Archive for Butterflies

Some Big Bend National Park Fauna

Greater Earless Lizard (Cophosaurus texanus)  They lack external ear openings to prevent sand from entering their ears.

Greater Earless Lizard (Cophosaurus texanus) They lack external ear openings to prevent sand from entering their ears.

Every time I visit Big Bend I am astounded by the diversity of  life that thrives in this harsh desert landscape.  I go to see the birds of course, but there are other very interesting creatures which a hiker encounters.   We encountered the Greater Earless Lizard at Burro Mesa Pouroff.  Another lizard we saw was the Big Bend Canyon Lizard (Sceloporus merriami annulatus) which is native to a narrow range in the Big Bend area.

We saw this Big Bend Canyon Lizard at Sam Nail Ranch.  They adjust their color to blend in with their surroundings.

We saw this Big Bend Canyon Lizard at Sam Nail Ranch. They adjust their color to blend in with their surroundings.

There were also a number of lovely butterflies.   I tried to photograph some, Pipevine Swallowtails and Banded Sisters but ended up with a number of photos of “the rock where the butterfly had been a moment before I clicked the shutter.”  I did manage to get a photo of the Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis).

Hackberry Emperor butterflies don't visit flowers but feed on sap, rotting fruit, carcasses and dung.  Hackberry Trees are their only host plant.

Hackberry Emperor butterflies don’t visit flowers but feed on sap, rotting fruit, carcasses and dung. Hackberry Trees are their only host plant.

There are also several attractive beetles we encountered.  These impressive ones, Black-striped Blister Beetles (Epicauda atrivittata) were on a bush on the way to Cattail Falls.  They were nearly 2″ long.  They can deliver a nasty bite.

Black-striped Blister Beetle

Black-striped Blister Beetle

On our way back to Midland for the flight home, we stopped at a Prairie Dog town to look for Burrowing Owls and I noticed this young Pronghorn Antelope.  I wonder if they are farmed as this one has a collar.

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Birdscaping: A Few Native Plants Appropriate to the Northeast

Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum):  This bush grows to about 12 feet and has pretty fall color with blue bird-friendly berries.  Zone 2-8

Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum): This bush grows to about 12 feet and has pretty fall color with blue bird-friendly berries. Zone 2-8

As nurseries and landscapers begin to notice that we bird lovers spend many, many millions of dollars (billions?) on birding each year, some have begun to carry native, bird-friendly plants.  We have gradually been replacing the non-native deer fodder in our yard (e.g., Rhododendron, Hosta and evergreen Azaleas native to Asia) with attractive, low maintenance native plants that bear fruit to attract birds and butterflies.  Our local birds and butterflies evolved with these plants and they thrive when they feed on the food sources they evolved with.  There are many great sources of information and plant suggestions.  My “Bible” has been C. Colston Burrell’s Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants” .  Another good, more comprehensive one is  Steve Kress’ Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds, but more and more books are available on the subject.  I looked around the yard with my camera and here are just a few good candidates:

Winterberry (Ilex verticulata):  In the winter, the red berries brighten the landscape until the birds eat them all.  This bush grows to about 12 feet and is hardy from Maine to Florida.

Winterberry (Ilex verticulata): In the winter, the red berries brighten the landscape until the birds eat them all. This bush grows to about 12 feet and is hardy from Maine to Florida.  Be sure to get one male plant to go with the females.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida):  Many birds enjoy the fruit of this lovely small tree.  It is hardy as far north as Zone 5, has pretty fall color and very showy flowers in the spring.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida): Many birds enjoy the fruit of this lovely small tree. It is hardy as far north as Zone 5, has pretty fall color and very showy flowers in the spring.

American Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum):  This large handsome shrub makes a great summer screen for the patio.  The flowers resemble the non-native lace cap Hydrangeas and have bright red berries in the fall.  I have seen only Cedar Waxwings on mine but (according to Steve Kress' Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds, Brown Thrashers and Ruffed Grouse also favor them and 29 other bird species will eat them.  Hardy in Zones 2 to 7.

American Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum): This large handsome shrub makes a great summer screen for the patio. The flowers resemble the non-native lace cap Hydrangeas and have bright red berries in the fall. I have seen only Cedar Waxwings on mine but according to Steve Kress’ Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds, Brown Thrashers and Ruffed Grouse also favor them and 29 other bird species will eat them. Hardy in Zones 2 to 7.

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia):  This shrub grows to about 8 feet and has red berries beloved by birds.  We have to move these because it doesn't like to be near our Black Walnut trees but it will be a great one after we do that.  Zones 5 to 9.

