Backyard Natural Wonders – 2022 Highlights

I love watching nature documentaries like those narrated by David Attenborough, but even more than that I love watching the natural wonders that surround me every day.

This post features a few of my favorite sightings from 2022.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds eating berries from American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Eastern Bluebirds visit us more often in fall and winter than in spring or summer. In addition to holly berries, they love our heated birdbath, an important source of fresh water in the cold winter months.

Eastern Bluebird, Male
Eastern Bluebird, Female

I always love it when an animal reminds me of the value of plants or other habitat that humans sometimes question. The male Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted here in New Jersey) in the photo below did just that while enjoying Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) drupes, a berry-like fruit in the woods across from our house.

Northern flicker eating Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) drupes, a berry-like fruit in the woods across from our house

Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is a constant source of entertainment when it blooms in mid-summer, attracting butterflies, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Hummingbird Moths, and many different bees and other insects to visit for nectar.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring from Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)
Dark form female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail drinking nectar from Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora). She’s disguised as a Pipevine Swallowtail in an attempt to look unpalatable to potential predators such as birds.
Hummingbird Clearwing Moth nectaring from Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora). Notice the ant also visiting the flowers, foraging for nectar or other insects to eat.

I understood why large long-tongued bees like Eastern Carpenter Bees visited the long, narrow, tubular flowers, but I puzzled over why so many tiny bees would buzz around the plant, since their anatomy isn’t a good fit for the flower size and shape.

Eastern Carpenter Bee drinking nectar from Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) flowers
Sweat Bee harvesting pollen from Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) flower

As I watched more closely, I saw tiny sweat bees (Halictid species) landing on the anthers (the flower part from which pollen is dispensed) to harvest pollen, both for themselves and to bring to their nests to feed their larvae. Bees and some flies may visit flowers for pollen, an important food source for them. Both their athleticism and creative thinking was impressive.

An acrobatic Sweat Bee harvesting pollen to bring to her nest to feed her larvae. Notice the pollen she has packed on her hind legs perfectly matches the color of the pollen she is harvesting.

A Sweat Bee taking an easier approach to harvesting the pollen she needs.

From a different access point, the sweat bees managed to drink nectar from the flowers, but without their bodies touching the flowers’ reproductive parts, so they weren’t likely to be doing the plant any favors in exchange for the nourishment provided.

Sweat Bee attempting to access this flower’s nectar. The bee’s body isn’t touching the flower’s reproductive parts, so it’s unlikely pollination will occur as a result of this transaction.

The starburst arrangement of abundant stamens (male reproductive parts) in the flowers of Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum) are such a successful attraction to potential pollinators that this plant doesn’t waste any energy producing nectar.

Bumble Bee harvesting pollen from the profusion of anthers on a Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum) flower.
Many bees are attracted to Shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum) for the potential of harvesting ample pollen from its flowers.

In late July I found a Striped Hairstreak in our habitat, my first time seeing this species. This butterfly was not only new for me, but it’s rare where I live in New Jersey.  What was it doing in my garden?  Striped Hairstreaks are typically found at forest edges where there are nectar sources, and with nearby access to its caterpillar foods – oaks, walnuts and hickories.  We have nectar sources, and there are suitable caterpillar food trees nearby, so check and check.  

My first ever sighting of a Striped Hairstreak, a butterfly that is rare where I live in New Jersey.

Catbirds arrived in spring and stayed through mid-fall. I saw them just about every day, usually in pairs, but sometimes in groups of four or more. Early one afternoon in August I witnessed a young Catbird being tutored on the proper way to take a bath.

Young Catbird delicately swirling the water in our birdbath, with adult supervision.
The adult Catbird coach provides guidance, saying, ‘Really get your whole body into it. Flap your wings! Don’t be afraid.’
The young Catbird gives it another shot.
“That was refreshing!”
The young Catbird, “How was that?” The adult supervisor, “Now you’ve got it!”

As Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) and Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) fruit ripened, the Catbirds were joined by migrating birds who passed through, using our habitat as a rest stop.

Catbird in fall, surrounded by ripening Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) fruit.
A migrating Swainson’s Thrush happily ate Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) fruit.
Although surrounded by fruit, this female Purple Finch preferred to eat a caterpillar when visiting our habitat.

My favorite event was a visit from a Sleepy Orange in late September. 

Sleepy Orange (winter color form) on Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) in my New Jersey garden in late September

I love this butterfly for its pioneering ways. It’s mainly a tropical butterfly, but works to extend its range northward, positioning itself for continued survival in these days of climate change.  Instead of the southward migration strategy for winter survival employed by many insect and bird species, some Sleepy Oranges fly north in late summer and fall. I imagine them getting together, looking for volunteers to fly north, saying, “See if you can survive the winter in a place where you can find nectar for yourself and a partner, and food for the kids (caterpillars).  If you succeed, great!  We’ve extended our range. If not, no big deal, we adults will all be dead by late spring anyway.”  I’m not sure that’s what really goes on, but I like to pretend it is.

Sleepy Orange (winter color form) on Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) in my New Jersey garden in late September

At one time the Sleepy Orange was thought to be unable to survive the winter any farther north than North Carolina. But they are now seen fairly often in central New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, and may have established year-round colonies.  I first encountered a Sleepy Orange in 2006 at nearby Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, but this was my first sighting of the species in my own habitat.  Very exciting!  This year I had nectar to offer this thirsty butterfly, but to extend its range it needs the food its   caterpillars require, Wild Senna (Senna Hebecarpa, S. marylandica) or Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). I didn’t have the necessary caterpillar food to offer this year, but we’ll have some Wild Senna by next summer.

