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A MEMORABLE ENCOUNTER WITH A MISSISSIPPI KITE

       We all have our share of memorable encountered with wildlife in our backyards.  However, when my daughter called yesterday to relate what had just happened to her, I was amazed–it was unlike anything I had ever heard of before.

       This wildlife encounter took place in one of the most unlikely places imaginable.  She lives in a large subdivision in Columbia County just west of Augusta.  In spite of the fact little wildlife habitat exists in this community; over the years she has been able to attract an amazing array of wild critters.  In fact, I tease her over the fact that she often sees wildlife that rarely venture into my backyard located in the country.

       It seems that around 11:00 a.m. on 3 July, as she was mowing her front yard she noticed that she was flushing both grasshoppers and dragonflies.  Suddenly she saw the shadow of a large bird flying over her head.  Looking up she was surprised to see a Mississippi kite flying back and forth.  She had seen Mississippi kites flying high above her yard on a number of occasions.  What made this event different was this bird was flying only fifteen feet or so above the lawn.  The bird was so close she could peer into the bird’s eyes as well as see that the talon-tipped toes on its yellow feet spread wide-open ready to capture prey.

       Some people would be unnerved to see a bird with a 44-inch wingspan flying so close to them.  Such an experience might cause them to conjure up scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film, The Birds.

       Never one to be afraid of wildlife, she simply wondered why the bird was flying so close to her.  Then when to bird swooped down to catch an insect, she quickly realized that the Mississippi kite was actually hunting.  Apparently, it noticed the large insects she was flushing with each pass of her lawnmower, and flew closer to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity.

       Mississippi kites feed primarily on large insects such as dragonflies, grasshoppers, beetles, cicadas, bees, and moths.  Small mammals, snakes, lizards, and birds are also eaten from time to time.  Using their strong feet, Mississippi kites capture and eat their prey on the wing.  However, they sometimes will even hunt from a perch or walk about on the ground trying to catch food.

       In times past, Mississippi kites would feed on insects that took to the air as bison grazed prairie grazes.  Nowadays they will follow livestock and mowing machines and take advantage of the insects they flush.  However, until now, I had never heard of a Mississippi kite hunting above a person mowing their lawn.

       If you have an open yard and live anywhere in Georgia’s Coastal Plain to just north of the Fall Line (the birds’ primary nesting range in Georgia), you just might look up one early summer day and see a Mississippi kite following you around the yard.  If you do, don’t panic; just enjoy a truly rare and memorable wildlife encounter.

IT IS POSSIBLE TO TELL ONE BLUE JAY FROM ANOTHER

        I have long been fascinated with trying to tell one individual bird of the same species from another.  When it comes to some species, the only way this is possible is when one bird has an unusual feather (e.g. color, feather, injury) that distinguishes it from others of its species.  In other cases, birds of the same species may exhibit slight variations in their basic color patterns.  For example, a few weeks ago I posted a blog that discussed a technique that allows an observer to identify one male rose-breasted grosbeak from another by the subtle differences in their red chevrons.  A similar technique allows you to tell one blue jay from another.

       The blue jay is undoubtedly one of our most easily recognized birds.  All blue jays seem to appear exactly alike.  However, if you take the time to study the black necklace-like pattern displayed across the bird’s throat, face, and nape, it becomes apparent that this pattern varies widely between blue jays.  In fact, once you begin focusing on this feature, you will wonder why you never noticed these differences throughout the many years that you have been watching the comings and goings of blue jays in your backyard.

       A quick way for you to appreciate this fact is to pull up a collection of blue jay photos on your computer.  If you do, in a matter of seconds, it becomes apparent that each blue jay has its own unique black necklace.

       If you photograph the blue jays visiting your birdbath and feeder, don’t be surprised if you discover you are hosting more blue jays than you ever realized.

A RARE WHITE MOCKINGBIRD

       Whenever a white bird shows up in a backyard it is a special event.  Each year I receive from one to three reports of white ruby-throated hummingbirds appearing in backyards across the state.  A few years ago, a close friend photographed a white northern cardinal visiting his feeders.  In addition, many years ago a Middle Georgia couple reported a white bluebird nesting in one of their nesting boxes.  However, until a few weeks ago I had never been notified of a white northern mockingbird sighting.

       As you can see from the accompanying photograph, this bird is almost totally white except for a few black feathers on its wings.  The bird’s feet and bill are pinkish white.  However, the mockingbird’s eyes are dark.

