Outer Banks 2018: Unbirds

My impulse was to wait until I’d identified all my photos from this trip – or as many as I’m going to – before writing this post. Now that I’ve realized just how silly that is… well, here we are! Our fantastic vacation to the Outer Banks is still with me. I’ve already written about the bird life I encountered, but what else did I see in sandy paradise?

Strikingly, the plant life of the Outer Banks is completely different from the what I’m used to. Whether it’s the sea oats, the beach grasses and sedges, or the wildflowers and vines, I’m always noticing plants I don’t see very often. This year I tried to snap a photo or two of as many plants as I could, since I’m not too well-versed in what grows on the islands. I do know a few on sight – common yucca, Indian blanket, and trumpet vine, for example – but others I know only by feature or not at all. Here are a few snaps of what I saw on this trip (click image to expand).

That’s a tiny sample of the native flora and fauna one wouldn’t see in in-shore environments. As barrier islands, and with the influence of the Gulf Stream, the Outer Banks are ecologically different from many other beaches on the East Coast. I’ll spare the details but there exists a plethora of further reading that can do the job better than I can.

I couldn’t possibly have gone to Hatteras Island without at least one fishing trip aboard the Miss Hatteras. My dad and I set out on Wednesday morning for an all-day trip. The fishing itself is always fun, and the success rate of this particular boat is frankly incredible, but the trip alone is worth the price of a seat. It’s a lovely ride out into the Gulf Stream which offers a great opportunity to see things like pelagic birds and flying fish. In many trips spanning more than two decades I’ve spotted dolphins, squid, a sea turtle or two, and more. I relish the feeling of expansive freedom which comes over me that far from land.

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And sometimes: rainbows!

Learning about the fish that are reeled up can be quite interesting, too. This year almost all the fish caught on the boat were grey triggerfish – a funky-looking but delicious bottom feeder. I did see one guy land a red snapper, and another hauled up a remora. The remora is not a desired game fish, but it was the first I’d ever seen. On previous trips, red snapper and black sea bass were pretty common, and the catch has often been peppered with all manner of interesting species, both edible and otherwise. This year our personal catch was a tad light, but it was still enough to feed four with a bit left over.

We spent our last couple of nights on Ocracoke Island. I can’t recommend this place highly enough to anyone seeking a real “get away from it all” vacation. The island is quite small, and accessible only by ferry. (It’s free! You can take your vehicle!) There are miles of out-of-the-way beaches, plus a tiny village with good food and shops, an operational lighthouse, and more. Lodging options include a primitive campground with beach access and several motels, hotels, etc. It’s a popular destination that seems to never feel over-crowded.

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Some least terns on one of those empty Ocracoke beaches

Near the campground is a lovely and very accessible nature trail, the Hammock Hills Nature Trail. I hiked it alone one afternoon at a leisurely place, and had the whole trail to myself. This was quite an experience. Birdsong filled the air. Butterflies and dragonflies galore flitted about among the less pleasant insects (yes, bug spray is a must). Toads hopped aside at seemingly every third step. About halfway through, I nearly trod upon an eastern hognose snake. Even as someone pretty experienced with nature, this was a somewhat startling experience. The snake displayed quite emphatically – it flattened its head to resemble a venomous snake, hissed loudly, and threw in some mock strikes for good measure. All of this is why I’m confident in the species ID. Unfortunately it took a few moments to recover from my initial caution and subsequent marveling until after the snake had progressed to hiding, so my photos are post-display. Oddly, I seem to collect sightings of one species of snake on each visit to the Outer Banks. I’ve photographed a cottonmouth and copperhead on my previous two visits, and I remember a blacksnake and a northern water snake from separate childhood vacations.

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This trip also allowed me to personally confirm an odd little fact I wasn’t quite sure I believed. You see, I’d read somewhere that eyes as small as a spider’s can reflect a flashlight beam at night. I don’t recall the source, but kudos to whoever you are because they unequivocally can. I first noticed it while walking one of the dogs. I saw a tiny green fleck on the pavement of the campground loop road. Assuming it was a tiny shard of glass from the sand, I took a closer look anyway and found this handsome lady carrying her babies:

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Later I sat reading at the campsite and noticed several of these tiny green specks at the edge of a patch of vegetation. I followed them several times, and each time I found a spider at the exact point. The very first one leapt from its cover and snagged a June bug just after I got close. For what it’s worth, June bugs’ eyes reflect reddish-orange pinpoints of light.

