Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Walk Through the Yard

I start my afternoon walk at the garden along the east side of the house. The building has shaded the flowers, but that does not deter the brightly-colored Great Spangled Fritillary from taking a sip of nectar out of the Purple Coneflower. After enjoying the sweet liquid, the fritillary gently flaps his way towards the sunny section of the yard and alights upon a Silver Maple leaf for a brief second before taking off into the shaded forest.

The next place I visit is the small pond along the southeastern edge of the yard. As I step towards the water, several tiny, teneral damselflies flutter out of the grass, and a handful of dragonflies take flight and head towards the open water. Along the pond's edge, I spot a female dragonfly dipping her eggs into the murky water--she hovers just above the surface and lightly taps the tip of her abdomens onto the water's surface. A male whitetail guards his mate and chases off any intruder that approaches, but the female Spangled Skimmer is not as lucky, for she is left to fend for herself.

Other dragonflies are ready to lay eggs as well. This pair of Calico Pennants sits silently at the edge of the pond. The brightly-colored wings stand out amongst the sedges making this couple easy to find. After a few minutes of rest, the male, holding the female by her neck, flies out over the pond looking for a suitable location for his mate to lay the now-fertilized eggs.

The buzzing and colorful dragonflies are not the only insects at the pond. I search through the various grasses, sedges, and spike-rushes growing along the border of the pond and discover more odonates in tandem. A pair of Sedge Sprites sits motionless at the tip of a blade of grass--almost invisible to the casual observer. The male's iridescence shines in the sunlight, while the duller colors of the female have a subtle beauty of their own.

I head away from the water's edge towards a blooming meadowsweet situated above the pond. The flowers are filled with various pollinating insects: bees, wasps, beetles, and ants. One particular flower longhorn, Strangalia luteicornis, slowly eats the whitish flowers as he moves across the inflorescence.

After watching the insects on the Spiraea, I make way across the road into the open field. In this particular section, flowers are few, so I hardly find any butterflies. However, many of the pond-dwelling dragons are out to feed. A young male Widow Skimmer gently flaps his way from perch to perch, occasionally swerving to capture a small fly to eat. This guy is sure to be at the pond before long in order to find a suitable mate.

While following the skimmer, I come across a another dragonfly, this one dressed in black and yellow. Wings held up in the air, the Halloween Pennant balances on the tip of a Timothy stalk as the breeze blows it around. This acrobat gives me quite the show, but does not let me approach. I must keep my distance, or he will flutter down to the next appealing perch.

I soon find myself at the center of a milkweed patch with butterflies in every direction. I hear Little Glassywings as they skip past my ears; I see the tell-tale yellow and black flashes of a tiger swallowtail flying through the grass. A small black and white Lepidopteran flutters in front of my face. It lands on a Common Milkweed flower allowing me to see his black wings marked with large, white spots. Count the dots. This is a stunning diurnal moth, the Eight-spotted Forester.

The moth is intriguing, but a glimpse of orange catches my attention. I follow this darting speck until he too lands on a milkweed flower. This small, orange butterfly has recently emerged as an adult and is now taking advantage of the copious amount of nectar available in this patch of milkweed. This Delaware Skipper is a gorgeous cousin of the paltry Little Glassywings and Northern Broken-Dashes that seem to be everywhere at the moment.

The cooperative Delaware gives me a great opportunity to photograph him, but he is soon scared off by a larger butterfly. When the newcomer finally settles on the milkweed flower head, I realize that it is a Baltimore Checkerspot. I found one at the same location just a day earlier; perhaps this is the same individual. The checkerspot's pattern of black with orange and white spots is enough to make anyone fall in love with the species. Add the gracefulness of its flight, and you have one of the most gorgeous butterflies around.

Before long, the checkerspot is on his way; he glides over the field and into the grass and brush on the other side of the meadow. Fully satisfied with the sight I just experienced, I begin the walk back to the house. But after only a few steps, I notice a group of butterflies gathered together on a milkweed flowerhead: hairstreaks. The two on the lower flowers are Banded Hairstreaks, the common woodland species that I found here the day before. Above those, a Gray Hairstreak sits facing east. The Gray is a very common butterfly of grassy meadows and open fields. Despite being common, this is the first time I witnessed this species this year. At the very top of the milkweed plant sits a third hairstreak species. This one is shaped differently than the previous two and has a unique pattern of red dots along the edge of the wing. I recognize this as a Coral Hairstreak. Although the Coral is known for its affinity to Butterfly Milkweed, it will gladly take nectar from any available source. This is only the second sighting of this species in the yard.

I hear a rumble of thunder, so I head towards the house, finishing my loop through the yard with a smile of satisfaction and amazement.

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