Musings of a South Florida Gardener by Carol Eannace

Each morning the garden calls me to see what’s new.  It’s always something . .

Cardinal refreshing himself in the fountain.

 

 

One of the things I value most about gardens are that they are ever changing, allowing us all the chance to learn, evolve in our preferences, make mistakes and enjoy a ring-side seat to nature.  This courtyard has had so many evolutions over the years.  At one time the fountain was flowing and it was filled with fish.  And then the fish grew so that they were discovered and eaten by the local cats and raccoons.  Next we grew water lettuce in each of the bowls and the frogs love that!

 

For the past few years, I’ve removed the water lettuce from the top two bowls to fill them with water for our bird friends.  The frogs still inhabit the bottom bowl and they very efficiently eat any mosquito larvae.  Water lettuce is classified as an invasive, but I appreciate it in this application because it’s contained and I love the velvety leaves.  My journey as a gardener has been one of discovery through experience and education.  The unique plants I collected many years ago have given way to a more urgent need to grow natives in an effort to help restore the environment and provide habitat for wildlife.  

This trellis in the same courtyard has hosted maypop, corky stem passionvine, coral honeysuckle and now has been taken over by the blue pea vine.  I miss all the zebra longwings and the gulf frittilaries that laid their eggs on both of the passionvines, but blue pea vine attracts birds, bees and skippers and the flowers are quite lovely.

 

I started planting corky stem passionvines along both perimeter fence lines for the zebras and gulfs a few years ago, hoping that planting among established vines and trees would give the caterpillars a better chance at survival, since they are more hidden than on this trellis.  To some degree it has succeeded, but it’s much harder to watch the growth of the caterpillars and their emergence from their chrysalis.

Julia butterfly
Gulf fritillary butterfly with another fritillary attached.

One of my passions for many years has been growing orchids.  In South Florida we are fortunate to enjoy such a long growing season.  We are accustomed to seeing flowers bloom throughout the year.  This is very rarely the case with orchids, except for a couple easy to grow varieties, here an oncidium   – possibly Oncidium Ensatum, but I’m not positive.  Although most orchids are epiphytic, this species can also ground in the ground.

This is the other constantly blooming orchid, a Brassavola Nodosa, commonly called Lady of the Night for the delicious scent it releases at sunset to attract the moth that pollinates it. 

My orchid house provides habitat for lots of wildlife.  I wish I had a photo of the hummingbirds that stake out their territory each day during the winter, but they are way too fast for my camera!  Quite often the birds delight in chewing off the orchid roots because it seems to make the perfect nesting material.  And this little frog is one of the many calling the orchid house home.

 

Dendrobium Lindleyi is one of my favorite orchids.  It blooms like this once a year for about a month.

Below is an orchid commonly called a cowhorn, Cyrtopodium punctatum.  It is native to Florida and some of Latin America, but endangered here now.  It’s quite easy to grow once you have the pseudobulb and blooms once a year for about a month in the spring.  Bees love it!

Vanilla orchids grow easily in South Florida.  The flowers appear for just a few hours one day only.  Unfortunately we do not have the bee here that pollinates the orchid, so growers are self-pollinating.  We had so many vanilla flowers last year that I tried to self-pollinate, with very little success.  There was only one vanilla bean at the end of the season!  One more reason to concentrate efforts on growing native plants!

Giant swallowtails are frequent visitors to our key lime tree and wild lime trees.  Unfortunately, the birds are not often fooled by the “bird poop” caterpillar defense.  Hopefully the female lays enough eggs to increase the odds for this beautiful butterfly.

These soft cane dendrobiums are happily growing on a frangipani tree.  They have the most delicious scent each morning.  Unfortunately, they also appeal to the iguanas, who think they make a perfect breakfast!

Coonties grow easily in this section of the garden, attracting the gorgeous little atalas.  I love this ancient cycad for its hardiness and ability to survive in almost any condition.

