Wednesday, October 1, 2014

When Should I Take Down My Hummingbird Feeders?

When should I take my hummingbird feeders down? That question always pops up in the early fall when ‘swarms’ of hummers are seen at feeders. And, my answer is always that depends.

Hummingbirds are migratory, tropical birds. As the ice sheets retreated during the last ice age, hummingbirds expanded their ranges northward in search of food and nesting places. Some of our songbirds adapted completely by becoming vegetarians in winter and therefore do not migrate. Hummingbirds are carnivores (insect eaters) and use nectar as fuel for their insect gathering activities.

But the abundance of insects and nectar aren't the only things that affect the hummers need to migrate. Generally hummingbirds migrate in response to hormonal changes that are triggered by the length of daylight. And, when you think about it, the length of daylight affects the blooms of plants and the abundance or lack thereof of insects.

Nothing you do will force these little guys to fly south! If you remove your feeder, birds will just feed elsewhere, but may not bother to return to your yard the next year. I recommend continuing to maintain feeders until freezing becomes a problem.

By mid-September, essentially all of the Ruby-throated at our feeders are migrating through from farther north and are not the ones that we have seen at our feeders during the summer. That is why you see so many at feeders during the fall. And the number migrating south may be twice that of the northward trip, since it includes all immature birds that hatched during the summer, as well as surviving adults.

You've always heard that things are bigger in Texas. Well, if you want to see bigger in the hummingbird world, you must add to your bucket list the Hummingbird Festival in Rockport, TX. You can find information here: This is the staging area where all hummers going south stop to ‘tank up’ on fuel in order to cross the gulf. It begins around the first weeks of September when northern and eastern hummers start showing up along the Texas Gulf Coast. For several weeks hummers in hundreds of thousands congregate here and begin a feeding frenzy. 

This area has good cover (live oak trees) and a natural population of Turk’s Cap.
Goose Island Oak, Rockport Texas

Pink Turk's Cap

So when do you take down your feeders? It depends. Rubicon Wild Bird store in Flint, TX south of Tyler had a Ruby-throated stay until January 2013 and then one until November 2013 and a Rufous as late as December 30, 2013. So keep those feeders up until you are absolutely sure there are no more hummers or better yet when temperatures reach freezing. And, remember NO RED FOOD COLORING!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


So, I like Catalpa trees. . .probably the only person that does. When we were kids, we used the pods for sword fights; as an adult I love the orchid-like flower.

I walk under a big Catalpa every morning on my way to the garden or compost pile. Coming in to the house one morning last week, I felt something on my back and after dancing around for 5 minutes discovered about 20 caterpillars on my back and in my hair. Yipes! I've got worms - Catalpa worms!

The Catalpa caterpillar is the larva form of the Hawk or Catalpa Sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpa), a gray nondescript moth.

What interests me is that the moth and the tree have coexisted for thousands of years and depend on each other. The tree is the only tree that the caterpillar eats. In fact the caterpillars can completely defoliate a tree 3-4 times during a summer yet the tree survives and most always come back looking healthy. No other tree can withstand this devastation.

The catalpa sphinx overwinters as a pupa in the soil under the tree on which it has eaten. In spring, pupae work their way to the surface of the soil and moths begin to emerge shortly after the Catalpa tree has leafed out.

And, like anything else, someone has found a way to make a buck selling the caterpillars. Fisherpersons (is that a word?) sometimes propagate the trees just to harvest the caterpillars. They are considered excellent catfish bait – the caterpillars not the fisherpersons. A caterpillar can be divided into 3-4 pieces of bait and because of the caterpillar’s skin is tough it isn't easily taken off the hook by the fish. The caterpillars can even be frozen and thawed and used. . the catfish are none the wiser. Or, the caterpillar can be “pickled” with corn syrup and stored in a jar in the refrigerator to be used as bait. I even found a guy selling a special container in which to freeze your caterpillars.

Another positive is that the frass (poop) fertilizes the tree and anything else under the tree. . .Yipes! I probably had caterpillar poop in my hair.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

It Is All About Attraction

Gardeners are delighted to see "nature" visiting their gardens. If you want to invite more of these visitors to yours, try adding their favorite plants. As with all beneficial species, it is best to choose plants that are native or well adapted to our area.

Often gardeners lament for the lack of butterflies in their gardens. For butterflies, it is important to choose both larval host plants and nectar plants. The larval host plant is the plant a species prefer to lay their eggs on; the nectar plant is a food source. Most all species of butterflies prefer native plants on which to lay their eggs. Try: 
Question Mark

Cedar Elm


Purple Passionvine

Gulf Fritillary





For nectar, plant Coneflowers, Turk’s Cap and Lantana. 

Red Turk's Cap


Native plants to our area that provide both a host and nectar source are Flame Acanthus and Mexican Plum.

