THE STELLER’S SEA EAGLE HAS NOT BEEN SEEN IN MAINE SINCE JANUARY 25th AND IT COULD BE ANYWHERE IN THE REGION!
Cape Ann residents, please keep your eyes peeled for the rare Steller’s Sea Eagle. It may still be in Maine, but the way this phenomenal creature moves around, it may have returned to Massachusetts. One of my readers thinks she saw the Steller’s back in autumn on Eastern Point, prior to when it was observed in Taunton, MA. At the time, she didn’t realize how rare and unusual the sighting.
Based on its observed behavior in the Boothbay area, the Steller’s Sea Eagle appears to like a similar winter habitat to that of our local Bald Eagles, near the mouth of open rivers and waterways where fish, ducks, geese, seabirds, and other water birds are preyed upon. The Annisquam River, Merrimack River, Essex Bay area, and Parker River Wildlife Refuge may be of particular interest to the Steller’s. The SSE also likes to perch in very tall pines.
Please share if you even suspect you see this very special vagrant! Feel free to leave a comment or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In case you missed the wonderfully informational webinar hosted by Maine Audubon’s Doug Hitchcox and Nick Lund, you can watch the full program on youtube. Here is the link.
This past week I made the trek to Boothbay Harbor to sea the rare Steller’s Sea Eagle. Traveling from Cape Ann to Boothbay, you need a chunk of time, of which I am in short supply, but Thursday on a whim I jumped out of bed and decided it was now or never.
The drive took about 3.5 hours, including a brief stop at St. Joe’s Coffee shop in York for some of their sublime chocolate dipped bennies (beignets). Despite overcast skies and an occasional snow squall, the rugged beauty of the Maine coastline was arrestingly beautiful. Towering pine forests meet rocky shores, along with a dusting of snow covering the ground and the frost-glazed boulders made for a very enjoyable drive.
I drove directly to the Maine State Aquarium (closed for the season), where there is ample parking. Shortly after arriving, the Aquarium was flooded with a troop of avid nature lovers having just come from a resort several miles down the road where they had seen the bird fly in the direction of the Aquarium. About half an hour later, the Steller’s Sea Eagle flew directly overhead, to the opposite side of the harbor from where we were standing, to the Factory Cove area. She/he stayed perched atop one of the tallest pines along the tree line for the remainder of the morning, barely moving. She appeared relatively unfazed by the murder of Crows that harassed her in spirts of activity throughout the morning.
The SSE was situated roughly one to two miles away, which is much too far for my camera to get a good photo. It would have been so interesting to see her up close, to get a better idea of her enormity, but it was wonderful fun to witness all the folks that were there also enjoying a chance to catch a glimpse of this rare phenomenon. The onlookers ranged in age from from toddler to the oldest grannies and I was delighted to see tons of teenagers and college students there as well. There were perhaps 60 people or so at any given time and twice that many coming and going. No one drove to the other side of the harbor to flush her out and rest assured, the crowd of onlookers was so very far away from her location, we weren’t in any way compromising her ability to hunt and to rest. We saw a number of Long-tailed Ducks and Loons and I imagine Boothbay Harbor is providing plentiful ducks and seabirds for a hungry eagle.
Above photo taken by Mark S. Allen on Saturday, January 15, 2022
Photo by Cheryl Leathram
Unfortunately the heater had stopped functioning in my car on the drive to Boothbay so I departed early afternoon. The Eagle was still in the exact same spot when I left the Aquarium.
A note about the Steller’s Sea-Eagle – By weight, the Steller’s Sea Eagle is the largest eagle in the world. SSEagles live in coastal northeastern Asia and breed on the Kamchatka Peninsula, the coastal area around the Sea of Okhotsk, the lower reaches of the Amur River and on northern Sakhalin and the Shantar Islands, Russia. The majority of birds winter south of their breeding range, in the southern Kuril Islands, Russia and Hokkaidō, Japan. Steller’s Sea Eagles prey on fish and waterbirds, including seagulls. See the video below to learn more about “The Story of America’s Rarest Eagle.” Link here to read Maine Audubon’s latest updates.
