BACKYARD SECRET–WHIP-POOR-WILLS WILL FEED ON THE GROUND

     The whip-poor-will’s ability to snatch large flying insects such as moths and beetles from the air with its extremely large mouth is legendary. However, it is a lesser-known fact that this accomplished aerial predator will also dine on food captured on the ground. Among the delicacies eaten by the birds while standing on the ground are worms, ants and a variety of other invertebrates.

IT’S POSSIBLE TO TELL ONE MALE ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK FROM ANOTHER

       Currently, rose-breasted grosbeaks are passing through Georgia on their spring migration home to their breeding grounds. During this special time of the year, we are treated with the opportunity to see what is perhaps the most beautiful bird that graces our feeders—the male rose-breasted grosbeak.

       The bird is adorned with bold black and white plumage. The undersides of its wings are rose pink. If that isn’t enough to dazzle your eyes, he also sports a brilliant red triangle emblazoned on its white breast.

       At first glance, all adult male rose-breasted grosbeaks appear to be identical. However, if you look more closely, you will realize that you can actually tell one from another.

     In order to accomplish this seemingly impossible task, focus your attention on the red triangle emblazoned on the breast of each male. It will quickly become apparent that each marking varies in size, shape, and brightness.

       This will enable you to determine how many males are using your backyard as well as how long individual birds linger before resuming their migration.

WHY NOT PLANT A LIVING SUNFLOWER FEEDER?

       Everyone that feeds birds is very familiar with sunflower seeds. In fact, I would venture to say it is the seed most often fed at seed feeders. Literally tons of sunflower seeds are sold specifically as birdseed. Typically, we offer sunflower seeds to our bird neighbors in variety of traditional types of feeders ranging from feeding tables to hoppers. If you want to add a new facet to your feeding regime, why not plant a living sunflower feeder?

       Last year my wife and I stumbled across this idea when she planted a strip of ornamental sunflowers in our backyard. She sowed a strip of sunflowers along the inner edge of a long meandering flowerbed that snaked its way across a small portion of our yard. The mixture she planted included five varieties of sunflowers that were purported to represent a kaleidoscope of autumn colors and sizes. The mixture lived up to its billing. Some of the plants attained a height of only two to three feet. Others grew to be seven to eight feet tall. The sunflower blooms ranged in color from pale yellow, orange, and burgundy to red. To tell you the truth, I had no idea sunflowers came in some many attractive colors.

       Our initial plan was to let the seed heads dry at they finished blooming. During the winter, we intended to offer the seed heads to the birds visiting our feeders. As it turned out, the birds had other plans for our attractive strip of sunflowers. Before the sunflower seeds (technically called fruit) had a chance to dry, birds began plucking them from form the plants’ large seed heads. This transformed the sunflower patch into a living sunflower feeder.

      

       By far American goldfinches ate more ate more seeds than any other birds. However, house finches and northern cardinals also ate their share.

       To say the least, we were not disappointed with the way things turned out. The sunflowers were simply gorgeous and the birds seemed to relish extracting unripe kernels from the seed heads.

       We particularly enjoyed watching male American goldfinches, in full breeding plumage, visiting the sunflower seed heads on a daily basis. What a treat! Like most of you, most of the American goldfinches we typically see dine at our feeders in winter. At that time of the year, they are a drab yellowish-green.

       If you decide to plant a living sunflower feeder in your backyard this summer, we suggest that you dedicate a patch of ground solely to sunflowers. The sunflowers are easy to grow, however planting them in close proximity to a variety of other much shorter plants proved to be a mistake. By the time the sunflowers were blooming the shorter plants were shrouded out by the taller sunflowers.

       If you decide to plant a living sunflower feeder, I hope it will bring you as much enjoyment as the one we planted last year brought us.

ODD FACET OF THE GRAY CATBIRD’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE BROWN THRASHER

       One of the many fascinating relationships that exist between the birds that inhabit our backyards is one that exists between the gray catbird and the brown thrasher.

       During the spring and summer, these secretive birds often share backyards that feature an abundance of dense shrubs, vines, and small trees. Both of their birds feed and nesting with this labyrinth of vegetation. Often the birds compete with one another for the same nesting habitat. They are also known for their fearless assaults on any human or animal that appears to be a threat a nest containing eggs or young.

