Summer season moves toward harvest

Barbara Hootman

From gardens to farm fields, harvest time is beginning. Ripeness creeps across the mountains, bringing with it a big payoff for all the hard work in spring and early summer.  Throughout August, the cicada’s insistent drone punctuates the midafternoon heat, bringing its own rhythm to the season.

Sunset arrives earlier now than it did a month ago when the season officially arrived. Since the summer solstice in late June, the days have lost some 14 minutes of daylight time. Enjoy the season of light and sunshine while you have it.

Goldfinches enjoy black oiled sunflower seeds to digest and feed their babies.

The above-average temperature the Swannanoa Valley has experienced during the past few weeks brings not only discomfort to humans, but to wildlife as well.  Although it is a season of food abundance for wildlife, excess heat can cause birds to smother their offspring in the nest. Food spoils, and there is a higher risk of disease. Sudden thunder storms with heavy rain and wind can blow chicks and baby squirrels out of the nest, as well as  destroy food sources. Often during a storm whole nests are dislodged from trees limbs, sending chicks crashing to the ground.

Moderate to severe drought like what has occurred in the Swannanoa Valley since last March can eliminate water sources used by wildlife to stay hydrated and to cool off with a quick dip.  The afternoon thunderstorms are keeping water sources available now. Ducks can suffer food shortage when a drought doesn’t loosen its grip on ponds and lakes with fish and plants in them.

Summer diseases that affect birds in excessive heat includes West Nile Disease; it has been reported in 225 wild and captive birds species.  Humans can contract the virus as well. As fall migration time approaches, birds can spread diseases as they travel.  Large numbers of birds can fall victim to disease and affect an entire population of birds.

A clean and fresh water supply can help fight disease in birds, and that is an important thing man can do for wildlife.

Wildfires during droughts devastate wildlife habitats for breeding and nesting.  Critical food sources can be damaged also. Fire also eliminates safe shelter for many birds.  While some wildlife benefits from periodic habitat renewal, many others require old growth for survival.

Shallow bird baths are best for the smaller birds that usually bathe in a puddle in nature.

Rotten seeds in feeders and rancid suet during summer months often kills birds.  These conditions are a lot more harmful that one less food source.  The chemicals used on many lawns and gardens eliminate the insects that summer birds depend on to feed themselves and their babies. The chemicals build up to toxic levels in birds’ bodies and kill them.    

A bird’s high body temperature of around 107 degrees works to help it survive excessive heat.  Extreme cold affects birds quicker than excessive heat. Birds turn their lighter colored feathers toward the sun to reflect heat, and they fluff up their feathers during summer to insulate against the heat. They raise their wing feathers to shade their naked legs and feet, and to protect babies in the nest from hot sun or rain.

Birds also pant when it is extremely hot.  The most obvious way of cooling off is a dip in the closest water source. It’s like a dip in the pool for humans. Remember that smaller birds are used to bathing in puddles in nature, so a shallow watering place is best for them

August is Goldfinch month.  They have entertained us since May at our feeders, and now it is nesting time.  Babies will be fledgling throughout August.  Goldfinches do not eat insects.  They are strict vegetarians, eating only seeds.  To be able to feed their babies, they nest when flowers and weeds are going to seed. They are especially fond of daisy and coneflower seeds and also asters, bachelor’s buttons, cosmos, flaxseed, grass seeds and zinnia seed heads.  If you plant some of these in your garden, goldfinches will visit and eat.

Goldfinches are not shy about their love of sunflower and Nyjer (thistle) seeds.  They begin to refuse Nyjer seeds in August and turn to black oiled sunflower seeds to feed the babies.  The Nyjer seeds become favorites again during fall and winter months. Sunflower seeds are easier to digest and feed the babies.

Goldfinches nest in August to avoid brown-headed cowbirds that are always on the lookout for nests in which to lay eggs and abandon their young to foster parents. In August cowbirds are finished laying eggs for the season.  Goldfinches travel in flocks looking for food, but not during nesting season.  They must feed themselves and their young in the quickest way and that usually means feeders and dining in the closest weed patch.  They feed the babies partially digested regurgitated seeds.

Goldfinches love water and are usually the first to take a dip in the puddles after a rain.  Their nests are so tightly woven that they hold water which drains quick enough to not drown the babies.  Baby goldfinches are out of the nest and following their parents to bird feeders in 10-16 days from the time they hatch.

Songbirds are beginning the annual molt.

Young hummingbirds are following their parents to the feeders and working the summer flowers for nectar.

Young skunks are on their own now.

Take in the bird feeders to prevent black bears from tearing them apart.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.