Providing Habitat for Monarch Butterflies

Monarch butterflies are in trouble. Their numbers have plummeted 97 % since the 1980s for several reasons:

  1. They lay their eggs on only one host plant, milkweed. Unfortunately, milkweed often grows along roadsides or farm fields where extensive pesticide sprayings occur. Milkweed is an innocent victim of man’s obsession with pesticides and insecticides.
  2. Extensive logging has occurred in Mexico, where the Eastern population overwinters. The habitat fragmentation endangers monarchs so much that a winter storm can decimate their numbers very rapidly. Even more alarming is the news from California, where the western population is facing a decimation of 86 % last year.

We were therefore thrilled that our Pennsylvania yard was a thriving monarch nursery last summer. Their pupa were usually so well concealed that we never found them until a freshly hatched butterfly perched nearby to unfold its wings. There is nothing like seeing a butterfly go through the life stages of egg, caterpillar, pupa and finally, adult.

While the caterpillars only feast on milkweed plants, the adults are not so limited in their choices. Any nectar-producing flower will do, whether it is spearmint, lobelia, goldenrod or zinnia. Zinnias were especially popular once monarchs began passing through our yard during their fall migration. That’s why it is so important to provide nectar sources for insects well into fall.

Our Garden Year 2018

The year 2018 brought record-breaking precipitation to our western Pennsylvania garden. After a short and late spring, the hot and humid summer lasted into early October. We seldom had to fill our small pond, which was home to three green frogs and several kinds of dragonflies. They provided me with plenty of photo opportunities while also keeping the number of mosquitoes down.

Our native plants were able to cope with frequent rainfalls while some annuals did not thrive until we experienced a relative dry spell. Perennials have a short blooming season and it is very important to plan successive blooms from spring to fall to provide nectar for insects. The earliest bloomers in our garden are redbud, wild columbine and false indigo.

The heat prompted some plants, such as this common milkweed, to bloom earlier than usual, an observation we made with other plants as well. This was a matter of concern because by early fall there were not many nectar sources available for insects. Luckily, our zinnias and salvia continued to bloom well into fall and became very popular with butterflies and bees.

Would you like to add some native plants to your garden? Make sure they are appropriate for your region. To get you started you may want to check out the websites of the National Wildlife Federation and National Audubon Society. Happy gardening!

Our Trip to Yellowstone National Park – Day 1

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We recently returned from an amazing visit to Yellowstone National Park. The weather forecast called for rain and even snow during our stay, but luckily it only rained overnight and the snow only capped the mountain tops. By afternoon we usually experienced blue skies, white clouds, and pleasant temperatures.

The drive from Bozeman Airport through the Gallatin Valley to West Yellowstone was delightful and the golden aspens provided a beautiful contrast to the evergreens.

 

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The next morning we headed into the park early in the morning. It didn’t take us long to spot our first bisons along the Madison River. By the Lower Geyser Basin we had our first up-close encounter with bison and saw hundreds of them before we reached Old Faithful. Naturally, we also stopped at several hot springs on the way. After eating lunch at Old Faithful, we drove on toward West Thumb Geyser Basin, but not before taking a break at a picnic area where we watched birds we had never seen before.

 

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At West Thumb we walked the boardwalk around the hot spring area and marveled at formations near and even in the lake. We drove on to our home for the next four nights, a cabin at the Lake Lodge. Our wildlife total for the day, not counting birds: hundreds of bison, two elk, a mule deer, and a black bear!

How to Attract Hummingbirds

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Someone told me recently that she hung up a hummingbird feeder last summer but the hummingbirds quickly disappeared and never returned. I asked her how often she changed the syrup and cleaned the feeder and she replied, never. She just left the initial batch of syrup out all summer.

I was not surprised that the hummingbirds never returned to this filthy feeder. It is crucial to keep bird feeders clean and particularly so during the heat of summer. Making fresh syrup is easy. All you need is one part household sugar and four parts water, bring to a boil and simmer for about five to six minutes. Cool down the mixture and – voila! – you are ready to hang your feeder. I don’t recommend using a big feeder because the syrup can turn moldy quickly in the heat of summer. It is much better to use a small feeder and to replace the mixture every three days or whenever it turns a bit cloudy. Cleanliness is key to a healthy bird population and can be done with a mixture of vinegar and warm water. Mold, on the other hand, can kill the very birds we are trying to attract.

The best way to attract hummingbirds to your yard is by planting for them. Tubular flowers are favorites, such as bee balm, penstemon, wild columbine, wild bergamot, great blue lobelia, or fuchsia, among others. The choice depends on the region you live in and the conditions in your yard. With a little care you will be able to watch a new generation of hummingbirds take flight on your property.

