Georgia’s second hummingbird season is now in full swing. This season runs from November 1 through the end of February. Although fewer hummingbirds visit our feeders during this time of the year, far more species of hummingbirds are seen in the Peach State during these four months than at any other time of the year.
While a few ruby-throated hummingbirds winter in the Peach State each year, the hummingbird most often seen at Peach State feeders during the winter is the rufous. The rufous hummingbird breeds throughout the Pacific Northwest as far north as southern Alaska. This hummingbird traditionally winters in central Mexico. However, over the past several decades some of these migrants have been wintering every winter across the Southeast.
Today, while I was working in my home office, I spotted my first rufous of the year feeding at a feeder hanging just outside my office window.
If you want to give yourself a chance to see a rufous or one of the other hummingbirds that visit Georgia in the winter, maintain a hummingbird feeder in your yard throughout the winter. Chances are you will not see one of these special birds. However, if one of these birds does make an appearance, it will be something you will not soon forget.
People seem to either love or hate morning glories. Although it is often planted for the beauty it brings to the backyard garden, others consider it an invasive weed and pull it out of the ground whenever they find one.
On one hand, it can be a nuisance that sometimes blankets plants gardeners feel are more desirable. However, it is usually easy to control in a backyard setting.
On the other side of the coin, its seeds are often consumed by songbirds and quail.
Morning glories also provide food for nectar feeders such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, as well as native bees, butterflies, and moths. Remarkably, this fact is often overlooked by gardeners and even wildlife experts.
The morning glory is also a host plant for the morning glory prominent moth. This grayish, brown moth is often attracted to outside lights on warm summer evenings.
A number of butterflies such as the clouded skipper and cloudless sulphurs nectar at morning glory blossoms.
Late blooming morning glories can also be particularly valuable to rubythroats during the late summer and fall when they are preparing to migrate, or are already en route to their wintering grounds. Often these long-distance migrants have a difficult time finding enough food to navigate this difficult flight.
I suspect the morning glory is more often considered a foe rather than a friend. As is often the case though, the more you get to know a plant you consider to be a weed, the more you realize it may possess redeeming values you never considered before.
August is a special month for both ruby-throated hummingbirds and those of us that enjoy watching them. Throughout the entire month, the number of hummingbirds visiting our feeder swells as they voraciously feed on the nectar provided by our feeders and flowers. The reason for this increased activity is these flying jewels must quickly eat enough food to enable them to store the fat required to fuel their long journey to their winter home.
In order to accomplish this task, hummingbirds make frequent feeding forays to our feeders and as many flowers as possible. Since hummingbirds have one the highest rates of metabolism known, they expend huge amounts of energy trying to prepare for their arduous migration. Obviously, anything that makes this task more efficient greatly benefits these flying dynamos.
One way the birds would be able to streamline their feeding binge would be to possess the ability to avoid visiting flowers that harbor little or no nectar. Well, as amazing as it may seem, they can do just that. Here is how it works.
The amount of nectar produced by each nectar plant varies considerably throughout the day. A number of variables such as soil moisture and weather conditions affect it. When hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, wasps, and other nectar feeders consume nectar, it takes time for it to be replenished. This time varies considerably. For example, some flowers do so only once a day, others every half-hour, others varying amounts of time in between.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds have the ability to learn how long it takes a flower to rejuvenate its supply of energy-rich nectar. Consequently, when a rubythroat visits the zinnias, salvias, lantanas, bee balms, trumpet creepers, and the like growing in our hummingbird gardens they rapidly learn how long it takes each plant to produce a new crop of nectar. Only then will they revisit a plant it fed at earlier in the day. This eliminates the need to revisit the plant until correct amount of time has elapsed.
This astounding ability has been demonstrated by researchers such as a team of University of Edinburg biologists. Their experiments involved providing hummingbirds with two groups of artificial flowers laden with nectar. One group of flowers was refilled with nectar every ten minutes. The second group was replenished every 20 minutes. In short order, the hummers learned when each group of flowers provided them with a source of food.
