Late-Summer Composites: Natural Bird Feeders

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

Tough Plants that Flower Into Fall — And Provide Bird Seed Too

Painted lady butterflies feeding on a rabbitbrush in the butterfly garden at the City of Aurora Xeriscape Demonstration Garden. Photo: City of Aurora

Painted lady butterflies feeding on a rabbitbrush in the butterfly garden at the City of Aurora Xeriscape Demonstration Garden. Photo: City of Aurora

By the time late summer arrives, many gardens and landscapes look a little tired, with few plants flowering. But there’s one group of plants native to the Rocky Mountain region that holds forth with blooms up to and beyond the first snows: Composites, wildflowers and shrubs in the Aster or Daisy family.

(What appears to be one flower in these plants is actually a “composite,” a head composed of many flowers. Each petal on a daisy, for instance, is single flowers. The central disk is itself packed full of tiny flowers lacking petals entirely.)

Rubber Rabbitbrush flower heads close up, feeding a late-flying painted lady butterfly. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Rubber Rabbitbrush flower heads close up, feeding a late-flying painted lady butterfly. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The hundreds species of flowers in this group bloom all season long, but many, like the Rubber Rabbitbrush in the photos above, are the last flowers to bloom at the end of the season, providing not only beauty in the late-season garden, but also food for pollinators when nothing else is available.

After they’re done blooming, the seeds from those composite heads remain on the plant for weeks or months, providing crucial natural food for seed-eating songbirds including goldfinches, House and Purple finches, sparrows, juncos, redpolls and siskins.

American Goldfinch feeding on seeds from a sunflower head. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Male American Goldfinch feeding on seeds from a sunflower head. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

A Few Favorite Composites 

In addition to Rubber Rabbitbrush, a tough and drought-hardy native shrub that can be as tall as five or more feet, or stay small and tidy in form like Plant Select®’s Baby Blue variety, what other composites bloom late and provide a reliable food source? Here are a few favorites of the many, many species:

Tansyleaf Aster or Tahoka Daisy (Machaeranthera tanicetifolia)

Tansyleaf aster in a wild setting.

Tansyleaf aster in a wild setting.

A small drift-forming annual or short-lived perennial with purple flowers that bloom from mid-summer until the first snows. Tansyleaf aster attracts butterflies, small native bees and pollinating beetles, and its billowy seed heads feed smaller birds including juncos, siskins and sparrows.

Tansyleaf Aster seed heads, with one purple flower still blooming. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Tansyleaf Aster seed heads, with one purple flower still blooming. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Mexican Hat (Ratibida columnifera)

Mexican Hat flower heads in two color morphs. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Mexican Hat flower heads in two color morphs. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The curious extended “cone” of Mexican Hat flower heads with their fringe of yellow or mahogany ray flowers is charming in the garden and attracts butterflies in summer. When the flowers dry out, seed-eating birds—especially siskins—pry out the papery seeds. Best for meadow or prairie plantings, these Southern Plains natives are self-seeders.

Showy Goldeneye (Viguera or Heliomeris multiflora)

Showy Goldeneye flower heads form a prairie-style drift.  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Showy Goldeneye flower heads form a prairie-style drift. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Looking like miniature sunflowers on thread-like stems, Showy Goldeneye’s lemon yellow flower heads stand out in prairie or meadow plantings. Small butterflies, especially checkerspots and blues, often nectar on these smaller-statured composites. Like their much larger sunflower cousins, Showy Goldeneye seeds are in demand by siskins, goldfinches and other narrow-beaked seed eating birds.

Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Sunflower head packed with seeds, still green.  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Sunflower head packed with seeds, still green. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

And of course, the common sunflower, an annual that is the easiest to grow of any of our native composites. Its flowers attract native bees and honeybees by the score (the appropriately named sunflower bee is a native bee that specializes in sunflowers) and whose densely packed heads of nutritious seeds act as natural bird-feeders.

Add some late-season composites to your garden and reap the harvest in fall blooms, butterflies and other pollinators, and natural bird-feeders!

IT’S TIME TO APPLY FOR THIS YEAR’S HABITAT HERO AWARDS….

Does your garden provide habitat for songbirds and pollinators? Apply today!

Fall composites--asters and gum weed--in a Habitat Hero landscape. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Fall composites–Tansyleaf Asters and gumweed–in a Habitat Hero landscape. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Climate Change and Habitat Heroes

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

Climate Change Is Here

Mountain bluebird perches on a garden bench after a snowstorm. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Mountain bluebird perches on a garden bench after a late spring snowstorm. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

This week, the World Meteorological Organization reported that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are at an all-time high. Carbon dioxide increased last year at the fastest rate in 30 years.

Global climate change is here. There’s no denying it.

