National Moth Week: Why? What Good are Moths?

By Barb Elliot

Moths, really? Yes, we’ll celebrate moths this coming week, July 19 – 27. During National Moth Week public and private moth-watching events will occur. Mothing, the practice of attracting, viewing, and photographing moths is growing immensely in popularity. But some are puzzled and ask, “What good are moths?” Butterflies are great, but moths are nasty.  After all, moth caterpillars eat tomato plants, make holes in wool clothes, eat flour and cereal in our kitchens, and can be agricultural pests. This is all true, but harmful moths are but a small fraction of moth species. Most are actually very important and beneficial to the environment.

The Cecropia Moth has a 6 inch wingspan.  Creative Commons photo. Click to enlarge.

The Cecropia Moth.  Creative Commons photo. Click to enlarge.

In fact, moths are closely related to our much-loved butterflies. Both are in the scientific order Lepidoptera, meaning “scaly wings”. All butterflies and moths have four wings covered with colored scales. Both groups go through four life stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis/cocoon), and adult (butterfly/moth). Adult butterflies and moths also have a proboscis – a thin, straw-like tube for sipping nectar. However, all butterflies fly during the day, but most moths fly at night.  The tips of butterfly antennae are club-like, while moth antennae are

Butterflies antennae tips are club-like.  Photo from National Moth Week presentation.

Butterflies antennae tips are club-like. Photo from National Moth Week. Click to enlarge.

Moth antennae come in three forms.  Photo from National Moth Week.

Moth antennae come in three forms. Photo from National Moth Week. Click to enlarge.

more varied in structure. . Some moths have hairy-looking elongated scales on their bodies. These may provide greater protection from the environment and help them maintain their temperature – useful on cool nights.

But what good are moths?  Widespread and numerous (nearly 13,000 species in the U.S. vs. just 1,000 butterfly species) they play key roles in ecosystems. As pollinators of night-blooming plants, they are very important.  Unlike bees, moths do not eat or gather pollen.  However, their hairy bodies collect and spread pollen as they move from plant to plant.

Dark-banded Owlet moth sipping nectar from Common Milkweed in Barb's yard.  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Dark-banded Owlet moth sipping nectar from Common Milkweed in Barb’s yard. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Many plants depend on this nocturnal pollination to maximize seed production.  A few cannot reproduce at all without moth pollination.  The proboscis of some moths can be many inches long, enabling the moth to reach nectar at the end of elongated flower tubes that are too long for bees.

Moths, both adults and caterpillars, are key food sources for many animals. Other insects, spiders, birds, bats, frogs, toads, lizards, rodents, foxes, and even bears consume moths. As indicators of biodiversity and the health of our environment, they function as “canaries in the coalmine.” Almost all moth caterpillars require specific plants as food.  Less diversity in native plants means less food for moth caterpillars and therefore, fewer species and numbers of moths. The result — less food to power the web of life.

Luna Moth.  © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Luna Moth. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Many moths are beautiful, like the lovely Luna Moth.  Less impressive moths are often  masters of mimicry or camouflage.  Some mimic scary-looking animals such as snakes. Others, such as the Io Moth, have huge “eyes” to startle predators.  Some look like bark, dead leaves, lichens, or even bird droppings– making it almost impossible to spot them.

IO Moth revealing its"eyes" for startling predators.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

IO Moth revealing its”eyes” for startling predators. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

Copper Underwing Moth camouflaged on tree bark.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Copper Underwing Moth camouflaged on tree bark. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I find moths to be downright interesting creatures.  For instance, the beautiful and large adults of the Giant Silk Moth family have captivating life histories. These moths, such as the Luna, Tulip-tree, Cecropia, or Polyphemus, live for only a week or two — just long enough to attract or search out mates and for females to lay eggs.  With reduced mouthparts, these moths are unable to eat.  Females emit chemical scents called pheromones to attract males.  Males in this family have large, feathery antennae to detect pheromones from as far as seven miles away. They want to make a beeline to the female!

Moths come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Some are as tiny as the tip of a pencil.  The Cecropia Moth (shown above), our largest moth, has a 6” wingspan.  Some rest with their wings flat. Many hold them vertically like some butterflies. Others fold them like tents over their bodies.

Yellow-collared Slug Moth with its abdomen curled up.   © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Yellow-collared Slug Moth with its abdomen curled up. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

A few curl their abdomens up above their wings, an odd posture that is likely part of their mimicry or camouflage.  Sphinx or Hawk moths display outstanding flight dynamics. They can fly very quickly, hover, and move rapidly from side-to-side.  In fact, the flight aerodynamics of some Micro-aerial Vehicles’ (MAVs) are being designed by the military to emulate Sphinx moth flight.

Both Edie, my Backyards for Nature colleague, and I now consider ourselves to be “moth-ers”.  We frequently have “moth nights” in our yards. We attract the moths by shining special lights onto a white sheet, a place where they can land. By painting fermented bait onto tree trunk, we can attract moths that don’t come to lights. We follow Moths of the Eastern United States on Facebook and note what moths are being seen by other enthusiasts.  In June, Edie and I attended Mothapalooza, a weekend moth conference in Ohio.  With 150 participants, it sold out within two weeks of being announced – a testament to the burgeoning popularity of mothing. We visited five mothing stations that hosted thousands of moths.  We were up until the wee hours, but had great fun.

Try mothing yourself.  At first keep it simple. Leave your porch light on for the evening. Go out periodically to see what moths have flown in.  With a flashlight, look for moths nectaring on your flowers.  Fragrant, white, and pink flowers are particularly alluring.  Look closely,

Ultronia Underwing sipping juices from rotting fruit. © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ultronia Underwing sipping juices from rotting fruit. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

and you’ll see each moth using its proboscis to suck up nectar.  Or, put out a plate of rotting fruit and check for moths that stop by for a sugary drink.

Invite family and friends for a moth night in your yard.  See Edie’s Moth Night  blog post from last year for moth night ideas, a bait recipe, and host plants for moth caterpillars.  Check the National Moth Week website for public events in your area and tips on finding moths.  All across the United States and in many countries of the world, moth-ers will be celebrating moths.

Moths are good!  They play key roles in the web of life.  Plus, they are fascinating creatures.  These gems are outside your door at night.  Try mothing, but I warn you that it can become addictive.  Like a treasure hunt, you never know what may fly in.  Become a moth-er and … welcome to the dark side!

Resources

Beadle, David & Leckie, Seabrooke.  Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Himmelman, John.  Discovering Moths:  Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard.  Down East Books, 2002.

 

 

 

Looking for Nests

By Edie Parnum

Nests are hard to find.  Sure, it’s easy to see the House Wrens and Tree Swallows come and go from the nest boxes I have provided.  Most songbirds, however, build and raise

A House Wren about to feed a caterpillar to its young in Edie’s backyard.  Photo by Edie Parnum.

A House Wren about to feed a caterpillar to its young in Edie’s backyard. Photo by Edie Parnum.

their young in well-concealed cup nests.  Paying particular attention to the dense areas, I examine my trees and shrubs. I look, too, for lumps in the crotches of trees. I strain to see high in the canopy.  The breeding season is well underway, but I’ve found only two cup nests on my ¾-acre property.

Early this spring a female Robin built a nest out of grass, sticks, and mud in a dense holly below my raised deck.  I could look down and see her settled in the nest. Once I glimpsed four pale aqua eggs. Here was an opportunity to learn more about the nesting behaviors of the American Robin. From a comfortable but hidden vantage, I planned to observe the mother robin incubate her eggs, then watch both parents feed the nestlings.  Not so. One day the female and the eggs were gone.

