Juvenal’s duskywing on native Geranium maculatum

“The butterfly is a flying flower,
The flower a tethered butterfly.”
― Ponce Denis Écouchard Le Brun

May is a harbinger of things to come and the herald of things that are already here. Each May I look forward to the appearance of certain ephemeral wildflowers and butterflies that are worth the effort often necessary to search for them. For instance, small butterflies often have a limited flight range, and to find them, you need to know when they start to fly, what flowers they visit, and what the host plants are for their caterpillars. Some wildflowers can be hidden by taller plants surrounding them and a surprise when come across.

Eastern pine elfin on a blade of grass

The Eastern pine elfin, Callophrys niphon, is a tiny hairstreak butterfly  that has only one brood and a flight time that may go from mid-April- June, but is more likely to be found in  flying about in mid-May. Small enough to fit on your fingernail, this elfin is often seen nectaring on blueberry, huckleberry and wild strawberry near its caterpillar’s host plant, white pine.

Eastern pine elfin

Henry’s elfin, Callophrys henrici, is another small hairstreak with an early spring flight time. Mid May is a good time to look for males perching on host plants like redbud, huckleberry, blueberry and viburnums during the day. Nectar sources include willows, hawthorn and pussytoes. Where both species are found, you may come across both the eastern pine and Henry’s elfins in the same stand of wild blueberries or huckleberries.

Henry’s elfin

Horace’s duskywing, Erynnis horatiu,s is another small butterfly found in dry fields near oaks, which is the host plant of its caterpillar. Often confused with Juvenal’s duskywing which flies at the same time, Horace’s  has several larger glassy spots on the forewings. They have a rapid, darting flight and feed and perch with wings outstretched.

Horace’s duskywing

One flowered cancer root is an interesting parasitic wildflower that has no chlorophyll and depends upon a host plant for nutrients. An annual, once the seed germinates, a host plant must be found within a day. Hosts include the genus Sedum and members of the families Saxifragaceae and Asteraceae. The plant consists of a 3-10 inch stem with a single purple to white flower which is covered in hairs and looks like sugar crystals have been sprinkled on it. Look for this plant in May in wet fields or meadows among tall grasses with host plants nearby.

One-flowered cancer root

Garlic mustard, while an invasive plant and worthy of being pulled up, is still useful to bees as a pollen and nectar source. While of use to native pollinators, I still yank out any garlic mustard I can and hope native plants like Geranium maculatum will take its place.

Tiny bee on garlic mustard flower

Columbine and Geranium maculatum bloom for a long period of time and are visited by many pollinators, with columbine a favorite of hummingbirds as well. These plants are often found together along country roadsides and ditches, as well as power line right-of-ways. If at the edge of woods, nodding trillium may also be found nearby. This trillium has very large leaves which hide the drooping flower beneath them.

Columbine and Geranium maculatum

Fringed polygala, a diminutive wildflower that is no taller than 6 inches and has tiny pink airplane- like flowers is a personal favorite. Two of the flower petals unite to form a tube, with the third keeled with a pink fringe. They can be found along dappled wood lines in May or under pines.

Fringed polygala

Shrubs and small trees also can have striking flowers, and one is the nannyberry, Viburnum lentago. Tiny white flowers occuring downward curved panicles that can be 5 inches across. Flowers attract many native pollinators and later on the fruits are eaten by many bird species.

Blackhaw or nannyberry viburnum

The native pinxter is another shrub or small tree that makes itself known through its display of showy pink flower clusters that appear before its leaves and linger well after its leaves are fully out. Hummingbirds visit the flowers of this wetland plant.

Pinxterflower near a woodland swamp

This spring has had a good display of both native and ornamental flowering trees, shrubs, bulbs and early perennials. Butterflies are already more abundant than last year, and hopefully that will continue throughout the year. Spring is the forerunner of better things to come, but for right now, spring has enough for those of us who are wildflower and butterfly enthusiasts.

