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SEEING A RARE BIRD AT YOUR BIRD FEEDERS IS ALWAYS EXCITING

      Now that we are on the doorstep to winter, activity around our bird feeders is going to increase.  In fact, during the winter our feeders will be visited by more birds than at any other time of the year.  When this occurs, we are always on the lookout for a rare bird.  Some rare visitors to our feeders, such as the yellow-headed blackbird, are easy to spot.  However, others such as hybrids are much more difficult to identify.  One such hybrid is a cross between a white-throated sparrow and a dark-eyed junco.

       The white-throated sparrow winters throughout Georgia.  On the other hand, the dark-eyed junco commonly winters across the entire state, with the exception of extreme southeast Georgia.  However, in New England and Canada portions of their individual breeding ranges overlap.

       For reasons that are not fully understood, these birds will occasionally interbreed and produce offspring.  The resulting hybrids will display traits of both parents.  Since the combinations of these plumage patterns vary widely from bird to bird, trying to figure out what you are looking at is often perplexing.  For example, in the case of dark-eyed junco/white-throated sparrow hybrids, observers have reported birds with the wing pattern of a white-throated sparrow and the head pattern of a dark-eyed junco. Other birds look much like white-throated sparrows but sport the white outer tail feathers of dark-eyed junco.

       In order to spot one of these hybrids, you must carefully study the flocks of sparrows that converge on your feeding area.  With a little luck, you will spot any bird that just does not seem to to look right. 

       If you see a bird that is a potential hybrid, take lots of pictures of it and share them with others (please include me on this list).  Sometimes it takes many people to reveal the true identify of a hybrid.  

       White-throated sparrow/dark-eyed junco crosses are more common than you might think.  Such birds have been seen in many states such as Minnesota, Arkansas, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Virginia, Connecticut, and even Georgia.  Who knows?  There is no reason why the next sighting of this fascinating bird may occur in your backyard.

BACKYARD SECRET–FEEDER BIRDS CAN TASTE THEIR FOOD

      One of the joys of eating is that we can taste our food.  As such, it is one of the reasons why we prefer some foods to others.  In the not too distant past, few folks held the belief that birds also have a sense of taste.  We now know this is not the case.

       Whereas we have about 9,000 taste buds, the birds that visit our feeders possess only 50.  Consequently, they must rely heavily on sight and touch to select foods.  Instead of being located on its tongue, a bird’s taste buds are located near the tip of its bill as well as the floor and roof of its mouth.

A BEAUTIFUL PLACE FOR BUMBLEBEES TO SPEND A COOL FALL NIGHT

       The Confederate rose brings spectacular beauty to yards across Georgia.  However, my wife, Donna, and I have found that its showy blossoms are also used as places for bumblebees to escape the cold on chilly autumn nights.

       This large multi-stemmed shrub or small tree was brought to North America in the 1600s.  Since then it has been widely planted throughout the Southeast.  It popularity stems from the fact that, from late summer until frost, it bears scores of white blossoms that measure up to six inches in diameter.  These flowers eventually turn light pink before finally becoming rose-colored.

       While my wife and I thoroughly enjoy the beauty the flowers bring to our yard, our discovery that these stunning blooms provide bumblebees with warm refuges on chilly fall nights has heightened our appreciation for the plant.

       For quite some time, I had not given any thought to this interesting behavior until late one afternoon this past week.  Late one afternoon I noticed that my wife, was looking deep into the one of the blossoms adorning a Confederate rose growing alongside our driveway.  I walked up to find out what had caught her attention.  When she said she was looking at a bumblebee that had settled in for the night deep inside a Confederate rose bloom, I peered down into the throat of the flower and spotted the insect.  As we stood nearby discussing her find, a couple of other bumblebees flew into other blossoms.

       When I returned to the flowers well after dark, sure enough, the bumblebees were still there awaiting morning when temperatures warmed to the point where they could utilize the muscles that control their wings and fly away.

       A number of animals seek cover on chilly nights.  Many birds and mammals retreat to natural cavities, nesting boxes, thick vegetation, and other places.  However, I doubt that many spend cold nights nestled in cover as beautiful a Confederate rose blossom.

       If you have a Confederate rose growing in your yard, before the blossoms nipped by a frost, as the sun is setting check them out.  If bumblebees are still flying about in your neck of the woods, chances are one or more might be using some of gorgeous blooms for nighttime cover also.

SOLVING THE MYSTERY OF THE LUMPY SQUIRRELS

       From time to time, all backyard wildlife watchers see something that they cannot explain.  For example, if gray squirrels frequently visit your feeders, chances are you will eventually spot one that appears to have lumps somewhere on its body. When this happens, it is only human nature to wonder what causes these mysterious lumps.  A vast majority of the time, hidden inside each lump is the larva of a parasitic fly known as the squirrel bot fly.

       Squirrel bot flies parasitize animals such as gray and fox squirrels, and rabbits.  The squirrel bot fly looks much like a bumblebee.  However, if you have the rare opportunity to examine one, you will see that it has one set of wings instead of two like the bumblebee.

