Rewards of a Butterfly Count

Common Buckeye

Why participate in a butterfly count? Well for one thing, you’ll be contributing to a citizen science project that gathers data to help assess how well butterfly species are doing over time.  Are numbers for each species in a given area declining, increasing, staying the same?  Are new species appearing in a location, are any disappearing?

Citizen science is my excuse, but it’s not my reason. I do it because it’s fun.

In mid-July, I participated in a count at Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol, Pennsylvania. There were six of us.  We started looking for butterflies even before we entered the natural areas, searching carefully while walking across a lawn.  We were rewarded with sightings of Sachem, Peck’s Skippers, Eastern-tailed Blues, Common Buckeyes, Wild-Indigo Duskywings and Horace’s Duskywings.

Wild Indigo Duskywing on White Clover

Horace's Duskywing on White Clover

Horace’s Duskywing on White Clover

Eastern-tailed Blue

Are you wondering what attracted butterflies to the lawn, and why we even thought to look for them there?

It’s not every lawn that would be so productive. We were able to find butterflies in this lawn because it isn’t treated with pesticides or herbicides.  Most of the butterflies we saw were basking on blades of grass or drinking nectar from White Clover (Trifolium repens), a Pea (Fabaceae) family member.  If herbicides were used, the clover wouldn’t be there to feed butterflies, bees and other pollinators.  No crab grass would be available for Sachem and some other butterfly species to use as food for their caterpillars.  Pesticides would kill the butterflies directly.  Another bonus from having White Clover in the lawn is that it acts as a natural fertilizer, releasing nitrogen into the soil in a manner and quantity that can be used effectively by the other plants living there. It actually helps the grass to be healthier.  Even better, there is no excess chemical fertilizer to run off into streams, rivers and other waterways.  Years ago, white clover was included in grass seed mixes for this very purpose, until fashions changed, calling for a monoculture lawn with no clover, dandelions or violets.  Maintaining this uniform green carpet requires regular applications of herbicides to kill everything but grass, and synthetic fertilizer, to keep the grass growing.  The result is an expensive and toxic lawn maintenance regimen, devoid of butterflies, but welcoming to Japanese Beetles. As the fashion trend turns back, lawns become a safer, less toxic place to play for pets, children and even adults.

We worked our way across the lawn to the powerline cut through Delhass Woods. A male Widow Skimmer dragonfly stood guard in the grasses as we approached the entrance.

Male Widow Skimmer dragonfly

This is a much ricer habitat for butterflies, a sunny area filled with diverse plants that provide food for butterflies in the form of nectar, and food for their caterpillars in the form of the leaves of plants on which they specialize.  Plants in the Pea family, including Red Clover (Trifolium pretense), Crown Vetch (Securigera varia), and Wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), were a big draw for butterflies.

Wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria)

Not only do the flowers offer nectar, but Wild Indigo Duskywings, Wood Nymphs, Clouded Sulphurs, Orange Sulphurs and other butterflies use these plants as food for their caterpillars.  All of these species were present in good numbers, along with Common Buckeyes, Peck’s Skippers, and Sachem.

Common Buckeye with Crown Vetch

Common Buckeye with Crown Vetch

Sachem on grape leaf

Pecks Skipper on Red Clover

Clouded Sulphur on Crown Vetch

We saw Wood Nymphs and Spicebush Swallowtails, but they didn’t pose for me this year. Last year they were pre-occupied enough with other activities to be more cooperative.

Spicebush Swallowtail drinking nectar from Turks-cap Lily

Wood Nymphs, mating

Surrounded by such a varied and rich habitat, an open area with woods on either side and a pond nearby, we couldn’t help but occasionally be distracted by birds and other critters, and some plants I don’t often see.

Maryland Meadow Beauty (Rhexia mariana)

Golden Hedge Hyssop (Gratiola aurea)

A Halloween Pennant dragonfly monitored our progress as we finished up our search of the powerline cut.

Female Halloween Pennant dragonfly

After a break, we moved on to the woods, marshes, and gardens. Cabbage Whites were everywhere.  Cabbage Whites aren’t native to North America, and can be a problem for farmers.  Their caterpillars feed on some plants in the mustard or cabbage (Brassicaceae) family. If you have ever found a small green caterpillar in your broccoli or kale (I have), it was probably a Cabbage White.  They have done so well in North America that they are often the species with the highest numbers for a count, as they were this day.  They ignored us while they mated in the woods.

Cabbages Whites mating

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Silver-spotter Skippers, Red Admirals and Sachem all enjoyed the nectar Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) provided in the marshy areas.  Sachem also enjoyed the garden.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Sachem

A week later I did another butterfly count at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve near New Hope, Pennsylvania. We had our best year since 2013, seeing twice as many butterflies as we did in 2014-2016.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Joe-pye-weed (Eutrochium purpureum)

Some highlights were Juniper Hairstreaks, a small but beautiful butterfly that is considered ‘locally common’ because it is usually only found near its caterpillar food plant, Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana).