Pamm Cooper

Swallowtails like this spicebush swallowtail are in flight in May

August is ripening grain in the fields blowing hot and sunny, the scent of tree-ripened peaches, of hot buttered sweet corn on the cob. Vivid dahlias fling huge tousled blossoms through gardens and joe-pye-weed dusts the meadow purple.

-Jean Hersey

tiger swallowtail on phlox at Sues

Eastern tiger swallowtail on tall garden phlox

August arrived this year with the same intensity of heat and drought that so far has ruled the summer. Added to that, the damage inflicted to trees and other plants by the storm Isaias was another blow to gardeners, nature enthusiasts and homeowners alike. But despite these natural assaults, there has still been a cheerful reminder that nature does still carry on, bringing enjoyable encounters wherever we may go.

butternuts

Butternut trees in Wickham Park in Manchester- East Hartford

red headed bush cricket

The tiny red-headed bush cricket with its ‘boxing glove’ palps

Butterflies of all species have been few and far between, but in the past couple of weeks, more are now out and about. Eastern tiger swallowtails were more abundant than other swallowtails, while hairstreaks and brushfoots have been scarce so far. Red-spotted purples and monarchs are putting in appearances, as well as the diminutive pearl crescents. Tall garden phlox, spotted joe-pye weed, obedient plant, mountain mint coneflowers and butterfly bush are just a few favorites of many butterflies and bees.

pearl cresent and digger wasp on mint

Pearl crescent butterfly and great golden digger wasp shon mountain mint

ironweed and tiger swallowtail - Copy

Eastern tiger swallowtail on New York ironweed

bee on hyssop skullcap August 2020

Bumblebee visiting hyssop skullcap flower

bee on wild senna

Bumblebee and wild senna flowers

Great egrets sometimes stray from the shore and are one of our more elegant shorebirds. This bird is almost the size of a great blue heron and has a distinctive pair of black legs and a yellow bill. They can be seen in shallow water hunting for fish, frogs and small aquatic animals.

great egret on river bank

Great egret hunting on the banks of the Connecticut River near the Glastonbury ferry-August 2020

After summer rains, box turtles may often be seen during the day in open areas as they travel across  roads and driveways or places near woods with low vegetation. Patterns on their shells can be ornate and are usually a dark yellow.

box turtle crossed road day after rain 5-30-16 Pamm Cooper photo

Large box turtle just after crossing road

box turtle

another box turtle after crossing a driveway bordered by woods

Broadleaf tobacco is being harvested now in Glastonbury, where soils along the Connecticut River provide ideal growing conditions for this crop. Unlike shade tobacco, broadleaf leaves are thicker, sweeter and earthy. Because it is grown in the sun, broadleaf tobacco has more oils that produce more flavor than tobacco grown in the shade.

tobacco field and barn Glastonbury

Broadleaf tobacco growing in Glastonbury

In August there are several wildflowers that are lending some color to the landscape in moist areas and along pond and stream edges. An unusual one is the Allegheny monkey flower, mimulus ringens, whose genus  names comes from the Latin word meaning a mimic as the flower is said to resemble a monkey’s face. Sabatia sp. flowers are a stunning pink on long stems that stand out against a backdrop of green cattails. They can be seen on the edge of a pond at the Norcross wildlife Sanctuary in Wales, Massachusetts.

Sabatia large marsh pink possibly s amethystinum

Sabatia in flower along a pond bank at Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary in Wales, Massachusetts

flower fly on monkey flower

Tiny syrphid fly visits a monkey flower

Summer will go on for a while yet, with fruits and vegetables to harvest and enjoy, and with timely rains, I hope. There are still a few flowers that have yet to bloom and clouds and skies that should provide compelling views. Nature will  never cease to provide things of interest for the most casual of viewers and to those who search carefully for its wonders. I do take time to smell the roses as I run by…

spicebush cat August 2019

Spicebush swallowtail butterfly caterpillars are found by those who know to look inside a spicebush or sassafras leaf folded lengthwise

Pamm Cooper

tulip tree bloom

Tulip tree in flower

 

“ The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.”

