“That was the thing about Levantin: he loved the birds, but he really loved the places they brought him. When you spend your career in the confines of a gray suit, the pipits at dawn above timberline are even more wondrous.”
― Mark Obmascik, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession
Hooded Merganser Males
On a winter’s day, a quiet canal on Fowl River summons a flock of hooded mergansers. Heed the summons from daily toil, exchanging the “gray suit” for jeans and comfortable shoes, and enjoy the serenity and beauty of the natural world.
Learn more about the hooded merganser at All About Birds and then grab the binoculars and camera and go! Take plenty of pictures, identifying them later or not….. Just relax and enjoy.
“This being the only living world we are ever likely to know, let us join to make the most of it. ” — Edward O. Wilson
There are ‘many, varied, and unusual’ visitors at feeders, making identification sometimes challenging. This photogenic visitor is probably a house finch. However, it is often confused with a purple finch. Try your hand at identification by visiting All About Birds.
“The term ecology comes from the Greek word oikos, and means ‘the household.’ Ecological responsibility, then, begins at home and expands to fill the entire planet. ” — Jeremy Rifkin
“There is no waste in functioning natural ecosystems. All organisms, dead or alive, are potential sources of food for other organisms. A caterpillar eats a leaf; a robin eats the caterpillar; a hawk eats the robin. When the plant, caterpillar, robin, and hawk die, they are in turn consumed by decomposers. “— G. Tyler Miller, Jr.
A relative of the chickadee, the tufted titmouse is a common visitor to bird feeders. This little cutie pie is holding a sunflower seed between its feet in order to crack the shell and extract the seed. It may consume its prize or hide the morsel for a later treat. Learn more about the tufted titmouse at the Cornell Lab website, All About Birds.
“Birds … are sensitive indicators of the environment, a sort of “ecological litmus paper,” … The observation and recording of bird populations over time lead inevitably to environmental awareness and can signal impending changes.” — Roger Tory Peterson
These tiny little cuties, year round residents and common feeder visitors, delight in eating black-oil sunflower seeds. Quickly making seed selections, they depart to the security of a branch to eat their treats. Feeder placement near trees and shrubbery will help attract these and other vulnerable species . The Carolina chickadee diet is not limited to seeds. The petite cavity nesters also consume insects and spiders. Listen to their call and learn more about Carolina Chickadees by clicking here.
“All Nature is linked together by invisible bonds and every organic creature, however low, however feeble, however dependent, is necessary to the well-being of some other among the myriad forms of life.” (1864)
— George Perkins Marsh
American goldfinches flash mob feeders to devour black-oil sunflower seed and nyjer (thistle.) These vegetarian winter visitors to Mobile backyards are attracted to a variety of feeders including tubes, platforms, and hoppers. Keep feeders clean as well as the ground under the feeders. Compare feeders to grocery carts handles. Multiple users transmit multiple germs! Learn more about feeders by clicking here.
Learn more about the goldfinch by clicking here.
“Birds are indicators of the environment. If they are in trouble, we know we’ll soon be in trouble.” Roger Tory Peterson
While one may want to call this feeder friend, a red-headed woodpecker, that name is already taken. The angle of the camera shot does not reveal it’s actual name, red-bellied woodpecker. Red-bellied woodpeckers can be attracted to feeders by suet, peanuts, and as in this feeder example, black-oil sunflower seed. A year round resident and cavity nester, this predator uses its sticky tongue to extract prey from bark crevices. Learn more about this colorful avian at All About Birds, hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Raccoon raiding bird feeder
This little hairy acrobat, as well as squirrels, are frequent visitors to backyard feeders. Baffles are often recommended as deterrents and sometimes work. While Wild Bird Unlimited offers a cleverly designed feeder to deter the little raiders, it is a little pricey. However, it does come with a lifetime warranty. For those who have seen enough acrobatics, this feeder may be of use. Click here to investigate.
“Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man.” Stuart Udall
Monarch female extracts nectar from a tropical milkweed. The female can be identified by the thick black lines on either side of the abdomen.
Most insects, including monarchs, go through a four stage life cycle. The monarch female deposits eggs on milkweed host plants and upon hatching, the larvae or caterpillars feed upon the leaves of the milkweed for about five days. Unlike most caterpillars, monarch caterpillars have few problems with predation. Toxins in the milkweed are transferred to the caterpillar and remain in the monarch’s system throughout its lifecycle. Therefore, birds and other predators avoid the monarch. Viceroy butterflies, as a means of avoiding predation, mimic the coloration of the adult monarch.
Learn more about milkweed by clicking here.
Monarch caterpillar munches on the leaves of a tropical milkweed.
