Monday, April 03, 2017

The Sap is Rising...and the Sapsuckers Are Visiting

Three days ago I noticed a pair of woodpeckers fly over to one of our pignut hickories (Carya glabra).  These deciduous trees are always late to leaf out, waiting until the azaleas are basically done blooming, most of the spring bulbs are finished, and the laurel oaks (Quercus laurifolia) have lost their old leaves and regained fresh, new ones.

We have 3 reasonably good sized pignut hickories in our backyard.  As a group, they are a great advertisement for the benefit of open-pollinated, seed grown trees:  none of the three does anything at exactly the same time as the other two.  These three trees leaf out at different times, develop fall color at different times, and drop their leaves at different times.  For a while I even began to wonder if they were actually three different species!

The big, terminal buds of the tree that the woodpeckers chose this weekend are swelling and just starting to break open.  The other two "sibling" hickories are still quiescent.  I'm not sure I would have noticed the changes in this tree if the woodpeckers hadn't shown up....

But show up they did - and they put on quite the show for several hours.  My first, fleeting impression was that this wasn't a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers, which are our common species here.  I've also seen downy woodpeckers and northern flickers in the yard, but this pair was obviously too big to be the former, too small to be the latter, and too "blandly colored" to be either of those species anyway.

So I got my binoculars and took a closer look.  A pair of yellow-bellied sapsuckers!

At first I thought the two were mating.  They would climb up the tree trunk almost in tandem for a while, then one would jump the other and they would tumble head over heels, dropping from 10 to 30 feet, hitting branches as they dropped.  Eventually they'd disentangle, right themselves on the trunk, and start climbing up again.  This went on over and over again, for several hours.  I presume they took breaks from their acrobatics, but I wasn't able to watch the entire time, so I don't know for sure.

Finally, in the early afternoon, the male flew away and I haven't seen him again.  The female remained on the tree, though, and was there again all day Sunday, busily tapping away on the trunk.

I don't have any photos of the pair, as I didn't want to interrupt their "dance" by getting too close.  I was able to get some photos of the female on Sunday as she worked on digging her sap wells and I worked on weeding the garden bed nearby.

I've since decided that this pair was probably fighting over food, not mating.  Yellow-bellied sapsuckers don't nest here - their breeding range is much farther north.  I don't think they'd actually be copulating this far south, long before they've completed their spring migration and found a breeding territory, let alone constructed a nest.  I think the sap is rising in this individual tree, based on the swelling buds, and these two birds were simply fighting over whose "territory" it was going to be while that was going on.   They just happened to be a male and a female.

Now it's going to be interesting to see if any sapsuckers stay around to feed on one of the other two hickories in the yard, as their sap starts to rise and their leaves unfurl later in the spring.

How can anyone get bored in a wildlife garden?!

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Using It Up - Common Buckeye Caterpillars

In early spring, lawns around here sprout a pretty little native wildflower known as old field toadflax (Nuttullanthus canadensis).  An annual, it is here and gone almost before you realize it, but it is considered a "lawn weed" and, as such, it is not considered desirable by most homeowners.

I find this dainty little flower enchanting.

Old field toadflax is related to snapdragons, which you can see in the shape of the bloom...if you take the time to look closely at it before you mow it down.  Perched on the ends of long, slender stems, the tiny blossoms would really have to occur in huge numbers to make a show of any sort, but my "selective wildflower vision" zeroes in on them and magnifies their attractiveness to enjoyable size.

Given my propensity to enjoy what shows up without any effort on my part, I've let the toadflax grow where they appeared in my front flowerbeds, rather than weeding them out with the oak seedlings and dewberry.

When I went out to do my occasional bed weedout on Saturday morning, I noted that the toadflax were done blooming and I thought that perhaps it was time to pull them out to "neaten up" the bed.  On the other hand, if I let them remain a bit longer, I could more reliably count on new plants next spring....

As I was weeding and debating this weighty question with myself, I noticed a black caterpillar on the ground near one of the plants.  Hmmmm.  Another, larger caterpillar was on a nearby plant.  Looking a bit further, I noticed a third caterpillar munching away....

By the time I looked at all the plants, I'd found 7 caterpillars! 

They were all the same species and they were all either on or right beside the old field toadflax.

Looking at the flower spikes, I noticed that the lower flowers had set seed, dried and were releasing seed.  The remains of the upper blooms were still green, but obviously seed was forming.  Since these are annual plants, as soon as all the seed is set, the plants will basically dry up and wither away.

When I went inside and looked up the caterpillars in my handy-dandy caterpillar guide, I decided that these were probably common buckeye cats (Junonia coenia), a highly variable species of (butterfly) caterpillar that is known to feed on plants in the snapdragon family, including toadflax.

This discovery lifted up my spirits all weekend long.  Isn't nature simply amazing?!  This relatively small annual plant blooms, sets seed, and then dies.  Rather than waste all that great plant material by simply having it dry up and blow away, Mother Nature arranges to have mama buckeye butterfly stop by and leave a couple eggs.  The eggs hatch into tiny caterpillars who, just as the plant is finishing with the foliage, eat up all the leaves and change the plant material into butterflies.

Beauty in flower form turns into beauty in butterfly form.  I call that pretty amazing.