  • Henry Van Dyke, Fisherman’s Luck

 

The first day of spring was in March and I feel like we have been gypped so far in 2019. The expected arrival of warm weather, or just sunny days for that matter, has not come upon us yet. The almost daily rains of April and May so make Seattle look dry by comparison. But enough griping about the weather. May is here and with it come the birds, flowers and butterflies that winter had kept at bay.

red bud flowers May 6 2019

Eastern redbud trees flower in early May

Pinxter Azalea, Rhododendron periclymenoides, is a native rhododendron that has tubular pink and white fragrant flowers that appear just before the leaves expand. It is found in moist soils along stream or pond banks. Pinxters sometimes have a juicy, sweet “apple” gall formed by the fungus  Exobasidium vaccinaii.

pinxter flower native 5-22-15 Ruby Fenton - Copy

Pinxter azalea flowers

pinxter apple (2)

Pinxter apple is really a gall

Native tulip trees, Liriodendron tulipifera,  bloom in May, and when they do, it is apparent how they received their common name. Yellow and orange flowers resemble tulips, standing upright among the flat-tipped leaves. This tree is sometimes called yellow poplar and is one of the largest trees in North America, sometimes reaching a height of over ninety feet.

Some native wildflowers are putting in their appearance now. One of my favorites is the diminutive gaywings or fringed polygala-Polygala paucifolia. Usually no taller than 6 inches, these plants may go unnoticed along woodland edges or peeking up out of needles lying under white pines in open woods. The magenta flowers have three petals, one of which is keeled and ends in a pink fringe.

fringed polygala May 13, 2015 Pamm Cooper photo

Fringed polygala

Solomons’s seal is a native wildflower that is a good choice for use in woodland gardens. Its dangling white flowers along graceful, arching stems produce blue- black berries later in the fall. Hummingbirds will visit the fragrant, sweet smelling flowers. Geranium maculatum is another native wildflower that can be used in shade gardens.

variegated Solomon's seal

Variegated Solomon’s seal

Swallowtail and other butterflies are seen regularly now that temperatures (rising at a glacial pace!) have warmed up and plants have leafed out. Painted ladies and red admirals have arrived from their southern wintering areas, and other butterflies should eclose from their chrysalises as the weather warms up. The gray hairstreak, one of the first hairstreaks besides the spring azure to make its appearance in May, should be out in warmer areas of Connecticut.

first gray hairstreak seen 2018 may

Gray hairstreak butterfly in May

Migrating birds have been a little slow to return, but thrushes, Orioles, tanagers and veerys arrived at their usual time when oaks are in flower. Warblers are pushing through on their way to their northern breeding grounds. Magnolia warblers arrive as crabapples are blooming and may linger around until it warms up. Listen for bird songs of warblers on Cornell’s allaboutbirds.org website, and then see if you can spot them with a pair of trusty binoculars.

Wilsons 5-12-14

Wilson’s warbler passing through on its journey north

Green tree frogs have been trilling during the day and turtles may be seen as they begin to look for mates and afterward for suitable nesting sites. Efts and salamanders may be seen on rainy days, or on sunny days following rains, and box turtles often are seen as they cross roads during or after rainy days. Things always perk up a little for me I see my first eft of the red-spotted newt out and about, usually in mid-May.

eft form of red- spotted newt 2017

Eft form of the red-spotted newt

 

Of course, spring is not always a jolly time for gardeners. Lily leaf beetles, rose slug sawflies, asparagus beetles and gypsy moth caterpillars are here and carrying on with their plant damaging specialties. Check plants regularly to stop some of these pests in their tracks.

lily leaf beetle GHills mid- MAy 2018

The harbinger of doom for true lilies and fritillarias- the lily leaf beetle

T

 

But it is May. And May is not, by nature, a limpid herald of doom, but rather a forerunner of the warm, sunny days to come. Cheer up, little buttercup! The best is yet to come.

