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One of our favorite things to do is bird watch. These lively creatures are interesting because they are colorful, active and can be found almost anywhere. We can hear them sing and chirp. This time of year birds are migrating, building nests and raising babies. There is a lot of excitement in the bird world.

You can simply look out the window and spot birds. Take a few minutes to see what kind it is and what it is doing. We learned our birds by figuring out a few at a time. We keep a notebook full of drawings and notes next to our favorite birding window. Each year we've had regulars who we recognize and also new birds. Last year we had house finch males with yellow on their heads instead of the more typical red or orange. This winter we had juncos for the first time.

What can you do to encourage birds? Many people start by making simple bird feeders, such as the classic peanut butter on a pinecone rolled in birdseed. You can make another simple feeder by stringing fruit such as raisins, grapes, cherries or orange sections on a bit of twine or string and hanging it out. Just be careful because scattering food for birds can also attract unwanted guests, including bears in some areas! We have problems with roof rats so we only feed thistle seed. Niger thistle seed attracts colorful birds like finches and doves, but not pigeons or rats. Check with your local Audubon Society for recommendations.

Making cards full of nesting materials can be a fun project that is easy to do with supplies from around the house. Gather index cards or three-inch by five-inch card stock, yarn, thread, hair, or anything else you think a bird might use in its nest. Brainstorm about what might be useful to a bird. Poke holes in the index cards (enough for all participants) with a hole punch or nail (with an adult’s help). Tie a 12-inch piece of string, yarn or ribbon through one hole to serve as a hanger. Loosely stuff the rest of the holes with a variety of nest making supplies, making sure the birds can pull it out fairly easily. When you are finished, go outside and hang the cards in bushes or trees where the birds will find the materials. Check over time to see which materials they chose first, second, etc. Refill the cards as needed.

These supplies are actually useful to birds. We once had a bird fly away with the end of a kite string, spreading the string throughout the neighborhood as it unwound from the spool.

If you get serious about birding, you might think about planting a bird garden. Find out abut which native plants in your area provide food or shelter for birds and add a few to your garden. Providing water through a birdbath or pond is also helpful as long as the water is kept clean and fresh. Check for more information in books, magazines and on the Internet.

Finally, even if it is raining and nothing is happening outdoors, ask your child what it would be like to fly like a bird. Then pretend you are birds. Spread your wings and soar and swoop together.

Happy flying!

Stalking the wild insects in my garden this morning, I was surprised to find these tiny bugs on my asparagus fern. Do you know what they are? I'll give you some hints. They like cool weather, they tend to build up quickly on the growing tips or buds of plants, and lady beetles love them.

aphids

I also found this fly hovering nearby. At first I thought it was a flower fly (Family Syrphidae). Flower flies lay their eggs near aphids (yes, those are aphids). Their larvae eat aphids, and I find them all the time on infested plants. But flower flies tend to have a shorter, wider abdomen (that is the back section in insects), and mimic bees. I think this one is a thick-headed fly instead (Family Conopidae), because it has a thin waist more like a wasp. One way I can tell she isn't a wasp is the fact she has two wings. Wasps have four.

thickheaded fly

She was definitely laying eggs, as you can see here.

fly

Where do you go to identify unknown insects like this one? One great place to start is whatsthatbug.com.

By the way, I don't need to control these aphids, because they will be gone soon. I spotted flower fly larvae and parasitic wasps already at work. For now they are providing some entertainment and drama in the backyard jungle.

4

What an odd-looking creature I found on my desert milkweed flower this week. It is bright orange with striped legs. Look at the black spines on back end (abdomen). It also seems to have its straw-like beak piercing a black insect.

This insect is a young assassin bug, a stage called a nymph. If it were an adult, it would have wings.

Assassin bugs use their front legs to capture other insects for food. They stick their proboscis or beak into their victim and suck out the juices. In this case the nymph has caught a tiny parasitic wasp. The wasp was probably searching for aphids, which is what its larvae use for food.

assassin bug nymph

Edit:  I was able to find an adult to show in this later post.