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THE MORNING GLORY – FRIEND OR FOE?

        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.

       

 

 

THE HUMMINGBIRD’S ABILITY TO SELECT NECTAR-RICH BLOOMS

       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.

PLANT NOW TO FEED BUTTERFLIES AND HUMMINGBIRDS FROM LATE SUMMER INTO FALL

       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.

Long-tailed Skipper nectaring on Mexican Sunflower

     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.

SWEET WILLIAM CAN BE A GREAT BUTTERFLY AND HUMMINGBIRD PLANT

       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.

HUMMINGBIRD MOMS ARE SPECIAL TOO

       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.

SAPSUCKERS HELP FEED HUMMERS IN EARLY SPRING

       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.

      

RED BUCKEYE IS A GREAT NATIVE HUMMINGBIRD NECTAR PLANT

  The goal of any hummingbird gardener should be to provide a wide variety of nectar plants that ensure hummers will have sources of nectar throughout, as much of the year is possible. The red buckeye is a native shrub that yields an abundance of nectar early in the spring. If you are considering planting a red buckeye in your yard, here is some information that should help you decide whether or not this plant is right for your yard.

Buckeye, Red (Aesculus pavia) – Type of Plant – shrub or small tree; Height – 20+ feet; Blooms – March to May; Soil – well drained, moist soil types are best; Light – partial shade to full sun.

A BROWN THRASHER HERALDING THE IMPENDING ARRIVAL OF SPRING

      When late winter begins releasing its icy grip on the on the landscape I am constantly listening for sounds that herald the coming of spring. One sound that I am hoping to hear is the song of the brown thrasher.

       In spite of the fact the temperature hovered in the low 30s, one of the first birds I heard as I stepped outside my home Saturday morning (March 7) as the sun was just beginning to rise above the horizon was a song uttered by a brown thrasher. I must admit I was both surprised and happy to hear the bird’s pleasant melody. In fact, it so startled me, I had to convince myself I was not listening to a northern mockingbird. However, after listening to the songster for a couple of minutes I was sure I was indeed being serenaded by a brown thrasher.

       I hear the brown thrashers more often than I see it. This comes as no surprise since they stake out its domain in and near the shrubby border surrounding my yard. As such, unless you can recognize their rambling, complex song, thrashers can be easily overlooked. However, in springtime when males are courting females they will sing atop a high perch. However, since the brown thrasher’s song sounds much like the more often seen and heard northern mockingbird, it is easy to assume you are listening to a brown thrasher. Since we hear mockingbirds sing so often, even when a thrasher is singing from upon high, we might not even look up to take a glimpse of this accomplished minstrel.

       It is actually very easy to separate the vocalizations of the brown thrasher and the northern mockingbird. All you have to remember is the brown thrasher typically utters a rambling series of phrases twice.

       One of the earliest descriptions of the brown thrasher’s song was penned by the famous American naturalist Henry David Thoreau. In his well-known book “Walden, or, Life in the Woods,” published in 1854, Thoreau recalls a time when he was hoeing a row of beans as a brown thrasher kept repeating, “Drop it, cover it up, cover it up, — pull it up, pull it up, put it up.”

       The Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s modern version of the song is “Plant a seed, plant a seed, bury it, bury it, cover it up, cover it up, let it grow, let it grow, pull it up, pull it up, eat it, eat it.”

       The mockingbird, on the other hand, usually repeats the phases in its song three times.

       The next time you are taking a walk about in your backyard and hear what sounds like a mockingbird, listen carefully the songster just might be listening a brown thrasher.

       Now that I have heard a brown thrasher singing, seen the and realize I should spot my first ruby-throated hummingbird in a little over a week, I know spring is knocking at my backdoor. The only thing that would make things better is spring’s arrival will finally end the weather pattern that has dumped far too much rain on Georgia during the past several weeks.

BACKYARD SECRET–THE RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD POPULATION IS DOING WELL THROUGHOUT THE USA

       Experts estimate the breeding population of the ruby-throated hummingbird is roughly 20 million birds. It is interesting to note that at least 16.8 million of these birds spend a portion of the year in the United States. The population of rubythroats that nest in the Southeast increased one percent per year from 1966-2005.  Currently the ruby-throated hummingbird population in Georgia is considered to be stable. This is great news for the millions of folks that enjoy watching these amazing birds.

HUMMINGBIRD SEASON IS SET TO BEGIN

       On crisp March mornings, the leafless woodlands surrounding my Middle Georgia home reverberate with the gobbling of wild turkey gobblers. As the month moves forward and their loud pronouncements increase, the first hummingbirds of the season will appear in my backyard without any fanfare. If you are like me, the first hummingbird of the year seems to magically appear out of nowhere often when we least expect to see one.

       Thoughtful hummingbird hosts, we will have a feeder stocked with sugar water waiting for the hungry, long-distance travelers. Often though, this is not the case and the first hummer of the season is seen hovering at the vacant spot where a feeder was hung the previous year. If you don’t want to feel like a heel for letting the tiny bird that journeyed so far to reach your backyard down, I strongly urge you to put up at least one feeder as soon as possible.

The first hummingbirds to arrive in the spring in my neck of the woods arrive around March 18. Good friends that live close by in Lizella have seen hummingbirds are their feeders as early as March 15. As you might expect Georgians that live in South Georgia, see their first hummingbirds of the year much earlier in March and even in February. Friends living in North Georgia tell me they may not see their first rubythroat until April.

       If you share my passion for hummingbirds, I am sure you are keenly looking forward the spotting your first ruby-throated hummingbird of the year. Whenever it drops in for a long drink of sugar water, let me know. I would love to share the big event with fellow bloggers.