I’ve been growing zinnias for a while now, just for the monarchs.  They especially love the orange flowers.  As our climate continues to change more each year, all of nature needs our help and protection.  Anything we can do to utilize more native plants, especially those that feed pollinators and birds or provide habit for wildlife is valuable.  And the benefit for us is a journey rich in appreciation for what surrounds us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lina’s Garden

This is the second in a series of Wildlife Garden of the Month posts.  We want to highlight the many ways in which you can transform your garden into a biodiverse sanctuary for humans and wildlife and inspire you to take action.

 

Lina’s Garden

by Lina Castaneda

Sustainability and Activism

minima.lina

The beauty of a Gulf fritillary butterfly is captivating!

 

Florida has a unique climate and there is so much to learn, believe me, it begs to be acknowledged. Not just in fauna and flora but in land and the Natives that steward it, the Tequestas, Seminole, Calusas, Miamis and Miccosukee. It also begs to be inclusive with all the people that came after and it needs to be accessible to all to appreciate. I want to acknowledge first and foremost, that this piece of land was the land of the Tequesta tribe, and the story of our garden in a way is to pay respects to them and mitigate the effects of poorly used land at all scales.

 

There is a funny thing to believing in sustainability that seeps through every part of your life, from food to materials you wear on your body, to what’s inside and outside of your home. I was very aware of this for years, before and after having kids, and living in small apartments. I was conscious about waste and had a growing green thumb. I started with my tiny compost bins and tiny balcony veggie garden with tomatoes, roses, peppers and herbs. And then it finally happened, we bought our home in Little Haiti with our first kid. After a couple of years living in this house I decided that decorative grass in my front yard was the most pointless perk of owning a home. The time I spent cutting grass on the weekends is wasted because no one, and nothing in this outdoor environment benefited from it. Absolutely no bees, no butterflies or birds could possibly benefit from this- and I gained nothing but a heck of a lot of grass allergies.

 

Our lawn covered in high maintenance grass.

 

My front lawn started with a consultation from a man in native gardening that didn’t have much time to explain all my questions about what he was bringing to my yard. Looking back it couldn’t have been a better scenario because it caused me to do the research myself and learn on my own. My desire to learn about plants was amplified from container balcony plants to something short of a tiny forest. So here it began and the grass had to go. I had no patience in dealing with the removal or sheeting of the front yard so we agreed to smother it with about 6”-8” of height of mulch. There were no plants to remove except for a non-native clusia that similarly to grass, contributed absolutely nothing to its surroundings. So without much to consider, the entire front yard was covered (about 1600 sqft) with mulch. The kind of mulch we used was not the commercial one though, this one had not been sprayed with chemicals like most bags you’d find in Home Depot and the like. We got it from a local arborist that had enough chipped wood from his jobs and the consultant had it delivered to us. Now I learned that the arborists do it for free.

 

The very first of many truck-loads of chemical free mulch to cover. This one gave us 6”-8” of initial height of mulch on the front lawn.
The first few small to medium sized plants installed. This view lasted for almost a year while the plants established.

 

 

End of first year of plants installed.  Some grass attempted to grow through but was easily pulled.

 

 

Then the planting started, we got the recommended plants from the consultant in addition to some that I had found in native nurseries like Silent Nursery and Veber’s Jungle Garden. Midsize plants were put in their respective places considering height vs. position of the sun to create more shade in some places than others. Areas of desired privacy were also considered and the denser plants were placed there. There’s so much I can say in detail about each of these plants if you ask me in person I can yap about it endlessly. I will mention however, our starring plant: powderpuff, or sunshine mimosa, a creeper that was meant to cover a good 80% of the yard replacing grass, staying low, resistant to pedestrians and most importantly, never needing to be cut. It grew marvelously in direct sun and once established it grows incessantly. The overall growth of the garden until this day has taken 2 years and for some people it seems like an unbearable sight and wait time. There was only mulch and tiny plants for the majority of the first year but the second year was incredibly rewarding, everything took off and bloomed. It was recommended to us to get even bigger plants at the beginning to skip the wait time barren visual, but this incremented our budget to 5x the cost. I didn’t mind the time it took to grow because I got to know every single plant in its small stage to full growth. Plus the garden was meant to go against all conventional, out of the box and cookie-cutter aspects of what a lawn is these days. Extra time to grow didn’t hurt anything.