Sleepy Orange drinking nectar from Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)
Sleepy Orange drinking nectar from Thin-leaved Sunflower (Helianthus decapetalus)

No matter what time of year, there is always something interesting to see right outside our doors. I have my desk facing the windows so I can be easily distracted by wildlife. Even on a winter day I may see Box Elder Bugs, Chickadees, Titmice, Carolina Wrens, White-breasted Nuthatches, Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Robins, Bluejays, Pileated Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Cedar Waxwings, or Brown Creepers. Some visit for fruit, but many are gleaning insects from the branches, bark and leaves of trees and shrubs, and from the fallen leaves on the ground.

Red-tailed, Sharp-shinned and Coopers Hawks sometimes stop by. On rare occasions, a Bald Eagle does a fly-over.

Want to see more wildlife?  Make your own backyard an inviting habitat. Just provide the food birds, butterflies, bees and other animals need in the form of plants native to your region, and do less: leave fallen leaves in your planting beds, leave spent perennials standing, don’t use pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, reduce your lawn if you can.  

You don’t need to have a large property to host and see wildlife. We live in an end unit in a townhouse development with a homeowners’ association (HOA), adjacent to commonly owned natural areas that were preserved when the development was built more than 30 years ago. (Note that we leave the leaves, standing spent perennials, and don’t use pesticides.) Even a planter or a window box can bring wildlife within view.

Why travel thousands of miles away from home to see wildlife, when you can make exciting discoveries in your own backyard?  

Chickadee foraging on Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium), looking for seeds or insects

Related Posts

Sleepy Orange Butterflies are Back

A Wildlife, Family, and Pet-friendly Lawn

‘Will Work for Food’ – Extra-floral Nectaries

Bountiful Blue Wood Aster

Shrubby St. Johnswort

Where Do Winterberries Come From?

Invasion of the Cedar Waxwings

Holiday Gift Ideas for Your Wild Neighbors

40 thoughts on “Backyard Natural Wonders – 2022 Highlights

  1. Mary Anne, I always look forward to your posts with great anticipation. Fabulous photography, wonderful information, and the icing on the cake is your ability to convey both in a manner akin to reading a great book you don’t want to end. Oh! And you continue to inspire your audience to create their own native wilderness no matter the size/restrictions of the plot.

    Thank you ! Already looking forward to the next entry.

  2. Such wonderful and interesting information and photos in this article! We live in Northern Ohio and see most of the birds and bugs you’ve featured but I’ve learned so much more now! I am also an amateur photographer and am constantly outside photographing our flowers, birds, and bugs similar to the photos you feature. Thank you!

  3. Loved the bird pics especially the one at the Am. Holly. The St. Johnswort always makes me happy and so I must replaced a shrub that died after a 10 year run.
    Thanks for the knowledge and eye candy.

  4. Dear Mary Anne~ Love your blog, especially the “catbirds-taking-a-bath” series. What fun to peek at them from behind a curtain of greenery! They are one of my favorite birds with all their eccentricities. I was not familiar with the Bottlebrush Buckeye but happy to learn about it and intrigued by all its visitors—the bee photos are fabulous! I would love to find some to plant although Western MD may be too cold for it, but what a banquet it provides! I will also try to find some St. Johnswort to plant since I know it can tolerate our winters and your photos convinced me pollinators love it! Lastly, had you considered the hairstreak might be a Striped since the hindwing blue spot near the tail is capped with black and orange and a Banded’s is not. Fran Pope


    • Hi Fran, thank you for the correction! You are absolutely correct, the butterfly is a Stripe Hairstreak. I knew that, but my brain must have been on autopilot when I wrote ‘Banded’ incorrectly. I just made the correction. The St Johnswort should do fine for you. I love it, and it’s deer resistant. The Bottlebrush Buckeye does fine with New Jersey winters, but it has kind of an odd range: Good luck if you decide to try it. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for letting me know.

    • To avoid mosquito larvae, change the water about every 3 days, because larvae need longer than that to develop, or put something in the water to keep it moving, since this prevents the female mosquitoes from laying eggs. There battery operated ‘water wigglers’ to keep the water moving. There are lots of heated birdbaths. You might try looking at your local garden center, or Wild Birds Unlimited or Duncraft. We had several Bluebirds, then Robins, then House Finches at ours the other day. Good luck!

  5. Always so much to learn from your posts! My big take away’s today were about the sleepy orange & the bluebirds. My hometown in eastern PA has lots of wonderful conservancy’s where we love to hike and keep our eyes out for birds, butterflies, and flowers so we’ll have to keep my eye out for the Sleepy Orange. Also I had no idea that bluebirds eat the berries of the American Holly. We have both birds and berries, so I’ll be keeping my eye on that area of our property to see if the bluebirds are hanging out there. Happy New Year!

  6. Thank you Mary Anne for this wonderful post, and all of your others which are so informative. Your photography is excellent and punctuates your text about what we are seeing. Great.
    Cheers and Happy New Year.

  7. Thank you. I really enjoy your newsletter. I live in southern Michigan, have no lawn and lots of messy perennial garden and I love to see the insects, birds, and mammals that come my way. Susan Miller

  8. Once again, MaryAnne, you have delighted me with your gift of photos. It is time to move my desk. We have planted a lot of things we learned from you and your peers at the preserve. We are grateful for our slow habitat stretching by giving up the lawn.
    We owe that to you. Thank you.


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