Sunday, August 29, 2010

Attracting Hummers

Adult male Ruby-throated hummer flashes his gorget at the camera. Photo by kmaraj

Everyone has a hummingbird story—everyone who’s ever seen one that is. I took it for granted that everyone had seen a hummingbird, but a few years ago, I dragged a neighbor over to my yard to look at an unusual hummer. She was an older person who had grown up in the Ozarks, yet this was the first hummer she’d ever seen. The only reason she saw this bird was because of the feeder. The feeder is a place to look—a predictable spot for the hummer’s brief visit. This is why I prefer feeders that attach to a window. I know many people who have glimpsed a hummer, but weren’t sure it was actually even a bird. When a bird flies right up to the glass and for a pause that refreshes, you can really see it—ruby-colored gorget and all. (“Gorget” is a term that describes the iridescent feathers of the throat of the adult male.)

I visited Big Bend National Park one summer. A bit like visiting Hades, but wow—the hummers! There were Black-chins with purple throats, Broad-tails with wings that make a ringing sound, and the largest US hummer, the Blue-throated. Most exciting of all was the Lucifer Hummingbird male with his brilliant hot pink gorget. Most visitors to the park never saw any of these however, since most don’t know hummers are abundant there, don’t have binoculars, and don’t know where to look. The park, you see, does not allow feeders. I understand why people shouldn’t feed wildlife in a national park, but applied to hummingbird feeders, it’s a rule that diminishes the experience of some visitors to Big Bend.

I’ve talked to numbers of people who live in good areas for hummers, put out feeders and plant hummingbird-attracting flowers, but have no birds. I suspect they do, but of that feeder and red salvias are any distance from the house, it’s easy to miss a 3.2-inch green-backed bird. The moral of the story: get a feeder and put it where you’ll see it!

Young male Ruby-throat. Above the feeder, an “ant moat” keeps ants at bay. AMcC
The formula: Keep a jar that has cup measurements on the side. I fill it with 2 cups of warm water, then add 1/2 cup of sugar. I put the lid on and shake. I keep one or two in the fridge so I’m always ready to refill or replace nectar. I know a lot of articles recommend boiling the water, but the only reason for that is to reduce the bacteria load. I save a step by using tap water, which presumably has little bacteria. I replace the solution often—at least every 3 days. If the temperature climbs near 100°, I replace it daily. That’s a lot of work if you have several feeders, so save steps where you can.

There is some evidence to suggest that cane sugar is better than beet sugar. If the package is just labeled “Sugar,” it’s probably beet sugar. Only sugar from sugar cane can be labeled “Cane Sugar.” There’s tons of evidence that shows that honey is very bad for hummingbirds. The feeder is supposed to replicate the nectar produced by flowers that attract hummingbirds as pollinators. Nectar produced by flowers is sucrose, a disaccharide, whereas honey is monosaccharide fructose. In the wild, hummingbirds feed on flowers; they don’t raid beehives.

What about the red food color? I know commercial hummingbird nectar is dyed red, but dye is not recommended. It’s true that hummers are attracted by the color red, but that’s why hummingbird feeder should be red at the business end. The feeder port is analogous to a red blossom, but the nectar inside a flower is colorless. For more about feeders, check Lanny Chambers excellent website.

It’s important to keep any bird feeder clean, but doubly important for hummingbird feeders. It doesn’t take long for colonies of bacteria to foul the mixture and this can do real harm to the bird. If you don’t have the time to maintain clean feeders, consider feeding only during times of greatest abundance. Here in Missouri, that’s spring migration—April and May, and especially August through late September. I actually keep my feeders up till Christmas—but that’s another post.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

When Butterflies Attack!!!

Monarch butterflies fighting AMcC

Seen through the rose-colored binoculars of the romantic nature-lover, butterflies are the very embodiment of harmony, as they flutter from one fragrant blossom to another. So how come I came home from work last week to find a brawl in my front yard? Three Monarch butterflies were duking it out, paying little attention to cars or photographers. These butterflies were not just circling each other in a “duel,” they were actually making contact!

Of course, butterflies have to struggle to survive and pass on their genes, the same as other wild creatures. Male Monarchs use a strategy for finding mates called “patrolling.” The male patrols an area, perhaps the top of a small hill were views are unobstructed, looking for females. I use the word look, because although moths are known to find mates through scent, butterflies rely primarily on sight (Boggs, Watt, Ehrlich, Butterflies: Ecology and Evolution Taking Flight, 75). Once the male detects a female, he gives pursuit and tries to mate. If however he encounters another male, he may attempt to drive off the interloper.

