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 Your Own Nature Channel with a Flock of Roosting Zebras in Your Garden

Greetings South Floridians!  Imagine having a flock of Zebra butterflies in your garden.  Or maybe it’s a flutter?  A flurry?  Whatever it is called it is one of the most calming and mesmerizing sights you can see in a garden in these parts.  Zebra heliconian or longwing butterflies typically fly with a gentle flutter, unlike Monarchs who zoom around on strong wings, tiny Cassius blues with their chaotic and rapid flight style, or the Giant swallowtails with their stately swooping.  And Zebras flutter gently in groups unlike any of the other butterflies you might encounter in your garden, which really amplifies that calm and mesmerizing feeling.  Happily, if you have all the right ingredients, Zebras will hang around in your garden, allowing you to observe all aspects of their very interesting and highly unusual behavior.  If you’re really lucky, you might even get them to roost together in your garden at night.  Read on to see how to ensure your garden is filled with the beauty of our state butterfly.

reat A flock of roosters? Whatever you call them, you know your garden is a sanctuary when Zebra butterflies feel safe enough to sleep there, and that is a really good feeling. Providing a windbreak is important, but native nectar and host plants are key.

So what are the right ingredients that will not only attract Zebras, but will make them never want to leave your garden?  Native nectar plants attract the Zebra butterflies, along with a whole host of other butterflies.  And some attract birds as well.

The flowers of a Firebush will light up your garden even on the dreariest of days.

 

Zebra butterflies are drawn to the elongated flowers of the Firebush. Other pollinators and Hummingbirds love them as well.

 

Scarlet, or Tropical, sage is a Zebra butterfly fave. Hummingbirds will thank you too.

 

The flowers of the native Lantana involucrata aka Wild lantana or Wild sage attract Zebra butterflies and other pollinators. The berries delight birds.

 

Bees and butterflies love the sweet nectar of Wild coffee flowers. When they are in bloom, the garden smells like honey.  The flowers will turn into berries that delight birds.  

While nectar plants are necessary to attract the butterfly to your garden, making sure you have enough of their host plant — where they lay their eggs so their caterpillars can eat the leaves — is key.  In the case of the Zebra, the host plant is passion vine, which is fitting as Zebras are standouts in terms of butterfly mating behavior.

The teeny tiny flower of the Corkystem passion vine attracts pollinators.

 

If you have a hedge in South Florida and see Zebras fluttering around it, no doubt a bird or lizard dropped the remnants of a nice berry, from which the passion vine grew.  The Corkystem can grow in sun or shade, but female Zebras prefer a nice shady spot to lay their eggs, perhaps because their coloration is light and shadow so they are better camouflaged.

 

Another Florida native passion vine is the Maypop, with its surreal purple flowers. The Monarch pictured here was newly emerged from a nearby chrysalis and is still waiting for its wings to lengthen and harden.  

But back to Zebra reproduction: remember the mesmerizing “flock” or “flurry” of Zebras mentioned at the top?  That is all about sex.  Male Zebras travel in groups (gangs?) looking, or rather smelling their way around the garden, searching for female Zebras ripening in the chrysalis. The sense of smell is very important to a butterfly, as the female needs to be able to smell a host plant to be sure she is depositing her eggs where her babies will survive, so this method of mating ensures that the males with the best sense of smell are the ones to pass down their genes.  The male Zebra’s sense of species isn’t always as keen, however; their urge to reproduce is so strong that they sometimes try to mate with Monarchs, Julias, and other butterflies. 

What in the world, you might reasonably ask? This is a closeup of a female Zebra chrysalis in the center of the photo. On either side of her is a male Zebra, hanging upside down, his abdomen locked and loaded and ready to mate with the female as soon as she descends from the chrysalis. If another male were to try to horn in, and chances are they will, the males spread their wings to guard their prize.  Sometimes, they don’t even wait until the female emerges, engaging in pupal mating.  Each male has a 50/50 chance of passing on his genes.  A little creepy from the human perspective, you say?  Perhaps so, but read on to see why it makes so much sense from nature’s point of view. 

