Welcome to my world!

Backyard Birding in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas:
Surrounded by great birding destinations, our favorite patch is still the backyard (or the front), where we've seen more than 270 species of birds. Sit awhile, and watch the river and yard with us!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Nature's Gifts

My granddaughter (who turned eight years old last weekend) called us yesterday morning with exciting news from her back yard:  an oriole was sipping nectar from her new hummingbird feeder, which had been a birthday gift from her brother.  They've been watching for hummers all week,  and finally a brilliant orange and black Baltimore Oriole completed the gift. Just above it on a branch, four other orioles awaited  their turns in the oak tree, icing on the cake.  A Rose-breasted Grosbeak was a little farther out in the yard,  decorating a bird feeder with its brilliant rose-colored bib as it cracked and crunched striped sunflower seeds. 

Meanwhile, I had been out in our yard seeing everything  but  birds.  Such is the frustration of migration-watching.  One day is an eight-warbler day (here's a post about that day) and the next two are windy and warblerless.

Understand, however, that though frustrated at not finding spring warblers, I was still happy with what I discovered in a walk through the yard.  First, and probably most exciting, were the half dozen or so Monarch butterfly caterpillars that munched on the leaves of the milkweed.  It's been about a month since the first Monarch butterfly of the year appeared in our yard, migrating from Mexico where they winter. We have similar Queen butterflies here all year (see this post about a surprise Queen caterpillar eating the frozen-back milkweed plants in January), but the Monarchs seem to visit only briefly and lay their eggs on the milkweed. (I say "seem to" because I really don't know; I need to start observing more closely and recording dates.)

A Monarch egg is a beautiful thing, like a tiny pearl in a green-leaf giftbox.  After just a few days it will hatch into a hungry caterpillar that grows quickly, shedding its skin four times as it grows.  Here's a picture of one I saw this morning beginning to break out of old skin.  I wish I had looked sooner for the eggs or the smallest instars, which are the successively larger caterpillars between their molts. I have photos of monarchs on the milkweed on April 4, but I didn't think then to examine the leaves for eggs. Sometimes nature's gifts are just overlooked.

I am curious to know if the butterflies from these caterpillars' metamorphoses will continue migrating north.  I suspect they will.  That is, afterall, how they are able to go so far north every year.  It's not the same butterflies that arrive at their northern range, but later generations.

Every year we go to Missouri to plant a butterfly garden for our twin granddaughters.  We started the garden when they were only two years old, helping them "raise" caterpillars so that they could observe the entire lifecycle.  They learned that butterflies lay eggs on a specific plant (the host plant) that will be food for the caterpillars.  They saw how voracious the little caterpillars are, how fast they grow, and how they form the beautiful chrysalis from which an adult butterfly emerges.

The first butterfly they saw emerge from a chrysalis was a Black Swallowtail.  Its caterpillar had fed on parsley from the butterfly garden until it was long and fat.  It then hung in a curved "J" shape from the top of a plastic butterfly habitat and made its chrysalis.

One morning after breakfast, we looked in the case and there, where the chrysalis had been, was a Black Swallowtail butterfly!  One of the girls danced and clapped, cheering for the new life.  The other leaned toward the case, observed it closely, and solemnly stepped back.  With her hands together she began spontaneously to sing the sweetest rendition of "Happy Birthday" that I have ever heard.

Monarch caterpillars are not the only creatures enjoying the milkweed (also called "butterfly weed").  The appropriately named Milkweed bugs and Milkweed Tussock caterpillars are also there.  Both bug photos here are of the Milkweed bug. It's a "true bug" or hemipteran.  (That's about the extent of my knowledge of bugs, but I'm wanting to learn more.  I need to find a good field guide.)

When I looked up the identity of this furry little caterpillar,  the  Milkweed Tussock moth,  in my caterpillar book (Caterpillars of Eastern North America, by David L. Wagner),  I read the description which called the little hairs  "lashes,"  "tufts," and "tussocks."   I don't know if those are technical terms or not, but I like them.   Great photos illustrate the various caterpillars, but most of all, I love the descriptions. Unless a guide book is also well-written, I don't care how good the photos are!

Speaking of books, I'll recommend a wonderful one (not a field guide but a narrative) about Monarch butterflies:  Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly, by Sue Halpern.  I've already read it twice and am thinking about reading it again--if I can find it, and if there are no warblers out there to chase down the driveway. (Just kidding. As a backyard birder,  I neither twitch nor chase.)

I also walked across the road yesterday to look for sparrows and buntings in the weeds and grass along the side of the sorghum field.  I discovered that some of the weedy patch had been tilled under by the farmer, but enough remained (I hoped) for the buntings.  There were no buntings yesterday (a buntingless day as well as a warblerless) but I did find a few lovely Great Southern White butterflies on the grasses and spiderworts. I love the color of blue on the thorax and the black edges that make the upper wings look as though they are scalloped.

Walking back across the road and into my bird garden, I found a Funereal Duskywing butterfly lounging on the hammock pillow.  Don't you love the names of butterflies?

Yesterday was also another day to spot the "narrow fellow in the grass" that I've blogged about before.  This was a small Texas Indigo snake that wriggled through the grass by the neighbor's fishing dock. If you look closely (and click to enlarge) you can see the really neat forked tongue. Does anyone know why snakes have forked tongues and why they flick them in and out of their mouths? (I'd look it up myself but I really like to get comments at the end of my blog!)

And finally, for my Not-Warbler discoveries, here is a beautiful example of an often-overlooked creature I found in the yard.  I don't know its name, being a birder not a fly-er, but I think it is lovely (if not buzzing around my head). This one was resting not far from the hammock.  Look at those colors!

 So yesterday there were no migrating warblers and no new yard birds, but the yard was filled with wonders. I started writing this post before I knew what kind of day today would be.

As you might guess, it was another good migrant day (the pendulum swings) with many Orchard and Baltimore Orioles (I hope they are now on their way to my grandchildren's feeders), a few buntings, a Summer Tanager, and one beautiful Yellow-throated Warbler.  A Wild Turkey strutted from yard to yard and rested for a while under an Ash tree.  Across the road a resident Lark Sparrow sang from a tall sunflower, a long song sometimes buzzy and sometimes clear and sweet.  

Living on the Arroyo Colorado is like a birthday gift that you can open everyday of the year.


KaHolly said...

What an inspiring post today, Kay. First of all, let me comment on the photos of your grandchildren. How very sweet. I like how you encourage them to develop their sense of wonder!! It's difficult to be just a birder when there are so many curiosities out there, isn't it? I enjoyed you photos,,k and as always, your dialogue!! I don't know much about snakes, either, but will certainly pay more attention! ~karen

Kay said...

Thank you, Karen. I use your posts and photos as inspiration.
(If you others haven't seen these posts, click on KaHolly and go there. They are great!)

dAwN said...

What a wonderful post..there are so many beautiful things in nature..and the fly is one of them..how cool and metallic..great post..very touching with your grandaughter..

Kay said...

dAWN, Thank you so much!Yes, nature is beautiful. I feel so lucky to have the health and leisure to enjoy it.