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THERE IS A SNAKE ON MY HUMMINGBIRD FEEDER!

       How would like to look out your window and spot a snake wrapped around your hummingbird feeder?  This is just what recently happened to Upson County blogger Wanda Granitz.

       Needless to say, the rat snake dangling from her feeder was not visiting to partake in a sip of nectar.  It was attempting to grab a hummingbird or two. 

       Like most predators, snakes are very opportunistic.  Whenever they locate a concentration of prey, they will try to take advantage of the situation whether they find an abundance of frogs, insects, mice, or hummingbirds.

       There are many other critters that capture hummingbirds.  These predators include bullfrogs, hawks, shrikes, cats, praying mantises, spiders, and others.  However, aside from cats we rarely see hummingbirds capture one of these flying jewels.

       Fortunately, for hummingbirds and their devoted fans, the unnerving sight of a snake curled around a feeder is not common.  If you are like me, you have never witnessed anything like this in your yard.  In fact, in all the years I worked as a wildlife biologist, I received only a handful of reports of snakes trying to feed on hummingbirds visiting a feeder.

       However, if you do happen to spot a rat snake on your hummingbird feeder, one of the best things you can do to protect the hummers is capture the snake and move it some distance from your home.  Do not simply release it elsewhere in your yard.  If you do, chances are it will return to dine on these flying delicacies at a later time.

DO NOT FORGET TO DEADHEAD MEXICAN SUNFLOWERS

        Humans and butterflies alike are drawn to the bold orange blossoms of the Mexican sunflower.  The problem is by the middle of August the blooms displayed by this tall plant are often quickly fading.  This is unfortunate for those of us that enjoy its stunning beauty and the butterflies and other pollinators that feed at its showy flowers.

       With this in mind, if you deadhead the spent blossoms displayed by your Mexican sunflower plants, they will produce a new crop of flowers that will continue to contribute their beauty to our gardens and be a source of nectar for butterflies such as monarchs later in the year when nectar will be less abundant than it is right now.

BACKYARD SECRET: RED-BANDED HAIRSTREAKS NECTAR ON BRONZE FENNEL

        For quite some time I have been documenting butterflies nectaring on a wide range of cultivated and native plants.  This effort has helped me gain a better appreciation of which species of butterflies use which plants.  Every so often, I encounter a butterfly nectaring on a plant I never realized they visited. 

       For example, a few days ago my wife and I checked our bronze fennel for black swallowtail eggs and/or eggs.  Much to our chagrin, we did not find either.  However, my wife did make a fascinating discovery. When she called me over to look at what she had found, I was surprised to see six red-banded hairstreaks nectaring on a bronze fennel’s pale yellow blossoms.

       Although we have been growing bronze fennel in our garden for a number of years, we never considered the well-known black swallowtail host plant a source of nectar for butterflies.  Oh sure, we routinely see the blossoms routinely visited by sweat bees and other native pollinators, but never a red-banded hairstreak other butterfly.  Yet, here were half a dozen beautiful red-banded hairstreaks so engrossed in sipping nectar they never attempted to fly away in spite of the fact we were standing only a few feet away from them.

       A quick check of the literature and Internet failed to uncover any mention of red-banded hairstreaks using the plant as a source of nectar.  In fact, most authors simply mentioned it was visited by a number of pollinators; however, none said it was source of nectar for butterflies.

       While my wife’s sighting may not be an

important scientific find, it was important to us.  It

advanced our understanding of the unbelievably

complex relationships that exist between the plants

and animals that live just outside our backdoor.  

BACKYARD SECRET: GRAY SQUIRRELS HAVE A UNIQUE WAY TO SHADE THEMSELVES FROM THE HOT SUN

          The gray squirrel uses its tail to help to help balance itself as it climbs and jumps from limb to limb, an even break its fall when is tumbles from a limb high above the ground.  Unbelievably on bright sunny days, the gray squirrel flips its bushy tail over its back and utilizes it as a parasol to keep the rays of the sun from overheating its body.

BABY SNAKES OR SOMETHING REALLY WEIRD

 What do you think is the weirdest animal that lives in your yard?  Perhaps it is a spider, millipede, scorpion, or beetle.  Then again, it may be a land planarian.  Among the other names given this bizarre critter are soil planarian and arrowhead flatworm.

       Once you spot a land planarian, you can readily see why these critters are often mistaken for snakes.  They are shaped like a snake, have triangular heads, display broad dark lines that run down the length of their bodies, and can grow upwards of ten inches long.  However, if you examine them closely you will see they are covered with mucous, don’t have any eyes and are not covered in scales.

       The land planarian’s mouth is located about half way down the underside of its body.  Instead of eyes, this animal has eyespots that can only detect light.

