Sunflower fields as critter-friendly habitats — part 1: birds and butterflies

Last month, many residents of the county where I live were alerted to the eruption of profusely blooming sunflowers that were attracting both birds and people. The avians were looking for tasty seeds, as well as bugs attracted to the blooms, and the humans were seeking beauty and backdrops for photo portraits.

 

Sunflower fields are so popular in our area that they feature on the TV news and in online tourism guides. The NC Museum of Art has sunflower fields and offered a sold-out Sunflower Photography Workshop.

Many birds love sunflower seeds, but it can be difficult to see the foragers as they may be dining at blooms lower down on stems. The bright blue indigo buntings are sometimes easy to spot but I couldn’t get photos of them feeding. Red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) will often perch atop a bloom to peck away at the ripening seeds.

   

Other birds were active in the vicinity of the fields, but I didn’t see them at the flowers. For example, the Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens) stayed in the vicinity of a nearby pond while I visited.

The Eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) flitted about in nearby meadows. I didn’t see them among the sunflowers.

It’s not only the birds and people that like sunflowers, however. A field of these flowers is a boon for pollinators. The Orange County fields that I visited featured hundreds of butterflies. The most numerous were the orange sulphurs (Colias eurytheme).

As I watched, pairs of sulphurs would often flutter around one another, ascending high up in the air. It was interesting to see that two types of female orange sulphurs were present. Some were yellow-hued like the males; others were whitish in color, known as the Alba variant.

These sulphurs are also known as alfalfa butterflies and the larva is sometimes called the alfalfa caterpillar. An interesting fact about these sulphurs is that the males’ hind wings have an ultraviolet light reflectance pattern, while the females’ hind wings have an ultraviolet absorbing pattern so that they can be distinguished in flight.

Another abundantly present butterfly species were the cabbage whites (Pieris rapae), which were accidentally introduced into North America around 1860. They didn’t seem attracted to the sunflowers per se but instead were fluttering around and landing on the other flowering plants mixed in with them.

Of these small butterflies had me stumped for an ID at first; it was yellowish in color and didn’t have prominent black spots. However, an entomology expert on BugGuide assured me that it was a cabbage white.

Various types of skipper butterflies were feeding on the sunflowers.

There were a few variegated fritillaries (Euptoieta claudia) visiting the sunflowers and an occasional black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) fluttered into view as well.

Both the cabbage whites and orange sulphurs were visiting muddy spots at a nearby pond.

This behavior is known both as mudding and mud-puddling and occurs when the butterflies are looking for certain nutrients in mud and rotting plant matter.

Observations have indicated that most of the puddling butterflies are males who often appear to be ingesting salts and amino acids. These substances seem to improve the males’ reproductive success and they transfer these compounds to females when they mate. The nutrients then contribute to the survival of the deposited eggs. Wouldn’t it be interesting if human males could transfer nutritional benefits to offspring in that way?

A latecomer to the puddling parties was a lone common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia Hübner). This species generates several generations of offspring each summer and I’m always pleased to see them in my own yard.

Next blog: the sunflower field visit continues with some other numerous visitors!

Weather, water, wildlife, and well-being

As I continue to go through my photos from Yellowstone National Park (a lengthy process!), I will post on a few other topics that you will hopefully enjoy. 😊

I just wrote a column for a local newspaper about climate and water. All life on our earth needs water to exist — plants, animals, and humans. Water contributes to respiration, processing nutrition, photosynthesis, regulating temperature and providing a living environment for many organisms. Scientific studies are documenting the benefits for our well-being of spending time in natural areas and beautiful places for this include nature reserves and parks with ponds, wetlands, lakeshores, creeks, and rivers.

The diversity of wildlife around ponds can be delightful, especially in the summertime. You may be lucky to see mammals coming to the shoreline or pond’s edge to get a drink or have the good luck to catch sight of beavers, muskrats, minks, or otters.

Or perhaps there will be a yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) standing atop a beaver lodge, surveying its surroundings, and taking time to preen.

Reptiles and amphibians clamber onto rocks, snags, branches, and boardwalks to sun. Turtles lay their eggs close to ponds and rivers. At this the time of year, you may come across the remains of leathery eggshells left by hatched turtles (or dug up by predators).

