It’s a Bird! It’s a Bug! It’s….um, no really….what IS it?!

hummingbird moth1

A hummingbird with antennae? Not quite.

This member of the sphinx family is a hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), otherwise known as the hummingbird moth. So yes, it is an insect. I was really excited to see it. I was sitting in my dining room last Sunday afternoon, looking out the patio door, when I noticed it flying in the back of the yard. I knew instantly that it wasn’t one of my hummingbirds (I’m so used to seeing the birds dart around my yard that I know when it’s not them), and after verifying it with my binoculars, I grabbed the camera and literally ran out the door! I’ve only seen these moths a handful of times and this was the first time I actually photographed one! Sorry for the poor quality. The sun was behind me, making it hard to see what my camera was focused on and the moth didn’t stay in one spot for very long. I had to crop in pretty close on these photos so you could actually see the insect.

hummingbird moth2

The name clearwing comes from the moth’s clear wings. It’s a little hard to tell in the photo, but there’s a section of the wings where there are no scales and it is clear.

Unlike most moths, the hummingbird moth is active during the daylight hours or close to dusk. These moths are a little smaller than a hummingbird and have the same feeding habits as their feathered friends, hovering around flowers just like hummingbirds do. In fact, they are often mistaken for hummingbirds. This imitation often prevents them from being snatched up by insect-loving birds.

hummingbird moth3

This hummingbird moth was drinking nectar from the wild germander growing in my yard. There are four species of sphinx moths in North America and this is the most common one in the Eastern United States. You can usually find them around meadows, forest edges and flower gardens.

How can you attract them?

First of all, quit spraying that insecticide! Apparently, they are particularly fond of viburnum, honeysuckle (please make sure you plant the native varieties!), phlox, beebalm, dogbane and verbena. They also like to feed on hawthorn.

“Leaves Of Three, Let Them Be”, right?… Not Necessarily!

I have a yard that backs up to woods. While I’ve been trying to landscape in the yard, the back of it has a steep hill and, well, I haven’t really gotten to that yet. Needless to say, I find all kinds of things growing that I didn’t plant there. Some of them are pleasant surprises, like the Joe-pye weed, wild asters, black-eyed Susans and daisies. Others, on the other hand, are not so pleasant.

A couple of years ago, I found a plant growing in the yard… and it was EVERYWHERE! I freaked out because the leaves were in sets of three. The only plant that I knew of that fit that description was poison ivy!

“Just grab a bottle of Roundup,” people told me. “That’ll take care of it!”

There is one major problem with that solution. Part of gardening for wildlife means eliminating harmful chemicals in the yard. I could manually pull some of it if I was careful, but a whole yard of it?

Fragrant Sumac berries are red and hairy. These are past their prime.

Fragrant Sumac berries are red and hairy. These are past their prime.

I was trying to figure out my strategy for dealing with the problem and do it in a way that was the least harmful to wildlife and…well…me, when I noticed something. Growing on the plant were red berries. Wait! Doesn’t poison ivy have white berries?

Now I was really confused. I decided to ask some of my gardening friends at work. Sure enough, one of my coworkers knew what I was talking about.

“That’s not poison ivy,” she said. “I think that’s fragrant sumac.”

We looked it up on the internet to verify it with some photos. Yep! That’s my plant! I would have never guessed that it was anything other than poison ivy. All those plants that I saw right off of the trail at the local conservation center that I thought were poison ivy were, in fact, fragrant sumac as well. And, I’ve since learned, that it’s even sold at native plant sales!

The following descriptions are taken from Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri by Don Kurz put out by the Missouri Department of Conservation to help you differentiate the two:

Fragrant Sumac
fragrant sumac
Poison Ivy
poison ivy
Appearance: Thicket-forming shrub to 8 feet, branches vary from ascending to lying on the ground. Poisonous, a vine to 60 feet high, trailing or climbing by aerial roots; or a low, upright shrub.
Flowers: Late March-April, flowers usually appearing before leaves at the ends of twigs in clusters, flowers small, yellowish-green. May-June, in clusters on new growth of stems, flowers small, greenish-white, fragrant.
Fruit: May-July, globe-shaped, red, hairy with simple or gland-tipped hairs. August-November, in grapelike clusters, creamy-white, waxy, globe-shaped, smooth or rarely sparsely hairy.
Leaves: Alternate, three-leaved, fragrant when crushed, leaflets without stalks, short stalked, egg-shaped, tip pointed to rounded, margin lobed or coarsely toothed; upper surface dark yellow-green, dull or shiny, with or without hairs; lower surface pale, smooth to densely hairy; leaf stalk about 1 inch long. Alternate, three leaflets, variable in shape and size; end leaflet stalk 1/2 to 1 3/4 inches long; side leaflets with unequal sides; blades mostly oval to lance-shaped, tip pointed (end leaflet with a more pronounced pointed tip), margin entire, largely toothed, or lobed; upper surface dull green, smooth; lower surface paler, with varying degrees of hairiness; leaf stalk 2 1/2 to 6 inches long, hairy.
Stems: Slender, flexible, brown, hairy to smooth later. Light brown, hairy, pores raised, climbing by aerial rootlets. Stems trail until finding support or when lacking support often assuming an erect shrublike posture, often with single stems.
Remarks: Although superficially resembling the related poison ivy, fragrant sumac does not cause dermatitis. It is readily distinguished by a shorter or absent stalk on the middle leaflet and by its hairy, reddish fruits. An oil found in all parts of the plant is poisonous and produces an intense skin irritation. Upon contact with the skin this oil produces blisters, accompanied by intense itching and burning. Washing immediately after contact with cold, soapy water is the best treatment.

