Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hummingbird Explosion

Do you have a hummingbird feeder in your yard? Then you have noticed the hummingbird explosion that just happened. The explosion happened at my feeders last week.

The hummingbirds in this part of the country are Ruby-throated hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are fascinating because they are so unique and everyone loves to watch these tiny birds as they effortlessly hover and fly backwards with wings that beat over 50 times per second.

About this time every year the 2 or 3 hummingbirds that have been visiting your feeder just exploded into many more. We have counted as many as 20 hummingbirds at one time either on or hovering for a spot on one of our two feeders in late July or early August.

The extra hummers are the new babies that are just now out on their own. They don’t look like babies because hummingbird babies are actually bigger than their mothers by the time they leave the nest (the mothers have lost weight trying to raise a couple of hungry kids on their own since male hummers play no part in feeding the youngsters like bluebird fathers do). Juvenile males don’t usually get the iridescent red throat feathers until next spring so all of the extra hummingbirds look like the females. At our 2 feeders one mature male has claimed one feeder all for himself while 15-20 female and juvenile hummers share the other one.

By the way, hummingbirds don’t just live on the sugar in flower nectar or from our feeders…they eat lots of insects and spiders for the protein that they need. The best formula for your feeder is 1 part white cane sugar per 4 parts water. This formula approximates the 21% sugar content of most nectar. Make it sweeter and you will get more bees and ants. And remember to clean and refill the feeders about every 3 days or the formula will spoil in warm weather.

Last year my wife was able to get a hummingbird to land on her finger and eat sugar water out of her hand. But it took 4 hours of patience (Nancy’s, not mine) and I didn’t get a picture because I fell asleep on the couch waiting for the event to unfold.

Usually by about early October all the Ruby-throated hummingbirds are gone around here. Actually the males leave first, as early as August. The juveniles and females leave later. Most Ruby-throated hummingbirds winter in Central America and return to this part of Tennessee in late March or early April. Males arrive first and females a few weeks later. And no, they don’t migrate on the backs of geese as some old myth suggests. The little hummingbirds make the flight by themselves, losing as much as half their body weight on the trip. Some fly as far as 500 miles in 20 hours at one time without stopping, across the Gulf of Mexico. Others follow the coast through Texas and Mexico.

Don’t worry about leaving your hummingbird feeders up too long. The birds know when to migrate by the length of daylight…they won’t stay too long. Ruby-throated hummingbirds migrating from further north or other hummingbird species migrating through may use your feeders. Rufous Hummingbirds sometimes migrate through here as well as 3 other species.

Hummingbirds sometimes get in a garage and have trouble getting out because they tend to fly up to look for an opening. Hang a feeder at the door opening and the bird may come down to refuel and then head out instead of in. Supposedly, you can minimize the chances of getting a hummingbird in your garage by painting the door release handles black instead of red since bright colors (like flowers) are what attracts the little guys.

Keep those feeders full and clean because the hummingbird population explosion is happening now. I hope you enjoy watching our smallest bird as much as I do.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Tale of Two Snakes

Everything is not always what you think it is at first. Take the recent two occurrences in my neighborhood for instance.

A couple of weeks ago my neighbor Joe called. He and Saundra had a snake caught in some netting in their yard and they thought that it might be a copperhead. They didn’t want to kill the snake but they didn’t want to get too friendly if it was venomous.

With one look I knew it wasn’t a copperhead and I knew it wasn’t venomous because the only two venomous snakes we have around here are copperheads and timber rattlesnakes and it wasn’t either of those. My guess was that it was an Eastern hog-nosed snake but since I had only ever seen one once before in my life I had to go home and get a couple of snake books to be sure. With a closer look we positively identified it as a hog-nosed snake…a beautiful pattern and a cute little turned-up nose. I had been looking for one. I knew they lived around here especially since we have loads of toads and hog-nosed snakes are toad and frog specialists.

I held the snake by its head and tail while Saundra very carefully cut away the fine nylon netting that the snake had entangled itself in. Hog-nosed snakes are known to act very aggressively by striking and hissing and even flattening their head like a cobra. In fact, my friend Gary found another one few days later that did just that. According to the books, they always strike with their mouth closed…supposedly they never bite. Nevertheless, I didn’t test the “never bites” theory because even non-venomous snakes have lots of needle sharp teeth. If aggressive acting doesn’t work against a threat, hog-nosed snakes roll over and play dead. This 2 foot long guy was probably a little tired from being tangled up for a day so he was pretty calm. He just breathed a sigh of relief and headed off to find a toad.