Cape Ann resident and friend Pat Morss, who also loves our local wildlife, shares several photos his daughter Jeannette took of the Steller’s Sea-Eagle. The photos were taken yesterday, December 31st, in the Georgetown, Maine area. Thank you Pat for sharing!!
The best part of the story is that if you go to see the eagle, a kindly lobsterman, Robbie Pinkham, is taking small groups of folks out on his boat to a more accessible location to observe the bird. He isn’t charging, but gladly accepts tips 🙂
To learn more about the Steller’s Sea-Eagle travels through North America see previous post here:
Check out this outstanding video by Ian Davies that tells the story of a wandering Steller’s Sea Eagle, which is one of the rarest eagles in the world. Although from Asia, for the first time in history, the Steller’s was recently seen in Massachusetts in the Taunton River area.
Look for the Sea Eagle’s very large yellow bill, white feathered shoulders, and dramatic wingspan, up to eight feet! If you happen to be so fortunate as to observe the Steller’s Sea-Eagle please take a photo and please share. Thank you.
At first glance I thought the gull feeding offshore was a Bonaparte’s Gull, but after taking a second look, I believe this is a Black-headed Gull in non-breeding plumage. The black-tipped red bill is the surest way to id when on the water, along with his cute little red legs and feet.
Common throughout Eurasia, they are rarer on this side of the Atlantic; the first sighting north of Mexico was recorded in 1930 in Newburyport. When Black-headed Gulls are spotted in the US, they are most likely seen along the Massachusetts coastline.
A larger-than-dinner-plate-sized Lion’s Mane Jellyfish was spotted at Niles Beach today by Charlotte and I. We alerted the lifeguards, who dug it up and placed it in a red biohazard bag. Although quite dead, the sting can sill be felt upon contact.
The following are a description and some fun facts from wiki –
The lion’s mane jellyfish, also known as the giant jellyfish or the hair jelly, is one of the largest known species of jellyfish. Its range is confined to cold, boreal waters of the Arctic, northern Atlantic, and northern Pacific Oceans. It is common in the English Channel, Irish Sea, North Sea, and in western Scandinavian waters south to Kattegat and Øresund. It may also drift into the southwestern part of the Baltic Sea (where it cannot breed due to the low salinity). Similar jellyfish – which may be the same species – are known to inhabit seas near Australia and New Zealand.
The largest recorded specimen was measured by Alexander Agassiz off the coast of Massachusetts in 1865 and had a bell with a diameter of 210 centimetres (7 feet) and tentacles around 36.6 m (120 ft) long. Lion’s mane jellyfish have been observed below 42°N latitude for some time in the larger bays of the east coast of the United States.
The lion’s mane jellyfish uses its stinging tentacles to capture, pull in, and eat prey such as fish, zooplankton, sea creatures, and smaller jellyfish.
As coldwater species, these jellyfish cannot cope with warmer waters. The jellyfish are pelagic for most of their lives but tend to settle in shallow, sheltered bays toward the end of their one-year lifespan. In the open ocean, lion’s mane jellyfish act as floating oases for certain species, such as shrimp, medusafish, butterfish, harvestfish, and juvenile prowfish, providing both a reliable source of food and protection from predators.
Predators of the lion’s mane jellyfish include seabirds, larger fish such as ocean sunfish, other jellyfish species, and sea turtles. The leatherback sea turtle feeds almost exclusively on them in large quantities during the summer season around Eastern CanadaThe jellyfish themselves feed mostly on zooplankton, small fish, ctenophores, and moon jellies.
Most encounters cause temporary pain and localized redness. In normal circumstances, and in healthy individuals, their stings are not known to be fatal. Vinegar can be used to deactivate the nematocysts, but due to the large number of tentacles, medical attention is recommended after exposure.
