AN EARLY CHRISTMAS PRESENT

       When I took our dog out for a brief walk a little after noon December 14, the last thing I thought I would see is a butterfly.  Earlier in the month on successive nights overnight temperatures dropped into the 20s.  For all practical purposes, this ended our 2020 Butterfly Season.  However, as I watched Sassy take care of business, the sight of a medium-sized butterfly fluttering about a large camellia bush caught my eye. 

       At first, I thought I was looking at a gulf fritillary.  I sometimes see a few of these butterflies after a frost.  However, when the butterfly landed, I was amazed when it turned out to be a question mark.  Wow, what a surprise; it was my first question mark of the year.  This was due, in large part to my having sheltered in place throughout the spring and summer and not butterflying away from my little corner of the world.  

 Consequently, the question mark is one of a handful of butterflies that is capable of wintering as an adult in Georgia.  When it gets extremely cold adult question marks roost in holes in a tree, behind shutters or any number of other protected locations.  Then when temperatures get warm enough for them to fly again they take to the air. 

       The air temperature when I saw this beautiful butterfly was 58˚F.  Its rapid flight told me its body temperature was high enough to permit it to fly normally.  However, since the butterfly was obviously looking for a suitable place to bask to further warm its flight muscles in the afternoon sun.

       The lack of nectar plants poses no problem for this species as it feeds on plant juices, rotting fruit, dung, and carrion. 

       Who would have thought that my early Christmas present did not come in the form of a package wrapped in red and white?  Instead, it proved to be a gossamer-winged flying jewel borne on orange and black jagged-edged wings trimmed in lavender.

       I must admit that, for a brief period, I lost track of our little dog as I gazed upon this unexpected treat.  Eventually, I was reminded of the reason I had gone outside in the first place when my dog barked to let me know she was ready to go back into the house.  After I brought the dog back inside I quickly returned for a another look at the late season gift only to find it had flown off.  However, I was left with a mental image I will long remember.

       Keep your eyes peeled, you too may receive an early Christmas present.  If you do, and it proves to be a question mark, I am sure you will not be disappointed.   

AMERICAN GOLDFINCH NUMBERS AT GEORGIA FEEDERS VARY FROM WINTER TO WINTER

       Anybody that sets out a smorgasbord of food for the birds wintering in their backyards can tell you that, for no apparent reason, the numbers of American goldfinches they feed from year to year can vary widely.  Let’s take a close look at this apparent dilemma and see if there is an explanation for this odd phenomenon.

       Studies have shown that nationwide, on an average, those of us that feed birds during the month of January will see an average of 10 American goldfinches at our feeders on a regular basis.  However, some years flocks of upward of 100 or more American goldfinches descend on our feeders.  Likewise, in other years, if you are like me, you do not come close to hosting even 10 birds.

       The answer to this mystery is linked to the goldfinch’s breeding and winter ranges and average January temperatures.

       The American goldfinch has a large breeding range that extends in a broad band that sweeps across southern Canada and the northern two-thirds of the contiguous United States. 

       In Georgia, American goldfinches breed throughout much of the state with the exception of the southeastern slice of the state.

       Meanwhile, the bird’s winter range encompasses its breeding range and the entire South.

       However, some years American goldfinches breeding in the northern portion of their breeding range might not migrate at all.  However, if food supplies are inadequate and/or winter temperatures average 0˚F or below, many will take wing and migrate upwards of 1,000 or more miles southward to escape the cold and locate food.

       In comparison, during a normal winter our homegrown American goldfinches stay pretty close to home each. When this occurs, we are likely to see few goldfinches feeding on nyger and sunflower seeds in our backyards.

       That being said, it is apparent the only way we can predict whether we are going to host a lot of American goldfinches at our feeders this winter is to watch the weather reports for those parts of the continent north of Georgia.

BACKYARD SECRET — BLUE JAYS ARE NOISIER IN THE FALL AND WINTER

      Have you ever taken a walk through the woods on a crisp fall or winter day and found that you were constantly assailed by the loud, raucous calls of blue jays?  If you have, chances are you wondered if it was your imagination that these large, handsome birds seem to call more frequently at this time of the year than in spring and summer.  The truth of the matter is blue jays do indeed call more often during autumn and winter.

