BACKYARD SECRET – CAROLINA WRENS ARE CHAMPION SONGSTERS

        If you live in Georgia, it is next to impossible not to hear the cheery vocalizations of the Carolina wren.  I hear them throughout the year.  In fact, the song of a Carolina wren is often the first sound I hear when I step outside in the morning.  This has made me wonder how often a wren calls in day.

       Recently while conducting research on backyard wildlife I found an answer to this perplexing question.  It seems that it has been documented that a captive male Carolina wren actually sang 3,000 times in a single day!

       I must admit, I had no idea a Carolina wren could accomplish such an impressive fete.

DANGEROUS MICROBES LIVING IN HUMMINGBIRD FEEDERS

       We are all concerned about the health of the hummingbirds that we host at our hummingbird feeders.  Consequently we try to keep our feeders as clean as possible in hopes that microbes living on our feeders and the nectar we offer are not going to cause a health problem for our hummingbird neighbors.  For the first time, researchers have focused on what microscopic critters dwell in backyard feeders.

       Scientists at the University of California, Davis, conducted the research.  The research team carried out their study in a backyard located in Winter, California.  Both Anna’s and black-chinned hummingbirds frequented the feeders in this yard.

       During the study, the microbe communities living in the sugar water offered in feeders, on nearby flowers producing nectar, as well as on the hummingbirds themselves were compared.

       The results of the research project indicated that the majority of the bacteria growing in the hummingbird food offered in feeders did not pose a significant health threat to hummingbirds or humans.  However, also present were much smaller populations of bacteria and fungi that could potentially have a harmful effect on humans and hummers.

       It should be noted the scientists found deionized water harbored the most fungi.  In comparison, bacteria were most abundant in tap and bottled water.

       The research team recommended that cleaning hummingbird feeders away from locations where food is prepared.  This would minimize the risk of a potentially harmful pathogen would be spread to humans.

       I think it is abundantly clear we should make every effort to keep our hummingbird feeders as clean as possible.

BACKYARD SECRET: BLUEBIRDS EAT MONARCH CATERPILLARS

       Most of us have been taught that birds do not eat monarchs.  In fact, if a bird just happens to try to make a meal out of a monarch, it gets sick from ingesting the poisonous compounds that course through the monarch’s body.  After living through such an experience most birds do not try to dine on a monarch again. 

       Eastern bluebirds are an exception to the rule.  These gorgeous backyard favorites eat monarch caterpillars laden with poisonous chemicals obtained when they chomp on milkweed plants without showing any ill effects.  

       The bluebird can devour this toxic food because it uses a technique to prepare a caterpillar before it tries to consume it.  Once a bluebird grabs a monarch caterpillar it flies to a branch and squeezes the large, juicy caterpillar time and time again.  This process forces much of the juicy innards of the caterpillar out both ends of its body.  Once the caterpillar has been flattened, the hungry bluebird then proceeds to eat the hapless insect.

 

 

THE WIND CAN HELP MONARCHS MIGRATE

       Now that September has arrived it is hard not to turn our thoughts toward fall and migration.  Invariably we associate migration with birds.  However, the plight of the monarch has heightened our interest in the migration of insects such as the monarch butterfly. 

       Each fall these amazing insects make their way south to their winter home in Mexico.  While this is truly an amazing fete, we know very little about how these butterflies accomplish this seemingly impossible task.  Recently the results of research conducted by Samantha Knight of the Nature Conservancy of Canada and others filled in another piece of the jigsaw puzzle of monarch migration.

       The research team captured and placed tiny transmitters weighing only 300 milligrams on 43 monarch captured near the Canadian shore of Lake Huron.  The devices were mounted on the insects in an attempt to track their southbound migration.         Fortunately, the biologists were able to retrieve data from six of these butterflies.  One of the most interesting findings was one of the monarchs flew 89 miles in a single day.  They were also able to determine the monarchs winged their way south at a speed on 7.5 miles per hour.  Knight later stated, “[It] was a lot faster than anyone had ever really anticipated.”  She went on to comment, “They could likely go even faster without the heavy tags on them.”