There may be a significant difference between touching a few tentacles with fingertips at a beach and accidentally swimming into one. The initial sensation is more strange than painful and feels like swimming into warmer and somewhat effervescent water. Some minor pains will soon follow. Normally there is no real danger to humans (with the exception of people suffering from special allergies). But in cases when someone has been stung over large parts of their body by not just the longest tentacles but the entire jellyfish (including the inner tentacles, of which there are around 1,200, medical attention is recommended as systemic effects can be present. Although rare, at deep water severe stings can also cause panic followed by drowning.
On a July day in 2010, around 150 beachgoers were stung by the remains of a lion’s mane jellyfish that had broken up into countless pieces in Wallis Sands State Beach, Rye, New Hampshire, in the United States. Considering the size of the species, it is possible that this incident was caused by a single specimen.
Mass Wildlife reports that there are over 70 active Bale Eagle nests in Massachusetts, a record! Now there is a brand new nest in Barnstable. The last reported Bald Eagle nest was seen on Cape Cod in Sandwich, in 1905.
I first posted the “Magical Month of May for Migrations in Massachusetts” on May 22 in 2017. Right on schedule, our skies are filling with beautiful winged creatures – last night and this morning our East Gloucester neighborhood was graced with thousands of Chimney Swifts pouring onto our shores. Several days ago our same neighborhood hosted a flock of beautiful, beautiful Cedar Waxwings, which also included a half dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers darting in and around flowering branches.
What will tomorrow bring! <3
The Magical Month of May for Migrations in Massachusetts
May is a magical month in Massachusetts for observing migrants traveling to our shores, wooded glens, meadows, and shrubby uplands. They come either to mate and to nest, or are passing through on their way to the Arctic tundra and forests of Canada and Alaska.
I am so excited to share about the many beautiful species of shorebirds, songbirds, and butterflies I have been recently filming and photographing for several projects. Mostly I shoot early in the morning, before setting off to work with my landscape design clients. I love, love my work, but sometimes it’s really hard to tear away from the beauty that surrounds here on Cape Ann. I feel so blessed that there is time to do both. If you, too, would like to see these beautiful creatures, the earliest hours of daylight are perhaps the best time of day to capture wildlife, I assume because they are very hungry first thing in the morning and less likely to be bothered by the presence of a human. Be very quiet and still, and observe from a distance far enough away so as not to disturb the animal’s activity.
Some species, like Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons, Great Egrets, Brant Geese, and Osprey, as well as Greater and Lesser Yellow Legs, are not included here because this post is about May’s migration and I first began noticing their arrival in April.
Several photos are not super great, but are included so you can at least see the bird in a Cape Ann setting. I am often shooting something faraway, at dawn, or dusk, or along a shady tree-lined lane.
Happy Magical May Migration!
The male Eastern Towhee perches atop branches at daybreak and sings the sweetest ta-weet, ta-weet, while the female rustles about building a nest in the undergrowth. Some live year round in the southern part of the US, and others migrate to Massachusetts and parts further north to nest.
If these are Short-billed Dowitchers, I’d love to see a Long-billed Dowitcher! They are heading to swampy pine forests of high northern latitudes.
Black-bellied Plovers, much larger relatives of Piping Plovers, look like Plain Janes when we see them in the fall (see above).
Now look at his handsome crisp black and white breeding plumage; its hard to believe we are looking at the same bird! He is headed to breed in the Arctic tundra in his fancy new suit.
The Eastern Kingbird is a small yet feisty songbird; he’ll chase after much larger raptors and herons that dare to pass through his territory. Kingbirds spend the winter in the South American forests and nest in North America.
With our record of the state with the greatest Piping Plover recovery rate, no post about the magical Massachusetts May migration would be complete without including these tiniest of shorebirds. Female Piping Plover Good Harbor Beach.
The return of American Bald Eagles to Massachusetts is a wonderful conservation success story. We now see Bald Eagle nests expanding throughout the state with overall numbers steadily rising each year. Several pairs are thought to now nest on Cape Ann!
By the turn of the previous century, the Bald Eagle had nearly disappeared from Massachusetts. Loss of habitat, hunting, trapping, and poison contributed to their demise during the 19th century. The last known nest was seen at Sandwich, Cape Cod in 1905. Nationwide, by the mid-twentieth century, the pesticide DDT nearly pushed the birds to extinction.
The Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (Mass Wildlife) now reports that as of January 2019, there are 76 territorial pairs, which is up from 68 pairs in 2017, and 59 pairs in 2016. From these 76 pairs, 65 chicks successfully fledged! How was this made possible?
In the early 1980s, it was discovered that some Bald Eagles were spending winters in the Quabbin Reservoir area. In 1982, MassWildlife, along with other organizations, including MassAudubon, began a project that would encourage nesting in the area.
Young eaglets from wild nests in Canada were reared in cages overlooking the Reservoir. This was done in hopes the eagles would view the area as home base and return to nest when mature.
The first fledged bird returned in 1989 and the Massachusetts Bald Eagle population has been steadily growing ever since! Forty-one chcks were raised using the “Hacking” method. Over 780 chicks have fledged since the program’s inception however this is likely an underestimation as the counts have largely centered around the Quabbin Reservoir, and most recently Lake Quinsigamond.
If you suspect a Bald Eagle nest in your area , please contact the State Ornithologist Andrew Vitz at email@example.com.
It’s heartbreaking to read about the death and devastation wreaked by Hurricane Dorian. Never having been, but greatly wishing to go someday, our hearts go out to the people of this beautiful and magical archipelago, the Bahamas.
Several friends have written asking about what happens to shorebirds, especially the Atlantic Coast Piping Plovers, during a monster hurricane like Dorian. Some lose their lives, some are blown far off course and hopefully, more will survive than not.
One somewhat reassuring thought regarding the Piping Plovers that are tagged in Massachusetts and Rhode Island is that they may not yet have left the States. After departing Massachusetts and RI, a great many tagged PiPls are soon found foraging on the shores of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Cape Lookout National Seashore, and Cumberland Island National Seashore, GA. Data suggests that the Outer Banks are a priority stopover site for Piping Plovers well into the late summer. After leaving our shores, southern New England Piping Plovers spend on average 45 days at NC barrier beaches before then heading to the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.
A male Piping Plover that I have been documenting since April, nicknamed Super Dad, still in Massachusetts at his breeding grounds as of August 28th.
Here is Super Dad watching over his two fledglings, aged 31 days, On August 24th, 2019.
Thirty-one-day-old fledglings sleeping after a morning of intensive foraging and fattening-up.
Will the winter of 2018-2019 bring another Snowy Owl Snowstorm similar to the irruption of 2017-2018? It is too soon in the season to know. They have been trickling in, but Snowy Owls typically begin to move southward in greater numbers in mid- to late-November.
The Snowy spotted today is a male, with a beautiful nearly pure white face and neck. Although off in the distance, he appeared to be in good health, with plushy full set of feathers, big furry feet, and tell-tale pinkish hue smudged around his beak (hopefully from a recent catch). He was quietly nodding off until suddenly disturbed by someone approaching too closely. He swooped across the landscape and away from the onlooker to a more remote location, and was hopefully left undisturbed for the remainder of the day.
Grooming and dozing off amongst the tall grasses and dried wildflowers.
On high alert and then flushing after sudden disturbance.
With record number of seals washing ashore from several illnesses, I thought now would be a good time to repost my seal PSA. This beautiful juvenile Harbor Seal was found on a foggy morning in midsummer. The seal was beached at the high tide line and its breathing was heavy and labored. It had no interest in returning to the water and needed only to remain at rest.
For the next six hours the seal struggled to survive the world of curious humans.
Learn what to do if you find a seal on the beach.
The phone number for marine mammal wildlife strandings is 866-755-6622.
Over the winter, we got a sneak preview at a Good Morning Gloucester podcast of Alice’s wonderful and whimsical illustrations for her Saint Peter’s Fiesta children’s book. St. Peter’s Fiesta Gloucester, Massachusetts has been published just in time for Fiesta. Even without baby granddaughter Charlotte on the way, we would cherish a copy of this delightful book. I cannot wait to purchase ours.
