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DON’T REMOVE SPENT SEED HEADS FROM NECTAR PLANTS — BIRDS RELISH THEIR SEEDS

       Now that our days are characterized by low humidity and cool temperatures, it finally does feel like autumn.  While the weather has changed, the complexion of our gardens has been undergoing a major transformation.  Those of us that try to provide wild pollinators with food throughout as much of the year as possible still have an abundance of nectar-bearing flowers in full bloom.  However, alongside them are the dried seed heads of plants that bloomed earlier in the year.  Although our first impulse is often to remove these plants, I wish you would consider leaving at least a portion of them for birds that feed predominantly on seeds.

       The list of the flowering plants that produce seeds eaten by birds is quite long.  Here is a short list of some of the more popular plants that produce nutritious seeds for birds:  black-eyed susan, coneflower, cosmos, aster, scarlet sage, zinnia, coreopsis, and blanket flower.

       Birds will eat these seeds directly from seed heads or when the seeds fall to the ground.  In addition, it matters not whether the plants grew in containers on a deck or patio or in a traditional garden.

       My wife and I have truly enjoyed watching cardinals and American goldfinches feeding on scarlet sage and zinnia seeds produced by plants grown in large containers on our deck. 

       It never ceases to amaze me how a cardinal can pick up a tiny scarlet sage with its large beak.

       Among the birds that do not miss a chance to eat the seeds of nectar plants during the fall and winter are the northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, chipping sparrow, and American goldfinch.

       If you want to add a new facet to bird feeding, simply resist the impulse to create a tidy garden.  Let the plants that produced the stunning floral display remain standing.

       If you do, you will be providing your autumn/winter avian visitors with a great source of food.  Meanwhile, you will enjoy watching the fascinating behavior of birds foraging for flower seeds.

OCOLA SKIPPERS ARE MIGRATING THROUGH OUR BACKYARDS

       Whenever butterfly migration is mentioned, the monarch comes to mind.  However, while the monarch is undoubtedly our most famous butterfly migrant, a number of other butterflies also migrate.  One of these butterflies is the ocola skipper and it is passing southward through our backyards right now.

       The ocola is far from being our largest (wingspan: 1/5-1.75″) or most striking butterfly.  It is best described as being elongated in shape and dark brown in color. Whenever I see one, it reminds me of a jet airplane.  When it opens its wings, it displays a distinctive white arrowhead-shaped mark.  However, from the side, is appears to be a nondescript small, slender butterfly.  In addition, when its wings are closed, the butterfly’s light veins are distinctive.

       Although the ocola can be seen in Georgia from late March into early November, it is most abundant in my yard in late summer and early fall.  Currently the ocola is among the most common butterflies feeding on our flowers. 

       These distinctively shaped butterflies are feeding at a number of nectar plants including the butterfly bushes, cosmos, globe amaranth, and zinnias.

       Oddly, there is mounting evidence that, for some unknown reason, some Ocala’s actually migrate north in the fall and show up in places such as Ontario, Canada and Massachusetts.

       That being said, I believe it is safe to say that the destination of the ocolas we are currently seeing in our yards is Florida.  In winter, they winter throughout the peninsula of the Sunshine State.  Some even overwinter as far south as Key West.

       Who would have ever imagined this small butterfly could successfully navigate such a monumental journey?

AMERICAN HOLLY IS DIFFERENT

       At this time of the year, both resident and migratory birds are feasting on a variety of colorful berries such as American beautyberry and pokeberries.  However, have you noticed birds are not flocking to a native plant that produces one of the most colorful berries–the American Holly?

       Nowadays if you peer into the foliage of an American holly, you will discover that the berries that are synonymous with winter and Christmas are still green.  Even when they ripen, it will be a while before birds begin dining on these shiny red berries.  In fact, in most years, American holly berries will remain on the tree well into winter and provide birds with a valuable source of food long after the last beautyberry or pokeberry has been gobbled up.

       Among the reasons birds do not seek out holly berries when they first ripen is they are rock-hard and very bitter.  It is only after the berries have been exposed to one or more frosts do they begin to soften up.  Their exposure to cold weather also breaks down the chemicals that make the so bitter.  Even then, they are not considered a choice food.  American holly berries are not rich in many nutrients, although they are high in fats and oils.