Flame Acanthus (deer do not eat this plant)

 Mexican Plum - a good alternative to Bradford Pear

The added bonus is that many plants, such as Flame Acanthus, Butterfly Weed and Lantana, that attract butterflies also attract hummingbirds. A two-fer if you will.

Other perennials to try are Obedient Plant (it is not obedient as my friend, Cecil, would say), Autumn Sage, Coral Honeysuckle and Red Yucca.

Obedient Plant
Autumn Sage

Red Yucca

Coral Honeysuckle

But why do butterflies and hummingbirds prefer native plants to other blooming non-natives? Native plants are part of an ecosystem of other plants that support birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. These plants and animals have lived together in communities for ages and they have adapted to live in balance. Native plants exist naturally in the area. 

So think twice when making a purchase of a plant that naturally grows in another part of the world. Chances are the native critters of your backyard won't like it. Kinda like me and sushi.

Garden on!

Thursday, May 29, 2014


The following is a true story – only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. I swear it is true on my mother’s grave (although my mother is still alive and kicking). The moral to the story is be careful what you buy, where you buy it and check it when you get home.

My sister and I
Sissy, my sister in Oklahoma, had seen a sale on potting soil at a big chain drugstore, whose name begins with a “W”, that you find on most every corner. She bought several bags of potting soil, threw them in her “beemer’s” back seat and proceeded to continue her shopathon. Sissy is not practicing to be a Recessionista. I digress.

After buying groceries and eating lunch at the local bistro, my sister drove back home. Upon arrival she hauled the bags of potting soil from the back seat of her car, through the garage to the back porch and began potting her Petunias, Pelargoniums and Periwinkles. All seemed to be going well and she was making good time as she shoveled out soil with her little garden trowel. Many pots later, she looked into the plastic sack as she got another trowel-full of soil and lo and behold there was  the mother of all Copperhead snakes (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix).

The Southern Copperhead reaches an adult length of 24 to 26 inches. They have a pale brown to light tan body, often with a pinkish tint. Their yellow eyes have elliptical or cat-like pupils. Its body, covered with rough scales, is patterned with dark, hour glass-shaped cross bands, wider at their base and narrow across the back. Copperheads have heat-sensing "pits" located between the eyes and nostrils, hence the name "pit viper". Familiarize yourself with this snake because you do not want to get close enough to see these “pits.” The Copperhead is found in the eastern United States to the central and southern states, and in the eastern third of Texas. Southern Copperheads prefer places to hide that include leaf litter, logs and branches.  

The Copperhead’s diet consists of baby cottontails, swamp rabbits, rats, mice, birds, snakes, lizards, baby turtles, frogs, toads, and insects, especially grasshoppers and cicadas. So, there is one positive of having this creature in your garden, maybe. They are preyed on by other snakes and birds of prey. These snakes reach sexual maturity within two to three years. Mating season is in the spring (February to early May), shortly after leaving winter dens; and fall (August to October) with fertilization delayed until following spring. Being a pit viper, Copperheads do not lay eggs. Instead the eggs are kept inside the female's body until the eggs are ready to "hatch." Incubation time is 105 to 110 days. The four to eight young, 7 to 10 inches (17 to 25 cm) long, weigh less than an ounce (28 g) at birth.

Although duller in color, they look much like adults with yellowish tail-tips. Females provide no parental care after birth (well duh!). One Copperhead was reported to have lived 23 years and 2 months in captivity, but in the wild, the average lifespan is probably 6 to 8 years. 

Southern Copperheads are active during daylight hours (diurnal) during early spring and late fall, at which time they will generally depend on the ability of their bodies to blend in with their environment to obtain prey and avoid enemies. They are nocturnal during the summer heat, actively hunting for prey during the cooler evening hours. Southern Copperheads often eat one single meal every three weeks-even during their most active months. These snakes sometimes nest with other snake species during hibernation. Lying motionless on a bed of dead leaves, this snake’s pale-brown and chestnut-colored body is all but invisible. These are venomous snakes, but they are slow-movers.

Whether adult or juvenile, the Copperhead’s bite is seldom fatal because of its short fangs (1.2 to 7.2 mm in length) and the small amount of venom that is released. The venom's most important function is to kill animals to be eaten. Defense is only a secondary function. If bitten, you should seek medical attention. That being said, you should take some safety precautions to keep you from harm. Don’t put your hands or feet anywhere until you can see exactly what is there. Never step over a log without first seeing what is on the other side. If you must move a log, use a long stick or garden tool first creatures have wonderful protective coloration. Use a flashlight when moving about at night, even in your yard. Wear protective clothing if working in the woods or around brush. Freeze when snakes are known to be nearby until you know where they are. Allow the snake to retreat. If you must move, back slowly and carefully away from the snake.

