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MUSHROOMS FEED GRAY SQUIRRELS AND OTHER CRITTERS TOO

      Often as we walk about our yards, we find partially eaten mushrooms.  Invariably we assume gray squirrels have devoured them.  Although this is often the case, the truth of the matter is a wide range of backyard wildlife visitors may have dined on what most of us would consider an unusual wildlife food.

       In addition to the gray squirrel, the larger fox squirrel also feeds on mushrooms.  Among the other mammals you might spot eating mushrooms in your backyard are eastern chipmunks, armadillos, eastern cottontails, opossums, wood rats, white-footed mice, raccoons, striped skunks, and of course white-tailed deer.

       Even birds such as brown thrashers, cardinals, and crows will dine on mushrooms.  Some birds, like blue jays and American robins, will actually pluck out insects and other invertebrates hidden inside mushrooms.

       Who would have thought mushrooms provide food to so many of our backyard wildlife neighbors?

THIS PASS-ALONG PLANT IS A SHOWSTOPPER

       The plant that is currently putting on the most spectacular show in the Johnson’s backyard is a pass-along plant known as swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolia).  As is the case with many of the pass-along plants growing in our yard, it is not a plant my wife and I had on our list of plants that we wanted to incorporate into our backyard landscape.  However, now that it has established itself, we are glad that it is a member of our plant community.

      This Georgia native is extremely hardy.  The woman that gave me the plant simply pulled a handful plants up by their rhizomes and handed them to me.  When I told her I did not have any way to keep them from drying out until I got home, she told me not to worry about it.

      When I arrived home several hours later, I soaked the rhizomes in a bucket of water and placed them in the ground.  Honestly, I did not think they had any chance of surviving.  Much to our surprise, they did not die and now, several years later have expanded into a patch some 10-feet long.

      Swamp sunflower is a perennial that reaches a height of 8-10′.  This fall-bloomer produces a wealth of 2-3″ golden daisy like blooms.

      One thing that has endeared it to us is the fact that, in addition of adding beauty to our yard, it feeds a wide range of wildlife.  For example, swamp sunflower is a host plant for the gorgeous silvery checkerspot butterfly.  In addition, it is an important source of a food for a wide range of pollinators, including honeybees and bumblebees.  Although it is touted as a butterfly plant, we see far more bees and other pollinators visiting swamp sunflower’s showy yellow blossoms than butterflies.  Despite the fact it has the reputation of providing monarchs with food on their fall migration, we have never seen a monarch on our plants.

      Once frost ends swamp sunflower’s blooming season, its seeds are relished by waxwings and other birds that feed on seeds.

      The plant requires little water and is relatively pest-free.  The only thing that I do to the plants is remove their dead stalks in winter after birds have consumed all of its seeds. 

      Since it will spread via underground rhizomes, I suspect that sometime down the road, to keep the swamp sunflower patch from extending beyond the place we have designated for it, I am going to have to remove some of the underground rhizomes growing extending beyond the fringes of the stand.

      This is one pass-along plant that might be a perfect fit for your yard.  If it is, I hope a friend or neighbor will share it with you.

 

A PLACE THAT SELLS PARTRIDGE PEA PLANTS

        In a recent blog concerning partridge pea, I mentioned that it might be difficult to find partridge pea plants at a nursery this time of year.  Well, as it turns out, one of our fellow bloggers wrote that she had recently seen potted partridge pea plants at the Shady Oak Butterfly Farm located in the north central Florida town of Brooker.

       If you are looking for a source of this valuable native plant, you might find it worthwhile to check out this establishment.  The address for the facility is shadyoakbutterflyfarm.com.  Even if they have sold out the plant since the response was sent, I think you will find it worthwhile to visit their website.  The colorful site is full of information about their butterfly operation as well as plants of value to butterflies.  They do offer mail order services.

BACKYARD SECRET–SPIDERS ARE BIG EATERS

        Remarkably, spiders annually eat more insects than bats and birds combined.  In spite of this, they are one of the least appreciated animals that inhabit our yards. 

       With that in mind, the next time that you spot a spider in your garden, don’t kill it.  Spiders play a key role in the ecology of our yards.  As such, they help control all sorts of insects and other invertebrates.  In addition, they are important sources of protein for scores of animals such as birds.  For example, tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds and great crested flycatchers are just two of the birds that dine on spiders.