 

We repurposed rocks and mixed concrete slabs from an uneven backyard patio removal.

 

My children spend a lot of time discovering new things in my garden.

 

We see such amazing sights as this Long-tailed skipper butterfly, which is taking a rest after laying eggs on the butterfly pea. Their caterpillars are particularly interesting to watch.
The more we planted, the ,more dragonflies we saw zipping around the garden.

 

Mimosa creeper closes its leaves as you touch or step on them. It is an incredibly resilient groundcover.

 

Spanish needle is a wonderful native nectar plant, attracting a variety of bee and butterfly species.  Check out this honeybee’s pollen-filled saddle bags!

 

The goal of the garden was to make it as self sustainable and purposeful for the local fauna. There was to be no cutting, no irrigation, no fertilizing and no manicuring or leaf blowing of any kind. And so, it has lived to that purpose until this day! Perhaps the only thing we maintain is adding truck loads of mulch (which we get for free) every 3 to 6 months. We joined the program of Connect to Protect and hold 5 native plants from them as well as 6 Florida-friendly trees from the 1Million Trees Project in order to increase canopy in areas like where we live. An additional aspect to the front garden was always a given to us, making it a wonderful space for our kids to explore. It did not become so necessary like it did in 2020’s pandemic. With so much time staying in, we explored every nook and cranny of this yard. There were so many new bugs, more visiting birds, new growth and more flowers in plants, interesting textures and we started to explore our options beyond having a pollinator-friendly garden.

 

Including my kids and giving them responsibility to care for the garden. My son here helps me build the herb spiral.

 

I recently got certified in Permaculture with Earth Activist Training and I learned so much about soil, plant biodiversity, water harvesting, environmental impacts, social justice and more. All of which I wanted to apply to my already existing self-sustainable garden. Could I include food? The kids loved the small vegetable garden bed in the backyard but what if we could have more and include more different vegetables and even share? With more time outside I poked for spaces and found areas where a little key lime little could grow, some tomatoes could hangout near the firecracker bush and different kale varieties could snuggle in between the milkweed. And it worked! We got excited and decided to make an additional space for the kids to plant some herbs. Behold, the most permaculture thing anyone can do; an herb spiral. Here we have an eternal and massive sissoo spinach bush growing, rosemary, cilantro, parsley and different basil varieties. A few other things we incremented was the amount of rain barrels around the perimeter of the house. In one single day of steady heavy showers we collect about 250 gallons (more if we had more barrels!) of non-chlorinated water that our raised vegetable beds love. We also collect bags of leaves that people put out on their curbside to add to our compost or backyard and we also practice “chop-and drop” when a plant (specially palm trees) drop leaves or become hazardous and needs a chop, we simply cut and leave the cuttings or leaves on the ground or under a tree. “Produce No Waste” as Permaculture principle No.6 reminds us.

 

Our garden faces south allowing us to have raised beds that grow during our winter season.

 

Kale and broccoli in between the gaillardia by the entrance.

 

Key lime, tomatoes and basil in between Pineland croton and Firebush.

 

With this knowledge in my belt I have slowly begun to help our neighbors with mulch and sharing of plant cuttings from our garden.  I have hosted online talks about composting with worms, finding pollinator friendly plants and offered drop-off compost options for the community near and far. Very recently I have started a forest school coop with a few moms and their kids in order to share the space and bounty. With lots of plans crushed during this pandemic I am focusing on learning more in detail about our local ecosystems and like I mentioned at the beginning with the land acknowledgement, there is so much we ought to learn and preserve. Even if it’s water! Because this land was never really ours, it is not ours to keep but we can make it right and better for our children.  It has been nothing short of a heaven for our family to experience, learn and grow with our garden and I highly recommend anyone desiring to break out of the conventional lawn mold to do it! 

 

Our entrance holds a large Coral honeysuckle vine that brings us a wild show of butterflies and hummingbirds.

