As I rounded a bend while walking a trail on a cool day earlier this spring, I spotted a colony of wildflowers blooming a few inches above ground level.
My first thought was that it must be Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), whose blossoms were beginning to carpet the forest floor, but I quickly realized it must be something else. These flowers were a purer white, showing no hint of the pink nectar guides and anthers that add a bit of blush to Spring Beauty’s floral display.
Clearly this was a different species. I needed to take a closer look.
While these plants were similar in height to Spring Beauty, they were more erect, less sprawling. Their leaves were short, opposite each other along the stem, with additional leaves at the base of the plant.
The flowers had five distinctly lobed petals, and instead of pink striping, these had soft gray nectar guides beckoning pollinators to visit.
A little investigation yielded the identification as Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense ssp. strictum), a plant native throughout much of Canada and the United States (except Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida). In spite of Field Chickweed’s wide range, this was my first encounter with it. This perennial chickweed is often found on cliffs, rocky slopes, ridges, ledges or beaches. Fittingly, I met this small beauty on a rocky western-facing slope near the Delaware River in the Sourland Mountains in New Jersey.
The primary pollinators documented for this species are a number of bees, including small carpenter bees, cuckoo bees, mason bees, sweat bees, and mining bees. Conveniently located nearby were nest entrances for some ground nesting bees who may have been frequent diners at the Field Chickweed flowers.
In contrast to the documentation I found for this plant, the pollinators I encountered were all flower flies (also known as hover flies or Syrphid flies).
Flower flies are named for their frequent visits to flowers to drink nectar and eat pollen, and for their ability to hover in the air. Flies are important pollinators, especially in spring and fall when the weather is cool, because they are able to fly at lower temperatures than many bees.
The seeds of this and other chickweeds are eaten by many birds and small mammals, including mice.
Those small mammals may become food for other animals, like this Red Fox.
Field Chickweed is a lovely little native plant quietly doing its job in the ecosystem. I’m happy to have made its acquaintance.
They were here, of course, for the fruit. Cedar Waxwings are especially dependent on fruit in their diet, so much so that ‘Cedar’ in their common name is a nod to Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), whose fruit-like cones are an important source of winter food for this bird. The other part of their common name, ‘Waxwing’, refers to the waxy looking red tips on their secondary wing feathers.
Like most other birds, Cedar Waxwings also eat insects, especially when they are breeding and raising young. I did see one bird take a break from the Winterberry fruit to browse the branches of a nearby Witch-hazel (Hammamelis virginiana) for some insect protein. But fruit was the main attraction for this flock.
While I watched, the birds put on an impressive acrobatic display in pursuit of the delectable fruit.
It’s not by accident that such an abundance of fruit is available for these and other birds. The groundwork is laid in late spring, typically June where I am in central New Jersey, when these shrubs produce a wealth of small flowers that are a major attraction for pollinators, including many different species of bees, wasps and flies.
While they stayed with us, the Cedar Waxwings also ate the remaining Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) drupes, as well as some crab apples. The birds moved on after three days, when the trees and shrubs were stripped of their bounty. It was a mesmerizing spectacle while it lasted.
Cedar Waxwings are typically found in woodland habitats, near water or woods edges, but they are sometimes found in open fields, too. It all depends on food availability. They are sociable birds, and often nest in proximity to other members of their species, with several nests possible in a single ‘neighborhood’. When they aren’t breeding, they travel in flocks, moving from place to place to find the fruit they need. A few days before the invasion of this flock, I saw one or two Cedar Waxwings in the trees outside. Because of their gregarious nature, it’s unusual to see a lone bird of this species. Now I can’t help wondering if these early birds were scouts, looking for the next food stop for the group.
To attract Cedar Waxwings to your own yard, be sure to provide the fruit they love. In addition to Winterberry Holly and Eastern Red Cedar, American Holly (Ilex opaca), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), native viburnums such as Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium), Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana), hawthorns, apples and grapes are all very appealing to this sleek and lovely bird. To see them in summer, offer them blueberries, serviceberries, cherries and blackberries, among other fruit.