Plenty of predators prowl around my yard.  A ravenous jay, crow, raccoon, possum, snake, or even chipmunk might have devoured the eggs and destroyed the nest. Last year Gray Catbirds screeched hysterically when a Blue Jay ate their eggs.

Besides the Robin’s, a Mourning Dove’s nest was high in my in my crabapple tree this spring.  While my nature-loving arborist was removing winter-damaged limbs, he exposed a flimsy nest with two eggs in the crevice of a broken branch.  He left it undisturbed.   From the ground I could glimpse a Mourning Dove’s eye peering at me from above the

My arborist found this Mourning Dove nest while removing winter-damaged limbs. Photo by Mark Masciangelo.

My arborist found this Mourning Dove nest while removing winter-damaged limbs. Photo by Mark Masciangelo.

limb.  Again, I hoped to watch and study the birds’ breeding routine.  After a few days of viewing the brooding dove, however, I could no longer see the bird nor any activity.  Why did the nest fail?  Perhaps the arborist’s intrusive activity caused delayed nest abandonment.  Of course, a predator could easily have seen and raided the exposed nest. Thankfully, both the doves and robins will nest again—successfully, I hope.

Besides searching for nests, I’m also watching for signs of breeding.  Catbirds, cardinals, house finches, song sparrows must be breeding here. Pairs of birds, singing loudly and persistently, cavort in my yard.  Some birds carry nest material.  Others have insects in their beaks. When they don’t eat the food, they’re carrying it to a nest—a sure sign of breeding. I hope to discover the nest where nestlings are being fed.

Though I have not seen it, I believe a pair of Brown Thrashers has a nest on my property.  Most suburban yards don’t host Brown Thrashers, especially not a breeding pair.  Thrashers like dense shrubbery, not the typical manicured landscape. With their bills they sweep and probe the ground searching for insects and spiders in last year’s fallen leaves. I was plenty pleased when a Brown Thrasher spent the winter in my yard.  This reddish-brown, jay-sized bird with a streaked belly stayed silent and sheltered in the arborvitae and other dense vegetation. Every few days I saw it stray from its hiding place and feed on exposed ground.  I assumed it would move on in the spring to breed elsewhere.

A Brown Thrasher feeds on the ground.  Photo by Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

A Brown Thrasher feeds on the ground. Photo by Howard Eskin. Click to enlarge.

In mid-May, a Brown Thrasher, possibly the same bird, sang vociferously from the treetops.  Its loud doubled phrases are different from its close relative, the smaller Northern Mockingbird.  The purpose of the song is to attract a mate and defend a breeding territory.  Even so, I assumed my wintering bird (or new arrival) was just practicing and would not stay to breed here.  When the singing stopped a week later, I concluded it had departed.

To my surprise in late May and June I’ve occasionally glimpsed a soundless thrasher. Males and females are indistinguishable, but sporadically I have seen two birds together.  Could a pair be breeding after all? The thicket of forsythia and blackberries at the back of my property is perfect for thrashers. Every few days I spend a few minutes peering into the undergrowth and listening.   Once I saw it deep, deep inside the dense vegetation.  On another occasion I discerned a barely audible whisper version of the thrasher song. According to my research, thrashers are mostly silent during the nesting season but sing softly in the vicinity of a nest.

Surely thrashers have a nest in my shrubbery.  It is probably just a few feet off the ground, but hidden in the impenetrable thicket. My chances of discovering it are slim.  Because they consider me a potential predator, the birds probably engage in evasive behavior to lead me astray.  Undeterred, I keep looking and listening.

I need a vigilant, alert ornithology student to help find the nest. A sharp-eyed young person could spot the bug in the thrasher’s beak.  Together we could find the nest.  See the baby birds. Watch their parents put insects into gaping mouths.  Observe the naked babies grow pinfeathers followed by juvenile feathers.  We would thrill to witness them fledge and take flight into the world of my backyard.  Alas, without my student, I evidently can’t be a voyeur of birds’ private lives.

By searching for nests, I’ve learned more about helping breeding birds succeed. I’ll plant more dense shrubs where birds can build and protect their nests. These shrubs will be insect-hosting natives instead of the non-native forsythia. Already I do not tidy up the thickets and corners of the yard.  Thrashers and other ground-feeding birds require the leaf litter to feed themselves and their offspring. Next fall I’ll welcome leaves into the perennial beds, too. And, most important, I’ll grow more native plants where birds can find plentiful insects to feed their young.

In some ways I’m unable to help and must trust the birds’ own survival abilities.  Predators abound, but the birds possess skills to protect their nests, eggs, and nestlings.  Vigilant and ingenious, they know how to keep their nest locations secret.  Thankfully, when a nest fails, most are able to produce a second brood.

It’s summer now, and I see lots of baby birds around the yard.  The nests are somewhere nearby. Birds are breeding here successfully.

 

Let’s Celebrate National Pollinator Week! June 16 – June 22, 2014

By Barb Elliot

Pollinator Week* is a good time to watch, celebrate, and be thankful for pollinators.   After all, they are responsible for every third bite of our food and drink.  They pollinate crops, trees, shrubs, and flowers in our landscapes for free.  I’m having fun observing pollinators

Native Bee on Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa).  Barb's Yard 6/16/2014.  © Barb Elliot

Native Bee on Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa). Barb’s Yard 6/16/2014. © Barb Elliot

as flowers bloom on my native trees, shrubs, and perennials. Native bees, beetles, wasps, and butterflies are busy during the day, and after dark I’m finding moths and other nighttime insects visiting my flowers.  Pollinator Week is a good time to take a walk in your yard, look for flowers with pollinators, and watch them as they work.

It’s also a great time to do something for pollinators!  Facing multiple threats, including habitat loss, pesticides, and diseases, they certainly need our help.  The simplest and best

Moth on Common Milkweed (Aesclepias syriaca).  Barb's yard, 6/15/2014. © Barb Elliot

Moth on Common Milkweed (Aesclepias syriaca). Barb’s yard, 6/15/2014. © Barb Elliot

thing we can do to help is add some pollinator-friendly native flowers to your landscape – even if it’s just a few plants in a pot.  Do even more by taking the Pollinator Pledge through The Xerces Society Bring Back the Pollinators program.

For a list of pollinator-friendly plants and more information about pollinators, reasons for pollinator declines, and other simple actions you can take, see my March 24, 2014 post Pollinators Need Our Help!

(*Established in 2007 by the Pollinator Partnership, Pollinator Week “has grown exponentially in scope each year with this year June 16-22 being designated by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and 44 governors as a week to celebrate and protect the nation’s pollinating animals.”)

Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2014 Native Plant Awards

By Edie Parnum

Each year we select two native plants with exceptional ability to support wildlife. These plants will contribute significantly to the web of life in your yard. They host insects, offer nectar and pollen, and produce fruits, seeds, or nuts. Birds, butterflies, and other insects and animals will feed and prosper.  Most provide shelter and nesting places, too.  Our selections, all native to southeastern Pennsylvania, are easy to grow and readily available at native plant nurseries or native plant sales. Our Prime Plants make attractive additions to your landscape.  We offer awards in two categories: Trees and Shrubs and Perennials.

Our selections for the 2014 Prime Plants for Nature Awards are:

Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana                                                     

Wildlife Value: This small evergreen tree is a powerhouse for nature.  Yellow-rumped

Cedar Waxwing Eating Cedar Cones.  Photo © Howard Eskin.

Cedar Waxwing Eating Cedar Cones. Photo © Howard Eskin. Click to enlarge.

