Hummingbird, flower perfect pair

The trumpet creeper's tubular, orange-red flowers seem to be designed especially for the hummingbird's long bill. As an added attractant, the flower's copious nectar has been found to be about 10 times sweeter than the average wildflower's. In fact, biologists believe the trumpet creeper co-evolved with the ruby-throat to take advantage of the bird's feeding habits.

For bird and flower, it's a win-win situation: As ruby-throats (especially females) lap up the trumpet creeper's rich, nourishing juice, they also pick up the flower's pollen and spread it to other flowers. The birds get fed, and the plants get pollinated.

Personally, I think there's no prettier picture in nature than a ruby-throat hovering over a brightly colored trumpet creeper blossom and sticking its long bill down the bloom's 4-inch-long tunnel to lap up the nectar with its long tongue.

Many an artist, including John James Audubon, has captured that moment on canvas.

The flower alone is an attention-getter. It's hard for me to pass up a chance of snapping a picture of trumpet creepers clinging to the sides of old buildings, covering wooden fences or hanging from trees along wooded paths. In my mind, the strikingly beautiful flowers are summer icons, literally seeming to shout "summer is here."

The fast-climbing vine, though, is considered a noxious weed by many gardeners because, like kudzu, it can quickly engulf a sunny spot in a garden or backyard. It also can cause a skin rash in some people; hence it's other name, "cow-itch." Many people, though, try to cultivate the vine, which will bloom through September, because of its attractiveness to hummingbirds.

Bill Hilton, one of the South's foremost hummingbird experts, plants large patches of it at his Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in York, S.C. "The trumpet creeper," he said, "is guaranteed to bring in hummingbirds when artificial feeders won't."

Hilton raises an intriguing question: If there weren't any hummingbirds, would the trumpet creeper survive in the South? On the other hand, what would happen to hummingbirds if there weren't any trumpet creepers? "It seems certain that a total loss of trumpet creepers would have a deleterious effect on ruby-throated hummingbirds, and vice versa," Hilton said.

In the sky: The moon will be first quarter Monday — in the south at sunset and setting about midnight, says David Dundee, an astronomer with the Tellus Northwest Georgia Science Museum. Mercury and Mars are low in the east just before sunrise. Venus shines brightly in the predawn sky, rising two hours before the sun. Jupiter rises out of the east before midnight. Saturn is high overhead at sunset and sets around midnight; it will appear near the moon tonight. The Earth reaches aphelion (farthest from the sun), about 95 million miles from the sun, about 10 p.m. Friday.

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