St. Peter’s Fiesta Gloucester, Massachusetts is available at the The Book Store of Gloucester
located at 61 Main Street (978-281-1548). When at The Bookstore, be sure to check out Alice’s illustrations for St. Peter’s Fiesta Gloucester, Massachusetts. They are framed and on display. Each year Alice is the featured artist at The Bookstore during the month of June for her many paintings over the years of Fiesta.
Please join us for Alice Gardner’s BEAUTIFUL St. Peter’s Fiesta children’s picture book launch party! The daughter of the founder of St. Peter’s Fiesta will be reading the book. Details below. Mark your calendars! Please share!
90th Anniversary Party for Saint Peter’s Fiesta
Saturday, June 17, 2017 10-11:15
Book reading: 10:30
The Sawyer Free Library
2 Dale Avenue, Gloucester, Massachusetts
The Children’s Room and The Friend Room
Please join us for the debut of St. Peter’s Fiesta, a beautiful children’s book by artist and author Alice Gardner, commemorating our favorite time of year.
Sara Favazza has graciously offered to read the book to all those, young and old, who love St. Peter’s Fiesta! Sara is the daughter of Salvatore Favazza, the Gloucester sea captain who founded Fiesta in 1927 to thank Saint Peter for keeping the fishermen safe.
Preceding the reading, there will be special activities for children.
Following the reading, please stay for the book signing outside in the garden where refreshments will be served.
What fun to encounter a small flock of terns teaching its young to fish. Nearly as large as the adults, the tubby terns cheekily squawk and demand food (shrimp I think in this case). Watch as the fledglings try to master fishing skills while the adults tirelessly guide the young on how to feed themselves.
With many thanks to Paul St. Germain, president of the Thacher Island Association, for information about the ongoing restoration of shorebirds on Thacher Island.
There is nothing common about the uncommon Common Tern. They were named Common because hundreds of thousands formerly nested along the Atlantic Coast. As with many species of shorebirds, the rage for wearing fancy feathered hats during the 1800s nearly drove these exquisite “swallows of the sea” to extinction. After the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was ratified in 1918, terns began to recover.
A second major setback occurred when in the 1970s open landfills were closed, displacing thousands of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. The aggressive and highly adaptable gulls resettled to offshore nesting sites used by terns.
Common Terns are a Species of Special Concern in Massachusetts. Through a statewide long-term commitment of restoration, protection, and management of nesting colonies, the populations are very slowly and gradually increasing.
Former nesting sites include islands such as Cape Ann’s Thacher Island. During the mid 1950s, over 1,125 pairs of Arctic, Common, and Roseate Terns nested on Thacher Island. Today there are none.
The southern side of Thacher Island is owned by the Thacher Island Association. The northern end of Thacher Island is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under the authority of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. These organizations are working together to restore terns and other species of birds to Thacher Island.
We are so fortunate to have House Representative Ann Margaret Ferrante working on behalf of our region, and all of Massachusetts. Brilliant, hard working, compassionate, well respected by her colleagues, budget conscious, and just an overall kind and huge hearted person. A heartfelt thank you to Ann Margaret for all that she accomplishes for our community. Happiest of birthdays to Ann!
After spending the past eight weeks filming the sparrow-sized Piping Plovers, it was fun to unexpectedly encounter these tubby Common Tern fledglings. Although able to fly, they stood at the water’s edge, unrelentingly demanding to be fed. The adults willingly obliged.
Unlike plovers, which can feed themselves within hours after hatching (the term is precocial), tern fledglings are semi-precocial, which means they are somewhat mobile at hatching but remain and are fed by their parents. Terns and gulls are semi-precocial.
The fledglings appear larger than the adults and are very well fed. Both parents feed their young. The terns are building fat reserves for the long migration to the South American tropical coasts, some traveling as far as Peru and Argentina.
Common Tern dive bombing gull
Although unperturbed by my presence, they sure did not like the seagulls. Any that ventured near the fledglings feeding were told in the most cheekiest of terms to buzz off–dive bombing, nipping, and nonstop loudly squawking–the intruder did not stick around for very long.
