Monthly Archives: December 2010

White-throated Sparrow and the Winter Moth

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicolli)

Last May my husband and I were delighted to discover a large flock of White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicolli) rumpusing about our garden. A chorus of choristers chortling My Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada or alternatively Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, their clear, elegant notes were heard for several days and they were easily spotted rustling about in the hedge, dining on safflower seeds scattered on the ground below the bird feeder, and feasting on Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata) caterpillars in the trees. I believe it to be a fairly rare occurrence to observe a flock migrating this far east through Cape Ann. My East Gloucester neighbor Jen, who has a lovely garden even closer to the easternmost edges of the peninsula, reported same. Her flock also stayed for several days enjoying the winter moth caterpillar banquet found in her yard. Rather than walk or run, White-throated Sparrows hop, and we delighted in our all too brief encounter with this beautiful and entertaining “Whistler of the North.”

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicolli)

White-throated Sparrow Eating Winter Moth Larvae

Kingdom: Animalia (Animal)

Phylum: Chordata (Vertebrates)

Class: Aves (Birds)

Order: Passeriformes (Perching birds)

Suborder: Passeri (Songbird)

Family: Emberizidae (Seed-eating birds with a distinctively shaped bill)

Genus: Zonotrichia

Species: Z. albicollis

White-throated Sparrows breed from Mackenzie, central Quebec, and Newfoundland south to North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. They spend winters in much of the southeastern U.S. and in small numbers in southwestern states. Frequent visitors to back yard feeders, White-throated Sparrows build their nests toward the ground in shrubby thickets or semi-open mixed woods, wood lots, scrub lands, gardens, and backyards. Of note, the sparrow comes in two distinct color forms: white-crowned and tan-crowned. The two color morphs are unique among birds. Individuals almost always mate with a bird of the opposite morph. “Normally, a single brood is raised each season, with the female remaining with the fledged young even after they have left the nesting territory” (Mass Audubon Breeding Bird Atlas).  After the breeding season ends, the adults molt and attain their winter plumage.

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicolli)White-throated Sparrow Tan-crowned Morph

Last year I wrote an article, “Looking to the Future,” which was about Alain Baraton, the charismatic head gardener of the Palace of Versailles. Mr. Baraton has made it his mission to transform the 2,000-acre traditional landscape into a model of sustainable gardening, and in prohibiting the use of pesticides at the Palace of Versailles, the songbirds have returned in prodigious numbers. I thought of Monsieur Baraton in relation to our visiting White-throated Sparrows. From sunrise to sunset the sparrows could be found in our garden devouring the one-inch green winter moth larvae that were devastating our fruit trees. In hopes of mitigating the damage done by Winter Moths, several times throughout the winter we spray our trees with dormant oil. However, our neighbor does not tend to her dying tree. When the caterpillars grow to about one inch, they descend from her long suffering cherry tree and begin to devour our pear trees. The dilemma is that I do not want to spray with anything stronger than dormant oil and the reasons are manifold. Nuthatches store nuts and seeds in the chinks of bark of our pear trees, myriad species of bees are on the wing and in close proximity, and countless Lepidoptera larvae would also most certainly be adversely affected. As the winter moth expands its territory, logical too would be the assumption that migrating species of birds would find fortification in a diet of winter moth larvae and perhaps their range and population will also increase.

Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata)Adult Winter Moth ~ Operophtera brumata

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicolli)

Looking to the Future

Walking along a wooded lane last weekend, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of songbirds. One singular, startled robin, that was all, poking about a hedge of scraggly privet. The time of day was late afternoon, which is the same time of day our yard is typically host to a chorus of songsters. Eerily disquieted, I paused for a moment and closed my eyes, imagining what this same lane would look like if found growing there were winterberry and summersweet, blueberry and chokecherry, juniper and holly, and the chattering collection of songbirds these fruit-bearing plantings would surely attract. Perhaps there was a disappointing lack of songbirds because invasive species such as privet has engulfed both sides of the road, or perhaps because the road abutted a golf course, which is regularly doused with insecticides intended to kill every living insect, the songbird’s primary source of food.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

Dragon Lady Holly (Ilex x meserveae)

Sarent’s Crabapple (Malus sargentii)

A friend forwarded an article, posted from the Guardian U.K., about the charismatic head gardener Alain Baraton, of the Palace of Versailles. Appointed in 1976, Mr. Baraton has made it his mission to transform the 2,000-acre traditional landscape into a model of sustainable gardening. Climate change has affected Versailles in ways Baraton never imagined. Because the chestnut trees are flowering twice a year, they are losing their glorious autumnal hues. Pine trees that have lined the park’s avenues since the reign of Louis XIV are dying in gross numbers. The previous year saw so little rainfall that the lawns did not have to be mowed. It is imperative, Baraton says, to move with the times. “The gardener always has to look to the future,” he explains. “We are witnessing an enormous change in climate.”