Wildflower Blooming Season Changes

Colorado Blue Columbine finishing blooming in a mountain meadow. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Colorado Blue Columbine finishing blooming in a mountain meadow. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

A story in this week’s High Country News reports that the flowering season in the blossom-filled mountain meadows the Rockies are famous for has lengthened by 35 days.

That may sound like a good thing, but as researcher David Inouye points out, a longer flowering season doesn’t necessarily mean more flowers. It means the blooms are spread out over a longer time, which could mean that when the Broad-tailed Hummingbirds migrate north from southern Mexico, cued by lengthening days, the wildflowers the hummers depend for fuel on might not be blooming.

Birds on the Brink

Juvenile male rufous hummingbird fluffed up to stay warm. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Juvenile male rufous hummingbird fluffed up to stay warm. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

National Audubon Society this week released a sobering report showing that nearly half of North America’s bird species, fully 314 species, will be imperiled by climate change by 2080. The species most affected aren’t necessarily rare, either. They include our nation’s symbol, the bald eagle, which could see its range decline by 75 percent, and the tiny and feisty rufous hummingbird, along with the Common Loon and white-throated sparrow.

Habitat Heroes Can Help

We may not individually have the power to halt climate change. But collectively, our actions matter.

A sunken stock tank attracts wildlife, surrounding gardens provide food and shelter.

A sunken stock tank attracts wildlife, surrounding gardens provide food and shelter.

How can you help? By restoring habitat in your yard, neighborhood park, commercial landscaping, golf course, or farm or other working landscape.

Small patches can weave a larger whole

Hummingbird visits native ‘Mexican Bluffs’ Vermillion sage at the City of Westminster’s Legacy Ridge Golf Course. Photo: Shalene Hiller

Hummingbird visits native ‘Mexican Bluffs’ Vermillion sage at the City of Westminster’s Legacy Ridge Golf Course. Photo: Shalene Hiller

Your patch of habitat may not save a bald eagle. But your wildscape or habitat garden can form part of a network of habitat that does sustain a species.

Equally important, if you’re following the habitat hero guidelines, you’re reducing the carbon footprint of your garden or landscape.

Prairie yard dotted with trees for cover and shelter.

A prairie yard of native grasses dotted with trees for cover and shelter.

Less fuel: Every bit of lawn you convert to habitat means less mowing, edging, blowing, and weed whacking. Power tools, whether they’re gas or electric, use fossil fuels and contribute carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. (Most small engines are inefficient and thus add more CO2 than you’d image for their size.)

Fewer chemicals: Forgoing chemical fertilizers and instead relying on locally sourced compost, aged manure or other natural fertilizers also reduces your landscape’s carbon footprint. Chemical fertilizers are made from fossil fuels and require more energy still in manufacture, packaging and transport.

Water running into a home sink

Water running into a home sink

Less water: Every time you turn on the tap or the faucet, you’re using fossil fuels. How? It takes energy to pump water out of the ground or from a lake or river. On the way, it’s filtered (more energy required), treated with chlorine and other chemicals (which take energy to produce and dispense), and the lines are pressurized (requiring more energy).

Thus, the less water you use on your landscape, the less carbon dioxide you contribute to the atmosphere. And the more water you save for healthy streams and rivers, which contribute directly to habitat.

Habitat Hero Garden sign

Habitat Hero Garden sign

So make a positive change. Restore habitat where you live, work and play, and help keep this remarkable blue planet healthy for birds, bees and every one of us.  Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens: Be a Habitat Hero.

Resources: Plant, Bird, Insect Identification

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

What’s That … ?

... Bright red flower in that front-yard meadow? (Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush, or Castilleja integra)  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

… Bright red flower in that front-yard meadow? (Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush, or Castilleja integra) Photo: Susan J. Tweit

We get lots of questions about identifying plants, birds and insects. So we thought we’d share a few of our favorite web-based resources for knowing what’s what and who’s who.

Plants

Mock bearberry Arctostaphylos sprawling over a rock mulch. Photo: David Winger for Plant Select®

Mock bearberry Arctostaphylos sprawling over a rock mulch. Photo: David Winger for Plant Select®

  • Plant Select: If the plant you’re trying to identify is one introduced by our partner Plant Select, the most fun way to figure it out is to go to the digital version of their A Guide to Plants for Western Gardens and Beyond. You can search the full-color booklet, or just click “full screen” and flip through the pages.
  • Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: Looking for a native plant? Their online Plants database is complete and includes a host of gardener-friendly information about each species. You can search by common or scientific name, or if you have no idea what you’re looking at, try their “Combination Search” feature. Put in as many characteristics as you know and then browse the thumbnail photos for one that looks right.
  • PLANTS Database: Not sure if your plant is native or not? Try the USDA Plants Database. You can search for a plant, or in the right-hand “I want to know” column, take a short cut like “learn invasive and noxious plants.” That takes you to a page with links to all sorts of kinds of invasive and noxious plant lists, including the lists for Colorado and Wyoming. Click on the scientific name to go to photos and other information about the plant (common names are listed next to the scientific name).