Damsel- and dragonflies, like these amber-winged dragonflies (Perithemis tenera), are interesting to watch; they don’t even need natural water sources but will come to tubs of water containing plants like pickerelweed. Butterflies, such as these cabbage whites (Pieris rapae), “puddle” in mud, carrion and dung alongside creek and pond banks to obtain amino acids and salts in the fluids they suck up.

                 

The bugs do risk ending up as bird food. Northern rough-winged swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) and purple martins (Progne subis) skim above and over the water, snapping up insects as they swoop and soar.

   

The tiny insects on vegetation near water can be remarkably interesting, so taking along a magnifier can increase what you see. Most leaf- and planthoppers are quite small but the glassy-winged sharpshooters (Homalodisca vitripennis) are about fingernail-sized. They consume the fluids in water-carrying tubes in plants, called xylem, and then need to expel excess water from their bodies by shooting out fluid droplets into the air.

   

The vegetation near water can also be fascinating. Indian pipes, also known as ghost plants (Monotropa uniflora), are saprophytes (not fungi) with no chlorophyll. These white, leafless plants obtain their nutrients by tapping into other plants’ resources through mycorrhizal fungi. They usually grow in clusters but can still be difficult to see. My friend Ace spotted one and introduced me to the species, for which I was quite grateful!

Many birds nest near water. Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) will raise young in boxes we put out for them, but they and other birds also like to use holes in snags near or in water. Those nests are much more difficult for predators to reach.

Birds also like to nest near water because they’re primarily insectivores in the spring and summer and there are plenty of bugs in such areas. The only hummingbird nests that I’ve been able to find were all near water; up to 60-80% of their diet comprises spiders and other bugs.

This year, I had the good fortune to see a female ruby-throated hummingbird building her nest and raising her young (previous blog). The first time I visited this wetland after the babies fledged, mama hummer came and hovered about 2 feet in front of me, as if she were greeting me. I’ve seen her on subsequent days as well.

The larger water birds, such as geese and ducks, like to bathe in ponds and rivers.

Other birds enjoy taking a bath in streams and creeks. American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) and house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) enjoy company with other species. Blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) like some solitude or sharing space with a fellow jay.

           

Birds living further away from natural water resources also need to drink and bathe and that is where we can help them out. Small birds like Carolina chickadees and brown-headed nuthatches like to drink from the ant guards on which hummingbird feeders are hung.

     

Bird baths can become very popular. Eastern bluebirds and European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) very much enjoy two of mine in the front yard.

 

House finches, American robins, cedar waxwings, Carolina chickadees and gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) tend to like my backyard baths. And then they appreciate branches and nest boxes as platforms to shake out those water-laden feathers. Birding friend Ylva commented that the vigorous fluttering of this catbird would be worthy of an audition for the musical Cats!

Even if you don’t have a yard, you can put out shallow dishes or plant pot saucers in your outdoor space (steps or patio) as a place for birds to drink and cool off. If you have a balcony, it might take a while for birds to find your water source, but if you stay inside, you may see them come to sip and splash.

If you are luckily mobile, I encourage you to take some outings near waterways. The wildlife and plant diversity can be wonderful and entertaining. And in the meantime, we can all take action to conserve and preserve water:

Emerging again in 2022 – part 2

1 Red-shouldered hawk P1132421© Maria de Bruyn resWhen facing unpleasant challenges, it’s helpful to have an interest to help put them mentally aside while you find enjoyment doing something else. Observing and connecting with wildlife and plant life does that for me. For at least a while, I can think, “I don’t give a shit,” and instead focus on what’s going on immediately around me, like the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) above actually giving a shit. 😊

Observing nature also has the added advantage of providing a way to keep learning and being able to appreciate wonders around me that I might otherwise never notice. A number of people have also told me that they enjoy my sharing some of those “discoveries.”

1A white-throated sparrow PC141120© Maria de Bruyn res

White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

One thing I discovered this year was that I shouldn’t expect pine siskins to come down here to Orange County, NC, every year in winter. I’ve had them visiting during this season many years but so far not one has appeared in my yard. So I’ll share a photo of one from last year; a lovely bird with a scientific name that appeals to me: Spinus pinus.

