Because of the Monarchs

There’s a place here in western Maine that I frequent on hot summer days. Oh heck, there are many places I frequent, but this one is extra special and it doesn’t involve a hike. In fact, from my perspective, there’s only a short distance of a road that consumes hour after hour of my time. But always, it’s time well spent.

The road is dirt and crosses through a hay field that has yet to be cut. Smack dab in the center stands a beautiful Elm and though I’m not sure the Bluebirds nest there, I do know that they at least rest upon its mighty branches for I watched them fly down and disappear into the wildflowers and grasses below and then zoom back up into the tree a few minutes later, their wings of iridescent blue mesmerizing me during flight.

As the Bluebirds flew back and forth to the tree, so I walked back and forth below it. And back and forth again. And again. I have no idea how many times I turned or how often I muttered, “One more time and then I’ll leave.”

But . . . because I stayed I had the good fortune to spend some time admiring a Twelve-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly. In true character, it paused for long periods of time, flew off for a moment or two, and then returned to the same perch. And I gave thanks.

The only other dragonfly I saw was also a skimmer, but about half the size of the Twelve-spotted. At about one inch in length, the female White-faced Meadowhawk also paused for long breaks. And I was equally grateful.

With each step, grasshoppers did what they do–scattered from the dirt road to nearby stems. By the dozens. Providing constant motion and sound.

But then . . . I found two who chose a different activity to entertain themselves and ensure that there will be future generations of grasshoppers in the field.

Aren’t they amazing? And I don’t mean in their canoodling, but rather their design.

My pacing included frequent stops to check out the visitors upon the flowers as well. The Steeplebush appeared to offer a feast to any who chose to stop by.

Because the grass was so high beyond the flowers at the edge of the road, I didn’t realize at first that I wasn’t alone. Twice I was startled because I’d startled another. Both times it was a deer that I didn’t see until they ran off. Do you see the white flag of the tail as one bounded toward the woods?

There was more movement in the grasses and among the flowers. It was accompanied by sound. Looking for stalks moving at odds with the slight breeze, I finally spied the creator of the “Cheap” that resounded almost constantly. A Common Yellowthroat Warbler hopped from one plant to another, possibly seeking a meal to share with youngsters relaxing in a distant tree.

Curiously, a different sound could be heard from the other side of the road, where a male and female frequently took flight before settling down for a bit.

The Bobolink’s song hit notes both low and high, offering a serenade that bubbled forth in a rather bouncy and most pleasant warble.

Every which way I looked, something different presented itself. Some I knew, but others I met for perhaps the first time, such as this large bee fly. I’ve since learned that they are also commonly known as humbleflies, and I found that curious given that with the banded abdomen and patterned wings and overall large size, it hardly seemed humble.

What I’d really gone to check on, however, were the Milkweed plants and their visitors. I wasn’t disappointed for there were both big and little Milkweed beetles.

And Tiger Swallowtails seeking nourishment. This one needed all the nourishment it could get to continue its flight and avoid the birds and other predators. Do you see its tattered wing?

Some, like the Fritillary, chose the road for nutrition and did what butterflies often do.

It puddled. To puddle means to extend your mouthparts and probe the dusty road in search of nutrients. There is no actual puddle involved, but there may be raindrops or in this case, morning dew that help the butterflies extract minerals to share with their gals.

What I’d really gone to see, however, were the Monarchs. And I wasn’t disappointed for a few fluttered about and occasionally landed, much to my delight.

At last, my “One more time and then I’ll leave” utterance became reality and I drove off. And then . . . there was one more sight to behold. I stopped the truck and watched as a fawn bounded in its awkward fawn manner.

Because of the Monarchs . . . I experienced a wonder-filled morning.

Queen of the Butterflies

At the beginning of July, the Common Milkweed that I’m allowing to grow more abundantly in my herb garden began to blossom, its hypnotic scent filling the air with an almost honey-like fragrance.

m1a-milkweed flowers

Being close to the Fourth of July in its blooming, the milkweed’s formation reminded me of the fireworks that filled the sky over and over again. I only wish those had been as silent as the milkweed.

m2-ants and honeybees

Then again, it was hardly silent or unnoticed for the bees and ants sought the sugary nectar stored in the shell-shaped structures.

m4-honeybee

So few honeybees have I seen all summer, but as long as the milkweed was in bloom, I noticed four of them probing for the goodness hidden within.

m8-wasp

Visitors were from every ilk, some with striped bodies,

m9-tachinid fly

and others covered in spiky hairs.

m7-skipper

The pollinators included skippers . . .

m1-swallowtail butterfly

and swallowtails.