I have my desk facing the windows of our home office so that I can be easily distracted, and sometimes this strategy really pays off. For the last several days, I’ve had a hard time tearing myself away from my windows because of the steady stream of birds that are visiting to eat the ripe Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) and Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) fruit from the trees outside.
Both Flowering Dogwood and Blackhaw Viburnum have fruit that looks like a berry but is actually a drupe, a type of fruit that has a fleshy outside, and a single seed inside encased in a stony covering. A peach is an example of a drupe. The fleshy outside is perfect for tempting a bird or small mammal to eat it. The seed goes through the animal’s digestive tract and is later ‘dispersed’ complete with fertilizer to help give a new plant a good start.
The birds went for the Dogwood fruit first. This seems appropriate, since Flowering Dogwood blooms a few days earlier than Blackhaw Viburnum. A flock of American Robins swooped in to eat, with each Dogwood hosting three, four, five, or more birds at once, bobbing in and out of sight as the branches swayed up and down from the activity.
Several Northern Flickers alighted in the trees, staying a while to join in the feast.
Other more cautious birds made a swift pass to grab a bite, then flew on to enjoy it in a less congested location. At least three Hermit Thrush stopped by,
a few Red-bellied Woodpeckers,
and even Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers supplemented their diet with fruit in between their usually forays drilling holes in tree bark for the sap that will ooze out, and for the insects that are attracted to the sap.
Outside, I hear other birds and see them ignoring this bounty of fruit, relying on different food sources. Brown Creepers and White-breast Nuthatches are active in trees nearby, probing the trunks for insects sheltering in the bark grooves. Brown Creepers start from the bottom of a tree trunk and work their way to the top,
while the Nuthatches move in the opposite direction.
Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows recently returned for the winter. They’re busy probing the bushes and fallen leaves for insects, seeds and fruit.
While I watched, a Red-tailed Hawk swooped in, scattering the smaller birds, but only briefly deterring them from their foraging. The Red-tail perched nearby for a few minutes, silhouetted against the sky, then left with empty claws.
The Dogwood fruit is just about all eaten now, but the birds are still working on the Blackhaw Viburnum.
Robins are consuming most of the Blackhaw fruit, but the Sapsuckers fly in to supplement their diet, too. Squirrels are also taking advantage of this feast.
The flower buds that are visible at the same time these plants are offering their ripe fruit promise that the show will continue next year. I just hope that when these plants bloom next spring the bees, flies, butterflies and other flower visitors are as successful as they were this year in pollinating the flowers.
So much action, and I live in a townhouse development in central New Jersey! Who needs to travel hundreds of miles to see the wonders of nature, when they can be present in your own backyard? Just provide the native plants that the animals we live with depend on. We humans depend on these plants and animals, too.
Thinking about doing a fall clean-up in your garden? Maybe you are planning to remove the layer of naturally fallen leaves that are beginning to blanket your planting beds?
I hope my encounter with a Red-banded Hairstreak will prompt you to change your plans.
On a recent walk on a woodland trail near my home in central New Jersey, I had just turned around to head back to my car when I noticed a flutter of brownish wings at ground level at the edge of the trail. My first thought was that it was probably a moth, but when I saw the insect in profile, I could tell it was a butterfly. As I looked more closely, I saw the tell-tale markings of a Red-banded Hairstreak. I decided to watch for a while.
She stayed on the ground, walking over obstacles that seemed like they would be a challenge for someone her size, especially when she could choose to fly. While I observed her, she climbed over leaves, rocks, leaf stems and small branches, never once taking to the air. Several times she paused in place for a few seconds. Was she just resting, or maybe getting her bearings? No! She had a purpose in mind.
Red-banded Hairstreak caterpillars eat fallen leaves and other decaying plant matter. This little female was laying eggs on or near the kinds of material that her caterpillars would need to eat when they hatched. She alternated walking for a bit with brief pauses to lay an egg.
After nearly five minutes, she flew off, presumably scouting for another promising location to lay more eggs.
