Hummers Remember

In Spanish, they are rightly named joyas voladoras, “flying jewels.” A group of them is called “a bouquet,” “a glittering,” or “a hover.” They are hummingbirds and it is not too early to put up a feeder for the only species we see here in the Northeast—the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris).

The migration map provided by the citizen science program Journey North is showing that hummingbirds are now mostly arriving in the Washington, DC area, so they’ll be here soon. Not long ago, these one-tenth ounce (3 gram) bundles of energy were wintering from southern Mexico to Panama. Some birds migrate north to the Yucatán, where they gain up to twice their weight in body fat. Then, at speeds up to 50 mph they make a non-stop, 600-mile, 20-hour flight across the Gulf of Mexico! As you can imagine, they arrive from Texas to Florida quite famished, weighing as little as 2.5 grams.

Male Ruby-throated Hummers arrive first to set up breeding territories
photo by Joe Schneid, Louisville, Kentucky / CC BY (

Banding studies suggest that individual birds follow a certain migratory route every year, not only arriving in the area where they were born, but within a day or two to the same feeding grounds. That’s an amazing feat of memory for an animal with a brain the size of a BB pellet!

Most people see hummers at their feeders for a few weeks from April to May, and then again in July, when some birds begin migrating south. Most birds return south in August and September. But you might be lucky enough to have a nesting pair nearby and see them throughout the summer.

The author hanging a hummingbird feeder. Photo by Linnea Sirch

Males arrive first in the spring to establish territories, and females come along about a week later. You’ll know the males from the ruby red gorgets (throat patches) they flash to attract females. This red is not a pigment, but is structural color created by the microscopic arrangement of the feathers reflecting the red wavelength of light back to the viewer. We consider the iridescent feathers of both male and female birds to be beautiful, and birds may think so too. This fascinating theme is explored by Yale ornithologist and Peabody Museum curator Richard O. Prum in his book The Evolution of Beauty (Doubleday, 2017). For an extraordinary look at hummingbirds, I highly recommend noted cinematographer Anne Johnson Prum’s Nature episode “Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air” (Coneflower Productions/THIRTEEN/WNET.ORG, 2009).

You can create a good feeding ground for hummers by being among the first in the spring to put up a nectar feeder or two. There are many styles to choose from. Get one that is easy to clean. Make your own nectar by adding one-part white sugar (no honey or corn syrup) to four-parts water and heat until dissolved. Let this cool before filling the feeders. Don’t add red dye as it can be harmful. The red of the feeder will attract the birds. This sugar water can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks. Place the feeder on a pole or hang it from a branch, but not too close to a window. Be sure to clean the feeder, including feeding ports, at least once a week in the cooler spring and fall, and twice a week in hot weather. A one to ten vinegar/water solution works well.

When you see Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in bloom, hummers are arriving.
photo by Fritzflohrreynolds / CC BY-SA (

Along with feeders, it is even more important to provide hummingbirds with natural sources of nectar. A variety of red, orange, and blue tubular flowers blooming in your garden throughout the season will really bring them in. Right now, Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and native willow (Salix spp.) catkins provide nectar for hummingbirds. It also seems that hummers arrive when Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is blooming. Don’t forget native vines, such as Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans).

Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirensi) is a well-behaved CT native vine
Photo by Qwert1234 / CC BY-SA (

Trumpet Vine, even though native, can really spread, so I prune the branches of mine back to two or three nodes or buds every winter (also making sure it does not go to seed) and it hasn’t caused me any problems.

Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ is a great hummer magnet for a porch or patio. It’s a tender perennial here and usually not able to survive our winters.
photo by Judy Gallagher / CC BY (

Other nectar plants visited by hummingbirds throughout late spring and summer include Pinkster Flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides) in May, Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) and Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) in June and July, and Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) in mid- to late summer.

When Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) is in bloom hummers will come to little else.
Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) and Ruby-throated Hummers have evolved to be mutually dependent. The key to growing this short-lived plant in the garden is to avoid burying the plant’s crown in the winter and to leave open ground around it to seed in.

One of the most important nectar plants for hummers during the fall migration is Jewelweed or Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis). I have this plant throughout the borders of our yard and keep quite a few growing for hummers. Plants in unwanted places are easy to pull.

Jewelweed or Touch-Me-Not is an important nectar source during the fall migration.
photo by Fritzflohrreynolds / CC BY-SA (

It’s been said that hummingbirds feed on nectar plants just for the carbohydrates they need to fuel their carnivory. Like us, hummers need protein and they get it by eating spiders and insects. It’s what they feed their young. So, this week celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day by planting an oak tree that will attract up to 500 insect species, or a native shrub or vine that provides nectar for hummers. Find many more ideas and activities on the Yale Peabody Museum’s website Peabody at Home . Happy Earth Day!