       The body is covered with a heavy layer of mucous.  This mucous enables the flatworm to keep its body moist.  A flatworm will die if it loses water that amounts to more than 45 percent of its body weight.  As such, land planarians live in cool, moist spots such as under logs, rocks, and forest litter.  Around our homes, we most often find them under potted plants, or beneath objects stored on the ground like tarps and lumber.  Other than that, we occasionally see them on the surface of the ground when heavy rain saturates the soil.

       The land planarian eats a variety of invertebrates such as insect larvae, slugs, and earthworms.  While gardeners appreciate the fact they destroy plant pests, they don’t like them eating earthworms as they help aerate the soil.  In addition, anglers trying to keep a worm bed or folks that raise earthworms commercially hate them because they have been known to wipe out earthworm populations. 

       Oh, by the way, if they cannot find enough prey, they will cannibalize one another.

       This flatworm feeds by restraining its prey with a coat of slimy mucous.  Once it is subdued, the planarian extends its pharynx out of its mouth and into its victim and sucks out its body fluids.

       This odd critter employs two forms of reproduction.  It can lay eggs in a small cocoon (the eggs hatch in 21 days); however, it primarily multiplies by the process of fragmentation.  The process takes place once or twice a month. 

       Fragmentation occurs when a planarian attaches the tip of its tail to an object and simply pulls away.  Remarkably, the detached piece of tail is capable of moving about and will actually grow a new head within only 10 days!

       The planarian’s amazing ability to regenerate has long been of interest to biology students and medical researchers alike.  Unbelievably, a piece of a planarian, amounting to as little as 1/279th of its body, is capable of regenerating a totally new planarian in a matter of weeks.  You can cut a planarian’s head and half and the animal goes about its business sporting two complete heads. 

       Years ago, planarians were carried to the International Space Station to determine what effects, if any, the environment has on such things as their power of regeneration.  In one experiment, after an astronaut sliced a planarian’s head in half, the animal regenerated two heads in only five weeks time.

       Planarians are currently being employed by researchers involved in biomedical research studies focus everything from human aging, memory, and diseases to genetics.

       You can add the ground planarian to the list of exotic plants and animals that have been inadvertently brought to the United States.  In this case, it is believed this native of Indo-China they were shipped around the world during the 19th century hidden in soil accompanying nursery stock.

       Since the beginning to the 20th century, the flatworm has been located living in greenhouses across the country.  It has since been found in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and a number of other states.  It is thought the worms were introduced to these locations in potted plants sold in the nursery trade.

        While it is clear we could easily live without this critter, like it or not, there is little chance we will ever rid ourselves of the odd introduced animal.  In the meantime, countless folks will continue to be shocked when they lift up a pot and see what looks like a bunch of baby poisonous snakes poised to strike.  Just remember, if these weird animals are slimy and lack eyes, they will not bite.

BACKYARD SECRET: THE CATERPILLAR’S AMAZING GROWTH RATE

Some caterpillars exhibit an unbelievable growth rate.  Believe it or not, the caterpillars of some butterflies actually double their weight every two days.  If a human baby had a similar rate of growth, it would weigh a ton in just 14 days!

BE ON THE LOOK OUT FOR CLUES THAT SQUIRRELS ARE EATING MUSHROOMS

        The gray squirrel is one of the most common animals found in backyards across Georgia.  Indeed, it has proven to be able to coexist with humans. 

        One reason they flourish in our backyards is linked to the fact they are omnivores.  In other words, they can eat both animals and plants.  In fact, studies have shown they can consume upwards of 60 species of plants alone.  We all know they will eat anything from tomatoes to various nuts, berries, buds and the like.  In addition, they will also eat mushrooms.

        Recently while walking about my backyard on an unseasonably balmy winter afternoon, I happened across evidence that a gray squirrel had recently been dining of a mushroom.  The mushroom had been knocked over and pieces of the fragile plant were strewn about.  When I looked closely at the pieces, I could actually see tooth marks left by the hungry squirrel.  Then next day I found, since the last time I visited the feeding site, a squirrel had eaten even more of the mushroom. Prudent homeowners would never try to eat a mushroom without being sure the mushroom was not poisonous.  Even then, you cannot be sure what you are eating.  I have a friend that fancied himself as being a mushroom expert.  One on fateful occasion, his misidentification of a mushroom landed him and his family in the hospital.

        Eating a poison mushroom is not a concern for the gray squirrel.  Remarkably, they seem to be able to eat any mushroom without risking becoming sick or killed.  In fact, researchers have found gray squirrels have the ability to eat mushrooms containing deadly amanita (deathcap) toxins with impunity.  The gray squirrel is one of only a handful of animals capable of this gastronomic fete.

        Who would have ever thought that the animal that eats our vegetables, destroys our bird nesting boxes, eats more than its fair share of seeds at our feeders, and even invades our attics is a uniquely special animal?  I know I didn’t.  

