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LOOK FOR WIDOW SKIMMERS PATROLLING YOUR YARD

        Today when I walked on to my deck for the first time,

        I flushed a dragonfly that had perched atop a pole supporting one of the plants growing in a container.  The distinctive color pattern on its wings and body color told me it was a widow skimmer (Lebellula luctuosa).

      The male widow skimmer (called a king) is one of our most recognizable dragonflies.  It is a medium-sized (1.2 – 2 inches long; with a 1-1.5-inch wingspan) dragonfly with wings marked with black and white blotches.  The black blotches extend outwards from its body toward the tips of its wings.  Much narrower white markings are located just beyond the black blotches.  The insect’s body is powder blue.

       In contrast, the wings of the female (called a queen) are marked with a single dark blotch on each wing.

       While this dragonfly is most common along the borders of lakes, and swamps, it also ventures into our backyard.  The widow skimmer is most common in the summer but can also be spotted in the spring and autumn.

       This distinctive dragonfly lives as an adult for just a few weeks.  During this time males establish a territory up to 250 square acres which it vigorously defends again the intrusions of others.

       The widow skimmer habitually uses perches. The black skimmer I spotted today flew off and returned to the same perch several times in a few minutes.

       If are you interested in photographing a widow skimmer, all you have to do is to stand motionless a short distance away from a favorite perch and wait for it to return.  This saves you having to scamper about the yard trying to snap a picture.

       The widow skimmer feeds a wide variety of small soft-bodied invertebrates such as spiders, flying ants, hover flies, and even mosquitoes.   Prey is snatched from the air with its legs.

       If you spot a widow skimmer in your yard, don’t be afraid of it.  Widow skimmers do not attack or bite humans.  Just enjoy its beauty and mastery of the air as it patrols the air space above your lawn and gardens.

 

BIRDS LOVE BLACK CHERRIES

       Many birds are so fond of berries and fruits they will travel some distance to eat them.  Even birds they we do not associate with such foods will go out of their way to find and eat them whenever they are in season.  My daughter Angela recently learned that one of these birds in the great crested flycatcher.

       Birds living in most subdivisions find wild foods hard to come by.   However, Angela has a black cherry (Prunus serotina) tree growing alongside the fence that separates her and her neighbor’s backyards. Somehow the tree escaped the bull dozer, or perhaps sprouted from a seed left behind by a bird that dined on black cherry sometime in the past. It is now old enough to annually produce a crop of pea-sized, shiny red to almost black fruits.

Black Cherry Tree || Photo credit: Angela Dupree

       Angela has seen many different species of birds descend on the tree in May and June to chow down on the juicy fruits.  However, recently she heard an unfamiliar bird call coming for the tree.  She immediately pulled up her Merlin bird identification app.  The app identified the bird as a great crested flycatcher.  She could not believe it!  She had never seen a great crested flycatcher in her yard before.  Needless to say, you would not expect to find this bird in a subdivision.

       Wanting to make sure Merlin had correctly identified her visitor; she sat down and waited for the bird to appear.  In a matter of minutes, the bird came into view—it was indeed a great crested flycatcher.  The bird was plucking black cherries hanging from the tree’s slender branches.

       Knowing that the great crested flycatcher primarily eats insects and other invertebrates she went online to see if black cherries are also consumed.  She learned that Georgia’s only flycatcher that nests in a cavity does indeed eat black cherries.

       Angela also learned that more than 40 other birds also eat the fruit of the black cherry tree.  Among the other birds that also dine on the juicy fruit are the summer tanager, eastern bluebird, woodpeckers, mockingbird, brown thrasher, and gray catbird. 

       My daughter is convinced that she would probably have never seen a great crested flycatcher in her yard if it wasn’t for the fact that a cherry tree was not there.  With that in mind she plans on keeping closer tabs on the birds that visit this great native tree.

       Angela realizes she will never know if the hungry great crested flycatcher flew in from the woods hugging a stream at the base of the hill well away from her home or elsewhere.  I guess it really doesn’t really matter from whence the bird came.  The important thing is it that it found this special tree and provided her with an unforgettable memory that prompted her to embark on a journey of discovery that led to her having greater appreciation for a tree that is too often considered to be nothing more than a weed.

