When the Butterflies Won’t Sit Still…

One morning this weekend, beckoned by the butterflies in my backyard, I ventured out to see what I could find. I was immediately drawn to an area where dozens of gulf fritillaries were flitting about. While trying to get close enough to photograph one, I noticed a bright orange caterpillar on some emergent vegetation nearby. Since the butterflies weren’t cooperating, I parked myself next to the caterpillar to have a closer look.

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This caterpillar seems to be enjoying his breakfast!

Looking underneath a leaf, I discovered another orange caterpillar, this one much smaller than the first. Although the plant wasn’t blooming, I recogized it as passionflower, having just recently noticed some mature plants flowering in another part of the yard. When I checked the other emerging passionflower plants nearby, every one of them was host to some of the bright little caterpillars.

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And perhaps one that didn’t make it…?

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Hmm…what have these ants gotten hold of?

Closer inspection on the underside of the leaves revealed tiny eggs here and there.

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Gulf fritillary egg

It was pretty easy to guess that the eggs would become the little orange caterpillars, which must be the larvae of the fritillaries. Later, I confirmed my guess in my butterfly field guide. I also learned that the caterpillars’ black spines do not sting, but their bright orange and black coloration helps warn birds and other predators of their toxicity when eaten (although some specialized insects eat them and larger caterpillars will eat smaller ones). How cool to witness three stages of the butterfly life cycle–egg, larva, and butterfly–right there among that patch of passionflowers! I never did get a photo of the butterfly–I have included one I took last summer below–but making new discoveries in the backyard is always interesting and fun!

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Since the chysalis of the gulf fritillary looks like a dry leaf, I’ll be keeping a closer eye on the dry leaves around the passionflower vines in the coming weeks!

Note: Passionflower (pictured below) is the sole host plant for the gulf fritillary as well as several other butterfly species. Many butterfly species are specialists in this way, underscoring the importance of using a variety of native plants in our landscaping.

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Passionflowers are the sole host plants for a number of butterfly species, including the gulf fritillary.

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Gulf fritillary

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Suburban Safari*

I can’t believe it has been more than six months since I wrote my last blog post.  It hasn’t been for lack of inspiration. Aside from the demands of careers and raising two middle-schoolers, my husband and I have been busy settling into our new home on 1.6 acres after the long process of zoning, designing, and building (and keeping our old house in pristine condition until it sold). Our “subdivision” (four lots, two currently undeveloped) also has shared access to a one acre lake and adjoins a large wooded park of more than 100 acres. I am in wildlife heaven. Although minutes away from conveniences, when I pull into our driveway at the very end of our street, I feel like I’ve entered a small patch of wilderness.

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The view from the lake looking toward our house

The backyard is a small “meadow” of untamed grasses and wildflowers that run down to a brushy area along a small stream, and towering trees surround the property. I have enjoyed watching all of the different plants and trees come into bloom and trying to learn what they are. We have lots of beautiful and beneficial native plants, which I’ve written about previously, although we also have invasive English ivy and Japanese honeysuckle, unfortunately. (I’m considering renting goats to tackle this problem). We’ve added our own mark to the landscape by planting blueberry bushes and fruit trees, including a native persimmon tree, which I’ve heard is a favorite with wildlife. The edges between the yard and wooded areas are lined with wild blackberry bushes, their blooms the promise of summer cobblers if the birds are gracious enough to share. The first shrubs I bought and planted were three native red buckeyes, which I’d learned are an important early food source for migrating hummingbirds. I had to laugh at myself when they bloomed a few weeks later—along with the dozens of other red buckeyes in the woods around the house. (If you want some, I can hook you up!)

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Wild blackberries are abundant in the yard. Hopefully the birds will share.

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One of the native red buckeyes I planted (then discovered we have them everywhere!) This is an important early food source for hummingbirds on their northern migration.

Wildlife viewing is a daily pursuit in our new home. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks live nearby, and two Barred Owls call almost nightly. Four white-tailed does regularly pass through the yard, occasionally accompanied by a buck. Recently, we saw two gray foxes gamboling about in the backyard early one morning, though our occasional sightings are typically of a single individual, usually after dark. We’ve heard them rustling in the brushy area on the side of the house during the day a few times lately; the alarm calls of the chipmunks and squirrels give them away. Are they hunting during daylight hours because they have young mouths to feed? In addition to the foxes who share our home, we frequently find coyote tracks near the stream, as well as the tracks of opossums and raccoons.

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Coyote track

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Raccoon tracks

The yard is bustling with bird activity, offering boundless opportunities for new discoveries—-my yard list is already up to 66 species! The thickets attract towhees, thrashers, wrens, and cardinals, while the tall, grassy areas attract sparrows, finches, and doves. Dead trees provide a bed-and-breakfast for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees, as well as snags for flycatchers to sally out to snatch insects in midair. Having the lake nearby means we never know when we might see our local Great Blue Heron fly through the backyard or hear the rattling call of kingfishers. Spring migration brought some delightful and unexpected surprises like Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, and a few species of neo-tropical warblers.

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Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. In sexually dimorphic species, the female is more camouflaged in order to blend in with her nest.

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Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak–the brighter the better as far as the ladies are concerned.

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Male Indigo Bunting passing through on migration. This species will nest in the mountains of North Georgia and all the way up to southern Canada.

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Northern Flicker, a local resident. This bird has gorgeous yellow feathers underneath its wings. Unlike other woodpeckers, it often feeds on the ground.

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I wonder if this is the Song Sparrow that serenades me every morning. His morning song is different from the one he sings later in the day.

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Hairy Woodpecker on a tree snag. Dead trees are actually “trees of life”–they provide food, shelter, and nesting places for birds.

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House Finch, another local resident. House Finches are not native to the Eastern United States. Captive birds were released on Long Island in the 1940’s by pet shop owners selling them as “Hollywood Finches” who wanted to avoid being persecuted under the Migratory Bird Species Act, which prevents citizens from keeping any native bird in captivity without a USFWS permit. The birds flourished and spread and are now naturalized in most of the United States.

Clearly I have plenty of inspiration for writing, yet what little free time I can carve out of my day is often spent just sitting outside on the porch quietly watching and listening to my surroundings.  Who wouldn’t rather be outside enjoying nature than sitting at a computer writing about it anyway?!  I feel gratitude daily for the opportunity to live in a place where I feel rooted in nature while staying connected to family and friends in our suburban community. I am thankful, too, that I can share this small patch of wildlife-friendly habitat with my wild neighbors. Creating such patches, even on a small scale, is one of the most important and empowering conservation actions that individuals can make, and collectively our actions can provide tremendous benefits for wildlife and the environment. You can even have your yard certified as a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary, a designation I plan to pursue (once the goats take care of that invasive honeysuckle!).

I look forward to having lots more “wild” stories to tell. We’ve had some real excitement here this month watching the pair of Eastern Bluebirds that nested in our birdhouse, so stay tuned for an upcoming post documenting their story. You won’t believe what mama bluebird brought to the nest for her babies one afternoon! Thank you for sticking around, and look out for my next post soon.

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I’ve been watching this male Eastern Bluebird and his mate closely as they tend to their young. Stay tuned for a post about them soon!

*Note: Suburban Safari was actually the first idea I had for the title of my blog, but when I did a search for the name, I discovered that it was already the title of a book, which I proceeded to check out of the library and enjoyed reading very much. A review on Amazon says this about the book: “The suburban lawn sprouts a crop of contradictory myths. To some, it’s a green oasis; to others, it’s eco-purgatory. Science writer Hannah Holmes spent a year appraising the lawn through the eyes of the squirrels, crows, worms, and spiders who think of her backyard as their own. Suburban Safari is a fascinating and often hilarious record of her discoveries: that many animals adore the suburban environment, including bears and cougars venturing in from the woods; how plants, in their struggle for dominance, communicate with their own kind and battle other species; and that ways already exist for us to grow healthier, livelier lawns.”

Backyard Buffet: Native Plants for Wildlife

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Native plants provide the best nectar sources for butterflies like this beautiful Monarch. In addition, many native insects can only reproduce on specific native plants.

