Friday, July 30, 2010

Horsemint - Monarda Punctata

I see something new every time I drive by the dry, sandy prairies along Rustic Road 107.

Today it was clumps of pale yellowish-green plants among the islands of purple Wild Monarda (fistulosa), the recent growth spurt of bluestem grasses and the bright yellow petals of the Black-eyed Susan.

Despite the rain, I couldn't resist getting out of the Prius for a closer look.

The square stem is a clue to its identity: it's a mint.

Dotted pale yellow flowers with greenish-purple bracts sat on the stem like shishkabobs.

The flowers are similar in shape to its lavender cousin - wild bergamot.   One of 16 species endemic to North America, I'd never noticed it before:  dotted horsemint (spotted beebalm), monarda punctata.  It's found throughout the eastern and central states.

Native Americans used the dried leaves to flavor meats and as a tea.  Thymol, an oil found in this plant, is one of the ingredients in mouthwashes that acts as an antiseptic.  It's also the primary ingredient in toe nail fungus treatments.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Clouds of Yellow Butterflies

I first noticed the increase in numbers last week.  I spotted this puddle of yellow butterflies in my neighbor's driveway.

Yesterday I saw them nectaring on clover in my backyard.

Today, they were everywhere - by the thousands - in alfalfa fields and prairies along the roads and highways of west-central Wisconsin.

They made the Red Admiral emergence in early July seem insignificant.

Their bodies littered the roadsides.

I expected to see lots of birds feasting on this bounty of butterflies - but spotted only a few juvenile starlings dodging traffic to get a taste.  I was surprised to see the birds grab the butterflies, shake them, then drop them and fly away.

While I've never noticed Clouded Sulphurs before, they're among the most common butterflies in North America - from Alaska to Guatemala.  Their caterpillars feed on legumes - around here, that's clover and alfalfa.  The adults feed on flower nectar. 

From above, the males have a solid black border on their forewings.  The black border on the female forewings are dotted with yellow or white spots.  The underwings of both male and female have a double white dot and a row of black dots along the margin.

Why so many this year?  Scientists attribute it to the weather: warm spring and adequate moisture.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Oriole Feeders

My birdfeeding station has been as busy as "Old Country Buffet" on a Friday night.  

I put out a smorgasbord of fresh food.  I never mix seeds - one per feeder:  black oil sunflower, thistle and millet.  I also provide peanut butter suet, nectar and grape jelly - and fresh water in the two birdbaths I clean every day (it's the zookeeper in me). 

Television doesn't come close to what I've seen this week at my feeders:  the sometimes hilarious, but always entertaining, behavior of fledglings in the first weeks outside the nest.

Who's gonna feed me?  Is this what we're supposed to eat?  You don't look like one of us.  Whoopsie.

Today's new players:  a juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a family of Northern Cardinals and an Orchard Oriole.  

I was too slow to get the camera focused on the sapsucker and cardinals, but I did catch both the Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, and a few pugnacious hummingbirds.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Nettles and Admirals

When I first started seeing large numbers of Red Admiral butterflies 4th of July weekend, I went to the web to refresh my memory about them, their life cycle and their caterpillar food plant.  It's nettles, a plant that, like poison ivy, I do my best to avoid.  Stung once, as the saying goes.

I've seen lots of nettles along the roads and trails recently and I've resisted the urge to look under the leaves for caterpillars - until today.  The abundance of Urticaceae with leaves eaten by insects was just too tempting.  It wasn't until I got back home, that I had a chance to review the stinging potential of the 5 species of nettles found Wisconsin.

I was lucky.

I didn't get stung again - and I got a close look at the caterpillars I had hoped to see.  The caterpillar eats its way out of the egg in about a week.  Then it folds a leaf over itself, stitches it together with silk and creating a safe little feeding tent (circled in red below).

Peel the leaf open - and look for the Red Admiral caterpillars. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mid-July Butterflies and Blooms

Despite the threatening weather (when a warm front meets a cold front in west-central Wisconsin), we headed down Rustic Road 107 this afternoon.

The mosquitoes were unbearable.  Deer flies clung to the front of the Prius (perhaps attracted to the engine heat).

Fledgling Chipping Sparrows seem to have figured out that insects are easy picking along the edge of the road.  They're all along the road, darting in and out of the vegetation.   I don't know how many times I stopped to look, thinking they had to be Vesper or Lark Sparrows. 

There were only few butterflies on the road - most of them Red Admirals.  I wonder which species will soon hatch out and take over as "most abundant."  First the Emperors, then Red Admirals... who's next?

It wasn't until we got up the hill on County Road "O" east of Meridean that we spotted the swallowtails - both the black and yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and a Giant Tiger Swallowtail.

A little further down the road, we spotted a male Monarch on a Culvers Root.

We spotted several Monarchs, including this one, flying with his proboscis unwound...

We also spotted lead plant, bellflower and a surprise - lesser purple fringed orchis - in bloom

When the skies turned black, we headed home, but not soon enough.  We got caught in that big storm.  Fortunately we did not get hit by the hail and flying tree debris.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Watching Bluebirds Fledge

I've only seen it once before.  Today I got to see it again:  nestling bluebirds making the transition to fledglings.

It was late in the morning - 11:30am.  I was checking the bluebird boxes in Maxville when I realized my good fortune.  Two chicks poked their heads out of the entrance hole.  I could hear their parents, clacking their bills as they strafed me from overhead.

