One event that backyard wildlife enthusiasts look forward to each autumn is the migration of the monarch butterfly. During the fall of the year, these beautiful butterflies stop and feed in our backyards as they make their way to their winter home in Mexico. This epic flight takes a tremendous toll on these gossamer-winged insects.
Ever since it became apparent monarch populations have plummeted to a fraction of what they once were, researchers have been scrambling to learn as much as they can about this fascinating insect. The results of one such study recently conducted by University of Georgia, Odum School of Ecology researchers provide us with answers as to why female monarchs are better fliers.
When the UGA research team compared the wings of male and female monarchs, they discovered some notable differences. It seems the females’ wings are thicker, and somewhat smaller. In addition, their flight muscles are smaller and lighter.
One might think having larger and heavier wing muscles, coupled with thinner and lighter wings would benefit the males. Actually, the reverse is true. The males’ larger and thinner wings are more susceptible to damage. Their wings also forced to bear more weight per square inch than those of the females.
In essence, this means female monarchs are more efficient fliers than males. This, in turn, enhances the chances of the females surviving the autumn migration.
Here in the Peach State, the eastern bluebird is often associated with spring and summer. This is the breeding season for the gorgeous blue-colored bird–a bird that nests in all of Georgia’s 159 counties. Although thousands of bluebirds nest throughout the state, the total size of the bluebird population flying about during these months pales in comparison to the numbers of birds that winter here.
This is because Georgia is a favorite winter home to thousands of bluebirds that migrate here from their breeding grounds far to the north. Here they intermingle with our resident bluebirds. When this happens, our bluebird population swells significantly. How much does it increase? A study conducted just south of Georgia offers some insight into this matter. Researchers in the Tallahassee area found that during the winter the local bluebird population in their study area increased 100 percent.
When I posted a blog concerning the value of crepe myrtle to wildlife, a blogger posed her concern that I had wrongfully maligned this popular ornamental, and wondered what the basis of my opinion was.
It seems when crepe myrtle is blooming in her yard bees converge on the plant’s colorful flowers. She went on the say that when she deadheads the first crop of blooms to encourage a second blooming, when a new crop of blossoms bursts forth the bees return to once again feast.
To say the least, I was surprised to learn that the bees in her backyard are drawn to crepe myrtle blossoms in large numbers. The crepe myrtles that grow in my neck of the woods are rarely visited by bees. This could be explained by the fact that she grows varieties such as Lipan, Tuscarora, and Dynamite. I am not familiar with them; they may produce an abundance of pollen and/or nectar. I do not know the name of the crepe myrtle rooted in my yard; however, I am sure it does not produce much of value to pollinators. I have seen wild pollinators feeding on the honeydew secreted by the aphids that live on the plants.
I should also mention I have seen American goldfinches eat crepe myrtle seeds.
In addition to producing little food, crepe myrtle is an exotic plant is invasive in many sections of Georgia. When it “walks away” from the place where it is planted, it can usurp habitat originally occupied by native plants. Typically, the native plants it supplants are of more value to wildlife than exotics.
I am not the only wildlife biologist that does not consider crepe myrtle to be a great wildlife plant. Here is what Dr. Doug Tallamy, professor and chair of the University of Delaware’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, has to say about crepe myrtle, “Crepe myrtle is an enormously popular landscape plant because it has a nice habit, beautiful flowers, and lovely bark. But it contribute almost nothing to the food webs in your garden. If every plant is your yard were a crepe myrtle, you would have no food webs, and, thus, no birds, butterflies or other beneficial wildlife”
If you enjoy the beauty offered by crepe myrtles in your yard, and the varieties you plant provide bees and other wildlife with food, continue to cultivate them. Meanwhile, plant some native plants that evolved alongside the native pollinators and other wildlife in your area. If you do, I think you will find they will be of great value to your backyard wildlife neighbors. In addition, you will be contributing to restoring the natural ecology of your yard.
