Sunday, August 26, 2012

Invasion of the Ladies

The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is the most widespread butterfly in the world. Due to its strong migratory tendencies and use of a massive variety of host plants, this species can be found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Although the Painted Lady is incredibly widespread, it is not particularly abundant in many locations. For example, I usually see fewer than three in a year here in eastern Pennsylvania. In fact, many years I never see a Painted Lady.

This year seems to be different. Earlier this summer, I found a single Painted Lady nectaring on blooming Common Milkweed in the yard. This was only the second individual of this pink and black butterfly that I had noted for the property! After a few days of fueling from the milkweed patch, the lady moved on. As the summer progressed, I saw numerous American Ladies (Vanessa virginiensis), the more common and more orange counterpart of cardui.

American Lady, the more common Vanessa in this region

When I stepped out of the house yesterday morning, a brightly-colored butterfly shot up from a pink Phlox next to the porch. The butterfly fluttered skyward with quick wingbeats in a corkscrew-like flight pattern, characteristic of the ladies. This individual went out of sight, but I soon noticed several other ladies on nearby flowers.

Painted Lady on Phlox

I immediately noticed the pink-orange color that seemed slightly different than the coloration of an American Lady. When I got closer, I noticed the smaller details in patterns that separated these individuals from their similar cousins. As I looked around, I counted about a half-dozen of these gorgeous insects, more Painted Ladies than I had ever seen at one time (except, perhaps, for when we raised them from caterpillars in kindergarten). Several more scatted off the gravel driveway as I walked past. Almost every open flower in the field was attended by one of these butterflies--the ladies were everywhere!

As the sun got stronger, I spotted a single Monarch gliding southward on a gentle breeze. One of the ladies from the flowers in front of me flew towards the Monarch, hitching a ride on the same wind as the larger migrant. Out-flapping the Monarch, the lady took the lead and disappeared into the distance.

Monarch on its way to Mexico

August and September are the primary months for butterfly migration here in Pennsylvania. Southbound species, including Monarchs, ladies, and Red Admirals, all begin their journeys around this time. The ladies and admirals may only travel far enough south to reach year-round warm weather, whereas the mighty Monarch will travel all the way to central Mexico. Early autumn is also the season when many southern species wander north. Giant Swallowtails and Long-tailed Skippers start to show up in Pennsylvania around the middle of August every year. Other species including Ocola Skippers, Little Yellows, Sleepy Oranges, and Dainty Sulphurs seem to have "boom" years, when large numbers suddenly begin to appear far north of their typical southern ranges. This year has been the year of the Dainty Sulphur, with droves of these petite southerners popping up throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Today, I found about fifty of these beautiful ladies in my yard. I know they are transients this time of year, but I hope they at least stick around for a few more days!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Every spring, birders gather around old fields and meadows to listen to the pzeent! of the American Woodcock. This display marks the beginning of spring--the ground has thawed and birds are ready to breed. Some nature groups even lead walks specifically for listening to the spring display of the woodcock. However, many of this birders do not give notice that there is a bird that goes "pzeent" in the fall, long after the springtime woodcocks have become silent. These are the calls of the goatsuckers. The nighthawks.

While nighthawks are not actually hawks (and no, they don't actually suck milk from goats as myths have portrayed), they do resemble buoyant falcons--bouncing through the humid air on pointed wings. Flocks gather over buggy fields as soon as the goldenrod begins to bloom in August, catching insects on the wing.

Just the other day I saw my first flock of fall. One short of a dozen, the group had convened over a nearby field, soaring and diving to catch the bounty of midges high above the ground. Competing with swallows and darners, the nighthawks spent almost twenty minutes feasting before moving down the ridge.

Nighthawks, some of the most impressive aerialists of the bird world, often go unnoticed as they zip over meadows, parking lots, and almost anywhere with insects that lies along their southbound route. Unnoticed, yes. But woodcocks would be too if we made no effort to search. While woodcocks are harbingers of spring for some, nighthawks fill this role for me in the fall. The warm, muggy nights are coming to an end, soon to be replaced with more pleasant days filled with sun and cool breezes. Plus, I find watching swooping and diving acrobats to be far more exciting than listening into the darkness for a call from a sneaky sandpiper sitting still in some soggy sedges.

I'm not saying that those goofy, disproportionate timberdoodles aren't fun... just don't forget to take a moment to listen to what else goes "pzeent" in the night.