I don’t have any pithy observations to tie the whole thing together, so I will just say that Outer Banks wildlife is cool and leave you with a few more photos.

Featured Species #5: Monarch

The monarch (Danaus plexippus) is the classic poster child of butterflies, at least in North America. There are plenty of good reasons for this. It’s large and gorgeous. Its annual migratory pattern is a stunning story. Its life cycle is easy to observe and study, making it ideal for classrooms and amateur naturalists alike. The monarch is also an object lesson in conservation, as it has been endangered by a once-systematic elimination of its only host plants (milkweeds). Its lookalike, the viceroy, is the classic example of Batesian mimicry. In short, the monarch is a biology and ecology lesson all neatly wrapped in a beautiful package.

Danaus plexippus (15)

The monarch also just so happens to be the only butterfly species I have documented in my garden through all of its life stages. I have also collected its caterpillars to raise. I learned (or possibly relearned?) the term “instar” by way of the butterfly garden, and had the privilege of viewing monarch caterpillars at each of these stages. If you ask me, the caterpillars are almost as attractive as the adults. It’s pretty astonishing to watch them eat and grow so rapidly from the moment they emerge from their eggs as tiny pinheads of life.

Eggs

Caterpillars, from first to fifth instar

Pupae

Adults

Danaus plexippus (57)

Danaus plexippus (58)

If you want monarchs, all you need do is plant milkweeds (flowers in genus Asclepias). Several species are native and/or do well in the Mid-Atlantic region. I have common milkweed (A. syriaca), butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) and bloodflower (A. curassavica) in my garden. Bloodflower is not native in Maryland, but it  grows well here and the monarchs still eat it. Additional milkweeds for your area can be found here. The fact that “weed” is in the name must be what turns folks off, because it really is an attractive plant available in a variety of colors. Milkweeds support a wide variety of other native insects, as well, so they are an excellent choice for anyone desiring to plant natives.

As picky as the caterpillars are, adult monarchs seem to be pretty gregarious feeders. I have seen them take nectar from the milkweeds as a one-stop shop but also from joe-pye weed, butterfly bush, and zinnias. It seems the best strategy for helping monarchs find your milkweed is to plant a variety of perennials and annuals that flower at different times throughout the summer. With the right mix of plants you can expect to see several generations between their mass migrations. If you want to protect them from predators and watch them through a full life cycle, all you really need is a clear, ventilated box or jar, some sticks, and milkweed leaves.

Danaus plexippus (56)

Monarch Links

Wikipedia
Maryland Biodiversity Project
BugGuide
MonarchWatch

Butterfly Garden Progress Report Part 2 of 2

I shared Part 1 of this piece back in August. To recap, by “progress” I mean “how much wildlife has my habitat garden brought to my yard?” Last time I covered the most obvious category – butterflies and moths – and today I will focus on everything else. This all comes with the same caveat as before: I have no baseline wildlife survey to compare this to. I’m really just making a self-congratulatory list of wildlife sightings in my yard. Somehow, I am OK with that!

Before I move on, I do want to briefly mention four additional lepidopterans since August: the eastern comma (Polygonia comma), tobacco hornworm, aka Carolina sphinx moth (Manduca sexta), raspberry pyrausta moth (Pyrausta signatalis), and giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia).

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An eastern comma dining on some persimmons with yellowjackets.

Insects, Non-Lepidopteran

Insects are an overwhelmingly diverse Class of animal life. I will never be able to identify to species every insect I find in my yard. There are plenty I can, though (especially with help). I’m able to put many more into the appropriate Family or Genus. Based on that, I am able to confidently list 90 insect species for my yard, including the butterflies and moths from the last post. That number doesn’t precisely represent individual insects confidently identified to species, although there is only a little fluff. “Fluff” in this case just means an insect I am very confident is a different species from any of the others included. For example, my garden was visited by a juvenile praying mantis for about a week last year. I can’t tell the difference between a Carolina and a Chinese mantis at that stage, but I can certainly say it wasn’t an ant or a caterpillar. Bees and wasps I can treat similarly: I can spot the difference between a yellowjacket and a bumblebee but am not well-versed in recognizing the individual species of each.

