Archives

CEDAR WAXWINGS HAVE ARRIVED IN OUR BACKYARD

       For the past few weeks, winter visitors have been arriving in our Middle Georgia backyard.  Yesterday cedar waxwings made their first appearance.

       While my wife and I were checking out the plants growing in containers on our deck, I activated my Merlin Bird Identification App.  In in matter of seconds, the app detected the call notes of a cedar waxwing.  Once the bird’s name appeared, I looked for the bird(s) in the trees and shrubs growing nearby.   When I did not see one, I decided that Merlin had made a mistake.

       Seconds later, I was proven wrong when a flock of a couple of dozen cedar waxwings swooshed in from the northwest and landed in the top of a tall red cedar tree.  As the birds flew from limb to limb searching for the tree’s small berries, a slightly smaller flock joined them.  We watched the birds disappearing in and out of the cedar’s thick canopy, for a few minutes, when without warning the cedar waxwings took to the air and flew over the house.

       Although cedar waxwings visit our yard each winter, we do not consider them a feeder bird simply because they have never visited our feeders.  Here they feed exclusively on red cedar and mistletoe berries. 

       However, data collected through Project FeederWatch indicate they will dine on dried fruits. One of their favorite dried fruits is raisins. There are reports that cedar waxwings can devour a half a pint of raisins in a matter of minutes.  The birds will also eat halved and chopped apples and other fruits.

 

       Although these gregarious birds do not feast at our feeders, they do visit our birdbaths to both drink and bathe.

       If cedar waxwings do not visit your backyard, it could be due to the fact you are not offering them anything to eat or a place to bathe.  With that in mind, consider planting a red cedar and/or other native trees and shrubs that retains their fruit throughout the winter in your area of the state.

       In addition, keep your birdbath full of clean water throughout the winter.  This will benefit cedar waxwings and your other backyard winter guests.

A HANDFUL OF NECTAR PLANTS LINGER ON

       As I write this column, we are well into the second week of November.  Nowadays when my wife and I walk outside and scan our gardens, it is obvious that most of the wild and ornamental nectar plants that fed untold numbers of wild pollinators this fall are no longer blooming.  Yet, in spite of this, a variety of insects is still hard at work collecting nectar and/or pollen.  Fortunately, for them, they can still find food in some plants that my wife and I have grown in containers on our deck.  These plants are now the primary source of food for a wide variety of pollinators.

       Although some of the plants we grew on our deck have been nipped by a frost a couple of weeks ago, four species of plants are still blooming and attracting most the of butterflies, carpenter bees, bumblebees and other pollinators we are now seeing.

       Globe amaranth has been blooming since last summer.  Currently their blooms seem to be favored by checkered skippers, fiery skippers, whirlabouts, dun skippers, common buckeyes, and fiery skippers.  Occasionally a cloudless sulphur or gulf fritillary we land on the plants’ colorful globe-shaped blooms.  Bumblebees also visit the plants.

       A single Mexican sunflower is still producing blooms that are being visited by bees and butterflies.  It survived the frost because it was growing close to the house.

       With each passing day, our scarlet sage plants are  producing fewer new blossoms.  Nevertheless, there are still enough red blossoms to attract their share of the cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges, and gulf fritillaries pollinators that are still hanging on in our yard. 

       However, beyond a shadow of a doubt, pineapple sage is the star of the show.  Our pineapple sage plants are still blooming in profusion.  A day ago, I saw seven cloudless sulfurs and a couple of gulf fritillaries nectaring at the same time at a blossoms produced by scarlet sage plants growing in a single large container.  Bumblebees and a few carpenter bees are still feeding on the blossoms  too.

       We hope our plants continue to bloom for some time to come. However, we know eventually we will be left with lots of fond memories of the beauty and pollinators the plants have brought us this year.

       After they cease blooming, we plan on leaving the plants in place, as we know the seeds they have produced will be eaten by cardinals, American goldfinches, house finches and others well into the winter.

       We are already making plans for next year.  We want to continue expanding the number and variety of autumn bloomers.

If we are successful, I am certain our backyard pollinators and birds will benefit from our efforts.

 

NOTE:  If you would like more information regarding pineapple sage, go to the SEARCH feature on the blog and type in, Pineapple Sage Is Great For Late Season Pollinators And More. When you hit the return key, this archived blog will appear on your screen.

