Archives

BACKYARD SECRET—THE HUMMINGBIRD DOESN’T CATCH FLYING INSECTS AT THE TIP OF ITS BILL

        We routinely see hummingbirds using their long slender bill to feed on the nectar stored in flowers and feeders.  However, most of us have never seen a hummingbird trying to catch flying insects.  Until recently those that have witnessed this fascinating behavior believed that the hummingbird uses its long slender bill to pluck insects out of the air at the tip of its bill.  Recent research has shown that this is not the case.

        Experiments conducted by Gregor M. Yanega and Margaret A. Rubega have discovered that the hummingbird actually catches small, elusive flying insects at the base of its bill. Two University of Connecticut researchers made this remarkable discovery by photographing hummingbirds feeding on flying fruit flies.  The revelation was revealed they used a video camera capable of recording images at a rate of 500 frames per second.

       The video revealed that as a hummingbird opens its beak to engulf its prey, its lower bill miraculously bends down from the tip to a point roughly halfway down this bill.  This enhances the chances the bird will capture a hapless fruit fly,

       Once again researchers equipped with modern research tools have demonstrated that when it comes to the natural world, often things are not what they appear to be.

A SHORT LIST OF PLANTS THAT HELP FEED POLLINATORS IN HOT, DRY CONDITIONS

    For weeks, much of Georgia has been suffering drought conditions.  If that was not enough, this past week, temperatures soared above 100ºF, and heat indexes topped out at 122ºF at my Middle Georgia home. When this occurs, it is extremely difficult for pollinators such as butterflies, bees, wasps, beetles, and others to collect enough nectar to meet their needs.  One of the reasons for this is it is a struggle for nectar plants to stay alive in our backyards and elsewhere. Even if they are successful stay alive, they often either don’t bloom or produce little nectar. Here is a short list of the plants growing in my backyard that have not been phased by this year’s extreme growing conditions and have done the best job of providing the pollinators with nectar.

   Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – This low-growing, hardy perennial bears clusters of white flowers.  The pollinators that visit this plant are native bees, butterflies and others.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) – My wife and I are fond of this plant because it is easy grow, beautiful, its blooms last a long time, and it is a super source of nectar for a variety of insects.  Although it is often touted as a good butterfly plant, we have noticed, in our yard, it is more often visited by tiny bees, flies, wasps, and other pollinators.

   BUTTERFLY BUSH (Buddleia davidii) – This introduced deciduous shrub a veritable butterfly magnet. This past week I spotted five butterflies on one of our butterfly bushes feeding at the same time.  This was notable because it marked the first time I had spotted that many butterflies feeding together this year.   From spring into the fall, it consistently draws more butterflies than anything else we grow.  The plant feeds butterflies, moths, bumblebees and other pollinators.

   Red-hot Poker (Kniphofia) – This large herbaceous perennial sends up an abundance of large spikes topped with clusters of long tubular flowers.  We find the blooms are more often visited by hummingbirds than bees and other pollinators.

       I hope you will share with me your list of nectar/pollen producing plants that have done well this year.

BACKYARD SECRET—THE GRAY SQUIRREL’S FRONT TEETH NEVER STOP GROWING

        A gray squirrel’s front teeth are constantly being worn down. If this was not the case, they would quickly wear down and lead to the animal’s premature death.  This fate is prevented because they are constantly growing at a rate of approximately six inches per year.

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.

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.”

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.”   

ATTRACTING MIGRANTS TO YOUR BACKYARD WITH MOVING WATER

  Currently, scores of species of songbirds are migrating northward.  Many of these birds will pass over and even stop in our backyards.  However, since many of these birds rarely visit feeders, they are often only seen by those among us that have time have learned their vocalizations and take the time to scan the bushes and treetops surrounding their homes looking for these magical birds.  There is, however, another way that you can catch a glimpse of these often rarely seen birds; they can be attracted with moving water.