Spiders

Spiders are tough. When I get a photo to review, I am often confronted with notes like “identification to species requires dissection,” or find that I need to be able to see a very specific detail very clearly. Consequently, despite encountering certainly thousands of spiders I only have 16 species on my life list. Of those, only six have I found in my yard. They are: marbled orbweaver, basilica orbweaver, orchard orbweaver, woodlouse hunter, broad-faced sac spider, and Pholcus manueli. I can add at least four “fluff” species (a green crab spider, a jumping spider, a grass spider, and a brownish orbweaver) for a total of ten.

Mecynogea lemniscata (3)
A basilica orbweaver tending its distinctive egg sacs

Other Invertebrates

Isn’t that specific? As much as I hate to lump all this together it’s so much more convenient than typing up categories for each individual kind of invertebrate. I am not enough of an expert to ID many of the included creatures precisely anyway. So what do I have here? The wood tick and house centipede are present for sure. I’ve found earthworms, pill bugs, harvestmen, centipedes, and millipedes of an unknown number of species each. At least three species of slug round out the list. That’s another ten animals in total, under the most conservative of estimates.

Birds

Thanks to eBird, I have very good data on the bird species I have spotted in my yard. It comes to forty-three species, and while none of these is particularly uncommon and five or so are merely flyovers, that feels like a pretty good number. And yet… just a few blocks away in Wheaton Regional Park birders have collectively tallied over 170 species. I’ve found more than sixty there myself. I won’t likely be attracting any, say, spotted sandpipers to my yard… but there is some room for improvement.

Zenaida macroura (6)
A mourning dove, an eastern towhee, and some white-throated sparrows beneath one of my feeders.

Cardinalis cardinalis (21)

Mammals

This is a short and boring list (but try telling my dogs that!) Eastern gray squirrel, eastern fox squirrel, southern flying squirrel, eastern chipmunk, eastern cottontail, Norway rat, white-footed mouse, white-tailed deer, human, dog. Add some unidentified species of mice and bats, and it’s an even dozen. I do think the dogs somewhat cut down on the mammal population I might otherwise see here… I have after all come across groundhogs and foxes in the neighborhood and I know raccoons, possums, and skunks are about. As irritating as the rat population is, at least they’ve never made it inside.

Amphibians

An even shorter, but hopefully less boring, list:

Northern green frog

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gray (or possibly Cope’s gray) treefrog

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American toad (no one needs a picture of one of these, right?

And that’s the list! So to recap, that’s a grand total of: 90 insects, 10 spiders, 10 other invertebrates, 43 birds, 12 mammals, and 3 amphibians – 168 total animal species cataloged in my yard. All my instincts say that 168 is a big number, yet as I mentioned above more species of birds alone have been recorded in our neighborhood park.

Butterfly Garden Progress Report Part 1 of 2

As the peak season for my butterfly garden begins to wind down, I find myself contemplating how it has performed over the past few years. It certainly has looked more impressive in each successive year, and most of the plants have continued to thrive. Yet, I don’t think that’s quite how I should measure the success of such a project. I don’t mean to say that I shouldn’t derive any satisfaction from the growth of the plants themselves – I certainly indulge in that sense of pride and I think that’s fine. The goal of this garden, though, is to support local biodiversity. If it’s not doing so, it’s failing and requires some analysis and change.

Unfortunately I can’t do a particularly scientific investigation. I’ve no control, since I didn’t do any kind of exhaustive analysis of the life in my yard before the butterfly garden. I’m still learning to identify a lot of the local fauna and so any trend of increase would be suspect. All I can really do is make a list of living things I have identified in my yard and record cases of animals exploiting the butterfly garden. Lack of scientific rigor aside, that’s not nothing!