Here Today, Gone in a Few Weeks

Just missed it! I was hoping to take a photo of a queen bumblebee gathering pollen on the wildflower Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). As I looked away for one moment, the bee flew onto the plant two feet in front of me and flew off just as I saw it. I have heard that these flowers are an important early nectar source for queen bumblebees, who need to gather pollen for their new broods. I look forward every spring to seeing these wildflowers and their pollinating insects again, but there aren’t as many of either as there used to be.

Wildflowers such as Dutchman’s Breeches are called spring ephemerals. They emerge through the leaf litter here in Connecticut in March and April to take advantage of the short window of spring sunlight and flowering before leaves in the tree canopy above grow to shade them out. By summer, you would never know that they had been here.

Dutchman’s Breeches are an important nectar source for newly emerged queen bumblebees – Photo by author

The flowers of Dutchman’s Breeches look like upside-down pantaloons, hence the name. Walking along the nearby Farmington Canal Greenway this week, I came upon a nice patch in full bloom. It’s amazing to me how many people walked or rode by and didn’t look down and see them. Two researchers in 1998 called this “plant blindness,” for our inability to notice plants in our environment, which has consequences for conservation and human health.

Trout Lily can take up to 7 years to flower – Photo by author

The Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) is another ephemeral found in the eastern United States. Also called Fawn Lily, its leaves resemble a speckled brook trout, or a fawn’s mottled fur. Another name is Dogtooth Violet for its pointed bulbs, although the plant is a member of the lily family and is not a true violet. Look for paired leaves because those will be the plants that will flower. It can take up to seven years for Trout Lily to flower, and only about half a percent of the plants in a patch will do so. Some patches, though can be up to 300 years old!

Blood Root is one of many spring ephemerals whose seed is spread by ants – Photo by author

Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis) isn’t a true ephemeral. Its leaves often don’t die back quickly, but it’s flowers last only a few days. However, the plant shares its seed dispersal strategy with many ephemerals. Blood Root, Trout Lily, and Dutchman’s Breeches all develop elaiosomes, fleshy structures full of lipids that are attached to seeds. Ants are attracted to these fatty structures and take them underground to their colony to feed on them. The seeds are then deposited in their subterranean waste pile, where they are fertilized and grow. This strategy is called myrmecochory. Blood Root gets its name from its scarlet sap, once used as a dye by Eastern Woodlands peoples.

Seed of Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) yellowish appendage called an elaiosome. This fat body attracts ants, which carry the seed to their nest -Photo by Hans Stuessi / CC BY (

How important are plant–pollinator relationships! Many of our insect pollinators, so critical for our own survival, are also vital for our spring flora. Among these are small solitary bees in the genus Andrena. There are specialist bees that are dependent on certain plants and the plants on them. The Trout Lily Bee (Andrena erythronii) only gathers pollen from the Trout Lily and the bee Andrena erigeniae only visits the flowers of Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).

The specialist Trout Lily Bee (Andrena erythronii) only pollinates Trout Lilies – Photo by Mary Anne Borge

Unfortunately, many native wildflower species are decreasing, and with them their specialist pollinators. Habitat fragmentation plays a big part in this. But increasingly significant are the introduced, invasive plants that are taking over. On a recent walk, I found a few patches of Blood Root completely surrounded by thousands of Garlic Mustard (Allaria petiolata) seedlings. Garlic Mustard not only can choke out our native plants, but research has shown that this invasive has allelopathic chemicals that can kill important soil fungi, preventing many plants from growing near it. Each Garlic Mustard plant can produce more than 5,000 seeds that can remain viable in the soil for five years or more.

Blood Root growing among thousands of seedlings of Garlic Mustard, an invasive that will choke out many plants including Blood Root – Photo by author

I see more Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) and Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) around too. These introduced plants do not contribute to our local ecosystems. They don’t have insects who co-evolved with them to eat their leaves or who are specialists to rely on their nectar and pollen and they can choke out native plants. As entomologist Doug Tallamy observes, “this is a growing problem for humanity because it is the plants and animals around us that produce the life support we all depend on. Every time a species is lost from an ecosystem, that ecosystem is less able to support us.” So, one way for you and your family to exercise during COVID-19 social distancing and help the environment is by removing these plants from your yard or neighborhood and putting them in the trash. Garlic Mustard’s mature, second year plants can be hand-pulled fairly easily.