       I have long been aware of this fact.  I first became aware of this when I found a blue jay nest near my home.  Throughout their entire nesting period, I never heard a sound made by the nesting birds.  However, during the fall, long after the blue jays had fledged their young, the jays living in that neck of the woods frequently called. 

       The reason for this is, if the jays regularly called near their nest, predators might be alerted to the fact that the birds are nesting somewhere close.  This might prompt an avian or mammalian predator that might hunt for food elsewhere to focus its attention on the area where it frequently hears blue jays calling.

       However, during the fall and winter when blue jays are spending most of their time roaming the woodlands looking for food, they routinely communicate with one another and other animals via their loud calls.  In addition, during these feeding forays, should they encounter a hawk or other predator, they are quick to sound the alarm to any critter living nearby.  

HOW MANY DIFFERENT SPECIES OF BIRDS DO YOU FEED IN YOUR YARD?

        According to data collected by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, some 350 species of birds feed at backyard bird feeders throughout the North American Continent.  Only 90 of these birds are considered regular visitors to our feeders.  The vast majority of the birds that eat at feeders are only casual visitors.  Do you have any idea how many different birds you have fed at your feeders over the years?

         Recently I tallied the number of species that have visited feeders at my Monroe County home during the past 40+ years.  My wife and I have tallied feeding 38 species of birds during this period.  Three birds strictly fed on suet.  One species ate suet and fruit.  An additional four species consumed only hummingbird nectar, or jelly.  The remaining 30 species either exclusively ate seeds or also supplemented their diet with other foods too. 

         In addition, five species were only seen using our birdbaths.

         The keys to attracting the greatest variety of birds to your feeder include offering birds a wide variety seeds (sunflower seeds, white millet, safflower seeds), suet, jelly, hummingbird nectar, cornbread, fruits, nuts, and the like.  Offer these foods in a variety of feeders and locations.  Some birds simply prefer to feed on the ground, other avian diners are more likely to visit feeders suspended from wires or sitting atop poles.  Also, it is a good idea to space feeders widely apart; this reduces competition between the various birds visiting your feeding area.

         Now that we are in the winter bird feeding season, how many different species of birds, do you anticipate seeing at your feeders during the next few months?  Depending on where you live in Georgia, I would say, you would be doing exceptionally well if you see as many as 25 species this winter.  As a rule, urban homeowners feed fewer birds than those folks living in suburban and rural settings do.  However even though I suspect most of us will feed fewer than 25 birds this winter.  Speaking for myself, I will be enjoying watching whatever birds show up.

GEORGIA’S SECOND HUMMINGBIRD SEASON IS IN FULL SWING

       Georgia’s second hummingbird season is now in full swing.  This season runs from November 1 through the end of February. Although fewer hummingbirds visit our feeders during this time of the year, far more species of hummingbirds are seen in the Peach State during these four months than at any other time of the year.

       While a few ruby-throated hummingbirds winter in the Peach State each year, the hummingbird most often seen at Peach State feeders during the winter is the rufous.  The rufous hummingbird breeds throughout the Pacific Northwest as far north as southern Alaska.  This hummingbird traditionally winters in central Mexico.  However, over the past several decades some of these migrants have been wintering every winter across the Southeast.

       Today, while I was working in my home office, I spotted my first rufous of the year feeding at a feeder hanging just outside my office window.

       If you want to give yourself a chance to see a rufous or one of the other hummingbirds that visit Georgia in the winter, maintain a hummingbird feeder in your yard throughout the winter.  Chances are you will not see one of these special birds.  However, if one of these birds does make an appearance, it will be something you will not soon forget.

