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?



*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.

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.


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 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.


 Top Native Berry Plants for Fall Migrants
Latin Name Common Name
Celtis occidentalis Hackberry
Cornus florida Flowering Dogwood
Ilex opaca American Holly
Malus coronaria Crabapple
Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum/ Tupelo
Sassafras albidum Sassafras
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.


  • Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
  • BugGuide.  Images of moths and other insects  Can submit ID request
  • Butterflies and Moths of North America.  Images of butterflies and moths.  Can submit ID request
  • Moths of Eastern United States.  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.

Lightning Bugs: Nighttime Marvels

By Barb Elliot

Magical creatures on the wing in my backyard fairyland – that’s what I thought as a little kid.  Even the fireflies I caught and put into a jar flashed miraculously.  “How do they make that light?” I wondered.  Children universally love to watch these fascinating insects.  In fact, it was kids from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania who successfully

© Judd Patterson 2008.  Click to enlarge image.

© Judd Patterson 2008. Click to enlarge image.

campaigned to have the lightning bug named Pennsylvania’s state insect in 1974.  No longer a child myself, nevertheless, my backyard seems an enchanted place on summer evenings, with spots of light flashing from the ground to the treetops.

Lightning bugs, or fireflies, are actually neither true bugs nor flies, but beetles.  There are 2,000 different species worldwide, with 175 in North America and about 35 species in Pennsylvania.   The adults live for just two to four weeks, and must attract mates and

Lightning bug in Barb's yard.  July, 2013.  © Barb Elliot.   Click to enlarge.

Lightning bug in Barb’s yard. July 9, 2013. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

reproduce during that time.  Scientists believe they eat pollen or nectar, though some may eat other small insects, or nothing at all.  Their flashes are courtship communications that enable the fireflies to find mates of their own species.  They are also a warning to potential predators like birds and spiders that firefly bodies contain toxic chemicals.

Each species has a characteristic flash pattern, with a different color, duration and/or rhythm.    Females generally don’t fly, but wait in grasses, shrubs, or trees to watch for the flash sequences of males of their own species.   When she spots a male of her species whose flashes she likes, the female flashes in response, inviting the male to come to her and mate.  In late summer, females lay eggs on the soil, leaf

Mating fireflies in Barb's yard.  July 11, 2013. Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Mating fireflies in Barb’s yard. July 11, 2013. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

litter or woody debris. Eggs
hatch in a few weeks and the larvae, sometimes called “glow worms”, live in leaf litter.   These voracious predators eat other insects, mites, aphids, earthworms,  slugs and snails.  Thus, they are quite useful in helping to control pests in the garden.  They can even track down a slug or snail by detecting and following its  slime trail. After injecting poison that immobilizes its quarry and liquefies internal  organs, the firefly larva sucks out

Firefly larva holding & eating slug.  Image by Phillip, Kalamazoo, MI.  Click to enlarge.

Firefly larva holding & eating slug. Image by Phillip, Kalamazoo, MI. Click to enlarge.

and easily digests the victim.   In late fall, the larvae burrow under the bark of woody stems or into the soil, where they overwinter.   Re-emerging in spring,  they again feed on invertebrates for a few weeks.  They then re-enter the soil, pupate, and in  early to mid-summer emerge as adult  fireflies.

Intrigue and cunning among lightning bugs makes their world a dangerous place.   Just as the sirens of Greek mythology lured sailors to their deaths, females of the genus Photuris mimic the flash of Photinus females in order to seduce Photinus males.  When they trick a Photinus male into coming to them, the Photuris female eats the male.  She gains energy to produce better and more eggs and incorporates the male Photinus’s protective toxins.

Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis).  Photo by Terry Priest, 2009.  Licensed under Creative Commons Share-alike.  Click to enlarge.

Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis). Photo by Terry Priest, 2009. Licensed under Creative Commons Share-alike. Click to enlarge.

Some species have the capacity to produce light in all stages of their lifecycle – as eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults.  The light is created by an enzyme in the firefly’s tail that initiates a chemical
process called the luciferin-luciferase reaction.  Their light production is almost 100%
efficient, with almost no heat lost as a by-product.   Researchers have been able to isolate the
genes used for firefly’s light and use them to track, mark, and assist in the killing of human cancer cells.  In fact, biochemical companies have commercially harvested lightning bugs for their luciferin and luciferase.