Butterflies and Moths

Seems like the obvious place to start, no?  So far I have managed to count sixteen species of butterflies and seven species of moths in my yard since beginning the garden. That seems like a fairly small number, but there are certainly quite a few unidentified moths and some unidentified butterflies who have visited. Moths can be particularly vexing – the Maryland Biodiversity Project lists 2,529 species reported in Maryland alone.

I can only confirm one species of butterfly, the monarch (Danaus plexippus), as having completed a full life cycle in the butterfly garden. many others have taken nectar and I’ve spotted quite a few unidentified caterpillars, but monarchs are the champs.

Above we have a complete monarch life cycle all documented within my garden: egg, hatchling caterpillar, late instar caterpillar, pupa, and adult. Thank you milkweeds!

Probably the most common visitors, or at least the most commonly seen due to their large, ostentatious nature are tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus). Their host plant is the tuliptree, which is abundant in the area. I don’t get to watch these guys grow but the adults are beautiful enough on their own.

I’ve also seen a handful of black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes). These guys can be tricky to distinguish from the dark morph female tiger swallowtails, but a ventral view can cinch it for you. Black swallowtails have a second row of orange spots which the dark morph tigers lack. Black swallowtails feed on dill, parsley, fennel, Queen Anne’s Lace, and related plants.

Papilio polyxenes
Black swallowtail. This one’s a little tattered, but I got a good look at the two rows of orange spots on the underwing.

Some butterflies aren’t quite as exciting as others, and here I move from the largest, showiest bunch to the most boring: the cabbage white (Pieris rapae). Next to the tiger swallowtails these are probably the butterflies I see the most, and I usually don’t even bother trying to photograph them. Nevertheless, they are butterflies so they most certainly count!

Pieris rapae (1)

In the same family (Pieridae) as the cabbage white is the larger, more attractive, and less common cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae). This can be separated from other sulphurs in our area by size – by comparison it is quite large. They’re not known to successfully breed in Maryland, but where they do breed partridge pea is a preferred host plant.

Phoebis sennae (1)
Cloudless sulphur taking nectar from a petunia

I’ll take the next two species, from family Lycaenidae, together because of their superficial similarities. Both are small, blue butterflies with splashes of red. They are both tiny enough to often go unnoticed. Without a detailed look at their markings, both are easily confused for one another and for many similar species throughout their respective ranges. The eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas) is one of the most common butterflies of the Mid-Atlantic. I never realized this until last year, but once I was armed with this information I started seeing them constantly. However, due to their size and abundance other small, blue butterflies can often be mistaken for this diminutive wonder. Among those similar species is the red-banded hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops), which happens to be the only other member of Lycaenidae I have found in my yard.

Calycopis cecrops (1)
a red-banded hairstreak

This next group, collectively called “skippers,” is sometimes separated from butterflies and moths as a third group of Lepidopterans and is classified in family Hesperiidae. I have no opinion on whether skippers are “butterflies” or something similar but different. I am including them with butterflies here for simplicity’s sake and not to take a stand. I do have an opinion on their confusingness: namely, they are. It’s a  challenge to identify skippers to species, with a few exceptions. So, take some of my specific identifications below with a grain of salt, although I have tried to be careful to count only those I have some reason to be confident in.

Epargyreus clarus (7)
Silver-spotted skipper

The silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus) is one of the exceptions. It’s a large, common skipper with distinctive markings and as such is incredibly helpful to the curious naturalist. That said, I’ve never found it a particularly compelling species and so I am ready to move on.

Ancyloxypha numitor (1)
least skipper, I think

There are a LOT of small, basically orange, skippers. I believe the above is a least skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor). Even if this individual isn’t, I am quite confident that some of the skippers I have seen are. I don’t necessarily have photos of the individuals which are the most definitively representative of the species.

Atalopedes campestris (3)
Sachem – confirmed by bugguide.net

There are also quite a few small, basically brown skippers. Further confusing things is that some of them vary by sex and some species are sometimes brownish, sometimes orangeish, and there’s a bit of inherent overlap between what is “brown” and what is a sort of dirty orange. Apparently the truly diagnostic features can involve antenna shape and length, body shape, and other similarly hard to spot identifiers. Fortunately for me, the above skipper was identified by the experts at bugguide.net as a sachem (Atalopedes campestris).

