The Famous Woolly Bear – and Other Seasonal Caterpillars

On almost any extended walk in Eliza Howell Park at this time of the year, I come across caterpillars.

The best known moth caterpillar is also probably the most common in September: the Banded Woolly Bear (Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar).

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Woolly Bears are famous because their appearance in the Fall has long been used to try to predict the severity of the coming winter: the wider the middle rust-color band, the milder the winter, according to folklore.

They are now leaving the plants where they have been feeding and are on the move to find the right location to spend the winter. They remain in caterpillar form all winter long (surviving actual freezing) and go through the pulpa stage in the spring before emerging as adult moths. Isabella Tiger Moths are tan-colored and active at night; the caterpillar is much better known than the adult.

Here are a few seen recently.

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There are other fuzzy moth caterpillars in EHP these days. In the collage below, the two on the left are, if I have correctly identified them, two differently colored Virginian Tiger Moth caterpillars. On the right is a Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar

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I am including no photos of the adult moths here, but I do have some photos of adult butterflies that can be paired with pictures of their caterpillars.

Most Monarchs had already migrated when this caterpillar (below) was still feeding on milkweed leaves recently. I do not know if it will be able to complete metamorphosis in time to fly south. The picture of the adult was taken earlier in the year.

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Black Swallowtails are also common in Eliza Howell, though they are not as well-known as Monarchs. They lay their eggs on plants of the carrot family and I found this one in August on Queen Anne’s Lace (“wild carrot”).

Black Swallowtails are sexually dimorphic (differences in appearance between the sexes). The female is on the upper right; the male on the lower right.

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I don’t know how many people would show up for an advertised “Caterpillar Walk,” but if someone wanted to offer one, September would be a good time. There are more varieties present than are included here.

Caterpillars can be viewed and admired even when it is not always easy to connect them with the adult moths or butterflies they will become.

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Never on Yellow? The Silver-spotted Skipper

The Silver-spotted Skipper is one of the most common butterflies in Eliza Howell Park. This year I saw the first one on June 7 and have been seeing them almost every visit since.

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Recently I have been putting to a test a report that I have seen more than once – that Silver-spotted Skippers rarely visit yellow flowers, that they can be found on a wide variety of other flowers, but almost never on yellow.

Large yellow blooms (especially Coreopsis, Heliopsis, and Black-eyed Susan) have been abundant in the park since June and other species of butterflies are definitely attracted to them. (Clockwise, starting with top left: American Lady, Monarch, Black Swallowtail, Pearl Crescent)

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During the last 2 weeks, in about 30 hours of observation, I have carefully watched every flying Silver-spotted Skipper I saw (and I saw dozens of them) and noted where it came to rest.

I have seen them on (white) Queen Anne’s Lace, here and the first picture above.

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I have seen them on (blue) Chicory – not pictured – and on leaves.

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I have seen them on (purple) Red Clover – not pictured – and frequently on (lavender) Wild Bergamot.

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I have seen them on (white) Boneset, which this one is just leaving

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During all this watching, I did not see a single Silver-spotted Skipper go to a yellow flower. While my observations are not sufficient to say “never on yellow,” I can confirm that the term “rarely” does apply.

Most intriguing behavior.

Three Swallowtails: Big, Bold, Beautiful

During these dog days of summer, the fields of Eliza Howell Park are alive with flowers and butterflies. Swallowtails are the largest butterflies in North America and three different swallowtail species are now flying in these fields and feeding on the flowers. They are big and hard to miss when one is walking among the flowers.

And they almost beg to have their picture taken.

Two swallowtail species are often found in the park during the summer – Black Swallowtail and Tiger Swallowtail. The third, Giant Swallowtail, is a more southern species that appears only occasionally. I didn’t see it until August 4 this year, when this picture was taken.

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As the name suggests, Giant Swallowtail is the largest of the three (with a wingspan of about 5 inches).

Swallowtails use their long proboscis for taking nectar and the best chance for someone to get close to view and/or photograph is when they are feeding. The “swallowtail” name comes from the “tail” extending in back from each hindwing, giving the appearance of a forked tail similar to that of some swallows (such as the Barn Swallow).

At first glance, Black Swallowtail and Giant Swallowtail look somewhat alike, especially when both are in the spread wing position. This picture is of a male Black Swallowtail.

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In addition to the fact that the Black Swallowtail is smaller (wingspan of about 4 inches), the yellow lines are in different locations on the wings.

The Tiger Swallowtail is also yellow and black, in fact it gets its name from the black and yellow striped look. It is easily distinguished, however, as it is more a yellow butterfly than a black one.

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While there is some variation among individuals in size, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (to give its full name) is usually larger than Black Swallowtails but smaller than Giant Swallowtails.

Butterflies often look different when their wings are folded or partially folded. It is interesting to compare the next two pictures. First a Giant Swallowtail.

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Then a Tiger Swallowtail.

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Of the three, the only one in which the difference between the male and female is major is the Black Swallowtail. Here is a picture of a female, followed by one of a male.

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Butterfly watching is usually enhanced by being able to recognize differences among species. But that ability can come gradually.

My main reason for writing about these three swallowtails is simply to highlight what is happening now in Eliza Howell Park. The season is short (especially for the Giant Swallowtail), but it is a special time of the year when one can watch all three of these big, bold, and beautiful butterflies on the same day.

 

The Call of Coreopsis

In the middle of June I find myself drawn repeatedly to the patches of Coreopsis now scattered in the fields of Eliza Howell Park.

