Red-spotted Purple: Beautiful with Wings Open or Closed

July is the best butterfly month of the year in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park. This year I have been especially pleased to get many good looks at one of my favorites — the butterfly called Red-spotted Purple.

Often when I am trying to get a good picture of a nectaring butterfly, I wait for it to open its wings so I catch see it at its most colorful. With this species, I am undecided whether it is more attractive with wings open or with wings closed.

It is fairly large (the wingspan is 3 – 3 1/2 inches) and, at first sight, it might remind one of a swallowtail. But it has no “tail” and, after meeting it a couple times, most butterfly watchers quickly learn to recognize it whenever it shows.

It is far from the most common butterfly in Eliza Howell Park, but this month I have had sveral good viewing opportunities. As is true of a good number of other species, it is attracted to Purple Coneflowers (above pictures) and to Wild Bergamot (below).

The common English name seems a little misleading. To me, it appears to be a blue butterfly with orange spots. I have to admit, however, that its questionable name has never lessened my enjoyment of it.

I can usually expect to see Red-spotted Purple between June through August, but only occasionally. Their range includes most of eastern U. S. and a part of the southwest. (The range map is from Gardens With Wings).

The Red-spotted Purple uses several different host plants for caterpillar food. One of these is Wild Black Cherry tree, of which there are a number in the park. The caterpillars overwinter in a hibernaculum (rolled leaf) on the host plant.

Black Cherry is one of my favorite trees, one of my stopping spots on many walks during the year. It seems fitting that a favorite tree serves as a host plant for a favorite butterfly!

I will try to explore this connection a little more at some orher time. For now, I am enjoying whatever opportunities I have for admiring the adult Red-spotted Purple.

Bird Nests: Different Styles and Locations

Every year I make note of the active bird nests that I see in Eliza Howell Park. The dozens of nests located in 2021 were made by 20 different species.

One of the fascinating aspects of nest watching is learning more about the varying places and structures used by different species. Here are seven examples from this year.

Eastern Bluebird Nest first observed April 5.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber

Bluebirds nest in cavities, which they do not excavate themselves. Given their practice of selecting previously made cavities within several feet of the ground, they are easily attracted to human-constructed nesting boxes. This pair was using an old woodpecker or chickadee hole in a snag by the river.

Nest-making consists of placing a loose cup of grasses and small twigs in the hole, which the pair in the photo is doing.

Killdeer. Nest first observed April 6

Killdeer nest on the ground, out in the open, in short grass or in a sandy or gravely location. They do not really make a nest, just a shallow scrape, lined, if at all, by pebbles or twigs or whatever is nearby. Their protection strategy relies largely on camouflage. Even when I know that they are nesting in a certain area, I am not always able to find the nest.

Baltimore Oriole. Nest first observed May 15

Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy

I first spotted a Baltimore Oriole arriving in the park from its winter grounds on May 1 this year. Two weeks later they were nesting.

Baltimore Orioles build their nests in large trees, preferring those with hanging branches thick with leaves. In Eliza Howell, they use Eastern Cottonwood trees more than any species. The nest shown here, approximately 20 feet high, was in a Cottonwood that had been the site of a nest each of the last four years.

Baltimore Oriole nests are large pouches, about 6 inches long, bound to and suspended from forked twigs usually near the end of a branch. The female weaves long plant fiber and other materials into a deep cup.

The nest is entered from the top. In this photo, the female is bringing food to the nestlings.

Barn Swallow Nest first observed May 15.

Barn Swallows usually build their nests against a vertical surface, often on a upper ledge in buildings or other structures. In Eliza Howell Park, they nest under a bridge over the river and under shelters (this one was under a shelter).

The nest is a shallow and open cup, made of mud pellets mixed with some plant material. It is lined, minimally, with feathers.

The birds in this photo are young ones, about ready to leave the nest, still being fed by the adults.

Warbling Vireo Nest first observed May 19.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy

Warbling Vireos nest in large deciduous trees, often high and almost always well out on a branch. Fortunately for nest watching, this one was well under 20 feet high.