Pamm Cooper

 

wild columbine and geranium maculatum by a roadside

wild columbine and wild geraniums by a country roadside

catalpa flowers 6-25-18 Pamm Cooper photo

Flowers of the Catalpa tree

 “ Nature gives to every  time and season some beauties of its own

– Charles Dickens

After a cool, wet spring and a similar June, July came in like a jalapeno pepper and is staying that way for a while, at least. It is a good thing that our native plants are adaptable to the swings in both temperature and water availability fluctuations. I am also a native New England carbon-based anatomical wonder, but I have a more difficult time with excessive heat coupled with high humidity. The one good thing about this time of year, though, is the wealth of interesting flora and fauna that provide a little excitement, if that is what you need, as you venture outside.

Bittersweet and an old truck

Bittersweet growing through the cab of an abandoned truck

Some of the most spectacular caterpillars are works of progress at this time, and also in late summer and early fall. Daggers, sphinx and prominent caterpillars are always interesting finds for me. They get larger than spring-feeding caterpillars, and often have warts, knobs, hairs and colors that make them stand out. Furculas, for instance, are prominents that have anal prolegs that act more like tails. When disturbed, they flail them about and that action may drive predators away. Sphinx caterpillars usually have horns on the rear end and may get quite large before they pupate. Most are not pests, but beware of the tobacco hornworm if you grow tomatoes.

wavy lined heterocampa lookimg toward the sky Pamm Cooper copyrighted

A wavy-lined heteocampa, a prominent moth caterpillar, looking toward the sky

early instar blinded sphinx July 4 2018 Pamm Cooper photo

Very small blinded sphinx caterpillar

Most milkweeds bloom Between June and late July. This year common milkweed is almost done none in many areas. Soon the swamp milkweeds will bloom, though. Milkweeds are important sources of nectar and pollen for many bees, moths and butterflies, and many other insects feed on the foliage and flowers. Check any of the milkweeds, including native and non-native butterfly weed, for the monarch butterfly caterpillars.

fritillary and skippers 7-11-14 on swamp milkweed

Fritillary and skipper butterflies on swamp milkweed in July

Most birds have raised their first broods, and many are started a second one. pIleated woodpeckers may be seen directing their young to food sources. These include trees and logs in which carpenter ants are actively feeding. Although  pileateds are very large, if not for their raucous calls and loud drumming that give them away, they can be elusive to find unless you know where they live.

Pileated Case Mountain Pamm Cooper photo

Pileated woodpecker

Butterflies have not been as abundant as last year, especially the red admirals and painted ladies. Since these are migratory, one wonders if they were held up in the southern areas and now the second generation be arrive later on.  Hairstreaks and skippers also were few and far between, but now the summer ones are starting to put in an appearance. I was delighted and surprised to have a white admiral butterfly visit the flowers in my backyard gardens this week. In all the time I have spent in the outdoors, I have only ever seen three of these, and this one was a hybrid, likely a result of a red-spotted purple/white admiral matchup.

white admiral cross backyard bush honeysuckle 6-30-2018 IIPamm Cooper

White admiral hybrid

Some summer flowering trees like the exotic mimosa, or hardy silk tree, should bloom in July. We are glad to have one of these on the UConn Campus, just outside of the Wilbur Cross building. Its flowers are pink, fragrant and showy, and to my mind look like fluffs of cotton candy. Catalpa trees finish blooming in early July, dropping their white flowers to the ground like a summer snow.

hardy silk tree UConn Wilbur

Hardy silk tree, or Mimosa

Wildflowers that begin bloom in July include the Canada lily, Lilium canadense, and the wood lily. Both attract butterflies and are a striking hint of color among ferns and herbaceous plants in sunny areas. In the woods, look for Indian pipe, a surprising member of the blueberry family which has no chlorophyll. White in color, you can see how it got its nickname- the ghost plant.

indian pipe

Indian pipe

Canada Lily Lilium canadense 7-14-13

Canada lily Lilium canadense

Fawns are here, being carefully trained by their mothers to be sure to sample hostas, yews, phlox and other tasty garden plants. Knowing this behavior inspired me to put plants that the deer are known not to like, at least for this moment in time, on the edges of my garden beds. I tuck the plants they seem to like to nibble on far enough behind the plants they will not eat, that so far- three years now- they leave stuff alone.

