Sunday, August 28, 2011

High Praise from a Prairie Vole

When Chunk and I take our walk through the neighborhoods and down to the park, I sometimes keep count of the number of species we see: 12-22 birds (depending on how long the walk; highest number in spring), and usually only 2 mammals— Eastern Gray Squirrel (always), and either Eastern Cottontail or Eastern Chipmunk. Chunk is more of a mammal-watcher than a bird-watcher and recently he's been pushing the mammal species total upward.

At first, I assumed these holes were the entrances to chipmunk tunnels, but they were too small: only 1 1/4 to 1 3/4 inches (3.17-4.45 cm) in width. There were many on them too on the gentle slope by the cemetery fence; I knew there couldn't be that many chipmunks in the small area. Then I spotted one. It looked like a small, grey mouse, with a rounded head. As you can see from my one-handed snapshot above, Chunk didn't wait to see it—he dove right in! Never fear, my fellow critter-lovers, I didn't let him catch one.

I suspected voles, so first I checked Mark Elbroch's Mammal Tracks & Sign; A Guide to North American Species, 2003. This is really a fascinating book, filled with photos, though some of the mammal signs are, well, unattractive. Elbroch confirmed that the holes were within the range of voles.

The pathways through the dry grass and winter creeper seemed significant signs too.
Prairie Vole, photo from Wikimedia Commons, by US National Park Service
Next I checked Mammals of North America, by Bowers, Bowers, and Kaufman. Judging by the range maps and the dry habitat, these are most likely Prairie Voles (Microtus ochrogaster). Both sources mention the runways between tunnel entrances. I realize now that these little guys are to blame for the disruptions in my front garden of glade and prairie wildflowers and grasses. Since they are a prairie species, I'll take their presence as a compliment.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Bird Bath for Hummingbirds

Anna's Hummingbird photo by randomtruth
On a particularly anxious day some years ago, I glanced out the kitchen window, looking at the viburnum leaves, covered with with rain drops. Movement caught my eye—a hummingbird, diving chest first into the droplets, flailing her wings and splashing around in the microliters of water on the leaf. Because I'm a human and humans always look for meaning—especially when they're really stressed—I read a message in this brief, extraordinary scene: "Things will work out fine." And they did.

Hummers get plenty of liquid as they lap up nectar from a trumpet creeper bloom or from your feeder, so they don't need to drink from a bird bath as a Mourning Dove or Cedar Waxwing might. However hummingbird banders tell me that the feathers are often sticky with nectar, both natural and artificial, so they do need to bathe to keep their feathers in top condition. Hummers can bathe in a rain shower, or you can try to attract them with water by…
Providing a mist fountain. I use a connector with shut-off valves so I can have two hose lines. 
After I finish watering the container plants, I completely shut off the water. Then I open the valve on the line that leads to the mister. 
This little device will run a long time on the residual water pressure within the hose. 

An easier method is to hose down some large leaves. 

I hope you have a chance to see a hummer take a "leaf bath." If you do, and I'd love to see your photo!

For those of you keeping track, here in the Midwest, Anna's Hummingbird, seen in the photo above, is not one of our normal birds. In fact, there are only 5 records for the state of Missouri, most recently in 1997—the only record in my area. Thanks, Josh Uffman, for compiling, organizing, and sharing the state records. 

The charming photo of an adult male Anna's is by randomtruth, and I'd like to thank him for sharing his photo with a Creative Commons license. Be sure to check out his blog, The Nature of a Man. He wrote a terrific post about Anna's Hummingbird: California Christmas Ornaments.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Juice from a Thousand Flowers

So many hummers! This is my goal! Thanks to Teddy Llovet for the photo.
If you want to attract hummingbirds to your yard, keep in mind that hummers may need up to 1,000 blooms a day. As I mentioned in my previous post, those of use who live in the city or suburbs are going to need nectar feeders! How do I go about filling my hummingbird feeders? Well, I'm glad you asked:
2 cups hot tap water
1/2 cup sugar
That's really all there is to it, but I do have some refinements.

Now that I'm filling so many feeders, I mix up 6 cups at a time and store it in a juice pitcher in the fridge. I've read that it may be better for the birds to use sugar made from cane, not sugar made from beets, so I look for "cane sugar" on the package. Other than that, I buy what's on sale.

