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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.

START PLANNING FOR SPRING GARDENS

      With spring just weeks away, there is no better time than now to decide which plants you are going to introduce into your home landscape this growing season. With that in mind, if you are looking for a native plant that is beautiful and is a used by pollinators such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, butterflies and others, consider planting beebalm. Here is some information that you should consider when deciding whether or not you want this native wildflower in your yard.

       Wild Bergamot (Beebalm) – Monarda fistula – Type of Plant – perennial; Height – 1 to 5 feet: Blooms – June to September; Soil – moist to well drained; Light – full sun to partial shade; Wildlife Use – butterflies, songbirds, hummingbirds.

AMAZING HUMMINGBIRD FACTS

        In a few weeks, ruby-throated hummingbirds will be making the long trip from their winter home to Georgia. Those hummers that fly across the Gulf of Mexico have long are arduous flight without having the luxury of stopping to rest or refuel.      

       Depending on where they take off and land, this migratory flight spans anywhere from 500 to 600 miles of open water. In order to successfully make the flight, a rubythroat must beat its wings some 2.7 million times. To top it all off, a hummingbird may use only 3/40th of an ounce of fuel.

THE RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD LOTTERY

       Most folks are under the impression that Georgia’s Hummingbird Season runs from March through October. While you are most apt to see a ruby-throated hummingbird within this time frame, more species of hummingbirds are actually spotted in the Peach State during our second Hummingbird Season. This special time of the year extends from November through February. The hummingbird most commonly seen at this time of the year is the rufous.

       This hummingbird is roughly the size of the rubythroat. From a distance, the male rufous hummingbird looks like it has been dipped in cinnamon. This is because, in most cases, its head, nape, back, and chest are rufous. The bird’s tail is also mostly rufous; however, the tips of its tail feathers are black. The adult male’s gorget is red. Females and immature males have predominately-green heads and backs. Both have white breasts, however, females display varying amounts of a rufous wash. The base of the tails of both birds is rufous too. Like the adult male, the tips of the tail feathers are black. The throat of the adult female is white and features a central spot of coppery orange feathers. The throat of the immature male is streaked and displays varying amounts of red gorget feathers.

       The rufous hummingbird nests from the northwestern contiguous United States northward to southern Alaska. Most rufous hummingbirds winter in Mexico. However, some also annually winter in the Southeast.

       Wintering rufous hummingbirds have been seen throughout the entire state. These are not birds that were blown off course on their way south. Some of these birds return year-after-year to this area of the country.

       The best way to see one of these birds is to keep a partially filled feeder stocked with fresh sugar water throughout the winter. Most people that maintain a feeder in hopes of attracting one of the uncommon western migrants are not rewarded for their efforts. However, when one does magically appear, you feel like you have won the Georgia Lottery.

       Let me know if you are lucky enough to host a rufous hummingbird this winter.

INSIGHT INTO HUMMINGBIRD PREDATORS

       One of the things I most enjoy about writing a blog is receiving feedback from my fellow bloggers.  These comments have definitely enhanced my knowledge of wildlife. 

       With that in mind, I want to share with you a message I received from a blogger that lives in southern Mexico.  The communication was prompted by a recent blog dealing with gray rat snakes feeding on hummingbirds at a backyard bird feeder.  The response to this posting provided me with a better understanding of the predators that feed on hummingbirds outside the boundaries of the United States.  As you will learn, hummingbirds that live in this part of the world as well as hummers that winter south of the United States have to contend with predators, the likes of which few Georgians have ever imagined.

      Blogger Pelicanbreath wrote,  “I live in southern Mexico and saw a juvenile Mexican spiny-tailed iguana eating a hummingbird on the windowsill next to a feeder.  I of course chased it away and then had to chase it away from two other feeders within the next two days (it’s missing part of its tail so it’s easy to spot).  Since then, I’ve seen the lizard around but never near a feeder.

       I’ve also had a problem with Ferruginous Pigmy-Owl predation.  I’d seen them in the tree next to my house almost daily for years and I only recall one attempt to hawk a bird from a feeder.  That is, until a pair of them fledged in the same tree – and grew up surrounded by hummingbirds.  Since then, I’ve seen the owls take over ten hummingbirds.”

SCARLET SAGE IS PRETTY SPECIAL

        If you are a wildlife gardener, you realize there is no such thing as a perfect plant.  That being said, I have found plants that exceed my expectations.  One such plant is scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea).

       My wife and I have grown scarlet sage in our home gardens and containers sitting on our deck for a number of years.  As expected, it has done well in our gardens.  However, its performance in containers has been truly remarkable.

       During the spring of 2018, my wife scattered scarlet sage seeds in several large containers.  In some instances, she planted it alone; in others, she mixed the seeds with black-eyed-Susans and zinnias. 

       As hoped, the plants did well and soon the bright red color of the plants’ blossoms could be seen from afar.  In addition, we were pleased to find that with regular watering, the plants flourished throughout a dry, hot summer.  Eventually after they finished blooming, they produced an abundance of seedpods, which soon dropped countless seeds onto the deck and into the containers where they were raised as well in nearby pots.  Many of these seeds, in turn, sprouted and produced a crop of new plants that displayed blossoms from late summer into fall.  In fact, the second blooming did not end until frost claimed them.

       This spring as my wife was preparing to replant our container gardens she noticed that, in each pot that contained scarlet sage in 2018 sage plants were sprouting.  In addition, young sage plants were appearing in pots adjacent to those dedicated solely to scarlet sage.  It was obvious, that enough young seedlings were taking root to eliminate the need to replant them.

       These third generation plants eventually bloomed profusely throughout what turned out to be one of the hottest on record.  The plants’ blossoms were pleasing to the eye and were a source of nectar for wild pollinators such as butterflies (particularly cloudless sulphurs), bumblebees, and carpenter bees as well as a host of other wild pollinators.  As was the case in 2018, the seeds daily attracted hungry beautiful American goldfinches.

       As was the case last year, the majority of the seeds fell into the containers in which they were grown.  Some weeks ago, they sprouted and are now producing blossoms.  This bloom could not come at a better time as from now into fall nectar is more difficult for butterflies and others to find.  Both migratory cloudless sulphurs and ruby-throated hummingbirds heavily feed on scarlet sage nectar at this time of year.  In addition, I am sure that the monarchs that will be passing through my yard in a few weeks will seek out scarlet sage nectar as they did last year.

       Oh, I should also mention more scarlet sage seedlings have emerged in each of our containers–this plant does not stop giving.

       I will never know how many nectar feeders these plants have already fed this year, or the number of American goldfinches that dined on the scarlet sage’s tiny dark seeds.  However, I am certain wildlife watching in our backyard would have paled without their presence.

       Is the scarlet sage a perfect wildlife plant?  No, but this hardy native has become a valued member of our backyard wild community.