I suspect that most folks that enjoy birding would like to make the trek to Texas’ High Island to witness the spring songbird migration. If you catch conditions just right, in a single day, you can get up close and personal to 30 species of warblers and literally scores of vireos tanagers and other birds. While this small island is the one of the very best places to see spring migrations, if you have the right habitat, you can see a kaleidoscope of songbirds from March into May pass through your own yard.
As migratory songbirds move northward, they make a number of stops before they reach their breeding grounds. These bits of critical habitat are referred to as stopover areas. Songbirds rest and refuel at these locations. Backyards offering the birds the proper food, water, and cover can serve as stopover sites.
The vast majority of migratory songbirds rarely visit feeders stocked with seeds and suet. However, can you attract them if you offer them the foods that will help fuel their spring migration flights. By far, the most important foods eaten by spring migrants are insects. However, the bulk of the insects consumed by the birds are the larvae of moths and butterflies (commonly referred to as caterpillars).
Most of these caterpillars feed on tree leaves. Therefore, if one or more of the trees that serve as hosts for moths and butterflies is growing in your yard, the better are your chances of attracting spring migrants.
When it comes to hosting moths and butterflies not all trees are created equal. The worst trees are introduced ornamentals. Some of these trees do not host any moths and butterflies. Studies have shown ornamentals produce 35 times less caterpillar biomass than native trees.
Here is a short list of some of the native trees that host the most species of moths and butterflies. The numbers of species of moths and butterflies that each tree hosts are found in parentheses. This list was developed by Dr. Doug Tallamy.
In Georgia, oaks (557) serve as host plants for more butterflies and moths than any other group of trees. Other important hosts to lepidopterans are cherries (456), willows (455), birches (411), poplars (367) crabapples (308), maples (297), alders (255), hickories (235), elms (215), pines (201), hawthorns (168), beeches (127), dogwoods (118), and sweetgum (35).
Should you find that none of these trees are in your yard, if you want to have your yard serve as a spring songbird stopover site, consider planting one or more trees found on this list. The small investment in time and labor this requires will pay huge dividends for decades to come.
If you already have one or more of the caterpillar producers growing in your yard, from now into May, periodically scan the tree foliage for migrants. How long the migrants stay is largely dependent on the amount of food they find. If your trees don’t harbor many caterpillars, migrants might stay and feed for only a day. Conversely, if caterpillars are abundant, migrants may linger for three or more days before moving on.
If you are lucky, one morning you may walk outside and see your trees alive with a dozen or more warblers gleaning insects for your trees’ foliage. While you might see far more species at High Island, the fact that you spotted these birds in your yard will make the experience extra special.
According to a recent, article that appeared in The Wildlife Society’s e-Wildlifer, this past winter the population of monarch butterflies found in their wintering grounds in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico dropped by roughly 26 percent.
Researchers attribute the decline, in large part, to a dramatic increase in illegal logging. While these activities have long been a problem, this past year it resulted in the removal of four times more of the firs and pines used by the butterflies as roosting sites than are typically lost. As a result, surveyors were only able to find the butterflies overwintering in only 2.1 hectares of habitat. To put this in perspective, the previous year monarchs wintered across 2.8 hectares of forests.
Monarch experts also believe that trees killed by beetle infestations, drought, and windstorms contributed to the decline.
One of the most bizarre insects that inhabits our backyards is a critter known by a number of unnerving names such as the devil’s riding horse, devil’s darning needle, witch’s horse, and musk mare.
The names referring to horses relate to the fact that the much smaller male of the species is often seen attached to the back of a female. If you closely look at the picture accompanying this blog, you will notice a male clinging to the back of a much larger female.
The name musk mare refers to the insect’s ability to spray would-be predators with a foul-smelling fluid. It is believed this defensive spray helps thwart the attacks of ants, beetles, and even mice.
With that in mind, if you stumble across a devil’s darning needle, do not get your face too close to the insect. Should one happen to spray you; the chemical might cause temporarily blindness as well as irritation to your mucous membranes.
