Birds and Blooms Blog

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Chrysalis Hunting in the Butterfly Garden

Jill Staake

It’s a common refrain from butterfly gardeners: “I had caterpillars on my plants, but then they disappeared! Where did they go? Am I doing something wrong?” After all, the fun of a butterfly garden is watching the whole life cycle, from egg to caterpillar, chrysalis to adult, but oftentimes butterflies are nearly impossible to find in the chrysalis stage.

There’s a simple reason for that – they’re extremely vulnerable at that point, and so most chrysalids (the proper plural of “chrysalis”) have evolved to disappear into their surroundings, making them very difficult to spot. Many caterpillars often crawl a long way from their host plants – hundreds of yards, in some cases – before undergoing the final stage of metamorphosis, making it even harder to locate them. (See a great video of a Black Swallowtail caterpillar on its journey here.)

The trick to finding chrysalids in your butterfly garden lies in knowing what to look for. Here are some common chrysalis styles, and a few fun facts.

Living Leaf: These chryslids look like leaves on a plant, and often wriggle when provoked. Species include members of the sulphur family.

Chrysalids Living Leaves

Jill Staake Cloudless Sulphur chrysalids look like living leaves.

Dead Leaf: Like the “living leaves”, these chrysalids look like leaves, but these are camouflaged as dead leaves. (They also wriggle when touched.) Species include Zebra Longwing and Gulf Fritillary.

Chrysalids Dead Leaves

Jill Staake Gulf Friitillary (left) and Zebra Longwing (right) chrysalids look like dead leaves.

Twig/Branch: Tree-eating caterpillars often look like a branch or twig of the tree their chryalis is on. Giant Swallowtails are especially good at this.

Chrysalids Branches

Giant Swallowtail chrysalids blend in perfectly with the tree branches around them.

Color Matching: Sometimes blending is as simple as matching the colors of your surroundings. Color matching chrysalids will often vary in color to match the plants they’re on. Species include Monarchs and Black Swallowtails.

Chrysalids Color

Monarch Chrysalids are green to blend in with milkweed and other plants.

Chrysalids Color

Black Swallowtail chrysalids can be green or brown, depending on the foliage around them.

Hidden: Sometimes the easiest way to hide is just to, well, hide. Species like Long-Tailed Skippers (Urbanus proteus) make their chrysalis inside folded leaf shelters.

Chrysalids Hidden

Long Tailed Skippers wrap themselves in leaves before pupating to chrysalis.

“Other”: When it comes to caterpillars, it’s best to expect the unexpected! Some species camouflage themselves to look like something unappealing, like the Viceroy – its chrysalis looks exactly like dangling bird droppings!


Bird poo? Nope, a Viceory chrysalis!

Fun Facts: 

  • “Chrysalis” and “cocoon” are NOT the same thing. A “chrysalis” is the word for the pupa stage of butterfly metamorphosis. A “cocoon” is the silken case that some moths create around themselves while in pupa. If in doubt, the word “pupa” covers both.
  • The word “chrysalis” (pronounced “KRISS-uh-liss”) comes from the Greek for “gold”, and some chrysalids appear to have gold coloration (see the Common Crow for an amazing example) or gold flecks, like monarchs or zebra longwings. This is actually just a trick of the light refracting through the skin of the pupa, but it makes for a pretty cool effect nonetheless.
  • Curious about what exactly is happening inside a chrysalis during metamorphosis? Check out this great article from Scientific American, and see some amazing 3D scans at National Geographic.

Need help finding caterpillars in your butterfly garden, too? Try this blog post for more tips.

Plant Peonies in Your Flower Garden This Fall

Peony Garden

Have you ever seen peonies in full bloom?  If you have, it’s hard to forget the large, beautiful blooms that decorate the spring landscape.

Peonies come in many different colors, shapes and varieties.  In fact, the only flower color that you won’t find in peonies is blue.

'Beautiful Señorita' Peony

‘Beautiful Señorita’ Peony

So, why are we talking about peonies now, when spring is long past and fall is on it’s way?  The reason is that fall is the best time to plant peonies.