 

The morning hummingbird spectacle at the Coral honeysuckle vine.  Imagine waking up to this sight!

 

 

 

 

A Few of Our Favorite Natives

 

 

Would you like to transform your garden into a place of beauty where migrating birds find sanctuary and sustenance and butterflies and bees find their fill of nectar, but you don’t know where to start?  We’ve got you covered: read on to learn about some of our favorite native plants that will make birds, butterflies, bees — and you — happy.  There is a whole world of native plants to discover, but there is nothing wrong starting out with baby steps and planting one or two to start with.  You can read more about these plants by clicking on their names.  And you can find many more recommended plants by reading our other posts, which are listed below.

 

Blue porterweed has such pretty flowers.

The native Blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis) is a perennial classic that is drought-tolerant and thrives in full sun to partial shade. The small delicate blue/purple flowers are the perfect calling card for Gulf fritillary, Julia, Monarch, and Sulphur butterflies. This plant does well in pots or planted in the ground, and will grow to about 2 ½ to 3’ tall.  The possibilities of use in a landscape are endless. They can be used as a mid-size mixed low hedge, along a walkway, grouped as ground cover shrubs, or even an accent to a garden entrance or a mailbox post.      

 

Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees sip nectar from the flowers, and birds eat the delectable fruit of the Little strongback.

Pineland or Little strongback/strongbark (Bourreria cassinifolia) is a wonderful small tree growing to about 7 feet tall and 4-5 feet wide, with gracefully cascading branches covered with delicate leaves that allow the sun to shine under the plant, making it a perfect choice for the center of a grouping as well as a stand-alone tree.  All year round, the Little strongback’s sweet little white flowers offer nectar to a variety of butterflies and bees, and orange berries that provide food for birds, making it a perfect plant for wildlife.  It is endangered in the wild which makes us want to protect it in our gardens.

 

The flowers of the native Lantana involucrata attract Zebra butterflies and other pollinators. The berries delight birds.

Known as Button sage or Wild sage (Lantana Involucrata), this shrub typically grows to about 5 feet tall and about as wide (although in the right conditions it can grow as tall as 8 feet).  It gets its name from the lovely smell of the leaves, and the beautiful little white or pale pink multi-clustered flowers that look like old-fashioned buttons.  The flowers attract butterflies like the Atala and the Zebra, and bees as well.  If that isn’t enough to convince you to plant one in your garden, how about the fact that its beautiful purple berries attract all manner of birds, including Mockingbirds and migrating warblers.  This is another winner for wildlife.

 

A beautiful Atala butterfly sips the nectar from a Pineland croton.

Pineland croton (Croton linearis) is a smallish shrub growing to about 5 feet high and 6 feet wide, if left unpruned.  Its little white flowers look insignificant to the human eye, but you should see the video we have of Atala butterflies brawling over the nectar, which bees love as well.  Its leaves are long and graceful and a lovely sage green.  This plant is also the host plant to two critically imperiled pine rockland species of butterflies, which is a good enough reason to plant it in your garden as a symbol of hope for all endangered creatures.  This shrub tends to fall forward while growing but can easily be propped up with a small stake or that frame for a campaign poster that you’ve been keeping around, hoping to find the perfect way to upcycle it.

 

 

Fogfruit is beautiful and useful in so many ways. And to think that some people consider this to be a lawn weed and douse it in herbicide to eradicate it.

 

 Phyla nodiflora is so amazing that it has four common names: fogfruit or frogfruit or turkey tangle or creeping Charlie.  It is a wonderful little versatile plant that grows to about 3 inches in the sun (taller in the shade) and spreads through runners, so it also makes a wonderful ground cover in low traffic areas.  The pretty little flowers are white and purple, bloom all year round, and attract all sorts of pollinators, including native bees (native bees do not look like honeybees and are typically smaller or larger) and small butterfly species.  In addition to being a wonderful nectar plant, it is a host plant for four — yes four! — species of butterflies, who lay their eggs on the leaves for their caterpillars to eat. 

 

We find yellow flowers add such a cheerful presence in the garden.