Now the rest of the story. After much screaming and running around, my sister summoned her 26 year-old son for help. Now, Bubba doesn’t like to kill stuff so his idea of handling this calamity was to take the potting soil to the backyard and turn the snake loose. I told her she should have taken the bag with snake back to the drugstore and get her money back. She was afraid to do that for fear they would charge her for the snake. Did I ever tell you that I am the smart one in the family?

Monday, May 19, 2014

It's Luna!

I love late spring. It seems that the earth has awakened from a long slumber and new life begins to appear. Baby birds are being taught to fly. The bullfrog in the pond is calling for a mate until 2:00 a.m. And, the graceful Luna Moth clings to the kitchen window by the porch light.

The Luna moth (Actias luna), or moon moth, is one of the giant silk moths. Their pale green color and swallowtail-shaped wings, with eye spots, are unique and beautiful. Enjoy each on as they appear because the adults only live about 10 days. Having no mouth parts, they do not eat and must survive on stored energy reserves. Their sole job is to mate. The moths only fly at night and are attracted to large lights.

Luna moth females lay their eggs on several different kinds of tree leaves including our native Walnut, Sweetgum, Hickory, Persimmon and the flower moonflower. A healthy female can lay 100 – 300 eggs which she divides into small batches of 3 – 12 eggs per leaf.

After hatching, the caterpillars wander around before finally finding a particular plant to eat. The caterpillars, which are eating machines, go through five instars (a developmental stage of molting), and shed their skin as it gets too tight. When their skin is pinkish and tight, they are mature. At this time, they do something quite unique. They have a ‘gut dump’ where they get rid of fluid, food and feces and begin spinning a cocoon. Using their silk, which is very strong, they wrap leaves around themselves before entering the pupa stage. The pupa in the cocoon is very active. When disturbed, it will wiggle inside the cocoon and emit a noise. The moth will emerge in two weeks.


When they emerge, their wings are very small and they must enlarge them by pumping bodily fluids through them. During this time, their wings will be soft and they must climb somewhere safe to wait for their wings to harden before they can fly away. This process takes about 2 hours to complete. The Luna Moth typically has a wingspan of 3 to 4.5 inches.

Luna moths are considered common but due to their short life spans are rarely seen. Enjoy them while you can!

“Moths, and all sorts of ugly creatures," replied Estella, with a glance towards him, "hover about a lighted candle. Can the candle help it?” 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Thieves Among Us

Many folks where I live count birding as a hobby and spend more than a couple of bucks over the course of the winter feeding these lovely winged creatures. But, when you feed the birds you get squirrels. People have been rigging up all sorts of contraptions of wire, filament, metal baffles, whirligigs, and so on just to thwart those seed-stealing busy tails. Now, I like squirrels but I draw the line when they empty a recently filled bird feeder within 30 minutes.

I recently read an article that stated there is no feeder that a squirrel cannot get into. There are, however, squirrel resistant feeders. Reminds me of deer resistant plants – NOT!


Texas is home to the fox, gray, flying and rock squirrels. Ninety percent of the squirrels in east Texas are the gray squirrel (or as they are called in east Texas – limb chickens). Squirrels are very social creatures and have the ability to share knowledge among each other. Imagine if you will, the squirrels discussing who has the best seed and easiest feeder to break into. Baby squirrels learn how to get seed out of a feeder by observing its mother or grandmother.

Squirrels are agile creatures and can rotate their hind feet 180 degrees when descending a tree. With large eyes set on the sides of its head, the squirrel can see all around with little movement of its head. It can see above and below, an adaptation well suited for life in the trees where danger can come from the ground, through the air, or along a nearby limb. Squirrels also have a yellow filter in their eye lenses to help reduce glare and enhance contrast in low-light conditions to improve vision – like night vision glasses so they can find the seed!!

Two to four helpless young are born six or seven weeks after breeding takes place. They are blind and nearly naked and develop slowly.

Photo courtesy of Becky Sheridan
Their eyes open at five weeks, but they do not climb out of the nest for at least seven or eight weeks. They do not get out of their nest tree until they are about ten weeks old. By the time they are three months old, they can fend for themselves. At ten or eleven months they reach sexual maturity, and the cycle can begin again.

Of all of the squirrel-deterrent devices out there, the best is probably the cylinder baffle. It should be 6” in diameter, 18” in length and at least 5’ off the ground. 

Umbrella or tilting baffles placed above the feeder are good too. 

Weight activated feeders  are supposed to be good but my squirrels have found they can lay on top of the feeder and still get to the seed. 

Cayenne pepper added to seed works until the squirrels build up a tolerance to it and it has no effect on birds. Word to the wise, don’t add the pepper to your seed outside on a windy day – just sayin.’

I have tried many of the remedies listed above to no avail. I guess I will just sit on the porch in my rocker with a cup of coffee and spend my time seeing how those little boogers get into the feeders. Kind of comical if you ask me.

It could be worse, I guess.