“Birds are indicators of the environment. If they are in trouble, we know we’ll soon be in trouble.” Roger Tory Peterson
While one may want to call this feeder friend, a red-headed woodpecker, that name is already taken. The angle of the camera shot does not reveal it’s actual name, red-bellied woodpecker. Red-bellied woodpeckers can be attracted to feeders by suet, peanuts, and as in this feeder example, black-oil sunflower seed. A year round resident and cavity nester, this predator uses its sticky tongue to extract prey from bark crevices. Learn more about this colorful avian at All About Birds, hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Raccoon raiding bird feeder
This little hairy acrobat, as well as squirrels, are frequent visitors to backyard feeders. Baffles are often recommended as deterrents and sometimes work. While Wild Bird Unlimited offers a cleverly designed feeder to deter the little raiders, it is a little pricey. However, it does come with a lifetime warranty. For those who have seen enough acrobatics, this feeder may be of use. Click here to investigate.
“Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man.” Stuart Udall
Monarch female extracts nectar from a tropical milkweed. The female can be identified by the thick black lines on either side of the abdomen.
Most insects, including monarchs, go through a four stage life cycle. The monarch female deposits eggs on milkweed host plants and upon hatching, the larvae or caterpillars feed upon the leaves of the milkweed for about five days. Unlike most caterpillars, monarch caterpillars have few problems with predation. Toxins in the milkweed are transferred to the caterpillar and remain in the monarch’s system throughout its lifecycle. Therefore, birds and other predators avoid the monarch. Viceroy butterflies, as a means of avoiding predation, mimic the coloration of the adult monarch.
Learn more about milkweed by clicking here.
Monarch caterpillar munches on the leaves of a tropical milkweed.
Caterpillars go through five molts or instars in their development. The colorful caterpillar pictured, is in the fifth instar and will soon crawl as much as thirty feet away from the host plant. Finding a suitable object on which to attach, the quick little crawler will transform into a beautiful jewel-like chrysalis.
A monarch chrysalis hangs from a railing.
This darkened chrysalis reveals the transformation process. When the ten day process is nearly completed, the new adult can be seen through the transparent chrysalis.
Allowing its wings to dry, the newly emerged adult hangs near the tiny compartment that represents the third stage of its life. Learn more about the life cycle of these remarkable monarchs by clicking here.
“The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery not over nature but of ourselves.” Rachel Carson
Monarch on tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica
According to a news article published in Cottage Life magazine in 2017, Jennifer Tremeer of the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory attributes the drastic decline in the monarch butterfly population to the planting of genetically modified crops resistant to herbicides, habitat loss, and severe weather. This pollinator population, tracked by scientists since 1994, teeters on the verge of extinction. While some may see the loss of one species as a triviality, the reality is this species is representative of all pollinator species that may face the same fate. The US Fish and Wildlife Service reminds us that these diminutive creatures pollinate 75% of the food we consume, including chocolate and coffee! Well, that’s certainly worth one’s attention!
Remember John Muir’s observation, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Individual efforts to help the monarch can be accomplished through avoiding the use of pesticides, planting milkweed plants, found at local garden centers; and by maintaining wild milkweed varieties in the landscape. Milkweed serves as the host plant for monarch caterpillar larvae as well as a nectar source for adult monarchs. Learn more about this fall visitor by clicking here.
Host Plants in the Landscape
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” John Muir
The next step in attracting pollinators is planting or maintaining the presence of host plants. These are the plants, pollinators such as butterflies and moths seek, when depositing eggs. Upon hatching from the egg attached to a leaf, the caterpillar consumes the egg case and proceeds to a readily available source of food, the leaves of the host plant. Its mother flies from plant to plant, using the sensors located in her feet to “taste” leaves to find the correct plant for her offspring.
A variety of host plants in the local landscape will attract a variety of pollinators. Many host plants are actually considered weeds by most people. Resisting the impulse to remove all the wild spaces in the landscape will help pollinators and other wild creatures. Intend to “untend.”
A Gulf Fritillary caterpillar crawls on its host plant, a native passion vine, Passiflora lutea.
Common in moist, wooded areas, this passion vine grows profusely, climbing trees and fences. Support the Gulf Fritillary by allowing this host plant to remain in the landscape. It is also the host plant for the Zebra Longwing butterfly. Learn more about Passiflora lutea at the USDA website. Click here to access the site.
Adult Gulf Fritillary on a nectar plant, the zinnia
The Alabama Butterfly Atlas website is a good source of pictures of the host plant, Passiflora lutea, as well as this gorgeous coastal butterfly. Click here to access the site.
A Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar rests on a Sassafras leaf.