       Ornithologists might argue as to whether this bird displays albinism or leucism.  However, I believe this mockingbird is a type of albino.  This condition is brought about by the bird lacking any pigment called melanin.

       The four types of albinism are true (sometimes referred to as total), incomplete, imperfect and partial.

       A true albino’s plumage is totally white whereas its legs, feet, and bill are white to pinkish.  A true albino’s eyes are always pink or red.  The presence of black feathers in the same areas of both wings, and seemingly dark eyes, leads me to believe this bird is a partial albino.

       Albinism has been documented among some 304 species of North American birds.  Interestingly, it is most commonly occurs in blackbirds, American robins, crows, and hawks.

       If an albino bird shows up in your yard, it will be an experience you will long remember.  I have never seen a white bird in my yard, however, several years ago a partial albino hummingbird fed at my neighbors’ feeders.  I was sure it would fly over to my feeders.  However, for some reason, it never did.  To have one come that close to your yard is tough to take.  However, I have never given up hope I will see a white bird in my yard.  Perhaps one will magically appear this year.

DON’T FORGET TO DEADHEAD BUTTERFLY BUSHES

       Butterfly bushes are truly butterfly magnets.  However, if you want them to continue blooming from now until migrating monarchs pass through out state months down to road; you must deadhead the plant’s spent blossoms.

       For reasons I do not understand, this spring my butterfly bushes have been covered with the largest clusters of flowers they have ever produced.  Unfortunately, few butterflies were around to enjoy them.  However, lots of bumblebees, honeybees, and carpenter bees constantly visited the nectar-rich blossoms while they were blooming. 

       Fortunately, butterfly bushes can be encouraged to produce a bounty of flowers throughout much of the growing season.  All it takes is deadheading the bush’s flower clusters before they go to seed.

         Butterfly bush w/spent blossoms

       Recently I deadheaded my butterfly bushes for the first time this year.  From experience, I know I will have to repeat this procedure many times.  However, I realize that, if I am diligent, countless butterflies and other pollinators will benefit from the food produced by crop after crop of fresh flowers.  In the past, I have been successful in prolonging the butterfly bushes’ blooming until the monarchs en route to their wintering home in Mexico.  When they use my yard as a stopover area on their epic journey it is not uncommon to see anywhere from four to eight monarchs on a single butterfly bush.

       When deadheading a cluster of flowers, remove the spent cluster down to the spot close to the point when the main flower stem joins two side branches.  If this is done at the right time, the two side branches will quickly produce flowers too.  When the blooms on the main branch and side branches have already turned brown simply, cut the stem just above the next juncture of side branches and the main stem.

       This is definitely a case where a little time spent cutting back spent flowers will produce a beautiful bush and remain a source of nectar throughout the summer.        

HERE IS WHAT YOU SHOULD DO IF YOU FIND A YOUNG BIRD ON THE GROUND

      Every year countless Georgia homeowners find helpless young birds on the ground beneath trees and shrubs.  In some cases, the young birds and their nests are torn out of a tree by an intense storm.  In other cases, a young bird simply accidentally falls from its nest.  If you happen across such a bird, do you know what to do?

       If you find a hatchling, look about and see if you can locate its nest.  If you do locate it, simply place the young bird back in the nest.  More than likely, parents are perched nearby and will resume raising the youngster.

       On the other hand, if you find a whole or partial nest containing young, place the nest or its remains and young birds in something like a hanging basket.  If the container is much larger than the nest, place the nest atop some mulch (choose mulch that will not get soggy when wet).  Then hang it in the tree as close as you can to its original location.

       After you have replaced the nest and young birds all you can do is wait.  In the best-case scenario, the parents will return to the young.  However, after a reasonable length of time, if the parents have not returned to claim their hatchlings, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

       A list of Georgia’s licensed wildlife rehabilitators can be found at www.gadnrle.org.  Once you open the site scroll down the subject list to Wildlife rehabilitators.  These dedicated, skilled individuals are listed by county and the types of wildlife they are qualified to treat.

SUPER LIST OF NATIVE PLANT DEALERS

With your help, during the past several weeks we have been developing a growing list of native plant dealers.  Recently a fellow blogger (whiteandredroses) submitted an extensive list of native plant dealers. 