Common Tern populations are in decline, most probably because of pesticide poisoning and habitat loss.
Congratulations to Mark Allen, the 2014 Sunday Greasy Pole Champion! This was Mark’s first win, after 16 previous years of walking! Allen was walking for for his cousin Peter “Black” Frontiero who has the second most wins of all time, with a total of nine.
Each year I look forward to filming and photographing the greasy pole events. The determination on the men’s faces, the camaraderie, the ecstasy and pride in winning, the anguish of defeat, the hilarious costumes, and the Felliniesque antics combine to create a fabulous fiesta of stories and images.
The film opens at the childhood home of the Giambanco Family, with Sefatia leading the Greasy Pole Walkers and guests in the rallying “Viva San Pietro,” the cheer that is heard throughout the city of Gloucester during Saint Peter’s Fiesta. Giambanco sisters Marianne, Grace, Rosaria, and Sefatia continue with their mother Rosalia’s, “Lia’s” custom of feeding the Greasy Pole Walkers dinner before the walk. The tradition began years ago when their brother, Anthony “Matza” Giambanco, began walking. Sefatia explains that Lia had always held a huge family feast with relatives from all around the country attending. The first year her brother walked he told his mom he couldn’t eat because he was meeting everyone. She said I don’t care; you have to eat, and told him to bring everyone back to their home. That was in 1978!
Next the Walkers head over to rally at the Gloucester House, where they greet Lenny shouting his name over and over, to a packed restaurant full of guests. Several more stops are made along the way before the next rally at the Saint Peter’s Club. The Walkers make one last stop to say a prayer to Saint Peter, and perhaps pin a gold charm or coin to the statue, before departing for the greased pole platform at Pavilion Beach
* * *
With special thanks and appreciation to Nicky Avelis and all the Greasy Pole Walkers for allowing me to ride on the boat. It went by way too fast! And thank you to the skipper for giving me a ride back to shore.
With thanks and appreciation to Rosaria, Sefatia, Marianne, and Grace for inviting me to come film the Walker’s rally at your welcoming Fiesta Sunday Feast!
The song “Love Runs Out,” is by OneRepublic for the reissue of their third album, Native.
The song “The Walker” is by Fitz and The Tantrums from the album More Than Just a Dream.
Congratulations to Kyle Barry, the 2014 Saturday Greasy Pole Champion! This was Kyle’s second win. He was also the 2013 Friday Champion.
The first clip is especially Felliniesque but then again, whenever I am shooting the greasy pole events I feel as though I am in the midst of a Fellini film. Friday’s and Sunday’s films are coming in the next few days, with some Very Fun Footage.
I Loved this song when first I heard it and thought it perfect for Greasy Pole Walkers. Written and performed by Fitz and The Tantrums, “The Walker,” (that is really the title of the song!) is from their second album, More Than Just a Dream.
The beautiful juvenile Harbor Seal was found on a foggy morning in midsummer. The seal was beached at the high tide line and its breathing was heavy and labored. It had no interest in returning to the water and needed only to remain at rest.
For the next six hours the seal struggled to survive the world of curious humans.
Learn what to do if you find a seal on the beach.
Written, produced, edited, cinematography, and narration by Kim Smith.
The Good Harbor Beach Seal PSA was created because of the lack of understanding on the part of my my fellow beachgoers on how to mangae a seal encounter. Please help get the word out and please forward the link to friends and neighbors in other communities, whether or not the community is located by the sea. It was the folks from out of town that did not understand that the seal needed simply to be left alone. Thank you!
Although the Good Harbor Seal was not injured, help was needed with the gathering crowd. I called our local police, who in turn sent Lieutenant Roger Thurlow from the Environmental Police. Has anyone had experience with a marine stranding, and if so, is the following the best number to call: Northeast Region Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding and Entanglement Hotline ~ 866-755-6622? I will post your hotline recommendations here.