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia): This shrub grows to about 8 feet and has red berries beloved by birds. We have to move these because it doesn’t like to be near our Black Walnut trees but it will be a great one after we do that. Zones 5 to 9.

American Beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana):  You get butterflies galore when you plant this 4' bush which has pretty blue flowers in late summer.  These are followed by the purple berries which provide food and moisture to the birds for several months.  Zone 7 and south.

American Beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana): You get butterflies galore when you plant this 4′ bush which has pretty blue flowers in late summer. These are followed by the purple berries which provide food and moisture to the birds for several months. Zone 7 and south.

Northern Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica):  These fruits don't last long once the Yellow-rumped Warblers are done with them.  Be sure to get female bushes along with one male!  Zones 2-6.

Northern Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica): These fruits don’t last long once the Yellow-rumped Warblers are done with them. Be sure to get female bushes along with one male! Zones 2-6.

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Monarch Butterfly Migration

Migrating Monarch Butterfly on a Northern Blazing Star plant (Kennebunk Plains, ME)

Migrating Monarch Butterfly on a Northern Blazing Star plant (Liatris scariosa on Kennebunk Plains, ME, which has 80% of the world’s population of this plant).

We had come to Maine for a day or two last week and I was treated to a front row seat on the Monarch Butterfly migration.   I was sitting watching the Northern Gannets through my scope as they performed their spectacular plunge dives into the ocean.  As I watched bird after bird crash into the sea, I became aware of Monarch Butterflies floating by, three or four a minute.  While most butterflies winter over in hibernation, Monarchs have evolved to migrate, more like birds than insects.  The excellent website Journey North has interactive maps to track the Monarch migration, and a check of the map showed me that the peak in Maine was occurring right in front of me.  The Maine birding list serve made note of this in a post from the edge of the Piscataqua River, relating how 500 or more of the butterflies had gathered at a spot on the shore of the river, waiting for more favorable winds before continuing.

These Monarchs I am seeing are thought to be the final generation of the year in the north and will travel as far as Mexico, overwinter there and travel halfway back next spring.  The migrating monarchs are different from the ones we see all summer as they have not reached sexual maturity.  This will happen next spring as they begin the trip north again.  It may take as many as five generations of Monarchs to reach maturity over the next summer before the migration begins again in the fall.  There are many, many unanswered questions about this amazing phenomenon.  The record flight for a Monarch in one day is 265 miles, an almost unbelievable fact.

When we were in Bangor, Maine, just three weeks ago, I had seen many migrating Monarchs and had photographed what was likely to be the last instar (larval stage) of the final generation there on milkweed, its favored host plant.  [Sorry about the photo quality]  Perhaps one of these individuals floating by me was the one I photographed.  The timing would be just about right.

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar on its favorite plant, Milkweed.

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar on its favorite plant, Milkweed.

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Mt. Washington Above The Treeline: A Few Plants

Mt. Washington Sandwort

White Mountain Sandwort (Arenaria groenlandica)

One final delight from our Mount Washington trip was the alpine plant life.  Alpine plants are defined loosely as those that grow between the treeline and the permanent snow line.  These tough little plants have evolved to withstand low temperatures, desiccating winds, poor soils and high UV exposure.  Some are simply miniaturized forms of plants from the gentler climes below while others are unique alpine specialists, growing only above the treeline.  While stumbling over the loose granite scree fields, I was amazed to see these tiny plants flourishing in seemingly inhospitable places.  The Sandwort (photo above) is a native of Greenland, stranded on mountaintops when the glaciers receded, where it forms tiny nosegays to delight hikers.

Three-toothed Cinquefoil

Three-toothed Cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata)

The Three-toothed Cinquefoil is another Greenland species isolated on mountaintops by the retreating glaciers.  It was thought to be a member of the Potentilla family but recent study has reclassified it as a member of the Rose family.

Cutler's Alpine Goldenrod (Solidago cutleri)

Cutler’s Alpine Goldenrod (Solidago cutleri)

Alpine goldenrod is another plant isolated on mountaintops.  It has been cultivated for rock gardens but on Mount Washington it serves as a nectaring source for the endemic White Mountain Fritillary, another souvenir of the ice sheets.  This butterfly is found only in the alpine zone of the Presidential Range, chiefly on Mount Washington.  The final two plants I want to share are miniature forms of plants familiar to me from the Maine woods, an exquisite tiny Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, a creeping form of Dogwood) and a diminutive Meadowsweet, (Spirea latifoliaa).  The Meadowsweet  was being visited by Hoverflies, a fly that looked  and acted like a bee.