Polites peckius (1)
Peck’s skipper

This one was also IDed for my by the bugguide folks (who I can’t plug enough as a naturalist’s best friend) as a Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius). I arrived there myself first but it is always nice to have that expert corroboration. Anyway, see what I mean with all that “orange” and “brown” business?

Poanes zabulon (7)
zabulon skipper

I identified this zabulon skipper (Poanes zabulon) on my own. I was fortunate in that it is a female, because they seem much more distinctive than the males (which fall into that category of small, pale-orange skippers with similar patterns).

I’ll close out the butterflies with probably my most tenuous ID: the fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus). Here I am going by the tiny dark spots on the orange wings, and I am really not sure that’s quite enough. This is a known and fairly common species in Montgomery County that does have those characteristics. I’m not quite knowledgeable enough to rule out all other species for certain.

Hylephila phyleus
fiery skipper

Butterfly visitors not pictured: clouded sulphur (Colias philodice), pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos), and painted lady (Vanessa cardui). I’ve also caught glimpses of fritillaries (probably but not certainly great spangled fritillary) and a probable common buckeye or two.

Moths, as I mentioned above, are a far more diverse group of insects than butterflies. It’s a near certainty that more species of moths than butterflies have visited my butterfly garden. Somewhat paradoxically, that diversity so complicates things that I have only identified seven moth species.

Probably the coolest of these is the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). These things really do look and behave very much like hummingbirds.

Hemaris thysbe (6)
hummingbird clearwing
Epimecis hortaria (1)
tulip-tree beauty

The tulip-tree beauty (Epimeces hortaria), named for its host plant, is a bit drab but oddly beautiful for all that drabness.

Returning to the realm of moths that aren’t classically mothlike, I occasionally come across the ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea). This little guy looks like a “true bug” or plant bug at rest but flies like a wasp.

Atteva aurea (1)
ailanthus webworm moth

My favorite moth find in my garden has to be Hypocala andremona, a species of “underwing” moth most common in Texas. Its host plant is the persimmon, one of which hangs over from our neighbors’ yard. I was clueless about this moth until once again bugguide came to the rescue.

Hypocala andremona (4)
Hypocala andremona

Moth visitors not pictured: Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), common bagworm (Psyche casta), and tent caterpillar (Malacosoma sp.). The Isabella tiger moth is the adult form of the classic “wooly bear” caterpillar.

12 Months of Nature: July

Marsh Wrens and Wildflowers

August is more than a third over, and here I am posting about July… I promise this trip happened on time, though. July’s outing took me to Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Kent County, MD. Eastern Neck is a gem encompassing an island at the mouth of the Chester River and a bit of land on the peninsula just to the north. It’s a bit out of the way but the payoff is worth the journey.

My trusty seasonal guide recommended this destination for both marsh wrens and wildflowers (specifically orchids and mallows). Before I move on, I have to admit that despite best efforts I neither saw nor heard a single marsh wren, nor did I spot any orchids. I had also hoped I might happen across a rail or two, and alas that was not to be. Yet I was not to be skunked! Mallows and other wildflowers were abundant. Even without the mallows this would have been a pleasurable enough trip, proving some cliché or other… maybe “it’s about the journey,” or some similar pithy sentiment.

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seashore mallow – mission accomplished!

In any event, before I hijack this post to speak of the best part of the trip, I should spend some time talking about the targets of my search. I still can’t add marsh wrens to my life list, although I’m not particularly disappointed by this. The time I spent exploring their habitat, occasionally playing their songs and calls from my phone, was quite rewarding. Amid the marshes and woodlands I picked out 35 bird species, including the yellow-billed cuckoo, which had been a bugaboo for a few months. Marsh wrens are fairly secretive and I anticipate plenty of opportunities to cross them off. I’m sitting at 155 species for 2017 with a goal of 162, and so I remain confident I can hit the target without this cute little bird.