Warbler, Eastern Bluebird, and Northern Mockingbird are among the 54 species of birds that eat its long-persisting berry-like cones during the cold months.  Cedar Waxwings areso-named because they’re fond of cedar cones. The foliage hosts the Juniper Hairstreak butterfly, a vulnerable species in Pennsylvania, and several species of moths such as the Curve-lined Angle.  Song Sparrows and other

Juniper Hairstreak.  Photo courtesy of  and © Scott Pippen.

Juniper Hairstreak. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Pippen. Click to enlarge.

birds use the dense foliage for nesting places and shelter. Don’t be tempted to buy the similar-looking Leyland Cypress, a non-native that offers little for wildlife.

Growing Conditions: The Eastern Red Cedar tolerates a wide variety of soils and dry to moist growing conditions.  It prefers a sunny spot. These trees are either male or female.  Only the female trees produce fruits, but you’ll also need a male for pollination.

Screech Owl in Barb's Eastern Red Cedar. Photo  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Screech Owl in Barb’s Eastern Red Cedar. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

By planting at least three of these trees, you will enhance their wildlife value.    A row of cedars will provide dense shelter for birds. From the human perspective, the cedars can offer privacy. If planted on the north side of your house, they will create a windscreen.

Appearance: This evergreen has a pleasing conical shape.  It grows at a moderate rate (1-2 feet per year) and reaches 15-40 feet at maturity.

Eastern Red Cedar Trees.

Eastern Red Cedar Trees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Short-toothed Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum muticum

Wildlife Value: This perennial is a magnet for pollinators.  Butterflies, bees, wasps, and flies are attracted to the copious nectar and pollen this lovely plant produces.  Because it

Red-banded Haristreeak nectaring on Mountain Mint.  Photo © Edie parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Red-banded Hairstreak nectaring on Mountain Mint. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

flowers over a long period of time, it may host thousands of visits by pollinators each season.  With this plant in your yard, you can introduce children to pollination and teach them not to be afraid of bees and wasps.

Growing Conditions: Mountain Mint is a tough plant and will grow well in dry to moist soil in full to part-sun. Like other members of the mint family, it spreads but can easily be controlled, especially early in the growing season. It’s easy to transplant and share with other native plant gardeners.  This perennial is deer-resistant, too.

Appearance:  Mountain Mint grows to about 3-feet tall.  Although the numerous flowers are small and inconspicuous, the foliage is an attractive silvery grey.  The leaves complement other brightly colored flowers in the garden and in flower arrangements, too. This plant’s attractiveness is enhanced by the beautiful butterflies and other pollinating insects that visit.

Video © Barb Elliot.  Pollinators visiting Short-toothed Mountain Mint.  To see pollinator activity, click on symbol in lower right for full-screen view.   Then click play symbol in lower left.  May take several seconds to load.  Turn on speakers for audio.

Plant these and other Backyards for Nature Prime Plants, and nature will flourish abundantly in your yard.

Milkweeds for Monarchs – 2014

By Barb Elliot

 

“The lowest numbers of Monarchs ever recorded” 

“Monarch migration at risk of disappearing”

This is the devastating news about Monarchs over-wintering in Mexico. These Monarchs migrated last fall from eastern portions of the U.S. and Canada to reach their historic Mexican wintering grounds. Each year scientists count the number of acres of trees where the Monarchs cluster during their winter stay in Mexico. This winter Monarchs covered just 1.7 acres — a significant decline from the previous low of 2.9 acres.

Male Monarch in Barb's yard.   Photo © Barb Elliot

Male Monarch in Barb’s yard. Photo © Barb Elliot

Loss of milkweed is the primary reason for the steep decline in Monarch numbers. Milkweeds are the only plant Monarch caterpillars can eat. Millions of acres of milkweed habitat have disappeared in the mid-west due to the use of genetically modified (GMO) corn and soy crops. Farmers spray their fields with Roundup, and the crops survive. However, this herbicide kills the other plants like milkweed that previously grew in and around crops. Since these Roundup Ready crops came into use over the last 15 years, almost 80% of milkweeds in the mid-west have disappeared. Monarch population decreases have correlated in lock step with the loss of milkweed.  Milkweed habitat is also lost due to development and mowing of roadsides. Extreme weather over the past few years in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada has also contributed to Monarch losses. Cold snaps, heat waves, droughts and heavy rains have also taken a toll on the Monarchs and milkweeds.

Monarch laying egg on Butterfly Milkweed.  Photo @ Barb Elliot.

Monarch laying egg on Butterfly Milkweed. Photo @ Barb Elliot.

As a result, last summer we Monarch-lovers saw few, if any, Monarchs. With these steep declines, we’ll surely see even fewer this summer. However, Monarch experts say that the Monarch population can bounce back – probably not to the high levels of the 1990s, but to a lower “new normal”. To improve their numbers, Monarchs need MORE milkweed.

That’s where we come in. We Monarch-lovers must plant more milkweeds this year. The Monarchs, fewer in numbers now, will need quantities of milkweeds to find the plants easily and lay their eggs. Also, milkweeds are very important plants in the web of life and provide high quality nectar for a variety of other important pollinators.

Monarch caterpillar on Barb's Swamp Milkweed.  Photo © Barb Elliot.

Monarch caterpillar on Barb’s Swamp Milkweed. Photo © Barb Elliot.

Let’s keep the welcome mat out for Monarchs! To that end, we are selling Butterfly Milkweed and Swamp Milkweed this year for only $2 a plant. Plant some milkweeds to help the Monarchs. If you already have some, plant even more! Plant them in containers, too. Talk to family, friends, and neighbors about the need. Get permission to plant them at a community park, church, business, roadway, or open space, too.

Now is the time for YOU to help the beautiful Monarchs survive for generations to come.

 

Milkweed Sale Information

Cost:  $2 per plant.  Cash only.  Money collected above our actual costs will be donated to Monarch Joint Venture, a partnership of organizations working to conserve the monarch migration.

Plants Description:  Plants are landscape plugs with well-developed (about 5”) root systems.  When in bloom, they look like this:

   Butterfly Milkweed                                                                Swamp Milkweed      (Asclepias tuberosa)                                                             (Asclepias incarnata) 

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) Photo © Barb Elliot.

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Minimum Order:  5 plants of one species only.  That is, 5 Butterfly Milkweed or 5 Swamp Milkweed. Not 3 of one species and 2 of the other.

Number of Plants:  Plants will be sold in multiples of 5 per species only, e.g. 10, 15, 30

Maximum Order:  None.  However, supplies depend on availability from our wholesaler.  Plants will be reserved based on the order in which orders are received.

Order Deadline:  Orders must be received no later than April 30, 2014..

Pickup Date & Time:  Saturday, May 31st, 2014 – 10 AM to 3 PM.                                             Sorry, no alternate pickup times can be arranged.

Pickup Location:  Roberts Elementary School, 889 Croton Rd, Wayne, PA 19087       For Directions, click here

General Planting Recommendations:
1. Plant in clusters, preferably at least 5 plants per cluster to attract passing Monarchs.
2. Plant 12” apart.
3. For more detailed planting instructions and other ways to help Monarchs, click title:  Planting and Caring for Your Milkweeds.

If you have any problems ordering or questions, send an email to info@backyardsfornature.org

Order Confirmation:  You will receive a confirmation email within 7 days from info@backyardsfornature.org.  Please set your email filter to accept email from this address.  If you do not get a confirmation email within 7 days, send an email to:  info@backyardsfornature.org 

Pollinators Need Our Help!