Here it is: https://gnps.org/georgias-native-plants/sources-native-plants/

CAT’S EAR IS A SHOWSTOPPER

       Whenever cat’s ear (Hypochaeris radicata) is blooming, the shear abundance, and beauty of its bright yellow blooms dominates the landscape.  Currently cat’s ear is blooming in lawns, along road shoulders, and scores of other places across the Middle Georgia.  Since it grows throughout much of eastern North America, it may be growing in your corner of the world too.  However, in spite of the fact that it so abundant, I suspect when most folks see large stands of cat’s ear waving in the spring breeze, they think they are actually looking a patches of dandelions.

       From a distance, this wildflower looks much like a tall dandelion, however, there several differences between the two plants.  Here are a couple of things to look for that will help you tell a cat’s ear from a dandelion.  The flowering stalks of a true dandelion are unbranched and hollow; those of the cat’s ear are branched and solid.  In addition, the cat’s ear leaves are hairy while those of the dandelion are smooth.

       Many also call cat’s ear false dandelion.  However, most folks familiar with the plant refer to it as cat’s ear.  The plant got its name from the hairs found on the plant’s leaves.  These hairs are supposed to resemble the true hairs found in a domestic cat’s ear.

       This wildflower is not native to the Peach State.  It is actually an import from the Old World and North Africa.

       In spite of its abundance, the plant does not provide an abundance of food for pollinators.  While cat’s ear blossoms are occasionally visited by butterflies, they most often provide pollen and nectar for native bees.        I find one of the plant’s most interesting traits is that it opens and closes its flower every day.  Each morning the blossoms remain closed until the stand receives around an hour of sunlight.  They the close again late in the afternoon.  Back in the day, some farmers would say that it was not time to begin haying until the plant’s blossoms open.  Then at the end of the day, the closure of the blooms signaled the time to quit haying.

       My yard is full of cat’s ears.  If you haven’t treated your lawn with a herbicide, I suspect cat’s ear growing in your yard too. 

BLOGGERS SUGGEST ADDITIONAL NURSERIES BE ADDED TO THE NATIVE PLANT NURSERY LIST

       Two of our fellow bloggers have responded to the recent post regarding where homeowners can purchase native plants. Here is the contact information they have provided.

Flat Creek Natives               Phone:  478-955-1731

Perry, Georgia

Comments:  The blogger that suggested this addition to the list commented those interested in purchasing plants are required to make an appointment with the nursery owner Greg Lewis.  Details can be found on the nursery’s Facebook page.

 

Nearly Native Nursery         Phone:  770-460-6248

770 McBride Road                  email: nearlynative nursery.com

Fayetteville, Georgia  30215.

Telephone Number:  770-460-6249

AM I REALLY BUYING A NATIVE PLANT?

       Since most wildlife gardeners are finding room in their gardens for native plants that benefit hummingbirds, bees, moths and other wild pollinators, it is important that they know what they are buying.

       The first thing to keep is never buy plants actually taken from the wild.  Always buy native plants from reputable plant dealers that sell plants grown in nurseries.  The ensures that wild populations of native plants are not decimated.

       Also, be certain you are purchasing the correct plant.  You can never be sure what you are getting when you refer to a plant only by its common name.  Many different plants often share the same common name.  For this reason, always provide a dealer with both the plant’s common and scientific name.  This eliminates any ambiguity as to what you have in mind.

       It is also important to know whether you are purchasing a hybrid.  Often hybrids do not produce the same amount of pollen and/or nectar as the original form of the plant.  The reason for this is during the hybridization process the focus is often on developing varieties that display traits the plant breeders feel are improvements on the natural form of the plant.  In many cases, in the attempt to attain these goals, the variety’s ability to produce nectar and/or pollen is either lost or diminished.  If you purchase a hybrid and later discover it does not benefit wild pollinators you are not going to be happy.

       Therefore, before you purchase a hybrid, do a little research, and make sure it produces nectar and pollen.

MORE NEST BOX INFORMATION

        In response to the recent blog regarding the placement on birdhouses in backyard settings, one of our fellow bloggers requested information concerning the minimum size of entrance holes recommended for the species mentioned.  Realizing many others might have the same question, below you will find this information.  In addition, I have included the recommended  minimum height a box should be placed above the ground for each of these eight species.

Species Minimum Hole Size Height Above Ground
Eastern Bluebird 1.5″ 5′
Carolina Chickadee 1 1/8″ 5′
Tree Swallow 1 3/8″ 5′
Tufted Titmouse 1 1/8″ 5′
Carolina Wren 1.5″ 5′
House Wren 1 1/8″ 5′
Great Crested Flycatcher 1.5″ 6′
Brown-headed Nuthatch 1 5′