       Although many of these birds will visit a birdbath, those birdbaths that are equipped with a mister or dripper are far more likely to attract these long-distance migrants.  The reason for this is the sight and sound of moving water act as a magnet to both resident and migrant birds alike.

       Some of the simplest ways to create moving water range from hanging a hose of a limb and allow the hose to slowly drip water into a birdbath or pan.  You can also punch a small hole in the bottom of a bucket or soft drink container full of water and hang it above a birdbath.

  

    I personally have had better success in attracting birds to my birdbath using misters and drippers.  The best misters and drippers are engineered specifically for birds use.  They vary widely in price and design.  While they all work, the ones that I prefer permit me to adjust the flow of the water passing through them.  I often use this feature to adjust the nozzles so that they emit both a mist and water droplets.  This creates ripples when the droplets fall onto the surface of the water below.  When it is windy the mist is often blown away from the birdbath.  When this occurs, I simply adjust my mister nozzle so that it emits only droplets.

       If you want to catch a glimpse at some of the warblers, tanagers, vireos and other songbirds that may be stopping in your yard, go ahead and install a mister.  Even after the migration has passed, a mister will help attract backyard residents throughout the entire year.

       These devices are readily available at stores that specialize in birding supplies.

THE FROGLOG CAN SAVE THE LIVES OF WILDLIFE IN YOUR YOUR BACKYARD

        Each year untold numbers of frogs, toads, bats, rabbits, birds, chipmunks and other wildlife species are trapped in swimming pools and decorative water features with sides that are simply too steep for the animals to crawl to safety.  If they are lucky, they will be spotted by someone that can gently remove them from the water with long-handled net. However, in far too many instances the animals swim around until they become exhausted and drown.

       This past week, during a visit to the River Banks Botanical Garden in Columbia, South Carolina, my granddaughter, Anna, and her friends stumbled across a simple device that was being used to avoid such tragedies.  It seems they found 25+ toads mating in a pool surrounding a decorative fountain. Since the edge of the concrete pool was extremely steep, it was obvious the adult toads had little chance of climbing out of the pool after the female toads laid long gelatinous strings of eggs and the males fertilized them.

       In an effort to prevent the toads from drowning, several FrogLogs had been positioned along the edge of the pool.  The FrogLog is a simple device that serves as an exit ramp leading from water to dry land. If they are left in place after the adult toads hop to safety, they will serve as exit ramps for a new generation of toads.

       That is amazing when you consider the FrogLog consists of nothing more than an inflatable floating platform and fabric bag attached to a nylon mesh ramp.

       If you have a problem with animals becoming stranded in your pool, this might be a simple solution to a perplexing problem.

BACKYARD SECRET—RUBYTHROATS MIGRATE CLOSE TO THE GROUND OR SEA

      There is much we do not know about the ruby-throated hummingbird.  For example, most of what we know about how high rubythroats fly when they are migrating is based on anecdotal evidence.  With that in mind, it appears that ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate much closer to the earth than many other feathered migrants.

       What sketchy information available suggests ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate close to the land.  In fact, many appear to migrate very close to the tops of trees.  It is believed that this enables the tiny migrants to spot places where they can refuel before resuming their journey.

       This is not to say that some hummingbirds don’t fly much higher.  Hot air balloonists have reported seeing rubythroats cruising along upwards of 500 feet above the ground.

       Once rubythroats reach the Gulf of Mexico, they appear to wing their way along just above the tops of the waves.  This conclusion is based on sightings made by men and women working on oil and gas platforms far from shore in the Gulf of Mexico and fishermen seeing these tiny, feathered dynamos zipping along close to the waters of the Gulf.  These sightings appear to indicate ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate closer to the earth than many other migrants.

       Most small birds migrate at altitudes ranging from 500 to 1,000 feet. Raptors migrate anywhere from 700-4000 feet up whereas waterfowl migrate to and from their breeding grounds at altitudes of 200-1450 feet high.

       However, a mallard was once struck by an airplane flying 21,000 feet above the earth.