Weeds and Butterflies

September 13th, 2019

The beautiful, tangled profusion of foxtails, sickleweed, grasses, morning glories and other wildflowers  – all this strip along the edge of the field where I’ve watched butterflies this past week – was mowed by the county yesterday afternoon. Though I understand that most neighbors appreciate the neater, cleaner look along the road, it’s really a shame. No tangle of weeds – no butterflies. 

Well, there still are butterflies around, but they’re more widely scattered and harder to find. And any butterfly eggs laid on the sickleweed or other plants in this area now are gone. This was just one very small spot, in the big picture of butterfly survival, perhaps not significant. But at a time when so many butterflies – as well as moths, honeybees and many other insects – are disappearing so rapidly, it seems important to realize that every small loss like this matters. 

Now there’s just a very wide stretch of low, dry, rough brown vegetation that spreads from the edge of the field to the road – about 10 yards, I think. I walked across it this morning, stepping around fire ant mounds and watching for snakes, and stirred up a happy eruption of grasshoppers in some spots – little ones, medium size, and a few larger ones, some green, some brown – snapping as they hopped. And then I walked all along the edge of the field, from south to north.

Along this edge now, ragweed, goldenrod and pokeweed all grow taller than my head, with horseweed, dogfennel, camphor weed and other yellow-blooming weeds that I can’t name, and very tall grasses. And behind them, huge, dense stands of privet, with some honeysuckle and blackberry vines, kudzu with its grape blossoms and big green leaves, and other, hairy and thorny vines, chinaberry trees – and beyond them, the young pine woodland that has grown up in the south end of the field. And right along the edge of the field, low-growing horse-nettle still spreads, with its spiky white flowers. In the field and in the power cut that runs through it, I saw four Gulf Fritillaries, several widely scattered Sleepy Orange and Cloudless Sulphurs, and one Variegated Fritillary. 

Eastern Wood-Pewee, Scarlet Tanager, Red-shouldered Hawk, and a Partially-leucistic Northern Cardinal

September 13th, 2019

Today was another in a stretch of very hot and very dry days, with temperatures in the mid and upper 90s by mid-afternoon. But early morning, around sunrise, the air still felt soft and fresh, and more birds than I might have expected were singing – Carolina Wren, Eastern Phoebe, Pine Warbler – and an Eastern Wood-Pewee that sang its pretty pee-a-wee from a tree along the edge of the woods. It sang several times, a clear, languid, whistled song – most of the time only the first half, now and then adding the last, descending, weee-ooo.

Crickets and grasshoppers chirped, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds twittered as they flew back and forth from the branches of oaks to the feeder on the back deck. Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees chattered. A Downy Woodpecker gave its silvery whinny. American Crows cawed and Blue Jays cried in the distance. 

About an hour later, as I walked through a low, wooded area near a creek, a distinct, electric chick-brrr call came through the trees. I stopped to listen, the call came again, and again – the chick-brrr call of a Scarlet Tanager. At first it seemed too far away to hope to see, but as I listened for a few minutes and the calls continued, it came closer and I was hopeful – but then it fell silent. This call of a Scarlet Tanager is one I love to hear, not musical, but expressive and more intimate than its song.

As I stood listening, a Red-shouldered hawk suddenly flew out from somewhere to my right, maybe from a low branch on a tree, and sailed low through the trees, wings outstretched. For just a few moments it was close and big and brilliantly vivid in its colors – then it glided out of sight, back into the trees. I finally gave up on the Scarlet Tanager, settling for the pleasure of knowing it’s around. One Chimney Swift twittered as it flew over, apparently alone. Two Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked their high, cheerful-sounding chatter in some pines. A Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled. A Mourning Dove flew by.

A little further on, I had stopped to watch a Red-spotted Purple butterfly in some flowers and grasses around a mailbox when a Great Crested Flycatcher called a clear, strong whreep from high up in the leaves of a tall sweet gum tree. A Northern Mockingbird flew to the top rail of a wooden fence, quiet. Several birds along the edge of a large grassy yard turned out to be a pair of House Finches, the male looking very red, and a half dozen Chipping Sparrows.

Two White-eyed Vireos called in the old field outside our subdivision, and I heard the spee calls of several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers in water oaks across the road, in the area I’ve begun to call the Lost Woodland. 

Along the edge of a neighbor’s yard, I watched one Northern Cardinal that I think was partially leucistic – meaning it had areas of white mixed with its usual colors. This one appeared also to be a mix of male and female plumage, as well as areas of white. Its back was warm brown like that of a female, while its crest and breast and belly were mostly bright red like those of a male, but with large areas of white. It was foraging in some grass around large cedars, with House Finches, Chipping sparrows, two Brown Thrashers and one American Robin.