Juniper Hairstreak on Short-toothed Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum)

We saw our highest number of Monarchs in the 6 years we have participated in the count.

Monarch butterfly resting on Yarrow

It was really exciting for me to see so many Sleepy Oranges, a southern species that returned to this Pennsylvania location after a nearly four-year absence.

Sleepy Orange drinking nectar from False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)

So why do a butterfly count? You’ll get to see beautiful butterflies and other critters interacting with gorgeous plants, and you’ll share the day with people who are enjoying themselves as much as you are, all while contributing to a citizen science effort that monitors the health of butterflies.  And you’ll have fun.

Gray Hairstreak on Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

To find a butterfly count near you, check with the North American Butterfly Association.

Related Posts

What Do Juniper Hairstreaks and Cedar Waxwings Have in Common?

Sleepy Orange Butterflies are Back

Sleepy Orange Butterflies Overwintering in Pennsylvania

Combating Japanese Beetles

Butterflies Eat Their Peas

 

 

Sleepy Orange Butterflies Overwintering in Pennsylvania

As I write this, it’s 30°F and snowing lightly, with snow, ice and rain predicted for the next few days.  It’s December in New Jersey.  Oddly, I like winter.  So what am I doing thinking about butterflies?

Sleepy Orange Nectaring on Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata)

Sleepy Orange Nectaring on Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata)

Since summer I’ve been puzzling over the fact that a butterfly species that is primarily tropical, the Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe or Abaeis Nicippe), has been seen regularly in summer across the Delaware River at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, just south of New Hope, Pennsylvania.  (See Sleepy Orange Butterflies are Back)  This species is not thought to overwinter farther north than North Carolina.  How is it that Sleepy Oranges have consistently been at the Preserve for the past four summers, and before that in 2006 and 2008?

Is it random chance?  Are they successfully overwintering here?  Or have they evolved to be able to migrate south in the fall and back north in the summer, returning to the same location?  Inquiring minds want to know (ok, I want to know), so I gave myself the assignment of observing them throughout the fall to see if I could learn anything that could help answer this question.

Throughout August the Sleepy Oranges could be seen mating, with the females taking the lead in selecting the location, usually on or near their favorite caterpillar food plant, Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa).

Sleepy Oranges mating on Wild Senna

Sleepy Oranges mating on Wild Senna

Naturally, this activity was followed by the females laying eggs.

Sleepy Orange laying an egg (ovipositing)

Sleepy Orange laying an egg (ovipositing)

Their efforts were pretty successful, treating me to many caterpillar

Sleepy Orange Caterpillar

Sleepy Orange Caterpillar

and chrysalis sightings throughout September.

Sleepy Orange Chrysalis

Sleepy Orange Chrysalis

Empty Sleepy Orange Chrysalis - the butterfly has already emerged

Empty Sleepy Orange Chrysalis – the butterfly has already emerged

The chrysalises masqueraded perfectly as leaflets loosing their chlorophyll and changing to shades of tan, yellow and orange.

By late September, I still saw fresh-looking adult butterflies in their summer coloration form.

Sleepy Orange, summer color form

Sleepy Orange, summer color form

In the south, where Sleepy Oranges are known to overwinter as adults in reproductive diapause, they have a different, darker coloration for this overwintering generation. I observed my first individual with this coloration at the Preserve on September 24.

Sleepy Orange, winter color form

Sleepy Orange, winter color form

This butterfly had just emerged from its chrysalis.  The tan leaf-like thing hanging behind and between the two leaves to the right of this butterfly is the recently vacated chrysalis, positioned perfectly as if it were a leaflet.

Empty Sleepy Orange Chrysalis

Empty Sleepy Orange Chrysalis

Throughout October, every time I looked on a warm enough day I eventually saw adult Sleepy Oranges.  They usually made their appearance by flying up from the ground, first one butterfly, then two, maybe three or four, flying constantly, circling around each other, flitting back and forth, until they disappeared back down to the grasses and fallen leaves on the ground.  I no longer saw mating, caterpillars or chrysalises.

Occasionally a Sleepy Orange basked from a tree branch, safe in the camouflage of the changing fall leaves.

Sleepy Orange basking on Willow Oak - Can you see the butterfly?

Sleepy Orange basking on Willow Oak – Can you see the butterfly?

Only very rarely did I see them nectaring, although they may have been feeding more than I was able to observe, possibly on blossoms of young plants at nearly ground level, like this aster.

Sleepy Orange nectaring on aster

Sleepy Orange nectaring on aster

The spot where I saw the butterflies most frequently is a small meadow area with lots of young plants (including Wild Senna, their caterpillar food plant) and exposure to afternoon sun.

My last sighting of an adult was on November 2, a mild sunny day with a high in the mid-60s.  Given the current temperatures, I’m pretty sure that will be my last sighting until next year.

So it appears that the Sleepy Oranges are at least attempting to overwinter here, probably as adults, and probably in the shelter of the plants and fallen leaves on the ground.  Lets see if they’re successful.  This fall and winter is starting out a bit colder than normal, so even if they have survived the winter here in the past, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll make it this year.  I hope they do!