Birds

American Goldfinch feeding on seeds from a sunflower head. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

American Goldfinch feeding on seeds from a sunflower head. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

  • All About Birds: The most comprehensive (and fun) guide is Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds site. The search page gives you options to look at popular birds, search by shape and name, or taxonomy. You can look at photos of different sexes and plumages, listen to calls and songs, and learn all sorts of fun facts about birds’ lives and habits. The site includes information about nest boxes and habitat, plus the opportunity to be involved in citizen science projects, including Project NestWatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count, which is a cooperative project with Audubon.
  • The Online Guide to North American Birds: Another great resource, this one from Audubon. You can search by silhouette or family or common name, and there are helpful resources on how to identify birds and birding itself. The main Audubon site also includes loads of other information, including gardening for hummingbirds and how to create bird-healthy yards.

Insects

White-lined sphinx moth caterpillar Photo: Susan J. Tweit

White-lined sphinx moth caterpillar Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Insects are a little harder to identify online, simply because there are so many different kinds of them. (For instance, there are about 4,000 species of native bees in the US north of Mexico, and 946 of those are found in Colorado.)

Bumblebee feeding on a Salvia. Photo: Rhonda Thompson Leonard

Bumblebee feeding on a Salvia. Photo: Rhonda Thompson Leonard

  • BugGuide is a good general resource. You can click on the silhouette of the insect in the left-hand column on the first page to go to guides for that type of insect, and work your way to more specific IDs from there. (When you click on the dragonfly silhouette, for instance, you get to the main page for these hawk-like insects.) You can also submit a photo for identification. (You have to register to submit, but it’s free and not hard.)
  • The Xerces Society has published a beautiful online PDF booklet of western native bumblebees. You can scroll through and look at the photos until you find the right one, or read and learn more about these amazing pollinators and garden friends.
  • Colorado State University offers a series of fact sheets on insects and other pests, which despite the typecasting as “pests,” contain lots of useful information.

What are your favorite sites for identifying plants, birds or insects? Let us know!

It’s time to apply for This year’s HABITAT HERO AWARDs….

We at the Habitat Hero project want to recognize the work of dedicated habitat gardeners. Apply today!

Habitat Hero Garden sign

Habitat Hero Garden sign

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Prairie Zinnia – native late summer treasure

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

Our monthly Plant Profiles from Plant Select® feature plants that thrive in the Rocky Mountain region and also provide critical needs for wildlife.

Great for gardens — Prairie Zinnia

'Gold on Blue' Prairie Zinnia  (Zinnia grandiflora 'Gold on Blue') Photo: David Salman

‘Gold on Blue’ Prairie Zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora ‘Gold on Blue’) Photo: David Salman

Great things are sometimes just off the beaten path, and only found by serendipity. That was the case fora particularly beautiful and vigorous form of our western native Prairie Zinnia that plantsman David Salman discovered just off the highway in southern Colorado. Read the full story in David’s blog post.

Durable and Hardy in the Wild

In the wild, Prairie Zinnia is a rugged, durable plant, flourishing on extreme sites characterized by rocky and sandy soils, severe heat, and strong winds, and often is fully exposed winter’s coldest temperatures. It adapts by having very deep roots that reach water well below the soil surface, as well as by going completely dormant during winter, emerging only when temperatures rise and spring moisture reappears.

Prairie Zinnia is native to southeastern Colorado, southwestern Nebraska, western Oklahoma and Texas, New Mexico and eastern Arizona.

A Vigorous Carpet in Hot Garden Spots

Prairie Zinnia just getting established on a "hellstrip" between a sidewalk and street. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Prairie Zinnia just getting established on a “hellstrip” between a sidewalk and street. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

In the garden or landscape, Prairie Zinnia is vigorous and long-lasting. It often carpets large swaths of ground in the toughest spots, including south-facing slopes and along hot driveways and sidewalks.

Blooming in late summer through fall, the golden-flowers with orange centers cover the finely textured foliage. After first frosts, the flowers fade to a creamy beige and remain on the plants until carried away by winds. Another plus: deer seem to avoid grazing Prairie Zinnia.

David’s ‘Gold on Blue’ Form

Several years ago, David brought his discovery to Plant Select®. After two years of trials at Colorado State University and Denver Botanic Gardens, it was selected to be introduced in 2014 as Zinnia grandiflora ‘Gold on Blue’.

'Gold on Blue' Prairie Zinnia up close Photo: David Salman

‘Gold on Blue’ Prairie Zinnia up close Photo: David Salman

Side-by-side comparisons to the “standard” form show that the flowers are larger and more numerous, the foliage is bluer and the plants nearly twice as vigorous. These are ideal characteristics for both home gardens and commercial landscapes because the plants will fill in faster and offer more color and foliage interest.