By Barb Elliot

The earliest spring flowers will soon emerge.  In my garden I’ll admire the delicate white petals of Bloodroot, the first to bloom. Soon I’ll enjoy the blue bell-like flowers of Jacob’s Ladder, the bright yellow of Golden Ragwort, and striking red blooms of Wild Columbine.   The flowers are charming, but I will be more captivated by their insect visitors.  Small bees and flies will fly from blossom to blossom. Working intently, they will stop briefly to feed and gather nectar and pollen.  These will be the first pollinators of the year.

Skipper sipping nectar from Upland Ironweed.  @ Barb Elliot

Skipper sipping nectar from Upland Ironweed. @ Barb Elliot

As spring and summer progress, pollinators will visit the succession of blooms on my native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  Bees, butterflies, flies, beetles, and wasps will be at work.  I’ll watch each butterfly unfurl its straw-like proboscis to daintily probe flower heads and sip nectar.  Yellow pollen grains will dot the heads and bodies of bees and flies.  Female bees will sport saddlebag-like pollen baskets on their hind legs.  The undersides of leafcutter bees’ abdomens will be golden from pollen grains stored on special hairs.

Bumble Bee with pollen baskets.  Photo by Beatriz Moisset. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Bumble Bee with pollen baskets. Photo by Beatriz Moisset. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

I’ll notice the size, shape, and tongue lengths of pollinators – characteristics that enable some to better exploit different shaped flowers than others.  Iridescent green sweat bees will glisten in the sunlight as they feed on nectar.  The strikingly-marked Locust Borer Beetle will catch my attention as it methodically forages for pollen on my goldenrods.  I’ll marvel at how close I can get to colorful wasps as they busily collect nectar.  Hover flies will hang suspended in air as they take a break from feeding on nectar and pollen.  After dark, with my flashlight, I’ll find moths flying from flower to flower, performing nighttime pollination.

Locust Borer Beetle on goldenrod.  Wikimedia Creative Commons photo.

Locust Borer Beetle on goldenrod. Wikimedia Creative Commons photo.

My flowering plants put on their royal finery to entice these pollinators, not me.  Their showy colors and patterns advertise and guide the pollinators to the plants’ nectar and pollen.  The plants must rely on the pollinators to transport pollen among different flowers of the same species.  This cross-pollination enables plants to produce the seeds and fruit needed  for reproduction.  Well-pollinated plants bear more fruit, produce genetically diverse seed, and are healthier. For the pollinators the nectar provides carbohydrates for energy. The pollen supplies them and their offspring with protein, vitamins, minerals, fats, and starches.

Pollinators play essential roles in our ecosystems.  Seventy-five percent of the world’s plants require pollinators to produce seed or fruit.  One-third of our food supply comes from pollinator-reliant plants. Birds and other wildlife in my yard and the world over eat

Green Sweat Bee.  Photo by Beatriz Moisset on Wikimedia Creative Comoons.

Green Sweat Bee. Photo by Beatriz Moisset on Wikimedia Creative Comoons.

the seeds and fruits produced by pollinator-dependent plants.  Pollinators themselves are food for birds and other animals, including insects.  A diverse population of pollinators is critical to the web of life.

Unfortunately, many pollinators are in decline.  Some are threatened with extinction.  Our most beloved pollinator, the Monarch butterfly, is in serious trouble.  The eastern U.S. population crashed in 2013, and the smallest number on record over-wintered in Mexico this year.  Not only Monarchs but other pollinator populations, including bees, our most prolific pollinators, are in trouble, too. The effects of Colony Collapse Disorder on non-native honeybee populations are well known. However, many of our 4,000 U.S. native bee species, key pollinators of both

Bumble bee with tongue extended on Mountain Mint. Photo @ Barb Elliot.

Bumble bee with tongue extended on Mountain Mint. Photo @ Barb Elliot.

native plants and crops, are also at risk.  Bumble bees seem particularly hard hit, with about half of our 47 U.S. species in decline.  Some are in danger of extinction. Less studied pollinators like beetles, wasps, and moths are likely declining as well.

Loss of good foraging and nesting habitat is the primary cause for pollinator declines.  Pesticides and introduced parasites add to the toll.  Many experts believe neonicotinoid insecticides pose a particular threat to bees and other pollinators.  Those that forage on treated plants become weak or die.  “Neonics” and other systemic pesticides are taken up through a plant’s roots and travel to all parts of the plant, including its nectar and pollen.  Last June, 50,000 bumble bees foraging on flowering trees at a single location in Oregon were killed after the trees were sprayed with a neonicotenoid.  Neonics are present in a variety of insecticide brands commonly sold to gardeners. They are also used in nurseries that raise plants.  In fact, some plants sold as bee-attractants contain neonicotenoids.

Wasp on Mountain Mint. @ Barb Elliot

Wasp on Mountain Mint. @ Barb Elliot

Despite all the threats, we gardeners can help sustain pollinator populations in our area.  (See table below.)  Some gardeners like to attract butterflies, but balk at inviting moths, bees, beetles, flies, and wasps.  However, these insects have important roles to play in the web of life and are generally harmless to gardeners.  Native bees are unaggressive and rarely sting. Even wasps are docile when foraging on flowers, although they may forcefully defend a nest.  By incorporating a variety of native plants in our yards, our most important conservation action, we will attract pollinators that are also predators and keep insect populations in check.  Various beetles, flies, and wasps prey on aphids and other insect pests.  By growing a diversity of native plants (see plant list below), we will encourage a healthy balance of insects in our gardens.

Hover Fly on Snakeroot.  @ Barb Elliot

Hover Fly on Snakeroot. @ Barb Elliot

I hope the plight of the Monarch butterfly will compel us to action. We must help not just the Monarchs* but the less charismatic butterfly, bee, fly, wasp, beetle, and moth pollinators as well.  For too long, we have ignored pollinators or treated them as pests to be destroyed.  We have gardened for aesthetics and our enjoyment without considering nature.  These beneficial creatures are crucial players in the web of life in our own gardens and beyond. We can make a difference for them.  We and our gardens will benefit.

 *Please note that we will be selling milkweed plants for Monarchs again this year!  Stay tuned for an upcoming post about Monarchs and details of the milkweed sale.

How to Help Pollinators
Provide Food 
  • Plant:
¨  A variety of nectar- and pollen-rich native plants. Strive for 8 or more species.
¨   Perennials in clusters, preferably 5 or more of a single species, so plants are easily found.
¨   For a succession of blooms from early spring through late fall.
¨   Natives with different flower shapes for pollinators or varied sizes, shapes, and tongue lengths.
¨   Host plants for butterflies and moths.
  • Buy plants at local native plant retailers or where sellers identify whether plants are pre-treated with systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids.
  • Remove invasive plants so they crowd out natives
Provide nesting and overwintering sites
  • Leave:
¨  Areas of bare soil in sunny, well-drained spots.
¨   Stumps, logs on the ground, dead branches and trees.
¨   Leaf litter for over-wintering butterflies, moths, beetles and their larvae or pupae
¨   Stems of perennials standing from fall through late winter
Provide water
  • Add a shallow dish with sloped sides for easy entry and exit
  • Keep an area of soil moist or muddy for butterflies and other pollinators that forage for minerals and salts in soil
Prevent pesticide poisoning
  • Don’t use pesticides, but especially avoid neonicotinoids.  Click here for a list of common brands containing neonics.
  • Don’t apply herbicides or fungicides to lawn or beds with nest sites or pollinator plants
Other Ways to Help Pollinators
  • Make a commitment to protect pollinators by getting your yard certified as a pollinator habitat and posting a sign.  See The Xerces Society’s “Bring Back the Pollinators” campaign
  • Become a citizen scientist to help scientists track pollinator populations, such as by reporting sightings of bumble bees to Bumble Bee Watch or other species to Project NoahXerces Bring Back the Pollinators habitatsignfull (1)
Recommended Native Plants for Pollinators by Bloom Period