Late last week the first monarch of the fall fluttered into the Johnson backyard. Since that time, I have seen monarchs seven more times. Seeing these handsome orange and black butterflies is a sure sign the vanguard of the 2019 autumn migration has reached Middle Georgia. Although I am elated to see these amazing butterflies, I fear that this year these long-distance migrants will have a difficult time finding enough food to fuel their flight on south.
The reason for my concern is for many weeks we have been suffering through a terrible drought. This severe weather has stressed or killed plants growing across the rolling southern Piedmont countryside and in backyards alike. This has significantly reduced the amount of nectar available to monarchs and bumblebees and other nectar feeders.
If you doubt this, assess the availability of nectar in your own backyard. Even in a good year, fewer nectar plants are blooming in most backyards in autumn than during the summer. This year, however, this year’s drought has made the situation much worse.
With that in mind, the yards that will offer these hardy migrants the most nectar are those that feature plants that do not require a lot of water. If there is a paucity of such nectar sources in your yard, I hope you will make an effort to remedy this situation.
One simple way to enhance the availability of nectar plants in your backyard is to grow plants in containers. For example, during the summer my wife sows zinnia seeds in pots sitting on our deck. As a result, currently some of our plants most visited by monarchs, gulf fritillaries and other nectar feeders are zinnias.
Here is a list of the plants growing about our yard that are currently visiting in the Johnson backyard: lantana, ageratum, butterfly bush, scarlet sage, zinnia, goldenrod, and verbena.
Keep in mind, providing food for southbound monarchs is every bit as important as offering them an abundance of host plants.
Not too long ago, one of our blog followers wrote that she had recently purchased a butterfly feeder and was requesting tips that might help her attract butterflies to her new feeder.
I must admit that over the years I have tried several different models of butterfly feeders in my yard. Each one was designed to offer the insects a sugar water solution. In spite of the fact I placed the feeders in a variety of locations, I was not able to attract a single butterfly to any of them.
That being said, butterfly feeders do work for lots of folks. With that in mind, I am convinced I have yet to find the right feeder, location, and/or food that appeals to these beautiful insects in my neck of the woods. Consequently, here is a brief list of some the techniques others have employed to attract butterflies to their backyards:
● Have realistic expectations; the butterflies that most often visit feeders are those that prefer eating dining on such things as animal droppings, tree sap, and rotting fruit. Therefore, you are more apt to attract a pearly-eye, red admiral, or question mark to your feeder than an Eastern tiger swallowtail or one of the sulphur butterflies.
● Carefully follow the directions provided with your feeder. For example, some of the feeders I have tried recommended sugar solutions stronger than the formula commonly used to feed hummingbirds.
● It is always a good idea to change the solution in your feeder after a rain. Rainfall can seep into the feeder and dilute the fluid’s sugar content.
● Protect your feeder from an ant invasion. As such, use the same technique you employ to thwart ants from reaching your hummingbird feeders.
● Keep your feeder clean. As is the case with hummingbird feeders, fungi and bacteria can spoil butterfly nectar.
● Finally, if you are unable to attract butterflies to your feeder, move it to another location.
If you have been successful in attracting butterflies to a butterfly feeder in your backyard, please let us know what works for you. I am sure that many folks would love to know the secret to your success.
When October arrives, many of the songbirds such as the orchard orioles that entertained us with their beauty and songs during much of the spring and summer have long since passed on south. Fortunately, permanent residents such as mockingbirds, cardinals, towhees, Carolina wrens and others still offer us great backyard wildlife viewing opportunities. However, over the past week or so a couple of our fellow bloggers have taken the time to report their sightings of migrating songbirds that at still passing through the Peach State.
Ron Lee has been hosting rose-breasted grosbeaks at his feeder during the past several days.
At the same time, Walter Brown was lucky enough to see a female American redstart and several yellow-throated vireos.
If you would like to increase your chances of spotting a southbound migrant or two just outside your backdoor, there are a couple of things you can do. For example, keep your feeders stocked with seed (rose-breasted grosbeaks are particularly fond on sunflower seeds).
However, more different species of birds can be drawn to your backyard with water than seeds. With that in mind, keep birdbaths full of clean water. Better yet, install a mister or dripper over your birdbath. Moving water acts like a bird magnet.