Firefly populations are declining in the U.S. and in many parts of the world.    Scientists are researching reasons for the decline of some populations.  Certainly, a major threat is loss of habitat through development.  Fireflies tend to show site fidelity — with generation after generation finding mates, laying eggs, and emerging in the same location every year.  When such sites are lost, we lose that group of fireflies forever.

Here are some actions we can take to ensure that we don’t lose the lightning bugs where we live:

  • Eliminate the use of pesticides, including those intended to kill grubs in lawns.
  • Don’t turn on outdoor lights at night.   To mate and reproduce successfully, fireflies must be able to see the flashing of other fireflies.  If you must use outdoor lighting, use motion-detector lights.
  • To create habitat for firefly larvae, place some logs on the ground and use leaf litter (chopped if you prefer) to mulch flower beds, trees, and shrubs.
  • Since most firefly species thrive around water, add a pond to your landscape. Alternatively, you can create a depression that stays moist or keep an area of your yard well-watered.   (To kill mosquito larvae and not harm other wildlife, add Mosquito Dunks® to a pond/standing water.)
  • Plant trees.  Native trees, especially evergreens such as White Pine (Pinus strobus) provide areas of low light and shade that give fireflies more time to find mates.
  • Consider mowing your grass less frequently.  Lightning bugs spend daylight hours on the ground and frequent mowing is likely harmful.  Create a perennial bed or pocket meadow of densely planted native grasses and perennials.  This will allow fireflies to hide during the day, while providing high vantage points for flashing at night.

    Click to enlarge.

    Click to enlarge.

  • If your kids or grandkids catch fireflies, encourage them to handle them gently and release them after a few hours.  They’ll be glad their fireflies can thrive and produce another generation.
  • Last, since relatively little is known about this enchanting insect, consider taking part in the Firefly Watch citizen science project. Participation takes just 10 minutes of observation in your yard per week over the summer, and you’ll be joining citizen scientists in Canada and 40 U.S. states who are contributing data about their lightning bug sightings.

Let’s work together to keep our southeastern Pennsylvania lightning bug population healthy by providing the habitat they need in our neighborhoods.  If we do, we will continue to enjoy the free light show each summer. Generations of kids to come will enjoy their magic.

Photo by Jessica Lucia.  Creative Commons License.  Click to enlarge.

Photo by Jessica Lucia. Creative Commons License. Click to enlarge.


Firefly Watch

Pennsylvania Firefly (from The Virtual Nature Trail at Penn State Kensington)

Pennsylvania Firefly

Six Ways to Help Fireflies

Keeping a Yard Bird List

By Edie Parnum

Pileated Woodpecker.  Photo courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.

Pileated Woodpecker. Photo courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

Looking out my kitchen window as I habitually do, I spotted a large dark bird showing bold white flashes on its wings flying to a snag at the back of my property.   Luckily, I keep my binoculars within reach on the counter.  It was a Pileated Woodpecker, a first for my yard.

This Pileated Woodpecker was #105 on my Yard Bird List.  Every new bird added to the list is special to me.  My count makes me proud that I’ve planted bird-friendly natives that host a variety of birds.  However, because my young trees are too immature to attract this woodpecker, the pileated was a surprise. It visited my yard because I left the trunk and some major branches on a dead tree rather than cut it to the ground.

The snag in Edie's yard that attracted the Pileated Woodpecker.  Photo by Edie Parnum

The snag in Edie’s yard that attracted the Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Keeping the yard list helps me hone my ID skills, visual and auditory.  A Least Flycatcher, one of those challenging
Empidonax flycatchers, once lingered in my yard for two days.  Seated on my deck, I could leisurely, but closely observe its diagnostic bold eye-ring, big head, short wings, and narrow tail. It did not sing, but occasionally gave a call, a little “pit” sound.  If I had been elsewhere on a bird walk, I
would have made a quick ID and quickly moved on to look for other birds.