A FEW OF THE PILEATED WOODPECKER’S SECRETS ARE REVEALED

Have you ever stopped to think about how little you know about woodpeckers? I know I have.  For most of us, our knowledge of them is based largely on fleeting sightings of the woodpeckers foraging for food on our backyard trees, hearing their loud calls reverberate through our neighborhoods and their incessant drumming on trees far out in the woods behind our houses.  This is especially true of the pileated woodpecker. Even though it is our largest woodpecker, it does not visit our feeders as often as its smaller kin do.  Fortunately, for those of us that ponder such things, biologists have unlocked some the secrets that have shrouded the private life of the pileated woodpecker.  Let’s take a look at the fascinating winter roosting behavior of this impressive bird.

            As a rule, pileated woodpeckers do not roost in their nesting cavity.  Instead, like many of Georgia’s woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers usually chisel out roughly four cavities that they use solely for roosting.  Each is excavated in a dead tree.  However, in one study, as many as 12 roosting cavities were documented being used by a single bird.  These hollows are critical to their survival during extremely cold winter weather.  The reason for this is good roosting cavities provide the birds with places to sleep out of sight of nighttime predators, as well as protection from the deleterious effects of frigid winds and temperatures.  The insulating affect of a roosting site can be so significant and can ultimately determine whether or not a woodpecker will survive an extremely cold night.

            Biologists have learned that roosting pileated woodpeckers do not sleep on the bottoms of their roosting sites.  To the contrary, they sleep perched upright clutching on to the interior side of the roost site with their bills neatly tucked beneath a wing.

            For reasons that are not fully understood, pileated woodpeckers might roost of up to four consecutive days and they suddenly begin roosting in another cavity.  Alternate roosting sites are often located quite some distance away.

            I will probably never witness a pileated woodpecker going to roost late on a winter afternoon just before my neighborhood is cloaked in darkness.  However, even though I know a smidgeon about the roosting behavior of this remarkable bird, I simply cannot imagine how challenging it is for this impressive bird to weather the bone-chilling cold on a crisp, clear, frigid winter night.  However, I am glad they are up to the challenge.

HOW TO MAKE GOLDENROD MANAGEABLE IN YOUR GARDENS

       Goldenrod is one of our most gorgeous fall flowers.  In addition to beauty, it is also a valued late season source of food for a wide variety of native pollinators including butterflies such as the monarch.  While its virtues are indisputable, goldenrod is rarely considered a desirable garden plant.  A primary reason for this it spreads and often grows extremely tall.  However, I want to share with you tip that just might make you less inclined to pull up goldenrods that often crop up in gardens across the state.

       More than 30 species of goldenrods are native to Georgia.  As such, various species of the plan thrive in a variety of habitats.  In addition, some goldenrods grow to be only a couple of feet tall while others can attain heights of eight feet or more.

       Like many of you, goldenrods volunteer in our flower gardens every year.  Obviously, the goldenrods growing in my yard are tall varieties.  These plants easily top out at six to seven feet tall.  This requires us to pull them up.  If we don’t, they completely shroud other plants growing nearby.

       This year my wife taught me, a trick that makes these lofty nectar plants easily managed.  In August, she trimmed a few of goldenrods down to where their stalks were approximately a foot tall. 

    

“Long-tailed skipper feeding on blooms produced by a goldenrod pruned in August.”

         Each plants responded by developing three to four stems.  As summer gave way to fall, the goldenrods growing along the edge of our property grew to be as tall as expected and produced golden plumes of flowers.

       Their tiny flowers were visited by lots of bumblebees, some monarchs, and a variety of other pollinators.  This feeding activity ceased a few weeks ago.

       Meanwhile, the pruned goldenrods continued to grow eventually topping out at three feet tall and just recently produced their crop of flowers.  These blossoms could not have come at a better time.  Although many pollinators still are active in our yard, with each passing day, it is becoming more difficult for them to find nectar and pollen.  Our pruned goldenrods are helping meet their need.  In addition, they are extending the goldenrod’s floral show into late autumn.  The bonus is we have found a way to include goldenrod in our nectar gardens.  Wow! A well-time pruning can make huge difference.