Keep this in mind as you watch the hummingbirds visiting various flowers about your yard. It will help you better understand why they feed at certain nectar plants when they do. If you are like me, you will come away being even more impressed with a bird so small, ten could be mailed for the price of a first-class letter.
If you want to ensure that butterflies, hummingbirds and other nectar feeders can find plenty of food in your backyard from late summer into fall, now is the time to sow a late crop of zinnias and Mexican sunflower seeds.
Currently the gardens of most Georgians that plant for pollinators are awash with color and food (pollen and nectar). However, by late September and October many of these same beautiful pollinator havens will be far less colorful and offer hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators less food. In spite of trying to prolong the blooming period of cut-and-come-again plants, the numbers of flowers being produced will often dwindle by late summer. Other flowers will have simply ended their blooming period and will not blossom until next year.
This situation can cause problems for all pollinators, including migrants making their way south on their fall migrations. This list of migrants includes several butterflies such as the monarch as well as ruby-throated hummingbirds.
One way you can assist these critters this year is to plant more zinnias and Mexican sunflowers. Since both plants require somewhere from 60-70 days to go from seed to flower, you need to plant seeds for these plants right now.
Both can be planted in beds. I can personally attest to the fact that zinnias also do extremely well in containers.
Since my wife and I have never planted Mexican sunflowers in containers, I don’t know how they do in that situation. I suspect because they grow so tall, they would more than likely require staking.
Last year my wife and I enjoyed great success planting a second crop of zinnias. They attracted many butterflies, including monarchs, and hummingbirds. In addition, they added needed splotches of late color to our gardens.
If you decide to try this practice, I think you will be pleased with the results. I know monarchs, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and scores of other pollinators will benefit from your efforts.
My wife and I are always eager to try a plant that has the reputation of being a gorgeous ornamental as well as great hummingbird and/or butterfly plant. One such plant we have added to our gardens is Sweet William. Since Sweet William has long been a favorite of Georgia gardeners, I don’t know why we had not planted it before.
Sweet William is a member of the carnation family. It grows from five to 36 inches tall. The flowers are arranged in tightly packed bouquet-like clusters comprised of upwards of 30 or more blooms. The plants serrated petals ranging in color from purple to white, red, pink, or variegated. On top this, the plants easily hybridize and produce a wide variety of other color variations.
Sweet William blooms in the Peach State from late spring until the first autumn frost. During this blooming period, individual plants can be encouraged to continue producing blossoms by deadheading.
The old-fashioned garden favorite is native to Europe. Nobody knows for sure where the plant got its name. One of the most popular theories is it is named for England’s eighteenth century Prince William. Others suggest the floral beauty is named for William Shakespeare. I guess we will never know the answer to this quandary.
You can establish Sweet William in your garden from either seed or seedlings. If you plant seeds in spring to early summer, or set out plants in September or October, you will have to wait until the following spring to enjoy their showy blossoms. It you do not want to wait that long for the plant to blossom, you might want to consider buying plants and transplanting them to your garden soon after the spring’s last frost. In addition, if you sow seeds in the fall, they will germinate into plants that will bloom the following year.
I should mention, if you allow Sweet William plants to go to seed, they will readily reseed themselves. That being the case, they will quickly spread throughout a garden.
Sweet William will grow in a variety of soil types but seems to do best in well-drained, slightly alkaline soils.
In the spring of 2019, my wife sowed Sweet William seeds around one of our birdbaths. Only one plant produced a single flower last year. However, the plants overwintered and this spring (2020) rewarded us with an abundance of pink, red, and white blossoms.
For my wife, this floral show brought make memories of the Sweet Williams blooming in her grandmother’s garden years ago. In addition, they enabled me to take some stunning pictures of cardinals, thrashers and other birds visiting the birdbath to bathe and drink. The contrast between the birds’ plumage and the colorful flowers is stunning.