2 pine siskin P1162664 © Maria de Bruyn res

3 downy woodpecker P8207522© Maria de Bruyn resIt’s my good fortune to live in a home with sizeable front and backyards where I can entice birds to spend time. Nest boxes border the yards and nesting gourds hang on the front porch, so that attracts pairs who raise young ones here in the spring. They also use these nesting sites to spend the night during cold autumn and winter nights. Downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) seem especially fond of one nest box next to the driveway.

There are varied types of feeders hanging on poles, offering sunflower and other seeds, mixed fruit and nuts, dried mealworms and home-made suet. This arrangement also attracts my avian friends, like the common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) with its iridescent plumage.

4 common grackle P1175003 © Maria de Bruyn res

5 Carolina wren P1132867 © Maria de Bruyn resSince converting much of my front yard lawn into flower gardens (and I’m working on that in the back, although there I’ve planted more flowering and berry-bearing trees), the insect population has increased. That has helped the pollination of my flowers and provided the resident birds with meals, like one of the 6 or so Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) who occupy specific niches. One pair hangs out near a water-filled tub; another pair hangs out near a brush pile out back and the third pair hops in and out of a brush pile in the front yard.

The wrens change up their diet a bit in winter since being purely insectivorous is difficult then. For example, one of my yard-banded wrens enjoys a bit of suet from time to time. He also likes mealworms, as do the titmice (Baeolophus bicolor).

6 Carolina wren IMG_8993© Maria de Bruyn res

7 Tufted titmouse snow IMG_9006 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

8 Tufted titmouse P1132809© Maria de Bruyn res

9 American goldfinch P1143301 © Maria de Bruyn res

Occasionally, an American goldfinch pair (Spinus tristis) will visit but I’ve been seeing them more often on walks. They like seeds a lot and have eaten many of the grass seeds in my yard already. They search the mosses for tidbits, too.

10 cedar waxwing PC271628© Maria de Bruyn resThe cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are picky eaters. The American robins in my yard ate a lot of the juniper berries they prefer and there weren’t many other berries around (as was the case at the local arboretum). At my house, they’ve mostly been using the small ponds to drink and bathe.

The most numerous species at my yard is the Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). At times, I have up to 18-20 of them flying to the tray feeders for seeds. The pokeweed berries are long gone now.

11 Northern cardinal PA074424 © Maria de Bruyn res

There are two pairs of Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in the yard; at first, they didn’t like having to share space but now they all come to the mealworm feeder at the same time.

12 Eastern bluebird PB212516 © Maria de Bruyn res

13 yellow-rumped warbler PA017988© Maria de BruynIn past years, the visiting yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) have lived peacefully with one another. This year, however, I have two birds who seem to be quite incensed when they spy each other. If one is at a feeder, the other zooms in to chase it off and often they flutter upward in a tangle with wings spread. So far, I’ve always been a couple seconds too late to capture the mid-air tussle – it is one of my goals for yard birding this year.

15 yellow-rumped warbler P9093954© Maria de Bruyn

I do enjoy their visits as I find them quite beautiful birds. And they spend a lot of time at the feeders, even when it is raining. Some people here call them myrtle warblers, but I prefer the term yellow-rumped as it is quite accurately descriptive. I loathe the slang term “butter butt” that lots of people here use. Since these warblers are present in many of the nature reserves where I walk, I unfortunately end up hearing the term from time to time. Not sure why it irritates me so much.

16 yellow-rumped warbler PA017970 © Maria de Bruyn

17 yellow-rumped warbler PA018009© Maria de Bruyn

18 pine warbler IMG_9129© Maria de Bruyn resThe pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) in my yard are quite tolerant and polite.

They will share a feeder happily and sometimes also just wait their turn until the feeding area is less crowded.

Less colorful but also a pleasure to see are the female house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus). They seem to come to the feeders less often than their male counterparts.

20 house finch PC101023© Maria de Bruyn res

The Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) are a delight to see, even if they seem to be in almost constant motion.