       Adult bot flies live for only two weeks or so.  During this brief time, a female must lay her fertilized eggs on the branches of trees and other surfaces.  If a squirrel happens by and touches an egg, it rapidly hatches and the larva tries to hitch a ride on the squirrel.  The tiny larva must then make its way into the squirrel’s body via a body opening.  This often occurs when a squirrel grooms itself and unwittingly swallows a bot fly larva.  A larva can also gain access to the body through the bushytail’s eyes.

       Once inside, the larva travels through the squirrel’s body before eventually ending up between the animal’s skin and flesh.  Here it rapidly grows.  As the larva increases in size, it creates a noticeable lump.  Many people call these lumps warbles or wolves.

       Over time, the liquid-filled lump swells.  A bot larva can reach a size of 1.5-inches long and an inch wide.  During this period in its life, a larva chews an exit hole in the squirrel’s skin through which it eventually wiggles out and drops to the ground.

       Once on the ground it burrows into the soil and pupates.  It will remain there until spring when it sheds the covering that protected it throughout the winter and emerges as an adult.

       Meanwhile, once a larva leaves a squirrel, the open wound it left behind heals and any hair that was lost while the larva was living just below its skin will regrow.

       Fortunately, we, as well as dogs and cats, cannot be infected by coming into contact with a squirrel parasitized by a bot fly.

       The amazing drama involving the bot fly and the gray squirrel is played out in countless backyards across Georgia each year.  However, I had never seen a “lumpy” squirrel in my yard until this year.  Have you ever seen one in your yard?  If you have, you now know the answer to a mystery that has confounded many folks for generations.

BACKYARD SECRET–BLUE JAYS DON’T RELOCATE MOST OF THE ACORNS THEY HOARD

       Blue jays are currently busy hoarding acorns.  Whereas some birds and mammals store acorns in a single spot, such is not the case with blue jays.  These handsome birds hide each acorn they gather in a separate spot throughout the territory they will occupy throughout the winter.  It is hard to believe that a blue jay might bury an acorn it plucked from your lawn at a spot more than a mile away.

       Since a single blue jay can hoard up to 107 acorns per day, you might wonder how in the world it remembers every spot where it has buried an acorn.  The truth of the matter is it doesn’t.  Studies have found that a blue jay only retrieves roughly a quarter of the acorns it stashes away each fall.

       In other words, each day that a blue jay is collecting and hiding acorns it is potentially planting 75 acorns.  Obviously, some of these acorns will rot; other critters will consume some of them.  The rest could potentially germinate and develop into new oak trees.

       One might say that blue jays are playing a key role in replanting our precious forests.  Looking at it another way, a single blue jay plants vastly more trees than any of us in a week than most of us do in a lifetime.

CAN WOOLLY BEAR CATERPILLARS PREDICT THE WEATHER?

       This week I made an exciting find.  While walking from my office to the house, I just happened to look down and spotted a woolly bear caterpillar curled up in the gravel.  This was the first woolly bear I have seen this year.

       The woolly bear is the caterpillar of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella).  Stiff bristles cloak the caterpillar’s body giving it a fuzzy appearance.  A rusty band extends across the midsection of the insect.  Black bristles cover the front and rear portions of the insect.

       When I spotted to fuzzy caterpillar, it brought back fond memories of my childhood.  Back then, it was commonly believed the width of the rusty band can be used to predict the weather.  According to popular folklore when the rusty band is wide, we are in for a mild winter.  Conversely, when it is narrow we will have to suffer through a severe winter.

       Entomologists tell us that the width of the rusty band is controlled by the age of the caterpillar and not the impending weather.  As the caterpillar ages it goes through a series of molts.  With each molt, the black bristles that comprise two black bands are progressively replaced with rusty bristles.  Consequently, the width of the rusty band is broadest when the caterpillar molts for the last time.

       From the looks of the caterpillar I found, if the woolly bear can actually predict the weather, the winter in my neck of the woods should not be too severe.

       If you find a woolly bear crawling across your lawn or driveway, make a note of the width of its rusty band.  Then next spring pull out the note and see if the woolly bear’s prediction was right or wrong.

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?

THE WIND CAN AFFECT MONARCH WATCHING

       Monarch watching has been downright abysmal around my home.  As of October 15, only one monarch had made an appearance at the Johnson Homestead.  However, the next day monarchs were seen twice in my yard.  The first sighting took place in early afternoon.  Then just before dark, I spotted a monarch drifting across the bird feeding area located in front of my office.  While I will never know for sure, it seemed it was looking for a place to roost for the night. 

       I suspect the monarchs had been riding the wind.  Yesterday a cold front swept through Middle Georgia.  This leads me to believe this was the case because it is a fact that during their fall migration monarchs often catch rides on northerly winds found along the leading edges of approaching cold fronts.  If these winds are blowing in the direction the butterflies want to go, the butterflies can fly long distance without having to expend a lot of stored fuel.  When this occurs monarchs are often seen making their way southward  for several days after the leading edge of the cold front has left your us far behind.

       On the other side of the coin, if the north winds are too strong, monarchs are known to fly so high in sky it is impossible for us to see them as they wing their way over our yards.

       Conversely, when the prevailing winds are blowing from the south, they tend to hang around and forage for nectar before resuming their migration.  This situation often provides us with some of our best monarch watching opportunities.

     

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.