Alpine Meadowsweet (Spirea latifolia)

Alpine Meadowsweet (Spirea latifolia)

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Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)

 

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White Mountain Arctic Butterfly

The Alpine Tundra Environment Required by the White Mountain Arctic Butterfly

The Alpine Tundra Environment Required by the White Mountain Arctic Butterfly

I was a member of a small group invited to Mt. Washington, NH this past weekend by Chris Rimmer, Director of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, where he wanted to share the exciting research being done there.  I had hoped to get a really good look at the Bicknell’s Thrush, a species I had not seen in the wild well enough to count on my life list, although I have seen them in the hand while banding.  I struck out again on the Bicknell’s but my disappointment was more than erased by the fascinating work being done on the White Mountain Arctic Butterfly (Oeneis melissa semidea).

This student intern is searching for the Butterflies

This student intern is searching for the Butterflies

This butterfly is a holdover from the period of the last glaciers and has been trapped on the summits of the Presidential range since the tree line advanced thousands of years ago, invading the rocky, treeless Alpine habitat it needs to survive.  The climate is so harsh on the top of Mt. Washington that it takes two years for the White Mountain Arctic to complete a life cycle.  The adult butterfly lives for about eight days, during which time it mates and lays its eggs.  The larvae winter over under rocks, freezing solid for the winter and awaken the following spring to pupate and emerge as adults in early summer.  The larvae feed on Bigelow Sedge at night to avoid predation by birds, resting under rocks during the day.

This woman is marking the butterfly with non-toxic ink. She is doing research for her Ph.D on the White Mountain Arctic.

This woman is marking the butterfly with non-toxic ink. She is doing research for her Ph.D on the White Mountain Arctic.

We watched as researchers netted the butterflies and marked them with nontoxic ink, carefully logging the details of each one before it was released, unharmed.

The butterfly rests after being marked and studied. The pink ink spots indicate the location where it was captured. Its coloration allows it to blend with the lichen to avoid predators.

The butterfly rests after being marked and studied. The pink ink spots indicate the location where it was captured. Its coloration allows it to blend with the lichen to avoid predators.

The future of this butterfly is threatened by climate change as the warming environment allows the treeline to advance ever closer to the tundra at the top of the mountain.

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Cabbage White Butterflies

Lovely as a butterfly, not so lovely as a worm in my broccoli

Lovely as a butterfly, not so lovely as a worm in my broccoli

The Cabbage Whites are pretty, they’re pollinators and provide food for many of our bird species.  The down side is that the preferred food for the larvae are the Brassica family, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.  I love seeing them on my lavender for they provide a lovely accent to the deep purple blooms.  Soon they will migrate to my broccoli to lay their eggs and I’ll begin finding the green larvae nestled between the stems.  I know people who won’t plant broccoli for this reason but it’s a shame to miss broccoli when it tastes so much better fresh from the garden.  Think of the spraying commercial growers have to undertake to defeat this, our most common butterfly.  When I prepare broccoli I first pick out any visible worms, then I blanch it.  The hidden worms turn white when they are cooked so they can easily be found and removed before the broccoli is served.  This may seem distasteful to you, so call and ask if I am serving broccoli before you accept a dinner invitation at our house.

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Black Swallowtail Butterfly: Check That Dill Sprig Before You Pick

Black Swallowtail Larva on Dill

Black Swallowtail Larva on Dill

I went out to my herb garden to pick a few sprigs of dill to brighten up some of last summer’s corn chowder that I had defrosted for lunch.  As I bent over my patch of dill I noticed a Black Swallowtail Butterfly larva munching away.  Looking over the little patch I saw two more, all in what seemed to be the fourth stage of development (called an instar).  The life cycle of a Black Swallowtail Butterfly is fascinating.  The eggs are not obvious and the first noticeable instar is when the larva molts into a worm-like creature that is black with a little white ring around the center.  The following instar is an orange and black prickly looking caterpillar and then comes the instar I am seeing.  They keep this general form and coloration until they grow to be 3 to 4 inches long.  At this point they form a chrysalis and after a couple of weeks, the butterfly emerges.  As the caterpillars grow they become more and more noticeable and can fall victim to birds.  If you want to observe the miracle of metamorphosis you can take a caterpillar inside and watch it happen.  This is especially fun for children.  You will need plenty of the host plant you found it on to feed it until it forms its crysalis, some branches so it will have something to attach the crysalis to and a safe place like an aquarium, a large jar or a fish bowl.  Put screening over the top so air can get in and the butterfly can’t get out until you’re ready to release it.  Other host plants are parsely, carrots, fennel and other members of that family.  It will take two to three weeks once the crysalis has formed.  Be sure to release it as soon as it can fly.  Don’t try to help it leave the crysalis.  It needs to do this job itself to gain strength.

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