m5-red milkweed beetle and ant

Upon the plants’ leaves were Red Milkweed Beetles, this one being checked out by an ant. The bright red coloration announced the beetle’s distastefulness for he’s one of the few insects that can feed on the leaves of milkweed, store the plant’s defense chemicals and assure that he won’t be consumed.

m6-ant climbs over red milkweed beetle

The ant apparently discovered the beetle wasn’t worth dealing with and so climbed over it and moved on. Or maybe the beetle had accidentally rubbed against some nectar and the ant was attracted to it–for all of a second.

m10-honeybee

The milkweed flowers in my garden began to die back, but this week I discovered another place where they grow abundantly. And at least one honeybee recognized the same.

m17-red milkweed beetles

As did more long-horned Red Milkweed Beetles, and now rather than finding only one, I’ve noticed there often appear to be two working in unison to ensure a continuation of their species.

m15-monarch on dogbane

 

And much to my delight, I spotted sipping nectar from the Spreading Dogbane that grows beside the milkweed, a Monarch Butterfly.

m14-monarchs fluttering

And it wasn’t just one Monarch. I can’t say how many I saw in total, but I watched them for a while as they floated over the meadow flowers in their flap, flap . . .

m21-monarch and shadow

glide routine, sometimes chasing each other or their own shadow before alighting.

m13-monarch puddling

Like the Clouded Sulphurs I noticed the other day, the Monarchs too sought nutrients from the gravel road, their mouthparts, aka proboscises, extended in search of minerals.

m22-probiscus curled

When not in use, the tubular and flexible straw that serves as a mouth curled inward, retracted as it would be during flight.

m16-viceroy butterfly

Also in the area, because it too likes the nectar of the milkweeds and other flowers offering a sweet meal, was the Monarch mimic, a Viceroy. The differences between the two: Viceroys have a wing span of about 2-3 inches, while Monarchs’ span is 3-4. And Viceroys have a black horizontal stripe that crosses near the bottom of its back wings. Well, actually, it looks more diagonal. And really, who came first? The Monarch or the Viceroy?

m19-silvery checkerspot butterfly

Also present because it too feeds on native milkweeds, a few small Silvery Checkerspot Butterflies, their wing span less than two inches.

m20-silvery checkerspot butterfly

And they also sought those road nutrients, so suffice it to say, its a butterfly habit . . . at least in this neck of the woods.

m24-milweed tussock moth caterpillars

I had to eventually leave the road and meadow behind and run home to grab something, which meant an opportunity to check on my milkweed plants. Those in the kitchen garden hosted some Red Milkweed Beetles, but that was the most interesting thing I saw, besides the fact that the dried flowers were transforming into warty green seedpods. But by the front door, where more milkweed grows, I noticed first a pile of caterpillar scat on a leaf. Getting down on my knees to look underneath, I spotted a mature Milkweed Tussock Moth and its larvae feeding.

m24-tiny monarch caterpillar

And then my heart was still, for I found a tiny Monarch caterpillar.

m25-adult monarch caterpillar

And near it, one that had been very hungry and seemed to have stopped eating. I can’t wait to check again and see if it’s still there–only in a transformed stage.

m26-two monarch caterpillars

As I continued to look, there were more, these two clearly munching away.

m29-munching leaves like an ear of corn

They reminded me of humans eating corn on the cob for it seemed they moved back and forth as they chomped on the plant’s leaves. Monarchs, and other butterflies that feed on the green leaves in their caterpillar form, are like the Red Milkweed Beetle in that they can tolerate the chemicals and it makes them not tasty to predators.

m27-medium-sized monarch caterpillar

Everywhere I looked, I began to see Monarch caterpillars in various stages of growth.

m30-probiscus curlced

My hope is that I’ll discover chrysalises as I continue to search and eventually our yard and flower gardens and the field beyond will be full of the queen of the butterflies:  Monarchs.

 

 

Belated Book of September: Butterflies and Moths

All month long books have been staring at me from their shelves, piles or baskets, a few begging for the honors. But each time I thought I knew which book I’d feature for September, a different month made a claim on it.

b-monarch 1

And then, mid-morning, I looked out the kitchen window and saw a certain visitor nectaring at the flowering mint and instantly knew what book it would be.

b-cover

Bufferflies and Moths by Dr. Walter Robert Corti is an oldie but goodie that has graced my personal library since 1964. I don’t remember its origin, but think it may have been a birthday or Christmas present when I was in second grade–such was my wonder even then.