Common Name

Botanical Name

Flower Color

Bloom Period^

Height

Soil

Exposure

Notes

Perennials

Bloodroot
Sanguinaria canadensis
White
April
6-8”
Dry to moist
Part shade to shade
Golden Ragwort
Packera aurea
Yellow
April-May
1-2’
Moist to wet
Part shade to shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
Jacob’s Ladder
Polemonium reptans
Blue
April-May
8-15”
Moist
Part  shade to shade
Deer resistant
Wild Geraniium
Geranium maculatum
Pink – purple
April-May
1-3’
Moist to dry
Part sun to shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
False Solomon’s Seal
Maianthemum racemosum
White-cream
May
12-24”
Moist to dry
Part shade to shade
Smooth Solomon’s Seal
Polygonatum biflorum
White -light yellow
May-June
2-4’
Moist to dry
Part sun
Deer resistant
Wild Columbine
Aquilegia canadensis
Red
May-June
1-3’
Moist to average
Part sun to shade
Deer resistant
Beardtongue
Penstemon digitalis
White
June-July
2-3’
Dry to moist
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant
Bee Balm
Monarda didyma
Red
June-August
3-4’
Moist to dry
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant
Butterfly Milkweed
Asclepia tuberosa
Orange
June-August
1-2’
Dry to moist
Sun
Host plant for Monarch, others.  Deer resistant
Nodding Onion
Allium cernuum
Pale -dark pink
July
1-2’
Dry to moist
Sun
Deer resistant
Purple Coneflower
Echinacea purpurea
Purplish pink
July
3-4’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Swamp Milkweed
Asclepias incarnata
Light – dark pink
July
3-5’
Moist to wet
Sun to part sun
Host plant – Monarch butterfly; deer resistant
Blazing Star
Liatris spicata
Purple
July-August
2-4’
Moist
Sun
Culver’s Root
Veronicastrum virginicum
White
July-August
3-5’
Moist
Sun to part shade
Joe Pye Weed
Eutrochium maculatum; E. fistulosum
Pink
July-August
4-7’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
Short-toothed Mountain Mint
Pycnanthemum mutucum
White
July-August
2-3’
Moist
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant
White Turtlehead
Chelone glabra
White
July-August
2-4’
Moist to wet
Sun to part sun
Wild Bergamot
Monarda fistulosa
Pink
July-August
2-4’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Host plant. Deer resistant
Common Boneset
Eupatorium perfoliatum
White
July-September
2-4’
Moist to wet
Sun
Host plant
Cup Plant
Silphium perfoliatum
Yellow
July- September
4-8’
Moist to wet
Sun
Host plant
Fragrant Hyssop
Agastache foeniculum
Blue-violet
July-September
3-5’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Deer resistant
False Sunflower
Heliopsis helianthoides
Yellow
July-September
3-5’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Garden Phlox
Phlox paniculata
Pink/white/
lavender
July-September
2-6’
Moist
Sun to part shade
Goldenrod -Stiff
Solidago rigida
Yellow
July-Sept
3-5’
Dry to moist
Sun to part sun
Host plant. Deer resistant
Great Blue Lobelia
Lobelia siphilitica
Blue
August
1-3’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Cutleaf/ Green-headed Coneflower
Rudbeckia laciniata
Yellow
August-September
3-6’
Moist
Sun to part sun
New England Aster
Symphotrichum novae-angliae
Pink -purple
August-September
2-5’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Host plant
Goldenrod – Zigzag
Solidago flexicaulis
Yellow
August-October
1-3’
Dry to moist
Part shade to shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
New York Ironweed
Vernonia noveboracensis
Magenta
August-October
3-6’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Obedient Plant
Physostegia virginiana
Pink
August-October
2-5’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Mistflower or Hardy Ageratum
Conoclinum coelestinum
Blue
September-October
1-3’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant

Vines

Virgin’s Bower (a magnet for daytime species & moths at night)
Clematis virginiana
White
August-September
To 10’
Moist
Sun to part shade
May spread. Deer resistant

Trees and Shrubs

Pussy Willow
Salix discolor
Silvery gray
March
20-35’
Sun
Wet to moist
Serviceberry
Amelanchier canadensis;  A. laevis
White
April
6-20’
Sun to part shade
Dry to moist
Highbush Blueberry
Vaccinium corymbosum
White – pink
April-May
6-12’
Sun to shade
Wet to dry, acid
Redbud
Cercis canadensis
Pink – lavender
April-May
20-30’
Sun to part shade
Moist to wet
Deer resistant
Black Cherry
Prunus serotina
White
May-June
50-75’
Sun to part shade
Moist
Sweetbay Magnolia
Magnolia virginiana
Creamy white
May-June
10-20’
Sun to part shade
Moist to wet
Deer resistant
Black Gum
Nyssa sylvatica
Green
June
30-50’
Sun to part shade
Moist to wet
Deer resistant
Tulip Tree
Liriodendron tulipifera
Yellow-green  & orange
June
75-100’
Sun to part shade
Moist to average
Basswood
Tilia americana
Pale yellowish
Late June-early July
75-100’
Full sun to light shade
Moist
Buttonbush
Cephalanthus occidentalis
Creamy white
July-August
6-12’
Sun
Wet to moist

Resolutions to Bring Nature to Your Yard in 2014

By Edie Parnum

Oh, no, you say.  I never make resolutions—too much self-denial and discipline.

Here are some resolutions that don’t require much work.  And, in fact, they’ll add pleasure to your life. Pick one of these to get started. Birds, butterflies, and other creatures will visit your yard.  Pick three, and you’ll see nature flourish abundantly–guaranteed.

  1. Plant a tree.  Adding a native (historically part of our local ecosystem and food web) tree is the single best contribution you can make to your property’s habitat.  It will offer more food, shelter, and nesting places than any other plant.  Besides providing seeds, fruits, or nuts directly to birds and other animals, the tree’s leaves host native insects.  Birds and other small animals eat native insects in
    White-Marked Tussock Moth caterpillar eats leaves of oaks, birches, cherries, and other trees.  Click to enlarge

    White-Marked Tussock Moth caterpillar eats leaves of oaks, birches, cherries, and other trees.

    large quantities. The small animals are prey to larger ones.  Thus, this native tree and its insects contribute enormously to fuel your yard’s ecosystem.  It’s easy and inexpensive to plant a sapling tree.  It will establish quickly, grow fast, and sustain wildlife for decades.  Surely you have room for one tree (small or large), perhaps several of them.  Native oaks offer the best wildlife value but check our website for other valuable native trees.

  2. Plant shrubs.  Requiring less space than a tree, they offer nearly as much value to a healthy habitat. Besides the nutritious fruits these woody plants produce, insects eat their leaves.  As with trees, these insects sustain birds and the other animals in the web of life.  Also, dense deciduous and evergreen shrubs provide
    Red Chokeberry’s fruits are eaten by thrushes, catbirds, and waxwings.  Click to enlarge.

    Red Chokeberry’s fruits are eaten by thrushes, catbirds, and waxwings.

    cover and places for nesting birds.  Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), Red and Black Chokeberry (Aronia sp.), Northern Bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), and various native dogwoods (Cornus sp.) and viburnums (Viburnum sp.) are excellent choices. Plant three or more of each species.  See our website for recommended shrubs.

