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BACKYARD SECRET – THE BLACK WALNUT TREE IS VALUABLE TO WILDLIFE

       I suspect that most of the folks that have a black walnut tree growing in their yards enjoy the tasty nuts the trees bears, its yellow fall foliage, and attractive shape. However, whenever I tell folks that their black walnut tree is also valuable to wildlife, they are pleasantly surprised.

       The tree serves as a host the banded hairstreak butterfly and more than 100 moths including the luna, royal and imperial.

       A number of small mammals eat the nuts including the eastern chipmunk and both gray and fox squirrels.  In fact, black walnuts can comprise up to 10 percent of the fox squirrel’s diet.

       Whenever black walnuts are cracked open by mammals, or crushed by vehicles in driveways or highways, many birds eat the highly nutritious meat.  In fact, black walnut meat is ranked as a choice food for the eastern towhee, cardinal, white-throated sparrow, brown-headed nuthatch, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, blue jay, and woodpeckers (hairy, red-bellied and downy).

MONARCHS IN THE WINTER?

       More than two decades ago, I spotted a monarch on Sea Island in February.  To say the least, I was surprised.  At the time, I convinced myself that the butterfly might have been one that was released during one of the many wedding ceremonies staged at the Cloister.  However, recent evidence suggests that the butterfly might have been trying to winter in the state.

       It seems that last year volunteers reported more than 5,800 monarch sighting made throughout the Southeast and Gulf States.  This has prompted biologists to launch studies designed to determine how many monarchs are seen each winter in this part of the world and how they might affect the future of the monarch.

       One of these studies is named Monarchs Overwintering in Southeastern States. It is being sponsored by a number of partners including the University of Georgia, Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and Monarchs over Georgia.

       We all can help by reporting any monarchs seen from December 1-March 1 in the states of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

       In you want to take part in this fascinating study, the first thing you need to do is create a free account at journeynorth.org/reg. Once have accomplished this, learn how to report monarch sightings at journeynorth.org/monarchs. Then whenever you spot a butterfly during the reporting period, submit it at journeynorth.org/sightings.

BACKYARD SECRET—SOME BUTTERFLIES OVERWINTER IN GEORGIA

     This past week many of us woke up to below freezing temperatures.  Obviously, this did not bode well for the smattering of butterflies that were still visiting our backyard nectar plants.  While it did spell the end of the year for the majority of these butterflies, I am sure not all of them succumbed to the frigid weather.

     This is great news for those of us that enjoying seeing these flying gems fluttering about the yard as long as possible.  This short list of this hardy butterflies includes the American snout, eastern comma, mourning cloak, sleepy orange, common buckeye, little sulphur, and American lady.

     Most of Georgia’s 170-plus species of butterflies survive the winter as eggs, caterpillars, or pupae.  The vast majority of the monarchs and most cloudless sulphurs escape cold weather by migrating to warmer climes.  The adult butterflies that we occasionally see during the winter spend most of their time hibernating in such places as hollow trees, log piles, beneath loose bark on trees, behinds the shutter of our houses or in abandoned buildings.

     The butterflies that my wife and I have seen since the onset of freezing weather have been nectaring at red salvia plants growing in large containers hugging the back wall of our home.

     Butterfly lovers like my wife and I hate to say goodbye to the insects that bring us so much enjoyment.

 

GEORGIA MINT MAKES A MAGICAL CHANGE

       I am sure you are familiar with the fairy tale that tells the story of how an ugly duckling magically turned into a beautiful swan. While my wife and I don’t have any swans swimming around the Johnson Homestead, each year we witness the similar transformation of a native plant known as Georgia mint from what many would call a nondescript weed into a beautiful wild flower.   Let me explain.

       If you visited our yard in early summer, you might wonder why we would find room for what some folks might think is an ugly weed to grow in our yard.  However if you returned anytime from late summer well into October you would discover the reason why we are so fond of it.

       At this time of the year, countless pale lavender-white flowers literally blanket our stand of Georgia mint.  Admittedly these blossoms are small, however, what they lack in size they more than make in delicate beauty.

       In our neck of the woods, the blooming period for Georgia mint extends for weeks.  In fact, the plants are still in full bloom as I write this blog.  In comparison, most of our most valued pollinator plants have either ceased blooming or will soon do so.  As a result, with each passing day bees (particularly small bumblebees), and butterflies are faced with an increasing shortage of flowers.  Fortunately, for them, in our yard, Georgia mint serves as a life preserver.

       Currently, our Georgia mint is in high demand.  Small bumblebees, cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges, a wide variety of skippers (e.g. ocolas, fierys, whirlabouts, cloudeds and duns), gulf fritillaries and buckeyes make daily trips to forage on the petite flowers.  Although In past years, monarchs have also joined the assemblage of pollinators, we have not seen any this year.

       Each year, when Georgia mint becomes the most visited pollinator plant in our yard, we are reminded that anyone that has the desire to help bees, butterflies and other pollinators should make the effort to provide a parade of plants that supplies these flying gems food throughout as much of the year as possible.  For us, Georgia mint is one of our most important late season nectar plants.

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.”

BACKYARD SECRET—THE COMMON BUCKEYE’S WINGS VARY IN COLOR FROM SUMMER TO FALL

       The common buckeye (Junonia coenia) is one of the most commonly seen butterflies in Georgia backyards.  It is seen so often that even somebody that has only a passing interest in butterflies is likely to familiar with it.  However, butterfly enthusiasts often are often guilty of not paying as much attention to the colors and patterns displayed on the wings of commonly seen butterflies as those species they spot less often.