21 Carolina chickadee PC230399© Maria de Bruyn res

23 Carolina chickadee PC088891© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The other bird who also rarely sits still is the lovely little ruby-crowned kinglet (Corthylio calendula). A few years back, I had one that came several winters in a row and who had apparently come to trust me as he would fly over when I brought out fresh suet and even sit on the feeder while I was holding it. He may have attained his natural lifespan (4-6 years) and perhaps it is one of his offspring who now comes.

24 Ruby-crowned kinglet PA158187 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

27 golden-crowned kinglet PC090095 © Maria de BruynI hadn’t had golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) in my yard much before this year; now I have at least one living here but s/he never comes to the feeders. Because this bird stays very high and I haven’t had access to my long camera lens for some time, it’s been difficult to get photos at home. I’ve had somewhat more success on walks.

25 golden-crowned kinglet PC090158 © Maria de Bruyn res

26 golden-crowned kinglet PC090099 © Maria de Bruyn res

28 golden-crowned kinglet PC061957© Maria de Bruyn res2 (2)

29 red-shouldered hawk P1071059 © Maria de Bruyn res

Some of my more spectacular yard birds have been the neighborhood red-shouldered hawks. When they fly in, the other birds don’t seem bothered.

These hawks have targeted the amphibians and reptiles (successfully) near the small ponds; they also look for small mammals. While I’ve seen them catch frogs, I haven’t seen them catch birds or mammals.

The young ones are not as reddish as the adults.

30 red-shouldered hawk PB180215© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

I also enjoy seeing these gorgeous raptors on my visits to nature reserves. Some have what seems to me like a sweet expression (like this one below).

31 red-shouldered hawk PC204514 © Maria de Bruyn res

Finally, there is one bird that does make the other birds flee the feeders to seek shelter in bushes, shrubs, woodpiles, etc. That is the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii). A sharp-shinned hawk visits occasionally, but it is the Cooper’s who comes by regularly. S/he is not shy; about a week ago, the bird flew onto the front porch where it had chased a female cardinal into the living room window. The cardinal flapped on a chair as the hawk peered at her. I banged on the window and ran outside to rescue her. I know the hawk has to eat as well, but I didn’t want to see the dismemberment of this poor bird. I put her in a box in a corner of the porch and she fortunately recovered.

32 Cooper's hawk P1081087 © Maria de Bruyn res

Feathers in the yard and under feeders have shown that the Cooper’s has had successful hunts, so it is doing well.

33 Cooper's hawk P1081094 © Maria de Bruyn res

Next up – my water-loving mammalian friends. Have a nice weekend!

Winter wonderland – the smaller and medium-sized birds

Oddly, during our January snowstorm, the brown-headed and white-breasted nuthatches did not visit my bird feeders – that was unexpected as they really do like the sunflower and other seeds, as well as the home-made suet. Other smaller birds did appear, however, and they filled up on the provided food since finding insects was almost impossible during those days.

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) were fans of the dried meal worms and at one point, I put out an extra tray of these treats on the dry front porch. Other birds are more reluctant to come onto the porch so they had a nice quiet feeding area, although they also spent time perched on the snowy bushes and feeders.

  

  

 

The Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) worked their way in between the other birds to reach the feeders, sometimes waiting patiently on a feeder pole for their turn.

The ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula), of which I have two visiting the feeders, were happy with the home-made suet. Occasionally, I smeared a bit of suet on dried flower stalks and they would perch there to snag a bite to eat. Other times, they just waited on a twig until the yellow-rumped warblers had vacated the area so they could eat in peace.

    

While the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is slightly larger, they are like the small birds in being somewhat hesitant to approach feeders if there is a crowd. Once on a feeder, they will feed and then hang on to take a look around.

  

The dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), who have an understated quiet beauty, were looking for meal worms.

    

The similarly colored tufted titmouse (Baeoloophus bicolor) often zoomed in on its target of the fruit and nut feeder without taking time to perch first.

The American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) didn’t come round very much, only snacking on some sunflower seeds. Since they often feed on the crepe myrtle tree seeds, they were likely finding enough food there.