I started this blog to celebrate our beautiful planet and the amazing diversity of life with which we share it, and hopefully, to inspire others to do the same. When we celebrate and appreciate the world around us, we want to take care of it. The effort we make, if only in our own backyard, makes a difference. Pretty soon, I will have a new backyard and with it, an incredible opportunity to create a haven for wildlife.

At the end of this year, my family will be moving to a 1.6 acre lot–a small patch of woods and open meadow along a creek. To make things even better, our property is adjacent to a large park with wooded trails and a lake. Although it is located in the same suburban neighborhood where we currently live, it feels a world away. I can’t wait to be settled in the home we are building, but more than that, I can’t wait to be settled in my own little nature sanctuary. So far, we’ve seen foxes and deer, numerous species of birds (including a resident Red-tailed Hawk), and scads of pollinating insects. One reason we have such an abundance and diversity of wildlife is the variety of native plants on the property.

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The leaves of Hearts-a-bursting are readily eaten by deer and rabbits, and the berries are consumed by birds.

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Goldenrod is a favorite of the American Goldfinch, and a number of other bird and mammal species dine on its seeds as well.

The lot we’ll soon call home has become overgrown with years of disuse, but in that disuse, it has become useful for the wildlife that shares the land with us. The meadow is covered with native grasses and wildflowers like heath aster, goldenrod, blue mistflower, and boneset, attracting many species of butterflies and birds. Splashes of jewelweed along the creek beckon the hummingbirds, and hearts-a-bursting bushes offer a bounty for woodland mammals and birds. The calls of nuthatches and chickadees resound from the tops of pines and oaks, and the dead tree that stands at the back of the property bears the marks of many woodpecker feasts. Aside from removing a few invasive exotic plants, I plan to leave the lot relatively untouched.

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Heath Aster is a favorite of butterflies like this Fiery Skipper.

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Jewelweed, which blooms in late summer and fall, helps migrating hummingbirds fatten up for their journey to Central America.

What we grow in our own backyards can profoundly affect the diversity of life around us. Non-native butterfly bushes, for example, are touted as excellent nectar plants, but cannot support the reproduction of a single species of butterfly in North America. Native plants are much better at sustaining biodiversity, which is crucial to the health of our planet and our very existence.  In contrast, the typical American yard, comprised of tidy, mowed grass and non-native flowering plants and shrubs, provides very little benefit to wildlife and actually does harm to the environment. Here are a few facts about lawns that may surprise you:

  • Lawn grasses are not native to the North American continent and make poor habitat for wildlife.
  • Lawn grasses and exotic (non-native) plants reduce or eliminate insects available for insectivorous birds, as well as for other birds when they are feeding nestlings.
  • Acre for acre, the American lawn receives four times as much chemical pesticide as any U.S. farmland, killing an estimated seven million birds each year.
  • Phosphorus runoff from lawn fertilizer causes algae blooms that suck oxygen out of our waterways, killing aquatic life.
  • During summer months, as much as 60% of municipal water usage goes to lawns. (In a time when much of our nation is facing catastrophic drought, water is a resource we should be using wisely.)
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Blue Mistflower produces dense flower clusters and covers the ground with a matt of leaves. I’ll take this over a traditional lawn any day!

Plants and animals share a profound connection. Plants provide food and clean air to breath, as well as sustain wildlife. Wildlife, in turn, offers a number of tangible and invaluable services to people–such as pollination, seed dispersal, pest control, and sanitation. We can’t afford to be careless about protecting our earth and the life we share it with.  We are currently living during the “sixth mass extinction,” the greatest extinction period since dinosaurs were wiped off the planet, so we can’t act too soon.

So, start with your own backyard–it needn’t be large to make a difference! Add some beautiful native plants to your landscape that will attract more butterflies, birds, and other wildlife. Learn more about backyard wildlife sanctuary certification programs in your area, and have your yard certified as an example for others. You’ll be doing yourself and the earth a favor. In the wise words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  _____________________________________________________________________

An incredible and beautiful book about the connections between native plants and healthy ecosystems is Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home.

Many states have native plant societies which can help you learn more about the best plants to grow in your area. To learn about native plants in Georgia, including the best places to buy them, check out the Georgia Native Plant Society.

A wonderful blog about gardening with native plants is The Humane Gardener.