I remember spotting a male Monarch in my mom’s garden. When I pointed it out to her, she looked at me suspiciously. “How can you tell?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, still watching the butterfly in my binoculars, “you have to have a pretty good look.” (Bah-dum-bum.) She laughed hysterically. She didn’t even hear me explain that males have a small black scent patch on the hind wing, close to the rear of the abdomen.

I doubted whether I could get a photo of rock-’em-sock-’em Monarchs, but I headed out with my point-and-shoot camera anyway. I snapped off about 20 worthless shots of orange blurs above purple and yellow blurs. Finally, as I stepped up to a cooperative Monarch on my Rough Blazing star, another one dropped vertically into the frame, landing directly on to the first. I actually heard the collision! The first Monarch was definitely a male, but I can’t be positive about the attacker. However, of the three Monarchs I observed over the course of 2 hours, all the ones I saw well were male.

Monarch mayhem AMcC
I shared my photos with the Flickr group, “When Animals Attack!” Mine are the only butterfly photos in the pool.
3 Monarchs in a dogfight over Kirkwood AMcC

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Photos & Friends, Skippers & Moths

Northern Broken-Dash Skipper? AMcC

I had planned to do a third post on Silphiums, but there are too many butterflies in the garden for that! It’s all the more exciting since this summer has not been the best for butterflies. I don’t know if it’s been the weather, my garden, or the truck that sprayed mosquitoes (and every other living thing) on my street in late June. Whatever the problem, butterfly numbers seem to be recovering. Skippers are everywhere.

Skippers are small, fast-flying butterflies. Compared to the wings, the head is large—kind of cute if you get to see it well. Most are golden-brown or brown and frustrating to identify. It’s been said that skippers are the Empidonax of the butterfly world. (That last sentence actually means something to birders.) If you’re going to have any chance at all identifying skippers, you’ll need a good butterfly book with range maps and a close focusing set of binoculars. See my list of “Favorite Nature and Gardening Books” below. Having a digital camera and an expert friend to study the photo are probably required for some skippers.

I’ve had a new species in the yard this week that I tentatively identified as Northern Broken-Dash Skipper. I sent a photo to my friend Yvonne to see what she thinks. Northern Broken-Dash and Little Glassywing are very similar and my yard is within the range of both. The larvae of both eat grass. According to Glassberg’s Butterflies through Binoculars: The East, Little Glassywing’s caterpillars eat purpletop grass. I don’t have any purpletop in my yard, but it is common and probably can be found 1/2 mile from my house. Northern Broken-Dash caterpillars prefer switch grass. I have switch grass; in fact, it’s growing all around the skipper in the picture. The plant is Panicum virgatum ‘Prairie Sky.’ Maybe you have an opinion about the skipper in the photo you’d like to leave as a comment!

Female Fiery Skipper AMcC

My most common little guy is the Fiery Skipper. The one in this photo is a female, and she really confused me for a while. I seem to see mostly males.

Early this morning I saw a new species visiting my cup plant. It looked like a moth, but was behaving very much like a butterfly. I looked through Butterflies and Moths of Missouri, but couldn’t find it. I sent a shot of it to one of my favorite Flickr groups, ID Please. Members view the shared photos and give their opinion through the comments below the photo. To use this tool, you first need to join Flickr (it’s free), upload your photo, join the group, and then share it. I also sent the photo to What’s that Bug?, a website that features pages of insect photos and discussion. If you have an insect you’d like to identify, look for the “Ask What’s that Bug” page. Two more great sites to exploe are The Bug Guide and the North American Moth Photographers Group.

Corn Earworm Moth AMcC

While waiting for a response from these websites, I tidied up my desk. That when I accidentally came across a photo in Kaufman’s Field Guide to Insects of North America. I’d forgotten that 35 pages of moths are included in that book. So I’ve identified my mystery moth as one of the Owlet Moths, the Corn Earworm moth. I’ve mentioned two good books for butterfly identification but books devoted to moths, with photos or drawings of living critter are not so easy to find. I’m looking forward to the spring 2012 publication of Moths of Northeastern North America by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie. While you’re waiting, you might want to check out Seabrooke’s blog, “the Marvelous in Nature,” “North American Moths,” or the “blog carnival” dedicated to moths, “The Moth and Me,” most recently hosted at “The Skeptical Moth.”