All in all, songbirds seemed to be more active this morning than any day this week until now, though there still were not very many – even our most common birds were widespread and few in number. 

Gulf Fritillary, Buckeye and Variegated Fritillary

September 8th, 2019

By mid-morning the sky burned a deep September blue, with not a cloud in sight, and the only soaring bird I could find was one Turkey Vulture lazily tilting over, not very high. 

Butterflies seemed to be scarce along the roadside and in yards, but along the edge of the field where the sicklepod and other weeds are blooming, there were Cloudless Sulphurs, Sleepy Orange, Fiery Skippers, two Gulf Fritillaries, one Variegated Fritillary, and one bright Buckeye – a butterfly with brown wings colorfully and almost playfully patterned in orange and black and white, with four bold eyespots on each wing. The back part of one of its wings had been torn away. 

Gulf Fritillaries may be the most brilliant butterflies here – their wings flicker like flames, smooth, bright orange on the upper side, with black markings, while the undersides of the wings are spangled with large, iridescent silver spots. A Gulf Fritillary is sometimes called a passion butterfly, a name that captures its intense beauty well.

The Variegated Fritillary is the first one I’ve seen this summer, beautiful in a more quiet, unflashy way. Its overall appearance is soft orange, made up of several different shades of orange, outlined in brown and black like a stained-glass window, with black spots along the edges of the wings. Its name comes from the complex, variegated pattern on the underside of its wings, in even more-muted, fawn, pale orange, white and leaf-brown shades.

Variegated Fritillaries nectar on a variety of flowers, including passion flowers – like the maypops in this patch of weeds.

Northern Parula, Scarlet Tanager, Red-eyed Vireo

September 8th, 2019

Early morning brought surprisingly cool and pleasant weather, the chirping of crickets and grasshoppers, and the sweet songs of three migrating birds – among the very few to come this way so far this month. Under a clear blue sky, a Northern Parula lisped its buzzy, rising tssssiiip as it moved through dense leaves around the edge of our back yard. A Scarlet Tanager somewhere in the treetops sang a series of hoarse, insistent phrases, and a Red-eyed Vireo whistled its refrain as it moved along the branches of a tall white oak – here I am, up in the tree, where are you, look and see. 

A Pine Warbler also sang a lyrical trill, and several more of our year-round residents sang or called – an Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Bluebirds, Carolina Wrens, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, and a Downy Woodpecker. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds twittered as they came and went from the feeder. A Northern Cardinal or two peeped. An Eastern Towhee called chur-whee. A Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled. A White-breasted Nuthatch honked its nasal call not far away, and Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered squeakily in the pines. The caws of American Crows and cries of Blue Jays could be heard in the distance. 

Yellow Butterflies and Sicklepod Weed

September 5th, 2019

This morning, a patch of weeds and wildflowers on the edge of an old field fluttered under a cloud of sunny-yellow butterflies.

Most of the butterflies appeared to be Sleepy Orange and Cloudless Sulphurs. The Sleepy Orange – small, yellow-orange butterflies with wings bordered in black – were very fluttery and almost constantly in motion. I don’t know how they got their name, but in flight they look the opposite of sleepy. The Cloudless Sulphurs – larger and pale lemon-yellow – are known as fast fliers, too, but to me they seem to have a more airy, floating quality to their flight. There also were a few scattered Gulf Fritillaries, with burning orange wings and gleaming silver spots on the under sides, and small, less bright Fiery Skippers. 

The main attraction for the butterflies seemed to be the yellow flowers of a relatively low-growing plant with lush, smooth-edged leaves, a legume called sicklepod weed (Senna obtusivolia). The common name comes from long, sickle-shaped seed pods that develop from each flower after it matures – lots of these slender, curving green pods hung in arcs among the plants. It’s not surprising to know that sicklepod weed is generally considered invasive and a serious agricultural pest. But it’s also a host plant for sulphur butterflies, and perhaps for others.

Mixed in with the sicklepod weed were a tangle of other wild plants – thick, rough grasses and pale-brown foxtails; purple morning glories and tiny, bright red morning glories; a few dandelions, the vines and showy purple flowers of maypops; some tall-stemmed yellow-blooming and white-blooming flowers I couldn’t name; a hairy vine with furry, heart-shaped leaves and small purple flowers in clusters; and prickly, purple-flowering horse nettle – and more. Along with the sicklepod weed, the small red morning glories seemed to be especially attractive to the butterflies.

This small, colorful gathering of butterflies along a roadside would have been a common sight here a few years ago. But this summer, in a season when we’ve seen so very few butterflies and moths here in and around our neighborhood, it felt like a magical spot.