SPIDER ALERT

        I know that you are going to be elated to learn that a new spider has taken up residence in Georgia.  This large colorful arachnid is the joro spider and is native to China, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.    

       According to University of Georgia biologists, that spider was initially located in Hochston, Georgia in 1983.  The current range of the joro spider in the Peach State includes Hall, Jackson, Gwinnett, and Madison Counties in Georgia’s northeast quadrant.  The spider has also turned up in Greenville, South Carolina.

       While nobody knows how it made its way to the United States, Richard Hoebeke, curator of the University of Georgia’s Museum of Natural History believes that the showy spiders probably hitched a ride to Georgia on shipping crates transported on container ships from ports in Japan and China.                        

 

JORO SPIDER photo submitted by D. Kizlowski/UGA

       The joro spider is not a spider that lurks in the dark corners of old barns or haunted houses.  While in has been found living in plain sight in woodlands; it also seems to prefer to live near humans.  The first indication that joro spiders are living nearby is often the appearance of a large orb-shaped web.  When the light catches these webs just right, they take on a golden sheen.

       The female joro spider has a body that measures 0.68-0.98 inches in length.  In addition, when spread out, its eight legs span anywhere from three to four inches.

       Many folks are afraid a spider will bite them.  Fortunately, the joro spider is not aggressive.  However, for some unknown reason if a joro spider bites you, unless you are highly allegoric to its venom, the bite will give about the same amount of discomfort as a bee sting.

       Based on how far the joro spider has expanded its range in well less than a decade, it appears it will continue its range expansion unabated.  Meanwhile, the UGA biologists working at the Museum of Natural History are requesting our help in plotting the spider’s marc across the state. 

       With that in mind, if you spot what you believe to be a joro spider, take a picture of it, and send it to Richard Hoebeke at rhoebeke@uga.edu along with the date and location of your sighting.  

GREAT GEORGIA POLLINATOR CENSUS TO BE HELD AUGUST 20-21, 2021

       If you are concerned about the plight of Georgia’s pollinators, I urge you to become a citizen scientist and take part in the Great Georgia Pollinator Census.  This year’s count will be staged August 20 and 21.

       This will mark the third year the census has been conducted.  Last year, in spite of Covid-19, 3,755 Georgians representing 124 counties took part in the survey.  Their efforts resulted in data collected on almost 82,000 individual pollinators.

       The counts have been carefully designed so that Georgians of all ages and skill levels can take part.  There is no participation fee and a census requires only 15 minutes of your time.  Most counts are held in yards.  However, a number of teachers and other youth leaders involve young people in counts held in such locations as school grounds. 

       The survey is conducted by the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.  Becky Griffin is the Project Coordinator (beckgri@uga.edu).

       The information gathered is being utilized by UGA researchers for economic valuation studies of pollinators.

       For details regarding the count, go to Great Georgia Pollinator Census (http://ggapc.org).  When you visit the site, take the time to download the fantastic, full-color pollinator guide.

      

WHERE CAN I FIND AN OFFICIAL LIST OF THE BIRDS THAT HAVE BEEN SEEN IN GEORGIA?

       Once people begin watching birds, there is a natural tendency for them to try to find out as much as they can about the fascinating feathered creatures that bring them so much joy.  If you find yourself in this category, it is only natural that you would like to know how many different species of birds have been seen in Georgia.  However, if you begin looking for this information you might find surprisingly difficult to locate.  However, this blog will lead you directly to the right place.

       One might think that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources is the logical place to begin your search.  Such is not the case.  The organization that is responsible for maintaining the official list of birds seen in Georgia is the Georgia Ornithological Society (GOS).

                            This bird is on the official list of birds found in Georgia

       This private nonprofit organization was established in 1936.  It is dedicated to the conservation of birds in the Peach State through preservation of habitat, promoting scientific research, printing bird-related publications, and education.  One of their goals is to maintain the official list of Georgia birds.

       Before a species is added to the list all available information regarding a sighting of a new species is carefully scrutinized by a select group of experienced birders.  Currently, 361 species of birds are on the list.  You can download the list by visiting the GOS website at https://www.gos.org Once there select Birding.

       When you visit the site, take the time to check out all of the great things that the GOS is accomplishing.  After you have done this, I would not be surprised if you decide to join this great organization.

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.