       However, when birds have little else to eat, they will dine on dine on holly berries.  For birds that rely heavily on fruits and berries, holly berries can mean the difference between life and death. 

       A woman in Walton County once told me that, in winter, she often decorates her window boxes with branches of American holly covered with its showy red berries.  She went on the say that one-winter birds did not eat a single berry the entire winter.  However, one extremely cold March day a flock of robins descended on her yard.  Before the flock departed, the birds had eaten every single berry that had adorned the holly boughs placed in her window boxes.

       In addition to the American robin, among the more than two dozen species of birds that eat American holly berries are the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, northern mockingbird, wild turkey, and northern bobwhite.

       This is just another example of the fact that we need to provide a wide variety of plants that provide food and cover for birds throughout the entire year. 

STRAWBERRY BUSH USHERS IN THE FALL

      Currently throughout much of the state, there are few, if any, signs that fall is ready to blanket Georgia with a quilt of reds, oranges, and yellows.  However, those of us that have strawberry bush (Euonymus americana) growing in their backyards have been granted a preview of the colorful show yet to come.

       The strawberry bush is not a plant you would ever suspect as standing out among scores of other native shrubs that grow across the state.  It is small (4-8 feet tall), often grows under the canopy of larger hardwood trees, or among a myriad of brushy plants along forest edges or in recently harvested timber tracts.  However, from late summer into fall it is transformed into a shrub of unparalleled beauty.  

       At that of the year the plant’s seed capsules (arils), which are covered with conical warts, resemble green strawberries, turn pink and then bright red.  Thereafter the leathery capsules magically open and display shiny red berries that appear suspended on thin threads.  Once you cast your eyes on them for the first time, I am sure you will agree they possess unrivaled beauty.

       The opened pods and dangling berries, reveals where the plant got some of its nicknames such as hearts-a-bustin, bursting hearts or hearts-bursting-open-with-love.

       Strawberry bush is also referred to as spindletree.  It seems that the plant’s hard wood was once used to make spindles for spinning wheels.  If you will recall, in the popular children’s story of Sleeping beauty, the fair maiden fell asleep when she pricked her finger on a sharp spindle.  It is believed this relates to the folktale that claims that the wood of the strawberry bush is poisonous and, if a person ingests the wood; he or she will fall into a coma.  While I cannot attest that eating the wood would cause a person to end up in a coma, I do know that the plant is considered poisonous to humans.

       Such is not the case with birds and mammals.  In fact, it is an ice cream-food for white-tailed deer.  Whitetails simply cannot get enough of it.  In fact, one reason strawberry bush is not found in many woodlands is it has been heavily browsed by deer.  It is interesting to note wildlife biologists often use the prevalence of strawberry bush as an indicator of the size of a deer herd.

       Although, the berries are eaten by songbirds quail and even wild turkeys, strawberry bush rarely shows up in food habit studies.  I believe this is because, in most places, very few berries are produced compared to other plants such as pokeberries, and American beautyberries.

       Two things I also like about strawberry bush are that its leaves are aromatic and turn orange in the fall.

       If your garden is not plagued by white-tailed deer, strawberry bush would be a great addition on your landscape.  It is a Georgia native that is attractive and provides food for wildlife too.

       Once you establish it, you will become one of the few people that can enjoy this harbinger of autumn long before the main show begins.

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.

       

 

 

BACKYARD SECRET–BIRDS CAN GET DRUNK EATING POKEBERRIES

       Pokeberries are widely recognized as being a super food plant for birds.  Scores of birds including the likes of bluebirds, cardinals, tanagers, brown thrashers, hermit thrushes, quail, catbirds, and scores of others consume the plant’s large, juicy, purplish-black berries.  However, it is not common knowledge that birds can become intoxicated from eating the berries.

       This situation is most common late in the year when they eat pokeberries that have become fermented.  While fermented pokeberry juice will not kill them, it can definitely leave them addled enough to become susceptible to predators such as hawks and the family cat. 

       I must admit that, although each year the pokeberries growing in my yards are laden with berries, I have never seen a bird get drunk eating them.  Perhaps the reason for this is my wildlife neighbors gobble them up long before they have a chance to become fermented.

