THE MONARCH IS BUT ONE BUTTERFLY THAT MIGRATES

        The plight of the monarch has focused our attention on the annual fall migration of this gorgeous black and orange butterfly. Since the butterfly’s population has plummeted some 90 percent, backyard butterfly watchers are keeping a close eye on the numbers of monarchs that flutter through their backyards each spring and fall.  While this epic event it taking place, the largely unrecognized migration of a broad mix of other butterflies is also taking place.

       Would you believe that well more than a dozen other butterflies that you are apt to see in your Georgia backyard also migrate? 

       Here is a list of some of these amazing insects: American lady, painted lady, common buckeye, red admiral, cloudless sulphur, little yellow, cloudless sulphur, sachem, question mark, fiery skipper, mourning cloak, gulf fritillary, long-tailed skipper, ocola, queen, and American snout.

       By far, the monarch stages the longest migration of all North American butterflies.  This migration can measure some 2,500 miles in length. The migrations of other butterflies that visit our backyards are much shorter.  In addition, all the while monarchs are winging their way south, some butterflies such as the fiery skipper and some cloudless sulphurs are actually flying in the opposite direction.

       The migrations of most of these other butterflies is so subtle you would never notice them until one day you wonder where all of the American snouts, gulf fritillaries and others have gone, while the numbers of individuals of other species such as the painted lady have increased.

       However, migration cannot account for all of the fluctuations in butterfly populations that take in our backyards at this time of the year.  Since most of our butterflies are sedentary, as days get progressively shorter, they simply do not produce any more generations (flights).  Most butterflies overwinter as an egg or pupa. 

       Aside from the monarch, the most obvious migration we are likely to witness in this neck of the woods is that of the cloudless sulphur.  Using the sun as their compass, migrating cloudless sulphurs fly approximately twelve miles a day. 

       During this time of year, cloudless sulphurs are drawn to the red blossoms of Turk’s cap growing in my yard.  They are also fond of scarlet sage, pineapple sage, and zinnias.

       One major difference between bird and butterfly migration is that the same birds that were raised and fed in our yards this year might return next spring.  However, none of the monarchs, cloudless sulphurs, red admirals and other migrating butterflies that graced your property this spring and summer will ever return.

       While we measure the lifespan of birds in years, the average butterfly lives no more than a month or less. Consequently, the butterflies that appear in our backyards the following year are ancestors of those that nectared at our flowers this year.

       During the next few weeks, I hope you will see many monarchs in your yard.  If you do, that might be a sign monarch populations are on the rebound.  However, don’t forget to look for those other backyard butterflies that also migrate.  Although they will never grab the headlines like the monarch, they are truly fascinating members of our backyard wildlife community and very much deserving of our attention.

      

BACKYARD SECRET: WATER IS A BIRD MAGNET

        Believe it or not, you can attract more birds to your backyard with water than food.  Some homeowners have used water to attract as many as 65 species of birds to their backyards. 

       Even though birds have been known to travel up to two miles to bathe and drink, many birds simply do not visit backyards that lack water. 

       As such, if you do not have a water feature in your backyard, consider adding one.  Something as simple as a birdbath will make a big difference.  Simply make sure you purchase a birdbath that has a gently sloping bottom that has a depth of no more than 1.5″ – 2″ 

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?”

BACKYARD SECRET: Coneflowers Are Great For Wildlife And People Too

        The coneflower’s value to wildlife is widely recognized.  It is a source of food for native pollinators such as native bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  In addition, long after its blooms fade, American goldfinches and other birds feed on the plant’s prickly seeds.

       Those of us that plant this plant in our gardens enjoy the beauty of it uniquely shaped, colorful flowers.  However, according to many herbalists, the value of this plant to humans may go far beyond its pleasing appearance.  It has been purported to be beneficial in treating a wide variety of ailments.  For example, it has been reported that chemicals found in the coneflower a natural antibiotic and even enhance white blood cell counts.