WHAT IS THAT?

 Ever since my daughter was a little girl, she has been fascinated with the natural world.  It mattered not whether we were on vacation or just exploring our backyard, her inquisitive mind and sharp eyes enabled her to find something fascinating wherever we happened to be.  More often than not, she would be the first to make such a find.  As such, on a recent visit, it was no surprise that, while walking around the deck of our home with my wife, she spotted something hanging from beneath one of the deck rails.  Immediately she exclaimed, “What is that?

       Below one of the rails, she just happened to notice what looked very much like a small, brown paper bag measuring an inch or so in diameter.  The object was suspended from the rail by a number of slender filaments.

       Within minutes, my granddaughter and I joined my wife and daughter on the porch.  Each of us marveled at how well the small, round object was camouflaged dangling next to the deck’s brown wood.

YELLOW GARDEN SPIDER EGG SAC - House - 26 Aug 2018 (1)

       As has been the case so many times over the years, finding a backyard treasure perked our curiosity.  We just had to find out what we were looking at. 

       I suggested it might be a spider’s egg case.  Armed with this possible identification, my wife searched the internet looking for photos of spider egg cases.  In just a few minutes, she emerged from our home office and announced she was convinced it was a yellow garden spider’s (Agiope aurantia) egg sac. 

       I then retreated to my natural history library to learn more about the yellow garden spider and its egg sac.

       Leafing through the pages of several books I learned the female yellow garden spider creates one to four of these impressive egg cases per year; most are constructed from late summer to fall.  Working under the cloak of darkness she lays anywhere from 300 to 1,000 or more eggs on thin sheets of silk.  She then wraps them up forming a tough, brown silk ball.  The rugged covering protects the eggs from both the elements and predators.

       In the spring, the young spiders emerge from the egg sac and venture out into the world.  As you might expect very few of these tiny spiders survive long enough to reproduce.  Some of the spiders eat each other, still others are caught by predators such as mud daubers and birds. SPIDER WEB - BLOG - 25 May 2018

       It was truly amazing how our daughter’s backyard discovery led to a memorable event shared by three generations of our family.  In addition, it reinforced our appreciation for the amazing variety of life that lives just outside the backdoor.

       I guess you can see why I will never tire of hearing a family member say, “What is that?”

PROTECTING PETS FROM COYOTES IN BACKYARDS

       Regardless of whether you live in a large city, small town, subdivision or in the rural countryside  you need to protect your small dogs and cats from coyotes.

       Georgia’s coyote population is rapidly expanding.  This is truly remarkable when you consider the coyote is not native to the Peach State.  However, since the 1850s the range of the coyote has increased threefold and now can be found in every state with the exception of Alaska.

       As the coyote has expanded its range, it has demonstrated its adaptability for living in a variety of new habitats by altering their diet to fit the food available.  In other words, in addition to dining on rodents and rabbits, in some areas their diets include birdseed and an occasional small domestic pet.

       Although it is unlikely a coyote will capture your small pet, by adopting a handful of preventative measures you can guarantee that it will never happen.

       It is always a good idea not to let your cats and small dogs stay outside at night.  Coyotes hunt at night and, if given a chance, they will prey on small domestic animals.

       If it is necessary to let your pet out for a “bathroom” break from dusk to dawn,  go outside with it, keeping it within sight at all times.  During this time frequently talk to your pet.  This will alert a coyote that a human is close by.  A healthy coyote will avoid humans.  In addition, it is also best to keep your pet on a leash.

       If you feed pets outside, remove any uneaten food by sundown.  Pet food will attract a variety mammals such as opossums, foxes, skunks, and rodents.  Coyotes will also eat the food as well as many of the other mammals they attract.

WIDOW SKIMMERS MAY BE PATROLLING YOUR BACKYARD

The widow skimmer is one of the most striking dragonflies you are likely to see patrolling your backyard.  This is especially true if you live near water.

       The adult male can easily be identified as it has a primrose blue abdomen, dark shoulders, and a black band at the base of each wing.  The outer edge of the black band is bordered in white.

       Females and immature male widow skimmers look very much alike.  Their wings have dark brown stripes and their abdomens sport a dark dorsal stripe bordered on each side with yellow.  In addition, the tips of the females’ wings are tipped in black.

       These flying predators capture airborne prey with their feet.

       Widow skimmers do not continuously fly through the day.  Instead, they prefer to perch atop weeds and other plants.  From these vantage points, they frequently take wing and patrol their territory in search of food; this behavior is repeated throughout the day.

       Widow skippers typically fly from May through early November.

       This large dragonfly is very common above the Fall Line, uncommon in the Coastal Plain and mostly absent in the southeast corner of the state.