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trumpet creeper

The summer wildflowers at Eastern Neck were quite a spectacle. Seashore mallow made this trip technically not a failure and the variety of other flowers helped make it a rousing success in the practical sense. Isolated common mullein plants rose like towers beside the trails, trumpet creeper blanked the sides of buildings, and joe-pye weed mixed with camphorweed and grasses in vast wavy fields. I spotted my personal favorite butterfly garden plant, partridge pea, as well as black-eyed Susan and Queen Anne’s lace here and there. That of course was just a small sampling of the abundant flowers coloring the landscape.

 

img_4762.jpgWhat was a good day for birding and a great day for wildflowers was an unparalleled day for butterflies. Seconds after I stepped from my car a spicebush swallowtail alit on the ground next to me. Soon thereafter a red admiral fluttered past, and on my first short hike common wood nymphs dotted the bushes. This was a trend that would continue without the day until I had encountered at least fifteen species, four of which were new additions to my life list and nine of which I managed to photograph. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that the refuge is home to the best butterfly garden I’ve ever seen (yes, including the one in spectacular, near-and-dear Brookside Gardens). This one was complete with solar panels, freshwater ponds, lillies, and an abundance of butterflies unlike any I’ve seen outside a conservatory. I can’t say anything else that will get across the beauty of the situation, so I will close with some of those photos.

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common wood nymph
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spicebush swallowtail
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a zebra swallowtail and a silver-spotted skipper atop joe-pye weed

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans
April – Early Spring Wildflowers
May – Breeding Horseshoe Crabs
June – Breeding Bird Habitats

 

Featured Species #2: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

The eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is quite common in our region. It’s no less beautiful for its abundance. These beauties can be seen in virtually any meadow, stream bed, or other open area from Spring through early Fall. They are one of the more photogenic butterflies because of their size, coloration, and relatively relaxed movement. Along with the cabbage white, they are some of the most frequent visitors to my butterfly garden.

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An eastern tiger swallowtail visiting a butterfly bush in Wheaton Regional Park

I recall referring to them decades ago as “yellow swallowtails” as distinguished from “black swallowtails.” I’m not sure if this was a regional colloquialism or my own failing; either way it’s confusing. The eastern tiger swallowtail has both a yellow and a black morph, and several local species of swallowtail are predominantly black. Black swallowtail is actually the common name of one of them. In parts of the Mid-Atlantic, it overlaps with the similar Appalachian tiger swallowtail (Papilio appalachiensis) and the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). The latter is fairly easy to identify by multiple characteristics, including its giantry. The former is a bit tricky and requires close observation of the trailing edge of the ventral forewing. The row of yellow dots found on the eastern is more of a continuous bar on the Appalachian.

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A pair of eastern tiger swallowtails feeding on buttonbush
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And another, feeding on bee balm

Host plants include a variety of trees and bushes: tulip poplar, common lilac, black cherry, and species of ash and willow, for example. Many of these are common in the mid-Atlantic both as naturally occurring plants and as native ornamentals.

The adults will feed on just about any plant for nectar. I frequently find them on my butterfly bushes (my one non-native concession inside the butterfly garden) and they seem to love buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) as well. I’ve also seen them feeding from coneflowers, bee balm, thistles, Queen Anne’s Lace, and more. They seem willing to give a chance to any flower large enough to support them while they feed.

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This one is “puddling” on the muddy bank of a creek.

Eastern tiger swallowtail links

 

 

 

 

Intro to Butterfly Gardens

Planting a butterfly garden was one of my first landscaping priorities after moving into my home in 2014. On one level, this was motivated by the idea that butterflies are pretty, and it would therefore be cool to see a lot of them often. This is true, and a perfectly fine motivation, but “butterfly garden” is a bit of a misnomer, at least in terms of the endgame. Butterflies (and the other pollinators attracted to the same plants) are hugely important to the ecosystem. Butterfly larvae are a major food source for birds and small mammals – some birds feed almost exclusively on caterpillars of a single species. Increasing local butterfly diversity and population will thus increase the local overall biodiversity and biomass, and sometimes dramatically. It doesn’t have quite the same ring, but I like to think of my garden as a “biodiversity garden.” Some call them “native plant gardens,” or a similar variant. whatever the term, the idea is to support the ecosystem by planting plants that have naturally evolved with other life in the area over millennia.