When we get afternoon or early evening thunderstorms, remember to look for rainbows once the sun starts to shine again. If there is going to be a rainbow, it will appear where the storm is still passing through, but the sun has to be behind you.  We can get some great clouds any time of year, so don’t forget to look up now and then, especially in the early morning and late evening around sunset.

rainbow with faint double above

Rainbow over Bolton, Ct. July 3, 2018

Enjoy your time outdoors, even if it is time spent in your own backyard. You can see good and interesting things on nature shows and the weather channels, but it is far better to see it for yourself. The excitement never ends…

Pamm Cooper

feed me Pamm Coope rphoto

Don’t forget to stay cool!

heliotrope Harkness II

Monarch butterfly on Heliotrope

With a noticeable decline in imported honey bee and native pollinator populations, there is an interest in gardening to support these insects. While native plants are a better choice for native pollinators, any good source of nectar and pollen will help attract pollinators. The benefit of using native plants is their durability in the New England landscape.

When choosing plants for pollinators, consider the species that are visiting your property already and choose plants for their seasonal or year- long activities. Observe those pollinators that are in your area but maybe not visiting your property, and then choose plants that may attract them during their foraging seasons.

One of our early native pollinators is the Colletes inaequalis, also called the polyester bee. These handsome, small, ground- nesting bees can be active as early as March and prefer large sunny areas that have sandy soils. They are important pollinators of early blooming native plants. Females forage for both pollen and nectar which they put in a neat little “plastic” bag deep in a tunnel that they make in spring.  The egg is laid in the bag aid above the semi-liquid mix, and the larva will feed on that until pupating. Next spring the new adults will emerge

plasterer bee spring 2011

Native Colletes inaequalis ground-nesting bee, an early spring pollinator

.

There are many species of bumblebees here in Connecticut. Native bumblebees hibernate every year only as queens and every year they must establish a new colony, which will work to support the new queens born that year. Because of the long foraging period of bumblebees- early spring through early fall- provide season –long nectar and pollen sources in the garden or landscape. In the wild, bumblebees visit early blooming maples, dandelions and blueberry. Later on they visit Joe-pye weed, goldenrods, boneset, asters and other late-season native bloomers. They are of a more hardy lot that many other bees, so they are found out and about on chilly, windy days, even during periods of rain. Bumblebees “cheat” when obtaining nectar from some flowers, such as salvia. Short-tongued bees will cut a hole at the base of the flower to obtain nectar on long tubular flowers.

blue beard flower and bee II

Bumblebee Bombus ssp. on Caryopteris, or bluebeard

Sphinx moths are also native pollinators and are considered the most efficient of moth pollinators. While some fly during the day, many fly at dusk and during the night. These hawkmoths pollinate many plants with their exceptionally long proboscis including catalpa and horse chestnut. If you know these pollinators are in your area, plant corresponding larval host plants for the caterpillars. Honeysuckles (Lonicera) are both a good nectar source for the moth and a host plant for two clearwing moth caterpillars.

catalpa flower 6-30-15

Catalpa flower nectar guides turn from yellow to orange to signify when nectar is the best and steer pollinators to other unpollinated flowers that offer better nectar. Sphinx moths are pollinators of catalpa.  