On the back, The Odyssey Library is described as “a new and exciting concept in book publishing, combining in convenient, compact format, texts by leading authorities and full-color illustrations by outstanding artists and photographers. Designed for the reader who wants to add a new dimension to his [or her] understanding of the world, these are books to enjoy, to study, to treasure.” Indeed, I’ve treasured it for over fifty years and referred to it often.

b-monarchs and others

Today found me examining the differences between “look-alikes” because I wanted to make sure that what was fluttering about the garden wasn’t a Viceroy.  They do look similar, but the Viceroy is smaller than a Monarch and its hind wings have a line that runs parallel to the outer margin. There are other differences, but that was enough for me to note. Another thing to note: the illustrations in this book were by Swiss artist Walter Linsenmaier.

b-monarch 2

No such line existed on this morning’s beauty.

b-monarch map

Though the author states that in September, “large flocks” of Monarchs gather to fly south, and that was once the case, at least in my backyard it’s no longer true. This is only the second one I’ve seen this year, the first being in a field yesterday and it didn’t light long enough for me to snap a photo. In the past few years, I don’t recall seeing any. But . . . when our twenty-something sons were the age I was when I received this book, we did have large flocks that completely covered some flowering plants and shrubs.

b-monarch probiscus 2

Outdated though the book may be, some things haven’t changed. The order is still Lepidoptera, so named for the scales on their wings; lepis being Greek for “scale,” and pteron for “wing.”

b-monarch probiscus 1

Some cool features include the tongue or proboscis–can you see the coiled dark tube below the antennae? Once you find it, return in your brain to your sixth birthday party (if you had one–my next-door-neighbors, Pat and Kate always came for my birthday dinners, but we never had parties) and the blowouts that were curled until you blew into them and made noise.

b-monarch 6

The same thing happens with the proboscis (though it lacks a sound effect), which is actually two half tubes joined to form one, and includes muscles, nerves and the trachea, as it straightens out and penetrates the far reaches of flowers in search of nectar to suck.

b-monarch eyes

The book also mentions the faceted eyes–each compound and consisting of up to 17,000 “ommatidia,” or  individual light receptors with their own microscopic lenses. Think about what the world around them looks like. How in the world do they hone in on their targeted plants? They have their ways. Read on.

b-painted lady 2a

Prior to seeing today’s Monarch, I’d been blessed with many opportunities to observe Painted Ladies, which share similar colorings to a Monarch, though the pattern differs.

b-painted lady map

Dr. Corti describes their migration pattern, but mentions with all that migrate, it could be that it’s a second or third generation that actually completes a given journey.

b-painted lady 3

The outer wing coloration is what always reminds me that I’m looking at a Painted Lady and not a Monarch.

b-painted lady 1

One thing I’ve observed about the butterflies that I watch–nectaring can happen whether one is right-side up or upside-down. The straw works from any approach.

b-painted lady 2

The club-shaped antenna, common features of butterflies, are angled and work like radar to detect scents. And I mentioned the palpi, which are quite visible here as they are the small projections that protrude from the front of the head. These are covered with scent-detecting sensors as well. And actually, more sensors are located on the thorax, abdomen and legs. That’s how the butterflies find their sources of nourishment.

b-painted lady 5

One of the things I noted about the Painted Ladies that have graced my path lately is that they flit from flower to flower in constant motion . . .

b-painted lady 9

and seek goodness . . .

b-painted lady 10

from a variety of benefactors. I know Monarchs do the same, but today the one I watched much preferred the mint.

b-fritillary 1

An early season butterfly that some may confuse with the Monarch is the Fritillary.

b-fritillary 2

While its coloration is similar,

b-fritillary probiscus

its much smaller in size.

b-clouded sulphur 1

Most butterflies feed with their wings pulled together, such as this clouded sulphur portrayed. I love the subtle blend of pink, yellow and green in this beauty, and especially the yellow-green eyes.

b-white admiral 1

Early on in the summer, white admirals flew about.

b-white admiral 2

Occasionally one posed. Noticed its tattered hind wings. Such is the life of a butterfly.

b-Canada tiger swallowtail 1

We admire them for their beauty and they suffer for it–becoming easy prey. But until they succumb, they spend their days seeking sustenance. And bringing us joy.

As Dr Corti states, “The enchanting colors of their wings, their intimate commerce with quiet flowers, their modest food needs, the innocence of their courtships make them seem like fairy creatures from some unspoiled paradise. They are a delight to curious children, harmless idlers, contented topers, and strolling lovers wherever they appear. It is as if they were created solely to make the world more beautiful.”

Weren’t they?

I know there are updated butterfly guides, but I still love my first.

Butterflies and Moths, by Dr. Walter Robert Corti, The Odyessey Press, New York, 1964.