As for pollinators, as you can see from the accompanying picture, butterflies are already partaking in the nectar found in each Sweet William blossom. Hummingbirds and native bees have also been seen visiting the plants.
That being the case, this experimental planting seems to be a success.
On the second Sunday in May we celebrate a very special person in our lives. Yes, I am referring to our mothers. These very remarkable individuals shower us with love and devote their lives to raising us to become all that we can be. Today, while I was sitting on the deck of my home thinking about how much my mother has meant to me, a female hummingbird appeared at a backyard feeder. As the bird fed, it occurred to me that female ruby-throated hummingbirds are also special moms.
Each spring they return from their winter homes to raise another generation of rubythroats. When you stop to think about it this is not an easy task. Without the help of her mate, each female must construct an amazingly delicate nest in one to ten days (it takes longer if she does not rebuild an old nest). This requires her to make countless trips to gather the untold numbers of items needed to fashion her nest. The building materials range from bud scales, to the down from dandelions and thistles. The nest is held together with spider webs. She then plucks lichens from nearby branches and uses them to adorn the nest’s exterior.
After the nest is completed, she then lays two eggs and subsequently begins incubation. During the 12-14 days it takes to incubate the eggs, she will spend anywhere from 60%-80% of her time keeping her eggs warm.
Once the young hatch, she then dedicates the next 18-22 days of her life to feeding the voracious youngsters. This may require her to visit up to 1,500 flowers a day to collect nectar. In addition, she must also capture thousands of small insects and spiders and feed them to her rapidly growing youngsters.
If all goes well, the two young hummingbirds will take to their air and begin feeding themselves. However, in places like Georgia, the female may repeat the whole process again before leaving on her fall migration.
I am sure that as we celebrate Mother’s Day, thousands of female rubythroats proving they are indeed special moms too.
When the very first ruby-throated hummingbirds begin arriving in backyards across the state food is at a premium. This is because most of the flowers at that are blooming in early spring do not produce an abundance of nectar. As such, rubythroats must find other sources of food. In addition to our feeders, many hummingbirds rely on the sugary sap that collects in holes drilled in 246 species of native trees by the yellow-bellied sapsucker.
In case you are not familiar with this winter migrant, it is a woodpecker best known for drilling shallow holes in live trees. Often these holes are arranged in circles surrounding the trunk of a tree. Sap flowing through the tree collects in these cavities. In fact, in some cases, you can actually see where it oozed out of the cavities and dripped down the trunk of the tree.
The sap is a major source of food for the woodpecker. The sapsucker is able to dine on the sap because its tongue is equipped with an odd brush-like structure that it uses to collect the sticky liquid and bring it into its body.
Although sapsuckers often vainly try to discourage other wildlife from robbing their tiny sap-filled reservoirs, wildlife such as Carolina chickadees, squirrels, butterflies, moths, and ruby-throated hummingbirds often avail themselves of the food. Since the sap contains amino acids and sucrose, it is an ideal food for hungry hummingbirds.
It appears the food provided by the yellow-bellied sapsucker is more important to hummingbirds than we once thought. For example, rubythroats have been observed tailing sapsuckers through wooded areas seemingly to learn the location of active sapsucker wells. In addition, hummingbirds have been recorded actually trying to thwart other birds from feeding on trees containing sapsucker sucker holes.
It has also been demonstrated the northward migration of the yellow-bellied sapsucker closely mirrors that of the ruby-throated hummingbird. It should also be noted that when the rubythroats that nests in the northern limits of their breeding range, few nectar plants are blooming. This necessitates the birds to rely heavily on the sap collected in sapsucker wells to survive until nectar-bearing plants begin to bloom.
Chances are, if you have fruit or other hardwood trees growing in your backyard, they have been visited by the yellow-bellied sapsucker.
I guess you could say that when it comes to feeding hummingbirds early in the spring, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and we are the ruby-throated hummingbird’s best friends.