Technical note–The video was filmed without a tripod because I was afraid the tripod would look like a gun and didn’t want to further stress the seal. After reading more about Harbor Seals, I learned that their big brown eyes are particularly adapted to sight in murky water (i.e. harbor waters), but that their eyesight is not that good on land. In retrospect, I don’t think that the seal would have associated the tripod with a weapon. Also, I filmed at a distance much further away than my camera’s capabilities, which caused much vignetting around the edges of many of the clips. I didn’t want to stand close to the seal and be the filmmaker-who-becomes-part-of-the-problem, and not the solution.
Recently a friend inquired that if I had to choose one native New England plant to grow to attract butterflies to the garden, which would it be, and why. It was a challenging question because butterflies are typically drawn to the garden planted with a rich and varied, yet very specific, combination of species. A successful Lepidoptera habitat is comprised of many elements all working in tandem. Sunny and protected areas in which to warm their wings, trees and shrubs that provide shelter, and a host of nectar plants for the adults, as well as specific caterpillar food plants, create the successful Lepidoptera garden.
Perhaps if I had to choose a favorite butterfly and therefore a favorite plant to grow to drawthis butterfly to my garden it would have to be common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), which is both a larval host plant and nectar plant for the elegant Monarch butterfly. People often speak unkindly about common milkweed, rather I think it deserves applause for it is plant without rue and thrives wherever found—in the cracks of city sidewalks and along country roadsides, highly-trafficked soccer fields, and in the most neglected of neighborhoods. Whether in the garden, along the shoreline, or local meadow, it is on the foliage of common milkweed that we find the vast majority of Monarch eggs and caterpillars. Noteworthy also is that we observe many different species of butterflies and skippers nectaring at common milkweed—sulphurs, swallowtails, and fritillaries, to name but a few. In our garden we grow common milkweed alongside marsh milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); marsh milkweed blooms slightly earlier than common milkweed as it is sited in a sunnier locale. Both species attract a wide variety of winged pollinators. Male and female Monarchs nectar from the blossoms, while the males simultaneously patrol for females. The females utilize the foliage of both species to oviposit their eggs. Typically we observe females freely flitting alternatively between our common and marsh milkweed, depositing their eggs on the choicest leaves and buds, while pausing frequently to nectar.
Monarch Butterfly Egg on Common Milkweed Leaf
The milky sap that flows through milkweed veins lends the genus its common name. Monarch butterflies and their caterpillars have evolved to withstand the toxic milk, but not the predatory bird that attempts to eat one. The adult Monarch’s unique wing pattern and caterpillar’s striped suit warn of its dreadful taste and lethal toxins. A bird that is tempted becomes sick and may even die, and if it survives, remembers never again to try to eat a Monarch. “The larvae sequester cardiac glycosides from the milkweed leaves that they consume. Concentrations of these heart toxins in their bodies may be several times higher than those occurring in milkweed leaves. The glycosides consumed by the caterpillars are carried forward both into the chrysalis and adult stages, affording them protection as well.” (Caterpillars of North America David L. Wagner).
Common milkweed is highly adaptable and grows in nearly any soil. The size of the developing colonies and individual plants reflect the conditions in which it is grown. Planted in a rich, moist soil, protected from the wind and where it receives some light shade, it will grow six to seven feet. I use it extensively in my butterfly garden designs, planting in rich, average, and dry conditions, and find it especially appealing and useful for shoreline gardens. In sandy soil, sand dunes, and meadows, where it is exposed to wind and/or salt spray, common milkweed is equally as vigorous, but of a much shorter stature, typically obtaining the height of two to three feet.
A. syriaca thrives in full sun to light shade. In a moist, protected area, plant in the back of the border. In a more exposed site, plant in the mid-ground. Because of its ability to spread readily and rapidly, use in an informal, natural setting as opposed to planting in formal beds.
Common milkweed is highly fragrant and is the most richly scented of the species of milkweeds found in Massachusetts (A. incarnata, A. syriaca, A. quadrifolia, A. tuberosa, A. amplexicaulis, A. exaltata, A. pupurascens, and A. verticillata), with a complex wild flower honey fragrance. I have heard it described as similar to the scent of lilacs, but find lilacs have a much sweeter fragrance than common milkweed. Fragrance is highly mutable and subjective.