       The biologists also learned the butterflies flew faster when they were pushed along by a tailwind.  This was demonstrated by one butterfly that was clocked flying at a bit under 18.5 miles per hour with the aid of a tailwind.

      It was also discovered that monarchs flew faster in warm weather.  However, the butterflies were not able to fly until the temperature reached 50˚F and flight speed dropped when the air temperature reached 73˚F.

       It is definitely true the more we learn about these stunning insects the more we realize why they are so special.

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: FEW NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS HAVE BLUE FEATHERS

       Blue jays and eastern bluebirds are undoubtedly the two most common blue birds seen in Georgia backyards.  In addition, from time to time we also spot indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, and other birds that display varying amounts of blue feathers just outside our backdoors. 

      Since we regularly see birds that display the color blue you might be surprised to learn only two percent of all of the species of birds found in North America have blue feathers.

DRAGONFLIES HAVE AN ODD WAY TO STAY COOL

       With daily temperatures soaring into the 90s and above, we Georgians have been spending as much time as possible inside our comfortable air-conditioned homes.  Without the luxury of having a cool refuge to escape to when the hot sun is beating down, our backyard wildlife neighbors have to employ other means to beat the heat.  Recently my wife spotted a Halloween pennant dragonfly doing just that.

       A couple of weeks ago while watering the flowers on our deck she noticed a Halloween pennant dragonfly perched on the dead branch of a red salvia plant.  Instead of perching with its wings parallel to the ground, the beautiful gold dragonfly had arranged its body so that its tail was pointing upwards toward the heavens.  At first, she thought the insect just happened to land in the awkward position.  However, several times during the next few minutes the dragonfly flew off and then returned to the same spot.  Each time it landed in the normal manner and then quickly rearranged its body so its abdomen faced upward like an obelisk.  This made it look much like a miniature Washington Monument.

       It seems the Halloween pennant was employing an odd strategy to keep cool.  By positioning itself with its abdomen pointing skyward, it was reducing the surface area of its body exposed that was exposed to the sun’s ray.  With less direct sunlight striking its body, it kept itself cooler than it would have been if it perched in a normal position.

       Isn’t nature amazing?

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.  

GREAT GEORGIA POLLINATOR CENSUS

       Some of our most fascinating and important backyard wildlife neighbors are pollinating insects.  Unfortunately, populations of many of these critters are declining. In an effort of assess the number of these pollinators across the state, the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension is conducting the first Georgia statewide pollinator census.  The count will be held August 23 and 24, 2019.

       Becky Griffin, UGA Extension school garden and pollinator census coordinator is inviting private citizens, families, clubs, school classes and other groups to cooperate. 

       The count is fashioned after the highly successful Great Backyard Bird Count.  Consequently, whereas you do not have to be an expert in bird identification take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, you don’t have to be able to identify the insect pollinators that visit your garden.  Participants are simply asked to separate pollinators into eight groups (carpenter bees, bumble bees, honey bees, small bees, wasps, flies, butterflies/moths, and other insects.  An easy to understand online guide to these insects can be downloaded from the Great Georgia Pollinator Census website (GGaPC.org).

       Here is what you need to do to participate:

  • Visit the Great Georgia Pollinator Census website and download the GGPC Observation Sheet. The sheet can be used to record your sightings.
  • Select a single plant growing in your yard that you know attracts pollinators.
  • Count the pollinators landing on the plant during a 15-minute period.
  • Visit the website once more and upload the results of your count.

       I sincerely hope that you become citizen scientist and participate in the state’s first-of-its-kind pollinator count.  If you do, you will be helping conserve these valuable insects.

       If you have any questions regarding the census, contact mailto:Becky Griffin at beckygri@uga.edu.