The nest is a small open hanging cup, attached to twigs at the top. Vireos are small and, as can be seen in the photo, both the head and the tail of the incubating adult extend beyond the edge of the nest. The soft nest is constructed of a variety of materials — like plant down and grasses and lichen and hair — with spider webs helping to hold it together.

Song Sparrow. Nest first observed May 21.

Song Sparrows nest on the ground (as in this case) or in low shrubs / trees. The outer layer of the nest is made of dead grasses and other plant stems and finer grasses are used for the lining.

This nest was well hidden, under plant stems.I found it when the bird flew out at my feet as I walked through a part of the wildflower field.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Nest first observed May 23.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers nest in Eliza Howell Park every year and every year I try to find one of their nests that is visible enough to show to the participants of the annual Detroit Audubon nesting bird field trip here. Visiters find Gnatcatcher nests fascinating — as do I.

Some nests are built in a fork, but many saddle a branch, like this one. The nest is a compact rounded cup, deeper than it is wide. It is built of plant down, fine grasses, feathers, and other material, bound together and attached to the branch by spider webs. The outside is covered with lichen flakes, making it look like the branch on which it is placed.

The nest pictured here is leaning, but it was successful. The adult is feeding nestlings, who later fledged.

These seven nests provide a sense, I think, of the diversity found in the placement and construction of bird nests, a diversity that may account for the fact that I never tire of nest watching.


Horse Nettle: Flowers, Prickles, Fruit, Toxicity

When I walk through the open areas of Eliza Howell Park these summer days, I often focus on flowering plants. One that is currently blooming is Horse Nettle.

Horse Nettle in the park is usually only about two feet high and not very conspicuous. A closer look clearly reveals the 5 petals (white to sometimes pale purple) with yellow anthers.

Originally found in southeast North America, Horse Nettle has spread north, being in Michigan since about 1890. It is is often found in fields and pastures, and spreads by both seeds and rhizomes.

It has often gotten attention — and been considered a “weed” — because it is poisonous to grazing animals and it retains its toxicity in dried hay used as winter feed. Mammals tend to avoid eating it when other food is available, however, in part because of the prickly spines found on the stems.

It was the fruit that first led me to want to know this species better. The berries ripen from green to yellow and look somewhat like small yellow tomatoes.

This photo is from October.

The berries later lose much of their firmness but hang on the stems into the winter.

All parts of Horse Nettle are toxic. It contains solanine, which affects the digestive system. Grazing mammmals (like horses) are at risk of eating the leaves and humans are more at risk of eating the berries. The most serious consequences result from more than minimal consumption.

As is often the case with plants that have an effect on human functioning, Horse Nettle has historically sometimes been used medicinally.

Many of the wildflowers in Eliza Howell become more fascinating as I get to know them better. Horse Nettle is one.

Wild Bergamot in Bloom: Attracting Butterflies and Bumblebees

One of my favorite Eliza Howell Park wildflowers is now in bloom — Wild Bergamot. It is very easy to find patches of these three-feet tall plants sporting multitudinous lavender blossoms.

Wild Bergamot, a plant of the mint family that is sometimes called Bee Balm, is a favorite of mine in large part because it is a magnet for fascinating insects, especially pollinators. I frequently stop at one of these patches, knowing that there is an excellent chance of seeing butterflies and an assurance of seeing other insects.

Butterflies that I have been seeing the last four days, camera in hand, include:

Great Spangled Frittilary

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Silver-spotted Skipper

Black Swallowtail

Wild Bergamot blooms for about a month, attracting an increasing variety of insects as the month progresses. At present, the most numerous visitors are bumblebees, present in great number.

Bumblebees crawl over the flowers, gathering pollen.

There are many different kinds of bumblebees (19 have been recorded in Michigan) and I am not able to identify them by individual species.

Bumblebees are among the largest of bees and, like honeybees, live together as a social unit. But unlike honeybees, which were introduced from Europe shortly after Europeans came to North America, bumblebees are native here.They appear to be the primary pollinator of many wildflowers in Eliza Howell Park.