       However, the gray catbird exhibits a behavior during the nesting season that baffles ornithologists. It seems occasionally gray catbirds will visit thrasher nests and actually break, and eat eggs. Several theories have been developed to explain this activity. Some experts are of the opinion catbirds are trying to discourage much larger brown thrashers from nesting in that location. Others suggest that catbirds consider thrasher eggs to be a source of food. Who knows?

       Meanwhile this is just one more example how little we know about the fascinating lives of our backyard neighbors.

MONARCH NUMBERS TUMBLE

       Monarchs are already being seen in the Peach State. My wife and I saw our first monarch of the spring a little over a week ago. I hope that many more with visit our yard in 2020. While I am certain our gardens will be visited by this popular butterfly, according to a survey conducted on the monarch’s wintering grounds, chances are we will not be seeing as many monarchs as we did in 2019.

       It seems the annual survey conducted by the World Wildlife Fund-Mexico, National Commission of Protected Natural Areas, World Alliance-Telmex Telcel Foundation, and local communities in the monarch’s wintering area. 

       This year’s survey of the monarch’s wintering grounds situated in the mountainous region of central Mexico revealed the butterflies were occupying just seven acres of habitat. In comparison, monarchs were wintered in 15 acres during the winter of 2018-2019. This tells monarch specialists the monarch population plummeted 53% from the previous winter.

 

       According to Lepidopterists involved in monarch research and surveys, the precipitous drop in monarchs is linked to extremely low temperatures prevalent in South Texas in March and May 2019. These temperatures slowed down the growth of both monarch eggs and caterpillars. This, in turn, reduced the numbers of monarch adults that continued the migration on north to produce the 2019 crop of monarchs across much of North America.

MONARCH (True Truetlen Co. Record) – 13 October 2010)

       The survey leaders that conducted the study emphasized they felt this decline was temporary and the better weather (e.g. less drought, normal temperatures) would enable what is arguably our most recognized butterfly to rebound.

       Let’s hope they are right.

WILD POLLINATORS HAVE COLOR PREFERENCES

       It is common knowledge that wild pollinators will visit flowers displaying a kaleidoscope of colors. However, it you carefully watch the number of times they visit the flowers in your garden, you will notice wild bees, butterflies and hummingbirds seem to feed more often at flowers imbued with certain colors more often than others. This information can prove to be invaluable to anyone planning a pollinator garden.

       As we all know, hummingbirds prefer red flowers above all others. However, they are also partial to purple, orange, and pink blossoms. On the other side of the coin, they are not big fans of yellow flowers.

       Such is not the case with wild bees. Yellow flowers are favored by these insects, as are those that are white, violet, and blue.  

     Largely, butterflies are drawn to yellow, red, orange, and pink blossoms. Whereas they seem to visit green flowers least of all.

OAKS ARE IMPORTANT BUTTERFLY AND MOTH HOST PLANTS

              Our backyards are home to an amazing variety of butterflies and moths.  In recent years, homeowners have been trying to provide these fascinating insects with a variety of plants that serve as host plants.  Most of these efforts have focused on establishing herbaceous host plants.  Ironically woody plants such and shrubs are trees are rarely recognized for their value as host plants even though, they often host more butterflies and moths than any other plants found in an average yard.  Leading the list of trees that serve as host plants for moths and butterflies in Georgia are native oaks.

 

       Throughout the country, native oaks host at least 557 species of moths and butterflies.  More than 20 species of oaks are native to the Peach State.  Many of these oaks commonly grow in our backyards. 

 

       Here is a short list of some of the butterflies and moths that use oaks as host plants:  red-spotted purple, Horace’s and Juvenal’s duskywing, banded hairstreak, white M hairstreak, clymene moth,  imperial moth, cecropia moth, rosy maple moth, and polyphemus moth.

