Earlier in the month whole days went by between hummingbird sightings and I thought they were gone for good. But then one morning I spotted a little female or maybe a weightless youth back-and-forthing around the porterweed’s (Stachytarpheta mutabilis) bow ties. I saw her again the next day, and on and off for a couple of weeks now. I’m guessing my garden has made it on a migration flight path. Maybe word went out that the roadside diners here are pretty good.
It’s hard to imagine those tiny birds traveling under their own steam all the way to Central America and back every year especially since their little engines, a heart that beats up to 1,200 times per minute, use so much fuel. But they are actually perfectly capable of flying over 500 miles at a stretch burning a mere two grams of body fat, after which they need to make one or two week-long pits stops to bulk back up. What if everyone put their feeders away prematurely and gave up on the garden?
I’m also still, as I write this, seeing monarch butterflies whirling around the garden and am not sure if they have just been (re)born or if they too are refueling on their way south from the wilds of northern New England and Canadian gardens. Their improbable journey of thousands of miles to spend the winter hibernating in Oyamel fir trees in the Michoacán mountains of Mexico starts in September and October.
The monarchs emerging from chrysalises now are made of much tougher stuff than the ones we’ve seen all summer who only live two to six weeks as butterflies. These guys will live up to eight months — long enough to fly to Mexico, rest for a while, mate and at least begin to migrate northward again in spring to lay their eggs on the first patch of milkweed they find (there’s none to be had in their winter landscape), after which their children and grandchildren complete the journey. Today’s travelers are four or more generations removed from the butterflies that flew south last year and yet somehow they know exactly where to go.
Unlike loner hummingbirds (who, contrary to Internet myth, do not hitchhike on the backs of Canada geese) monarchs travel in flocks — called a flutter — flying during the day and resting at night grouped together for warmth. Just last week a flutter was spotted adorning a sturdy tree on Goosewing Beach in Little Compton. A single monarch weighs less than a gram but thousands together are heavy enough to cause boughs to break. Imagine that.
A couple of weekends ago, as I worked to make my garden look a little less abandoned and late-summer-sleazy, I had to stop myself from cutting down all of the milkweed and butterfly weed stalks. The pods have all burst and sent seeds to the skies, and their stems are currently covered in creepy colonies of orange aphids and bright red and black milkweed bugs (aside from aesthetics, they don’t do any harm) but the plants are still, even as they die, hosting the odd yellow and black striped caterpillars that might have a chance of metamorphosing into travelers.
And even though the wind knocked my Salvia guarantica and Agastache ‘Heatwave’ plants sideways and detached great tendrils of the ever-blooming ‘Major Wheeler’ honeysuckle from the fence, I decided to leave those disheveled flowers be until I can be sure that every straggler hummingbird from the Far North has had their fill. My neighbors might roll their eyes at the mess but I think they must understand by now that I didn’t plant my garden for them.
Kristin Green is the interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum in Bristol, where she’s worked since 2003. Follow her garden blog at http://blog.blithewold.org.