Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Harbinger of Spring

The first butterfly of the season must certainly mean that spring is finally here!

Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea) is considered a harbinger of spring and was a thrill to find. This is the first time I've seen this species in our garden.

 This butterfly is usually seen flying low to the ground March to May. The forewings have hooked or falcate tips. The male's wings also have a distinctively orange tip which gives the species its common name. The hindwings of both sexes are beautifully marbled.

The head and thorax are hairy and look at those eyes~! What a unique creature.

Plants in the mustard family are the host for this butterfly while the preferred nectar plants are mustard blooms and violets. I happen to plant mustard greens in the raised beds this winter which are blooming now.

And violets are blooming abundantly now throughout our garden. 

Males will relentlessly patrol for females along moist woodlands, stopping briefly for food. Females will only lay one egg per host plant which is yellow-green and turns red when about to hatch. The caterpillar prefers to eat the flowers and buds (not the leaves).

Unfortunately, this female was either perched or flying too quickly for me to get a photo with the wings open. I didn't spot a male but hopefully there is one around.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Hummingbird Migration Season

Spring may be slow to start but don't tell the birds that. Spring migration season is getting underway.

So, why do hummingbirds migrate?

Hummingbirds are largely tropical birds but have expanded their ranges to exploit rich temperate food resources and nesting space. Long ago they found lots of unoccupied niches in the U.S. and Canada that allowed them to avoid the intense competition in the tropics.

Ruby-throated hummingbird

Research from banding efforts and citizen science projects, is showing that more and more hummingbirds are being reported year-round in North America from the Pacific coast through Arizona, along the Gulf coast and into the Southeast. In fact, this winter Georgia Hummers has banned and documented over 100 hummingbirds in Georgia. 

As my regular readers know, two rufous hummingbirds (one male, one female) arrived in our garden late last fall and overwintered here. For my post on the banding process click here.

 Male rufous
Look how brown he has become since he was banded in December 2012.

These two rufous hummers should be migrating to their summer breeding grounds soon. Their migration route from the Southeast to the Pacific Northwest/southern Alaska is unknown but often they follow in the heels of the sapsucker woodpecker migration. One theory being studied is the correlation of Spring migration to leaf-out times. Birds that rely on insects may start migrating when the leaves appear because it corresponds to the availability of the millions of insects the birds need to eat.

Is he sticking his tongue out at me or catching bugs?

Hummingbirds are omnivores. Nectar is just the fuel to power their insect catching activity. They depend on insects that are not readily available in subfreezing weather so most of the hummers go back to their tropical home during winter months.

That butterfly up there might make a good snack

Are hummingbirds wintering in the Southeast 
more frequently than in the past?

Hummingbirds are one of the least studied birds but more is being learned about them every year. For example, before 1998 there were no documented Calliope hummingbirds in Georgia. Over the past 15 years, it has become a regularly occurring winter species with over 20 birds banded and several returning multiple years. The Georgia Ornithological Society Checklist and Records Committee has voted to take Calliope Hummingbirds off the review list! (source: Georgia Hummers)

Some species of hummingbirds, like the Rufous, are tough little birds.  They are much more adapted to cold temperatures where freezing nights are common even in their summer stomping ground; unlike, the Ruby-throated hummingbirds (RTH) who don't handle the cold as well because they don't go in and out of torpor as readily as other species of hummers. Therefore to avoid the cold and scarcity of food they go south. In the Southeast, Rufous survive on nutrients from Sapsucker holes (see my post here for more on this subject) and insects that fly around on warmer days in addition to nectar sources from feeders.

How do hummingbirds know when to go?

Hummingbirds migrate in response to hormonal changes that are triggered by the length of day. Keeping feeders up or having a natural food sources available late into Fall will not entice hummers to stay. In fact taking feeders down will result in hummers feeding elsewhere and they may not bother to return to your garden the following year.

a first year RTH

Migration is an instinctive behavior and each hummingbird species has its own migration strategy. The RTH begin their remarkable Spring migration northward across the Gulf as early as January but more typically in February and as late as March. They usually leave at dusk for their non-stop flight, of up to 500 miles, which takes between 18 to 20 hours depending on the weather. Before they begin this long trek they will pack on fat and almost double in size from 3.25 grams to 6 grams. By the time they reach the U.S. shores they will only weigh 2.5 grams!