The caterpillars that hatched from her eggs will spend the winter snug in the fallen leaves, waiting for warm spring days to arrive before completing their metamorphosis to become the next generation of Red-banded Hairstreaks.
Since my encounter with the Red-banded Hairstreak in the woods, I’ve seen other individuals in my own shade garden several times. Fortunately for them and for me, I leave the fallen leaves undisturbed in the garden. I recommend you do the same!
Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis), also called Broadleaf Enchanter’s Nightshade, is a small but eye-catching perennial that blooms in early to mid-summer along forest trails. Where I live and play in central New Jersey and Pennsylvania, that means late June through mid-July.
This diminutive resident of the forest floor has several pairs of leaves opposite each other along the stem, with a cluster of tiny flowers rising above them. It often grows to about a foot (.4 m), but can reach as much as two feet (.7 m) in height, including the flower cluster (infloresence). The tiny white flowers are only about an eighth of an inch (4 mm) in diameter, and yet in the dim light of summer in the woods they are attention-grabbing, for both humans and pollinators.
Each flower has two deeply lobed white petals that look a little like mouse ears, backed by two green, wing-shaped sepals that protected the flower before it opened. Two stamens, the male reproductive parts, reach out like arms from each side at the center of the flower, the anthers at their tips resembling mittened hands. The long narrow structure projecting from the very center of the flower is the pistil, the female reproductive part. The circular washer-shaped tissue at the base of the pistil is the source of the flower’s nectar, which is offered to entice pollinators to visit.
In profile it’s easy to see the veining on the flower’s petals. They are nectar guides, directing pollinators to a potential reward inside. The stigma reaches out beyond the petals, ready to accept incoming pollen on the stigma at its tip, positioned to be the first thing a pollinator encounters when visiting. The flower’s ovary, covered in hooked hairs, is visible behind the sepals. If pollination is successful, this will ripen to become a small burr-like fruit.
The stems of the entire inflorescence are covered with glandular hairs. Hairs on plant tissue usually serve to discourage herbivores from eating the plant, and glandular hairs often have the added benefit of emitting a chemical offense to enhance the deterrent effect.
Even such tiny flowers have pollinators who are perfectly matched for them, primarily sweat bees (Halictidae) in the genus Lasioglossum and tiny flower flies, most commonly of the species Toxomerous geminatus. The group of bees called sweat bees get this common name from their habit of obtaining nutrients by licking up human sweat.
The bees visit the flowers for both nectar and pollen. The little sweat bee in the photo below is feeding herself, but also gathering pollen, visible on her hind legs, to bring back to her nest for her larvae.
On several occasions, I have watched small swarms of tiny flower flies hovering around Enchanter’s Nightshade flowers. ‘Hover fly’ is another common name for this group of insects, because of their ability to perform this maneuver. Any individual I was able to see well enough to identify was a Toxomerous geminatus.
Like the bees, the flies visit the flowers for both nectar and pollen, both of which are important food sources for them.
After pollination, the flower’s petals, sepals, stamens and pistils wither and fall away, leaving the ovary to ripen to a fruit.
As the ovary matures to a fruit, the hooked hairs covering the fruit stiffen, becoming an effective mechanism to grab on to the fur or pants of a passing animal who then unknowingly helps to disperse the seeds.
Enchanter’s Nightshade also has the ability to reproduce through its underground parts, sending up additional shoots to form colonies.
Why the name Enchanter’s Nightshade? The Greek goddess and accomplished enchantress Circe reportedly often used potions and herbs to achieve her ends, sometimes turning enemies into other animal species. Plants in this genus, Circaea, were thought to be among the ingredients she used, so were named for her. So far, unfortunately, I haven’t found any of her recipes.
Enchanter’s Nightshade can be found along forest trails in the United States from Maine west to North Dakota, south as far as Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Georgia, and in Canada from Quebec and Nova Scotia west to Manitoba.
Take a cooling summer walk in the woods to look for Enchanter’s Nightshade and its pollinators.
Note: Some sources refer to this species as Circaea lutetiana,Circaea lutetiana L. ssp. canadensis, or Circaea quadrisulcata.