This insect is fairly large. Males may be only 1.5 inches long, whereas females can attain a length of 5 inches.
Even though this invertebrate may have been living in your backyard for years, you may never have seen one. However, your chances of seeing one are greater in the fall than at any other time of the year.
The places where you are most apt discover one of this fascinating insects are hidden in grass, secluded beneath the loose bark of a trees, as well as under logs, and other objects littering the ground.
Interestingly, in spite of the insect’s frightening names, it is not a ferocious, flesh-eating predator. It prefers instead to graze on the leaves of a variety of trees and shrubs including oaks, roses, rosemary, privet, and crepe myrtle.
I am surprised that, although I have spent a large portion of my life outdoors, I have never seen a witch’s horse. However, a couple of weeks ago my daughter found the two illustrated here. I guess that goes to show you can spend a lifetime watching wildlife and never see everything that is living just outside your backdoor.
In spite of the fact that the Carolina satyr is one of the most common butterflies found in many Georgia backyards, its photograph rarely graces calendars or is featured in popular magazines. Even in yards where it makes its home, since it almost never visits flowers, some homeowners do not realize it is there.
It prefers to live out its life in the moist, dark wooded spots where most flowering plants cannot live. Even when is seen in its shady lair, it is often mistaken for a drab moth. Indeed one could say it is our backyard ghost butterfly.
The Carolina satyr is a small butterfly with a wingspan of only an inch to an inch and a half. While it will never qualify as one of our most attractive butterflies, if you take the time to closely examine one resting on a dead leaf or twig, it quickly becomes apparent the pattern found on its ventral wings is quite attractive.
Some have described the butterfly’s color as muddy brown; however, many field guides say it is light brown. In fact, when the butterfly has its wings outstretched basking the sun; you can see the dorsal wings are devoid of any pattern. Consequently, if you did not know what you were looking at, you would be scratching you head wondering what it the world you what it is. Fortunately, for anybody trying to identify his or her first Carolina satyr, you do not often see a Carolina satyr in this pose.
When we see one at rest, more often than not, it has its wings closed above its body. In this position, the markings featured on the ventral side of the insect are clearly visible. Usually, the first things that catch your eye are the spots lining the trailing edge of the underwings. The two largest spots are located in the bottom corner on the hindwing. Each spot consists of a very small blue spot surrounded by a thick black ring. In turn, this ring is rimmed in yellow. Above these two prominent features, a series of smaller spots are positioned all the way to the tip of the wing. These markings also have yellow rims. A few will even have dark centers. The underwings also feature two black traverse lines and dashes, respectively.
Carolina satyrs are often seen fluttering about in shady woodlands, forest openings and nearby disturbed grassy areas. They also do well in shady backyard settings.
Here they prefer to feed on tree sap, animal droppings and rotting fruit. About the only time they are ever seen feeding at flowers is in late autumn.
The Carolina satyr flight can be best described as slow and bouncy. Those of us that watch butterflies appreciate the fact that Carolina satyrs rarely embark on extended flights. As such, I have found that when I flush one in a shady spot, if I immediately stop and wait a few moments, the butterfly will often alight a short distance away. This offers me the opportunity to take a glimpse of it through my binoculars or quickly snap a picture.
Carolina satyrs are found throughout the state. Depending upon where you live, you can see this delicate backyard ghost from late February until early November.
If you and wondering whether or not these small butterflies are present in your yard, visit some of the shadier area of your yard. Once there slowly walk about scanning the ground in front of you. If you happen to catch the glimpse something slowly moving from place to place, more than likely you are not having a close encounter with something that goes bump in the night. Instead you are probably looking at Georgia’s backyard ghost butterfly.
Summer is a great time to watch butterflies. Depending on where you live, coupled with the abundance and variety of nectar plants growing in your gardens, it is possible to spot 25 or more species of butterflies in a single day. Currently, I am finding anywhere from 12-17 species a day. It is relaxing to watch butterflies flying from flower to flower. However, I find it even more satisfying when I can identify what I am looking at. With that in mind, I thought I would offer you some tips that will help you tell the difference between two similar butterflies that are likely to be seen in your backyard.