If you are successful in attracting migrants to your personal wildlife haven during the next few weeks, please let me know. I am sure many other bloggers will also love to hear of your success.
The long-tailed skipper is a butterfly that can be seen in all of Georgia’s 159 counties. Although it can be seen from April into November throughout much of the state, in my backyard, I see more long-tailed skippers from late summer into the autumn than at any other time of the year. Since it is so common and seen over such an extended period, one might think all of these butterflies live and die in the Peach State. Actually, many do. However, some have wanderlust.
For reasons that are not fully understood, during the summer some long-tailed skippers take wing and move northward. These movements are particularly common along the Coastal Plain. As a result, before cold weather sets in long-tailed skippers are sometimes spotted as far north as southern New England.
Far more often, however, each fall far more long-tailed skippers will fly south to the peninsula of Florida. Here in Georgia some longtails are considered permanent residents, particularly in the southeast corner of the state.
In spring, long-tailed skipper populations in Florida begin moving northward and eventually end up in our backyard gardens.
I suspect many of the long-tailed skippers I am currently seeing in my backyard are en route to the Sunshine State. Meanwhile, for the past several weeks, long-tailed skippers are the butterflies I have most often seen visiting ageratum, butterfly bush, zinnias and other fall-blooming plants. This is the first autumn I can remember when I have seen more long-tailed skippers than cloudless sulphurs in my yard. I suspect our prolonged drought has played a role in this situation.
In the meantime, since I am not seeing any migratory songbirds in my yard, and most other butterflies such as eastern tiger swallowtails have disappeared; long-tailed skippers have added an appreciated touch of beauty to a backyard that has suffered immensely from a lack of rainfall.
When I was growing up the yellow-rumped warbler was called the myrtle warbler. Although I had never seen this tiny warbler, I was intrigued by its name. I guess that was due to the fact that one of my favorite aunts was named Myrtle.
Much to my chagrin, later on the official name of the myrtle warbler was changed to the yellow-rumped warbler. Although I understood the reasoning behind this change, to this day, I still prefer the name myrtle warbler to yellow-rumped warbler.
The more I have studied birds the more I have become intrigued with the reasons why birds were given certain names. One of the first birds I researched was the myrtle warbler. This search revealed the bird was named after one of its favorite foods – waxmyrtle berries. I also learned it is a choice food for many other birds such as tree swallows eastern bluebird, gray catbirds, northern flickers, and eastern towhees.
This hearty shrub is an important source of winter food for many other birds that winter in Georgia. It is also provides bird with cover from predators and the elements. If you enjoy seeing yellowrumps and other birds around your yard, set out a border of waxmyrtle bushes.
Meanwhile, in my mind, the yellow-rumped warbler will forever be the myrtle warbler.
One of the things I most enjoy about writing a blog is receiving feedback from my fellow bloggers. These comments have definitely enhanced my knowledge of wildlife.
With that in mind, I want to share with you a message I received from a blogger that lives in southern Mexico. The communication was prompted by a recent blog dealing with gray rat snakes feeding on hummingbirds at a backyard bird feeder. The response to this posting provided me with a better understanding of the predators that feed on hummingbirds outside the boundaries of the United States. As you will learn, hummingbirds that live in this part of the world as well as hummers that winter south of the United States have to contend with predators, the likes of which few Georgians have ever imagined.
Blogger Pelicanbreath wrote, “I live in southern Mexico and saw a juvenile Mexican spiny-tailed iguana eating a hummingbird on the windowsill next to a feeder. I of course chased it away and then had to chase it away from two other feeders within the next two days (it’s missing part of its tail so it’s easy to spot). Since then, I’ve seen the lizard around but never near a feeder.
I’ve also had a problem with Ferruginous Pigmy-Owl predation. I’d seen them in the tree next to my house almost daily for years and I only recall one attempt to hawk a bird from a feeder. That is, until a pair of them fledged in the same tree – and grew up surrounded by hummingbirds. Since then, I’ve seen the owls take over ten hummingbirds.”