I went back to my Prius to watch the drama.

I expected the nestlings would fly to the nearby tree.  I was surprised to see the first little bird fail to defy gravity.  Its first "flight" was unspectacular - more like a "plummet" to the grass below.  Momma bluebird brought a mouthful of insects and lured it to cover.

Both mom and dad returned their focus to the other nestlings.

There was a lot of looking, a lot of calling, a lot of momma flying around.

After about an hour, the mid-day heat got to us, so we headed off to check the rest of our nest boxes.  I left feeling good about this box - so far it's been 9 (eggs) for 9 (fledglings).

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fledglings at the Feeders

I don't remember seeing so many fledglings at the feeders this early in the summer.   They started to show up in mid-June and by July 4th our bird feeding station was full of birds - the fledglings and their parent, plus a couple of Blue Jays,  a pair of Cardinals, dozens of goldfinches and half a dozen hummingbirds.

The first fledglings to show up were the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks - in a wide variety of plumages.  I counted adult 5 males at one point, and more than a dozen fledglings with their axillaries  (armpits) all shades of yellow, orange and red.

In just a week, the yard was full of "peeooow" begging calls and lots of fluttering.  The grosbeaks were soon joined by Baltimore Orioles, a lone fledgling cowbird, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees and House Finches.  Together they created an early morning symphony of bird vocalizations right outside my kitchen window.

They've also created drama.

I've seen fledglings try their begging behavior on what appears to be one of their parents, on other fledglings and on species other than their own.

I've seen orioles eat suet, finches and woodpeckers taste the grape jelly and grosbeaks try to figure out the nectar and thistle feeders.

And I've seen them collide, fall off feeders and get up to give it another try.

One thing they're all starting to learn is the meaning of an alarm call.

It's mighty quiet after an accipiter takes one of the grosbeaks at my feeders.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Red Admirals


I first noticed these eye-catching orange, black and white butterflies a month ago on the Chippewa River State Trail and along Rustic Road 107 on the way to Meridean.  Smaller than the Monarch, a handful of them sat motionless soaking up the early morning sun on the road and atop a patch of nettles bordering the road.  They were quick to take off as I approached.  Their erratic and rapid flight made them nearly impossible to photograph.

Other than recognizing them, I didn't think much of it until this weekend when I went out to check my bluebird boxes.  There must have been an "emergence" over night.  Red Admirals were everywhere, thousands of them.

The scene was reminiscent of an unforgettable experience I had on Father's Day, in 2007, when I walked through literally a blizzard of them along the Trail.

Known to scientists as Vanessa atalanta, the genus (family) name, Vanessa, is said to have been coined by Irish satirist Jonathan Swift of Gulliver's Travels fame.  He created it by rearranging the first syllables of the name of a close friend Esther Vanhomrigh.
The species name, atalanta, is a reference to the pugnacious Greek goddess who was the swiftest runner of her time, known for outracing event the most fleet-footed men.

While most butterflies get their common name from their appearance, there is some disagreement about the etymology of the Red Admiral.  Some sources say it's a reference to the insect's striking color:  red admirable.  Others say it's because their "splendid hues resembled a naval ensign."

Twentieth century novelist Vladimir Nabokov of Lolita fame, related an interesting story about the Russian nickname for the Red Admiral,  the butterfly of doom - because it was abundant in 1881, the year Czar Alexander II was assassinated.  And if you look carefully at the underside of its two hind wings, you may see the numbers "1881."

Surprisingly little is known about the biology and seasonal distribution of this migratory insect.  Scientists at Iowa State University are recruiting amateur observers to participate in their Vanessa Migration Project

Get outside and see the butterflies!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Monarch Butterflies

I never noticed insects - other than ticks, ant, flies and mosquitoes - when I was a kid.

I remember how surprised I was to learn that insects migrate.   I was at an entomology conference and one of speakers presented a program on the mystery of Monarch butterfly migration.

Back in 1930, Dr. Fred Urquhart, an entomologist at the University of Toronto, began his quest to solve the mystery of where Monarch butterflies spent the winter.  He invented a method for tagging butterflies and recruited thousands of volunteers to help him.  I signed up - and tagged Monarchs for several years.  

It took 45 years for Dr. Urquhart's study to find the answer. On January 1, 1975, Kenneth Brugger, a Kenosha, Wisconsin native living in Mexico City, discovered Monarch overwintering sites in central Mexico.

But Monarch research (and the tagging project) continues, now managed by the University of Kansas.   If you're interested, several other organizations are recruiting volunteer butterfly observers too:  Journey North, Project Monarch Health, the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project and the NABA butterfly counts.

I've been seeing more and more Monarch butterflies lately.  I can't resist checking the undersides of milkweed leaves for eggs, caterpillars and chrysalids.

I've been watching this particular caterpillar on Rustic Road 107 in Meridean for the past 2 weeks.

I snapped this photo just as the insect defecated - note the "frass" on the left.

I plan to check to see if I can find this caterpillar's chrysalid this week.

Last week, when I took my neighbors to see this caterpillar, Andrea asked:  How many generations do Monarchs have in a year?   I thought there were three,  but I wasn't sure.  So I looked it up on the US-FWS website.  Turns out, Monarchs can have up to 4 generations each year - the last of which migrates south, over-winters in Mexico, then begins the migration north in the spring.  Amazing!

Spring Migration Map © USGS