A Blue butterfly (one of a group named for that azure blue color) suns on a Prairie Zinnia flower head. Photo: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

A Blue butterfly (one of a group named for that azure blue color) suns on a Prairie Zinnia flower head. Photo: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

Wildlife benefits: Like all yellow composites (members of the daisy family), Prairie Zinnia attracts butterflies to feed on the nectar in its compact heads of multiple flowers. The papery seeds are eaten by goldfinches, juncos, house finches, sparrows and other small seed-eating birds.

Growing tips: Plant in summer when plants are actively growing. Water well to establish, but reduce water as plants fill out. Once established no additional irrigation is needed. Well-drained, sandy or rocky soils are best.

A checkerspot butterfly feeds on Prairie Zinnia. Photo: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

A checkerspot butterfly feeds on Prairie Zinnia. Photo: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

At a glance:

  • Gold on Blue Prairie Zinnia  (Zinnia grandiflora ‘Gold on Blue’)
  • Size: 8-10” tall x 18” or more wide
  • Growth habit: low-growing, dense groundcover spreading by underground runners
  • Deer-resistant
  • USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8
  • How to Use: for hot dry slopes, along driveways: in the hottest, driest spots

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

The Hero Part of Habitat Hero

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

… Is You!

Water-saving front stoop gardens full of flowers for pollinators and songbirds.  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Water-saving front stoop gardens provide food and cover for pollinators and songbirds. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

We’ve talked before about what the “habitat” part of Habitat Hero means. But who are these heroes?

They’re you, your neighbors, the people who planted the pollinator garden at the community garden or CSA farm, the designer of the wildscape at the nearby park, the volunteers who replaced the unused lawn or overgrown shrubs at the community building with hummingbird plants….

Jim Ray in his garden with his watering cans, well-spigot, and hose for filling the cans.

Jim Ray in his Habitat Hero garden, which is entirely watered by hand.

Habitat Heroes are all around, and most of them are ordinary folks like all of us, gardeners who have a vision of making their bit of earth not just more beautiful, but also healthier.

We hope you’ll help us find more Habitat Heroes. Please encourage the habitat-gardeners you know in the Rocky Mountain region to apply for the Habitat Hero Award so we can recognize and thank them.

Unsung Heroes

Here’s an example of a group of volunteers who are transforming the landscaping at their townhouse complex in southeast Denver to save a lot of water, improve property values by beautifying their neighborhood, and add habitat for pollinators and songbirds.

The Cherry Creek 3 heroes in the community garden they started as part of their landscape improvement work. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The Cherry Creek 3 volunteers in the community garden they started as part of their landscape improvement work. (Don Ireland, Julie Barnes, Lynn Ireland, Mary Paschal, Brian Barnes) Photo: Susan J. Tweit

These aren’t experts: The group includes a couple who relocated from Pittsburgh and found that gardening in the Rockies is well, challenging. So they started taking classes at Tagawa Gardens.

Lynn's demonstration garden five years ago.

Lynn’s demonstration garden five years ago. Courtesy photo

It started with water-saving….

A series on water-saving landscaping that introduced them to Plant Select®’s line of regionally adapted plants, and the encouragement of an HOA board member inspired Don and Lynn to plant an experimental garden at the end of their building using shrubs and flowers that were adapted to the clay soil and difficult climate.

The demonstration garden five years later. (The wood edging of the original garden area is visible in left center.) Courtesy photo

Lynn’s demonstration garden this July. (The wood edging of the original garden area is visible in left center.) Courtesy photo

One thing led to another, as happens with gardening, and eventually the Homeowner’s Association entered into a five-year water conservation agreement with Denver Water that paid for new landscaping throughout the complex using rebates based on annual savings on water use.

It didn’t all happen at once

Poodle bush and lava rock landscaping, ala 1965.... Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Poodle bush and lava rock landscaping, ala 1965…. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Fast-forward five years, and volunteers at the town-home complex have replaced 200 of the 250 front-stoop gardens in front of each unit, removing “poodle bushes” (1960s-style junipers pruned into bulbous shapes) and lava rock, and replacing that with a variety of perennial ground covers, flowers, grasses, and shrubs.

A row of water-saving and beautiful habitat gardens. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

A row of water-saving and beautiful habitat gardens. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Habitat right at home

The effect is not only lovely, it provides rows of front-stoop habitat for hummingbirds, native bees, and seed-eating songbirds. (The group also attended our Wildscape 101 workshop sponsored by Denver Water this summer, and came away further inspired.)

Habitat in the hell-strip between a parking lot and a building. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Habitat in the hell-strip between a parking lot and a building. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The group has also renovated hell-strips between the parking lots and buildings, replaced unused sod areas with water-saving habitat areas, and set up a community edible garden with individual and group plots on what was underused lawn.

These unsung heroes’ creative vision and hard work has not only beautified the complex, their water use has dropped from 36 million gallons a year to 22 million, and their property values are at an all-time high.