Privet Senna (Senna ligustrina), also known as privet wild sensitive plant, privet senna is a perennial shrub with stunning, showy butter yellow blooms. Sulphur butterflies, including the stunning orange barred sulphur (Phoebis philea), lay their eggs on this plant so their caterpillars can eat the leaves. Solitary native bees also love the beautiful blooms and help pollinate the plant, and we love any plant that feeds native bees.  This plant loves full sun, however it is a short day plant, so a sunny spot that gets shade during part of the day is just perfect! It is a fast grower and will be reach 4-8 feet in height and approx 4 feet wide within 1-2 seasons. It graciously produces seed pods with seeds that germinate easily so it is a wonderful choice for propagation and sharing with friends and neighbors.

 

We love the color of the flowers!

Teabush, aka Woolly Teabush/Woolly Pyramid Flower/ or Broomwood (Melochia Tomentosa) is a tall flowering shrub that enjoys full sun. It can grow to a height of 12-14 feet and 4-6 feet wide but can be maintained at a smaller profile with regular pruning if so desired.  This shrub has lovely abundant small purple flowers that lean toward a light magenta. It’s leaves are a soft greyish green. The Teabush is a bee magnet and is also frequented by a variety of butterflies who sip its nectar. Ladybugs and dragonflies also visit this garden beauty. 

These are just a few of the plants that delight us.  You can find them in native nurseries, or take advantage of Steve Woodmansee’s deliveries to our area.  His next delivery is this coming Saturday, November 14.  The deadline for placing an order is tomorrow, November 10.  You can email him at steve@pronative.com to get on his mailing list and to place an order.  To read about more plants we recommend, check out these posts: Create a Nursery Filled with Bugs for Baby BirdsAttract Butterflies, Birds, and Bees to your Garden with a Hedgepodge; and Saving Birds with a Butterfly Garden.

Put Out a Green Welcome Mat for Migratory Birds

By Mary Benton and Michael Faisal Green

In Collaboration with Pelican Harbor Seabird Station

Hello South Floridians!  Just imagine for a moment if, in order to survive, you had to embark at night on a very long, difficult, and dangerous journey, in which you had to travel under your own power, guided only by the moon and stars, an internal compass and map and known landmarks.  Imagine further that you have to stop during the day to find food to give you energy to continue the journey ahead, without access to money or markets, but rather relying on the generosity of strangers.  That is the journey migratory birds make twice a year, and you are the stranger whose generosity can fuel their journey. 

When dawn breaks on the horizon, these migrating birds start scanning the world below for a welcoming bit of greenery in between the pavement and the buildings.  You can lay out a green welcome mat in the form of a garden filled with native plants that provide tasty treats like insect protein snacks and juicy berries, seeds and nectar, and perhaps a water feature where these beautiful and vulnerable creatures can refresh themselves before continuing on their journey.  The beauty these birds bring to your garden and the knowledge that you are making their journey easier, will give you much heartfelt joy, which is a powerfully positive feeling.  Read on to learn how you can make friends in high places by putting out a green welcome mat.  

But first, check out how perfectly positioned your garden is to provide sanctuary and sustenance to migrating birds:

The original snowbirds fly towards the stable weather of the tropics that promises them consistent daylight and warmth.  

Let’s take a moment to talk about why birds migrate.  Many bird species cannot survive the freezing temperatures of the northern climate, and cannot find sufficient food in a frozen landscape.  The tropics offer stability in the form of consistent daylight and warmth and enough food to ensure that the birds can survive.  However, competition for that food means the tropics cannot support the demands of raising a family.  The North American spring and summer offer something unique: the biggest explosion of biomass in the world, whereby photosynthetic processes go from suspension into overdrive.  This is fueled in part by soils rested by winter, but more so by the increase in sunlight, which is double the amount offered in winter.

