Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Blizzard of Butterflies

Along with a number of other enthusiasts of all things Lepidopteran, I made a recent trip to Ohio's supreme Butterfly Mecca, Shawnee State Forest and nearby Adams County. This region is just crazy butterfly-wise, as you'll see from some of the pics below. In all, we found 34 species, and many of them in humongous numbers.

If you'd like to see the Mariposa Circus firsthand, join us for the Appalachian Butterfly Conference, which will be based out of the beautiful state park lodge in Shawnee, right in the thick of some of the best butterflying to be found north of the Ohio River. It'll be August 9 & 10, and believe it or not, the butterflies are even more over the top then. Sixty plus species will be possible and some of them in such numbers as to be nearly inestimable. Plus, by that date we'll be seeing plenty of the immigrants - the butterfly counterparts to vagrant birds. GO RIGHT HERE for more details and registration information. Feel you are a novice? No problem, the field trips will be led by some of the best butterfly experts in the region.

Butterfly-weed, Asclepias tuberosa, densely cloaked with many species of butterflies. We found a number of sunny openings loaded with this plant, which wasn't even in peak bloom yet. No matter, to many butterflies it is utterly irresistable. There are probably several dozen butterflies of several species in this photo.
Always a crowd-pleaser, jumbo Great Spangled Fritillaries were everywhere. A brood had apparently just emerged, and most were looking shiny and new. Butterflies become punch-drunk on the nectar of butterfly-weed, and can be approached to within inches.

Ditto on Spicebush Swallowtails in terms of abundance. They were everywhere - we must have seen thousands. Quite a show-stopper, this one, especially when newly hatched and vibrant.
We had a real neophyte amongst our ranks; someone who had really never looked at butterflies before. I asked her, at one point, what her favorite species was. And was anything but surprised when she answered "Zebra Swallowtail". I might agree. There are scads of these down there, and the summer broods are bigger and arguably showier than the early spring brood. This one has the longest tails of any of our swallowtails. This zebra is foraging on Dogbane, or Indian-hemp, Apocynum cannabinum, which is closely allied to milkweeds and a major attractant for butterflies.

Swallowtails and fritillaries are big, bold, and in your face. Just can't be missed, and down there, even people who really don't even dig this sort of thing notice them. However, there are many equally stunning butterflies that require a closer look. This Coral Hairstreak is one of them. They aren't much larger than a dime. It's row of round dots on the trailing wing edge match the color of the milkweed flowers to near perfection. It is also our only common hairstreak that has no tails - the "hair streaks".

There weren't only plenty of zebras in the forest, many a tiger roamed, too. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, that is. These whoppers were everywhere, and often are seen coursing high in the tree canopies, gliding for extended periods like insectian Turkey Vultures. These two, believe it or not, are both females. The one on the left is a normal yellow, while the left one is a dark morph. At least half the females encountered down there are dark, and can look much like other species of dark swallowtails such as spicebushes. Note how the tiger stripes bleed through, though. No butterflies were harmed in the making of this educational photo!
This is an Adams County prairie opening, just like we'll be visiting during the Appalachian Butterfly Conference. Few habitats in the Midwest harbor the botanical richness of these prairies, nor the volume of globally rare species. That goes for butterflies, too. Some of our more uncommon species are best sought in these sites, and we found one. All of those conical mounds of barren earth are nests of Allegheny Mound Ants. As many as 300,000 savage and war-like ants might occupy a large nest. Yet they have a mutualistic relationship with an interesting butterfly in which the ants protect its caterpillars when they are not up in the oaks, stuffing themselves with foliage. Like a dairy farmer tending his herd, the ants escort the little wriggly bags of protein into the mounds when they aren't feeding. Ain't no one gonna mess with them in there. When the caterpillar does go arboreal, the ants send along a phalanx of warriors to protect it from parasitic wasps, which are chief among caterpillars' worst enemies. In return for their protection, the ants milk the caterpillars to stimulate the secretion of a sugary substance, which they lap up. Apparently, this juice is every bit as alluring to the ants as Blatz beer is to a Nascar fan.

And this is it - the butterfly that lives amongst the ants. Edward's Hairstreak, this one being freshly transformed from the aforementioned caterpillar. The adults still stay in close proximity to the prairie openings and the ant mounds, though, and savvy butterfliers know that the presence of ant mounds means a chance at finding this awesome little butterfly.

If you would like to partake of some of this yourself, along with scores of other interesting animals and plants, come on down for the ABC. We'd be glad to have you.

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