A Hunt's bumblebee feeding on Caryopteris on a breezy afternoon. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

A Hunt’s bumblebee feeding on Caryopteris on a breezy afternoon. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

It’s made some hummingbirds, butterflies and bumblebees pretty happy too.

That’s what heroes do: create habitat right at home, save water, and make their neighborhood–and our world–a healthier and more beautiful place.

Apply for the Habitat Hero Award….

That’s why we at the Habitat Hero project want to recognize the work of these dedicated habitat gardeners. For all you heroes out there: apply today!

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Container Garden Hummingbird Habitat

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

A Few Pots on a Balcony Can Provide Habitat….

Just a few pots on a deck planted with nectar-bearing plants. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Pots on a deck planted with nectar-bearing plants. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Here at the Habitat Hero project, we often say that just a few pots with the right plants on a deck or porch can provide significant habitat for insect pollinators or hummingbirds. Still, we sometimes forget just how little it takes to make a difference.

A violent thunderstorm one recent August evening showed our Communications Director the power of those few pots. As she tells the story:

It was a dark and stormy night….

Rain pounded down, water overflowed the gutters, and gusts whipped the trees around. When the storm passed, the temperature had dropped from 82 degrees to 50 degrees F.

Before the rain even quit, the air around my hummingbird feeder vibrated with zooming bodies, accompanied by a cacophony of trilling and chattering as the hovering dynamos jockeyed for the nectar.

A very wet hummer drinks from Agastache flowers in the deck containers.  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

A wet hummingbird drinks from Agastache flowers in the deck containers. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

While a gorgeous cinnamon male Rufous Hummingbird and a brilliant emerald-green male Broad-tailed Hummingbird (they of the trilling wings) battled over the feeder, I noticed two hummingbirds quietly hovering near the pollinator container garden—two large pots planted with Agastache, Salvia and other nectar-bearing flowers—just steps from the feeder.

The two birds worked their way from flower to flower, sucking nectar from the blossoms.

The little hummingbird perches to feed.  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The little hummingbird perches to feed. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

When the larger of the two birds zoomed away, the smaller one quit hovering and simply perched on the wire grid railing right next to the Agastache flowers, sticking its short, slender beak right into the nearest flower to sip nectar.

For the next ten minutes the little one fed while perched, checking out each flower within reach, while about five male hummingbirds competed for the feeder.

Watching the aerial dogfights....

Watching the aerial dogfights….  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The little one watched them, and moved from perch to perch around the flower spikes, but didn’t leave its easy nectar source, the high-calorie fuel it needed to survive the night.

The bird looked like a young of the year, lacking distinctive markings. Still, its diminutive size, short bill, squared-off tail and its behavior—perching while feeding—is a clue to its species.

I know there's more nectar in there!

I know there’s more nectar in there!  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

It was likely Calliope Hummingbird, the smallest of the four hummingbird species that pass through the south-central Rockies in summer. Calliopes stretch just over three inches long, weigh a single ounce, and fly all the way to Central Mexico for the winter!

Agastache nectar: good to the last drop....  Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Agastache nectar: good to the last drop…. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The tiny hummingbird reminded me of why I plant a variety of nectar-bearing plants: when there’s a crowd, not everyone can compete for the feeder.

The bird also reminded me of how little it takes to provide hummingbird habitat: two pots on my deck gave the little one sufficient food to survive the storm.

_______

2014 Habitat Hero Awards Are Open!

Habitat Hero Garden sign

Habitat Hero Garden sign

Does your garden, landscape or park provide habitat for songbirds and pollinators? And is it located in the Rocky Mountain region?

If so, it may qualify for the Habitat Hero Award. The award is open to gardeners, landscape designers and managers of public parks, landscapes and working lands in the Audubon Rockies region.

Habitat Hero awardees receive the beautiful all-weather garden sign above, a gift certificate for High Country Gardens, a copy of our Colorado Wildscapes book; and are featured in our programs, blog and website, and in our newsletter. The top five gardens will receive a Habitat Hero Birdwatcher’s Pre-Planned Garden designed by Lauren Springer Ogden.

How Do You Apply?

Read the guidelines in the Habitat Hero Application, answer the two questions and supply up to five photos of your garden. Send your application to us via email to: habheroes@gmail.com

You’ve got until October 15th, but don’t wait! Apply today.

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Bridges’ Penstemon: Scarlet Summer Surprise

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

Our monthly Plant Profiles from Plant Select® feature plants that thrive in the Rocky Mountain region and also provide critical needs for wildlife.

Ideal for Hummingbird Gardens–a Summer-Blooming Penstemon

Bridges' penstemon (P. rostrifolius) Photo: D. Winger for Plant Select®

Bridges’ penstemon (P. rostriflorus) Photo: D. Winger for Plant Select®

Penstemons or beardtongues are staples in most western wildscapes – their tubular flowers come in a wide range of colors with specialized parts to attract many different kinds of pollinators. (Read more about penstemons).