I use a jar funnel on the pitcher when I throw in the sugar. It reduces the mess a bit. Look for this type of funnel with the canning supplies in summer and fall. I put the lid on the pitcher and shake.
Some feeders have a built-in "ant moat." Not this one.
Do you find rafts of ants floating in your nectar feeder? You need an "ant moat." Ants follow a path down the wire/hook/hanger into the nectar, but they can't swim across a water barrier. Look for a feeder that has a "built-in ant moat" that you fill with plain water, or buy a separate moat.
Stand-alone "ant moat." Just fill with water.
Another cool thing about an ant moat with water is that it serves as a bird bath for small birds. I advise against using something called an "ant barrier." Usually it contains chemicals to deter the ants.

Some fallacies about hummingbird nectar:
Not true: You have to boil the water.
If your tap water is safe for you to drink, it will be safe enough for the birds.

Not true: Use commercial nectar, which is red.
Natural nectar is never red, although the flower may be. Don't add artificial dyes to a hummingbird's diet needlessly. Just get a red feeder.

Not true: Honey is more natural than sugar.
Hummingbirds do not raid bee hives. They drink the nectar produced directly by plants. That nectar is sucrose, as is table sugar. Honey is a different type of sugar; mostly glucose and fructose. Even worse, honey can cause harm to the birds as it ferments.

Not true: You should train your hummers to use a more dilute solution by gradually decrease the amount of sugar.
First of all, you can't train "your hummers." Hummingbird banders tell me that most birds stay only a few days in an area before moving on.
This fallacy is based on the assumption that more sugar is bad for the bird. But most hummingbird-pollinated flowers have a 20% solution in their nectar, though some, like trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) have up to 34%! See the Louisiana Ornithological Society's Newsletter, March 2003, "Sugar Content of Hummingbird Plants in Louisiana Gardens," by Dennis Demcheck here.
For a more thorough discussion of the proper concentration of sugar in a nectar feeder, check this discussion from the HumNet listserve.
PS: I received a comment through Facebook from Sheri Williamson, co-director and founder of Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory. She suggested using cold tap water, since hot water may contain lead. The only reason I used hot water was to speed up the mixing of the sugar solution, so I can easily switch to cold water. 

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Rabble of Ruby-throats?

I love my hummingbird plants, but when I read that hummers may need up to 1,000 blooms a day, I knew I was going to need feeders! A little more investigation into hummingbird calorie requirements at is really instructive—and a bit overwhelming for a gardener.

I recently came across the blog of Susan and Richard Day, Daybreak Blog. Susan is one of the authors of a favorite book, The Wildlife Gardener's Guide to Hummingbirds and Songbirds From the Tropics (Collins, 2003) and Richard is a photographer and leader of photo workshops. A few years ago, I had a chance to tour their property in central Illinois with the St. Louis Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). We were really inspired by their work to create and improve wildlife habitat on their farm. I asked Susan many questions about her hummingbird and butterfly gardens and I was glad to see her recent post about "Hummingbird Wars."

I was surprised to though that she was talking not about flowers, but feeders. I have lots of hummingbird-attracting plants—also known as "humplants"—and two feeders, one in the front and one on the kitchen window. As I mentioned in a recent post, Susan Day interviewed Bob Sargent, well-known hummingbird bander and the found of the Hummer/Bird Study Group. His suggestion to those who would like to attract more hummingbirds and solve the problem of one bird guarding a feeder or driving other hummers away from your Cardinal Flower patch is simple: Add more feeders! Susan add 10 more.

I added 5. Naturally, I expected a rambunctious rabble of Ruby-throats the next morning.

Actually, I'm slightly more patient than that. I've had the extra feeders up for two days. So far I think that my feeder collection has made it more fun to watch the hummers because they're so easy to find. I've seen as many as 3 at a time—not unusual in my yard at this time of year even before adding feeders. When I see more than birds sharing a feeder at the nectar station, I'll feel that my experiment has succeeded. More hummingbird posts to come!

Rootin' Tootin' Rufous                

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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Emma Peel as a Butterfly

Tiger Swallowtails are more beautiful, but when I spot a small, dark butterfly, I run for the camera! Small, dark butterflies include some of the most challenging identifications in our area, including the duskywings.