      If you are interested in providing host plants for a wide variety of moths and butterflies make sure, your home landscape includes one or more species of native oaks.  With that in mind, do an inventory of the trees growing in your yard.  If you already have willow, water, white, live, or other species of native oaks in your yard, you already providing a wide variety of butterflies with a place to lay their eggs.  If not, when you are planning additions to your yard add a native oak to the list.  This one investment will yield dividends for years to come.

 

HEARING THE WHIP-POOR-WILL’S CALL IS ONE OF THE PERKS OF COUNTRY LIVING

     There are many reasons why my wife and I enjoy country living. One of the benefits of living beyond the glaring lights of town is each year we are treated with the dawn and dusk calling of the whip-poor-will. My wife heard our first whip-poor-will on the morning of March 28.

       Well before the rays of the rising sun began dissolving the darkness of night, she took our family dog out for a bathroom break. While she was waiting for Sassy to take care of business, she heard an oft-repeated whip-poor-will, whip-poor will call of a male whip-poor-will. The bird was calling from far out in the woodlands located west of our home.

       When she returned to the house, she told me of her experience. Since I wanted to hear the bird too, I had every intention of jumping out of bed and going outside to listen for the nocturnal vocalist. However, for some reason, I drifted off the sleep for about a half an hour. When I awoke, I scurried outside to listen for the bird.

       During the brief time that passed between my wife reporting her experience and my finally going outside, the dawn chorus had begun. Consequently, a cacophony for bird songs filled the air. The loud chorus of untold numbers of birds coupled with the sounds made by vehicles going up and down the highway made trying to hear the far away calls of the whip-poor-will difficult. However, eventually I was able to hear the sound of this member of the goatsucker family.

       Remarkably, legends tell us the term goatsucker stems from a once popularly held belief whip-poor-wills drank milk from goats. It was also believed that this act of thievery caused the unfortunate goats that suffered this fate to go blind.

       Folks that have taken the time to count how many times a whip-poor-will calls report that the bird will repeat its name upwards of 400 times in a row. The frequency of this bird’s calls suggested his vocal efforts were falling far short of this lofty figure.

       During the early part of the twentieth century, if you did not live in the Georgia mountains, you were unlikely to hear a whip-poor-will. However, over the years the whip-poor-will has been expanding its breeding range. As such nowadays whip-poor-wills can be heard throughout much of the northern half of the Peach State to just south of the Fall Line. However, even if you do not live in this area, you still have a slim chance of hearing whip-poor-wills in the remainder of the state.

       I hope that you will be treated to the call of this rarely seen bird. Although he incessantly repeats it call, far too few of us get to hear it.

       Later in the morning when I called when I called a close friend to tell him I had heard the first whip-poor-will of the spring he lamented that he used to hear the bird’s pleasing call. However, since much of his neck of the woods has been developed, it has been years since he has heard one.

       When I hung of the phone, my excitement was tempered with thoughts of what he is missing.

A PLACE TO RELIEVE THE STRESS CAUSED BY COVID 19

        Each passing day brings news reports of the continued spread of the COVID- 19 virus and its horrible impact on people throughout our state, nation, and world. As a result, we all have to cope with increasing levels of anxiety, stress, and fear. Each of us has different ways in which we try to cope with these frightful times. One of the best ways I have found to deal with it is embark of a journey of discovery in my backyard. I would like to share with one such treks.

       Recently after watching the noon news present the update on the numbers of cases of the pandemic in Georgia, I grabbed my camera and went outside to take a walk about. I was greeted with bright sunshine and balmy zephyrs. Standing on my deck, I was taken aback by a colorful collage created by the blossoms of jonquils, native and ornamental azaleas flowering dogwood, and other plants. After drinking in the beauty of this living mural, I began my walk.

       One of the first things that caught my eye was a pipevine swallowtail nectaring at both yellow and orange blooms borne on native azaleas. I just had to stop and photograph this scene. A short time later, I just happened to notice a dragonfly flying just about my lawn. From time to time, the insect would land. Each time the dragonfly touched down, I was able to snap a few pictures as well as study the relative small aerial hunter. It was obvious that this was a species I had never seen in my yard before. The dragonfly was a female blue corporal.

       Moving on I stopped in my tracks when a silver-spotted skipper landed in a patch of purple dead nettle. This marked the first time this spring I had seen this butterfly.