Though bumblebees may look scary, they are so focused on pollen that they can be approached very closely without danger as they work the flowers.

The flowering of Wild Bergamot signals that the wildflower and butterfly season is definitely underway. The next few weeks is the time to experience the wealth of wildflowers and to admire all the insects they attract.

The Detroit Audubon Wildflower and Butterfly field trip to Eliza Howell Park is scheduled for July 31 this year.

Joe Pye Weed, Purple Coneflower, Ironweed, and a variety of other flowers will be getting attention very soon, but Wild Bergamot deserves the focus these early days of July.

Red Milkweed Beetle: A Total Milkweed Life Cycle

When the Common Milkweed begins to bloom — which is usually near the end of June in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park — it is the time to start seeing Red Milkweed Beetles. Their whole life revolves around Milkweed plants.

There are many Common Milkweed plants in the park, often in patches, and it is easy to spot Red Milkweed Beetles on a walk through any of the patches this week.They feed on all parts of the plant — leaves, buds, stems.

Red Milkweed Beetles are in the longhorned beetles family, named for the length of the antennae. The antennae are right by the eyes, giving the head a very interesting appearance.

The adult beetles have recently emerged from the soil and will spend much of the summer eating. They do not congregate in large numbers on any one plant (flying from one milkweed to another) with the result that they do little damage to the plant.

In eating milkweed, they accumulate alkaloid toxins in their bodies, just as Monarch butterflies and some other milkweed insects do, making them nearly immune to predators. And, like the other insects that have this milkweed advantage, they advertise their toxicity by their red/orange color.

They don’t need to hide or use camouflage for protection.

This is the season for eating, and it is also the season for mating. Females lay their eggs on milkweed stems by the ground. When hatched, the larvae bore into the stems or dig into the ground and work their way to the roots, where they spend the winter. The adults die in the fall.

It appears this female is not interrupting her eating while mating.

Red Milkweed Beetles are completely dependent upon milkweed plants. Put differently, they specialize in milkweeds. They are common where milkweeds are common and not anywhere else.

I find it fascinating to observe and learn about the life cycles of different insects. This week Red Milkweed Beetle has been the focus of much of my attention.

Tawny Emperor and Hickory Hairstreak: A Good Butterfly Day

Now that Summer is here, butterflies are seen more frequently. Especially on sunny days, I am alert to flittering flights while walking in Eliza Howell Park, eager to see which species are active.

June 24 was sunny and a very good butterfly day.

Perhaps the best find of the day was this Tawny Emperor.

Southern Michigan is the northern edge of the Tawny Emperor’s geographical range, so they are not common here. I see one only occasionally.

Their color varies and I find this one, a little darker than many, very attractive. It was in the meadow, near the walking path.

The next unusual find was on the footbridge, resting on the metal railing. It is a Hickory Hairstreak.

Lepidopterists sometimes note that Hickory Hairstreak is “rarely seen.” This is only the second time I have found it in Eliza Howell and, since there are other Hairstreaks that are similar (especially Banded Hairstreak), I have consulted experts both times to confirm identification.

These two were the most most unusual sightings of the day, but others are also notable.

The Mourning Cloak, with its fascinating life cycle, is always good to see.

Rhe Mourning Cloak is not often photographed in this position; normally it is pictured from behind. So it might not be immediately recognizable.

Mourning Cloaks spend the Winter in hibernation as adults and emerge on the first warm days of the Spring, often being the first butterfly that I see. This year I saw the first one on March 27.

They lay eggs in the spring and this one has probably just energed from the chrysalis. It has a very long lifetime for a butterfly, 10 or 11months.

After feeding for a couple weeks in June-July, they estivate for the heart of the summer (in a state of torpor or dormancy), before being active again until winter hibernation. If it avoids predators and other threats, this same butterfly might brighten one of my Spring walks next year.

I also encountered a European Skipper feeding on Red Clover.

This is a much less dramatic find, but it is always satisfying to me when I recognize a particular Skipper among the many varieties that look so much alike. And any butterfly nectaring on Red Clover gets my attention.