In my neighborhood, my wife and I see the silver-spotted skipper far more often than the hoary edge. However, it is not uncommon to find them feeding close to one another on the same plant.
Both butterflies are similar in size although the silver-spotted skipper is a bit larger with a wingspan that measures 1.75-2.40 inches in width. In comparison, the hoary edge’s wingspan is 1.4-1.75″ wide.
The feature that you can use to most easily tell whether you are looking at is a hoary edge or silver-spotted skipper is the position of the splash of white visible when the butterflies are perched with their wings closed. The white patch of the hoary edge extends inward from the trailing edge of the wing. To me, this frosty patch also seems to be somewhat smeared.
In the case of the silver-spotted skipper, its underwing patch does not extend all the way to the rear edge of the wing. Instead, it is situated near the center of the wing. In addition, this patch takes on a bright silvery white hue. Also, the outer edges of the patch are more clearly defined.
Purple martins are known to eat at least 79 species of insects including dragonflies, flies, bees, moths, and butterflies. However, I would be willing to guess you did not know they also dine on fire ants.
It seems purple martins target mating male and queen fire ants. One group of researchers studying the feeding habits of purple martins found fire ants were captured during 32 percent of the birds foraging trips. The ants accounted for 31 percent of the insects taken. In addition, fire ants comprised 27 percent of the biomass consumed by the birds and their young.
Based on these data, the scientists estimated purple martins consume some 1.7 billion fire ants annually across the United States.
The hover fly (also commonly called the flower fly) is one of our most often misidentified backyard residents. When one suddenly appears out of nowhere and hovers close to our face while making a buzzing sound, many panic and begin swatting at it fearing it is a bee or yellowjacket. Actually, the hover fly is not a bee, not a yellowjacket, nor hornet or wasp. Instead, it is a fly and is harmless to humans.
Here is how you can tell if you have encountered a stinging insect or a hover fly. All you have to do is remember this brief saying, “Two wings fun, four wings run.” In other words, flower flies possess only one pair of wings, whereas yellowjackets and their relatives have two sets of wings. In addition, while the flower fly will not sting or bite, as we all know, bees, yellowjackets, wasps, and their kin are armed with a stinger that they will use to inflict a painful sting.
In addition, most of the flower flies we encounter in our backyards look much like yellowjackets. However, if you will look closely, you will notice the hover abdomens of flower flies look deflated and flat. The abdomens of yellowjackets, on the other hand, appear inflated.
Also, hover flies can both hover and fly backwards, whereas, yellowjackets do not possess this mastery of the air.
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.
The click beetle is one of literally thousands of insects that inhabit backyards throughout the state. However, most of these animals live in anonymity. Today Kim Walton, the web master for this blog, spotted her first click beetle in her backyard. This unusual insect was seen on a deck post.
The large eye-like markings displayed by some species of click beetles give the insect an ominous look. However, the click beetle is not prone to bite or sting. In fact, if Kim had touched it, the beetle probably would have immediately fallen to the ground and played dead.
This insect is also known by a number of other names such as the snapping beetle, and skipjack. This is because, if place a click beetle on its back, it will flip itself into the air and land on its feet. This strange athletic fete is associated with a loud clicking noise.
At times while adult beetles are burrowing into rotting logs, and butt their heads against hard wood, their head butting creates a tapping sound. Legend has it this is a sign of death.
Adult click beetles feed on a variety of foods that include flowers and their nectar, as well as soft-bodied insects such as aphids.
The click beetles larvae are known as wireworms. The larvae are true predators that hunt the larvae of other beetles, and a wide variety of tiny invertebrates. They will also consume both roots and seeds.
Although click beetles are not as fearsome as they may appear to be, they are definitely a member large, diverse community of plants and animals that inhabit our backyards.