       As I continued to walk, I noticed something different every few minutes. During one circuit, I spotted a eastern tiger swallowtail. During another circuit, I spied a cloudless sulphur. Carpenter bees seemed to be everywhere.

       In subsequent trips around my yard, I stopped to study and photograph the fresh blossoms of flowering dogwood trees, bluets, and a native thistle.

       Throughout my brief time afield, I was treated with the soothing songs of chipping sparrows and pine warblers singing from the tops our tall loblolly pines.

       When I finally ended by backyard walk, sat in a chair on my deck, and began reviewing all that I had seen during my brief half hour backyard journey, Mother Nature surprised me with one final event. From around the corner of the house, a mockingbird appeared carrying a stick and quickly disappeared into the bowels of a nearby shrub.

       I must admit, I wished that I could have extended my visit with my backyard neighbors; however, I had to address a few other demands on my time. However, when I went back inside, I was totally relaxed and convinced I need spend in my yard every day.

       While aside of practicing social distancing, there is little that I can do to help thwart the spread of the terrible Covid-19 virus, I am certain that my backyard wildlife haven will help me deal with our uncertain future.

       If you have your own wildlife haven, I hope you will visit it and your backyard neighbors often. I am certain each trip will help you unwind and strengthen your bond with the natural world during these turbulent times.

THE GREAT PURPLE HAIRSTREAK IS AN OFTEN OVERLOOKED BEAUTY

        Each spring nature treats us to a kaleidoscope of beautiful plants and animals ranging from butterflies and moths to flowers and birds. In fact, with so many beautiful things to look at, nobody can appreciate them all. As a result, far too many stunning natural jewels go unseen. Take the case of the great purple hairstreak. It maintains its anonymity because its wingspan only measures 1-1.7 inches and it spends most of its life in the tops of trees. Consequently, although it is one of the most gorgeous butterflies we are likely to see in our backyards; it is safe to say most of us never spot one.

       Recently my daughter stumbled across one basking on the lawn surrounding the place where she works. When she stopped to take a closer look at the butterfly, its beauty took her aback.        The butterfly appeared to be what butterfly enthusiasts refer to as “fresh.” This means the butterfly recently emerged and was sporting undamaged wings cloaked with all of their scales.

      If you see a male great purple hairstreak basking, it is something you will not soon forget. This is because the butterfly’s wings are a bright metallic blue and literally seem to shine in direct sunlight.

       The upper side of the female great purple hairstreak is blackish in color and displays a limited amount of metallic blue.

       Being an amateur photographer, one of the things on my bucket list is being able to photograph the dorsal side of a male great purple hairstreak. However, since the only time you are likely see the topside of this butterfly is when it is flying or basking, my chances of photographing it from above are limited. Consequently, all of my photos of it show the ventral side of the insect.

       The undersides of the butterfly’s wings are best described as blackish in color and highlighted with red spots near when the wings join its body. In addition, a series of blue spots adorn the undersides of the hindwings.

       Lastly, short, fragile tails extend from the trailing edges of the hindwings. If you look carefully at a great purple hairstreak you will likely see the butterfly moving these fragile tails back and forth. It is believed this is done to distract would-be predators. Supposedly, a bird or other predator is more apt to strike at the moving tails and not the insect’s head and body. This would give the butterfly a chance to escape before the predator realized its mistake.

       One feature that immediately catches your eye when you spot one of these butterflies is its orange abdomen. Supposedly, this is a warning to predators that it is distasteful.

       The best butterfly gardens offer butterflies host plants and to nectar-rich flowers. While we can offer great purple hairstreaks a supply of nectar, we cannot plant its host plant. The reason for this is its host is mistletoe. With that in mind, if you see mistletoe growing atop a tree such as oak growing in your yard, there is a good chance great purple hairstreaks are living in your neighborhood.

       I should note that during the spring I most often see the great purple hairstreak nectaring on purple dead nettle (see accompanying photo). Purple dead nettle is an invasive introduced plant most homeowners would call a weed.

       If you do not happen to spot a great purple hairstreak this spring, all is not lost. Great purple hairstreaks can be spotted throughout the state from March to early November.