Monday, July 5, 2010

An explosion of butterflies

I spent the weekend down in southernmost Ohio, in and around Shawnee State Forest. This region is full of big, relatively undisturbed habitats that abound with native plants. And on a hot sunny weekend like the one just past, that means butterflies. Scads of butterflies. I turned my lens to a few of the highly ornamented critters, as follows.

Great Spangled Fritillary, Speyeria cybele, nectaring on Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. All or nearly all that I saw were females, like the one above. By the time the females emerge the males are on their last legs, and the overlap between the sexes is somewhat brief. This species utilizes violets of a number species as host plants.

A party of Spicebush Swallowtails, Papilio troilus. These are males, and they are imbibing minerals from this area of moist soil. Note the two rows of orange spots below. Spicebush Swallowtails were absolutely abundant, and it's no surprise that their host plants are, too: Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, and Sassafras, Sassafras albidum.

Without doubt one of the showiest butterflies, the Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor. They weren't as abundant as the Spicebush Swallowtails, but I saw plenty. This is one of the most spastic butterflies about, and when nectaring they are constantly aflutter, making photos difficult. I finally just reached out and grabbed one, made a few photos, and released it. Note the single row of large orange spots. The upper hindwings are an incredible iridescent blue when th sun flashes off of them. Pipevines use - duh! - pipevine plants. Their options are limited in Ohio, as we've got few members of that family, and I suspect most Pipevines are using Virginia Snakeroot, Aristolochia serpentaria, a small inconspicuous woodland herb.

One of the most common species this weekend were Red-spotted Purples, Limenitis arthemis. When in fresh condition and seen in good light, this is an absolutely dazzling butterfly. Here we can see the top (dorsal) and bottom (ventral) views. Their beauty does not translate to sophistated culinary tastes; the butterflies are frequently found tapping nutrients from dung, such as this coyote scat.

A Monarch look-alike, the Viceroy, Limenitis archippus, seen posing on fruiting Ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius. Despite its similarity to our best known butterfly, this one is actually very closely related to the Red-spotted Purple. Note the prominent band across the wing, and Viceroys are also much smaller and faster than Monarchs. They utilize trees in the Salicaceae family as hosts, such as cottonwoods, poplars, and willows.

Here's a Monarch, Danaus plexippus, perched on some past peak Downy Wood Mint, Blephilia ciliata. This is a male, as seen by the two black scent glands on the hind wings.

Question Mark, Polygonia interrogationis. These were everywhere, loafing on the gravel forest roads. Note the silvery mark on the wing - it resembles a question mark, hence the butterfly's name. This species utilizes elms, hackberry, nettles, and hops as host plants. They normally don't take nectar at flowers; rather, they tap nutrients from scat, rotten fruit, and tree sap.

A very similar species, the Comma, Polygonia comma. Like the Question Mark, this "punctuation" butterfly has a silvery mark on the underwing, but this one resembles a comma.

A Comma bookended by Question Marks. Commas are considerably smaller and have a faster, dartier flight. With practice and comparative experience they can be quickly separated. These two species are dead leaf mimics, and when they perch on a tree trunk or in the foliage they blend remarkably well with their surroundings.

Plenty of milkweed and other flowering plants fill an Adams County cedar glade prairie. Prime butterfly habitat.

Juniper Hairstreak, Callophrys gryneus, a real treat! This species is, for the most part, rare and local in Ohio and often difficult to find as they spend much time loafing high in the boughs of Eastern Red Cedar trees, their host plant.

I find hairstreaks extraordinarily intricate in detail; like little scaled jewels. They're tiny; the Juniper Hairstreak is about the size of a nickel. It's easy to miss them, but they are always worth close study when found.

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