This good butterfly day was also a good moth day. I saw and was able to get pictures of two colorful daytime flying moths.

One is Virginia Ctenucha.

The orange on the head is barely visible from this angle, but the metallic blue body is clear. As can be seen, this a nectaring moth. Though it is diurnal, I very rarely see it.

The other moth that presented itself was in the woodland, in a patch of nettles (the leaves stung my hands as I worked to get close enough for a picture).

It is called Leconte’s Haploa Moth.

The Leconte’s Haploa is about an inch long with a two inch wingspan. It is best known for its appearance. When the wings are held like this, it has reminded some of a crusaders shield.

There are some days when my nature walk leads to additional hours afterwards spent reviewing what I observed in the field. June 24 was one of these special days.

Swamp Milkweed: The Third Milkweed Species

Milkweeds are just beginning to bloom in Eliza Howell Park in the third and fourth weeks of June. I find myself paying special attention this year to Swamp Milkweed, a species that I have not written about before.

In fuller bloom, Swamp Milkweed looks like this.

Previous milkweed-related posts have focused on Common Milkweed and Butterfly Weed, both more widespread in the park. Based upon my most recent observations, Swamp Milkweed is, however, a little more common than I had thought.

In this collage, Butterfly Weed is on the top left, Common Milkweed is bottom left, and Swamp Milkweed is on the right.

As its name indicates, Swamp Milkweed grows best in wetter areas. As writers sometimes say, it likes to grow where “it can get its feet wet.”

The best area for finding it in Eliza Howell is in the wet meadow, near what I refer to as the toad breeding pond. Here is a small patch, not yet in bloom, that I have been watching.

All three of these milkweed species are host species for Monarch Butterfly larvae. And Swamp Milkweed, like Common Milkweed, has the white sticky sap that is the basis for the family name. (Butterfly Weed is the family exception in that it does not have this “milk.”)

While Swamp Milkweed is selective in its growing environment, it is geographically widespread. (This map is from the USDA.)

Perhaps because it grows primarily in a different part of park from the major summer wildflower displays, it doesn’t usually get visited as frequently as the other two milkweed species. This year I am definitely enjoying getting to know it better.

The leaves are narrower than those of the Common Milkweed, but larger than Butterfly Weed leaves.

There are other milkweed species that grow in Michigan, but to date I am aware with only three in Eliza Howell Park. As I am always learning more about park flora and fauna, perhaps one of these days I will discover a fourth local species!

Prickly Pear: A Cactus Grows in Detroit

On May 12, while looking at some Lupines in Eliza Howell Park, I noticed a plant that I had never expected to see here: a Prickly Pear cactus.

It was small, a single pad only 3 – 4 inches high, growing in the wildflower field fairly close to two large oak trees.

While Eastern Prickly Pear is native to locations in the Northeast and the Midwest, including some areas in Michigan, it is not known to grow in the wild in the Detroit area.

When I mentioned the find to others, one of the first questions was how did it get here. Since it is able to tolerate cold winters, it is sometimes grown as a garden plant. It is possible that it came from a garden, either as a deliberate transplant or as a seed that got deposited in this location.

There was no evidence that it had been planted recently, no disturbed ground. It appears to have spent the winter in this location.

I am more interested in finding the answer to a different question: will it survive and thrive here. So I made note of its exact location (single small plants are often hard to relocate) and now stop by regularly.

By the end of May, two things were noticeable: 1) a small section had been broken or bitten off and 2) new growth was evident on two spots on the rim of the pad.

From this view, one growth is in the center by the top and the other is to the left, a little below the top. The one on the left is the faster growing one. Here is a close-up look from May 31.

Prickly Pear pads produce flowers (and fruit) and also grow new pads. Since these new growths first appeared, the one on the side has been growing faster.

On June 4, it looked Iike this.

Since I have never previously had the opportunity to watch a Prickly Pear grow,, I am finding it fascinating to see how and how quickly a single pad develops.

The next two pictures are from June 16, one of the whole plant and one of the emerging new pad on the left side.