Closely watching the birds in my ¾-acre yard improves my knowledge of their habits, food preferences, seasonality, and habitat requirements. I note the species of birds using each plant and the time of year.  In the spring, warblers, vireos, orioles, and other migrants glean caterpillars from the foliage of my Black Cherry and the young oaks and birches. In the fall, waxwings, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, robins, and other thrushes devour the crabapples.  A variety of sparrows eat seeds in my 1/10-acre meadow in the autumn.  Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers bore holes in the Sweet Gum and crabapples in the spring and fall. A Magnolia Warbler foraged in the Northern Bayberry last September, but I’m not sure whether it was eating the berries or bugs. I’ll take a closer look if it returns to the same shrubs next fall.

Magnolia Warbler.  Courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.

Magnolia Warbler. Courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.  Cllick to enlarge.

Do I count birds that fly over my yard without landing, you might ask?  Yes, although I can’t claim my improved habitat offers any sustenance to the flyovers.  Furthermore, I even added a distant, heard-only, Fish Crow to my list.   Perhaps I’m inflating my yard count, but I’m staying observant of all the birdlife around me. On the other hand, I didn’t count a Red-shouldered Hawk perched three blocks away that never flew over my property.

I keep a list of missing birds, too. I haven’t seen a Willow Flycatcher, Veery, or a White-eyed Vireo —how could that be?!   Lacking a stream or wetland on my property, I may never see a Louisiana and Northern Waterthrush.  Mature native trees are still scarce here, so the warbler list is slim–just 20 species.  Maybe during this fall migration or next spring I’ll find the missing Orange-crowned, Tennessee, Cerulean, Bay-breasted, Connecticut, Mourning, Wilson’s, or Hooded Warbler.  I probably won’t ever get an outlier like American Woodcock (wrong habitat), but I have hopes that a Northern Saw-Whet Owl will use my Eastern Red Cedar one day.

Keeping a yard list can be as simple as noting the birds on a piece of paper.  Or, even better, you can use eBird, a listing program that is one of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s citizen science projects.  By entering your yard bird sightings into eBird, you’ll have access to the records of other local as well as far-flung birders.  Your data will be incorporated into Cornell’s records and be used to track bird populations by educators, conservationists, and ornithologists around the world. or

Watching for birds is a part of my everyday life.  I can observe my feeder birds while working at my kitchen sink.  As I move around the house, I always glance out the closest window.  While relaxing on my deck, I’ve spotted many new yard birds.  I regularly take walks around the yard, too.  On good migration days, I go out early to look for new arrivals.  No travel is necessary, and there’s still time for the rest of the day’s activities.  Every day I’m connected to nature.

An Update: Milkweeds for Monarchs Initiative

By Barb Elliot

In my March 23rd post, Monarchs: A Call to Action (see below) Edie and I offered milkweed plants for sale.  As I said then, the Monarch butterfly population is in sharp decline due to loss of habitat . We were inspired to join Monarch Watch’s ( national call to action.  To save this species we must plant more milkweeds, the Monarch caterpillars’ only food.

Monarch laying egg on Butterfly Milkweed. August 2012.  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Monarch laying egg on Butterfly Milkweed. August 2012. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

The response to our offer was fantastic!  We received one hundred thirty-five orders for a total of 2,400 plants.  There is a waiting list of people who missed the April 1st order deadline and want to buy any leftover plants.

Orders came from Monarch enthusiasts across the southeastern Pennsylvania area –
Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware counties -and even from  south New Jersey and central Pennsylvania. We were impressed by the networking and sharing about the milkweeds that took place via word of mouth and social media, including Facebook and list-servs.  Inquiries about buying milkweed came from as far away as Minnesota and Virginia.

When the milkweed plants become available in early June, they will be planted in a variety of settings, including the backyards of many private homes, an in-home day care center in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia, a community vegetable garden on the Main Line, a condominium community, an elementary school yard and organic garden, a middle school yard, and a churchyard in Malvern.  A retired couple in Downingtown inspired adults and children in their neighborhood to order 150 milkweeds.