Native trees, including Sassafras, Red Bay, and Swamp Bay are host plants, suffering from Laurel wilt. This disease is caused by a fungus transmitted by an invasive red bay ambrosia beetle. Laurel wilt threatens the Spicebush swallowtail and other pollinators. Learn more about controlling this disease at the Alabama forestry commission website . Click here to access the site.
Adult Spicebush swallowtail on a nectar plant, commonly called butterfly bush, scientific name, Buddleia davidii
The University of Florida has extensive information concerning the four stages of the Spicebush’s lifecycle. Click here to access the site.
Perennials for Pollinators
“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Mexican Bush Sage ( Salvia leucantha)
A very cost effective and efficient way of adding pollinator plants to the landscape is by planting perennials. Perennials are plants that live more than one year. While many die back in the winter, the plants will return, providing another year of nectar for pollinators and grand displays of color. Mexican bush sage, thrives in full sun and is an easy plant to propagate, just stick a cutting into potting soil.
Fire Spike or Cardinal Spear (Odontonema strictum) is a favorite for hummingbirds as well as butterflies. Preferring moist, well drained soil, this perennial can be propagated easily and shared with friends. It does well in full sun or partial shade. Cardinal spears and Mexican bush sage are winners for gardeners and pollinators! Learn about these pollinator plants and many others by clicking here.
A long-tailed skipper, ready to unfurl its proboscis, rests on the tubular flowers of a Mexican bush sage. Learn more about this little erratic little flyer by clicking here.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds love cardinal spears. The lack of red feathers on this fall visitor indicates it may be a female or an immature male. Mature males fly south in mid-summer, while mature females and immature hummers wait until late summer and fall. Learn more about ruby-throats by clicking here.
Annuals in the Landscape
“The earth laughs in flowers.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Pollinators contribute enormously to an ecosystem in the process of acquiring sustenance. While the transfer of pollen is an invaluable contribution, one cannot underestimate the balm pollinators provide for the spirit. Time spent in the observation and appreciation of these delicate creatures is never wasted.
In an effort to attract pollinators to the local landscape, the first and quite appropriate response is to plant nectar plants. An abundance of annuals and perennials are available from local garden centers and sales sponsored by botanical gardens. Annuals are plants that live for one season while perennials live more than one season.
Vinca is an easy-to-grow annual to attract pollinators. Available in a variety of colors, it is a budget friendly addition to the landscape. Gardeners will be pleasantly surprised in the spring to find this sun lover will sometimes reseed. Hummingbird moths find vinca a favorite source of nectar.
Another budget friendly and sun loving annual is the zinnia. It too, comes in a variety of colors as well as heights. The dwarf variety pictured, is particularly well liked by butterflies including the Painted Lady. Click here to learn more about zinnias .
More can be learned about the equally beautiful, Painted Lady, by clicking here.
This industrious little bee reminds us that herbs also provide nectar sources for pollinators. Basil, Ocimum basilicum, is an annual in the mint family.
The common checkered-skipper is another frequent visitor to basil plants. Plants can be purchased from garden centers and are easily started from seed.
Learn more about the common checkered-skipper by clicking here.
“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” Aristotle
Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red. So don’t be surprised when wearing a red shirt and having that morning cup of caffeine on the back deck . A face to face confrontation will certainly get the juices flowing.
Bird bander and hummer expert, Bob Sargent, noted that hummers visit the same feeders on almost the same day every year. So keep the feeders clean and ready for these remarkable visitors. Bob graciously identified this photo of a ruby-throated hummingbird. Ruby-throated females and immature males do not have the brilliant red feathers on the throat area. Rest in peace, Bob.
For more information about ruby-throated hummingbirds visit the Audubon site at
“It is ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray.” Rachel Carson
It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a bumble bee and a carpenter bee. The carpenter bee has a shiny abdomen while the bumble bee has a hairy abdomen. The abdomen is the third segment of an insect’s body. Are you able to identify this little pollinator? Note to photographer-a few pix from the posterior view of this industrious critter might be a good idea. It appears to be too busy to be offended! Learn more about bees at https://insectidentification.org/insect-description.asp?identification=common-Eastern-Bumble-Bee
“Nature is loved by what is best in us.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
A hummingbird clearwing moth collects nectar from a vinca blossom. While most sphinx moths are nocturnal, the hummingbird clearwing flies during the day. Learn more about this mysterious creature at https://www.massaudubon.org/learn/nature-wildlife/insects-arachnids/hummingbird-moth-clearwing-moth
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” Rachel Carson
Many blissful hours can be spent in capturing the exquisite beauty and absolute mystery of pollinators. What better place could there be for a shutterbug to pursue the joy of photography than in his or her own backyard! The spicebush swallowtail, one of seven swallowtails found in coastal Alabama, can be identified by the underwing pattern. Notice the “skyrocket trail” in the pattern of yellow dots.