell, thoroughly clean outdoor grills after they have been used. Also, refrain from storing household garbage outside. Bears are drawn to the intoxicating scents of cooked meat and garbage.

       Bears are fond of pet food too. Consequently, if you feed your pets outside, don’t leave any uneaten food in the yard overnight.

       Bears also love birdseed and suet. It is understandable why they are drawn to these delicacies. Both foods contain lots of protein and fat. In areas where folks are regularly plagued with visits from hungry bears, it is recommended that feeders be taken in at night. If you face such a problem, it is a good idea to clean up all uneaten food that collects below the feeders. Some people even go to the trouble of spraying the ground beneath feeders with ammonia in hopes it will help eliminate the scent of the seeds.

       Once a bear locates a backyard that features bird feeders, it has found a bonanza. Where else can a bear gorge itself on a bounty of easily accessible food with little effort? Consequently, the bear will return as long as the food is available. The only way you can counter these feeding forays is to remove all potential food from your backyard. Even then, it may take some time before a bear moves on in its relentless search food. In its wake, it will likely leave you with damaged or missing feeders and bent poles that simply could not withstand the onslaught of a hungry bear.

       If you do happen to see a bear in your backyard, do not try to approach it. Bears are much stronger and faster than you are. On top of that, why in the world would you want to approach a wild animal that can weigh as much as 300 to 500 pounds anyway? If a bear feels threatened, you stand a chance of being hurt. Fortunately, there have only been two verified cases of bears attacking humans in the Southeast, and to my knowledge, they did not take place in a backyard.

       While the chances of a bear showing up in your yard are slim, many backyard bear encounters take place every year. If one does show up, make every effort to ensure this wild experience safe for you and the bear.

              For more information concerning bears, email the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division at http://www.georgiawildlife.com or BearWise at http://www.bearwise.org. BearWise is an educational program designed by bear biologists from all of the 15 state wildlife agencies in the Southeast.

FROGS AND FISH DON’T MIX IN SMALL BACKYARD PONDS

       If you are trying to encourage frogs to breed in your small backyard pond, it is best not to stock your pond with fish, with the exception of the perhaps a small number of mosquito fish.

       It seems many species of fish will eat tadpoles. In addition, young fish will often compete with tadpoles for food.

 

SWEET WILLIAM CAN BE A GREAT BUTTERFLY AND HUMMINGBIRD PLANT

       My wife and I are always eager to try a plant that has the reputation of being a gorgeous ornamental as well as great hummingbird and/or butterfly plant. One such plant we have added to our gardens is Sweet William. Since Sweet William has long been a favorite of Georgia gardeners, I don’t know why we had not planted it before.

       Sweet William is a member of the carnation family. It grows from five to 36 inches tall. The flowers are arranged in tightly packed bouquet-like clusters comprised of upwards of 30 or more blooms. The plants serrated petals ranging in color from purple to white, red, pink, or variegated. On top this, the plants easily hybridize and produce a wide variety of other color variations.

       Sweet William blooms in the Peach State from late spring until the first autumn frost. During this blooming period, individual plants can be encouraged to continue producing blossoms by deadheading.

      The old-fashioned garden favorite is native to Europe. Nobody knows for sure where the plant got its name. One of the most popular theories is it is named for England’s eighteenth century Prince William. Others suggest the floral beauty is named for William Shakespeare. I guess we will never know the answer to this quandary.

       You can establish Sweet William in your garden from either seed or seedlings. If you plant seeds in spring to early summer, or set out plants in September or October, you will have to wait until the following spring to enjoy their showy blossoms. It you do not want to wait that long for the plant to blossom, you might want to consider buying plants and transplanting them to your garden soon after the spring’s last frost. In addition, if you sow seeds in the fall, they will germinate into plants that will bloom the following year.

       I should mention, if you allow Sweet William plants to go to seed, they will readily reseed themselves. That being the case, they will quickly spread throughout a garden.

       Sweet William will grow in a variety of soil types but seems to do best in well-drained, slightly alkaline soils.