Baraton saw in the changing environment an opportunity to reform the long-standing use of pesticides. Realizing the futility of applying chemicals to rid the gardens of bugs, which would only return and in greater numbers with warmer temperatures, insecticides were the first to go and he declared a blanket ban. No matter how tiny, Baraton believes every living creature deserves a place in his garden. Enticed by the prospect of plump, juicy insects to feast on, the birds returned to Versailles in prodigious numbers.

Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus)

Trees and shrubs have benefited tremendously under Baraton’s guiding hand. Long gone is the tradition of planting the same species in neat ordered avenues. The gardeners vary the plantings to prevent major loss in case any one species becomes diseased.

If the most formal of public gardens, scrutinized under the demanding microscope of an international audience, can afford to forgo the use of insecticides, is there any possible justification for the use of insecticides and herbicides in the individual, business, and public suburban and urban landscape?

Our Dragon Lady hollies have grown tall and the winterberry is flourishing, and because of that, for the past several years we have been graced with a flock of robins in early February (Round Robin Red-Breast). The first winter the robins arrived I noticed that, after they had devoured every morsel of red berry—the winterberry, holly, and crabapple—they moved to a neighboring privet hedge. My first thought was, well at least that’s one good thing about privet–perhaps the robins will eat the overly abundant and plain little blue-black berry of the privet. Not so, the robins did not care too much for it and the flock soon departed our neighborhood.

When we first moved to our property we immediately removed a privet-tree that had seeded itself, growing smack-dab in the sunniest center of our yard. We cut down the trunk and limbs and spent laboriously long hours digging out the root mass. We continually find privet seedlings sprouting in our flower borders. Privet is tedious, and if one has the misfortune to inherit an established hedge, very challenging to remove. On the other hand, a natural arrangement generally requires a modicum of once-yearly maintenance, a light hand with the pruning sheers, to shape or remove dead wood. Imagine if all the suburban privet hedges were replaced with welcoming avenues of flowering and fruiting shrubs that provided nourishment and shelter for the songbirds.

Excerpt from Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! ~ The idea of a garden planted in harmony with nature is to create a loosely mixed arrangement of beauty combining native and ornamental fowering trees and shrubs. This informal style of a woodland border or bucolic country hedge is not new and is what the French call a haie champêtre. Perhaps the country hedge evolved because it was comprised of easily propagated, or dispersed by wildlife, native species of plants and perhaps as a revolt against the neatly manicured boxed hedges of formal European gardens. The country hedge is used, as is any hedge, to create a physical and visual boundary, but rather than forming the backdrop for ornamental plants, it is the living tapestry of foliage, owers, fruit and fauna. Working and living in our garden we are enchanted by the creatures drawn to the sheltering boughs, blossoms, and berries.

Looking to the Future was first published Winter 2009.

Beautiful Antique Chinese Tile

Chinese glazed porcelain openwork tile, with beautiful green glaze on both sides, for exterior or interior use. Late 19th or early 20th century… on my Christmas wish list…

Round Robin Redbreast

Round Robin Redbreast

What’s that you say? A flock of robins, in winter?

Yes, yes! Sweetly singing liquid notes. A flock in my garden!

What does a hungry round robin find to eat in a winter garden?

Red, red winterberries and holly, rime-sweetend crabapples, and orchard fruits.

And how does a winter robin keep warm?

Why, blanketed together with air-puffed fluffed feathers.

How long will they stay, how long can they last in the frost?

Only as there are fruits on the bough and berries on the bush.

Round robin red breast, silhouette in bare limb,

Calling away winter, cheer, cheerio, and cheer-up!  

– Kim Smith

The widely distributed and beloved American Robin (Turdus migratorius) hardly needs an introduction. The American Robin is the largest member of the thrush family—thrushes are known for their liquid birdsongs and the robin is no exception. Their unmistakable presence is made known when, by early spring, the flocks have dispersed and we see individual robins strutting about the landscape with fat worms dangling. Unmistakable, too, is the male’s beautiful birdsongs, signaling to competing males to establish their territory, as well as to entice prospective females.

The boundaries of the American Robin winter migration areas are not clearly defined. The robin’s winter range covers southern Canada to Guatemala, compared to their summer nesting range, which extends from the tree limit of Canada to southern Mexico. Robins that nest in Massachusetts, for the most part, migrate further south. Robins nesting in northern Canada migrate to their tropic-of-New England get-away.

