Here’s a moth we found lounging on the side of a building at the local community college. It is at least four inches across and is the most common silk moth in the lower 48 states. It is named for Polyphemus of Greek mythology for the giant eyespots on its lower wings (not visible in this photo).
The Polygonia progne, or gray comma butterfly, overwinters as an adult. This fact amazes me. Where must this creature hide to escape the bitter cold on its fragile wings? This specimen, which spent several minutes on our deck, is part of the brushfoot family, whose two front legs are little fuzzy stumps and not useful for walking. Most of the members of the brushfoot family use these little legs for “tasting” food.
The gray comma only rarely feeds on flower nectar, preferring tree sap, like other brushfoots. Look for its caterpillars on gooseberries or azaleas. When the adult’s wings are up and closed it looks just like a dead leaf, but you can see a small white “comma” on the underside, thus its name. There are several different types of commas.
Gray commas have two flights a year, so this is probably a new adult. The first adults emerge in April and May, then lay eggs, which hatch and become the adults of the summer from June through August. The summer adults lay eggs, which hatch in the fall and hibernate as adults until they emerge the next April or May.
The Carolina wren babies (three of them in all) fledged today. One accidentally fledged as Sophia was doing her daily nest check and it jumped in fear out of the nest. It flew down behind a large pile of equipment and wood and I thought we could never save it. The parents, both of them, were active in the garage at the time so we left, leaving a door open for light. We came back several hours later and all three were on a ledge, cute as can be.
The Baltimore oriole nest has not shown any signs of action in almost 3 weeks. This is worrisome to me. I was expecting a hatch date of last weekend. Maybe I was mistaken about the start of incubation.
I spotted a male common yellowthroat this evening down in our meadow. Unfortunately I did not have my camera. These birds are common in wet meadows and never fly directly to their nests; they land nearby and walk to the nest in order to confuse predators. They fall victim to brown-headed cowbirds very often. The cowbird manages to lay her egg in an unsuspecting bird’s nest (always of another species as the cowbird does not create her own nest at all), and when the cowbird baby hatches, it is usually so much larger than the other babies that it gobbles up a lion’s share of the meals from the nest parent(s). Cowbirds have contributed to the decline in the songbird population.
Our eastern phoebe nest fell again, this time on a day when we were not home for 12 hours. The poor babies died. Hopefully Mrs. Phoebe will try again this season.
Take down your regular feeders, or whichever ones the grackles and/or starlings
are guarding. In our case, we haven’t seen one finch at our black oil sunflower seed/suet feeder for at least a week. Replace the seed in your feeder with safflower seed for a few weeks. Usually, the grackles will leave the area for another source of seed and suet. For us, it has been a successful deterrent. Fortunately we still have four other window feeders where the finches can still feed, but we are not fans of bully birds.
Last year we watched the Eastern phoebes fledge from our window ledge. This year, the female checked out last year’s nest but decided on a nest inside our garage. Perhaps the existence of the cat deterred her from her normal location. In any event, the nest is a cozy mess of small branches and bits of mud, covered with green moss.
When my middle daughter ran into the house to tell me the phoebe nest had fallen and the babies were still alive (and that she had picked them up, carefully put them back in the nest, and could we keep them to raise???), we got our Care of the Wild book to research what the best recourse would be. Having been through this before with a nest of orioles last year, I knew the female would not have immediately left the area and that she would take care of the babies at all costs. It is a myth to think that the human smell will cause a mother bird to abandon her babies. One thing I have learned from bird watching is that the maternal instinct is powerful across species and that mother birds, especially, will work hard to save their young. In this case, one of the babies still had eggshell attached to its head like a crazy hat, and they were still unfeathered.
The best action when coming upon an abandoned or fallen nest, as long as it is still intact, is to put it back as best you can, or find a high location where the parent is likely to see and hear her babies, but out of the way of predators like domestic cats. Leave the area for an hour before coming to check on the nest. In our case, Mother Phoebe was back on the job within 30 minutes. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It is a big undertaking to attempt to save baby birds. They need to be fed at least every half hour between dawn and dusk and their fecal sacs must be removed from the nest with tweezers, as the parents would do with their own beaks. Fortunately baby birds open their mouths at the slightest movement, so they are likely to be easy to feed, as long as you know what to feed them, but the responsibility would be overwhelming unless you were a bird rehabber. Phoebes are insectivores, and Care of the Wild has specific recommendations on newborn bird feeding techniques.
The girls and I regularly have conversations about when to intervene. When is it acceptable to interfere with the cycle of things? When is the probability of success greater than failure? And perhaps most importantly, when does that probability matter? All tough questions for a nine-year old.
The first photo, from July 2010, shows an Eastern phoebe feeding her young. The second photo is a phoebe minutes after it fledged.
One of my daughters started calling dandelions “wishflowers” a while back, I’m not sure when. But whenever I see them now, that’s how I call them.
When I was a child I would make wishes on four-leaf clovers if they were found in our yard.
I did not realize this was a male until I saw the flash of red. I sat outside near the feeder for a hour at sunset into dusk, and I saw the hummingbird visit the feeder 8-10 times. He was attentive to his surroundings when he left the feeder to rest on a branch, probably making sure no other hummingbirds would come near his feeder. Hummingbirds are extremely territorial. I’ve learned they love our flowering quince.
East of the Mississippi, the only breeding hummingbirds to be seen are the ruby-throats. They are dazzlingly enough for me. An appropriate nectar is 1 part sugar to 4 parts water, with no food coloring. Store the nectar in a refrigerator for up to a week.
It is important not to rely too much on binoculars when watching hummingbirds. By the time you have focused in on them, they have flown elsewhere. Teach children to watch the feeder, train their on eye on it, and be aware of the slightest movement in their field of vision. Focusing on a stationary object like the feeder is the surest way to bring a fleeting glimpse of the hummingbird into sight.
In other news, we think the robin who made her nest in the rhubarb has disappeared. For the third day, there is only one egg in her nest. The Carolina wren is still incubating, and the phoebe babies are doing well. Bluebird babies vigorous as well. They are probably over a week old, while the phoebes are only a few days old.
Eastern Phoebe Babies Observed on May 20th, 2011 Picture taken on May 21st, 2011 (Day 2)
The Eastern Phoebe doesn’t associate with other Phoebes. Even if they are a mated pair, they rarely spend much time together. After the female has laid her eggs, she usually chases the male away from her.