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Compass on the Lone Prairie

Compass Plant blooms at Howell Prairie, St. Charles Co., MO AMcC

My first reason for wanting to find Compass plant for my yard is the tale that it can be used as a compass. Now that my plants are large, I can say that the tale is true—mostly. Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) is a plant of tall grass prairies and glades and everything about it shows is adaptated to dry conditions with blazing sun. Leaves and stem are hispid, as the botanists say; or covered with “little tiny hairs,” as Jonathan Winters would say. The stiff white hairs reflect light, effectively protecting the plant’s tissues against the sun.

Presumably, they also discourage deer and antelope from snacking on it as they play on the range. Instead of large, light-gathering leaves on a tropical philodendron, Compass plant’s leaves are large but deeply cut, reducing the surface area. Merv Wallace at Missouri Wildflowers Nursery says they look like “green flames.” The plant’s best trick is to move those leaves around during the day so that they face east and west, presenting only a narrow edge to the scorching south. Now the leaf points north, hence, the name. Of course, if the plant is shaded by something, the leaves may face any direction, so navigators beware!

Leaves point north AMcC
I wonder what the first Europeans thought of Compass plant when they first explored the tall grass prairies of the Midwest. It towers up to 8 feet, with a tough, thick stem, topped with 2 to 3 inch sunny flowers. Many sources mention that the Indians used the resin in the top part of the stem for chewing gum. The Pawnee used the dried root as a medicine, given in tea. I don’t envy the job the Pawnee women had, trying to dig the huge taproot in dry soil, using only a sharpened stick.

In Ozark Wildflowers, Kurz tells us that the Omaha and Ponca believed the plant attracted lightning and would not camp near it. It makes sense if you image mile after mile of treeless, tall grass prairie. Compass plant could very well be the tallest structure out there. Tall things can be at a premium for birds on the prairie. Meadowlarks and sparrows need to make their presence known so they can defend territory and find a mate, and Compass plant stalks are just the ticket. On a birding trip to southeast Arizona, I noticed that some of the Arizona birders tied Agave stalks to their fences, providing an attractive perch for hummers. I couldn’t get an Agave stalk into my carry-on, so I use last season’s Compass plant stalk for my hummers.

If you grow Compass plant, remember that it takes a few years for it to bloom, growing from seed. Once your plant sends up its tall stalk from the leaves at the base, stake it at least by June, with a heavy stake, driven in deeply. Out on the prairie it wouldn’t matter if a few stalks fell over in a storm, there would still be many of them blooming. But we gardeners don’t have that kind of space. Horizontal blooms don’t really impress in the garden.

Compass Plant blooming in August AMcC
Several insects depend soley or partly on Compass plant: the Silphium beetle, Rynchites sp. and the prairie cicada, Okanagana balli, which the Illinois Dept of Natural Resources calls, “the rarest large insect in Illinois.” Studies on this insect in Kansas found that although it occurs on remnant native prairies, it has never been found on a restored prairie. I was unable to find out if the prairie cicada occurs in my home state, Missouri.

Cattle and horses do eat Compass plant, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. I like to look out at my plants and imagine buffalo grazing on Compass plant. The buffalo wouldn’t stay long in my yard—I only have two plants. I bet the plants would grow back though. Dr. John Hilty’s website says that Compass plant can live for 100 years!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Bees, Butterflies, and Biodiesel

Monarch Butterfly on Cup Plant bloom AMcC

One of my favorite native plants is Cup Plant, Silphium perfoliatum. My first experience with it was in Hidden Meadow at Girl Scout Camp Cedarledge. My friend Sandy, whose position was “Nature Specialist,” showed me how the large opposite leaves wrap the square stem to form a cup. It had been hot and dry, but when she tipped the tall stalk, water dripped out. Pretty cool! Much later, I read about a couple who got rid of their bird feeders and planted a wildlife garden. I wish I could remember the title of the book, but I do remember that next to their windows, they planted cup plant so that they could enjoy watching the birds use the “natural birdbath.” I resolved to do the same when I got my own home.

Cup plant is a true garden personality. I do sometimes see chickadees and other birds land on the large leaf and dip into the “cup” for a drink. Perhaps they also capture insects in the water. The leaf is pointed, with a jagged edge and rough as sand paper. The stem is thick, smooth, straight, and square, giving it another common name, “Carpenter’s Weed” (Kurz, Ozark Wildflowers, 121). If you were to design a garden plant that breaks all the rules of garden plant developers and hybridizers, you’d come up with Cup Plant. There’s nothing dainty about it. Now you know why I like it!