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.

THE DROUGHT INCREASES THE NEED TO PROVIDE BACKYARD BIRDS WITH WATER

       With much of Georgia suffering from drought conditions, the need to provide our backyard bird neighbors with water grows each day.  Consequently, in many neighborhoods, nearby water is difficult or impossible for birds to find. Here are some of the reasons why a lack of water can have negative impacts on birds.

       This year drought conditions surfaced during the spring when young birds are venturing out into the world for the very first time.  As we all know, these inexperienced fledglings are vulnerable to a host of predators.  When hapless youngsters are forced to travel greater distances to reach water, their chances of becoming a meal for predators are greater than they would be if water was available in or near our yards.

       In the case of birds that are still nesting, when nesting birds are required to travel greater distances for water, they are forced to spend more time away from their young, increasing the odds their nests will be discovered by predators.

       On the average, wild birds lose an average of 15 to 25 percent of their body weight each day. Larger birds generally lose less weight, in relation to their body mass, than smaller birds.  Water plays a role a bird’s ability to maintain its physical health. The high temperatures that have recently plagued the state, has increased their need for water.

       Water also allows birds to maintain their plumage.  This allows cleaning their feathers as well as helping control parasites.

       With that in mind, one of the most important things we can do for birds in our backyards to provide them with a dependable, safe source of water. Anything from a shallow pan to a birdbath will suffice.  While you are at it, put at least one water source on the ground to benefit those animals that cannot reach a birdbath on a pedestal.

       Although bird enthusiasts make providing a clean, dependable source of food their top priority, maintaining a place for birds to feed and drink is important too.   This is especially true right now when many of the natural sources of water used by birds have dried up.

UPDATE ON THE AVIAN FLU IN GEORGIA

        Several weeks ago, I posted a blog regarding the presence of avian flu in Georgia and its possible impact on the birds that visit our feeders. At that time, I promised to provide you with any new information that becomes available.  A May 17 news release issued by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division updated the status of the disease in Georgia.

       According to the Division’s wildlife biologists, data regarding the incidence of avian flu suggests that the vast majority of Georgia’s songbirds are not at risk of catching the dreaded disease. The songbirds that are at the highest risk are those living near domestic poultry flocks that have become infected with the disease.  However, the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division emphasizes that the only birds share an elevated risk of catching the disease are scavengers such as vultures and crow.

       Fortunately, to date, avian flu has not been detected in any domestic poultry flocks in Georgia.

       The short list of birds that have been infected by the disease in the Peach State is restricted to waterfowl and eagles.    

       For those of us that feed birds in our yards, the bottom line is we can continue to feed birds at our feeders without the fear that our efforts are helping spread the disease.

      However, Wildlife Biologist Todd Schneider emphasizes that feeders and feeding areas should be kept as clean as possible.  This will ensure our feathered friends will not suffer from house finch disease, or one of a host of other fatal or debilitating diseases spread by organisms that thrive on wet, and moldy seeds.

BACKYARD SECRET—CPT. JOHN SMITH NAMED THE OPOSSUM

     Captain John Smith, a leader of the Jamestown Colony, is widely credited with naming the opossum. 

     Supposedly, Captain Smith came across an opossum while in the company of a member of the Algonquin Tribe.  When Smith asked the man what this strange looking animal was called, his companion told him it was an “aposum.”  The Native American name referred to the long-tailed animal’s white face.  However, as luck would have it, as the man uttered the word “aposum” he grunted.  This led Captain Smith to believe he said possum.  Is this story true?  We may never know for sure.  What I do know is the opossum is indeed an odd animal.

BACKYARD SECRET—THE RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD’S BRAIN IS BIGGER THAN YOU THINK

        I am truly amazed at the ruby-throated hummingbird’s memory.  For example, studies have revealed rubythroats can remember the locations of every feeder and flower they visit in our yards as well as how long it takes each flower to replenish its supply of nectar.  They can even remember the locations of the feeders and flower beds that provided them with food the previous year.