       While I cannot substantiate claims of its medicinal values, I can attest to its value to wildlife.  This year, for example, my wife and I enjoyed watching bumblebees and carpenter bees daily visiting the blooms of coneflowers growing in our backyard.   In addition, the flowers produced by these plants were particularly popular with common buckeyes.   In fact, this year we saw more common buckeyes on coneflowers than any other plant growing in our backyard.  Numerous times, a single flower hosted four or more buckeyes.  

BLOGGER OBSERVES WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH CACHING FOOD

In a recent blog, I noted that one of the great joys of backyard wildlife watching is sharing your observations with others. This prompted Debbie Menard to report one of her most interesting recent wildlife sightings. I found her report so interesting I thought I would share it with you.

       Debbie is one of the few folks I know that offers safflower seeds on her menu of food offerings at her backyard bird cafe. Since gray squirrels do not relish the oily seed, it is sometimes used as an alternative to sunflower seeds. For some reason, gray squirrels seem to shy away from this odd seed.

       In fact, it is a seed that only a handful of backyard birds will routinely eat. The seed appears to be eaten most often by the northern cardinal. The short list of other species that will eat safflower seeds includes the likes of downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmouse, mourning dove, Carolina chickadee, blue jay, finch and the white-breasted nuthatch.

       One day this summer Debbie watched a white-breasted nuthatch pluck a safflower seed from a feeder and characteristically fly off with it in its bill. The bird landed on the trunk of a large white oak tree. Once there, the bird made a few modifications to the bark of the tree. Once the bird was satisfied with its handiwork, it wedged the seed in the cavity it had created and flew away.

       This was the first time Debbie have ever seen a white-breasted nuthatch engage in this fascinating behavior.

       What a great sighting!

       Keep your eyes peeled, a white-breasted nuthatch, or some other bird, may be caching seeds in your backyard right now.

SHARING NATURE SIGHTINGS WITH OTHERS

        I honestly believe that the enjoyment we all receive from watching wildlife is greatly enhanced by simply sharing our sightings with others.  This concept was recently reinforced when I gave a talk about hummingbirds to the Southern Wings Birding Club in Lawrenceville.

       After I made my presentation, the club’s president asked all present to share some of the fascinating sightings they had made since their last meeting.  He made sure everyone had a chance to contribute by asking each member, in turn, to contribute to the conversation. 

       A few people talked about the birds they had seen on recent trips to far off locations in quest of adding birds to their life lists.  As these folks described seeing such unusual species as red-necked phalaropes, I am sure I was not alone in hoping that one day I too would be able to make a similar trek.

       While such reports were thoroughly fascinating, what impressed me most was the fact that everyone was eager to tell stories about the birds they see on a daily basis in or nearby their own backyards. 

       The reports ranged from a woman seeing an American bittern perched on a utility line near a small marsh flooded by recent rains, to a man that told how raccoons had become so fond of the nectar in his hummingbird feeders; he had to take the feeders inside every night.  One member described how brown thrashers rummaged through the top of a tree he cut down in his backyard as he worked nearby.  Several people spoke about the fascinating behavior of the Carolina wrens that inhabit their yards.  A remarkably large number of hawks were the subjects of many reports.  I found it interesting to hear one-woman talk about feeding blue jays and how they come looking for her when they want to be fed.  Still others discussed seeing everything from blue-gray gnatcatchers to indigo buntings in their yards.

       As people shared their experiences, the room was full of laughter and fellowship.  It was obvious to me all of the members genuinely felt they were contributing to the discussion.  Even after the meeting had closed, people were still talking with one another about birds and other wildlife.

       It was also great to see more experienced birders interacting with beginners.  Everyone was learning from one another.  As such, they are gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural world.  There is no doubt in my mind the quality of the life these people enjoy is enriched by the wildlife they see on a daily basis.

       If there is a bird or nature club in your neck of the woods, attend one of its meetings.  If a club is not located nearby, consider starting one.  Either way, if you do, you will be better for it.