Whenever you see a box turtle attempting to cross a busy highway, I am sure you cannot help but be concerned the reptile can safely complete its perilous journey. Indeed, with traffic volume increasing every year, box turtle treks across the black asphalt ribbons that crisscross the state are becoming ever more dangerous. Not wanting to see a box turtle struck by a vehicle, whenever possible, drivers often stop and try to help turtle avoid being crushed by a car or truck. Once a turtle is retrieved, a driver must decide where to place it in order to keep it out of harm’s way.
I have asked two herpetologists what they would recommend in this situation. Both agreed it is best to place the turtle on the side of the road it was headed. While there is always a chance the turtle will turn around and walk back onto the highway, in most instances, this is not the case.
The experts also stressed it is not a good idea to move a turtle a mile or two down the road to a place that appears to be safer. When released some distance from its home range, box turtles often find it difficult to find enough food to survive. This can result in the turtles wandering about.
If you decide to come to the aid of a box turtle trying to plod across a busy highway, please make sure you have a safe place to pull off the road. In addition, do not walk out into the highway to retrieve a box turtle until you are absolutely certain you can do so well before a oncoming vehicle reaches you.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered our lives in many ways. It now appears that our lives will not return to normal until scientists develop a vaccine to protect us from the ravages of this unforgiving disease. Meanwhile, aside from wearing masks and frequently washing our hands, the only way we can reduce our chances of contracting the disease is to practice social distancing. This behavior is totally alien to us. However, Austrian and Swiss biologists have discovered that black garden ants have long practiced social distancing to prevent the spread of disease within their colonies.
As we all know, ants are social insects. It seems the worker caste of black garden ant colonies is divided into nurses and foragers. The foragers are charged with the responsibility of gathering food for the colony. In comparison, nurses stay within the colony and care for developing broods of new ants.
When the scientists exposed the foragers with a disease-causing fungus, they witnessed remarkable changes in the behaviors of both the foragers and nurses. Those foragers that became infected with the fungus increased the amount of time they spent away from the colony. By so doing they reduced the time they came in contact with other workers. Their change in behavior coincided with the nurse ants transporting the broods deeper into the recesses of the colony. The biologists theorize these behavioral changes helped minimize the spread of the disease throughout the entire colony. The scientists went to say their research might suggest the ants have the ability to detect spores on themselves and other ants.
Who would have ever believed something like this is going in the insect world?
Now that we are well into summer our backyards are inhabited by birds that either breed locally and their newly fledged young. We are all familiar with the adult cardinals, robins, bluebirds, and towhees that we see every day. However, when their young begin visiting our birdbaths and feeders, it is often difficult to identify them. As such, some of these birds make us wonder if we are looking at a new addition to our backyard bird list or the young of a one of our summer residents. Below you will find some tips that can be used to recognize the young of some of our common backyard residents.
Eastern Towhee – Young towhees have the characteristic towhee shape. However, these youngsters have a definite brownish plumage. Unlike their parents, though, their undersides are streaked. This gives them the appearance of a large sparrow. In spite of this, they will be adorned with the same white feather pattern on their wings and corners of their tails seen on their parents.
American Robin – Juvenile American robins look like faded versions of the adult female robin. They differ, though by featuring white teardrop spots on their backs. The breasts of young robins seem to be bathed in reddish-brown and covered with distinctive dark speckles.
Northern Cardinal – Whenever I see an immature cardinal, it seems it has a bedraggled appearance. They too resemble their mothers; however, their plumage is dull brown. Often their tails and breasts will seem as if they have a faint reddish wash. Their bills are always blackish.
Eastern Bluebird – Young eastern bluebirds are not blue. Instead, they are light brown in color. The topside of their bodies will display pale white spots. The young birds’ breasts are covered in speckles that give them a scaly appearance.
I hope these tips will help you identify some of the birds you are currently seeing. Keep in mind, as fall approaches, bird identification will become much more worrisome when the confusing fall warblers and other Neotropical migrants begin stopping in our backyards en route to the winter homes.
The chimney swift eats a large variety of insects and other invertebrates. Its diet includes the likes of ants, caddisflies, bees, wasps, and beetles. Some of the more unusual critters regularly consumed by what some folks call “flying cigars” are fleas, airborne spiders, termites, and even fire ants.
It has been estimated that a pair of chimney swifts feeding three nestlings captures the equivalent of 5000 to 6000 fly-sized invertebrates per day.
Purple martins are known to eat at least 79 species of insects including dragonflies, flies, bees, moths, and butterflies. However, I would be willing to guess you did not know they also dine on fire ants.
It seems purple martins target mating male and queen fire ants. One group of researchers studying the feeding habits of purple martins found fire ants were captured during 32 percent of the birds foraging trips. The ants accounted for 31 percent of the insects taken. In addition, fire ants comprised 27 percent of the biomass consumed by the birds and their young.
Based on these data, the scientists estimated purple martins consume some 1.7 billion fire ants annually across the United States.
Over the years, my wife and I have been planting a diversity of nectar/pollen-producing plants in our gardens. This has been done in an effort to provide our backyard pollinators with sources of food throughout the year. This approach has offered us the opportunity to watch pollinators feed at a parade of plants from week to week as well as season to season. As the blossoms of one plant wither and die, pollinators redirect their attention to plants that are currently blooming. Right now, many of these pollinators are visiting mountain mint (Pycnanthemum sp.), one of the more recent additions to our landscape.
Mountain mint is a native perennial herb that grows two to three feet tall. Eight species of this hardy plant are found in the Southeast. Plants grow two to three tall. They exist in a variety of soil conditions, including the dry clay soil found in our yard. While the plant does best in moist soil types, it is drought tolerant. Mountain mint will grow in partial shade as well as full sun.
Mountain mint has a unique, eye-catching appearance. What makes this plant stand out is the fact that the leaves growing just below its flowers look like they have received a dusting of powdered sugar. In fact, to me, this foliage is far more attractive than the plant’s small white-purple blooms. In fact, these blossoms or so small you might overlook them if they were not arranged in clusters.
However, though mountain mint plants won’t win any awards for beauty, the fact that it blooms from June into October makes it an important source of food for wild pollinators.
Speaking of awards, in 2013 the Penn State Extension Service evaluated 88 pollinator-rewarding perennial plants for their importance to pollinators. At the end of the trial, mountain mint (P. muticum) received the highest rating for longevity of flowers, diversity of pollinators that use the plants, and the most insects attracted during the trials. In one trial, 76 insects visited the plants in just two minutes.
I am not surprised at these findings. When my wife and daughter found our mountain mint blooming a few days ago, they saw a stand of mint being visited by three species of butterflies (juniper hairstreak, red-banded hairstreak, and pearl crescent). They competed with the likes of thread-waisted wasps, hornets, and bumblebees.
One thing I like about mountain mint is that it is easy to grow. A friend gave us some mountain mint plants two summers ago. We set them out and kept them watered. The very next year the plants produced a crop of flowers.
If you like to create dried arrangements, you will love mountain mint. Each fall after the flowers have disappeared, you are left with scores of unique prickly, round, brown seed heads displayed on long stems.
Mountain mint is a plant that definitely deserves a place in your flower gardens.