Peonies are a great choice for those who live in zones 3 – 8, where winters are cold enough to help promote bud formation.  Although peonies look like they would be hard to grow, they aren’t at all and make a great choice for the beginner to experienced flower gardener.  Once planted, peonies can live with little care for up to 100 years.

'Flame' Peony

‘Flame’ Peony

If you are tired of envying your neighbor’s flowering peonies each spring, how about planting your own this fall?  Are you ready?  Let’s get started:

1. Location – Select an area that receives at least 6 hours of full sun – more sun is better.  Keep them away from other trees and shrubs where root competition can be a problem.  Individual peonies should be planted at least 4 feet apart to allow them enough room to grow while ensuring good air circulation.

2. Soil – Peonies need well-drained and fertile soil – they do not like soggy soil.

'Pink Venus' Peony

‘Pink Venus’ Peony

3. Hole - Dig a hole that is approximately 2 feet deep and wide.  Amend the existing soil with compost to improve drainage, add nutrients and microorganisms.  A good rule of thumb is to add 1 part compost to 1 part existing soil and mix together.  For best results, add phosphorus or a granular all-purpose fertilizer to the compost/soil mixture (bone meal is a good source of phosphorus).  After mixing the compost and fertilizer with the existing soil, fill the hole back up and tamp it down to remove air pockets.

4. Planting – Peonies are usually planted in their bare root form.  Each bare root should have at least 3 ‘eyes’, which are small red buds that will later grow into stems.  Each bare root tuber should be planted just 2-3 inches deep and positioned so that the eyes are pointing upward.  It’s important to not plant them too deeply.  Water well after planting.

'Sea Shell' Peony

‘Sea Shell’ Peony

That’s it!  Now you can sit back and dream of the beautiful flowers that will decorate your flower garden in spring.  It’s important to not that peonies usually take at least 2-3 years after planting before producing blooms – but they are worth it!

How about you?  Do you grow peonies?  Will you be planting some this fall?

*Want to learn more about peonies?  Check out our little known facts about peonies, here.

Birding at One of Florida’s Best Birding Hotspots

Rob Ripma

This past weekend, while in Florida for a family wedding, my wife and I were able to sneak away for a morning of birding at one of Florida’s top birding hotspots, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. This amazing refuge is located right on the Atlantic coast and is only about an hour from Orlando. I had been to this property once before, and I was very excited to make a return visit during this trip. As always, the birding was awesome and the refuge was beautiful!

Merritt Island is a wonderful place to watch a huge variety of wading birds, and there is no better place to do this than along the Black Point Wildlife Drive. This 7-mile one-way auto tour route allows you get rather close to many herons and egrets! The birds are rather used to cars and people, allowing you get great photos without disturbing the birds.

Tricolored Herons were the most common wading bird at Merritt Island while I was there.

Tricolored Herons were the most common wading bird at Merritt Island while I was there.

In addition to seeing many herons and egrets, there were quite a few shorebirds around as well! Some of the highlights were Marbled Godwit, a couple dozen or so Black-bellied Plovers, and several Willet. In order to really get great looks at all of the shorebirds, I highly recommend bringing along a spotting scope.

Another highlight of our trip to Merritt Island was a huge number of Osprey throughout the refuge. This is a bird species that just a few short years ago was in serious trouble due to the use of DDT. They have made an incredible recovery, and I’m always excited to see high concentrations of this species.


My wife captured this image of an Osprey as it cruised overhead.

My wife captured this image of an Osprey as it cruised overhead.

Although this refuge is known for having a large group of Florida Scrub-Jays, we were unfortunately unable to find them on this visit (partly due to lack of time). I have seen them before on refuge property, but there were none to be found during our trip. In addition to being a great place to find birds, Merritt Island NWR is also an incredible spot to see West Indian Manatees! While they aren’t really a great subject to photograph, we enjoyed watching a large group of about 15 manatee feeding very close to shore in one of the canals.