 

The newly emerged female is on the left, her wings still small and furled. Mating takes time, as does allowing the wings to lengthen and harden enough to fly.  Mating with a newly emerged butterfly is a perfect way to use that down time.  Nature is amazing like that.

 

On her maiden flight, the female is already pregnant. Since a butterfly’s only job in life is to reproduce, that is an excellent thing from nature’s perspective.  The male’s final act as a suitor is to endow her with a chemical that repels other males so she can go about the business of laying his eggs without being pestered by other amorous males.

 

It doesn’t take long for the pregnant female to start unloading her eggs. In this wonderful photo taken by Jane Atchison-Nevel, you can also see the yellow pollen on the proboscis. Zebra butterflies are capable of digesting pollen, which enables them to live longer than your average butterfly species, whose diet is limited to nectar.

 

Female Zebras lay their eggs on the freshest, newest fronds in clusters. It looks like several females laid their eggs on this frond. A number of the eggs will be eaten by ants or lizards before the caterpillars have a chance to hatch.

 

Enough eggs survive for lots and lots of caterpillars to hatch.  The white bits you see are empty egg casings.

 

So Zebras roost together, flutter around looking for females together, are laid together in clutches and, interestingly, the caterpillars tend to stay together to eat, wandering away from each other only when necessary to find sufficient passion vine leaves.

When you stop using pesticides and plant the right plants, you will have your very own Nature Channel right outside your door, a world of magic and beauty that elicits wonder and calms and soothes the soul.  As an added bonus, the passion vine is also the host plant for other Florida butterflies, including: 

Gulf fritillary butterflies, shown here mating, with the future butterfly munching away nearby.

 

And the Julia butterfly. While Gulf fritillaries and Julias don’t travel in groups, and don’t tend to hang around the garden like the Zebras, they are always a sight to behold.

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

When people think of a hedge, they typically envision a green wall that offers privacy and a windbreak. It probably doesn’t occur to many that such manicured green walls are actually harmful for the environment as they require upkeep in the form of noisy, polluting hedge trimmers and, particularly in the case of Ficus hedges, toxic chemical insecticides. What if you could create a hedge that actually benefited the environment, while bringing beauty and birdsong to your garden? 

“Benefiting the environment sounds like a good plan to us”, say these Red-masked Parakeets.  “We’d give it two thumbs up if we had thumbs!  Heck, we’d give it four thumbs up, but then we wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.”   Photo by Michael Faisal Green

We invite you to ponder the concept of a ‘hedgepodge’, a biodiverse vertical food forest for butterflies, bees, and birds created from a myriad of beautiful native wildflowers, shrubs, vines, and small trees. You will still get your privacy and a windbreak. More importantly in this era of climate change, you will be creating something that actually helps conserve the ecosystems upon which our lives depend. What will you have to give up? The polluting noise of hedge trimmers, toxic chemicals poisoning your landscape, and a bit of your manicured mindset. What will you gain in return? Beauty in the form of clouds of floating butterflies, happy bees, migrating jewels with wings, and the satisfaction that comes with knowing that you are helping make their lives — and thus your own — possible.

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

So, how do I get started, you ask?  If you have an existing hedge, consider planting some native Corkystem passion vines every few yards along the length of it.  The mere act of doing so will bring three different butterfly species to your garden, attract birds to the tiny purple berries, and give buzzy bees some sweet nectar.  Corkystem is a gentle vine with tendrils that won’t strangle your existing plants.  And it grows just fine in sun or shade.  Just make sure you put a barrier around it to keep the lawn guy from weed wacking the vine.

Zebra butterflies getting ready to roost for the night in a hedgepodge.  Yes, roosting Zebras are a thing.  They lay their eggs on Corkystem.
Julia butterfly chilling in a garden that provides plenty of nectar and host plants.  She just finished laying her eggs on Corkystem.  Note the thicket in the back.  Birds like to hunt insects there.
A pair of Gulf fritillary butterflies mating next to a future butterfly consuming the leaves of a Corkystem passionvine.

Will it be messy, you ask?  Well, there is poop involved, from both the caterpillars and the birds.  But the former creates compost and the latter produces seedlings.  