Gray Hairstreak

September 2nd, 2019

Later in the day, under a sunny, deep-blue sky, I went out looking for butterflies, but found many fewer than I’d hoped. I couldn’t find even one in our own yellow-blooming lantana, and on the edge of a neighbor’s yard – where five big mounds of orange and pink lantana grow more than five feet tall – there were only a few more. Some small Fiery Skippers, one flashy orange Gulf Fritillary, one Long-tailed Skipper with its smudged turquoise body. Along the old field, a scattering of lemon-yellow Cloudless Sulphurs fluttered over the weeds, and one Red-spotted Purple flew past me, flashing the iridescent-blue in its wings. But overall – distressingly few. 

Back at home, I stopped to check out our lantana again, and at first saw only leaves and yellow flowers and one bumblebee – then one very small shape caught my eye, a stray glint of light. It was a tiny, silver-gray butterfly that used to be common here, but I haven’t seen in a very long time – a Gray Hairstreak. It was not very fluttery, and sat for long periods on each yellow bloom, with its wings folded up demurely, so I was able to kneel down and see it well.

At first glance almost insubstantial and plain in its twilight color, with a closer look, a Gray Hairstreak becomes a delight of intricate and colorful detail. The silver-gray wings are marked on the underside with dark, wavering patterns edged with white; the wing edges all around are finely lined with black and white. On the back edge of the wings, a patch of orange and black creates an eyespot. And tiny, threadlike “tails” extend from the wings, with small, round, bright-white tips. Together, the eyespot and the tails of a Gray Hairstreak create the illusion of a “head” that is thought to draw a predator’s attention away from the butterfly’s real head – so if it’s attacked, it might only lose a part of the back of its wings, and survive.

I watched for several minutes as it probed one bloom for a while, and then another, and another –rubbing its folded wings together in a way that made the wispy tails tremble – and finally fluttered away.  

Summer Tanager

September 2nd, 2019

The soft pik-a-tuk calls of a Summer Tanager moved through the leaves of the oaks around the edges of the yard. The sunny morning felt warm, but not yet hot. A Pine Warbler trilled its song, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds twittered as they flew from branches in the oaks to the feeder and back again, and off, chasing each other. A Carolina Wren sat on the deck rail and sang very loudly, its small body pulsing up and down with each phrase. An American Goldfinch called as it flew over, a Downy Woodpecker whinnied, a Red-tailed hawk screamed, over and over again, soaring somewhere near. An Eastern Towhee called chur-whee, and a Northern Cardinal peeped.

The Summer Tanager stayed deeply hidden in the foliage, its dry, ticking calls tracing its progress through the leaves, and I could only imagine how it looked as it moved, hunting for caterpillars and insects, maybe a bee or a wasp. A sturdy songbird with a rather large head and a long, thick bill, the male rose-red all over, the female deep, shadowy yellow.  

The morning felt peaceful and quiet on this Labor Day – no leaf blowers, no traffic sounds, at least not yet. Grasshoppers and crickets chirped, and a few cicadas raised their songs, but not many. Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice chattered in the woods. It felt good to be home, as always, after ten days away, even though we enjoyed the trip. I felt surrounded and bathed in green leaves, with trees all around me. 

All is not well with the world. Not at all. Climate change looms and grows worse every day – and yet we fail to pay attention, we fail to do what must be done. Birds, bees, butterflies and frogs, forests and oceans are dying, glaciers melt, and not a day goes by when I do not struggle to think what more we can do, what more I might do. And how.

And I have no answers that are new. Some days it seems the best I can do is to pay attention. To notice the Summer Tanager’s soft call, and the song of a Carolina Wren. To continue taking note of what is here, as well as what’s not.

Scarlet Tanager Calls

July 22nd, 2019

Early this afternoon, I heard the repeated chik-brrr calls of a Scarlet Tanager in the dense leaves of trees and bushes on the eastern edge of our yard. The calls are sharp and distinctive, with a faintly buzzy quality that feels almost electric. Sometimes it’s just the chik call, repeated several times, and then it returns to chik-brrr. Though quiet and unobtrusive, the calls are so expressive it’s easy to imagine the birds, maybe a pair, calling back and forth to each other as they move, unseen, through the leaves of the woods. 

The Scarlet Tanager’s call is one of the best examples of how helpful it is to recognize birds by ear because – despite its brilliant red and black colors – a Scarlet Tanager can be frustratingly hard to see. It’s a bird that prefers deep woods and stays most often hidden in the higher, leafiest parts of the trees. I hear them many times more often than I see them – though to see one is always amazing. A male Scarlet Tanager is a medium-size songbird, bright red, with contrasting black wings and tail. The female is beautiful in her own way, much more subdued in color, olive-yellow with shadowy, darker wings and tail. 

A Scarlet Tanager’s call might actually be considered more appealing than its song, which is often described as sounding like a robin with a sore throat – a series of several phrases that rise and fall, with notes that sound harsh or awkward. It lacks the more musical quality of a robin’s song – or the smoother, lilting song of its close relative, a Summer Tanager. 