New research out of Clemson, Taylor and Nebraska University show that RTH are arriving 12 to 18 days earlier than in past decades. The study contributes this to warmer temperatures. Warmer temperatures would influence availability of food which is a key factor in migration timing.

Photo: Clemson University

But according to James Van Remsen, curator of birds at Museum of Natural Sciences at LSU, what really counts biologically, is whether the peak period of migration has changed. That would mostly likely affect population biology.

 Food = Energy, Energy = Life

Hummers are solitary birds and don't rely on one another to survive. They are very intelligent birds and will remember year over year where every feeders hangs at their home base and along their migration path. They also know every flower within their territory and how long it takes that flower to replenish its nectar. Hummingbirds divide themselves by territory. Territories are chosen based on nectar, water and food availability. Most male territories are about a quarter of an acre. Females define their territory by their nesting site. Both male and female will aggressively defend their area.

Because of their inquisitive nature they readily spot food sources and dive in to stake their claim. Hummingbirds have been known to hang around the same feeder the entire day just to guard it. It is a good idea to hang more than one feeder in your garden. Either hang them bunched together (one hummer can't possibly guard them all) or space them far apart. Also plant a selection of nectar plants that are pollinated by hummers.

The RTH should be arriving any day now. It will be very interesting to see how well the Rufous and RTH "play" together if they are here at the same time.  Will one chase off the other? Stay tuned...

Friday, March 15, 2013

Cheeky Chipmunks

I don't know if there is a more adorable garden rodent than the chipmunk. There is just something about their chubby cheeks that raises the cuteness meter. And, they have the funniest expressions as if they are about to get in trouble.

They are typically ground dwellers that create extensive burrows; sometimes longer than 30 feet. However, they will climb trees for food or protection. Not hard to imagine when you  look closely at those long nails. 

Their favorite place to forage in our garden is at the open feeders which are set up for the ground feeding birds such as dove and sparrows. A chipmunk's typical diet consists of corn, acorns, sunflower seeds, mushrooms, and caterpillars.

  Recently, I tried a new homemade suet recipe and put some out in these feeders. It didn't take them long to sniff out the suet and dig in as if it was their birthday lunch.

If you look closely at the photo above you can see this little guy is actually licking the suet. That peanut butter must be really tasty!

Chipmunks are one of the smaller members of the squirrel family, considered pests by many. However, they are somewhat territorial so rarely become abundant enough to become a problem. Besides, they have the cuteness factor on their side. It is hard to get mad at all their hole digging when you  look at those adorable cheeks. I just want to hug them!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Seasonal Celebrations: Spring 2013

Spring officially arrives in 10 days. The first signs of spring are already here and spring fever is starting to set in. Anyone else getting the urge to clean and organize their homes and gardens? In keeping with the "10" theme I have compiled my top 10 things that I like best about spring.

10.  Mild temperatures
Pleasant temperatures makes eating meals on the patio a time to savor. It doesn't get much better than listening to the birds chirping, feeling the gentle spring breezes while surrounded by all the floral beauty. Plus it makes for great gardening weather.

  9. The return of the ruby-throated hummingbirds
(Although I will really miss the rufous when they depart.)
 We usually see our first ruby-throats in the garden by the end of March. It will be interesting this year because I have been told that if the rufous are still around they could chase the ruby-throats off.

Juvenile born last year

  8. Hitting the hiking trails
We live less than an hour from the mountains and I love to explore the trails for spring ephemerals like bloodroot, maypops and trillium.

bloodroot along a trail in the Appalachian Mountains

  7.  Dogwood blossoms
One of my favorite trees. I think blooming dogwoods in the woodland garden are simply stunning!

  6. Working in the garden in a T-shirt

my favorite gardening T

  5. Azaleas
What doesn't describe spring in the South better than azaleas?  

Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia

  4. The first butterfly sighting
Zebra swallowtails are typically the first butterflies we see in the garden in spring. They are particularly attracted to white blooms.

