Sunday, September 23, 2012

A very urban viceroy

This gorgeous and productive little wetland graces the grounds where my office building sits, and the elfin marsh spikes the biodiversity of our urban oasis in a major way. Our complex is located in a very urban area of Columbus, with little in the way of natural features close at hand. Thus, our big splotch of greenery serves as a bit of a trap for migrants, whether they be birds, butterflies, or other insects. The total bird list is nearly 140 species, and the wetland has lured such goodies as Black-crowned Night-Heron, Sora, Virginia Rail and much more.

Plenty of interesting animals breed on site as well, in part due to the botanical diversity. The wetland is hemmed in by a variety of wetland plants, including black willow, Salix nigra, sandbar willow, S. interior, and eastern cottonwoods, Populus deltoides. I single these three species out as they are germane to this story.

Every time I find myself walking by the wetland, I make a quick search of the willow foliage. My quest? The ugly caterpillar imaged above. It is the larva of the viceroy butterfly, Limenitis archippus, one of our flashiest butterflies. This is truly an ugly duckling story, with the homely caterpillar transforming into the Lepidopteran swan.

I personally find viceroy caterpillars quite cool, and perhaps a bit more interesting than your average caterpillar. They are one of the scores of animals that imitate bird droppings, and the viceroy has raised fecal-mimicry to an art form. Just look at the thing. Who'd want to eat that? They're sort of an unappetizing shade of poo-brown, and dappled with shiny white waxy zones. The overall effect is of a freshly deposited strand of songbird goo, and few things are interested in such fare.

Well, in spite of my occasional searches, I never have found viceroy caterpillars on our willow, which are favored host plants. They'll also use cottonwood, but all of the viceroy caterpillars that I've found have been on willow, such as the one in the previous photo.

But lo and behold, when I took a short stroll between buildings last Thursday, there sat this stunningly fresh viceroy! Fortunately I had a camera in the car, and was able to document the animal as it rested in the cool early morning sunshine. I'd bet two pearl crescents and a northern pearly-eye that this butterfly was raised on our nearby willows. Or possibly the cottonwoods. One very cool thing about many species of butterflies is that you can actively manage for them by planting the appropriate host plants. As this situation illustrates, butterflies can even be "raised" in very urban environments.

Using native plants to support animal diversity is a major message of the annual Midwest Native Plant Conference, which will hold its fifth event next July in Dayton. We're especially pleased to be hosting Doug Tallamy as a keynote speaker. You'll want to mark July 26, 27 & 28, 2013 and hold the dates. More conference info can be found HERE.

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1 comment:

Sharkbytes said...

I keep looking for Viceroys here (MI). Used to see them in NY as a kid. But so far I only find Monarchs.