BACKYARD SECRET—BIRDS CAN SLEEP WITH ONLY ONE EYE CLOSED

       Sleep is just as important to birds as it is to us. However, a bird’s sleep is far different from that we experience.  One way that it differs is birds can actually sleep with one of their eyes open. 

       A bird is capable of performing this unbelievable fete because half of its brain is fully asleep while the other half is only partially asleep.  In other words, the side of the brain with the open eye is only partially asleep.  This enables a sleeping bird to detect the approach of a potential predator.

       I find that truly amazing!

IS THIS FINCH SLEEPING?

BACKYARD SECRET—WHEN IS IT TIME TO REMOVE DEAD ZINNIA PLANTS?

        By this time of the year the zinnias in my gardens have, in large part ceased blooming.  While there are scattered colorful blossoms here and there, most of my once beautiful flowers and plants have been nipped by an early frost. All that remains of the zinnias are brown stalks and the withered remains of the flowers they once displayed to hungry pollinators.

       When each of us is faced with this situation, we must decide if we should go ahead and cut or otherwise remove the drab remains of these garden favorites.  Many gardeners immediately remove the dead plants in an attempt to beautify their garden.  However, I am one of those backyard gardeners that leave the plants standing.

       This is done because I realize that a number of birds dine on zinnia seeds.  Here is a list of some of the birds that eat the seeds of dead zinnias:  American goldfinch, chipping sparrow, house finch, purple finch, cardinals and pine siskins.

       I keep an eye on this unorthodox food source and remove the dead plants only after the birds have extracted all of the seeds they harbor.  When this occurs varies from year to year.

DEAD ZINNIA SEED HEADS

   With that in mind, I hope you will refrain from rushing out and removing your zinnia plants as soon as they are killed by cold weather.  If you leave them, you just may catch a glimpse of a bird feeding on the seeds located in the withered remains of the past summer’s zinnia blossoms.  If you do, you might find the dead zinnias not as unattractive after all.

GEORGIA MINT MAKES A MAGICAL CHANGE

       I am sure you are familiar with the fairy tale that tells the story of how an ugly duckling magically turned into a beautiful swan. While my wife and I don’t have any swans swimming around the Johnson Homestead, each year we witness the similar transformation of a native plant known as Georgia mint from what many would call a nondescript weed into a beautiful wild flower.   Let me explain.

       If you visited our yard in early summer, you might wonder why we would find room for what some folks might think is an ugly weed to grow in our yard.  However if you returned anytime from late summer well into October you would discover the reason why we are so fond of it.

       At this time of the year, countless pale lavender-white flowers literally blanket our stand of Georgia mint.  Admittedly these blossoms are small, however, what they lack in size they more than make in delicate beauty.

       In our neck of the woods, the blooming period for Georgia mint extends for weeks.  In fact, the plants are still in full bloom as I write this blog.  In comparison, most of our most valued pollinator plants have either ceased blooming or will soon do so.  As a result, with each passing day bees (particularly small bumblebees), and butterflies are faced with an increasing shortage of flowers.  Fortunately, for them, in our yard, Georgia mint serves as a life preserver.

       Currently, our Georgia mint is in high demand.  Small bumblebees, cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges, a wide variety of skippers (e.g. ocolas, fierys, whirlabouts, cloudeds and duns), gulf fritillaries and buckeyes make daily trips to forage on the petite flowers.  Although In past years, monarchs have also joined the assemblage of pollinators, we have not seen any this year.

       Each year, when Georgia mint becomes the most visited pollinator plant in our yard, we are reminded that anyone that has the desire to help bees, butterflies and other pollinators should make the effort to provide a parade of plants that supplies these flying gems food throughout as much of the year as possible.  For us, Georgia mint is one of our most important late season nectar plants.

BUCKEYES—HANDSOME, SHUNNED BY WILDLIFE, AND STEEPED IN FOLKLORE

      In the fall, the seeds of countless plants are more abundant than at any other time of the year.  Some argue that none is more pleasing to the eye than the buckeye.  While it is largely shunned by wildlife, it is coveted my many Georgians.

    I have a red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) growing in my yard.  Each year this small deciduous tree produces a crop of large reddish brown seeds called buckeyes.  Each plum-sized buckeye appears to be hand-polished. The seeds get their name from the round grayish scar (hilum) found on one side of each seed.  To many, this area (where the seed connects to the husk that covers the nut while it is developing) resembles the pupil of a deer’s eye.