Both plants are an important food source for wildlife, although I don’t recommend having poison ivy in your yard. All the photos above were taken in my yard. The fragrant sumac I will let grow if it’s in a suitable place. The poison ivy I will have to remove. I try to get to it when it’s small and will use gloves over a plastic bag to remove it. I will then wash up immediately after removing the plant.

I hope this helps you at least get a better idea of what poison ivy looks like versus fragrant sumac. If in doubt, though, always treat it with caution. Happy Gardening! 🙂

Evening Lullaby

moon

One of my favorite things to do in the summer months is to sit out on the patio in the evening to unwind after a long day. My yard has always been a peaceful sanctuary for me, especially in the evenings. It’s cooler, for one, especially since my patio is on the east side of the house. The hustle and bustle at the feeders starts winding down and the birds start singing their evening songs. I’ll usually hear the hummingbirds buzzing around the sugar feeder to my right a few more times before they too call it a night. Meanwhile, the gray treefrog that’s been camped out in one of my windchime pipes during the day pokes his head out to start singing, his voice sounding hollow and tinny from within the pipe. More frogs in other yards start answering. The crickets, too start their nightly chorus, a nice backdrop to some of the other evening sounds.

The female bluebird has returned to the nest box for the evening. She’s got eggs. At last check, I counted three, but I suspect there is at least one more. Sadly, this is not my original female. The first one was driven away after her mate was tragically killed last week. I’m not certain, but I believe it was a territorial dispute that went horribly wrong. I was quite upset when I found him and carried him up to his final resting place in the woods. Still, life goes on, and while I’m not seeing the first brood of bluebirds that fledged in my yard anymore, I can look forward to seeing a whole new batch of babies in the coming weeks.

The mockingbird is going through his repertoire of songs. I like to see which bird songs that I recognize from his list. A woodpecker drums somewhere in the woods, while a robin chirps his goodnights. Occasionally, I see a bat flying overhead, busily catching insects on the wing. “Eat all the mosquitoes you want, little one! You’re always welcome over my yard!”

The light is starting to wane now and the moon starts to shine a little brighter. My solar lights throughout the yard are starting to come on. Soon it will be too dark to write, but for now, I will sit here and enjoy my evening lullaby, and let the stress of the week just float away.

gray treefrog sitting on my windchimes

gray treefrog sitting on my windchimes

gray treefrog on my siding

gray treefrog on my siding

Solar lights going on by the pond. There are the windchimes that my frog is sitting on.

Solar lights going on by the pond. There’s the windchimes that my frog is sitting on.

Light by the "bird garden".

Light by the “bird garden”.

Somebody was clinging to my patio door! :)

Somebody was clinging to my patio door! 🙂

 

It’s Not Always Bad To Have the “Blues”!

Eastern bluebirds are Missouri's state bird. A female is reaching for a raisin at my feeder while the male waits for his turn.

Eastern bluebirds are Missouri’s state bird. They often visit my raisin feeders during the winter months. A female is reaching for a raisin while the male waits for his turn.

I’ve always been fascinated by bluebirds, ever since my grandpa pointed one out to me when I was a little girl. A lot of people get confused when I mention “bluebird”.

A blue jay. It is larger than the bluebird.

A blue jay. It is larger than the bluebird.

They usually say, “Oh, I don’t like them! They’re mean!”

“Not the bluebird,” I tell them. “You’re thinking about the blue JAY!”

Blue jays are larger birds. They are loud and have a reputation for being bullies at the feeders. They’re not all bad though, and often are the watch dogs when it comes to looking out for predators near the feeders. I must admit, despite their reputation, I actually enjoy those birds. But the bluebirds aren’t like that.

Bluebirds are small members of the thrush family. They’re actually related to the American robin. Their brilliant blue feathers and their gentle demeanor make them a garden favorite, not to mention the excellent insect control you get from hosting these little birds in your yard!

So why do so many people confuse the two?

It could be that they’re just not familiar with the bluebird. First of all, bluebirds don’t typically hang out at feeders. They are mainly insect eaters, although they will eat berries and may take raisins, peanuts or suet from feeders in the winter. Secondly, bluebird numbers were low for a while. That bluebird that I saw as a little girl was one of the last bluebirds that I saw for about twenty years until I saw one flying at a cemetery! With the introduction of aggressive house sparrows and starlings in the late 1800s to early 1900s which competed for nesting sites, loss of habitat due to urbanization, and compounded by some harsh winters in the late 70s and early 80s, bluebird populations were reduced by 90%. Thanks to the introduction of bluebird boxes (nest boxes specifically designed for bluebirds) and increased public awareness, bluebird numbers have slowly been recovering. I myself have been hosting bluebirds in my yard since I put up my first bluebird nest box in 2009.