As we about to cross the bridge to leave the refuge and head back to Orlando, some birds caught my eye near a fishing access area. I quickly pulled over and found three Black Skimmers resting not too far off the road. Black Skimmers have always been one of my favorite birds, and it was the perfect way to end our day!

These Black Skimmers were mixed in with a flock of Laughing Gulls. Don't worry, nothing is wrong with the one with its head on the ground, it's just resting!

These Black Skimmers were mixed in with a flock of Laughing Gulls. Don’t worry, nothing is wrong with the one with its head on the ground - it’s just resting!

Have you ever visited Merritt Island NWR? If so, what were some of your favorite sightings?


Finding Caterpillars in the Butterfly Garden

Jill Staake

Butterfly gardeners know that the best butterfly gardens have both nectar plants and host plants. Nectar plants feed adult butterflies, while host plants are those that caterpillars feed on. Each species has a plant or family of plants they use as host plants, and the key to attracting a wider variety of species to your butterfly garden is to seek out and plant those hosts. (Learn more about that here.)

Finding Caterpillars

Jill Staake If only all caterpillars were as easy to find as these Polydamas Swallowtails!

Once you have those plants, though, it can be hard to know whether or not the butterflies are finding and using them. Caterpillars are pretty vulnerable to predators, so they have a variety of methods to camouflage themselves or hide from prying eyes. Here are five tips for finding caterpillars in your butterfly garden.

Know what you’re looking for. Most caterpillars are made to blend in to their host plants. If you know what butterflies should be laying on the host plants in your garden, it’s easy to use the internet to find photos of the caterpillars you might expect to see. Butterflies and Moths of North America is my favorite site for finding that type of information.

Finding Caterpillars

Jill Staake Unless you know what they look like, finding caterpillars like this Cloudless Sulphur can be nearly impossible.

Expect the unexpected. Not all caterpillars camouflage themselves to blend in; many rely on other sorts of defenses. Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) caterpillars have large eyes to mimic snakes. Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) caterpillars, along with many others, have stiff spikes. And several species, including the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) shown below, look just like a pile of bird droppings sitting on the plant. (Reminder – a few caterpillars do have venomous spines. If you don’t know whether the caterpillar is safe to touch, DON’T TOUCH.)

Finding Caterpillars

Jill Staake Bird poo? Nope, a Giant Swallowtail caterpillar!

Check for chewing. Chewed-up leaves are often the first sign that caterpillars are on your plants. Very small caterpillars often “skeletonize” the leaves, eating the softer juicier material but leaving the structural veins behind. Others chew holes in the middle of leaves or simply devour everything in sight and move on to the next stem or plant.

Finding Caterpillars

Kristen Gilpin This tiny sulphur is only a little larger than a grain of rice, but holes in the leaves were the clue it was there.

Follow the frass. Caterpillar waste is called “frass”. It’s a solid material, and as caterpillars get large, they can leave pretty big amounts of it behind. If you see what you think might be frass on a leaf, check the leaves just above – you have a good chance of finding caterpillars nearby,

Finding Caterpillars

Hillary Roedell This monarch has made a mess – making it much easier to find.

Unwrap the leaf.  Some species are especially good at hiding, and finding caterpillars will take a little more work. Leaf shelter builders, like Spicebush Swallowtails and Long-Tailed Skippers (Urbanus proteus), use silk to pull a leaf around them. They then eat one end of the leaf from the inside and usually move on to another leaf at night, when they’re less likely to be spotted. Cool fact: Some species have the ability to expel their frass out of the other end of the leaf shelter at a high speed to scare off predators!

Finding Caterpillars

Jill Staake Curled-up leaves like this one may have a caterpillar inside. (Long Tailed Skipper)

What signs do you use for finding caterpillars in the butterfly garden? Need help identifying a caterpillar or butterfly you’ve seen? Drop by the Birds & Blooms “Bugs & Butterflies” Community forum to share your thoughts!