       When you gaze at a buckeye, it looks like it should be a great wildlife food. In truth, the vast majority of wildlife species don’t eat buckeyes.  In fact, squirrels are the only native species known to dine on buckeyes on a regular basis. White-tailed deer, for example rarely do more than nibble on them. However, feral hogs are said to eat them.

       Why isn’t it a wildlife favorite?  The answer is the buckeye contains a chemical known as glycoside; a derivative of glycoside is known to be poisonous.  For some reason, this poison does not affect gray squirrels.  However, it is poisonous to livestock and humans.  Deer will usually avoid buckeyes but will occasionally nibble on them.

       On the other hand, many people covet buckeyes.

       According to a number of folktales, buckeyes can do amazing things such as bring good luck and even cure diseases. 

      Consequently, some say that carrying a buckeye will a person good luck only if it is carried in the right pants pocket.

      According to folklore, rubbing a buckeye will cure asthma, headaches, arthritis and rheumatism. However, if you want a buckeye to cure your rheumatism, you must carry it in your left pocket of your pants.

     If you have a buckeye tree that produces a bounty of buckeyes, don’t sell them as good luck charms.  If you do, technically speaking, you might be charged with false advertising.  This is because supposedly, if you sell a one of these magical seeds, it loses its power to provide the buyer with good luck.

THE RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD POPULATION IS DECLINING

        According to a recently published report entitled 2022 State of the Birds, the rufous hummingbird population is in decline. The rufous hummingbird has lost half its total population during the past 50 years. In addition, there is a very real chance that it will plummet another 50 percent during the next half century.

       The rufous hummingbird nests primarily in Washington and Oregon, north through Canada’s western provinces all the way to southeastern Alaska.

       The vast majority of rufous hummingbirds’ winter in Mexico, however, for decades many have annually wintered in the Southeast.  In fact, it is the most commonly seen hummingbird during the winter in Georgia.

BACKYARD SECRET – DIET AFFECTS COLOR OF MALE HOUSE FINCHES

  I am sure you have noticed that the amount of red on adult male house finches is highly variable. Throughout most of the year, what a bird eats affects amount of red it displays.  Specifically, the birds that consume foods containing large amounts of carotenoid pigments (e.g. fruits and berries) have plumages that are redder than those birds that eat foods containing little, if any, carotenoid.

     In addition, when a male house finch is developing new feathers, the fresh feathers are brighter tha those they replace.

 

BACKYARD SECRET—YELLOW JACKETS ARE MOST APT TO STING IN FALL

      Yellow jackets are common backyard residents.  Throughout the warmer months of the year, they actively hunt for food throughout our yards.  If we leave them alone, they rarely sting us.  However, if we are going to have a bad encounter with them it will most likely be in the fall.

       One reason that you are more likely to incur a painful yellow jacket sting in autumn is there are simply far more yellow jackets around at that time of the year.  All summer long yellow jacket numbers increase to the point that by the time autumn rolls around a colony may number anywhere from 2,000-4,000+ individuals.

       Another cause is during the fall yellow jackets change their diet.  During the spring and summer, their diet consists, in large part, of spiders, caterpillars, flies, and other invertebrates. Remarkably, yellow jackets are capable of capturing more than 2 pounds of insects and other invertebrates from a 2,000 square-foot garden plot.  The protein that they bring back to their nest benefits the young that continually hatch throughout the summer.    

       However, as they days get shorter, yellow jackets begin switching to a diet rich in carbohydrates. Yellow jackets locate these sweet foods in tree sap, nectar, and the juice of fruits and berries.  Much to our chagrin, they are also attracted to foods and beverages served at picnics and other outside gatherings.

       At this time of the year yellow jackets, become more aggressive toward one another as well as people and pets.  Consequently, they are more prone to sting without provocation.  Since this behavioral change coincides with a switching from a predominantly protein diet to one rich in carbohydrates, some researchers suggest this may be the main reason for their aggressive fall attitude.

       With that in mind, don’t go near yellow jacket nests in the fall.  In addition, if one does sting you, just remember that a painful sting might be a small price to pay for an insect that helps control insects pests that prey on the food an ornamental plant growing in your yard.

       I tried do take my own advice recently when I was the victim of an unprovoked yellow jacket that zeroed in on my arm.  I must admit immediately after I was stung, I was not harboring kind thoughts regarding yellow jackets.  However, as is often the case with many things, over time I got over it.