The second snake tale happened a day later. My neighbor Bob knocked on the front door with a plastic bucket and a little 10 inch snake that he found in his front yard. He thought that it might be a rattlesnake because the brown patterned snake had a bright yellow tail that it vibrated rapidly just like a rattlesnake would. However, even new born rattlesnakes have a little button on the end of their tail which is the first segment of their rattle, not a straight tapered yellow tail.

This snake was a baby copperhead. The bright yellow tail is an identifying trait of baby copperheads. As they grow and shed their skin they will lose the yellow on their tail. But, even babies have venom and can bite. After some pictures and some neighborhood show and tell, Bob was going to release the copperhead back in the woods.

So what is the moral of this tale? The moral is that not every snake you see is a copperhead or a rattlesnake. Many people kill snakes that they think are copperheads when in most cases they are probably, milk snakes, garter snakes, hog-nosed snakes, kingsnakes, watersnakes, etc. I could go on and on naming beneficial harmless snakes. I know of two instances locally where even blacksnakes were killed thinking they were copperheads. Also, just for the record, in Tennessee, every snake, even venomous ones are protected by law from killing or even capturing.

So before you slice that snake in two think about all the insects, mice, frogs and toads that they keep in check without poisons and chemicals. It is amazing what nature will take care of if we just get out of the way and let it do its thing.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Finding a Fox

Several people have asked me how I decide what nature subject to write about. It’s easy! I write an article about whatever I have a good picture of. Sometimes getting a picture is difficult, especially if the animal is mainly nocturnal, or very wary.

Foxes have been on my short list for a while now. But they have always been too far away or moving too fast, or seen after dark.

But a couple of weeks ago I received an email from Sue L. who said that her neighbor had a den of red fox pups in their backyard that were well within camera range. Carolyn and Gunny (the neighbors with the foxes) agreed to let me try to get a picture for a future article. Even better, their friend, Don Hepburn, with a better camera than mine, already had some great shots of the pups. So that is how I finally was able to get a picture and write an article about foxes in Fairfield Glade. Thanks to everyone involved.

There are actually 2 types of foxes in this area…red fox and gray fox. I have seen both kinds frequently so I think both are pretty common in this area. Both are similar in size and eating habits. Both types of foxes are around 7-14 pounds and both eat rabbits, other rodents, birds, eggs, insects, berries and fruit. The major difference is that gray foxes can climb trees. They have strong curved claws that allow them to easily climb trees to escape predators and catch prey. Coyotes are probably most fox’s main natural predator.

Red foxes, (in the picture above) like the ones in Carolyn and Gunny’s backyard, can be identified by their orange-red coats, black feet, and white tipped tails. There is a gray phase of the red fox called a Silver fox, but it still has a white tipped tail and black feet.

Grey foxes (like the one at left), on the other hand, are grizzled grey above with a white throat and rusty red sides. Gray foxes have a black tip to the tail. The reddish color on the sides of the gray fox causes them to sometimes be misidentified as a red fox, but the color on the tip of the tail is usually the way to tell a red fox from a gray fox. The grey fox in the picture crossed the road in front of me a few days ago with three pups behind her. One of the pups climbed 10 feet up a tree and then back down while I watched.

Since most of us don’t raise chickens in Fairfield Glade red foxes don’t usually get into trouble around here. As you may know, red foxes have a reputation for liking chickens. They also like Insects so they should be loving the cicada boom this spring. Both types of foxes eat fruit. Near where I used to live in Texas there was an old abandoned peach orchard. In the fall I would find fox scat full of peach seeds. I guess they just ate them whole. Thankfully, (from the fox’s viewpoint) they were small peaches with small seeds.

A gray fox comes around my house once in a while and digs up grubs in the mulch. But I don’t mind. In fact, I always kind of like environmentally friendly insect control over the chemical kind. I did get up at 2am one night and sit by an open window to try to get Mr. Fox’s picture, but his night vision was better than mine and when I raised the camera he disappeared into the night.

As you drive around here at night keep you eyes open for a fox crossing a road in front of you; I have seen several this way. Sometimes you might even see one at dusk or dawn. If you see a fox try to determine if it is a red fox or a gray fox since you now know how to tell the difference.