It’s late summer in New England, and if you’ve spent any time outdoors in the past few weeks, you’ve probably witnessed the movements of the winged wildlife that are beginning to work their way to their winter homes. Flocks of Common Nighthawks are swooping the open skies at dawn and dusk, filling up on the bugs they need to get them to South America. Fresh looking, newly emerged Monarch butterflies are stopping by the goldenrod and phlox for quick nectar fuel-ups, then moving on towards the south in the evening. Each day I seem to see a new “batch” stopping in. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are zipping in and around our stands of Jewelweed, slurping up nectar to bulk up for the long haul ahead:
It’s no coincidence that the Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), an annual plant native to moist shaded areas of the northern US, is blooming right now. It’s evolved to flower at the same time the ruby-throat hummingbirds are migrating, ensuring adequate pollination to set lots of seed that become next year’s plants. Jewelweed has also adapted an ingenious seed dispersal method that is popular with kids of ALL ages – if you touch a ripe Jewelweed blossom, it will explode and send its seeds shooting in every direction. Fun!
The striking green darner dragonflies that hatched in our farm pond left some time ago along with the first cold front of August. Like Monarch butterflies, they fly south to overwinter, but it is their offspring that hatch in the south that will fly north again in spring to mate and lay eggs in aquatic vegetation of New England ponds.
This year we are seeing what’s called an “irruption” of Painted Lady butterflies, which basically means that this butterfly species is having a VERY good year, with an enormous number of caterpillars hatching into adults. Not a particularly common butterfly in our region, reports from all over New England in the past few weeks tell stories of Painted Ladies appearing by dozens or even hundreds, feeding on nectar flowers:
Now, I have a reallllly hard time telling the difference between a Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) and its more common relative American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis). To me, the adult butterflies look almost identical. Digital cameras make IDing butterflies so much easier because you can zoom into a photo on a computer screen and note the details that are unique to the species. In the photo below, note the 4 “eye spots” on the bottom right of the Painted Lady butterfly’s underwing. The American Lady has only two eye spots in this location and they are larger.
The Painted Lady irruption this summer is interesting because another closely related butterfly, the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) also had an irruption this year (2012). Hundreds of butterflies at a time were spotted by butterfly enthusiasts in the northern US this spring. Historically, neither Red Admirals or Painted Ladies overwinter up north, but migrate each spring from warmer climates to breed here. It seems likely that the warmer temperatures of this past winter are the cause of this year’s population explosions, which perhaps bodes well for the future of these particular species. Red Admirals have had many irruptions in the past (the last was in 1990), but the Painted Lady irruption is fairly unusual here – where will they spend the winter? Are they migrating south right now, or will they try overwintering in our increasingly warm climate? It’s not clear, although I certainly noticed far fewer of the Painted Ladies this week than last, which might suggest that they have moved on.
At any rate, if your garden is fully stocked with lots of late blooming nectar plants, you can help these butterflies make it to a suitable winter home and hopefully maintain healthy populations into the future.
By the way, I have dated myself with the “Hello, I Must Be Going” song reference. I assumed musician Phil Collins had coined the phrase for his 1980’s album, but my better half has informed me that the song was originally a Marx Brothers song from the 1930s. Oops! Well, the song title reminds me of those brief encounters of late summer when we wave our goodbyes to wildlife…
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