Nearly all plants in this group bloom in the earlier part of summer – usually May and June. For hummingbirds, this is important timing because the plants supply high-energy nectar as the birds arrive from their spring migration and begin courting and nesting activities.

(A note about flower nectar versus feeders: Unlike the sugar-water in hummingbird feeders, sucking nectar from flowers such as penstemons provides complete nutrition, including the fat and vitamins from the pollen in the floral tube, and protein from any small insects hummingbirds swab up with each slurp of their brush-tipped tongues.)

Bridges’ Penstemon: Late-Bloomer, Long-Lived

Bridges' penstemon with appleblossom grass in the Gardens at Kendrick Lake  Photo: Plant Select™

Bridges’ penstemon with appleblossom grass in the Gardens at Kendrick Lake Photo: Plant Select™

Most penstemons finish blooming before the heat of summer really kicks in. But one species, Bridges’ penstemon, thrives in the heat and blooms late July through August in most areas. It’s also a woodier plant – almost shrublike, with a bushier base topped with wiry, wispy stems. It tends to be quite long-lived as well.

As a “late bloomer,” Bridges’ penstemon flowers provide an important food source –both to Rufous hummingbirds heading back midsummer, and to all hummingbird species still in residence preparing for their migration southbound later on.

The scarlet-orange flowers are similar to scarlet bugler penstemon (P. barbatus) which blooms much earlier, though the plants are quite different in habit. Interestingly, the stems and flowers of Bridges’ penstemon are covered with fine, sticky glandular hairs that trap small insects – another source of protein for these high-energy birds.

Close-up of Bridges' Penstemon flowers with glandular hairs. Photo: Perennial Favorites Nursery

Close-up of Bridges’ Penstemon flowers with glandular hairs. Photo: Perennial Favorites Nursery

A Southwest Native

Native to the Southwestern U.S., Bridges’ penstemon is found in the foothills, canyons and shrublands of southern California, Nevada, Utah, southwestern Colorado, western New Mexico and northern Arizona. In gardens, it thrives in hot climates needing little moisture (once established) and preferring well-drained, mineral soils.

(Nomenclature note: The common name comes from this plant’s former botanical name, P. bridgesii. Once it was discovered that the same plant had been officially described and named by two different individuals in two separate locations, the name was switched to earliest description, which takes precedence in taxonomy.)

Wildlife benefits: Provides nectar, pollen and small insects to foraging hummingbirds. Also feeds butterflies and orioles. Functions as hiding cover for ground-nesting birds and other small wildlife.

Growing tips: For best results, try to imitate the natural conditions of the Southwest – hot and dry with sandy or gravelly, well-drained soils. South and west-facing slopes are ideal in Zones 5 and 4b, and at higher elevations. Using gravel for mulch encourages re-seeding.

Bridges' penstemon in the garden with ornamental alliums. Photo: D. Winter for Plant Select®

Bridges’ penstemon in the garden with ornamental alliums. Photo: D. Winter for Plant Select®

At a glance: Bridges’ penstemon (Penstemon rostriflorus)

  • Height: 24”-36”
  • Width: 20”-30”
  • Growth habit: spreading at base with upright flower stems
  • USDA Hardiness Zones 4b-8
  • How to Use: In dryland plantings, dry meadows, with cacti and succulents, or use as a colorful, wispy accent.
  • Culture: Full sun; prefers well-drained soils, but will tolerate a wide range of soil-types  if allowed to completely dry between waterings (once established).

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Are You a Habitat Hero?

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

Habitat Hero Garden sign

Habitat Hero Garden sign

2014 Habitat Hero Awards Are Open!

Does your garden, landscape or park provide habitat for songbirds and pollinators? And is it located in the Rocky Mountain region, Colorado and Wyoming plus the adjacent states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Montana?

If so, it may qualify for the Habitat Hero Award. The award is open to gardeners, landscape designers and managers of public parks, landscapes and working lands in the Audubon Rockies region.

Habitat Hero awardees receive the beautiful all-weather garden sign above, a gift certificate for High Country Gardens, a copy of our Colorado Wildscapes book; and are featured in our programs, blog and website, and in our newsletter. The top five gardens will receive a Habitat Hero Birdwatcher’s Pre-Planned Garden designed by Lauren Springer Ogden.

Lauren Springer Ogden's meadow-style Fort Collins garden with formal accents.

Lauren Springer Ogden’s meadow-style Fort Collins garden with formal accents.

What is a Habitat Hero Garden?

It’s a diverse landscape based on plants native to our area or adapted to our region, rich in nectar, seeds and berries. It’s healthy, water-wise and alive with songbirds and pollinators.