Caterpillars go through five molts or instars in their development. The colorful caterpillar pictured, is in the fifth instar and will soon crawl as much as thirty feet away from the host plant. Finding a suitable object on which to attach, the quick little crawler will transform into a beautiful jewel-like chrysalis.
A monarch chrysalis hangs from a railing.
This darkened chrysalis reveals the transformation process. When the ten day process is nearly completed, the new adult can be seen through the transparent chrysalis.
Allowing its wings to dry, the newly emerged adult hangs near the tiny compartment that represents the third stage of its life. Learn more about the life cycle of these remarkable monarchs by clicking here.
“The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery not over nature but of ourselves.” Rachel Carson
Monarch on tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica
According to a news article published in Cottage Life magazine in 2017, Jennifer Tremeer of the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory attributes the drastic decline in the monarch butterfly population to the planting of genetically modified crops resistant to herbicides, habitat loss, and severe weather. This pollinator population, tracked by scientists since 1994, teeters on the verge of extinction. While some may see the loss of one species as a triviality, the reality is this species is representative of all pollinator species that may face the same fate. The US Fish and Wildlife Service reminds us that these diminutive creatures pollinate 75% of the food we consume, including chocolate and coffee! Well, that’s certainly worth one’s attention!
Remember John Muir’s observation, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Individual efforts to help the monarch can be accomplished through avoiding the use of pesticides, planting milkweed plants, found at local garden centers; and by maintaining wild milkweed varieties in the landscape. Milkweed serves as the host plant for monarch caterpillar larvae as well as a nectar source for adult monarchs. Learn more about this fall visitor by clicking here.
Host Plants in the Landscape
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” John Muir
The next step in attracting pollinators is planting or maintaining the presence of host plants. These are the plants, pollinators such as butterflies and moths seek, when depositing eggs. Upon hatching from the egg attached to a leaf, the caterpillar consumes the egg case and proceeds to a readily available source of food, the leaves of the host plant. Its mother flies from plant to plant, using the sensors located in her feet to “taste” leaves to find the correct plant for her offspring.
A variety of host plants in the local landscape will attract a variety of pollinators. Many host plants are actually considered weeds by most people. Resisting the impulse to remove all the wild spaces in the landscape will help pollinators and other wild creatures. Intend to “untend.”
A Gulf Fritillary caterpillar crawls on its host plant, a native passion vine, Passiflora lutea.
Common in moist, wooded areas, this passion vine grows profusely, climbing trees and fences. Support the Gulf Fritillary by allowing this host plant to remain in the landscape. It is also the host plant for the Zebra Longwing butterfly. Learn more about Passiflora lutea at the USDA website. Click here to access the site.
Adult Gulf Fritillary on a nectar plant, the zinnia
The Alabama Butterfly Atlas website is a good source of pictures of the host plant, Passiflora lutea, as well as this gorgeous coastal butterfly. Click here to access the site.
A Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar rests on a Sassafras leaf.
Native trees, including Sassafras, Red Bay, and Swamp Bay are host plants, suffering from Laurel wilt. This disease is caused by a fungus transmitted by an invasive red bay ambrosia beetle. Laurel wilt threatens the Spicebush swallowtail and other pollinators. Learn more about controlling this disease at the Alabama forestry commission website . Click here to access the site.
Adult Spicebush swallowtail on a nectar plant, commonly called butterfly bush, scientific name, Buddleia davidii
The University of Florida has extensive information concerning the four stages of the Spicebush’s lifecycle. Click here to access the site.
Perennials for Pollinators
“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Mexican Bush Sage ( Salvia leucantha)
A very cost effective and efficient way of adding pollinator plants to the landscape is by planting perennials. Perennials are plants that live more than one year. While many die back in the winter, the plants will return, providing another year of nectar for pollinators and grand displays of color. Mexican bush sage, thrives in full sun and is an easy plant to propagate, just stick a cutting into potting soil.
Fire Spike or Cardinal Spear (Odontonema strictum) is a favorite for hummingbirds as well as butterflies. Preferring moist, well drained soil, this perennial can be propagated easily and shared with friends. It does well in full sun or partial shade. Cardinal spears and Mexican bush sage are winners for gardeners and pollinators! Learn about these pollinator plants and many others by clicking here.
A long-tailed skipper, ready to unfurl its proboscis, rests on the tubular flowers of a Mexican bush sage. Learn more about this little erratic little flyer by clicking here.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds love cardinal spears. The lack of red feathers on this fall visitor indicates it may be a female or an immature male. Mature males fly south in mid-summer, while mature females and immature hummers wait until late summer and fall. Learn more about ruby-throats by clicking here.