  3. Plant perennials, not annuals.  Annual flowers are so much trouble to put in each year, fertilize, and keep watered.  Forget the bothersome begonias, impatiens, marigolds, coleus. petunias, and the like.  Native perennials will grow
    Hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators feed on Wild Bergamot’s nectar.  Click to enlarge.

    Hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators feed on Wild Bergamot’s nectar.

    and bloom beautifully for years without any extra care. My favorites are Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Summer Phlox (Phlox paniculata), New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angelae), Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), and Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), but there are many other beautiful native perennials. All provide nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Like other native plants, they host native insects, too.

  4. Plant a vine.  If you want hummingbirds in your yard, plant a Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) (not the invasive Japanese Honeysuckle, of course) or Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans).  Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana) is a magnet for bees, moths, and other pollinators.
  5. Plant groundcovers.  Minimize weeding.  Instead, cover the ground with native groundcovers like Allegheny Pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens), Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), and Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea).
  6. Take out a patch of lawn.   It’s the most biologically deficient part of your yard—not much better than your driveway.  Every year decrease the size of your lawn
    Great-spangled Fritillary nectaring on False Sunflower.  Click to enlarge.

    Great-spangled Fritillary nectaring on False Sunflower.

    and keep only what you use for family activities, dog play, and other outdoor activities.  Instead of turf grass, plant any and all of the above: trees, shrubs, perennials, vines, groundcovers.

  7. Take out invasives.  Invasive plants spread aggressively and crowd out desirable native vegetation.  Yes, whether you cut, pull, or smother the invasives, it can be a lot of work.  Plus, if you leave the ground bare afterward, of course they’ll come back.  Immediately fill in the cleared area with native plants.
  8. Learn native plants.  You can attend botany walks at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, and Tyler Arboretum.  Visit a botanical preserve where native plants are labeled such as Bowman’s Hill and Jenkins Arboretum. When buying plants at native plant nurseries like Redbud Nursery and Yellow Springs Farm, you’ll see labelled plants and learn growing tips from their knowledgeable staffs.  Use the internet photos and gardening information, too.
  9. Read a book.  I recommend Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.  The author, Douglas Tallamy, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, will inspire you to plant native plants and increase your determination to host native insects, birds, and butterflies in your yard.

    White-throated Sparrow, a common visitor in winter. Click to enlarge.

    White-throated Sparrow, a common visitor in winter.

  10. Walk around and enjoy nature in your yard frequently.  Take your binoculars to better see and learn about the birds, butterflies, and other creatures that live in your garden.  With a camera you can take photos of your plants and wildlife sightings.   You’ll be inspired to become more familiar with your own wildlife preserve. Spread your enthusiasm: take a child with you on your backyard adventures.

Personally I will do all ten of these—with pleasure.

If you’re a beginner to habitat gardening, pick one of these ideas to get started.  Perhaps you can tackle two or three this year, but don’t get overly ambitious.  Start planning now in the dead of winter. Time and money may be limited, but you can start small and keep improving your habitat each year.  Before long you’ll notice more insects including butterflies and moths, more birds, and, indeed, much more wildlife activity in your yard.

Do something for nature in 2014.

 

Brown Gold: The Gift of Fall Leaves

By Barb Elliot

The brilliant yellow, orange, and red leaves are turning brown.  The beauty of autumn is fleeting and soon all the leaves will be on the ground.  This “leaf litter” is not trash.  The leaves nourish my garden.  They’re home to tiny creatures that are essential to my garden’s ecosystem.  These leaves are the gift of fall.

© Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

© Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Last year, instead of buying expensive mulch, I mulched with fallen leaves.  My trees and shrubs produce leaves abundantly and without charge.  Wherever possible, I left them to decompose where they fell.  I raked the rest from my lawn into my planting beds.   Also, I collected leaves from my neighbors and added them to my garden.  The leaves choked out the weeds, retained moisture, reduced erosion, and insulated the roots of my plants against winter cold.  A natural fertilizer, they added nutrients to my soil.  My plants grew remarkably well this year.

Leaf litter (or duff) offers exceptional benefits.  Myriad creatures live in the duff and play key roles in the healthy, diverse ecosystem of my yard.  Countless microorganisms and tiny invertebrates break down the leaves into basic elements that enrich the soil.  Bacteria and fungi accomplish the bulk of decomposition.  Invertebrates such as snails, slugs, and earthworms assist in the process and contribute to the web of life in the leaves and soil.

American Toads eat invertebrates in leaf mulch.  Photo by Jarek Tuszynski.  Wikimedia Creative Commons.

American Toads eat invertebrates in leaf mulch. Jarek Tuszynski photo, Wikimedia Creative Commons.  Click to enlarge.

Many, many arthropods — creatures with exoskeletons and jointed legs — such as sowbugs, spiders, daddy longlegs, millipedes, centipedes, protruans, and double-tails play an important role, too.  Spring-tails and mites, the most numerous, are so small they are rarely observed by gardeners.  Many beneficial insects such as crickets, beetles, flies, bees, wasps, and ants also live in the duff.  All of these creatures are food for other invertebrates or larger animals such as salamanders, toads, and mice.  These in turn are eaten by birds, snakes, or larger mammals.  The large and small animals associated with the leaf layer form a natural predator-prey balance in the ecosystem.

We butterfly-lovers (and fellow moth-lovers, too) know the leaf layer shelters these winged beauties in their various life stages.  Numerous butterfly and moth species

Red-banded Hairstreak on Mountain Mint in Barb's yard. Photo © Barb Elliot.

Red-banded Hairstreak on Barb’s Mountain Mint. Photo © Barb Elliot.

overwinter in the leaf litter as eggs, larvae (caterpillars), pupae (chrysalides or cocoons) or adults.  For instance, the lovely Red-banded Hairstreak, which has visited my yard, lays its eggs on the underside of fallen sumac or oak leaves. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars eat the leaves and then overwinter in the leaf layer as late-stage caterpillars or chrysalides.  Tawny Emperor butterfly caterpillars wrap themselves in a curled leaf and overwinter as caterpillars.

 

Woolly Bear caterpillar in Barb's leaf mulch.  October, 2013.  Photo © Barb Elliot.

Woolly Bear caterpillar in Barb’s leaf mulch. October, 2013. Photo © Barb Elliot.

Isabella Tiger Moth - the adult form of a Woolly Bear.  Photo by Steve Jurvetson.  Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Isabella Tiger Moth – adult form of a Woolly Bear. Steve Jurvetson photo, Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Fuzzy Woolly Bear caterpillars are now searching for good spots under the leaf layer where they will hibernate for the winter.  In spring, each will spin a cocoon and emerge as an Isabella Tiger Moth.

The Luna Moth, one of our largest and most beautiful moths, overwinters as a cocoon in the dead leaves.  Unfortunately, when we treat our leaves as trash, we are also throwing out the butterflies and moths that will grace our yards next spring and summer.

Cocoons of the Luna Moth are found in leaf mulch.  Photo © Adrian Binns.

Luna Moth cocoons are found in leaf mulch. Photo © Adrian Binns.

Leaf litter benefits birds, too.  In my yard I see ground-feeding Eastern Towhees, Gray Catbirds, Northern Flickers, and sparrows picking through the leaves.  They find insects and other invertebrates to feed themselves and their protein-hungry nestlings. One spring, a migrating Brown Thrasher, a species I don’t see very often, foraged in the

Brown Thrashers find food in leaf mulch.  Photo courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.

Brown Thrasher. Photo © Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

leaves of my flower bed.   Birds that nest in my yard search the leaf layer for nesting materials such as leaf stems, twigs, and moss.