       In the spring of 2019, my wife sowed Sweet William seeds around one of our birdbaths. Only one plant produced a single flower last year. However, the plants overwintered and this spring (2020) rewarded us with an abundance of pink, red, and white blossoms.

       For my wife, this floral show brought make memories of the Sweet Williams blooming in her grandmother’s garden years ago. In addition, they enabled me to take some stunning pictures of cardinals, thrashers and other birds visiting the birdbath to bathe and drink. The contrast between the birds’ plumage and the colorful flowers is stunning.

       As for pollinators, as you can see from the accompanying picture, butterflies are already partaking in the nectar found in each Sweet William blossom. Hummingbirds and native bees have also been seen visiting the plants.

       That being the case, this experimental planting seems to be a success.

BARN SWALLOWS HAVE A LONG ASSOCIATION WITH MANKIND

       If we were to travel back through the mists of time, we would find that barn swallow nested in sinkholes, caves, and on rock crevices and cliffs. This significantly limited the breeding range of this swallow. However, while many species of birds have not adapted to the spread of humankind across the globe, that is not the case with the barn swallow.

       For example, here in North America the barn swallow has a long association with humans. It is believed that the barn swallow probably attached their mud nests to Native American structures.

       The historical record tells us that it did not take the barn swallow long to take advantage of manmade structures built by European colonists in North America. A Swedish naturalist that traveled throughout what is now the Northeastern United States during the mid-1700s wrote that he found barn swallows nesting beneath overhanging rocks, as well as “on the edges of perpendicular rocks.” He went on to say the birds also nested in stables, as well as both inside and on the sides of dwellings.

       This habit has greatly expanded since that time. Nowadays practically all barn swallow nests of plastered in manmade structures ranging from beneath bridges, on the sides and rafters of barns, inside culverts, in and on tool sheds, in basements and the sides of our homes. There seems no limit to the number of places where these birds will nest.

       Over the centuries, barn swallows have become extremely popular. The barn swallow is the national bird of both Austria and Estonia. In many cultures, when a barn swallow builds a nest on a barn, it is considered good luck. In Estonia, legend has it that anyone that commits the crime of killing barn swallow will go blind.

       A Native American legend relates that one day a barn swallow had the audacity to swipe fire from the Gods. The story goes on the say the bird then presented fire to humans. In an effort to thwart this act of thievery, the Gods shot flaming arrows at the bird. One of the arrows struck the bird at the base of its tail. The arrow subsequently burned away the bird’s central tail feathers. As a result, ever since the barn swallow flies about the land displaying two long tail feathers.

       Remarkably, the barn swallow has the distinction of being of having the greatest range of any other swallow. Its breeding range stretches across North America, Europe and winters in both Africa and South America.

       I think you will agree it appears that the barn swallow’s relationship with us is not going to wane with time.

THE CLICK BEETLE IS AN ODD BACKYARD RESIDENT

      The click beetle is one of literally thousands of insects that inhabit backyards throughout the state. However, most of these animals live in anonymity. Today Kim Walton, the web master for this blog, spotted her first click beetle in her backyard. This unusual insect was seen on a deck post.  

    The large eye-like markings displayed by some species of click beetles give the insect an ominous look. However, the click beetle is not prone to bite or sting. In fact, if Kim had touched it, the beetle probably would have immediately fallen to the ground and played dead.

       This insect is also known by a number of other names such as the snapping beetle, and skipjack. This is because, if place a click beetle on its back, it will flip itself into the air and land on its feet. This strange athletic fete is associated with a loud clicking noise.

       At times while adult beetles are burrowing into rotting logs, and butt their heads against hard wood, their head butting creates a tapping sound. Legend has it this is a sign of death.

       Adult click beetles feed on a variety of foods that include flowers and their nectar, as well as soft-bodied insects such as aphids.

       The click beetles larvae are known as wireworms. The larvae are true predators that hunt the larvae of other beetles, and a wide variety of tiny invertebrates. They will also consume both roots and seeds.

       Although click beetles are not as fearsome as they may appear to be, they are definitely a member large, diverse community of plants and animals that inhabit our backyards.