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.
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.
My wife and I have made a concerted effort to incorporate a wide variety of wildlife food plants into our home landscape. Our goal has always been to provide our wildlife neighbors with a wide variety of foods throughout the entire year. For one reason or the other, we never set out any American beautyberry plants. However, years ago we found one growing alongside a backyard fence. I am certain a bird unknowingly dropped a seed there as it perched on the fence. Since then from late summer into fall and sometimes-even winter, the plant has been festooned with bountiful crops of round, bright lavender berries (actually, they are drupes). This forces a host of birds to make some difficult dining decisions.
This is particularly true of the mockingbird that patrols our backyard. A few weeks ago, I spotted the bird, as it was swallowing pokeberries. When I unwittingly interrupted its meal, the diner immediately flew to an American beautyberry growing some distance away. Upon landing, while keeping a close eye on me, it commenced eating beautyberry after beautyberry.
Later in the day, I saw it again eating suet from a feeder hanging near my office. Whenever it flew away from the suet, house finches, cardinals, and Carolina chickadees flew in to eat their share of the fatty food. In just a few moments, the mockingbird reappeared and scared the interlopers away. The mockingbird definitely did not want to share food with other birds.
On previous occasions, I have witnessed the bird defend plants bearing pokeberries and beautyberries from the likes of thrashers, cardinals, gray catbirds, American robins, and towhees.
Since it is impossible for a single bird to defend all three of these sources of food, throughout the entire day it is faced with the dilemma of deciding of what and when to eat. The appearance of the American beautyberries simply acerbated this bird’s problem.
If you are like us and never got around to planting American beautyberry in your yard, don’t wait for a bird to plant it for you. Take the initiative and plant one yourself. This native shrub is easy to grow. The only maintenance it requires is cutting the stems back each winter.
You will enjoy its strikingly colorful berries and experience the satisfaction of knowing you are helping feed a wide variety of birds and mammals. In addition, you will find that you have created a dining dilemma for mockingbirds and other birds that relish its berries. Believe me, that is not such a bad thing at all.
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.
One of the most striking butterflies flying about our backyards at this time of the year is the cloudless sulphur. Although they have been patrolling our yards for months, they are definitely more abundant and approachable in the late summer and fall than they are at any other time of the year. However, have you ever had the impression some of these midsize bright yellow butterflies are appreciably larger?
If you have, you may be happy to know that you are not seeing an optical illusion. The truth of the matter is right now some cloudless sulphurs are significantly bigger. It seems females remain the same size throughout the year. However, such is not the case with the males. They are what lepidopterist call seasonally dimorphic. This is because they take on a different appearance in the fall and winter. During this time of the year these butterflies have darker markings and are truly larger than males that emerged earlier in the year.
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.
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!
As surprising as it may seem, late August and September can be a rewarding time to watch birds in your yard. However, because it can be challenging the vast majority of the migrants that visit our yards on their fall migration are unnoticed.
There are many reasons why this is true. To begin with, most days it is sometimes difficult leave our cool houses and venture outside to look for them when more often than not the temperature hovers above 90 degrees and the humidity is so high the heat index soars well above 100. It is also a hard to become motivated to go birding when throughout most of the day bird activity is well below what it was earlier in the year.
In addition, most of the warblers that visit our yards at this time of the year look nothing like the brilliantly colored warblers that pass through in the spring. They have replaced their resplendent plumage with a cloak of drab feathers has prompted birders to refer to them as confusing fall warblers.
To top it all off, those that make a rest stop in our yards rarely visit traditional bird feeders. In fact, they are more apt to use a birdbath than a feeder.
In spite of all of these obstacles, the folks that do venture outside to look for these long distance migrants are often rewarded with catching glimpses of an amazing array of warblers, vireos, and other songbirds. If you want to join this group of hardy bird enthusiasts, you need to known when and where to look for them.
The best time to search for these special birds is during the first couple of hours after the sun rises above the horizon. The reason for this is they migrate at night and then rest and feed during the daylight hours. Once they drop down in your yard, they begin foraging for food among the foliage that cloaks your shrubs and trees. In essence, they are using our yards as rest stops in the same manner we pull off the highway and pull in to a gas station to refuel our cars and grab a bite to eat whenever we make a long distance trip.
How long these feathered travelers stay is dependent on a number of factors such as the weather and the availability of food. If food is abundant and the weather is suitable for flying, they may stay but a day or so.
For the next several weeks, warblers and other songbirds will be passing through seemingly in waves. As such, a yard might be full of migrants one day and devoid of them for the next several days. Keep this in mind and do not become discouraged if you don’t see any migrants on your first effort. During the next several weeks, untold numbers of these birds will be passing through backyards across the entire length of the state.
Whenever my wife and I stumble across a plant that proves to be a great addition to our backyard wildlife gardens, we like to share our discovery with others. One of our latest discoveries is sulphur cosmos (Cosmos sulphureous).
Over the years we have planted a number of different varieties of cosmos. However, none of have proven to attract as many butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators as sulphur cosmos. We have also found the flowers are popular with both bumblebees and carpenter bees.
As such, we have enjoyed watching these rotund pollinators land on cosmos blossoms and ride them downward toward the ground.
We have planted sulphur cosmos in a couple of mass plantings. However, it is purported to grow well in containers also.
We have learned this annual is easy to grow. We are growing them in moderately fertile clay soil. However, the plant has the reputation of being able to grow in a variety of soils ranging from poor to fertile.
The plant’s bright orange and yellow daisy like flowers are stunning. Plants grow two to six feet tall (most of our plants reached a height of four to five feet). The flowers last for a long time. In addition, dead heading will prolong their bloom well into the fall.
Our sulphur cosmos plants have been blooming for several weeks. During that time, we have seen the blossoms visited by a host of pollinators such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, eastern tiger swallowtails, common buckeyes, checkered skippers, gulf fritillaries, cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges, monarchs, and others. The most recent addition to the list of butterflies seen on the flowers was a giant swallowtail. This butterfly is uncommon in our neck of the woods.
If you decide to incorporate this ornamental in your garden, I would be very surprised if doesn’t please you as much as it has us.
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.
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.