However this lone Prickly Pear came to be in Eliza Howell Park, it is now here and it is growing. It will be very interesting to see how well this lone cactus does in this setting. I will be watching.

Little Wood-Satyr: A Common Early June Butterfly

The butterfly seen most frequently in Eliza Howell Park in early June, visible even on cloudy days when other butterflies are not very active, is the Little Wood-Satyr.

As I walk in the wildflower meadow near the edge of trees, I cannot miss them as they fly close to the path, often coming to rest on or near the ground.

When the wings are spread, the six circled black spots (eyespots) help to identify this species. When not flying, Little Wood-Satyr shows itself both with wings spread (as above) and with wings closed.

When the wings are closed, the two lines on the underwing are quite visible.

The wingspan is a little over 1 and 1/2 inches. Its flight, sometimes described as “bouncy” or as “dancing,” contributes to it being so noticeable. It feeds on grasses and other plants and is not a species that is attracted to the nectar of flowers.

There is only one brood a year (they overwinter as caterpillars) and the adults will be gone when summer reaches its peak and this meadow is filled with prairie flowers attended to by a variety of other butterflies.

Little Wood-Satyr is found throughout the Eastern part of the United States. (This map is from Garden with Wings.)

When summer truly arrives, this area near the edge of the woods will be populated by another type of satyr, the Common Wood-Nymph.

Wood-Nymphs are larger (wingspan over 2 inches) and are a nectaring species. They do not spread their wings when nectaring and are distinguished by 2 yellow-ringed black eyespots on the forewing.

From July through September, this prairie flower area in Eliza Howell will be visited by many admirers of wildflowers and of butterflies. Now, when very few of the flowers are blooming, there are not many of us walking among the plants.

We who are here now have a great opportunity to get to know the Little Wood-Satyr. And come to recognize that even little brown “bugs” can be lovely and fascinating.

May Yellow Wildflowers

A month ago, at the end of April, most of the early blooming wildflowers in Eliza Howell Park were in the woodlands. As May progressed, more flowers began to appear in the fields and meadows.

Once again this year I have been struck by how many of these early meadow species have yellow flowers.

Golden Ragwort

Small patches of Golden Ragwort are scattered in the park. They are less than 2 feet tall and, growing among other meadow plants, can be missed from a distance. When my walks bring me close, the clusters of small blooms always lead me to stop and admire.

Yellow Wood-Sorrel

Yellow Wood-Sorrel is a small wildflower that is very common in this part of the country (gardeners often see them). Each tiny 5-petaled flower is 1/2 inch across at most. They’re distinguished from other small 5-petaled yellow flowers (like Cinquefoil) by the leaves that resemble 3-leaf clovers.

Cinquefoil

There are different Cinquefoil species with yellfow flowers. This one (Common Cinquefoil, I think) grows along the ground and sends up individual flowers, which are about 1/2 inch across. Each petal is slightly notched.

Yellow Goat’s Beard

Yellow Goat’s Beard is a taller flower, reaching above the rapidly growing grasses in single flowers, nearly 2 inches across and resembling tall Dandelions.

The color yellow has often been recognized as symbolizing sunshine. Goat’s Beard and Dandelion are two wildflowers that might suggest sun.

Dandelion

Dandelion needs no description and is usually considered a weed (a weed being in many cases a flower growing where it is unwanted).The scattered bright yellow Dandelions in Eliza Howell Park add to the overall scene of attractive yellow May wildflowers.

Coreopsis

Just now, as May is nearing the end, Coreopsis is beginning to bloom. It is the first of the larger meadow and prairie wildflowers that will populate the park in the months to come.

Coreopsis flowers appear singly on the tips of the stems. Each has 8 petals with each petal having several lobes at the tip.

….

There have been a few wildflowers blooming in May that are not yellow, but yellow has definitely been the dominant color.

The color yellow is often said to symbolize happiness and optimism (in addition to sunshine). It fitting, perhaps, that yellow is the dominant flower color in May, a month of rising spirits for many.