Native Plants Are Underappreciated

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Ever since we decided to plant native plants in our garden we are faced with the question: Just where can we find native plants? Nurseries are brimming with showy annuals: petunias, zinnias, geraniums, snapdragons, and a wide variety of cross-bred cultivars. Their value for wildlife (as a nectar source) is never even considered, as long as they are beautiful.

Native plants, on the other hand, are much harder to come by. We were lucky to receive a couple of plants from a local museum garden and found others at an Audubon Society’s native plant sale and at a small native plant nursery across town.

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During my summer visits to Germany I was astonished to see black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, and even goldenrod in many front yards. Why are these plants so popular in Europe and yet so underrepresented in the U.S., I wondered. Is the exotic plant from Asia or Europe so much more attractive than plants native to the U.S.? Our insects would like to differ. After all, they have developed alongside plants that were present here before white settlers arrived.

It is unfortunate that the  names of many native plants contain the term “weed.” A butterfly weed is much more attractive if it is called a “butterfly flower.” It is also much more beneficial for insects than a butterfly bush, which is non-native. “But I see many butterflies on my butterfly bush,” I’m often told. However, a butterfly bush is not a host plant for butterflies. And guess what? You can’t have adult butterflies if they can’t find a host plant for their eggs. And goldenrod, often wrongly accused of causing allergies, is an essential early fall plant for insects such as the migrating monarch butterfly in this image.

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If everyone would consider the value for wildlife instead of focusing on the visual appeal of flowers, they might observe many more butterflies and bees in their yards.

A Nature Photographer’s Year

In spring and fall I often turn my camera’s focus on birds, but during the summer I like to photograph wildflowers and wildlife. Oftentimes, the wildlife would be overlooked by most people, so it helps to know where and when to look. Since our garden is a certified wildlife habitat I don’t have to stray far from home to capture great images. I use these images to educate the public about the natural world during my presentations. Hopefully, by seeing nature’s beauty they will want to protect it. Here is a small sampling of images I took in our yard:

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Nature Photographer on the Go

I love my digital SLR camera and 400mm lens. The picture quality is excellent. It is no big deal to set up a tripod and blind in our backyard to photograph birds. The downside, of course, is the weight of all this equipment if I want to take photos beyond my backyard. I have even bought a used golf cart to transport my tripod and a chair.

My husband and I also love to hike in our local and state parks. On those occasions I left my camera equipment at home because I simply could not carry everything for hours. I felt bad for missing out on photo opportunities. That’s when I learned about bridge cameras. Their capabilities go way beyond consumer cameras and they have long zoom lenses. At first I was overwhelmed by all the functions on my little camera. I still haven’t figured everything out. But I had great fun photographing wildflowers, insects, trees, and various wildlife during our ramblings in Penn’s Woods this year. I even photographed dragonflies. Here is a sampling of the photos I took this past summer:

All images were taken with a Canon Powershot SX50 HS. Copyright Doris Dumrauf – All Rights Reserved

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A Photographic Journey through our Summer Garden

Our garden, a “Wildlife Habitat” certified by the National Wildlife Federation, not only provides food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young to all kinds of wildlife, but also many photo opportunities for me. Here are some samples of the subjects I found very close to home.

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

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Great Spangled Fritillary

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Painted Skimmer

Serviceberries Are A Big Draw for Wildlife

To say that our serviceberries are a big draw for wildlife is an understatement. Ever since the first berry showed a shade of red, birds, chipmunks, and a squirrel have feasted on it. American robins and cedar waxwings are the most frequent visitors, but we have also seen house finches, Northern cardinals, a scarlet tanager, and a Baltimore oriole in it. When it isn’t raining I am in our backyard photographing the spectacle.

 

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Fishing lines pose hazards for birds

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On a beautiful summer morning a couple of years ago I headed to North Park to photograph birds. On a tiny island in the lake a mulberry tree had fallen down, its berry-laden branches hanging over the water line. I soon spotted cedar waxwings eating the berries and flying off again. I was really proud of myself because I had caught one particular waxwing at the right moment.

After I downloaded the images to my computer I saw a problem in my shots: a fishing line was dangling right across my photo, thereby ruining it – or posing the daunting task of retouching much of the photo.

This was not the first time that I had seen a fishing line dangling from a tree. Such lines cause deadly hazards for birds as they get tangled up in them. Unfortunately, I did not see the line while I was photographing the birds – and didn’t carry a pair of scissors with me to cut it off – but I will pay more attention in the future.

Anglers, please collect your fishing lines before going home. The birds and other wildlife thank you for it.