What is as important as their winter and summer homes are the spring and autumn migratory routes – few more important than South Florida. During the spring, many birds leave Central/South America and the Caribbean islands and first arrive in South Florida. Arriving in a healthy ecosystem is essential for them after having flown hundreds of miles over water with no food – can you imagine? – and this is where your garden comes in. In the fall, their journey is reversed.  Most songbirds migrate during the night as they are not able to catch insects while flying. This results in huge ‘fallouts’, whereby tens of thousands of birds, having flown all night, suddenly fall out of the sky at dawn and descend on green spaces in search of food. These ‘fallouts’ can be detected by weather radar – birds carry a radar signature, in the same way that water particles do in rain – allowing us to see the huge swarm ahead of time. 

 

In this radar image from the National Weather Service’s Key West facility, a massive flock — 90 miles out from the center — of as many as 118 species of migratory birds is seen moving north on a February night. The green/yellow objects are biological objects flying north over the Keys. The darker blue objects indicate rain. [National Weather Service]
Maintaining a healthy, chemical-free biodiverse garden, with a water feature and a variety of native plants that attract insects and offer berries and nectar, is critical to the survival of these ‘passage’ migrants. The habitat quality of their migratory routes is just as important as that of their winter or summer homes. Birds start arriving from their winter destinations from February until the middle of May. The first migrants are typically Louisiana Waterthrushes, Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers and the last being Blackpolls – who mostly arrive from Colombia – and Painted Buntings. It is just as important for southbound migrants who rely on lush gardens and plants to stock up with fat deposits before their marathon flights over water from late summer to late fall.

So, load your garden up with native plants that attract insects, and provide nectar, seeds, and berries for beautiful creatures traveling to their winter or summer homes, download a bird ID app such as Merlin, iNaturalist, or Audubon, grab a pair of binoculars, and open your eyes and ears for some spectacular sights, like this beautiful Black-and-white-Warbler, whose call sounds like this.

Photo of a Black-and-white Warbler by Ryan Schain  from Cornell University’s All About Birds

Or this Black-throated Blue Warbler, whose call sounds like this.

Photo taken by Aaron Marshall in Ontario, from the McCauley Library at Cornell’s Ornithology Lab

Or the Cape May Warbler whose call sounds like this.

This Cape May Warbler was photographed by Keenan Yakola in Maine.

 

Those are just a few examples of the many passage migrants we might be lucky enough to see if our gardens are sufficiently inviting.  In addition to passage migrants, South Florida is also home to many winter migrants as climate change, habitat degradation in their usual wintering regions, in addition to urban development on their migratory routes, means that more and more birds are foregoing the trans-Caribbean flights and instead are settling in South Florida from late autumn to early spring.

Among these birds is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which you are almost certain to hear before you see it as it is so tiny and fast and its wings make a very distinctive sound.  The semi deciduous habitat of South Florida means that there are always flowering native plants here and the one redeeming aspect of human development – a lonely and outnumbered redeeming factor it is too – is that there are a sufficient number of gardens and habitats replete with nectar-laden flowers that can sustain a number of these birds throughout the winter. Nurseries south of Miami also provide extra nectar for them. Hummingbirds love red flowers like Tropical sage (Salvia coccinea), Firebush (Hamelia patens), and Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), and will visit feeders, but please be mindful of how to maintain your feeders.  If we can transform our gardens and green spaces into sanctuaries so that they can safely winter here and be spared a dangerous and difficult trans-Caribbean flight, then that’s reason enough to do so, particularly given the extreme habitat degradation they’re experiencing on their migratory routes into their wintering locations. Indeed, it is likely that these birds, who’ve been around for hundreds of thousands of years longer than humans, used to always consider this their wintering home until we came along.   

 

Watercolor artist Kim Heise’s beautiful rendering of two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds drinking nectar from the native Coral honeysuckle vine.  Click here to see more of her beautiful art which raises awareness of the importance of protecting the beauty and biodiversity of South Florida’s native plants and animals.