WINTER ROOSTING COVER FOR AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES

        With cold weather lurking just around the corner, the thoughts of many backyard wildlife enthusiasts have turned to providing winter roosting sites for their backyard bird neighbors.  As such, some are winterizing nesting boxes or erecting roosting boxes.  These measures help birds that roost in cavities such residents as Carolina chickadees, brown-headed nuthatches, and eastern bluebirds.  However, little thought is given to providing winter roosts for birds that do not use natural or manmade cavities as nighttime roosts. 

       The truth of the matter is most backyards such as sparrows, finches, robins, mockingbirds, cardinals, doves, and a host of others roost in vegetation.  One such bird is the American goldfinch. 

       The American goldfinch roosts in dense vegetation. The birds often roost among the needles of conifers.  When they cannot locate such a roost site and are forced to spend the night in an open spot, their risk of succumbing to the cold dramatically increases.  In fact, when they roost in thick leafy vegetation, they can use one-third less energy to survive a frigid night than they would if they roosted in a more exposed spot.  The energy saved can mean the difference between life and death.

       Do you have any thick shrubs or trees in your yard that goldfinches and other birds could roost for a winter roost site this winter?  

DO YOU FIND IT DIFFICULT TO ATTRACT WHITE-THROATED SPARROWS TO YOUR FEEDERS?

       If you have trouble attracting white-throated sparrows to your feeding area this winter, here are a couple of tips that might solve your problem.

       First, keep in mind white-throated sparrows spend much of their time on close to the ground deep within shrubby, overgrown areas.  If your yard does not possess such a spot, chances are slim white-throated sparrows will winter there.

       If you do have a shrubby spot or two, place food near these areas.  The reason for this is, as a rule white-throated sparrow are reluctant to venture far from these safe havens.

       It is also a good idea to scatter millet or other small seeds on the ground.  Although the birds will feed from elevated feeders, they seem to prefer to dining on or very close to the ground. 

ZEBRA HELICONIANS HAVE BEEN RARE AUTUMN TREATS

     The appearance of a zebra heliconian (also called a zebra longwing) in our backyard, has always been special treat.  However, for reasons I do not fully understand, my wife and I have seen more of the beautiful black and yellow-striped butterflies this year than ever before.

       We saw our first zebras of the year back in August.  After a long hiatus, they began appearing weeks later on a regular basis.  Invariably, once they reappeared we never spotted more than one zebra heliconian at a time.  However, during the past few weeks we have been regularly seeing at least two at a time.  Two days ago, for the first time ever, we startled to find four of them feeding at bright orange Mexican sunflower blossoms.  Oddly, the day before a friend told me he had seen four in his yard.

       The zebra heliconian is a year-round resident in Florida southward through Central America.  Zebra longwings can also be found along the southern Gulf Coast of the United States all the way to Texas.  In fact, this Neotropical butterfly can be observed somewhere in the United States throughout the entire year.

       During the summer, in spite of the fact they normally doesn’t range far, many zebra longwings begin drifting northward far from the Sunshine State.  As such, each year, they are regularly seen in South Carolina.  In fact, sightings have been made as far north as New York.

       The field guides tell us that, in Georgia, this butterfly is most often seen in the Coastal Plain.  However, the truth of the matter is, in most years, as few will show up in backyard throughout the Lower Piedmont.  This year, for example, I have received reports of them being seen from Grovetown, Forsyth, and Woodland. 

       The zebra longwing has the distinction of having the longest continuous life span as an adult of any butterfly found in the United States.  While most adult butterflies live only a few weeks or less, the zebra longwing’s adult life extends for six or more months.  This longevity undoubtedly allows them to roam as far as they do.

       One of the things I find most fascinating about zebra longwings is they congregate at nighttime roosts.  These aggregations are called crèches and can number anywhere from 25-30 individuals.  Typically branches or Spanish moss are chosen for roost sites.  Such locations are sometimes used by the butterflies for days on end.

       I would dearly love to find a zebra longwing crèche this year.  Meanwhile, although I don’t know how long the Johnsons will be able to enjoy watching zebra heliconians drifting about our backyard, every time we see them, we will consider the event a rare autumn treat.