  3. Nesting birds
The joy of watching the birds building their nests and then discovering they have laid eggs is such a thrill. 
I hope the bluebirds will have better luck this year.

2. Sowing the vegetable garden
As the sunshine heats up the soil it will be time to plant the warm season crops. 
This year we will be growing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, beans, melons, potatoes, and pumpkins. 

   1. Feeling warm dirt between my fingers and smelling the good rich soil

Life is Good

We all celebrate the season in our own unique way. I am joining Gardens Eye View for Seasonal Celebrations, the spring edition. What are you looking forward to most this Spring?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Lessons Learned: Winter 2013

Winter is the time for comfort
for good food and warmth
for the touch of a friendly hand
and for a talk beside the fire:
it is the time for home.
~Edith Sitwell

The winter season is almost behind us. Once again the season seems to have speed by and I will miss the comfort food, cozy fireside family nights and interior decorating time. Signs of spring are all around so now is a good time to look back and see what lessons were learned before the busy gardening time begins. I am joining Plant Postings for a seasonal look back.

One of our winter activities has been liberating our newly acquired two acres, of invasive plants, mostly Japanese honeysuckle and privet, that have overrun the place. I need to give most of the credit to my husband who has been working tirelessly each weekend. Here are some before shots:

All the green is either privet or Japanese honeysuckle. Some of the privet is so big it requires a chain saw to cut down. 

Here is an after shot of one section. There is still much more to do but this is progress! I am very excited to see how this space will evolve now that the native plants have room to breathe. And our dogs are thrilled to have more space to run and roam.

I highly recommend the exercise of removing invasive species from the landscape whether it is on your own property or as a volunteer effort at your local nature reserve or park. This activity gives one a new appreciation for the importance of native plants or better yet getting the word out about the harm invasive species can do. Take a look at how the Japanese honeysuckle has wrapped itself around the Devil's Walking Stick, a wonderful native understory plant.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

National Invasive Species Awareness Week is March 3rd -8th. One of the most helpful learning experiences for me was/is learning to identify invasive plants. One of my favorite handbooks is Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants published by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It is a plant this, not that style book, providing several native alternatives for each invasive species.

This winter we have been going through a lot of bird seed. January and February felt colder than years past and if the birds foraging habits are cues about the weather then they confirm my thoughts.

We had a great time participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count on a particularly cold weekend. However, this also enable us to see lots of birds who were out searching for food to keep warm. Here are a few of our regulars:

Yellow-bellied sapsucker
Downy woodpecker

same downy woodpecker this time posing for the camera

Tufted titmouse cracking open sunflower shell

female cardinal munching on suet

We have ground feeders too, lots of finches and mourning dove. I learned that birds eating on the ground close together is not all that healthy because they can spread bacteria easily. Also, birds tend to poop before they take off so they contaminate the area where they are feeding.

To improve this situation it is best to provide platform feeders for these ground feeding birds. (Note to hubby: please build platform feeder for the birds)

Did you know that goldfinches and pine siskins just suck the oil out of the niger seeds and don't actually eat the seeds? Neither did I. Niger seeds contain 35% fat, 18% protein, 18% fiber & 12% moisture. The protein helps the birds regenerate feathers when the birds molt in spring and fall. I have been attending some lunch and learn presentations this winter. I highly recommend taking advantage of your local resources such as nature centers, nurseries and libraries who host such events. They sure make winter pass by faster and also keep those little gardening brain cells energized!

Our two rufous hummingbirds are still enjoying the garden and they even shared a tree for a brief moment.  One is sitting on a branch top right and the other lower down, bottom left. This was quite the capture because typically the female will chase the male off.

I listen for "my" hummers every day. She sings her "look at me, here I am" song. Since the cherry trees started to bloom I see them less frequently at the feeders and often fluttering about in the trees.  I have grown really attached to these little ones and will really miss them when they depart on their migration.

What happened in your garden this winter? Any lessons worth sharing? 

My next post will be looking forward to springtime activity with Donna at Gardens Eye View.