 

Last, but certainly not least, if you are really lucky, and have a combination of shrubby thickets that provide cover, low-growing plants that provide berries, and grasses and other seed-bearing plants — not to mention a shallow water feature and a feeder filled with white millet seed — you might have the breathtaking experience of spotting one of these glorious creatures in your garden.  Once you have spotted one, it is very tempting to want to ditch your regular life and spend the entire day in the garden hoping to get another glimpse of this beautiful new feathered friend!  Painted Buntings, whose calls sound like this, are quite shy and easy to overlook, but they often travel around the garden in the company of their larger cousin, the Cardinal, which is a hard-to-miss bird with a distinctive metallic ‘chip’ sound that it employs while hunting for food.

A migrating jewel with wings called a Painted Bunting. If you provide the right ingredients, they might spend the winter in your garden, hunting for seeds and insects. Photo by Michael Faisal Green

 

These are only a few of the friends in high places we might be lucky enough to make if we fill our gardens with the right ingredients to entice them for a day or for a season.  If you’d like to read up on other migrants, as well as those birds that grace us with their presence year around, and how to attract them to your garden, you can buy Kirsten Hines’ book:

 

More tips on which native plants to use to attract and feed birds can be found in the following:

Attract Butterflies, Birds and Bees to your Garden with a Hedgepodge

Create a Nursery Filled with Bugs for Baby Birds

Saving Birds with a Butterfly Garden

The National Wildlife Federation can help you determine which plants in your area attract the greatest number of insects, which are the basis of protein for migratory birds.

While the National Audubon Society has a lot of great information on the importance of native plants in attracting birds and is a website that is well-worth the visit, we sadly can’t recommend their database of native plants which is searchable by zip code as far too many suggestions are not actually native to South Florida.

 

Create a Nursery Filled with Bugs for Baby Birds

By Mary Benton and Michael Faisal Green

In collaboration with Pelican Harbor Seabird Station

 

Greetings, South Floridians!  Imagine turning your garden into a nursery for baby birds, a place of beauty that attracts creatures great and small; aerial and terrestrial;  colorful, silent or singing, shy or gregarious. You can create a playground and dining hall for generations of birds who will delight you with their beauty and birdsong. You can make new friends without leaving your garden!

The message could not be more clear: FEED ME!!  Baby birds need lots of bugs.  Dev Steffen encountered these Mockingbird babies when she was out pruning her porterweed.  Mockingbirds are very protective of their young and they dive bombed her, screeching until she backed away, managing to snap a quick photo.  Other bird parents might try distracting you, hopping some distance away from the nest and doing the bird equivalent of “hey, look at me, I’m over here!  Nothing to see over there!!”.

Unlike humans, these creatures have specific breeding seasons and for birds, it is spring and early summer in South Florida (December to June). Birds pick this time to reproduce as the combination of moderate heat and dryness means the height of food availability.  Mild temperatures reduce heat-induced fatigue and stress; trees are blooming, attracting insects and producing fruits and seeds; and the dry season means their primary source of food – insects – are less likely to be grounded by rain. Plus, their breeding season aligns perfectly with the time of year when we want to be outside in the garden due to the lovely weather, so we have a wonderful opportunity to observe these beautiful and vulnerable creatures.  How cool is that?  Read on to see the easy steps we can take to attract, nurture, and enjoy the company of our feathered friends in our very own gardens. 

The single most important thing you can do to when creating a nursery is to stop using toxic chemicals.  We can’t stress enough how important this is.  If you use toxic chemicals in your garden to kill mosquitoes or rats, or to control weeds, you will be killing the insects that birds — especially baby birds — rely on for protein, and poisoning the berries and seeds the adult birds eat (and don’t forget that humans need insects — particularly pollinators — to survive).  You wouldn’t think of using toxic chemicals around a human baby, and baby birds are even more vulnerable. There are many organic practices and products that you can use in place of toxic chemicals so no excuses, right? 

 

The second most important thing you can do is to plant native plants.  Why natives?  Native plants attract more insects.  Who needs insects?  That’s right: birds need insects, especially the babies who need protein to grow into healthy adults.  Need help deciding which to plant? You can check out this cool tool of a Native Plant Finder, enter your zip code, and get a list of native flowers, grasses, trees and shrubs that attract the most insects in your area.  It is a work in progress, but there are lots of great suggestions and it is continuously being improved.  The Florida Native Plant Society‘s website, along with the Institute for Regional Conservation’s Natives for your Neighborhood are full of helpful information on what native plants will work best in your garden.  You can start small, but you’ll soon become addicted, especially if a number of those plants also attract butterflies.  Beautiful plants attracting butterflies and birds: what’s not to love? 