In our society, we are expected to be yard “neatniks”.  We conscientiously rake or blow leaves into piles and then stuff them into bags.  Picked up at the curb, the leaves end up in a landfill or a huge “leaf compost” pile that smothers beneficial creatures.  Personally, I choose to keep all my own leaves and add those discarded by neighbors so they can decompose naturally in my yard.  Maybe you, too, will rescue leaves from neighbors.  If you want to start small, rake some leaves into a back corner of your yard.  Although shredding leaves speeds up decomposition, I refrain for fear I’ll destroy the insects and other animals living there.

I’m making a vow.  I will never again throw out next year’s butterflies and moths or the other animals that live in my leaf litter.  Dead leaves are a gift to biodiversity and the web of life.  Leaf mulch is brown gold.  I’m joining the new movement* to make fallen leaves socially acceptable as garden mulch.   I’m in!  Are you?

————————————————————————————————————-

Resources

*Borge, Mary Anne.Red-banded Hairstreaks, Sumacs and Leaf Mulch”. Butterfly Gardener, Volume 18, Issue 3, Fall 2013, 9-11.

Bodin, Madeline.  “Every Litter Bit Helps”.  National Wildlife, October 1, 2005. https://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Gardening/Archives/2005/Tree-Leaves-for-Backyard-Wildlife.aspx

Johnson, Elizabeth and Catley, Kefyn.  Life in the Leaf Litter.  American Museum of Natural History, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, 2002.

Sutton, Pat.  A Love of Untidy Gardens and Why!  Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. 2011.  http://nativeplantwildlifegarden.com/untidy-wildlife-gardens/

 

Native Berries for Fall Migrants

By Edie Parnum

Birds were dropping out of the sky into the trees and shrubs around me. It was daybreak on a fall morning in my backyard.  Though I could see only silhouettes, I recognized the chips of robins and Swainson’s Thrushes.  In the dim light I couldn’t identify the other numerous birds but knew these were migrants that had flown non-stop from the north during the night.

After their nighttime exertion, they were exhausted and ravenously hungry. They needed to find high-energy food and to revive in a habitat offering shelter from predators.  With most of the surrounding area covered with buildings, roads, parking

Cedar Waxwing eating Crabapple berries.  Courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

Cedar Waxwing eating Crabapple berries. Courtesy of and © Howard Eskin. Click to enlarge.

lots, and sterile lawns, they were desperate for sustenance.  From above, the migrants probably see the local parks as deceptively inviting, but the grass and other non-native vegetation provide little nutritious food.  Their energy depleted, these migrants need familiar and nourishing native plant food.  Otherwise they are in trouble.

Watching these migrants, I imagine myself on a road trip, one I’ve done many times.  After hours of driving, I’m hungry, tired, and low on gas.  I’m looking forward to Rosie’s Restaurant, a favorite stop for good food, gas, and a respite from the journey.  To my dismay, the restaurant and adjacent gas station are gone.  Wasting time and energy, I must drive around randomly to locate what I need before resuming my trip.

Migrants often find my yard and use it to rest and refuel.  During fall migration, especially after a cold front, I search for recent arrivals.  Sometimes I find thrushes, tanagers, grosbeaks, and warblers eating berries on the Virginia Creeper, Arrowwood Viburnum, Winterberry Holly, Spicebush, Black Chokeberry, Flowering Dogwood, Crabapple, and Northern Bayberry I’ve planted for them. One winter a southbound Hermit Thrush stayed in my yard all winter eating American Holly berries.

This fall I’ve been watching a Gray Catbird eating berries on the Virginia Creeper

Cape may Warbler eating Virginia Creeper berries.  Courtesy of and © G. Dewaghe.  Click to enlarge.

Cape may Warbler eating Virginia Creeper berries. Courtesy of and © G. Dewaghe. Click to enlarge.

hanging above my deck railing.  Because the bird is just a few feet away, I don’t really need my binoculars.  It lands on a branch, leans forward, grabs one of the blue-black berries, then quickly swallows—again and again, all day long.  Either a resident breeder soon to migrate or a recent arrival using my yard as a stopover, this bird needs these berries. Besides Gray Catbird I’ve seen Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Bluebird, Swainson’s Thrush, American Robin, Cape May Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler eating Virginia Creeper berries.

Prior to migration, songbirds must increase their weight by 50-100%.  Thrushes, grosbeaks, waxwings, orioles, tanagers, and other songbirds switch from a diet of insects to mostly berries.  Finding berries consumes less energy than pursuing insects.  Scott McWilliams and Navindra Seeram, researchers at the University of Rhode Island, are studying the diet of birds preparing for migration on Block Island.  According to this new research, birds select deeply-pigmented berries

Highly nutritious Arrowwood Viburnum berries were most preferred by migrants preparing for fall migration in the Block Island study.  Photo © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Highly nutritious Arrowwood Viburnum berries were most preferred by migrants preparing for fall migration in the Block Island study. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

that are high in antioxidants and fat prior to migration.  Antioxidants help birds(as well as humans) handle stress.  Because migration is certainly stressful, birds need to find nutrient-rich berries at stopovers along their migratory routes.

Migration is hazardous for birds.  On their southward journey they fly at night for four to six hours without a break. They must stop and refuel several times before reaching their wintering grounds, especially if their final destination is the tropics.  They spend four to five days at each stopover where most consume nutrient-rich berries.  If they fail to find sufficient fuel for the next leg of their journey, they become weak and vulnerable to hawks, owls, and other predators.

Scientists tell us even small patches of native plants can provide food and shelter for migrating birds.  On my three quarter acre property, I’ve planted scores of fruit-bearing native shrubs, trees, and vines.  Besides the shrubs mentioned, I’ve recently planted Black Gum, Hackberry, Sassafras, and Spicebush that will offer fruits in future autumns.  Also, in a few spots I allow Pokeweed (regrettably considered a weed by most gardeners) to grow and produce beautiful dark purple berries irresistible to birds.

Since many ornamental and invasive non-native plants produce berries, why are native plants so important for migrating birds?  With their high fat content and extra antioxidants, native berries are highly nutritious.  Because the natives usually have

Birds do eat non-native berries.  This Gray Catbird is eating invasive Porcelainberry and, regrettably, spreading the seeds. Photo courtesy of and © Adrian Binns/Wildside Nature Tours.  Click to enlarge.

Birds do eat non-native berries. This Gray Catbird is eating invasive Porcelainberry and, regrettably, spreading the seeds. Photo courtesy of and © Adrian Binns/Wildside Nature Tours.com. Click to enlarge.

strongly-colored berries, either black or red, or have leaves or stems that are bright red, birds can easily find them.  Also, the native berries ripen at the right time.  Many migrants, especially warblers, continue to eat insects as well—found primarily on native plants.  If necessary, of course, birds will also eat the less nutritious fruits of non-native plants.

Most yards have room for shrubs.  You can plant native fruit-bearing shrubs and small trees around your property’s perimeter to create a hedgerow laden with nutritious fall fruits.  You can also group them around isolated trees.  By reducing your lawn, you’ll find room for more shrubs and other fruiting plants.

Birds, especially those that migrate to the tropics, are in trouble.  On average, the populations of long-distance migrant species drop 1% each year. We assume we can do little except give money to organizations that preserve land.  However, we can help migrating birds survive their perilous and crucial journeys by growing the plants they need and love.