Thanks to all of you who ordered plants and/or shared the need and opportunity with family, friends, and neighbors!  We fervently hope that similar efforts are taking place across the country to help save the Monarchs.





Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature’s 2013 Native Plant Awards

By Edie Parnum

By announcing annual Prime Plants for Nature awards we hope to encourage you to plant native plants that have exceptional ability to support wildlife. These plants contribute significantly to the web of life by hosting insects, offering nectar and pollen, or producing fruits, seeds or nuts for birds, butterflies, and other insects and animals.  Some of the award-winning plants perform all of these functions.  Our selections, all native to southeastern Pennsylvania, will make attractive additions to your landscape, are readily available at native plant nurseries or native plant sales, and are easy to grow.  By incorporating these plants into your landscape you will be helping to create a healthy ecosystem on your property.  Each year we will announce awards in two categories: Trees and  Shrubs and Perennials.  

Our selections for the 2013 Prime Plants for Nature Awards are:

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

This attractive 3-5’ tall perennial milkweed has pink flowers that bloom from June to
August. Like other milkweeds it is an important host plant for Monarchs, a declining species of butterfly.The flowers produce nectar used by many butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in Barb's garden. July 9 2012.  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in Barb’s garden. July 9 2012. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Milkweed Bugs, Milkweed Leaf Beetles, and some other insects feed on this plant, too.  Native to eastern and central United States, Swamp Milkweed is deer resistant and will thrive in sun or part sun in moist or average soils.  A showy grouping of at least three, preferably more, of these milkweeds will attract egg-laying Monarchs and a variety of nectar-seeking butterflies and pollinators.


White Oak (Quercus alba)

If you have room to plant only one large shade tree on your property, make it a
White Oak.  Oaks host more insect species than any other plant, including 534 species of butterfly and moth caterpillars, critical foods for adult birds and their nestlings.White Oak acorns & leaves

The acorns are eaten by nuthatches, jays, woodpeckers, crows, squirrels, and other animals. This tree is, therefore, a major source of food for birds and other wildlife. White Oak is slow growing, but it is disease-resistant and will eventually become a 60 to 85-foot majestic tree.

White Oak (Quercus alba). Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.
White Oak (Quercus alba). Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

It can live for 300 or more years–all the while offering food, shelter, and nest sites to myriads of animals.With its long taproot this eastern North American native is difficult to transplant and should be planted as a young tree. This quintessential wildlife plant will grow in sun or part-sun in dry to moist soil.

We strongly encourage you to consider adding one or both of these exceptional native plant species to your garden this year.  You can check for these plants at the suppliers listed below.



Sources for Backyards for Nature’s Prime Plants and Other Native Plants

Native Plant Sales (in date order)

McKaig Nature Education Center, Wayne, PA;  pre-order by April 25.  Pickup May 11.  **Both Swamp Milkweed and White Oak available at very reasonable prices**

Delaware Nature Society, Greenville, DE; April 25 & 26, members only; April 27-28 public

Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, Phila., PA; April 26 members only, April 27-28 public

Brandywine Conservancy, Chadds Ford, PA; May 10 members only, May 11-12 public    

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, New Hope, PA; May 10 members only, May 11 – June 2 public

Native Plant Nurseries

Edge of the Woods Nursery, Orefield, PA

Gateway Garden Center, Hockessin, DE

Redbud Native Plant Nursery, Glen Mills, PA

Russell Gardens Wholesale (some native perennials), Southampton, PA

Sugarbush Nursery, Mohnton, PA

Yellow Springs Farm, Chester Springs, PA





Monarchs: A Call to Action – Spring 2013

By Barb Elliot

Distressed.  That’s what we Monarch-lovers feel hearing the bad news about the butterflies overwintering in Mexico.  Monarch numbers have fallen to dangerously
low levels – the lowest in the 20 years that records have been kept.   This chart (based on area covered by wintering Monarchs) shows how the population has declined (1 hectare = 2.5 acres):

Source:  Monarch Watch Caption:  Chart from Monarch Watch

Source: Monarch Watch Caption: Chart from Monarch Watch

Reasons for the decline include recent weather extremes, but the most significant
factor is loss of Monarch habitat.  In Mexico, much of the Oyamel fir forests that shelter wintering Monarchs have been lost.  In the U.S. and Canada, millions of acres of farmland, roadsides, and undeveloped land that formerly provided milkweed, the Monarch caterpillars’ only food, have been lost.   (See my October 13, 2012 post “Marvelous Migrating Monarchs Need Our Help” for more detail on the habitat loss).