A Scarlet Tanager sang in the woods beyond our back yard from May 5 of this year through all of June. It made a steady circuit through the trees each day, following the same pattern, beginning very early in the mornings, most of the time staying pretty far away. Sometimes it came quite close, but I never succeeded in seeing it. At some point, it fell quiet, and I haven’t heard its song now since July 2. So these calls are a welcome sign that at least one, and maybe more are still close around.  

Scarlet Tanagers are long-distance neotropical migrants that spend summers in the deciduous forests of eastern North America, and winters in northwestern South America. They depend on large areas of hardwood forest for breeding and nesting, and are considered very sensitive to forest fragmentation. For this reason, there is some concern for their future. 

In places like the woods that surround our neighborhood – patchy, second-growth woodlands that can’t be described as forest, really – Scarlet Tanagers often suffer greatly from predators and parasitism. On the other hand – given the loss of so much forested land in recent decades, it may be that places like these woods can offer precarious, but much-needed refuge. I do not know if the Scarlet Tanagers I’ve heard have nested successfully. I can only hope.

Much later in the afternoon today, I heard the chik-brrr calls again, in the middle of a small thundershower, coming from the same leafy area, not far from my office windows. Along with the sweet rush of a summer rain and the soft rumble of thunder – some of summer’s most happy sounds. 

Fiery Skipper and Silver-spotted Skipper Butterflies

July 16th, 2019
Silver-spotted Skipper

This morning our yellow blooms of lantana had come to life with a fluttering burst of several Fiery Skipper butterflies, and with them, one larger Silver-spotted Skipper.

The Fiery Skippers are very small orange and brown or black butterflies that – when they’re not fluttering from bloom to bloom – often hold their wings in a kind of triangle shape, with the forewings held upright, and the hindwings folded flat. At first glance, they appear kind of plain, even drab, but a closer look shows big black eyes in a fuzzy face that’s very appealing. I watched several probing individual yellow blooms with long, thread-like black proboscis. Their short antennae have tiny orange clubs on the ends. 

The Silver-spotted Skipper is larger, but with a similar shape. It’s a much darker brown, with a prominent silver-white band on the underside of its hindwings. 

In doing some research about them – because I know very little about butterflies, but would like to learn – I found one source that said Silver-spotted Skippers almost never visit yellow flowers – but this one was visiting yellow lantana blooms, and I have often seen them in past years in our lantana. Maybe it’s not their first choice – maybe they have few choices here.

Where Have All the Butterflies Gone?

July 13th, 2019

A column by Charles Seabrook in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Where Are the Butterflies?” notes that a number of observers in Atlanta and other areas of Georgia have noticed a scarcity of butterflies this summer. I read the column with great interest, because around our home in Oconee County I have seen very few butterflies this year – and their absence is stunning.

Specific reasons for the low numbers are not yet clear, Seabrook writes, and might include something like this year’s very wet spring. However, there is growing concern worldwide for the future of butterflies and moths, and a number of studies have begun to document alarming declines. Widespread use of pesticides, habitat loss, climate change and other factors threaten butterflies – and many insect species. 

I started to notice a decline in butterfly numbers here about three or four years ago, but this year there are the fewest yet. And it’s not only that we see fewer in number, but there also are several species that seem to have completely disappeared – at least here, in this one place. At the same time, I have suddenly become aware that we’re seeing far, far fewer moths than we used to see at night. 

We have taken them so much for granted, these ephemeral gifts of impossible beauty – in our yards, along the roadsides, in towns and gardens and thickets and weeds. Tiger Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple, Buckeye, Gulf Fritillary, Fiery Skipper, Silver-spotted Skipper, Clouded Sulphur, Sleepy Orange, American Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Little Wood Satyr, Eastern Tailed Blue, Gray Hairstreak, Blue Azure, Mourning Cloak, Monarch, Viceroy – these are some of the butterflies we’ve seen just here in our own neighborhood over the past 19 years. And now? Many seem to be gone.

I remember standing one enchanting summer afternoon along a roadside – six years ago – in a shady spot near the woods, and watching two Little Wood Satyrs flit among the brown stems of weeds and grasses – small, moth-brown butterflies with wings patterned in soft, intricate shades and scalloped lines of brown, tan, and taupe, and several large dark eye-spots ringed in yellow around the edges of the wings. They paused to rest in the grass, sometimes with wings spread, and sometimes with wings held up, then fluttered up again but did not fly away or fly far, staying around this small spot for several minutes. It was like watching fairies dance. 

It is heartbreaking to realize that we are in serious danger of losing the beauty and magic of butterflies and moths in our lives. Scientists are doing important studies, and more is being learned, but I’m afraid most people simply don’t realize what’s happening – or how fast.