       A good example of this is the common buckeye.  Have to ever noticed that the color of the ventral side of the wings we see displayed by common buckeyes flying about in the summer is noticeably different from those of buckeyes visiting our flowers in autumn?

       During the summer months, the undersides of the buckeye’s wings are tan or yellowish brown.  In contrast, the ventral sides of the wings of buckeyes flying about in the fall are rose-colored.

       Who would have guessed this is the case?

LOOK FOR LEOPARDS IN YOUR BACKYARD

        From spring into fall, leopards stalk our backyards.  I am not talking about the feline variety.  I am referring to the giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia).

        However, like the predator, that roams the wilds of Asia and Africa, the giant leopard moth also has spots.  The spots on its wings vary from black to blue.  Some spots might even have white centers.  Once you see one, you will have no problem understanding why we call it the leopard moth.  Nevertheless, I think you will agree with me that it would have been more appropriate to name it the Dalmatian moth.

       The female leopard moth is smaller than the male. Males have a wingspan of 3.6 inches whereas the female’s wingspan is only 2.25 inches.

       The leopard moth has a variety of host plants including male, cherry, willow, sunflower, cabbage.

       If you want to see one of these handsome moths, the best strategy you can employ is to have the moth come to you.  Fortunately, leopard moths are attracted to lights.  Armed with that tidbit of information, just pull up a lawn chair near an outside light and wait.  (Lights with shorter wavelengths work best.)  If there is a giant leopard moth nearby there is a good chance it will appear.

       When a leopard moth finally shows up chances are will be a male.  For some reason, females do not visit lights as often as the males. 

       As you might expect, some folks will attract more leopard moths than others will.  I have never been able to attract more than one leopard moth at a time to my lights, nevertheless, some homeowners report seeing upwards of a dozen or more.

          

BACKYARD SECRET—ZEBRA SWALLOWTAIL CATERPILLARS ARE CANNIBALS

     One of the most striking butterflies that flutters about our yards is the black and white striped zebra swallowtail.  One of the reasons that it is far less common than the eastern tiger swallowtail is probably linked to the fact that it has only one larval host plant—the pawpaw.  On the other hand, the tiger swallowtail uses a variety of plants as hosts for its caterpillars.

     Faced with often scarce larval food plants, one of the ways that zebra swallowtail maximizes the numbers of caterpillars that reach adulthood is its caterpillars sometimes act as cannibals.  Let me explain.

     Female zebra swallowtails typically lay a single egg on the underside of a pawpaw leaf. However, at times they will lay two or more eggs on the same leaf.  When this happens and the eggs hatch one of the young caterpillars will often devour its rival. This cannibalistic behavior ensures it will not have to share precious food with a rival.

GOOD NEWS FOR MONARCHS

       For the past several years, it seems that the only news we heard regarding monarchs was discouraging.  Consequently, I was elated when Mexican butterfly experts recently reported that 35 percent more monarchs arrived in the pine and fir forests in November 2021 west of Mexico City which serve as their winter home than in 2020.

       Interestingly, these estimates are not determined by counting individual butterflies. Instead, they are based on the total acreage occupied by monarchs roosting in massive groups on the limbs of trees in this precious habitat.

       According to the Mexican government’s Commission for National Protected Areas, this past winter monarchs roosted on seven acres of forested habitat located high in this critical high mountaintop habitat.  Although this doesn’t sound like much during the winter of 2020-2021 monarchs roosted on only 5.2 acres.

                                MONARCH BUTTERFLY

      Gloria Tavera, the regional director of Mexico’s Commission for National Protected Areas, reports that in 2021 monarchs began departing for their summer breeding grounds in February.  For reasons that are not understood, these colorful orange and black butterflies left much later this year (they typically leave in March).  According to Tavera, “We still had butterflies in April.”  She went on to say, “It remains to be seen in next year’s figures whether that strategy worked for them.”

HOMEGROWN BUTTERFLY FEEDER

       Recently, a hard freeze brought an abrupt end to the growing season of many of our nectar plants.  The next morning when my wife and I walked outside and looked around the yard, it was not a pretty sight.  Mexican sunflower, cosmos and other plants were drooping and their flowers withered.  It was obvious that the butterflies that were still flying about our yard were in for some hard times. 

       Later in the morning when we noticed a cloudless sulphur was trying to nectar at a dead Mexican sunflower blossom, we decided try to come to the aid this and any other hardy survivor of the freeze.  Since we have not enjoyed great success attracting butterflies to commercial butterfly feeders, we decided to set out a couple of homegrown butterfly feeders.

        We immediately moved a pot containing several pineapple sage plants in full bloom to a spot near the dead Mexican sunflowers.  Talk about immediate gratification–within minutes a cloudless sulphur appeared and began nectaring on the pineapple sages’ long, scarlet blossoms.

       Encouraged by our success we later positioned a couple of containers containing scarlet sage to spots around the yard.  Since we have not experienced another frost since that time, we have enjoyed watching cloudless sulphurs and gulf fritillaries visiting our homegrown feeders every day.

       Our ability to take this action was due to the fact that we grow a number of nectar plants in large containers.  Once we heard of the impending, hard freeze we moved pots containing pineapple and scarlet sage either up against the side of the house or inside our sunroom.

       We realize that providing food for a handful of butterflies after a frost killed most of their food supply means little to the populations of gulf fritillaries and cloudless sulphurs.  However, it means a lot to handful of butterflies that are benefitting from our efforts.  In addition, it has made us feel good.