The perennial borders at Legacy Ridge Golf Course, Westminster, Colorado, a Habitat Hero landscape. Photo: Shalene Hiller

The perennial borders at Legacy Ridge Golf Course, Westminster, Colorado, a Habitat Hero landscape. Photo: Shalene Hiller

More specifically, a Habitat Hero garden:

  • Includes diverse layers, shelter and nesting opportunities for wildlife.
  • Provides natural food (a Habitat Hero garden is based in plants that provide food for wildlife in different seasons, especially those native to your area).
  • Offers water for drinking and bathing.
  • Does not spread invasive species.
  • Is water-wise, energy-saving, and does not rely on regular use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

How Do you Apply for The Habitat Hero Award?

Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany hedge at Centennial Gardens, Denver  Photo: Panayoti Kelaidis

Formal gardens can provide habitat too! Photo: Panayoti Kelaidis

It’s not hard. Answer two questions and supply up to five photos of your garden according to the guidelines below. Send your application to us via email to: habheroes@gmail.com

Narrative: Answer these two questions (short answers are fine!):

  1. What motivated you to create a wildscape garden?
  2. What makes your wildscape special? For example, the story of creating it? The plants you use? Birds and other pollinators it attracts?

(Please send the answers in a Word document as an attachment. Include your contact info—name, address, email and a contact phone number in the document, as well as whether you are a member of National Audubon, and if so, which chapter.)

Painted lady butterflies feeding on a rabbitbrush in the butterfly garden at the City of Aurora Xeriscape Demonstration Garden. Photo: City of Aurora

Painted lady butterflies feeding on a rabbitbrush in the butterfly garden at the City of Aurora Xeriscape Demonstration Garden. Photo: City of Aurora

Photos: submit up to five low-resolution photos in jpg format showing how your garden meets the Habitat Hero objectives. Include brief captions, and a written acknowledgement that you give the Habitat Hero program permission to use your photos for educational purposes. (Note that contributed photos will not have any monetary value.)

We love to see favorite native and regionally adapted plants; birds, butterflies and other pollinators on plants; water features; and before/after garden shots. Please do not send photos of people.

Habitat Hero garden in Beulah, Colorado, watered by hand! Photo: Jim Ray

Habitat Hero garden in Beulah, Colorado, watered by hand! Photo: Jim Ray

Selection Criteria: 

  • Wildscapes that show the greatest habitat diversity in providing food, shelter and water for wildlife.
  • Wildscapes that reflect creative solutions in saving water and using a variety of regionally appropriate plants.

DEADLINE: Entries accepted from April 15 through October 15, 2014.  Habitat Hero finalists will be announced in November, 2014.

A hardy Wyoming public garden that provides habitat between a parking lot and public garden.

A hardy Wyoming public garden that provides habitat between a parking lot and public garden.

Submit narrative & photos via email to: habheroes@gmail.com.

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Hummingbird Habitat

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

Female hummingbird drinks on the wing from Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphilla) flowers. Photo credit: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

Female hummingbird drinks on the wing from Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphilla) flowers. Photo credit: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

#PollinatorSummer: Hummingbirds Need More Than Food

It’s four pm on a hot July afternoon. The chatter and trill of hummingbirds feeding and (in the case of the males) defending their floral territories echoes through your garden, as these aerial dynamos zip from flower to flower, sipping nectar.

Thunder rumbles. The sky goes dark. The clouds open up and rain pours down, flooding the soil. The air temperature drops 15 degrees in ten minutes, and suddenly your yard is silent but for the pounding of the rain.

Where are your hummingbirds now?

Habitat: Shelter from Sun and Storm

Tucked away in the densest tree, shrub or climbing vine they can find, sheltering under a branch or even a thick cluster of leaves.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeds at Salvia darci 'Vermillion Bluffs' Photo: Pat Hayward for Plant Select

Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeds at Salvia darcyi ‘Vermillion Bluffs’ Photo: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

For these jewels of the air, whose metabolic rates in flight are the highest of all animals except insects, shelter is critical when they cannot feed. In order to hover, beating their wings as fast as 50 or more times a second, hummingbirds burn plant sugars (glucose or fructose) almost as quickly as they can take the in the high-octane fuels.

A hummingbird in flight, say scientists from the University of Toronto, uses energy so quickly that if it were the size of a human, the hummer would need to drink more than one can of high-fructose corn-syrup–sweetened soda every minute to power its hovering flight.

Feed or Starve

Juvenile male rufous hummingbird fluffed up to stay warm. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Juvenile male rufous hummingbird fluffed up to stay warm. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

With their super-charged metabolisms, hummers need to stay dry and as warm as possible when bad weather hits to keep from starving to death before they can feed again. They can save energy by dropping their core temperature dramatically to that of the air temperature, but even that won’t help if they get wet.

Hummers can survive much lower core temperatures than humans: Anna’s Hummingbirds have been measured dropping their body temperature as much as 50 degreesF from their normal of 104 degrees!