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About half of my butterfly garden as of this July.

Designing a butterfly garden, as any garden, begins with deciding what you wish to plant. The goal here is to include mostly native plants that will attract butterflies (and moths and skippers – I probably should be saying “lepidopterans”). Butterflies rely on plants for food during both active stages of their life cycle: the adults feed on nectar and the caterpillars feed on leaves. Like humans, the young of butterflies can range from not picky (generalist) to extremely picky (specialist) eaters. The monarch is the classic example of a specialist – its caterpillars will only feed on milkweeds (Asclepias species). Plants a given species will eat are called “host plants” for the species, and females will only lay their eggs on suitable plants. Adults are typically much more cosmopolitan in their tastes, but feed on nectar. A successful butterfly garden will feature nectar plants to attract the butterflies and host plants to keep them there and propagate them. Of course, many plants serve both purposes, making them ideal choices.

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Two monarch caterpillars on a common milkweed leaf.

There seems to be some debate regarding the ideal ratio of host plants to nectar plants. My beginner’s take is that it probably doesn’t matter much as long as both are present in significant quantities. However, the more limited the space the more selective one must be. I have hedged my bets a bit by planting as many plants as possible which fill both roles and building around those. Additionally, it’s helpful to consider what is planted elsewhere in your yard and immediate neighborhood. Butterflies after all will not recognize the boundaries of your garden or your property, so plants nearby can also contribute. Many trees and shrubs which may not be practical fits in your butterfly garden space are host plants for a diverse mixture of butterflies and moths. Most common oaks, for example, host hundreds of caterpillar species. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a host plant for the appropriately named spicebush swallowtail. Viburnums host many species and produce lovely white flower clusters.

Aside from plants, a number of other things can encourage butterflies to visit your garden or extend their stay. Many butterflies will feed on overripe fruit, so a suspended tray of fruit can be a nice feature. Some feeders include a sponge soaked in sugary water as well. Butterflies also engage in a behavior called “puddling” to soak up nutrients from wet soil, and providing them with a space to do so can entice them to hang around longer. You can purchase a puddler or make your own, or simply rely on mud puddles. Butterfly houses can also be bought or built as encouragement for your visitors to hang around. Rock piles and/or log piles can serve a similar function (providing shelter from weather and predators). It’s also a good idea to add a place for humans to sit and observe the wildlife; I built a bench from (mostly) natural wood for this purpose.

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Caterpillars of the milkweed tussock moth

Much of the source material I turned to when planning my butterfly garden focused pretty extensively on monarchs and milkweeds. It led me to wonder why monarchs in particular get so much of the butterfly press, but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. Monarchs are beautiful, large butterflies that are well known. Because of the viceroy, they’re part of the definitive example of Batesian mimicry. They are also in trouble because milkweeds are in trouble. As I’ve mentioned, their larvae will only eat milkweeds. As one might infer from the name, these plants have long been regarded as, well, weeds. People have been systematically removing milkweeds from a lot of areas, unwittingly endangering monarchs in the process. It isn’t just a problem for monarchs, though. The milkweed tussock moth, small and large milkweed bugs, red milkweed beetle, and other insects all rely heavily on Asclepias. The relationship between milkweeds and monarchs is a very illustrative example, but far from the only example. Adult butterflies will feed on the nectar of non-native flowers, but virtually no non-native plant can host a native caterpillar.

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Nymphs of the large milkweed bug clustering on a seed pod
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Red milkweed beetles on – you guessed it – milkweed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This returns me to the butterfly garden’s true purpose: to contribute ecological functions to the local biosphere. The native host and nectar plants have evolved relationships with many local forms of life on a grand time scale. Restoring these plants to an area also restores those relationships. Alien plants can stand in and provide some of the ecological functions, but not nearly all. I won’t advocate for the complete removal of all non-natives from gardens and other home landscaping, and I make concessions in this area myself. Increasing the number and variety of native plants in one’s yard, though, is a noble goal and a butterfly garden provides an excellent framework for doing so.

 

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A pair of eastern tailed-blues on a New England aster

Further Reading:

North American Butterfly Association

Our Habitat Garden

The Butterfly Website

Bringing Nature Home