Cup Plant leaves in June AMcC

By early August, many of my plants are 8 feet tall. Plants that don’t receive as much light and water are smaller. Towering plants with large leaves filled with rainwater sometimes tip over during a storm. If you have a good spot for Cup Plants, plan on staking them up in early summer, and use a really stout stake.

Cup plant blooms are always in demand with bees of all sorts, especially bumblebees. It’s worth remembering that native bees such as bumble bees are much less likely to sting than honeybees, but if you’re concerned, don’t plant it near the door or walkway. I welcome bees and other pollinators, but I found out my mail carrier didn’t. This perennial does spread from the root, so I could afford to thin the herd. Once I removed a plant or two and staked the others up away from the box, he started delivering my junk mail again.

Leaves form a cup as they enclose the stem. AMcC
The blooms of Cup Plant are a bit more than 3 inches across. Like other members of the Aster family, they provide the perfect landing platform for butterflies. When they’re in bloom, I frequently see 4 different butterfly species in the yard at a time. Today’s Cup Plant list: Monarch, Painted Lady, Fiery Skipper, and Checkered White butterfly. Bumblebees, carpenter bees (known as “long-tongued” bees) and butterflies are the most important pollinators for Cup Plant. When it goes to seed, American Goldfinches, House Finches, and (on rare occasions) Pine Siskins will visit.

Butterflies and Moths of Missouri, by J Richard and Joan E. Heizman (1987) mentions that the caterpillar of a moth, Eucosma giganteana (no common name), bores into the root of Silphium. With its wings closed, E. giganteana looks a lot like a small bird dropping—a great strategy for avoiding hungry birds. With a little research, I kicked up this story by P. J. Johnson: In South Dakota, Cup plant is being studied as a possible source of renewable energy! It’s possible that Cup Plant will be used to produce biodiesel fuel or plastics. If it is to be grown as a biomass crop however, scientists need to know about the possible impact of E. giganteana on the crop, especially since Cup Plant is its one and only host or larval food plant. Their studies found the larva in the flower heads, leaves and stems, but not in the root. I did find a caterpillar on one of my plants, but it looked nothing like the larva pictured in Johnson’s article. Apparently, E. giganteana is very uncommon, but I’m still going to examine bird droppings a little more closely.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Of Cabbages and Checkered Whites

Female Checkered White butterfly on cup plant
as a native bee takes aim! AMcC

August is an exciting time in a wildlife garden. My yellow composites are beginning to bloom—cup plant, prairie dock, golden glow, woodland sunflower, and brown-eyed Susan. Goldfinches add to the yellow garden as they harvest purple coneflower seeds for their nestlings. The males sing almost as much and as loudly as robins in May. Pollinators of every kind are busy all day long. All these species are on schedule, and then a surprise: a Checkered White butterfly! Checkered Whites are not rare, but they are new to my “yard list.”

You might not think a member of the family of “Whites” or Pierids would be eye-catching, but I think the female’s pattern is really appealing. I was thrilled with the new species, but I didn’t realize how uncommon this sighting was till I talked to my friend, Yvonne Homeyer. Yvonne writes the butterfly report for our local chapter of North American Butterfly Association and serves on NABA’s board of Directors. She pointed out that this year Checkered Whites have been seen in just a few gardens and not reported at all in natural areas.

I did a bit of checking on the abundance of Checkered Whites. In Brock & Kaufman’s Butterflies of North America, the map indicates that they are uncommon in my area (St. Louis County, MO). Glassberg’s Butterflies through Binoculars; The East says, “Abundance of this species greatly fluctuates.” Wagner, in Caterpillars of Eastern North America, says, “This species has declined precipitously over the east in my lifetime.”

Why this should be is unknown. Checkered White caterpillars can eat just about anything in the mustard/cabbage family (Brassicaceae), which includes plenty of native and non-native weeds as well as garden vegetables. I didn’t think I had any of the host plants in my yard, till I checked Denison’s Missouri Wildflowers. I have a small area of toothwort (Carmdamine), which I didn’t realize was in the mustard family. A plant they seem to use quite heavily is pepper grass, which is abundant in the nearby city property and college campus. Every yard seems to have another brassica, the invasive, non-native hairy bittercress.

