Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Return of the butterflies

The warming of spring brings out a new crop of butterflies, and their appearance is much welcomed by many, including your narrator. These stunning male Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Papilio glaucus, are fresh and unblemished. I photographed them on a recent sunny day in southern Ohio, the duo was among dozens that I saw.

Try as I might, this female American Lady, Vanessa virginiensis, would not fully cooperate with my camera. It's a semi-wary species to begin with, but this girl was busy. She was scrambling about the pussy-toes, which is this species' host plant, depositing eggs, and I didn't want to horn in and disrupt activities more important than my picture-taking. So I just did the best that I could, and largely left her to the business of making more of her kind.

Here is a more formal portrait of pussy-toes, Antennaria plantaginifolia. It's a very common plant of dry banks and exposed soil, typically growing in the semi-shade of woodland borders. Pussy-toes is not what most people would term a showy plant, and few gardeners would be tempted to seek it out and plant pussy-toes inside the garden fence. However, aesthetic issues aside, this species is a goldmine for early spring pollinators, and we shall take a glimpse into its nectariferous attractions.

A small fly with a huge proboscis laps nectar from tiny pussy-toe flowers. I have no idea which species of fly this is, but its value as a pollinator is manifested in the minute orangish pollen grains stuck all over its hairs. Flies, which generally get an utterly underserved bad rap due to the ills caused by a relative handful of species, are a major and incalculably valuable group of pollinators.

A solitary bee of some sort ravages pussy-toes flowers. I saw many, many like it on these flowers during this foray into Shawnee State Forest. It should go without saying that the Hymenoptera - bees and wasps - are of major importance regarding the pollination of our native plants. And the pussy-toes, discreet and as ignored as they are, provide major fodder for the earliest pollinators of spring. If you want to see lots of cool bugs, and find subjects galore for the macro lens, park yourself by a colony of pussy-toes and keep a sharp eye out.

Spring Azures, Celastrina ladon, were everywhere on this fine spring day. These little flecks of silvery blue are a ubiquitous part of the vernal butterfly fauna, and groups of them are often seen gathered at mud puddles or other moist spots. They are not immune to the virtues of pussy-toes, as we can see.

Needless to say, I was quite pleased to find several Henry's Elfins, Callophrys henrici, nectaring at pussy-toes flowers. These tiny butterflies tend to be localized, and are always in close proximity to their host trees, which is redbud, Cercis canadensis. Elfins often perch on the ground, a situation which does not lend itself well to making showy photos. To boot, they can be rather flighty. But when ensconced upon tasty flowers, they become quite approachable and it was easy to get as close as I wished.

This is a Brown Elfin, Callophrys augustinus, which is one of Ohio's rarer butterflies. It is only known from about five counties in southern Ohio, and populations tend to be widely scattered and small. Shawnee State Forest harbors several reliable sites, and that's where I made this image. The butterfly is resting upon the leaf of a mountain-laurel, Kalmia latifolia, its host plant. Elsewhere it uses other plants in the heath family such as blueberries and huckleberries. Some of the brown elfins were also nectaring on pussy-toes, but I was not able to get a documentary shot.

The butterfly parade will only grow more robust as spring progresses, and take heart - we have a good 5-6 months of butterflying season ahead.

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