There are many beetles as well as flies that pollinate flowers. While beetles may chew on flower parts as well as pollen, they still pollinate many flowers, especially goldenrods, pawpaw and daisies. Flies are attracted to flowers that smell like carrion- pawpaw, skunk cabbage and trillium among others. Little flower flies- syrphids- visit many native wildflowers. They are often confused with wasps because of their body shape and coloring.

long horned flower beetle on steeplebush flower July 19, 2009

Long-horned flower beetle on steeplebush

skunk cabbage flower and bee late April 2013

Normally pollinated by flies, this skunk cabbage flower is visited by a honey bee

Crabapples are a good source on both nectar and pollen for many pollinators, including beetles, flies and butterflies. Migrating spring butterflies can be found nectaring on crabapple blossoms, and ruby-throated hummingbirds usually arrive in time to nectar on the blossoms. Willows are early spring bloomers that attract a variety of pollinators- flies, beetles, bees and others and are host plants for several butterflies including the Mourning cloak and Viceroy.

An excellent draw for pollinators are native cherries- black, pin and choke species. Not only bees are found on the flowers. Butterflies are strongly attracted to native cherry blossoms, and several, such as the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail will Lay eggs on the leaves of smaller cherry trees.

tiger swallowtail on Joe- Pye 8-3-11

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on spotted Joe-pye weed

easternjpg

Eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillar on black cherry, a plant that also serves as a nectar source for the butterfly in the spring. 

 

One of the best plants to attract bees is the Giant Blue Hyssop Agastache foeniculum. This long- season bloomer attracts native and non- native bees and has an attractive aroma as a bonus. Include long-season bloomers like alyssum, coneflowers (Echinacea), Lantana, Cosmos, Heliotrope, Buddleia and clovers. Late summer flowers such as goldenrods, Joe-pye, boneset, Stonecrop sedum, Queen Anne’s lace, Caryopteris, Salvia , and petunias will provide food for migrating butterflies bumblebee queens, and many other insects. Allium flowers are a wonderful attractant for all types of pollinators. And don’t forget milkweeds. Whether native or non-native, a good nectar source will not go unnoticed. Double-flowered varieties are usually bred for the flower at the expense of pollen and nectar, so avoid these plants in a pollinator garden.

P1100574

Stonecrop ” Autumn Joy” sedums are excellent for attracting pollinators of all kinds

The following link is an excellent source of plants suitable for Connecticut’s native pollinator.

http://www.ct.gov/caes/lib/caes/documents/publications/fact_sheets/entomology/planting_flowers_for_bees_in_connecticut.pdf

Happy gardening! And may pollinators increase in both their populations and their good works in the wild and in the residential landscape.

Pamm Cooper                                            All photos copyright 2015 Pamm Cooper

 

spicebush swallowtail MAy 11 2009

The Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus Linnaeus )  is a large, dark  swallowtail  native to Eastern North America. The wings are black with a single line of ivory spots along the outside edge and the “ tails “ along the edge of the hind wings from which the swallowtails get their common name. Females have a blue wash and males a greenish blue wash on the upper side of the hind wings. Wingspans range from three to four inches, making swallowtails our largest butterfly. These butterflies are found especially near woodlands, where the males patrol looking for females, but they can turn up in any open areas such as fields or roadsides as they search for nectar sources and larval host plants. Flight in New England is from April- October. Look for them when Japanese honeysuckles begin to bloom in the spring.

The Spicebush Swallowtail has to be one of the most spectacular caterpillars of any of the North American Lepidoptera. Tucked in a leaf shelter during the day, these caterpillars often go undiscovered unless you know how to find them. First of all, check out the main larval host plants- principally spicebush, sassafras or sweet bay- and then look for leaves that are folded in half length- wise. Gently open the leaf and see if there might be a caterpillar inside. The caterpillar has eye spots on the thorax and usually the head faces the outward tip of the leaf, where it will resemble a little snake. It gets more spectacular in appearance as it progresses through its instars. The eye spots are a good defense against  many a bird that would otherwise have  them for dinner.

spicebush 2008 V Fallsspicebush final instar July 31, 2013 Belding photo copyright 2013 Pamm Cooper

Swallowtail caterpillars also have another defense mechanism- a gland called an osmeterium  that can be flashed from the thorax when the caterpillars is alarmed. It emits a disagreeable odor that is thought to deter predators. Sometimes just jostling the branch where the leaf shelter is located is enough to cause the caterpillar to use this line of defense. You will be alerted to its presence by the foul aroma, and need only look for the source nearby.