 

 

Springing Forward

Although Old Man Winter is still flexing his muscles here and there (Atlanta expects temperatures to drop below freezing again this week, and my northern friends are bracing for another snowstorm), we are definitely on the threshold of spring. With the arrival of warmer weather and lengthening days, the signs of spring are everywhere – blooming spring ephemerals, budding trees, birdsong, and baby squirrels!  Here are just a few of the tell-tale signs I’ve seen in recent days that remind me that warmer, greener days are ahead.

Trout Lilies are an early herald of spring.

Trout Lilies are an early herald of spring.

One of the earliest heralds of spring, Trout Lilies grow in sizeable colonies and are named for the mottled leaves which bear some similarity to the markings of brook trout. Like other spring ephemeral wildflowers, trout lilies are perennial woodland plants that sprout early in the spring to take advantage of the full sunlight. They bloom and quickly turn to seed before they are shaded out by the canopy trees. Once the forest floor is in deep shade, the leaves wither, leaving behind only the underground roots and bulb. Some other ephemerals to look for while walking in Eastern woods are Hepatica, Bloodroot, Trillium, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

Magnolia blossom

Magnolia blossom

Magnolia tree with maples and the moon in the background

Magnolia tree with maples and the moon in the background

Although we usually think of trees being their most colorful in the fall, they put on a variety of colorful displays in the spring, too. Aside from the showy blooms of flowering trees like the Dogwood or Magnolia, many other common deciduous trees bear colorful flowers in spring. Maple flowers, for example, can be green, yellow, orange, or red, and while the flowers are small, the effect of a whole tree in bloom is beautiful. Later, the flowers of the maple tree yield seeds called samaras – better known as “helicopters” or “whirlybirds” for the way they are shaped to spin as they fall, which helps to carry them great distances on the wind for dispersal. These seeds are an important food source for a variety of wildlife.

Maple tree in bloom

Maple tree in bloom

The birds are singing! (Carolina Wren)

The birds are singing! (Carolina Wren)

You’ve probably noticed that the birds are a lot more vocal as the days grow longer. The increased sunlight triggers hormones in birds that induce them to sing, especially the males, but the females of many species sing also. Vocalizations fall into two general categories, songs and calls. Songs are used to attract mates, declare territory, and bond with family members. The shorter calls are used to convey information about food sources, warn of danger, and help family members stay in touch as they forage. The Northern Mockingbird, named for its ability to mimic the songs of other birds, has one of the most expansive repertoires, copying songs from other species and incorporating them into thousands of variations. Most people are surprised to learn that Georgia’s state bird, the Brown Thrasher, has even more songs than the mockingbird! In fact, it has the largest repertoire of all North American birds. Early spring is one of the best times to watch birds – before the canopy hides them from view and before they have young mouths to feed and protect.

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Northern Mockingbirds are expert mimics with hundreds, if not thousands, of variations in their songs (even when standing on one foot as this bird is, ha ha).

Finally, I know that spring is truly here when the wildlife center where I volunteer starts receiving a steady inflow of displaced and orphaned baby squirrels and other young wild animals. Already we are caring for close to twenty tiny squirrels, and that number will double, or triple as the season progresses. For me, making and warming formula, feeding bottles, and washing an endless stream of dishes and dirty laundry have become as closely associated with spring as any other of the tell-tale signs. So please, hold off on your tree pruning, keep your cats indoors, and when possible, place any young mammals or birds you find on the ground back in the nest. Our hands are full already!

Baby squirrels require numerous feedings each day.

Baby squirrels require numerous feedings each day. This one is about two weeks old.

To learn more about rehabilitating baby squirrels and see some adorable photos, see my earlier post Nutty for Squirrels, mefurr.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/nutty-for-squirrels/For information about what to do if you find an injured or orphaned animal, check out AWARE’s website at www.awarewildife.org.

To learn about the birds in your neighborhood, including audio files of their songs and calls, one of my favorite resources is www.allaboutbirds.org, a website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

A great resource for information on wildflowers and trees, as well as many different types of animals is www.enature.com/fieldguides/. This site allows you to type in your zip code to find out more about the plants and animals in your neighborhood.