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) came in spurts of activity. They always look rather bedraggled when they get wet with snow or rain and perhaps prefer to stay drier under branches until there is a break in the falling moisture. Even wet, though, they are still attractive to me.

The smaller/medium bird group was rounded off by the house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus). The females were looking especially nice. The finches never have spats with anyone and are among the most peaceful feeder birds. Not everyone was like that, however, and the next blog looks at the rowdy ones.

 

 

“Nuts” for nuts!

A primary source of nutrition for many birds is nuts.This high-calorie food provides them with dietary fat, which can be especially welcome during the colder months. As nuts ripen, you can see the birds flying by, carrying acorns and beechnuts, as well as seeds of various kinds. Some birds are especially suited to eating nuts with their thicker, cone-shaped bills, which are shaped to help them crack open pods and seed cases. Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), sparrows, grosbeaks, finches and woodpeckers are seed and nut lovers.

I had been lax in providing my yard birds with these culinary treats except for sunflower seeds and the seed pods in my yard trees. So one day early last year, I purchased a nut and seed holder and proceeded to give them peanuts, which are not actually nuts but the seed of a legume (Arachis hypogaea). This makes no difference to the birds like the Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) of course.

I first tried peanuts in the shell and an occasional blue jay and tufted titmouse would stop by. However, they didn’t seem to want to put much time into removing the nuts from the shells and I didn’t really want the shells littering the ground either.

Then in the spring I put out some shelled peanuts from a container I’d bought for my own consumption and the avian visitors were delighted. Reading about peanut feeding informed me that I should avoid giving salted peanuts. I couldn’t readily find unsalted ones at the grocery store, so I began removing the salt, either by shaking the nuts in a paper bag or by washing off the salt.

   

Northern cardinal                                            Brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla)

Before they left for the summer, the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) and ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) tried the peanuts, too. Sometimes I wondered if the kinglet was also not looking for insects around the peanut feeder.

   

My choice to provide nuts was a big hit; I was rewarded with a procession of individuals of varied species who came by to quickly gulp or carry off a tasty nut. Some are pictured below – they came at different times of the day.

 

White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)     Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)

    

Tufted titmouse                                                       Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

   

Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)      Northern cardinal

 

Gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)        Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

       

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)         Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

The common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) will sometimes break down the nuts (and are quite messy about it, compared to the chickadees and titmice), but they will also swallow the treats whole.

  

Others are intent on breaking the peanuts into smaller pieces that are easier to get down; this seems especially true for the smaller birds like the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) below. Here we also see Riley, my banded Carolina wren, enjoying a treat.

   

The blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) often gulp down some nuts quickly and then try to carry off several nuts at a time.

One good thing about the peanuts is that thankfully the starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) don’t appear fond of them (they gulp down the dried mealworms, however, as if that food is going out of style). One will occasionally sample a nut, but they never seem to want a second.

As time passed, I realized that the peanut feeding strategy was rewarding me with frequent avian visitors, but was also rather costly. In the autumn, I began putting out a less expensive fruit and nut mix. This has also proved very popular and various species of birds are willing to share space at the feeders. The chickadees especially will feed alongside others, like the house finches and Northern cardinal below.

Species that usually forage on the ground, like the white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), also make occasional forays to the nut feeder.

When the nut feeders are empty, it’s not uncommon to see birds sitting atop them; when they see me, some will call out, as if saying, “Hey, fill up that feeder, please!” And I usually accommodate them, especially when it is very cold, as has been the case the first days of 2018 – we have had a record-breaking stretch of days in which the temperature did not rise above freezing, an unusual occurrence for our southern state of North Carolina.

 

Yellow-rumped warbler  (Setophaga coronata)  House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

The nut feeders have also been very attractive to the resident Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), one of whom has been VERY persistent in devising ways to get onto the feeders. Each time s/he succeeds, I change the position of the feeders or stumps and branches nearby. Currently, that clever rodent hasn’t been able to get up there. In compensation, I occasionally throw a handful of nuts on the ground.

             

So, not all the birds are “nuts” for nuts, but plenty of species think they’re mighty fine! They are definitely a worthwhile addition to the birders’ array of feeder offerings.

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis)