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




A Common Redpoll in my Sweet Gum Tree

By Edie Parnum

On a damp, cloudy day in December I took a break from my household chores to get some fresh air on my back deck.  As usual I looked around for bird activity.  Recently I’d been seeing birds eating the ripe seeds in the Sweet Gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua), so I wasn’t surprised to see a feeding flock there. The light was dim, so I rushed back inside to retrieve my binoculars.  I was pleased to spot my target species, a Pine Siskin, among the expected goldfinches. Then, I noticed an odd-looking bird.  It was small and streaky like a siskin, but it had black around the base of the bill.  Wow!  It was a female Common Redpoll.

Photo of a Common Redpoll courtesy of Jacob Spendelow

Normally we don’t see redpolls in the Delaware Valley. They are circumpolar denizens of the arctic tundra and boreal forest.  In northern Canada and Alaska, they feed on alders, birches, willows, and spruces. However, because the seed crop was poor this year, these birds are roaming southward in search of food.  Birders have also spotted other northern species like Pine Siskins, Red Crossbills, White-winged Crossbills, and Evening Grosbeaks that have wandered south to find food.   Ornithologists call this phenomenon an irruption.  Some of these northern birds, including redpolls, have been showing up at area feeders.

Sweet Gum Ball. Photo © Edie Parnum

In 1996, another irruption year, I hosted four Common Redpolls at my thistle feeder.  Redpolls are small finches slightly bigger than goldfinches.  They have brown streaks on their flanks and back, white wing bars, a small red cap (called a poll), and the aforementioned black around the bill.  The male has a rosy-pink wash across its breast.  With their strong claws they can easily hold onto small twigs and sometimes hang upside down acrobatically to reach the dangling sweet gum balls.  With their tiny, pointy beaks they can easily reach into the cavities of the Sweet Gum balls to extract the small seeds.

My Sweet Gum nourishes many wild creatures, not just redpolls, goldfinches, and siskins. I regularly see Dark-eyed Juncos, House Finches, Red-winged Blackbirds
and sometimes Golden-crowned Kinglets and Purple Finches devouring the seeds.  I’ve heard reports of  White-winged and Red Crossbills eating Sweet Gum seeds, too. When the seeds are ripe I enjoy standing under the tree as the seeds rain down copiously around me.  Sparrows and Mourning Doves relish the wind-dispersed seeds they find on the ground, the driveway, and the roof.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  Photo © Gerry Dewaghe

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Photo © Gerry Dewaghe

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, cold weather visitors from the north, hammer holes in the bark and drink the sap. Thirty-three species of native caterpillars including the Luna Moth, a declining species, eat the foliage.

Holes drilled by a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker in Edie's Sweet Gum tree.  Photo © Edie Parnum.

Holes drilled by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Edie’s Sweet Gum tree. Photo © Edie Parnum.








Sweet Gum tree in fall
Sweet Gum tree in fall


Plant a Sweet Gum in your yard.  It’s a handsome tree in all seasons.  In the fall, it is spectacularly adorned with shiny red, orange, and yellow leaves. True, the prickly, woody balls fall to the ground well after leaves have been raked in the fall and, thus, require an untimely extra clean-up.  Personally, I like these odd, somewhat monstrous-looking fruits.  As I child I used them for making Christmas ornaments.  To my way of thinking, a Sweet Gum tree is well worth planting for the chance to host caterpillars and birds like redpolls and sapsuckers.



Upcoming Lecture by Renowned Author, Dr. Douglas Tallamy

Sunday, February 24, 2:00 PM

Jenkins Arboretum, 631 Berwyn Baptist Road, Devon

Co-sponsored by the Radnor Conservancy and Jenkins Arboretum 

Dr. Douglas Tallamy, author of the bestselling book Bringing Nature Home: How you Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants will present Treasures Among Our Natives. Our gardens are part of the terrestrial ecosystems that sustain humans and the life around us.  Most of us have heard of the importance of landscaping with native plants, but know little about the animals we are helping.  Dr. Tallamy will describe some of the fascinating ways in which animals interact with beautiful native plants growing right under our noses!  Anticipating, observing, and understanding these relationships will enrich our lives and further motivate us to use natives in our yards.

$5.00 per person.  Space is limited, and pre-registration is required.

Please call Jenkins Arboretum at 610-647-8870.

Refreshments will be served.




Fall: Time for Planting Trees and Shrubs

By Edie Parnum

I thrust my spade into a patch of my lawn.  It’s fall, and I’m planting a 4-foot Chestnut Oak.  As I dig, I imagine this young tree next spring with its new green leaves.  Even as a young sapling, it will host insects and birds.  Looking into the future, I imagine this stately native tree a century from now.  It has given life to thousands of birds and other animals.

Edie planting a Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus) sapling. Photo © Barb Elliot

My neighbors, I’ve noticed, aren’t thinking about spring.  They are clearing their yards of leaves and the dead vegetation from last year’s ornamental plants.  They are putting this unwanted garden debris out on the curb along with the cocoons and eggs of next year’s insects. They are getting ready for winter. Fall is the best time for planting trees and shrubs, any time before the ground freezes. During the autumn rains, the new plants aren’t asleep. They’re putting energy into their roots for a spurt of growth next spring.This fall, as usual, I will plant several trees and shrubs.  When I bought this ¾-acre property five years ago, it was mostly grass with just a few trees, mostly non-natives.  Since then I’ve planted 39 native trees and 45 native shrubs. It’s still not enough.

I keep planting native woody plants because they support wildlife.  Certainly non-native woodies offer fruits birds will eat—witness the bird-spread proliferation of invasives like Multiflora Rose, Burning Bush, and Japanese Barberry.  Natives, however, offer fruits of optimum size and superior nutrition. The fruits of the dogwoods, blueberries, winterberries, viburnums, spicebush, and sassafras I’ve planted ripen just in time to nourish hungry migrating birds in fall. Now in late October most of the berries are gone—consumed by thrushes, catbirds, mockingbirds, waxwings, and warblers.

The main reason I plant native woodies, however, is for the caterpillars and other insects these plants support.  I’m inspired by Doug Tallamy, Professor and Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware.  His research shows

The caterpillar of the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly uses Spicebush or Sassafras as its host plant. USFWS Photo by Ryan Hagerty.

that native plants host 29 times more of the native insects essential for our birds. After all, 96% of terrestrial birds feed their young exclusively insect food.

This year to augment what I’m already growing, I’ll plant ten small trees and shrubs.  I’m planting the Chestnut Oak, Quercus prinus (according to Tallamy, oaks host 534 species of caterpillars); American Elm, Ulmus Americana (hosts 213); and Pawpaw, Asimina triloba (host plant for Zebra Swallowtail butterfly, a species I covet for my yard butterfly list).

Planting a tree or shrub is easy.  For my Chestnut Oak and the other trees and shrubs, I don’t need to dig a huge hole.  I make my hole only as deep as the soil in the plant container and twice as wide.  After putting the plant into the hole, I make sure the soil line of the plant is level with the ground. Then I use the soil that was removed from the hole to fill in around the plant.  Because my oak is a local native adapted to our soil, I am not tempted to add special topsoil, fertilizer, or any other enrichment.  That would stimulate fast but weak growth.   A hole filled with artificially enriched soil encourages the roots to stay confined rather than to reach into the ground below for nourishment.  Next, I push down on the loose dirt with my hands, but avoid stomping on it with my feet.   I spread a one-inch layer of my compost (last year’s leaves and garden debris) on top to provide some extra humus not available in the turf grass.  Then I give my oak a good watering.  That’s it for this tree.  I’m ready to plant more.

Three-year-old Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) with cage to prevent deer browse. Photo © Edie Parnum

Newly planted trees and shrubs may need extra water.  During any week without significant rain, I put a leaky watering can next to each plant and let the water drip slowly into the soil.  A 1-2” layer of mulch will help retain the moisture, but I never let the mulch touch the trunk.  Once established, these woody plants, situated appropriately for light and moisture, should thrive without any additional help from me.

The trees and shrubs I plant are usually small.  They are cheaper and suffer less transplant shock than a big tree or shrub.  These smaller saplings start to grow more quickly and in a few years usually out-compete larger nursery stock.  To save money, I also frequently transplant volunteer trees and shrubs in my yard to more appropriate locations.  Some of my shrubs—virburnums, for instance—send out shoots that I dig up and plant elsewhere.  I also accept gifts from my native plant gardening friends.  As I say, there’s always room for more.  Anyway, I’m not growing ornamental specimens.  The plants can touch each other and offer extra shelter, just as they do in the wild.

Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) – flagged shoots are ready to transplant. Photo © Barb Elliot

My trees and shrubs are still small, but they already support birds and other wildlife.   Next spring I’ll see warblers and other hungry migrants eating caterpillars on the leaves of my native woody plants.  The remaining areas of grass are begging to be planted with additional native trees and shrubs.  Next fall I won’t resist planting more.


For Doug Tallamy’s list of woody plants supporting butterfly and moth caterpillars, click here.

 Trees and Shrubs on  Edie’s Property
Botanical Name Common Name Wildlife Value
Acer rubrum Red Maple L, F
Aesculus pavia Red Buckeye L, N
Amelanchier canadensis Serviceberry/ Juneberry L. F
Asimina triloba Pawpaw L, F
Betula lenta, B. nigra Sweet Birch, River Birch L, F
Celtis occidentalis Hackberry L, F
Cercis canadensis Eastern Redbud L, N
Cornus alternifolia, C.florida Pagoda Dogwood, Flowering Dogwood L, F
Ilex opaca American Holly L, F
Juniperus virginiana Eastern Red Cedar L, F
Liriodendron tulipifera Tulip Poplar L, N, F
Magnolia virginiana Sweetbay Magnolia L
Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum/ Tupelo L, F
Pinus strobus Eastern White Pine L, F
Prunus serotina Black Cherry L, F
Quercus   alba,Q. coccinea, Q. pinus, Q. rubra White Oak, Scarlet Oak, Chestnut Oak, Red Oak L, F
Sassafras albidum Sassafras L, F
Tsuga canadensis Eastern Hemlock L,F
Aronia melanocarpa. Black Chokeberry L, F
Clethra alnifolia Sweet Pepperbush N
Cornus racemosa, C. amonum Gray Dogwood, Silky Dogwood L, N, F
Hydrangea arborescens, H.   quercifolia Wild Hydrangea, Oakleaf   Hydrangea N
Ilex verticillata Winterberry Holly F
Myrica pensylvanica Bayberry L, F
Rosa virginiana Wild or Pasture Rose L, F
Sambucus canadensis American Elder L, F, N
Vaccinium corymbosum Highbush Blueberry L, F, N
Viburnum   dentatum, V. lentago,V. nudum, V. prunifolium Arrowwood Viburnum, Nannyberry,   Possumhaw,  Black Haw L, F
L   = Leaves support moth and butterfly caterpillars and other leaf-eating   insects that are eaten by birds
N   = Nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators
F   = Food products such as berries, seeds, nuts, buds, and pollen for birds,   mammals, and pollinators

Places to buy native plants:


Marvelous Migrating Monarchs Need Our Help

By Barb Elliot

Monarch butterflies are on the move.   I’ve been seeing them fly through my yard, above fields, over traffic jams, through neighborhoods.  These fragile creatures are heading southwest toward their ancient wintering grounds, stopping along the way to rest and sip nectar from late-blooming plants.  The peak of Monarch migration through our area is mid- to late-September, but you may still see Monarchs if you spend time outdoors.

This generation of Monarchs is different from those we saw in the summer.  Those Monarchs were intent on mating and laying eggs and only lived from two to six weeks.  But this generation will live for about eight months and is in the midst of an epic journey.   They will not mate, but instead are programmed to fly to a place they have never been before – mountains in Mexico where millions of Monarchs will roost together to survive the winter.  Some of them will fly as far as 3,000 miles!

Monarch Fall Migration Routes

Migrating Monarchs depend on nectar sources along their route for energy to complete the journey.  Next spring, the Monarchs that survive migration and the winter in Mexico will fly north into Texas, mate, lay eggs on milkweed plants and die.  Caterpillars will hatch from the eggs, eat milkweed, change into chrysalises, and emerge as adult Monarch butterflies that in turn fly north, mate, lay eggs and die.  The next generation will make its way farther north and east, repeat the cycle, and the U.S. and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains will once again be populated with Monarch butterflies during spring and summer.  The great, great, grandchildren of the Monarchs that are now flying south will be the ones we see during their migration to Mexico next fall.  Though some butterfly species complete a one-way migration, Monarchs are the only butterfly species in the world that accomplishes a two-way migration.

Monarchs roosting on their Mexican over-wintering grounds. National Geographic photo.

Migrating Monarchs face many threats, including bad weather, predators, and lack of food, but some have always survived to continue the species.  However, if current

This Monarch, caught by a praying mantis, won’t make it to Mexico. Cape May, NJ, September 12, 2012 Photo © Barb Elliot

trends continue, we are in danger of losing Monarchs altogether.  This year’s population, according to Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, is about half the long-term average.   Monarch numbers have been declining since the late 1990’s, but the downward trend has accelerated since 2003.  Monarch Watch indicates the major cause for the decline is loss of food sources in the U.S. from development, routine mowing along roadsides, and the widespread use of herbicides that kill milkweed plants, the Monarch caterpillar’s only food.  Increased use of genetically modified corn and soy crops on mid-west farms is likely responsible for much of the population decline.  These crops are engineered to survive the spraying of herbicides which kill milkweeds and other plants growing in the fields.  Since the year 2000, about 100 million acres of former Monarch milkweed habitat in agricultural areas have been lost in this way. The milkweed habitats that are left are not sufficient to sustain the larger Monarch populations of the 1990s.

This Monarch near Austin, Texas is much closer to the Mexican wintering grounds, but faces drought conditions with few flowers to provide nectar. October 9, 2012. Photo © Barb Elliot

Monarchs need our help!  Monarch Watch has suggested a national effort to plant milkweeds in as many locations as possible, and have instituted a campaign called Bring Back the MonarchsIt’s not too late to get some milkweed started in your garden this fall, or you can wait till spring.  Perhaps you can think of additional locations that milkweeds could be planted, such as in schoolyards, parks, business properties, or roadsides.  Milkweeds do well in containers, too, so a large space is not necessary.  Of the five species of native milkweeds in my yard, my favorite is Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).  I found many Monarch eggs on my Swamp Milkweed this summer and also noticed that adults seemed to prefer the long-blooming Swamp Milkweed flowers’ nectar to that of other flowers in my yard.

You can help migrating Monarchs and other fall-flying butterflies by providing late-blooming nectar plants such as native asters and goldenrods.  Consider adding flowering plants to your yard that provide a succession of blooms from spring through fall.  You’ll be providing nectar not just for migrating Monarchs, but also for the Monarchs and other butterflies that fly earlier in the year.  Check the native perennials on our Backyards for Nature plant list for some suggestions.

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

If you add milkweeds for Monarch caterpillars and nectar plants for the adults, you will be helping to make more Monarchs.  You’ll not only have the satisfaction of knowing you’re helping to increase the population, but you’ll be able to see these marvelous butterflies in your yard and even witness their metamorphosis of egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly! You can also have your yard certified as a Monarch Waystation through Monarch Watch.  This will mark your contribution to preserving Monarchs and show others how they, too, can help one of the true treasures of the natural world.

Certified Monarch Waystation sign from Monarch Watch. Photo by Barb Elliot

Below is a list of the locally native species of milkweed that I grow in my yard.

Locally Native Milkweed Plants**

Botanical Name Common Name Bloom Color & Period Light  & Soil Conditions
Asclepias incarnata Swamp   Milkweed Pink flowers; June & July Part to full sun, moist soil
Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly   Milkweed Orange flowers; June to August Sun, dry to average soil
Asclepias  verticillata Whorled   Milkweed White flowers; July & August Sun, dry to average soil
Asclepias purpurascens Purple   Milkweed Dark pink/purple flowers; June & July Part to full sun, dry/ average/moist soil
Asclepias syriaca* Common   Milkweed Pink flowers; June & July Sun, dry soil
  *Spreads rapidly by underground rhizomes;  best for large areas with other flowers and grasses
  **All are deer resistant

For a list of local nurseries that sell native milkweeds, click here.

For info on how to gather and plant milkweed seeds, click here.

Raising Monarchs

By Barb Elliot

In mid July, I discovered Monarch eggs on my Swamp Milkweed.

Monarch egg on Swamp Milkweed. (Photo © Barb Elliot)

A few days later I found three 1/8-inch caterpillars, probably a day or so old.  I took them inside to raise them.  Over the course of a month, I watched the amazing transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis to adult butterfly.  Watching the life stages of a Monarch rejuvenates my awe at the wonders of nature.

Once inside the aquarium container, two of the caterpillars ate Swamp Milkweed and eliminated “frass”, signs that they were healthy.  The third

Click on photo to find the one-day-old Monarch caterpillars (Photo © Barb Elliot)

caterpillar, however, never moved and soon died.   I was reminded that caterpillars’ lives are fragile and often very short.  Very few caterpillars of any species, perhaps less than one in a hundred, survive to become butterflies.  The threats are legion:  bacterial and fungal infections, predatory insects, spiders, birds, or other creatures looking to gulp down a neatly wrapped package of protein, plus parasites such as wasps that deposit eggs on a caterpillar so their larvae can eat the caterpillar from within.Though my yard is a certified Monarch Waystation providing optimal conditions for Monarch caterpillars and butterflies, life is tough for these creatures.  By rearing some indoors, I can give them a measure of safety.

Shed skin (above) and head capsule (below) (Photo © Barb Elliot)

A week later, at day eight of their lives, the caterpillars stopped eating temporarily, left the milkweed for the side of the container and remained motionless for a number of hours.  They were ready to shed their skin, which becomes too tight as they grow.  Each shed its tiny head capsule separately and then wiggled out of its skin.  This was one of five molts.  Then, it was back to eating more milkweed.  After all, most Monarch caterpillars increase their weight about 2,700 times from egg to chrysalis!


Caterpillar escapee (Photo © Barb Elliot)

Two days later, I noticed only one caterpillar in the container.  Alarmed, I searched and found the escapee a few feet away on my upright camera lens.  I quickly returned it to the container. It moved to the top and wove a silk “button” on the screen cover.  Soon it hung with its body in a “J” formation, its hind end suspended from the button. A couple of hours later, the second caterpillar was also hanging in this J shape.

Click highlighted text to see video

In the morning I watched closely for signs that the 11-day old caterpillars were about to metamorphose into the chrysalis or pupa.  Just before the transformation, each began rocking and straightening out slightly.The antenna-like tentacles drooped and looked almost segmented. Then, the skin began to split at the head end. Each caterpillar wriggled furiously as the skin split up its full length and then fell away.

Pupating caterpillar movie (Video © Barb Elliot)

At first, each pupa was yellowish green and wider at the bottom than the top.  Gradually the color changed to emerald green, the shape became wider at the top and the distinctive, jewel-like gold and black markings appeared on the surface of each chrysalis.  It is while in the chrysalis or pupal stage that a caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis and changes into a butterfly.

Bejeweled Monarch chrysalis (Photo © Barb Elliot)

Chrysalis the night before Monarch emerged (Photo © Barb Elliot)

Nine days later, I noticed a few dark marks on the chrysalises, and by the tenth evening, the orange and black of forming wings were visible through the clear shell of each pupa.  While I was asleep both butterflies emerged from their chrysalises.  Early the next morning I saw two beautiful, fresh butterflies – one male and one female.

Newly emerged from chrysalis (Photo © Barb Elliot)

They were hanging from their former homes, drying and occasionally pumping their wings.   I waited a few hours so they would be completely dry before I took the container outside.  With a little nudging, each climbed on my finger and quickly flew off to the top of a tree where I lost sight of them.

I like to think that they stayed in my yard to nectar on flowers I grow for butterflies.  Hopefully, they found mates and the female laid eggs. This next generation of Monarch butterflies, the last of this summer, will go through the same marvelous transformations and then fly 2,000 miles to their over-wintering grounds in central Mexico.  That same generation will fly north into Texas in the spring of 2013 and begin the annual succession of Monarch generations that re-populate central and eastern North America each spring and summer.  I hope to host Monarchs in my yard next year, raise some more caterpillars indoors, and once again experience the thrill of watching one of the true wonders of nature.

Female Monarch on Swamp Milkweed (Photo © Barb Elliot)


For information on how you can help Monarchs and/or get your yard certified, click here: Monarch Waystation

Stay tuned for a future blog with more info on Monarchs and a national effort to help them.

Below is a list of the native milkweed plants that Barb grows in her yard.

Locally Native Milkweed Plants**

Botanical Name Common Name Bloom Color & Period Light  & Soil Conditions
Asclepias incarnata Swamp   Milkweed Pink flowers; June & July Part to full sun, moist soil
Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly   Milkweed Orange flowers; June to August Sun, dry to average soil
Asclepias  verticillata Whorled   Milkweed White flowers; July & August Sun, dry to average soil
Asclepias purpurascens Purple   Milkweed Dark pink/purple flowers; June & July Part to full sun, dry/ average/moist soil
Asclepias syriaca* Common   Milkweed Pink flowers; June & July Sun, dry soil
  *Spreads rapidly by underground rhizomes;  best for large areas with other flowers and grasses
  **All are deer resistant


My Hummingbirds

By Edie Parnum

I watch my Ruby-throated Hummingbirds obsessively.  Beginning in early May flashes of iridescent green zip around my yard.  These tiny sprites hover, fly straight up, down, and even backwards. When the light is just so, I can glimpse the male’s dazzling red gorget.  I’ve seen that red innumerable times, but I’m always mesmerized.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird displaying gorget. Photo courtesy of

When I hear a zippety-tzit sound, I know that my territorial male is chasing another hummer away from the flowers or feeders. My male often watches for competitors from his favorite perch, usually a small, but conspicuous, horizontal branch.  Like other hummers, he uses a perch to watch for tiny flying insects (an important source of protein), then snags them in mid-air.  On occasion I’ve seen the resident male dive up and down in a pendulum swing for the benefit of a female.

I refer to them as “my” hummingbirds, but they’re not mine at all.  True, they feed at my feeders, which I assiduously clean and fill with fresh sugar water every few days.   They visit the flowers I’ve planted for them–Trumpet Honeysuckle, Trumpet Vine, Bee Balm, Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, and Wild Columbine.  Ruby-throats are not particularly shy, sometimes feeding or hovering just a few feet from me.  Once, a hummer tried to get nectar from a pink flower on my shirt.  Another time when one fed just a few feet in front of me, I could see its hyper-fast heart beats (1200 beats per minute while feeding). Nevertheless, most of their lives are unknown to me.

Female nectaring on Trumpet Honeysuckle

Even though I watch intently, I catch only brief glimpses.  Often one will zip behind the deck railing or some leaves, where my view is obscured. Or it simply vanishes.  I try to count the number in my yard.  I can usually spot two or three, but know that there are probably more during midsummer.  I’ve never seen a pair mate.  I’ve never seen a female build a nest, incubate eggs, or feed nestlings in my yard.  After all, they are wild creatures and don’t live their lives for my amusement.  They elude me.

Soon my resident hummingbirds will be gone. Because the adult males take no part in raising the young, they start migrating in the latter part of July.  The local females and young soon follow. During August and September the hummingbirds I see in my yard come from the north.  I persist in thinking of these migrants as mine, too, since hummingbirds evidently use the same stop-over feeding areas year after year.

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Usually I don’t see any hummers in my yard after the third week in September.  By then, I no longer have illusions of ownership. I won’t see them on their non-stop 600-mile trip across the Gulf of Mexico.  And only if I take an unexpected trip to southern Mexico or Central America will I see them during the winter months.  More likely I’ll be deprived of hummingbirds for seven months.  However, I’ll welcome my hummingbirds back to my yard next spring—indeed, some will be the same birds.

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For information about how to attract hummingbirds to your yard and more fascinating facts about them, click here.

A Visit to Barb’s Backyard

By Edie Parnum 

In early June I visited Barb’s backyard.  As we toured her half-acre suburban property, we observed bees, butterflies, caterpillars, dragonflies, frogs, and birds–all leading busy lives.

Barb is co-author of this blog site & co-director of Backyards for Nature

Her yard wasn’t always full of life.  Originally, her Southeastern Pennsylvania property had just grass and a few mostly non-native ornamental plants–nothing to attract wildlife.  On a plane trip about 18 years ago, Barb read an article in the airline’s magazine about gardening for wildlife.  Native plants, even when planted on a small property, could, the author asserted, provide a healthy habitat for birds, butterflies, and other creatures.  For Barb, reading this article was a transformative experience.  Over the years she has gradually added over a hundred native plant species, creating this haven for wildlife.  She’s posted a sign: National Wildlife Federation-certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat.

We started our tour near Barb’s kitchen window—an area where she can view wildlife activities from inside.  Originally, there were peonies and lambs’ ears, non-native plants with no appeal to animals.  Barb substituted native perennials and shrubs that produce fruits, seeds, and nectar for birds and butterflies.  Native insects eat the foliage of these plants; they, in turn, are food for birds and other animals. Barb added a birdbath, woodpile, nest boxes, and hummingbird feeders.  We watched a hummer visiting her feeders and a House Wren using the nest box.  Barb told me the Carolina Wrens love the woodpile.  One day she spotted a Brown Thrasher scratching and feasting on bugs in the leaf litter.   Last winter she discovered and closely monitored a cocoon in the Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Her diligence was rewarded in May when a gorgeous six-inch Polyphemus moth emerged.

Northern Green Frog in Barb’s pond

Frogs were the primary entertainment.  We could hear the Northern Green Frogs calling from Barb’s 13-foot circular pond.   We counted seventeen and probably missed others hiding in the water and under the plants.  Intent on attracting mates, they inflated their balloon-like throats and called out like banjos.  They lunged from their perches to catch insects and other prey.  With its native aquatic plants, recirculating pump, waterfall, shallow “stream,” and deeper pools of varying depths, Barb’s pond has places for birds to bathe and for dragonflies and frogs to lay their eggs. Tadpoles and dragonfly larvae find their niches. With the frogs and dragonfly larvae feeding here, fortunately, mosquito larvae can’t survive here to become biting adults.  Much to Barb’s delight, her backyard pond is a healthy, balanced aquatic ecosystem.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonfly at Barb’s pond

We visited some of Barb’s favorite trees.  In her blight-resistant American Elm (Ulmus Americana, she’s spotted Baltimore Orioles and other birds feeding on the caterpillars in the foliage of this high wildlife-value tree.  Because we found holes in the leaves but no live caterpillars, we concluded the munching caterpillars had been picked off by birds.  We also stopped to see Barb’s beloved Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana).   Scores of bird species eat their berries.  Song Sparrows and Mourning Doves have nested in the dense foliage.  During a winter ice storm, she spotted an Eastern Screech Owl taking shelter in one of these cedars.

Screech Owl in Barb’s Eastern Red Cedar

Barb has been encouraging me to appreciate native pollinators, so we visited her Monarch-friendly milkweed plants.  We observed bees and butterflies enjoying the nectar of the blooming Swamp Milkweed (Asclepius incarnata), Common Milkweed (A. syriaca), and Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa).  We also saw her Purple (A. purpurescens) and Whorled (A. verticillata) Milkweeds.  A keen observer, Barb finds the Monarchs’ tiny eggs on her plants and the browsing caterpillars, too.  Monarchs require milkweeds as host plants.  In acknowledgement of Barb’s role in helping this declining species, Monarch Watch has certified her property as a Monarch Waystation.

We saw many other native plants that day–and plenty of birds, butterflies, bees, dragonflies, and damselflies, too.  In her yard, she has hosted over 85 species of birds and 25 kinds of butterflies.  Her yard is no longer a dead zone.    Barb says, “I can go out my back door and see wildlife happenings at any time. “


You can tour Barb Elliot’s yard on Saturday, July 7 between 10 am and 4 pm as one of eight locations on the Tredyffrin Eco Tour.  Come see all the yard’s features, including her bat house and bee homes.  Purchase your admission badge ($10 per adults, kids free) at the Tredyffrin Township Library parking lot located at 582 Upper Gulph Road, Strafford, PA 19087 from 9:45 am to 3:00 pm.  For more information, go to


A Magnificent Moth

by Barb Elliot

When I was a ten year old kid I “saved” a Polyphemus moth my father had almost accidentally killed while pruning our hedge.  Actually, I didn’t save it—in truth, quite the opposite.  I captured it and put it into a collecting jar.  After it died I mounted and framed it.  Enamored with butterflies and moths, I then hung it in my bedroom along with the rest of my collection. Over the years I have displayed this beautiful, six-inch moth in my various homes.  However, I never saw one in the wild again until this spring – more than 50 years later.

Male Polyphemus Moth (Dan Mackinnon @

On May 20th, a spectacular male Polyphemus moth just like that first one emerged from a cocoon in my yard.  I had discovered the large cocoon hanging from a Spicebush twig in early March. I couldn’t tell what type of moth might be overwintering in the cocoon, but I checked it often, hoping to see what would emerge.

Cocoon in my yard, 3/7/2012

When the time came, I almost missed it because it hung several inches from the cocoon, which appeared to be intact except for a small hole in the top.  As the moth hung among the leaves, only the under wings, which look like dead leaves, were visible. I would have liked to see the more striking upper sides of the wings, but did not disturb it for a better look.   This moth was to remain completely free — and in fact it was gone by the next day.

Newly emerged Polyphemus Moth in my yard, 5/20/12

It likely flew off that night in hot pursuit of a female, using its large, feathery antenna to detect the powerful sex hormone scents (pheromones) a female emits to attract a mate.  Polyphemus males can detect and fly to females that are miles away.  The moths survive for about a week, living only to mate and lay eggs. In fact, the adults don’t have mouthparts and can’t eat or drink.


A Polyphemus caterpillar, however, is an eating machine.

Polyphemus moth late stage caterpillar (

In the five to six weeks it takes until it is ready to pupate and spin its cocoon, it increases its weight by more than 10,000 times and grows to three inches long and ¾ inch in diameter. The caterpillar then wraps itself in a leaf and encases itself in silk thread spun from its mouth or it may crawl down and spin its cocoon on the ground.  A cocoon wrapped in a leaf may stay on the tree or shrub all winter as “mine” did, or it may fall to the ground in the autumn.  This is an important reason not to rake up the leaves that fall under your trees and shrubs.

As a result of their nocturnal habits and since so few make it to adulthood, not many of us ever get to see these beautiful creatures. Birds and mammals search out the protein-rich caterpillars, and few caterpillars escape the many parasites that prey on them.  If you provide host plants that the caterpillars eat, you can increase your chances of seeing one and help to increase their chances of survival.  Polyphemus moth caterpillars eat the leaves of a variety of native trees, including Oaks (Quercus), Maple (Acer), Birches (Betula), Hickories (Carya), Walnut (Juglans), Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), and  American Elm (Ulmus americana).  I’m not sure which of these plants “my” caterpillar ate, as I have five of these species in my yard.

The Polyphemus moth is in the family of large showy silk moths native to southeastern Pennsylvania.  Others species include the Cecropia (the largest moth in North America), Luna, Io, Imperial, Promethea, Tuliptree, Rosy Maple, and Royal Walnut Moth.  These moths also eat a variety of native trees and shrubs that would make great additions to a yard.

One last thing you can do to help the Polyphemus and other moths survive and reproduce successfully is to keep outdoor lights turned off as much as possible.  Any lights at night can “capture” moths, interrupt their search for mates, exhaust them, and make them easy targets for predators.

Newly emerged Polyphemus Moth with cocoon, 5/20/12

I hope you too may have the exciting experience of seeing a Polyphemus or one of the other showy silk moths in your yard!

Create a Living Legacy: Plant an Oak

By Edie Parnum


Planting an oak is the single most important thing we can do to support wildlife.

As a birder who loves spring migration, I have long noticed that my beloved warblers and other colorful birds prefer the native oak trees.   On May mornings, just when their foliage is emerging, I scan the oaks.  That’s where I find American Redstarts, Blackburnian Warblers, Scarlet Tanagers and other favorites in their resplendent spring plumage.  Only recently have I learned why these birds are in the oaks.  I credit Doug Tallamy, Professor of Entomology at the University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home.  Oaks, according to Tallamy, support 534 species of lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) caterpillars– more than any other native tree or plant. These caterpillars are not only the primary food source for migrating and breeding birds, but are essential food for baby birds. Other native plants support caterpillars, too, but non-native plants host very few at all.

Double-lined Prominent caterpillars can be found on oaks. Photo by Jon Rapp

I’ve always known that acorns are important food for turkeys, woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches, squirrels, chipmunks and other animals.  However, birds and other animals are even more dependent on the insects that munch on the oak leaves.  According to Tallamy, in addition to myriad lepidoptera species, oaks host aphids, leafhoppers, thrips, and other bugs–all target foods for animals throughout each growing season.

Professional landscapers may try to dissuade you from planting an oak.  They’ll tell you it grows too big for the average-sized yard, though most yards are big enough to support a full-sized mature oak. 

Eastern Bluebird with caterpillar to feed its young. Photo by Jake Dingel, PA Game Commission.

Perhaps, without any sense of irony, they will say that an oak will grow too slowly.  Certainly most oaks will be small for many years, but even young trees will support lots of insects.

While there are many local, native oaks to choose from, the handsome White Oak (Quercus alba) is my personal favorite.  From my childhood days in Salem County, NJ, I have fond memories of a nearby magnificent, ancient White Oak.  John Fenwick, an early settler, signed a treaty with the Lenape Indians in 1676 under this tree, now approximately 425 years old.  This species grows slowly (about a foot per year), but can live for centuries.

White Oak, Quercus alba, Edie's favorite oak

Other recommended oak species include Scarlet Oak (Q. coccinea),  Chestnut Oak (Q. montana),  RedOak (Q. rubra), and Black Oak (Q. velutina). These oaks are available at native plant nurseries and native plants sales. Since oaks have long tap roots, choose a small specimen (4’ or less) or grow your own from an acorn.  Because they are adapted to our soils and climate, no fertilizer or other amendments are needed.  However, regular watering during the first year helps the root system get established.

An oak is your personal legacy.  Your oak can live for centuries. It will host an inestimable number of birds, insects, and other wildlife during your own lifetime and for generations to come.