Winged visitors are a pleasure to spot in the garden. Butterflies, moths, dragonflies, song birds, and birds of prey interact with the plants we choose and each other as they fly through in search of food, shelter, and mates. Learning to identify garden visitors and making sure to plant the native vegetation they need can transform gardening into conservation. Here are notes on some of the winged visitors Catherine has photographed at her home garden and in the gardens of clients.
Plants are the first link in almost every land-based food chain. Native plants are vital because many insect larvae, a second link in the food chain, can only hatch and feed on one kind of native plant. Insect larvae are the primary food source of baby songbirds and many other birds and amphibians. When the bottom of the food chain thrives, every species further up has the food it needs too. Inspiration for this post came from the book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas W. Tallamy. Let’s start with a group of graceful insects – butterflies!
This is a butterfly almost everyone recognizes, the Monarch, seen here nectaring on Swamp Milkweed or Asclepias incarnata (left) and on Pentas (right). The adult butterflies are much less picky than the juvenile caterpillar, which can only feed on milkweeds. These butterflies are well known for their yearly migration to Mexico, a truly amazing journey. Without milkweed in the landscape this butterfly would disappear completely.
A similar looking butterfly is the Painted Lady, seen here on Lantana (left), Apple Mint (center), and Chrysanthemum ‘White Bomb’ (right). Last fall, Catherine was lucky enough to see dozens swarming around these Chrysanthemum plants at a client’s property. Painted ladies flock and migrate in spring and fall. The caterpillars for this species can feed on many different kinds of plants, which is one reason that this butterfly can be found on every contintent except Australia and Antarctica.
Another butterfly you may find is the Fritillary, seen here on Butterfly Bush. As caterpillars, Fritillaries need members of the violet family, which includes pansies, violas, and the common violet. While we don’t recommend planting common violets in manicured garden beds, we do encourage letting them stay in a more naturalized part of your landscape.
The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, seen here on Pentas (left) and Butterfly Bush (center), is one of my personal favorites, along with the Black Swallowtail seen on Petunia (right). A note about Butterfly Bush: it is not native to the Northeast and while it is very attractive to adult butterflies who can feed on its nectar, most species cannot lay eggs on or eat this plant as caterpillars. Butterfly Bush is a beautiful plant and a great way to attract butterflies to your yard, but to support the caterpillars that become butterflies you will need to plant other species too.
Every butterfly was once a caterpillar. Though harder to spot, you can find them once you know where to look. This Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar was found rolled inside a native Sassafras tree, Sassafras albidum. The eyespots and coloring of this caterpillar mimic a snake found in Central America, a common predator of the birds who migrate north during the summer and feed on caterpillars. Sassafras is a great medium sized tree, and Native American Nations up and down the east coast have a variety of culinary and medicinal uses for it.
Not all caterpillars require native plants – this Black Swallowtail caterpillar is pictured here feeding on Parsley (right) and Bronze Fennel (center and right). This caterpillar can eat almost any member of the Apiaceae family, also known as the carrot family, but they don’t do a lot of damage to these tasty crops. If you see them on your carrots, parsley, dill, or fennel, let them be and keep an eye out for Black Swallowtail butterflies.
Some other common insect visitors to the garden are dragonflies, pictured left on a human, and hummingbird moths, pictured right on Hummingbird Mint. If you stand still and hold out your finger in an area buzzing with dragonflies, they might land on you! Have no fear, they don’t bite. Catherine and her daughter make a game out of the number and color of dragonflies that land on them.
Other charismatic garden visitors include song birds, like these baby robins (left). The adult birds will be back with juicy worms or caterpillars for these hungry hatchlings. Birds need more than just food, they also need a good place to put their nests. The same robin who made the nest on the left tried 4 times under the deck (pictured right), before settling in the hanging basket.
Other common visitors are wild turkeys. These birds roam in packs and eat insects, seeds, nuts, and berries. In spring, you can see males displaying their tail feathers to attract mates.
Further up the food chain we find predatory birds like the hawks seen here. The one on the left is helping with vole control in the vegetable garden, and the two on the right are a mating pair.
You might also get to see a well-camouflaged Barred Owl (left and right) or, more likely, hear their call at night that says, “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?” If you see an agitated group of crows, look around for a hawk or owl nearby.
One of the best things you can do for all winged wildlife in your garden is to leave at least one or two mature trees standing in your landscape. In addition to providing nesting and hunting perches for birds, Oak trees in particular support more than 500 kinds of native caterpillars. You can also add native plants to a new or existing garden planting. If you are curious about adding more native plants to your garden, reach out to Catherine for a consultation.
- Liz P, Horticulturist at Sweetgum Horticulture