Hello, I Must be Going…or Late Summer Migrations through New England

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:

A ruby-throat hummingbird drinks sweet nectar from the small flower of Jewelweed. Bumble bees also rely on Jewelweed blooms as an abundant late-season nectar source.

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!

Monarch on New York Ironweed (Vernonia novaboracensis)

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.

Male green darners have a green thorax and a long blue abdomen that looks like a darning needle, hence the name “darner”. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson.

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:

Painted Lady butterfly on Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)

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.

Look at the lower underwings of the painted lady for the 4 “eye spots”

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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  1. says

    There is such a sense of urgency in the garden as butterflies and birds seem to be “getting ready” now. All summer the male ruby throated hummingbird monopolized my feeder, but he must have migrated, and only the female, or multiple females, are there now. I wonder if the males migrate first and then the females later. The finches are hyperactive now that the thistles are ripe and other seeds are available. They go crazy!
    Laurrie recently posted..Strange and Wonderful

  2. Daen says

    I have been watching swarms of dragonflies and wondering about the variety of butterflies hanging visiting my backyard. Thanks for the information. I must say the butterflies visiting me seem to like my running shoes as much as the flowers. Does sweat attract them as well?

  3. Mary Pellerito says

    The hummingbirds are very active here. Many of our summer-residents are already making their way south. The leaves are just starting to change. And in addition to the nectar-providing flowers leaving seed heads on flowers is also a food source for migrating birds as I’m sure you know.
    Mary Pellerito recently posted..In Praise Of Goldenrod

  4. says

    A good point about the Jewelweed evolving to blossom at the same time the hummingbirds will be migrating, thereby getting a good shot at pollination.. In your post & the comments, I am reading about the urgency of the wildlife, coming & going, and your feelings as they move away for the cold months ahead. It must be sad to have them leave, yet wonderful to quietly sit and watch all their activity. You don’t see so much migration out here in So Cal.
    Kathy @nativegardener recently posted..Where To Go To See Native Plants in California?

    • says

      It certainly is a nice time of year…especially for gardeners who can finally kick back and relax a bit – a good time of year to sit and watch the wildlife with a glass of iced tea and a couple of cobs of fresh corn from right down the road :) Kathy – you get to keep the wildlife during the wintertime which makes up for the lack of migration spectacle!
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Japanese Beetles, Chickens and the Habitat Farm

  5. says

    The songbirds have flown but once I see the asters bloom I usually see lots of butterflies…with the drought we are still having and the heat (no cold front here), we still have fewer flowers so no irruption in my part of NY. Hope that changes and we see lots of butterflies…hummers are still around but we saw fewer butterflies this year with fewer flowers all summer.
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Seasonal Celebrations-Autumn Awaits

  6. says

    Fun post, Ellen. Thanks! We’re seeing an explosion of Painted Ladies here in southern NJ as well. Last few days of August numbers built from 0 to 21 to 70 and holding steady at 70 through first 4 days of September. Never seen anything like these numbers in 35 years of butterfly watching.
    Pat Sutton recently posted..Red Admiral MEGA Migration, May 2012


  1. […] Another short distance migrant is the Red Admiral butterfly. The Red Admiral made news across the country this past spring as huge numbers of migrants were observed all across the country, sparking attention from nature lovers, but also from loads of people who had never paid attention to natural phenomena before. […]

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