Even if they do overwinter here, it doesn’t exclude the possibility that they might also have a second strategy that involves migration.

I’ll keep you posted.

Sleepy Orange, winter form

Sleepy Orange, winter form

Resources:

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy.  Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

Sleepy Orange Butterflies are Back

Sleepy Orange butterflies are back at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve!

Sleepy Orange butterflies on Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Sleepy Orange butterflies on Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe) butterflies are a tropical species, present year-round from Central America through the southern tier of the United States. They may breed as far north as the southern tip of New Jersey, west to eastern Colorado, then dipping south to near Las Vegas, Nevada, but they are less common in the northern part of their range, and they are not thought to be able to survive the winter much farther north than North Carolina. Sleepy Orange is a species that likes to push the envelope of its territory, with individuals migrating each year to repopulate the northern areas.

So it’s pretty exciting to have Sleepy Oranges at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, because it’s considered a rare ‘stray’ in Pennsylvania where the Preserve is located. It’s rare across the Delaware River in much of New Jersey, too. In 2012, ours was the only count circle in Pennsylvania or New Jersey to report Sleepy Oranges in the July 4th North American Butterfly Association Butterfly Count.

Even better, I have seen Sleepy Oranges at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in 2006, 2008, and every year from 2010 through 2013, usually from July through September. Yesterday I counted 10 individuals.

What brings them to the Preserve? Likely it’s the reliable presence of one of their favored caterpillar food plants, Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa).

Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa)

Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa)

Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa) flowers

Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa) flowers

Only the presence of this food source has made it possible for Sleepy Oranges to breed at the Preserve. Sleepy Oranges also use other plants in this genus, and Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) and Wild Sensitive Plant (Chamaecrista nictitans) as food plants for their caterpillars. These plants are all pea family members, and contain alkaloids, chemicals that may have a bitter taste to some predators. Sennas also contain another chemical that has laxative properties. It is probable that Sleepy Oranges evolved to specialize on these plants because the chemicals they obtain from this diet offers some protection against predators.

Sleepy Oranges Mating

Sleepy Oranges Mating

There are also plenty of nectar sources at the Preserve for the adult Sleepy Oranges, who are pretty eclectic in their tastes.

Female Sleepy Orange  on Tall Tickseed (Coreopsis triptera), 2013

Female Sleepy Orange on Tall Tickseed (Coreopsis triptera), 2013

Sleepy Orange nectaring on Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), 2008

Sleepy Orange nectaring on Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), 2008

Sleepy Orange nectaring on Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris), 2011

Sleepy Orange nectaring on Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris), 2011

Sleepy Orange nectaring on Cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis), 2012

Sleepy Orange nectaring on Cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis), 2012

Males are also known to dine on minerals, although I usually see them drinking nectar.

Sleepy Orange on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor), 2006

Sleepy Orange on Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor), 2006

Wondering about this butterfly’s name? It’s not based on behavior, because this sprightly butterfly is very active. The photo below illustrates the characteristics that explain the origin of the name ‘Sleepy Orange’. The curved pattern of dark dots near the center of the upper edge of the forewing are thought to resemble a closed eye, resulting in ‘sleepy’, and the bright orange color, especially coming from the top (dorsal) side of the wing explains the rest. Sleepy Oranges overwinter as adults in the south; their winter color form is a darker red-orange.

Sleepy Orange nectaring on New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), 2010

Sleepy Orange nectaring on New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), 2010

Given the rarity of this butterfly species in the surrounding area, I can’t help but wonder how Sleepy Oranges have been consistently finding Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve for the past several years. It seems unlikely that this primarily tropical species would be able to survive the winter here, but with warmer winter temperatures, who knows? There are some reports of a southern migration of these butterflies in the fall. Could some of the Preserve’s butterflies have flown far enough south to successfully overwinter, and genetically pass on the knowledge of this location to their offspring? Does the generation that overwinters as adults live long enough to make a return northward migration the following year? Is this location near the Delaware River just a favored migration route for Sleepy Oranges and once they see the food available here they decide to stay? Random chance?

If you have an explanation or theory for their consistent appearance here, I would love to hear it!

Female Sleepy Orange on her caterpillar food plant, Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa), 2013

Female Sleepy Orange on her caterpillar food plant, Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa), 2013

For more on Sleepy Oranges at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, click Sleepy Oranges Overwintering in Pennsylvania.

Resources:

Brock, Jim P.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America. 2003.

Capon, Brian. Botany for Gardeners. 2005

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy. Butterflies of the East Coast. 2005.

Glassberg, Jeffrey. A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America. 2012.

Glassberg, Jeffrey. Butterflies through Binoculars A Field Guide to Butterflies in the Boston-New York-Washington Region. 1993.

http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Abaeis-nicippe

http://www.gardenswithwings.com/facts-info/a0810MonarchMigration.html

http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/OtherMigrants.html