Friday, April 6, 2012

An Elfin in the Woods

With the fairly warm temperature and plentiful sunshine today, butterflies were active despite the wind. This time of year, I find that woodland clearings are the most productive places to find butterflies, as these areas are often the sunniest spots around. However, some species, like Mourning Cloaks and Eastern Commas do not mind being in the middle of the woods. Other species like the duksywings often "patrol" clearings and paths by flying up and down the length of the opening chasing anything that enters the territory. To an overly sensitive Juvenal's Duskywing, these "threats" may include others of the same species, a larger Mourning Cloak, a leaf blowing in the wind, or even a person walking by! This behavior made this species especially difficult to photograph today. Whenever I went to take a photo, a Spring Azure would fly overhead and the duskywing would fly up and chase off the intruder.

Juvenal's Duskywing
Another species of duskywing that is flying right now is the Sleepy Duskywing. This species is a bit smaller than the Juvenal's, and is less aggressive. These two species (and all duskywings for that matter) use similar habitats and can often be found together. Today, I watched several Sleepy Duskywings chased down the trail by Juvenal's. In a few weeks, Dreamy and Wild Indigo Duskywings will become more common and the species flying now will disappear until next spring.

I also came across one of my favorite butterflies while I was out in the woods today. As I was watching a Spring Azure (the species flying now is likely Celastrina lucia), a small, brown butterfly darted past. At first I thought it was another duskywing, but I realized that it was flapping differently. When I got a better look, I saw orange markings on the top of the wings. When the butterfly finally stopped, I saw the intricate patterning of an Eastern Pine Elfin. This species only occurs in this area in April and early May, and can be hard to find due to its small size and somewhat picky habitat preference.
The Eastern Pine Elfin that I found today
Eastern Pine Elfins use a variety of host plants as caterpillars, all of which are in the genus Pinus, the pines. The individuals that I have seen in the past few years are likely using pitch pine, as this is the most common pine in the woods at this location. Last year, I even saw an elfin sitting on a very small pitch pine tree.

Eastern Pine Elfin on host plant, Pitch Pine (from 2011)

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