We haven’t lost the Monarch yet.  There is something YOU can do to help.

Male Monarch on New England Aster in Barb’s yard.  September 21, 2012.   Photo © Barb ElliotClick to enlarge.

Male Monarch on New England Aster in Barb’s yard. September 21, 2012. Photo © Barb Elliot
Click to enlarge.

Chip Taylor, Director of Monarch Watch, says, To assure a future for monarchs, conservation and restoration of milkweeds needs to become a national priority.”

To this end, Edie and I want to increase the number of host plants available in our area.  We will be planting additional milkweeds in our yards, but we’d like to make it easy for you to join us in this endeavor.  To encourage you to plant milkweeds we are offering three species of milkweed plants for sale at $1 per plant – less than our cost.  These species are native to southeastern PA and are ones that we grow in our gardens.   In addition to being host plants for Monarch caterpillars, they all have beautiful flowers that provide nectar and pollen for adult Monarchs and many other butterflies and pollinators.  All are deer resistant.

These are the species we will be selling for $1 per plant:

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in Barb's garden. July 9 2012.  Photo © Barb Elliot.
Monarch on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in Barb’s garden. July 9 2012. Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

!!!!!!!!!!!!SOLD OUT!!!!!!!!!

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata);  pink flowers June to August;  height 3-4’, spread 2’; part to full sun, average to moist soil;  more sun results in more flowers, willow-like leaves 4-5” long

!!!!!!!!!!!!SOLD OUT!!!!!!!!!


Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Click to enlarge.
!!!!!!!!SOLD OUT!!!!!!!!!Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa); orange flowers June to August; height 18”-24”; spread 2’; sun, dry to average soil;  tough, drought-tolerant, slow to emerge in spring, taproot makes established plants difficult to transplant; especially good for rock garden or dry slope
Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) in Barb's yard. July 28, 2010.  Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) in Barb’s yard. July 28, 2010. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!SOLD OUT!!!!!!!!!!!!

Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata); white flowers in July and August; height 1-3’; spread 1-2’; sun, dry to average soil; fine-textured needle-like leaves

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!SOLD OUT!!!!!!!!!!!!





We need to know how many plants to order from our wholesale supplier, so we will be accepting your orders until Monday, April 1st.  You may order as many as you like of each species.  (Please note that Whorled Milkweed and Swamp Milkweed are both sold out  and are no longer available. Butterfly Milkweed is still currently available.)  You will be able to pick up your plants during the last week of May and/or the first week of June in the Wayne/King of Prussia, PA area.  They will be hearty landscape plugs with well-developed root systems of about 5” deep.  Our experience is that if planted in the right location, these plugs grow very quickly and mature enough to flower in their first year.  We encourage you to plant at the very least 3, but preferably 8 or more of each species.  With the plants about 12” apart, you can achieve a dense mass planting that will entice the butterflies with a showy target.  When a female Monarch lays eggs on your milkweeds there will be enough foliage to sustain hungry caterpillars.  If you don’t’ have enough space for in-ground planting, consider using pots or containers.

Monarch caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed in Barb's garden. August 13, 2011.  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Monarch caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed in Barb’s garden. August 13, 2011. Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

To order, send an email to this email address: with Milkweed in the Subject line.   Specify the quantity you want for each species and include your name.  Again, the cost is $1 per plant.  We will get back to you to confirm your order and let you know when and where you can pick up your plants.  We plan to have flexible pick-up times in the Wayne/King of Prussia area after the plants become available, sometime during the last week of May/first week of June.  We will let you know specific dates and location as soon as possible.  Payment will be due at pickup.