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Coreopsis, also known as Tickseed (a name based on the shape of the seed), is one of the flowers more often called by its Latin name than its English name.*

Coreopsis is a native American wildflower, about 2 feet tall. Each stem has just one flower at the top. The flower has 8 petals, each normally having 4 lobes at the tip.

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I am called to the concentrations of coreopsis in two ways. 

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The first is simply to admire and enjoy the flowers. The second is to check out the visiting insects. Coreopsis calls to them also.

On a recent walk, I came across a Black Swallowtail and a Painted Lady.

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The meadow flowers of the summer provide the best opportunity of the year for insect watching in Eliza Howell and the season starts with Coreopsis. Here are a few I noted in the last couple days.

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The weather has been cool for June, but the silent call of the Coreopsis is signaling the beginning of summertime nature walks, featuring blooming meadow wildflowers and a fascinating variety of insects.

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* For those interested in the meaning of the name: The Latin word “coreopsis” itself describes the shape of the seed, taken from two Greek words meaning “bug” and “appearance.” Most of us, however, don’t think of the meaning of the Greek root words when we think or say “coreopsis.”

 

 

Common but Not Common: Black Swallowtail

On May 22, I saw the first Black Swallowtail of 2019 in Eliza Howell Park. Black Swallowtails are nectaring butterflies, usually seen going from flower to flower. About the only flowers available in the field on May 22 were dandelions.

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Black Swallowtails are regulars in the park, often seen anytime from May through September. They are regulars, frequently seen, “common” in this sense. But the reason I take their pictures so often is that they are not “common” in the sense of routine or plain or unremarkable. They get my attention repeatedly.

Like many other butterflies, they are attracted to wild bergamot.

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And they like clover.

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The “swallowtail” name comes from the two tails extending in back, similar to – or reminding someone of – the tail of the Barn Swallow. The male and female are slightly different in appearance, the females having smaller yellow/white spots but larger blue patches than the males.

These common but remarkable butterflies are often in home gardens as well as in the park. In our garden, they frequent coneflowers.

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Black Swallowtails do not migrate, but overwinter as chrysalis. Females lay eggs on plants in the carrot family (parsley, carrots, Queen Anne’s lace, etc.). This caterpillar is enjoying eating its way up a parsley sprig.

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Naturalists often refer to animals and plants that are seen frequently in a particular location as “common.” Sometimes they are even named “common” – for example, “common milkweed” and “common buckeye.” A number of years ago, while on a butterfly walk in Eliza Howell, a companion said when viewing the common buckeye butterfly: “How can anything that beautiful be called “common!”

Here is a common buckeye that was close enough for me to get a picture of last year in Eliza Howell.

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His words are on my mind as I reflect on the black swallowtail. Its regular presence does not diminish its distinctiveness.

2018 Butterflies: A Top 10 List

2018 has been a very good year for butterflies in Eliza Howell Park. Recently I saw the 30th different species of the year (30 species that I was able to identify; there are some small brown skippers that I do not know well enough).

It was also a good butterfly year in that I was more successful in photographing them, learning to get close enough to capture them with a phone camera. The pictures here were all taken in the park this year.

This list could have been considerably longer, but these ten are the ones that I’d like to call to the reader’s attention at this time.

Common Buckeye (first seen September 11; photo September 11)

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Though called “common,” I don’t see many Common Buckeyes in Eliza Howell. When I do see one, it is usually late in the season. They are a more southern species, at least for much of the season. In Michigan in football season it may be appropriate to point out that the “Buckeye” name has nothing to do with Ohio. 

Black Swallowtail (first seen May 29; photo September 7)

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Male and female Black Swallowtails look a little different; this is a female. Black Swallowtails are common and are often found in gardens. Parsley family plants serve as food plants for the caterpillars.

Viceroy (first seen August 4; photo August 10)

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Viceroy butterflies look like Monarch butterflies and benefit from the Monarch’s reputation among birds for being toxic. Ordinarily, Viceroys have a clear black band across the hindwings (a line which Monarchs do not have), but that line is extremely faint in this one.

Monarch (first seen May 24; photo August 6)

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Monarchs are the most famous butterfly in country, known for their annual migration, their dependence on milkweed plants, and their recent decline in numbers. I don’t know the long-term implications, but there were a great number of Monarchs in southeast Michigan this year – and in Eliza Howell Park.

Tiger Swallowtail (first seen May 31; photo August 2)

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Tiger Swallowtails were also common this year, showing up frequently throughout the summer.

Silver-spotted Skipper (first seen June 24; photo July 26)

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Roughly one third of all butterfly species in North America are skippers and, as a rule, they are very difficult to identify. The Silver-spotted Skipper is the most easily recognized of the skippers, perhaps reason enough to like it.

Common Checkered-Skipper (first seen June 29; photo July 24)

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The Common Checkered-Skipper, considered the most common and widespread skipper in North America, is also relatively easy to recognize. The males sometimes appear a little blue.

Giant Swallowtail (first seen July 17; photo July 17)

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The Giant Swallowtail is fairly common in more southerly regions of the country, but not here. I feel fortunate any year that it shows up in Eliza Howell. Compared with many butterflies, it is indeed a giant.

American Lady (first seen May 31; photo July 14)

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American Lady and Painted Lady are both found here; this year I saw American Lady a little more frequently. The Ladies, especially Painted Lady, migrate seasonally as Monarchs do.

Hackberry Emperor (first seen June 11; photo June 11)

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I don’t know why a small family of butterflies is called “Emperor,” but the “Hackberry” name comes from the fact that the hackberry tree is the larval food plant. They are not common in Eliza Howell.

In the middle of September, butterfly activity is slowing down and the Monarch migration to Mexico is well started. But there are still some butterflies around and it is not too late for a butterfly walk.