The mature, 2nd year Garlic Mustard plant just before flowering. Pull it and put in garbage when you see it! Photo by Tom Parlapiano

You can add many of these spring ephemerals to your garden after removing invasive plants. But please don’t dig them from the wild. Many local nurseries are now carrying these wildflowers, but be sure to ask whether the plants are nursery propagated. Plant them in a soil enriched with compost where they will receive light shade and part sun in the summer. Make sure they don’t dry out in the spring. You only need add a thin layer of ground-up leaves (your mower works well for this) in the spring or fall. The bees will thank you.

Skunked Again!

When I was a kid growing up in northern New Jersey, my friends and I often explored the wilds of the neighborhood. Many of the forests and fields where we found box turtles then are now suburban lots and corporate headquarters. My friend Rick and I would tromp through slick, muddy swamps and fens to hunt frogs and occasionally chase each other with the torn, foul smelling leaves of the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).

Leaves that smell like a skunk—an interesting strategy for a plant to keep from being eaten. Although I have heard that bears, when they emerge hungry from their dens, will eat the young leaves.

The leaves are not the only part of the plant with a scent. Weeks ago, I headed to nearby wetlands to see this “first wildflower of spring.” The red and yellow mottled hoods of the Skunk Cabbage, which are modified leaves called a spathe, had emerged through the snow and ice, looking like they melted the area around them. That’s actually what happens. Remarkably, as the plant uses starches stored within it in respiration it can heat itself up as much as 36 degrees above the air temperature!

Skunk Cabbage melting snow – Photo by Chris Norris

The flower cluster inside the spathe is the spadix, a rounded head of tightly packed flowers. This flower head also puts out that skunky smell, and the heated air spreads it around to attract carrion-feeding flies and gnats to encourage pollination. It’s amazing that there are flies out pollinating flowers in February and early March.

Skunk Cabbage – Photo by Chris Norris

Pollinators are really important. More than 90% of flowering plants need them to spread pollen from one flower to another to fertilize those flowers so that fruits can form. We often think of only bees and butterflies as pollinators, but in fact flies are the second most prolific pollinators behind bees.

Right now, the large, dark green leaves of the Skunk Cabbage are about at half their full size. When fully developed, the broad deep green leaves look like cabbage. They are spongy and full of water. When the trees above are fully leafed out, Skunk Cabbage leaves begin to fade. Because no woody material is left behind with this true spring ephemeral, by late summer you wouldn’t even know that Skunk Cabbage had been there.

Skunk Cabbage leaves Photo by Chris Norris

But their spreading roots are still below the ground. Those roots have pulled the stem downward. As the plant ages it grows deeper and deeper into the soil, waiting for late winter and early spring to begin the cycle all over again.

What’s that Quacking in the Woods?

Many of us have taken to the outdoors recently. I don’t have to tell you why. It’s a great way to get exercise and still maintain social distancing. So if you’ve been out walking, you might be asking yourself, “What’s all that quacking going on?”
No, Daffy is still safe in cartoonland and mallards are not quacking in the middle of woods. For one thing, it’s not their usual habitat.
You are hearing the mating call of the male Wood Frog, Rana sylvatica, a brown, dark-masked amphibian with a fascinating life history. In the early spring, sometimes as early as February, when the first “warm” rains come with a temperature above 44 degrees F (7 degrees C), wood frogs crawl out of the leaf litter and head for vernal (literally meaning spring) pools. These often temporary and usually shallow pools are found in forests in the Appalachians, New England, and most of Canada and Alaska. By using these temporary pools, the frogs avoid being eaten by fish.
These frogs have been semi-frozen in the leaf litter all winter. In the late fall when temperatures drop to freezing, special proteins cause the water in the frog’s blood to freeze first. This pulls out most of the water in its cells. While this is happening, its liver is pumping sugar (glucose) into the cells. This “anti-freeze” keeps the cells from freezing. Everything then shuts down—no beating heart or other functions!
This unique adaptation has enabled wood frogs to survive as far north as above the Arctic Circle. Scientists are studying this freeze-and-thaw cycle and hope what they learn can help with human organ transplants.
Back to the quacking. Check out the Wood Frog’s call and others on the Yale Peabody Museum Vertebrate Zoology Collection’s Online Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Connecticut. After attracting a mate with its calls, the male Wood Frog externally fertilizes her eggs in the vernal pool. A female will lay an average of 1,750 eggs. Once the eggs have hatched, it’s a race for the tadpoles to develop into froglets and get out of the water before the vernal pool dries up in the heat of summer.

Click here to see the interesting findings that David Skelly, Peabody Director and Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology, and his graduate students have made in their study of wood frogs. Photo by Peter Paplanus from St. Louis, MO/ccby

Wood Frog by Peter Paplanus