Please pitch in to provide milkweeds to help the Monarchs!  Talk to family, friends, and neighbors about the need.  Share plants with them.  When Monarchs return to the east in late spring, consider reporting your sightings as a citizen scientist by using  and/or having your yard certified as Monarch Waystation through Monarch Watch (  Check your milkweeds frequently for Monarch eggs and caterpillars.   If you have the time, take some eggs or caterpillars inside to raise them.  They will have a much better chance of survival and it’s fascinating and fun to do.


For more information about Monarchs, their migration and raising them, scroll down to see my two previous Monarch-related posts of October 13, 2012 and August 20, 2012. Also, see:

Hummingbirds Wintering in Pennsylvania!

By Barb Elliot

Yes, you read that right.  It’s been a record-setting fall and winter for hummingbirds in Pennsylvania.    According to hummingbird bander and expert Scott Weidensaul, as of February 22nd, 92 hummingbirds have been reported in PA since last fall.  Five or six are still present, including a few in southeastern PA.  These visitors are not the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that visit our feeders and breed here during summer.  They were gone by early October.  These are vagrants, species that breed in the Pacific northwest, northern Rocky Mountains, or Alaska, and normally migrate to Mexico in fall.  Some of them fly east for reasons not yet understood.  Though this is not a new phenomenon, the number of reports for this fall and winter has been extraordinary.  Are these numbers the beginning of a trend or just an aberration?  Weidensaul and other ornithologists don’t know.

Calliope Hummingbird, Nov. 2, 2012, Devon. PA.  Photo © Barb Elliot.

Calliope Hummingbird, Nov. 2, 2012, Devon, Chester County, PA.  Photo © Barb Elliot.         Click to enlarge.

Whatever the reason, it’s been an exciting time for birders and hummingbird enthusiasts!  I was
privileged to see two of these birds. One was a tiny, pot-bellied Calliope Hummingbird that spent several weeks during October and November in a yard in Devon, Chester County — just
the second one ever recorded in PA.   At about two-thirds the size of the familiar eastern Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the Calliope is the smallest bird species in the U.S. and the

smallest long-distance avian migrant in the world.

Allen's Hummingbird - immature male.  Nov 26, 2012.  Photo © Barb Elliot.

Allen’s Hummingbird – immature male. Nov 26, 2012. Photo © Barb Elliot.    Click to enlarge.

Another that I got to see was a beautiful immature male Allen’s Hummingbird that visited a feeder at a home in Pipersville, Bucks County from November through early January.  This bird was only the third Allen’s ever recorded in the state.

Other western species to visit PA have been Rufous Hummingbird, the most common and numerous western visitors to the east, and a single Black-chinned Hummingbird — the very first record of this species in PA.  This bird was seen briefly on just one day, but the Bucks County homeowner’s clear photos allowed experts to verify the record. Most western hummingbirds that fly east in the fall head south to the Gulf region by early January. As of this writing, however, two Rufous Hummingbirds linger in
Montgomery County and one in Chester County. All three birds first appeared at residents’ feeders in October and have stayed through the winter.

Black-chinned Hummingbird.  Nov 11, 2012.  Morrisville, Bucks County, PA.  Photo courtesy of and © Rich Dulay.

Black-chinned Hummingbird – first record in PA!  Nov 11, 2012. Morrisville, Bucks County, PA. Photo courtesy of and © Rich Dulay.    Click to enlarge.

How do these birds endure PA’s cold winter temperatures?  At night, they enter a
deep sleep-like state called torpor, in which they lower their body temperature and slow their metabolic rate by as much as 50%.  This allows them to conserve energy and
survive with enough remaining to fuel their first few feeding trips of the morning.

It’s too late to attract a western hummer this winter, but perhaps you’d like to try next fall.  According to Weidensaul, in addition to keeping hummingbird feeders up well into autumn, many successful hummingbird hosts have late-blooming fall plants.  There are several native plants that bloom until frost, but some homeowners also use non-native Salvia species, planted either in pots or in the ground.  I recommend that you confine non-natives to containers and reserve in-ground space for natives.  After all, natives contribute more fully to our local web-of-life.  Also, if your non-natives are in pots, you can move them inside or into your garage if overnight freezing temperatures are forecast.  The table below has some recommended late fall blooming natives as well as some non-natives that host western hummingbirds.