“We do produce a lot of caterpillar frass, but it enriches the soil”, say the Zebra caterpillars.
Corkystem passionvine berries make a yummy snack for birds.  They digest the pulp and poop out the seeds, creating lots of new Corkystem seedlings.  If they pop up where you don’t want them, you can easily dig them up and re-plant them near your hedge.  Don’t forget to water them until they recover from the transplant.
Last but not least with this remarkable native vine, the diminutive flowers attract bees.  Photo from Wild South Florida.

If your existing hedge has holes in it, or if you are starting with a clean slate, there are lots of wonderful Florida natives that will delight you by bringing more beauty to the garden.  Take Wild Coffees, for instance.  There are two Florida natives: Bahama wild-coffee and Shiny-leaf wild coffee.  These attractive plants do well in a variety of growing conditions, attract butterflies and other pollinators, as well as birds who eat the fruit.  You can click on their names to do a little research to see if they’re a good fit for your garden.

Bees and butterflies like Zebras and Atalas love the sweet nectar of Wild coffee flowers. When they are in bloom, the garden smells like honey.
Wild coffee fruit is devoured by birds like cardinals, mockingbirds, and catbirds.  I know, the berries look delicious, but the taste to a human palate is rather bland.  I’d leave them for the birds.  And, no, they don’t contain caffeine either.

And then there are the Stoppers: Red stopper, which has white flowers and orange fruit; Red-berry stopper, with white flowers and red fruit; Spanish stopper, with white flowers and brown and black fruit; White stopper, with white flowers and red and black fruit (and, some say, it smells a bit like skunk); and last but not least, the Simpson stopper, with white flowers and orange fruit.  All of these shrubs attract birds and pollinators.

These make a very merry birdie feast.
The flowers attract lots of pollinators.

Another plant to consider —  the Pineland strongback  or Little strongback (or strongbark as it is frequently called) — is one of my favorites, so much so that I have it as a stand-alone shrub that has delicate, cascading branches that are covered year-round with white flowers and orange fruit.  I once watched a female Black-throated blue warbler pop one in her mouth, even though it was nearly as big as her head.  It would make a fine addition to a hedgepodge.

Hummingbirds and others sip nectar from the flowers, and birds eat the delectable fruit.
Here’s the beautiful little female Black-throated Blue Warbler. In addition to eating the fruit of the Little strongback, she likes bathing a lot, so you might want to consider installing a bird bath or other water feature.  Photo by Michael Faisal Green.
Here is her mate who. when he’s not hunting insects, likes berries and baths too.  Photo also by Michael Faisal Green.

The White indigoberry is another shrub to consider adding to your hedgepodge.  Birds eat the white fruit and butterflies flock to its nectar.

These white flowers have nectar that attracts a number of butterflies, including the imperiled Schaus’ swallowtail.

Another good hedgepodge plant for wildlife is the Wax myrtle.  It has white and green fruit that gives cover and food to birds and feeds two kinds of butterfly caterpillars.

Also known as Bayberry, Birds love the seeds and find cover among the leaves.

Myrsine is another good choice, especially if your soil is very sandy and you live near the coast. 

Also known as colicwood, Florida myrsine has white flowers, black fruit, and attractive leaves.

Last but not least, is the Florida privet, a lovely, salt-tolerant shrub with yellow and green flowers, and blue, purple and black fruit that attracts birds.

Kirsten Hines photographed this sweet little Prairie Warbler looking for food in a Florida privet.

There are numerous other plants that would make a fine addition to a hedgepodge, but I’ve given you a lot to go on.  In between doing research into which plants make most sense in your garden, why don’t you order Kirsten Hines’ book, which will tell you all you need to know about attracting birds to your garden in South Florida.  And while you’re at it, why not daydream about your neighbors converting their hedges to hedgepodges, thereby providing thriving and beautiful wildlife corridors throughout the community.

To read more about the importance of native plants and insects, order this book:

Each one of us who owns a bit of land can make a huge difference in conserving our ecosystem by planting native plants and stopping the use of toxic chemicals in the landscape, thereby creating a more resilient and sustainable world.  You too can be part of the solution!