References:

http://www.naturalnews.com/029391_birds_superfoods.html#

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100324155357.htm

 Top Native Berry Plants for Fall Migrants
Latin Name Common Name
Trees
Celtis occidentalis Hackberry
Cornus florida Flowering Dogwood
Ilex opaca American Holly
Malus coronaria Crabapple
Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum/ Tupelo
Sassafras albidum Sassafras
Shrubs
Aronia arbutifolia, A. melanocarpa  Red Chokeberry, Black Chokeberry
Cornus racemosa, C. amonum Gray Dogwood, Silky Dogwood
Ilex verticillata Winterberry Holly
Lindera benzoin Spicebush
Myrica pensylvanica Bayberry
Viburnum   acerfolium, V. dentatum, V. lentago,V. nudum, V. prunifolium Mapleleaf Viburnum, Arrowwood   Viburnum, Nannyberry, Possumhaw,  Black   Haw
Vines and   Herbaceous Plants
Parthenocissus quinquefolia Virginia Creeper Vine
Phytolacca americana Pokeweed

Moth Night

By Edie Parnum

Moths are underappreciated.  Most people think they’re dull and uninteresting.  They ignore those nameless little moths that fly up while walking through the grass.  Those moth pests in the kitchen cupboards are considered just that—pests. True, most of us

Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe)- a day-flying moth.  © Barb Elliot Click to enlarge.

Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe)- a day-flying moth. © Barb Elliot Click to enlarge.

can be captivated by a large, daytime moth like a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth sipping nectar from flowers.  However, because moths are usually nighttime creatures, most folks have little appreciation of their variety, esthetic appeal, and role in the web of life.  As for myself, I confess to moth love.

Moth Night is now an annual event in my backyard. A few weeks ago, I invited nature-loving family members and friends for nighttime “mothing”.  A few hours before sunset, I prepared for the occasion.  Since a great many nocturnal moths are attracted to light, I hung two white cotton sheets and positioned lights in front of them.  One light is a grow light and the other is a black light.  Both of these attract moths because they project a wider range of UV light than standard incandescent or florescent light bulbs. Some moths do not come to lights.  Instead, I lured them to a fermented concoction (see recipe below) I painted on tree trunks.

Once it was quite dark, we ventured out into the darkness. Using our flashlights or headlamps, we observed the moths attracted to the lighted sheets and tree trunks.  By shining our lights back and forth in the garden, we found more moths hidden in the vegetation, especially on flowers. Sometimes their eyes reflected back to us.  Big and small, ornate and plain, colorful and monochromatic—they were there.

Sad Underwing.  A 2"-long moth.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Sad Underwing. A 2″-long moth. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

We often heard someone say, “Look at this one!”  That’s what my friend Mike said when he found the Sad Underwing (Catocala maestosa).  We were happy to see this intricately patterned two-inch species.  I presume it’s called “sad” because the underwing

The Sweetheart - a 2" long moth.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

The Sweetheart – a 2″ long moth. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

(hindwing) is plain.  Another time Barb, my friend and colleague, discovered The Sweetheart (Catocala amatrix), an Underwing that charmed us with its rosy-pink hindwing pattern. The uncommon Hop’s Anglewing (Nyphonix segregata) was a good find that night.

Hops Angleshade.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Hops Angleshade. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

We “moth-ers” exclaim “ooh” and “ah” frequently because moths are varied and beautiful creatures.   They display a variety of colors including pink, purple, orange, green, and yellow.  Some shimmer in the light or have iridescent spots. Those that are orange and black are toxic or pretending to be. True, many of them are just shades of tan and grey, but often the patterns are well-defined and elaborate. Others are camouflaged to look like dead leaves or bird droppings.

Becky, a moth-er, looking at a Yellow-Banded Underwing (Catacola cerogama).  @ Debbie Beer.  Click to enlarge.
Becky, a moth-er, looking at a Yellow-Banded Underwing (Catacola cerogama). @ Debbie Beer. Click to enlarge.

The shapes can be interesting, too. We see wings that are deeply scalloped, creased, or curled.  The Plume Moths with their skinny wings look like miniature airplanes. Moth antennae sometimes resemble feathers.  Bizarre hairy tufts can show up almost anywhere on their bodies: the legs, thorax, or abdomen.

By looking for the eye-shine of other creatures, we discovered bees, caterpillars, praying mantises, spiders, and cicadas.  My nine-year-old grandson found and identified a Leopard Slug (a creature from the netherworld?) eating the bait on a tree trunk.  We listened for night sounds, too, and heard the whinny of a screech owl and squeaks of flying squirrels.

Leopard Slug.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Leopard Slug. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Many of us took photos and then later admired the details on our computer screens.  That’s when I try my hand at moth ID.  It’s difficult.  After all, 11, 000 species of moths in North America have been identified.  Moths outnumber butterfly species 11 to one.

After I’ve identified a moth, I note its host plants.  These are the plants where the moth lived its earlier stages as an egg and caterpillar and where the female adult moth will lay eggs for the next generation.  Many of these host plants grow on my property (see below). Although I live in a congested suburban area, my ¾-acre property has a good variety of the native perennials, grasses, and woody plants that moths use. And, I don’t use pesticides. It is moth-friendly habitat.

Why should we care about moths?  Moths are important links in the web of life.  The adult moths are good pollinators and are food for birds and bats.  Birds, especially nestling birds, also feed on moths in their egg, larvae, or caterpillar stages.   Small mammals, reptiles, and other insect predators consume moths in their various stages as well. In fact, insects power our ecosystem and are the most important animals of all.

Moths have lured me into the nighttime natural world of my backyard.  Now I feel more intimately connected to the lives of moths and other creatures that contribute to my property’s biodiversity.  I won’t wait until next year to hold another Moth Night.  I’ve caught the moth bug.

Harris's Three-Spot (Harrisimimna trisignata).  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Harris’s Three-Spot (Harrisimimna trisignata). © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

——- For additional photographs of moths, see Moth Photo Gallery below  —–

Edie’s Bait Recipe

  • One or two overripe bananas, mashed
  • Dollop of molasses
  • Small scoop of brown sugar
  • Glug or two of beer (stale is ok)
  1. No need to be precise.  Mix together and adjust proportions to create a pancake batter consistency.
  2. Leave it for a day or two in a warm place.  I like to take it outside for a few hours to let bees and flies add their contributions.
  3. With a paint brush, smear this concoction at eye level on tree trunks about an hour or two before sunset.

Resources

  • Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
  • BugGuide.  www.bugguide.net  Images of moths and other insects  Can submit ID request
  • Butterflies and Moths of North America.  www.butterfliesandmoths.org  Images of butterflies and moths.  Can submit ID request
  • Moths of Eastern United States. http://www.facebook.com/groups/MothsoftheeasternUS  Facebook group for members to post images and discuss sightings

Significant Native Plants to Host Moth Caterpillars

Basswood Maples
Beech Oaks
Birches Pines
Blueberries Walnut
Elm Wild Cherry
Grasses Willows
Hickories Viburnums

Moth Photo Gallery

 

False Crocus Geometer (Xanthotype urticarial). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

False Crocus Geometer (Xanthotype urticarial). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunate Zale (Zale lunata). - wingspan 2 1/4".  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.
Lunate Zale (Zale lunata). – wingspan 2 1/4″. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Large lace Borer (Scapula limoundata).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.
Large Lace Borer (Scapula limoundata). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Common Looper (Autographa precationis).  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Common Looper (Autographa precationis). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Raspberry Pyrausta (Pyrausta signatalis).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Raspberry Pyrausta (Pyrausta signatalis). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Painted Lichen Moth (Hypoprepia fucosa).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Painted Lichen Moth (Hypoprepia fucosa). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.