When caterpillars are ready to pupate they turn an orange or yellow color t as feeding stops. The host plant may not be the same plant where the caterpillar will pupate, and they will often travel some distance to find a suitable place for pupating. Like all swallowtails, the chrysalis is formed by the caterpillar hanging in a   head up position. Feet are tied down with silk and the thorax is hung away from the supporting stalk or branch by means of a silk “girdle “. The swallowtail chrysalis will have a set of “ ears “ where the head is, bearing a resemblance to Batman.  Chrysalises are green if the butterfly will emerge in the current year, and are brown if they will overwinter until eclosing the next spring.

??????????spicebush pupating

To attract the butterflies to your property, plant good nectar sources that will provide food from spring to fall. Buddleia davidii  is a favorite long- season nectar source for many butterflies. Bush honeysuckle, Lantana, goldenrods, Joe- Pye weed, purple coneflower and milkweeds are some plants that are attractive to swallowtail butterflies. In spring, phlox is a good source of nectar, and geraniums, impatiens and marigolds are good annuals to use. The Spicebush Swallowtail is singular in that it is able to enter the flowers of certain lilies like day lilies and Tiger Lilies to obtain nectar that is deep in the flowers. They are able to reach the nectar and then back out again with no harm done.

Including larval host plants on your property may encourage females to lay eggs nearby, making it possible to enjoy this creature in all of its life stages.

Pamm Cooper                  All Photos Copyrighted 2014 by Pamm Cooper

 

Image

Above:  Photo of Male monarch on Spotted Joe- pye weed. Copyright 2013 Pamm Cooper

Most people who are butterfly aficionados have noticed that the Monarchs are few and far between this year. I have only seen two all year, and I am always out and about on power lines, in meadows, and walking trails where there is plenty of milkweed for the caterpillars to eat and native nectar source plants for the adults. The second monarch butterfly I saw was just this weekend at the Hebron Fair. It was all over the Spotted Joe- Pye weed outside the Better Living building. Hopefully, we will begin to see more as they begin their journey to Mexico where they spend the winter.

Any butterflies that emerge in late summer and early fall in the Northeastern United States will migrate to Angangueo, Mexico, where they rest hanging on Oyamel fir trees. As long as there is not a period of wet followed by a freeze, the monarchs are able to survive even a snowstorm, as long as snow is not prolonged. The monarchs that survive the winter will leave their overwintering site and travel back up to the Eastern U.S., laying eggs on milkweed as they go. As these early caterpillars hatch and complete their lifecycle, they will also begin travelling north, laying eggs until milkweed sources run out. Monarch butterflies from this second generation are the ones that will migrate to Mexico, having never been there before.

When there is a hard winter that is followed by a hard spring/ summer, Monarchs may have a difficult time surviving the journey northward. That is what happened in the winter of 2012- 2013 and the spring and summer this year. The spring was cold and dry in the southern portion of their migration, and flowers for nectar and milkweed for larvae were not as abundant as usual. June here in New England was unseasonably cold and wet and may have slowed monarchs on their way up here.

According to  “ Monarch Butterfly News ‘, the number of butterflies that migrated to Mexico to overwinter in 2012 was 80% less than normal- 60 million vs. 350 million. The reason was attributed to low reproduction due to excessive heat and drought during the summer of 2012. So far this year, numbers of both caterpillars and butterflies in New England seem to be very low.  It may take a few favorable years to return populations to previous numbers.