As I’m writing this, I’m wondering if my resident bluebirds’ current clutch is getting ready to hatch. The male and female have been hanging around the entrance hole all day, often peering inside. This is their second clutch of the year, their first brood having left the nest a few weeks ago. They typically have 2 to 3 broods a year, laying between 4 to 6 eggs per clutch.

Left: A bluebird nest is cup-shaped. Right: Bluebirds lay 4 to 6 eggs per clutch.
A bluebird nest is cup shaped. Bluebirds lay 4 to 6 eggs per clutch.

The male introduces the female to the nest box around late February or early March, calling to her and waving his wings. Once she deems a site suitable, the female will proceed to build a cup shaped nest out of grass. She will build a new nest for each subsequent clutch throughout the season, stacking the nests right on top of the last. With the old nest box, I was able to pull each nest out individually at the end of the season. With my new nest box, however, I have to clean out the old nest right after the fledglings leave the nest, otherwise the new babies will be too close to the entrance hole and easier for predators to get to. Once the eggs are laid, incubation lasts for about two weeks.

Left: Baby bluebirds about 4 days old. Right: The male bluebird stands guard while two of his nestlings peek out of the nest box.
Baby bluebirds about 4 days old. The male bluebird standing guard while two of his nestlings peek out of the nest box.
A young bluebird sitting on a shepherd's hook near my house.

A young bluebird sitting on a shepherd’s hook near my house.

Don't take down those nest boxes! Bluebirds will often use them to roost in during the winter. About 9 bluebirds piled in this one to stay warm.

Don’t take down those nest boxes during the winter! About 9 bluebirds piled in this one to stay warm.

The female may be the one who builds the nest and sits on the eggs, but the male is still a doting father. He will often visit the eggs and “talk” to them, and then he will help feed the babies and keep the nest tidy once the babies have hatched. And after the young bluebirds have left the nest, which is around 15 to 18 days after they hatch, the male can often be seen looking after the youngsters while the female is sitting on the new clutch of eggs about a week later. The previous broods, too, will often help feed their younger siblings and by the end of the summer, I have a large family of bluebirds hanging around the yard!


For more information on how to attract bluebirds, nest box plans, and predator control, visit the North American Bluebird Society‘s website. Also, if you’d like to purchase a bluebird nest box, I highly recommend that you visit the Audubon Workshop. I’ve purchased several nest and roosting boxes from them and have been quite happy with my purchases!

What’s Happening in the Yard?

tiger swallowtail on lilac

A tiger swallowtail on my lilac bush.

The weather has been crazy here in Missouri the past two weeks! Last week felt like June with highs in the 80’s. The heat wouldn’t have bothered me, but the air was so thick with pollen, that I was forced to retreat indoors and turn on the air conditioner just so I could breath. This week felt like March. It has been so cold and wet (we’ve had some frost advisories) that I had to turn the furnace back on!  As a result, I didn’t get out in the yard much and had to resort to watching things happen from my patio door.

What have I seen? Well…

The female bluebird has made a new nest in the nest box. I’m not sure if she has eggs yet. I will have to get out there to check. Occasionally, I see her first brood in the trees. The male often stops at my raisin feeder to take some snacks back to his youngsters. He splits his time between watching after them and checking to see if the female is okay.

The gray treefrogs are FINALLY singing near my pond! I was concerned that the harsh winter we had this year had negatively impacted their population. This cold week has quieted them down though and I’m still waiting for the toads to show up.

frog in windchimes2

A gray treefrog sitting on one of the pipes of my windchimes, of all places!

The hummingbirds have been fighting over the sugar feeder. I noticed some webs hanging from one of the female’s feet, so I’ll TRY to see if I can locate her nest. They can be hard to spot though and, so far, I haven’t had any luck finding one.

I saw a pair of yellow-billed cuckoos in the trees a couple of days ago, but my camera wasn’t strong enough to focus in on them. Hopefully they’ll come around again, because there are more tent worms for them to snack on.

A flock of cedar waxwings dropped by yesterday and were hanging out in the back of my yard. Again, they were a little too far for my camera! I’m not sure what they were after though. This was the first time I spotted them in my yard. They looked like they may have been eating something off of the sumac bushes, but I can’t be sure.

I did manage to get to a native plant sale on Saturday where I purchased a few new plants for my yard, and I was able to get them into the ground before all the rain hit.

beebalm

Some bee balm that I bought at the native plant sale.

house finch

I heard something behind me after I took a photo of the bee balm. This house finch was only a couple of feet from me!

It was hard to stay inside though, and I occasionally got outside with the camera to take some photos. I just couldn’t stay out for very long.

rain on leaves

Rain droplets on some leaves.

mushroom

Mushrooms are popping up all over the place!

columbine

My columbine is in full bloom.

caterpillar

A caterpillar.

Everything is growing like crazy and all of the little animals are so busy raising families. Hopefully, my allergies and the weather will ease up so I can work/play out in the yard more in the coming weeks. 🙂


~ This entry was written in response to the Blog Your Block Challenge.