6 Simple Planting Tips for the Backyard Garden

What steps do you go through when adding new plants to your garden?  How big is your hole?  Do you add fertilizer and other soil amendments right away?

Today, we’ll talk about what steps you need to do for ultimate success with adding new plants and why you’ll want to skip adding fertilizer.

New Plants

Let’s face it – shopping for new plants is more fun than digging holes and planting them.  Last time, we talked about tips to help you to select healthy plants at the nursery.  Now, it’s time to get ready to plant – but before you grab your shovel, there are a few important planting tips as well as some common mistakes to avoid that will help ensure a beautiful, thriving plant in the future.

Hole that is too narrow

Hole that is too narrow

At first glance, you may not notice anything wrong with the hole, above.  However, this is NOT the right way to dig a hole for new plants.

Correct planting hole

Correct planting hole

Look carefully at the hole in this photo, above.  The first thing you will notice is that it is much wider than the previous one, which leads us to our first planting tip:

1. Dig holes at least 3X as wide as the root ball.  Why do plants need a wide hole?  The reason lies with how roots grow.  Most of the roots of plants grow outward and they have an easier time doing this in soil that has recently been loosened by digging.  Plants grown in holes like this will grow faster and become established more quickly as well as opposed to those grown in narrow holes where the roots have a harder time penetrating the soil around them.

2. Plant holes should be the same depth as the root ball or a couple of inches shallower.  New plants need to rest on a solid base, but after planting – some settling can occur resulting in your plant dropping down a few inches, which is not healthy for plants.  By creating a hole slightly shallower than the root ball, your new plant will rest at the soil level once the soil settles.

Root bound plant

Root bound plant

3. Check the root ball before planting.  Often, you cannot check the roots of a plant at the nursery and when the time to plant comes, you find that your plant is root bound.  Plants that are root bound have been in their container too long and as a result, the roots start growing in a circular pattern.

If you add a plant that is root bound, it will struggle to survive because its roots won’t grow out into the soil and absorb water and nutrients.  However, if you discover your new plant is root bound, you can help to correct the problem by making vertical cuts, 2 inches apart, around the entire root ball, which will redirect the roots to growing outward.

4. Improve the soil when adding non-native plants to the garden.  Adding compost to the planting hole helps to improve the texture clay and sandy soils enabling them to hold onto just the right amount of water.  In addition, compost adds some nutrients to the soil as well as beneficial soil organisms.

A good guideline as to how much compost to add to your planting hole is 1 part compost to 1 part native soil, mixed together.

*Native plants do not need any soil amendments like compost added to the soil because they are adapted to the native soil.

When to apply fertilizer

5. Skip the fertilizer when planting new plants.  This tip is one that is often surprising to many people – often our first impulse when adding new plants is to grab some fertilizer and sprinkle it around.  But did you know that this can do more harm to your plants than good?

So, why should you skip adding fertilizer?  When new plants are planted, they focus their energies on growing more roots into the surrounding soil to absorb water and nutrients.  Plants need a good root system to support the top growth of a plant.  However, when fertilizer is added at the time of planting, new plants are forced to direct its resources toward growing  the top growth – often before the plants have sufficient roots to support the top growth.

For non-native plants, the best time to add fertilizer is once you see new top growth.  Plants that are native to your area do not need any fertilizer.  In the case of fruit trees, it is recommended to wait to fertilize until 1 year after planting.

6. Water new plants deeply and often after planting.  New plants need more water initially until their roots have been given enough time to grow out into the surrounding soil where they can uptake larger amounts of water.  Gradually reduce the amount of watering until plants are on the same schedule as the existing plants, which is usually one year after planting.

Fall is the best time of year to add new plants to the backyard garden and you’ll be more than ready armed with these simple tips.

2014 State of the Birds Report

The 2014 State of the Birds report was just released and it shows some disturbing trends for some bird species but also offers some good news for other bird species.

Unexpected Fall-Planted Bulbs to Try

It’s time to go beyond tulips, daffodils, and crocus. Try these fall-planted bulbs to add some new and unusual blooms to your garden next spring.

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