I spent about 3 days trying to get photos. Monday, I saw a male Checkered White, but it had disappeared by the time I got my camera. Tuesday was a scorcher, 100° with high humidity. I ran out of the air-conditioned house with the camera as soon as I spotted it through the window. This butterfly was a very cooperative female, but the condensation on my lens made the images useless. Amazingly, I saw another female Checkered White on Wednesday and was able to get some decent shots, in spite of the fact that it didn’t linger long at a blossom. It’s really nice to study the photos later and see native bees and an Ailanthus Webworm moth in the frame.

I recognize the female butterfly by the checkered markings, especially on the hind wing. But if I were a  Checkered White butterfly, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, I’d look for a different “UV reflectivity.” I guess that would be pretty attractive too.

Seeing such a beautiful, pale butterfly kind of makes up for the wounds of reading that its preferred habitat includes “dry weedy areas” (Milleman, Mizzel, Jones on “Web Only Display of Miscellaneous Local Insects”) and—even worse—“disturbed open areas…(and) abandoned railway tracks” (Glassberg, 52). I don’t like to think of my front yard as “disturbed,” but it is interesting that I have only seen it in the front among cup plants and a number of species adapted to dry glades. So far, it has ignored my backyard of tall phlox, butterfly bush, and swamp milkweed.
Female Checkered White Butterfly shares Cup Plant
with native bees and Ailanthus Webworm moth AMcC
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
 Of shoes—and ships—and sealing wax—
 Of cabbages—and kings.”

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

21st Century Birding Skills

"Seeing the Past" photo by Charles Kaiser

Nate, over at The Drinking Bird, wrote a fascinating blog post about the Orange-billed Nightingale-thrush. This Central American bird showed up South Dakota, of all places. Not only is the bird well out of its normal summer range in Tamaulipas, Mexico and 1,435 miles north of it’s previous Texas record, it is not even a migratory species. Perhaps even more remarkable is that someone found it in Spearfish Canyon. Well, by now, possibly thousands of people have found it. This is a little less surprising, given that, as Nate has pointed out, the intrepid discoverer, Eric Ripma, is also a blogger!

Way back in the Twentieth Century, word of such a finding was spread by telephone. Our nature group, the Webster Groves Nature Study Society, maintained a “hotline” for many years for this purpose. A birder who discovered an uncommon or rare species called the person at the beginning of the chain, who called the next, and so on. As long as people were home (no cell phones), twenty or so people were informed within 6-24 hours of the sighting. If the first person in the chain doubted the claim, his or her dialing finger remained idle. Assuming that the hotline was activated, the first group of 6 or 12 arrived, relying on binoculars for the most part. Only one field guide—Peterson—was easily available, and it didn’t list rare visitors from other climes. By 1983, National Geographic published its more comprehensive field guide. The average income of birders began to climb, the price of spotting scopes began to fall, and optics improved by leaps and bounds.

Enter the digital age! List serves have replaced hotlines, informing vastly more birders in less time. Excited birders on the scene of a rare sighting send up a Tweet from cell phone without leaving the bird! When a text message isn’t enough, why not upload your digiscoped photo? Of course, it’s not just the sending, it’s the receiving too. Subscribers get a ring tone wherever they are—at work, or in rush hour traffic. I don’t subscribe to national rare birding hotlines, but I found out about the Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush through a photo posted by Christopher Taylor (a friend I’ve never met) on Facebook.

Do we still admire birding records of the past as 21st Century birding skills sweep them away? Is the ability to spot and identify a bird becoming less important? Maybe all I need to do is follow a Google Map posted by a birder, and wait for the experts to point out the bird. I ask you, fellow birders, is the famed picnic table of Patagonia now good for nothing but picnics?

I asked my nephew Sean for an analogy from sports. No sport seems more obsessed with record keeping than baseball, and Sean is the Sultan of Stats—a walking Wikipedia! He pointed me toward the “Dead Ball Era.” Just to give you an idea of how baseball was played at the time (1900-1919), Frank “Home Run” Baker earned his nickname by hitting 2 home runs in the world series of 1911. That’s right—both in the same series. When Frank tore the cover off the ball in 1911, the ball was worn, weak, dented, brown, and flat before he smashed it. Now baseballs are lively and replaced ever few minutes so that they remain a nice, visible white. In every type of sporting equipment, quality has taken a quantum leap since the days of the Gas House Gang.

Actually, I’m confident that birding skill is alive and well in the 21st Century. After all, it was Ripma’s skill that allowed him to find the bird. Just as every player from Stan the Man to Hammerin’ Hank would have used modern equipment if it had been available, I have no doubt that Ted Parker and Phoebe Snetsinger would have Twitter followers if they were still birding today.