       Wow! It must take a truly large brain to accomplish such mental fetes.  In truth, the rubythroat’s brain is smaller than a pea.  While that is indeed physically very small, comparatively speaking it is larger than our brains or those of any other bird in the entire world.  Let me explain.

       The hummingbird brain makes up about 4.2 percent of its body weight.  This makes its brain is proportionally larger than the brains of all other birds.  In comparison, our brains comprise only about 2 percent of our body weight.

      

       

LOOK FOR BEGGING AT YOUR FEEDERS

        At this time of the year, it is common for adult birds to appear at our feeders accompanied by their fledglings.  When this happens, we are able to observe the young begging for their parents to feed them.

       The fledglings’ parents have been feeding their young in the nest for quite some time.  Interestingly, once their brood leaves the nest the adults will continue to feed young birds for anywhere from one to three weeks.  During this time the young birds will make their first attempts to feed themselves. However, most fledglings would undoubtedly starve if their parents did not continue to feed them.

       When a family of birds arrives at your feeding station the youngsters will sometimes perch atop or nearby a feeder waiting for a parent to feed it.  However, it seems that more often than not a fledgling will perch alongside a parent that is dining on seeds or other foods.  In an attempt to coax a parent to feed it, a fledgling will typically anxiously chirp at an adult while rapidly fluttering its wings.  This usually does the trick and the parents succumb to their youngsters begging.

       This morning I watched a family of house finches arrive at one of my sunflower feeders.  Immediately the fluffy, drab youngsters began begging for food.  Their irritating behavior worked and quickly the parents were placing food in the large, gaping mouths of their young. 

As I watched this fascinating behavior, I said to myself, “Little guys, you had better enjoy the free lunch while you can as it won’t be long before you will be fending for yourselves.”   

BACKYARD SECRET—ORCHARD ORIOLES OFTEN NEST CLOSE TO EASTERN KINGBIRD NESTS

     For reasons that are not fully understood, some orchard orioles will nest close to the nests of eastern kingbirds.  This might come as a surprise since eastern kingbirds have the reputation of aggressively defending their nests.  Well, many experts believe that this is the reason why orchard orioles will choose nest sites sometimes within mere yards from the nests of eastern kingbirds.

     It seems obvious that kingbirds do not feel threatened by North America’s smallest oriole.  However, when kingbirds fly out to confront a crow, common grackle or other potential avian nest predator flying close to their nests, they unwittingly also defend the nearby nests of orchard orioles.

 

    Some studies suggest that this behavior may translate into real benefits for the orchard orioles.  Studies have shown that, when the nesting success of orchard orioles that nest close to eastern kingbirds was compared with the success of those that do not, they discovered the nesting success of orioles that nest some distance away from eastern kingbird nests was lower.  In fact, there also seems to be a correlation between kingbird populations and orchard oriole populations.  When eastern kingbird numbers are high orchard orioles are more abundant too.

     

REDUCE COMPETITION FOR NEST BOXES BETWEEN CAROLINA CHICKADEES AND BLUEBIRDS

       Since there is a paucity of natural bird nesting cavities throughout Georgia, Carolina chickadees often have to compete with eastern bluebirds for the same nesting boxes. When this occurs Carolina chickadees usually end up looking for another place to nest.  There are, however, ways in which you can provide a nesting site of Carolina chickadees.

       One approach is to equip a nesting box with an 1 1/8-inch

entrance hole instead of the 1½-inch hole featured on standard bluebird boxes—bluebirds simply cannot squeeze through a 1 1/8 –hole.

However, Carolina chickadees can enter nesting boxes 1 1/8 inches or larger in diameter. Consequently, even if a pair of Carolina chickadees begins nesting in a standard bluebird box, the pair is not guaranteed their nesting attempt will be successful.   

       One reason for this is bluebirds will actually run off chickadees even after they have begun nesting.  It has also been documented that bluebirds will deposit their own nesting material over Carolina chickadee hatchlings.

       With that in mind, consider dedicating one or more nesting boxes for Carolina chickadees.  If Carolina chickadee nesting boxes are not readily available in your area, and  you don’t have the means to build your own box, all you have to do is install a metal hole guard featuring a 1 1/8-inch hole over the 1½ hole cut in the box.  Problem solved.