A SURPRISE BUTTERFLY NECTAR PLANT – ENCORE AZALEA

        As any Georgia gardener knows, when it comes to producing nectar that attracts butterflies, not all plants are created equal.  Based on my experience, one group of plants that is definitely in the group of those that produce little nectar is the traditional azaleas.  Unlike our native wild azaleas, they are rarely visited by butterflies.

       Over the years, my wife and I have planted our share of President Clay, George Taber, and Pride of Mobile Azaleas.  For years, each spring they transform our yard into a floral wonderland.  On occasion, I do see a few eastern tiger and pipevine swallowtails nectaring at their long trumpet shaped flowers.  However, so few of these gossamer-winged beauties have attempted to feed on the azaleas blossoms, I would be remiss if I was to say they are butterfly nectar plants.

       Several years ago, we set out a couple of Encore Azaleas.  We planted them because the nurseryman guaranteed us they would bloom well after spring.  To make a long story short, they have lived up to his guarantee.  Consequently, they treat us to the stunning sight of azaleas blooming well after the blooms produced by our native and traditional azaleas have fallen and created colorful collars on the ground surrounding the shrubs. 

           cloudless sulphur butterfly nectaring at an Encore Azalea blossom

A couple of weeks ago I noticed eastern tiger swallowtails and cloudless sulphurs visiting our Encore Azaleas.  When I looked more closely, I found these butterflies were not basking on the plants; they were actually nectaring.  Members of both butterfly species flew from flower to flower collecting nectar.  This was not a onetime event.  This activity has been going on for days.

       Since I made this discovery, I have gone online to see if others have also seen butterflies nectaring at Encore Azaleas.  Much to my surprise, many of the nurseries that sell Encore Azaleas tout them as butterfly magnets.

       I wish I could say I have seen butterflies using our Encore Azaleas in past years, however, either this is the first year they have done so, or I just did not notice this behavior before.

       There are scores of different varieties of this popular hybrid. However, I cannot tell which I planted in my yard.  All I can say is this year; two of the showiest butterflies that grace our yard are regular visitors to our Encore Azaleas. 

       I would be interested to know if you have seen butterflies use Encore Azaleas.  If you have, I would like to know which variety butterflies you have seen at the plants.  In addition, if you would let me know what variety of Encore Azaleas are being used by the butterflies that would be great!

SOME PLANTS HELP MIGRANTS FIND FAT-RICH FOOD

       I am fascinated by the astonishing relationships that exist between some native plants and animals.  One such association links certain plants that produce fat-rich fruits and berries to migratory songbirds.

       Long before the official arrival of fall, many birds like warblers, vireos, and thrushes, begin preparing for the epic fall migration during the heat of summer.  One way in which they ready themselves for the long flight is by switching from predominantly eating insects and other invertebrates that are packed with protein to a of diet fruits and berries laden with fats. 

       This dramatic dietary change enables these migrants to store body fat using less time and effort.  This is important, as this fat is the fuel needed to fuel their long migration.  It seems foods rich in protein and carbohydrates yield twice as little energy as fatty foods.

       Obviously, it behooves birds to quickly locate these sources of food.  One way in plants that produce fruits or berries loaded with fat facilitate this endeavor is by advertising.  The list of these plants includes blackgum, flowering dogwood, Virginia creeper, muscadine, magnolia, pokeweed, and many others.  These plants advertise by bearing fruits and berries that are have bright red in color, have fall foliage that is bright yellow, red or orange, or display their fruits or berries on red stems. POKEWEED BERRIES DISPLAYED ON RED STEMS - BLOG - 23 Aug 2020 (1)

       The plants benefit from the birds widely spreading their seeds through their droppings whereas the birds are able to quickly locate food prior to and during their migration.

       If you want to extend a helping hand to these special birds, incorporate as many of these plants as possible in your yard.

HOARY EDGE OR SILVER-SPOTTED SKIPPER?

       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.

       The two butterflies I am going to focus on are the hoary edge and silver-spotted skipper.  Both are overall dark in color and display patches of white on the undersides of their rear wings.

       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.   

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.