Jeffrey Glassberg, in Butterflies Through Binoculars; The East,  has the best quotation for this family in the spread-wing skipper butterfly group. He references a mysterious, unpublished text, The Rites of an Ancient Aurelian, by an anonymous author:
…and rising up like a dark cloud—the duskywings spread across the land, sowing confusion and dissension about butterfliers, the instrument of Erinnyes revenge.

Duskywing butterflies are tough to tell apart, but my task was somewhat limited by date and range for the butterfly in the photo above. I ruled out Juvenal's Duskywing, since it is only seen in spring in Missouri, and this fellow arrived on July 25. There is no dark band in the middle of the hind wing, so that eliminates Mottled Duskywing. Markings aren't right for Wild Indigo Duskywing, and in our area, we're too far south for Columbine and Persius; too far north for Zarucco and Funeral—though all 4 of these duskywings have occured here.
That leaves us with Horace's Duskywing—in this case, a male. However, I won't be offended if you find fault with my identification. Please leave your criticism in the comments!

I was lucky enough to have females in my yard this summer too, on July 11 and again on July 26. The female Horace's on July 26 was nectaring on one of the plants we love to hate, anglepod or climbing milkweed (Cynanchum laeve), which I wrote about in an earlier post.

What's up with the names of these butterflies? They must have been named by a classics scholar. Horace, Juvenal, and Persius were poets of ancient Rome.

Horace is most famous for the phrase, "Carpe diem!"—Seize the day! Juvenal's best known phrases include "A sound mind in a sound body," and—my favorite—"rare bird." Persius coined another great aphorism "Out of the frying pan, into the fire!" Though some sources suggest that all duskywings are named for Roman poets, I believe only these three are, though Columbine is a character in Medieval Commedia dell'Arte. The genus name, Erynnis, however is a reference to the three ancient Greek goddesses. The Erinyes, known to the Romans as "the Furies," punished criminals, especially murderers and those who were rude to his mother—Orestes, for example.

Emma Peel

The Erinyes are often depicted in black robes with short skirts, wearing boots, and carrying a whip—a bit like Emma Peel in The Avengers. A pretty intense name for an innocent little butterfly, don't you think?

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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What is she doing?

As my garden renovation proceeds, I removed a Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora) from one of my witch hazel trees. Nasty work in this heat, but I'm finally getting serious about removing the invasive alien plants in my yard. Sweet Autumn Clematis has just about engulfed the Sugar Creek area of Kirkwood, Missouri, but I think I'll make that the subject of a later post. Just as I stretched out atop the ladder to remove that last bit of vine shading my puny little witch hazel, I had a moment of panic. A hummingbird—a female-plumaged Ruby-throated Hummingbird—frantically bounced around the tip of a top branch. Had I accidently destroyed her nest?

I've never had a hummingbird nest in my yard, in spite of the fact that I've done as much as I can to attract them to my garden, including mounting Dan True's "Hummingbird House." Also, it's pretty late in summer for a hummingbird to have an active nest. I searched, but found no evidence of a nest among the piles of vines below. So what was she doing?

I took these photo on July 17, just as my Cup Plants (Silphium perfoliatum) were beginning to bloom. Is this female Ruby-throat getting nectar from the bloom, as butterflies do? 

She certainly seems to be. Daisy-like composite blooms aren't described as hummingbird flowers in the books. Like the Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies that visit my Royal Catchfly, hummingbirds don't read the books.

Or are there some insects within the bloom that she's lapping up? I remember reading Bob Sargent's quote on "Hummers need nectar to power the bug-eating machine that they are." Bob Sargent is a well-known hummingbird bander and author. He was interviewed on Richard and Susan Day's Daybreak Blog.

Since I spotted the hummer  at my witch hazel, I've seen others busy at things that make no sense to me. I noticed one bobbing up and down on the tips of a cedar tree (Juniperus virginiana) where I don't think there can be any nectar.

Hummingbirds use a display flight to attract a mate or drive out an intruder, but these displays typically cover more than ten feet of vertical air space. The movement I described covered only a few inches.

I assume hummingbirds don't have energy to waste, so their activity must have some purpose. I wonder what it was…
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