Mockingbirds will gobble up the berries of the native Lantana involucrata, as well as encounter insects drawn to its flowers.
Solanum americanum, or American nightshade, pops up in the garden this time of year. Please consider keeping it as the berries are beloved by Mockingbirds when they ripen. The plant also attracts caterpillars to its leaves, so it serves a double duty. Hmmm….it is almost like nature is looking out for the birds during baby bird season.

You can supplement the bird food supply by setting up bird feeders close to tree or shrub cover, using white millet or black sunflower seeds.  Bird feeders can take many forms.  They also allow you to get a better view of your feathered friends, so set them up and sit back and enjoy!

Birds can dart in and out of the surrounding shrubbery, making them feel safer.  This feeder contains white millet seeds that attract Cardinals, Painted Buntings, Blue Jays, and the like.
This flat bird feeder is filled with black sunflower seeds.
Putting mealworms out during the day is a great way to ensure that birds can get extra protein.
Instead of composting your eggshells during baby bird season, you can crush them and leave them somewhere safe for the mama birds. Ingesting calcium helps strengthen the eggshells developing inside.

 

Leave a supply of bird nest building materials.

Don’t be finicky about trimming all your dead twigs; let the birds use them for nest building material. While you’re at it, a few little bits of cotton string make handy nest material as well.
Spanish moss is a wonderful material for nest building.

Install a water feature.  You get extra points for having running water that the birds can hear.

The sound of trickling water is particularly attractive to some bird species. It is also a very calming and soothing sound to the human ear, and we need all the calming and soothing we can get these days. If you can invest in something like this, go for it.
Birds probably don’t much care how a bird bath is decorated, but this sure makes a nice ornament for human eyes.

 

Although this can be a touchy subject given the fact that feral cats, many of which have been neutered, abound in our community, cats and birds don’t mix.  Cats are the single biggest killer of birds and their babies. Please keep domestic cats indoors, particularly during baby bird season.

Please keep domestic cats indoors to keep birds safe outdoors.  This photo was taken by Neil de la Flor

Refrain from trimming shrubs, trees, or hedges until the rainy season commences in June.  Trimming reduces cover, stresses the birds and can damage or destroy nests and kill the babies.  And try to find an arborist who is sensitive to such issues.

The northern mockingbird is part of the thrush family – all of which are proficient in mimicking the songs of dozens of other species and common sounds. They do this using phrases and mockingbirds, as a general rule, repeat these phrases three or more times. So often they will mimic a blue jay by repeating their calls a minimum of three times and then immediately succeed that with imitating another bird/sound three or more times. Mockingbirds have an astounding musical repertoire, and seldom will you find them singing the same song, so whilst every song can be varied, it is easily recognisable by the number of repetitions.  If you’re not sure what they sound like, you can check out their song here.

Did you know that the Northern Mockingbird is Florida’s state bird? We can do a lot to ensure these cuties thrive in our gardens here in South Florida by providing a safe environment full of insects and berries.  Neil de la Flor captured this adorable tufted creature in his garden.
This graphic can help you determine what to do if you find a baby bird on the ground.  Remember always to contact Pelican Harbor Seabird Station before bringing a bird in.  They can only accept native species and will help you determine whether the bird in fact needs rescuing.  You can learn more by watching these videos:  video 1 and video 2. 
At the end of the day, the message is the same: FEED ME!! This beautiful shot of two fledgling Mockingbirds was caught by Luis Forte. You can follow him on Instagram @lgfortem

We hope this post helps you understand how you can work with nature to create a safe space full of tasty food for baby birds and their parents right in your very own garden.  Knowing that you are playing a role in ensuring that the babies reach adulthood and take to the skies is a wonderful feeling!