During the winter months Cape Ann often becomes home to large flocks of robins and we have had the joy of hosting numerous numbers in late afternoon and early morning. I can’t help but notice their arrival to our garden. Their shadows descend, crisscrossing the window light, followed by a wild rumpus in the ‘Dragon Lady’ hollies. This pair of hollies is planted on opposing sides of the garden path, alongside my home office. I have learned to stealthily sneak up to a window, as any sudden activity inside startles birds that are investigating our garden, and they quickly disperse. Dining not only on berries of the ‘Dragon Ladies’, but also the ‘Blue Princess’ Meserve holly and winterberry bushes, are generally speaking dozens of noisy, hungry robins. These winter nomads flock to trees and shrubs that hold their fruit through winter, feasting on red cedar, American holly, Meserve hollies, chokecherries, crabapples, and juniper. Robins traveling near the sea will comb the shoreline for mollusks and go belly-deep for fish fry. Depleting their food supply, they move onto the next location. Gardens rife with fruiting shrubs and trees make an ideal destination for our migrating friends.

The garden designed to attract pairs of summer resident robins as well as flocks of winter travelers would be comprised of trees and shrubs for nest building, plants that bear fruit and berries that are edible during the summer and fall, and plants that bear fruits that persist through the winter months. Suburban gardens and agricultural areas provide the ideal habitat, with open fields and lawns for foraging insects as well as trees and hedgerows in which to build their nests.

Robins in New England breed from April through July, often bearing three clutches. Nests are built in the crotch of trees and dense bushes, five to fifteen feet above ground, and some are occasionally made on the ground or built on protruding ledges of homes. The female robin weaves a cup-shaped foundation of coarse grass, twigs, paper and feathers, and then lines the bowl with mud she smears and packs firmly with her breast. Later she adds soft fibers such as fine grass and downy feathers to cushion the egg. The first nest is usually placed in an evergreen tree or shrub; for each subsequent clutch a new nest is built and generally placed in a deciduous tree.

The following plants, suggested with robins in mind, will also attract legions of songbirds (and Lepidoptera). The list is comprised primarily of indigenous species with a few non-native, but not invasive plants included.

Trees for nesting ~ American Holly (Ilex opaca), Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida).

Summer and autumn fruit bearing trees, shrubs and vines for robins ~ Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Blackberry (Rubus spp.), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Gray Dogwood (C. racemosa), Red-osier Dogwood (C. sericea), Silky Dogwood (C. amomum), Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), Apple (Malus pumila), Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana), Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), Wild Grape (Vitis spp.).

Trees and shrubs with fruits persisting through winter ~ Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana), Crabapple (Malus spp.), Sargent’s Crabapple (Malus sargentii), American Holly (Ilex opaca), Meserve Hollies (Ilex x meserveae), Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Common Juniper (Juniperus communis), Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina).

Remontant Rose

Last of the remontant roses…the singular rose blooming in December holds a certain cachet, appreciated for its loveliness as well as its stalwart ability to withstand the earliest onset of icy cold temperatures and severe winds. Bravo oh Beautiful Rose of unknown name!


re-mon-tant [ri-mon-tuhnt]

–adjective 1.blooming more than once in a season.
–noun 2. a remontant rose.
Origin: 1880–85;  < F, prp. of remonter  to remount
  • Remontant species roses were exclusively from the eastern periphery of Asia.

Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! for Holiday Giving

Music to my Ears: The following note is from my dear friend Kate Hines who built a beautiful home on a lovely piece of property—former farmland that borders the lush and fertile Rhode Island coastline. Thank you Kate for sharing!

“I was so inspired reading the section you wrote on hollies in Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! that I went to the local nursery and ordered 2 – a female 6′ and a male 5.’ Now they are mixed in with the evergreen grove to the north of the house. They were costly, a big project but soooooo satisfying! Ill send pix.”


Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! makes for a very useful gift for the gardener (and loved-ones dreaming of creating a garden) on your holiday gift giving list. Last year at this time Carol Stocker, the Boston Globe garden columnist wrote the following about Oh Garden:

Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities!

Boston Globe Best of 2009

For Armchair Gardeners Pining for Spring

“Bleak and snowy outside? These lush reads will have you dreaming green. January and February are the reading months for gardeners trapped indoors. Here are some of the best garden books from 2009. “Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! Notes From a Gloucester Garden,’’ written and illustrated by Kim Smith (David R. Godine, Publisher), is a treasure, and perhaps the best garden gift book. Why? Both dream-like and practical, it captures the rapture of a gardener’s journey through her own evolving quarter acre by integrating Smith’s personal essays, hands-on advice, and paintings. I was charmed by her listing of specific scents of favorite peony varieties accompanied by a painted sample of their petal colors…”

Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! Written and Illustrated by Kim Smith. Available through your local bookseller, David R. Godine, Publisher, and Amazon.