Some people that have butterfly gardens containing milkweed wonder why they never find a chrysalis on the plant even though there was a caterpillar on it. Many caterpillars, including the monarch, leave the host plant and may travel quite a distance before climbing up a plant to pupate. The monarch below I found on a giant foxtail on a rainy September day. The butterfly is resting  right beside the chrysalis shell from which it has just eclosed. This butterfly would have begun its journey  to Mexico  after muscling up on some nectar.

Image

As a final note, sometimes people get worried when they see milkweed tussock moth caterpillars on the same milkweed plant as a monarch caterpillar. They think they will be fighting it out for the same food, when in fact, the tussock prefers the older bottom leaves and the monarch the upper, newer, green leaves. So one minor “ problem “ solved!

Image

Above: Milkweed Tussock Moth  caterpillar.

Monarch ready to pupate

Above: Monarch caterpillar ready to pupate. Both Photos copyright 2013 Pamm Cooper (more…)

mourning cloak

Photo of Mourning Cloak basking in the sun to warm up. Photo by Pamm Cooper

One of the first butterflies seen in early spring in Connecticut is the Mourning Cloak butterfly. Nymphalis antiopa ( Linnaeus ) is one of the our most widespread butterfly species and is also one of the longest living as an adult. Any seen flying about in early spring spent the winter in a sheltered spot. On warm winter days with no snow cover I have seen one or two flying about in sunny, open woods.

This is a fairly large butterfly with a wingspan between 2 ½- 4 inches. The upper wings are a deep chocolate brown with a wide creamy yellow border along the outside margin. Just outside this border are a row of iridescent blue/ purple spots. The color of these spots can vary as the sun strikes them at different angles.

Males are very territorial, and they defend their area by chasing away, or at least attempting to do so, every perceived threat to it. I have actually had one land on my head, unaware of the fact until I heard a whirring sound and felt something lightly fluttering on my head. It was the male Mourning Cloak I had just seen flying up from the hiking trail just in front of me. It had doubled back and “ jumped” me from behind. It was actually pretty funny, especially since I could see the shadow of it drumming on my head. In such cases, it is often best to move on to another area for the sake of the butterfly.

The female lays her eggs in a cluster or ring on a twig or leaf. I have found newly hatched caterpillars in a large group still near the egg ring on a willow twig. Some of the larval host plants are native willows, Cottonwood, Hackberry, American Elm, poplar, and Gray birch. If you see a Mourning cloak landing on any of these host plants, check and see if perhaps it is a female looking for the correct plant on which to lay her eggs. The caterpillars are fairly easy to spot as they feed in groups, making a web as they go. Their bodies are black with tiny white spots, and they have diamond shaped red spots along their back. Their prologs are a matching red color, and they also have black spikes, which are harmless but fearsome- looking.

mourning cloak cat

Mourning cloaks are found most often along woodland edges and watercourses, but I have found them on power lines also, especially where there are wetland areas with native willows. If you are hiking along a woodland trail, you may see take off just in front of you. If so, watch where it goes. It will often be a male who was perched or patrolling his territory, and many times it will return almost exactly to the same area. Even it seems to be flying quite a distance away, even deep into the woods, wait where you are, and you may be rewarded with a close- up view if you stand still, as it usually will return to its resting spot. You can have a little fun with this butterfly. I have held out my hand and had one actually land on it, checking me out to see if I was a threat. They may even try to obtain salts from your skin, as will other butterflies such as the Red Admiral.

mourning cloak chrysalis

obsessionwithbutterflies.com photo of chrysalis

Mourning Cloaks are attracted to sap flows, such as on cracks found on tree trunks, and also dung or rotting fruit. If there is a sap flow, they land above it and will walk down to it and then feed head downward. They will also obtain nectar from red maple and milkweed, but it is uncommon to see them doing so.

mourning cloaks

fcps.edu photo of Mourning Cloaks feeding on sap flows from yellow-bellied sapsucker damage.

One final word on this butterfly: they often make a loud click before flying away from a spot where they have been resting. The reason for this is unknown but remarkable..

Pamm Cooper