Though hummingbirds feed from any color flower, they are attracted to the colorred. To catch the eye of a passing hummingbird, some homeowners put out red ribbon, surveyors tape, or other red objects.

Large felt flower in Pipersville, PA yard that attracted Allen's Hummingbird. Nov, 2012.  Photo © Barb Elliot.
Large felt flower in Pipersville, PA yard that attracted Allen’s Hummingbird. Nov, 2012. Photo © Barb Elliot.    Click to enlarge.

The homeowner who attracted the Allen’s Hummingbird in Bucks County had made a two- to three-foot red “flower” of felt material and placed it on the ground near her feeder. I thought this was a great idea and made one for my yard.

If you are lucky enough to host a western hummingbird, it’s important to keep your feeder’s sugar water from freezing so the bird can eat first thing in the morning.  Some homeowners erect a heat lamp near the feeder or wrap electrical wire around it.  Others use two feeders, leaving one up overnight and just before dawn trading it for one kept in the house overnight.

If you host one of these rarities you can contribute to scientific knowledge.  You should
have your hummingbird banded. The bander will record the bird’s location and
determine its species and age.  If the bird is re-captured or found in another location, it yields very valuable information about its migratory patterns.  Hummingbird banders are certified experts who trap, examine, and band these tiny creatures without harming them.  Any hummingbird seen in PA after October 15th is likely a western rarity. Report it to the local Audubon Society or bird club so they can contact a bander.  If possible, take some good photos of the bird as these can help with identification.

Male Rufous Hummingbird just after banding.  Nov 28, 2012.  Chester Springs, Chester County, PA.  Photo courtesy of and © Nick Pulcinella.

Male Rufous Hummingbird just after banding. Nov 28, 2012. Chester Springs, Chester County, PA. Photo courtesy of and © Nick Pulcinella.   Click to enlarge.

Leaving feeders up into fall won’t prevent hummingbirds from migrating. They know when to move on. Your fall feeder may help the survival of late-migrating Ruby-throats or western hummers venturing east from the usual migration routes.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will begin returning to our area in late April and early May.  I will be putting my feeders out by mid-April so I don’t miss any that might be flying over my neighborhood.  Since hummingbirds are known to return to the same yards, I’m hoping for some of my “regulars”.  I’ll also hang some red ribbon near the feeders and place my new felt “flower” out on the ground.  I’ll watch my first-of-the-season native hummingbird plant, Wild Columbine.  Other native plants in my yard will host the tiny insects that hummingbirds eat and feed their young.  Then, come fall, I’ll be sure to keep my feeders out in the hope that a passing rare western visitor will come to grace my yard for a brief, but wondrous time.



Native Fall Hummingbird Plants

Botanical   Name Common Name Bloom Color   & Period Conditions,   Comments
Chelone glabra White   Turtlehead Spikes   of white flowers; late summer and fall Part   shade to shade, moist soil; may bloom even after first frost
Impatiens capensis Jewelweed Gold/orange   flowers; July to October Part   shade to shade, moist soil;  an annual   that re-seeds
Lonicera sempervirens Trumpet   Honeysuckle Red/orange   flowers; Late spring to fall Sun, dry   to average soil; well-behaved vine; needs a trellis or other support; may   bloom after first frost

Non-Native Fall Hummingbird Plants (plant in containers)

Salvia coccinea Texas Sage Red;   other colors, e.g., salmon, pink, white; summer to frost Readily   available; easy to grow; native to U.S. coastal states from South Carolina to   Texas
Salvia elegans Pineapple   Sage Red   flowers; September to heavy frost Sun;   well-drained soil; native to Mexico & Guatemala;  many think this is the best Salvia for late   hummers
Salvia guaranitica Black   and Blue Sage Cobalt blue   flowers in black calyx; summer to fall Full sun   to light shade; native to Brazil, Paraguay & Argentina
Salvia involucrata Roseleaf   Sage Red   flowers; late summer to early fall Native to   Mexico
Salvia splendens Tropical   Salvia/  Scarlet Sage Red   flowers;  summer to frost Full sun   to part shade, average, evenly moist soil; native to Brazil