One- to two-year-old plants are easier to transplant than established plants. Common milkweed takes approximately three years to flower from seed. The method in which I have had the greatest success in propagating Asclepias syriaca, best attempted in early summer, is to dig up a rhizome, found at the base of a plant with newly emerging shoots. The rhizome would ideally be obtained from a friend’s garden. If collected in the wild, be sure to dig from an area where there are many shoots present. You need a fairly large chunk, at least a half-foot, with both roots and new shoots present. Replant the rhizome at the same depth. Water throughout the summer. Towards the end of the growing season you will be rewarded with newly emerging shoots. Common milkweed self-seeds readily, but spreads primarily (and rambunctiously) by its rhizomatic root structure.
Milkweed in general, and in particular, common milkweed, attracts a host of pollinators—bees, wasps, butterflies, and purportedly hummingbirds. I have yet to see the Ruby-throated hummingbird nectar from common milkweed, but it may also be the case that they are attracted to the plant for the multitude of tiny insect populations frequenting the flowers (over ninety percent of a Ruby-throated hummingbird’s diet is comprised of insects). We typically findMonarch eggs and caterpillars on milkweed plants during the months of July and August.
Buddleia davidii ’Nanho Blue,’ with blue-violet racemes, melds beautifully with the muted lavender rose florets of the softly drooping flower heads of common milkweed. The brilliant white of native Phlox davidii and vivid purple-pink of Liatris ligulistylus attractively offsets both. All are famously attractive to Monarchs (and myriad other species of Lepidoptera) and will provide a long season of nectar-rich blossoms and Monarch caterpillar food.
Monarch Butterflies Mating on Common Milkweed Leaves
A note about the video: Monarch butterflies deposit eggs on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and marsh milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in eastern Massachusetts. The chrysalis in this video was attached to a marsh milkweed stem. For a wealth of information on butterfly gardening, read Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities!
The bridal season has begun and the grounds are topfull of tulips and sweetly scented jonquils. While photographing with eyes and nose at flower height, I am intoxicated by the the heady perfume emanating from the narcissus and the splendorous hues and broken patterns of the shimmering satin tulip petals–and dreaming about making cocktail dresses in every colorway! Lenna (from Willowdale) and I are creating a book of garden photographs for the brides, and because all the flowers and butterflies are so gorgeous, it is a challenge to decide what photos to include. Dan Pritchard, who works for my publisher, David Godine, suggested that I post regular updates on what is currently in bloom at Wdale and I think it is a great idea. The following are a few potential candidate photographs to add to the spring section of our photo book.
The new pergola designed by Gerald Fandetti, Architect
Haiti Projects Hand-embroidered Eye Pillows for Sweet Dreams and Yoga Shavasana
Look for my story about Haiti Project’s founder and Gloucester’s own Sarah Hackett, appearing in the current spring issue of “Cape Ann Magazine!” Also featured—Gail McCarthy, prolific journalist extraordinaire, has written an informative and interesting feature article about the history and restoration of Gloucester City Hall, as well as a great story about the local brewing industry. You can find “Cape Ann Magazine” at Toad Hall Bookstore, The Bookstore of Gloucester, IGA in Rockport, and other markets.
Save the dates of Friday, June 4th through Saturday, June 5th for the first ever Cape Cod Rhododendron Festival and Garden Tours, presented by the Heritage Museums and Thornton W. Burgess Society of Sandwich, MA. I will be there both days with my book Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! and speaking about habitat gardening at 11:00 on Friday. Much more information and updates to follow. This promises to be a beautiful event!
Rhododendron vaseyii and Carpenter bee photographed at the Arnold Arboretum, Boston
Excerpts from a recent study of Haiti Projects (conducted in December 2009) provides evidence of the powerful impact the Women’s Cooperative has had on the lives of its workers, their families, and their villages:
“I have been able to feed my children and start building a house for my family.” – Women’s Cooperative embroiderer
“I can feed my children and send them to school, now. They have a library where they can borrow books.” – Women’s Cooperative seamstress