Hummingbird Shelter Plants

Look around your yard. When it rains or hails, where would the hummers go?

Kintzley's Ghost® Honeysuckle from Plant Select®

Kintzley’s Ghost® Honeysuckle from Plant Select®

Into that dense honeysuckle, clematis, or Virgina creeper vine climbing up your porch or arbor? Yes, or any vine that has enough canopy that the leaves will keep them dry, and branches where they can perch—above the level that wandering cats might reach them.

(When a hummer has to drop its temperature to stay alive, it takes it about twenty minutes to “awaken.” It can’t react fast enough to evade a predator like a house cat.)

Into the Cheyenne mock-orange, sand cherry, three-leaf sumac, or lilac? Yes, or any shrub with a dense canopy where it can stay dry and safe from terrestrial predators.

Close-up view of white spruce 'pendula' cones and needles  Photo: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

Close-up view of white spruce ‘pendula’ cones and needles Photo: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

Is there a shade tree you stand under to get out of the rain or spring snow? If so, it’s probably a good shelter for hummingbirds too. Mature conifers, including white spruce and Colorado blue spruce, offer some of the best thermal habitat.

Habitat: To Dwell There

Habitat is so much more than hanging a feeder or planting flowers that provide nectar and pollen. The word comes from the Latin root meaning “they dwell there,” a clue to how important shelter is, whether from summer thunderstorms or winter snows.

Broad-tailed hummingbird on the stalk of a common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) on a formerly industrial property. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Broad-tailed hummingbird on the stalk of a common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) on a formerly industrial property. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Habitat is about plants, the structures that shelter—and feed—hummingbirds and other pollinators. Give your yard habitat a check-up today and make sure it provides shelter from the storm.

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.

Hungry Caterpillars

Our Mission: Grow a network of habitat for songbirds and pollinators in gardens across the Rocky Mountains and beyond, save water for our streams and rivers, and restore our joy in nature every day. 

Caterpillars: “Pests” That Turn into Pollinators

A black swallowtail caterpillar Photo: Susan J. Tweit

A black swallowtail caterpillar Photo: Susan J. Tweit

You’re out in your garden on a summer day, enjoying the butterflies fluttering from flower to flower, the drone of the bees and the bird song, when suddenly you notice something missing.

Weren’t there flowers on the dill plant the last time you looked? And didn’t that apple blossom grass (Guara lindheimeri) have a lot more blooms yesterday?

Who is Eating My Plants?

You bend down for a closer look. Aha! There is the culprit. A fat caterpillar clings to the stem, munching relentlessly at the plant you loved.

Your hand reaches out, ready to pluck the hungry pest and dispose of it.

White-lined sphinx moth caterpillar Photo: Susan J. Tweit

White-lined sphinx moth caterpillar Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Wait!

Before you reach for caterpillar or killing tool, think about why these eating machines exist.

To grow fat enough that they can spin a chrysalis around themselves and within its shelter, go through metamorphosis, emerging as a winged butterfly or moth.

(Caterpillars also serve as fat- and protein-rich summer meals for nearly every kind of songbird in our region.)

The black swallowtail caterpillar in the photo at the beginning of the post, newly emerged from its chrysalis. It's wings are still expanding. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The black swallowtail caterpillar in the photo at the beginning of the post, newly emerged from its chrysalis—wings still expanding. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

No Caterpillars, No Butterflies and Moths

Rather than get rid of the caterpillar eating your favorite plant, let it be. Shoot a photo—caterpillars come in amazing colors and patterns.

A boldly patterned owlet moth caterpillar Photo: Susan J. Tweit

A boldly patterned owlet moth caterpillar Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Look it up to identify what kind of butterfly or moth it will to transform into. (Bug Guide is one good source. Another is Butterflies and Moths of North America.)

Plant a Hungry Caterpillar Garden

And next year, plant extra food for these voracious eaters. In fact, consider making a garden area just for the caterpillar stage of your favorite pollinators.

Remember: Caterpillars are picky eaters—some, like Monarchs, only eat one kind of plant (milkweed, in the case of monarchs). So before you plant, learn what foods your hungry caterpillar will eat.

And then enjoy the bounty of fluttering and hovering beauties in your garden.

White-lined sphinx moth hovers as it sips nectar from a Rocky Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon strictus).

White-lined sphinx moth, the winged, pollinating form of the fat caterpillar in the second photo above. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Are You a Habitat Hero?

If your garden, park, golf course or working landscape provides habitat for caterpillars, butterflies and other pollinators, and songbirds, apply to be recognized as a Habitat Hero!

If you’re chosen, you’ll receive an all-weather garden sign, a copy of our Colorado Wildscapes guide to inspire you, and a special Habitat Hero Birdwatcher’s Garden of plants, chosen and designed by Lauren Springer OgdenApply here.

Habitat Hero Garden sign

Habitat Hero Garden sign

Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a Habitat Hero.