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.

 

Marvelous Monarch Morning

Monarch butterflies were active early on a recent late July warm and humid morning in Eliza Howell Park. I began to see them before 8 a.m.

Black-eyed Susan is now in bloom in the park. Based on past observations, it is not a flower I think of when I see Monarchs, so when a Monarch stopped on one to nectar, I approached for a picture.

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Given the numbers of Monarchs flying in the peak of the summer flower season, I decided to record in pictures some of the different flowers Monarchs came to rest on this morning. The second flower was definitely no surprise; I have often seen Monarchs on Red Clover.

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Monarchs are perhaps the best known North American butterfly – large, colorful, easy to spot, often discussed in terms of their migration practice and in terms of their declining numbers. One additional point is that Monarchs will often allow someone to get close while they are feeding on nectar, as long as the approach is slow and without any quick movements. These pictures were all taken with a phone camera.

Eliza Howell Park has several new benches. I was tempted to sit in the shade and watch the Monarchs, but I needed to be on my feet to get close.

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Butterfly Weed is a Monarch favorite, a flower in the milkweed family that serves both a feeding plant for adults and a host plant for caterpillars.

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Another flower that I have previously noted as a Monarch favorite is Purple Coneflower. One of the several Monarchs flying around in the “prairie wildflower field” stopped just long enough for a quick picture.

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I cannot be sure, of course, because there were several butterflies in their irregular flight patterns, but I think that each of these pictures is of a different Monarch.

The last picture I took this morning is of the butterfly on Boneset. Boneset is not one of the more common flowers in Eliza Howell and not one that I have ever associated with Monarchs in the past.

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Five pictures of Monarchs on five different flowers in about 2 hours = a Marvelous Monarch Morning.

I came away with a better knowledge of the flowers in the park that Monarchs select as food sources. After some 1300 Eliza Howell nature walks, I continue to learn something new almost every time.

 

The Lady Has a Favorite

Over the past two to three weeks, I have been noticing the amount of time the American Lady butterfly has been spending around and on Red Clover in Eliza Howell Park. The attraction is obviously very strong.

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The American Lady, which is usually seen with its wings closed or only slightly open, has been present in large numbers this year. It is distinguished from the Painted Lady, in part, by the two large eyespots on the underwing.

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Red Clover, with its pink flowers, is also abundant this year. It is a plant native to Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, which was brought to North America and has become naturalized here. It has often been grown as a fodder crop and is valued for its ability to enrich soil by fixing nitrogen.

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This has been a great year for both Red Clover and American Lady in EHP. I suspect that the widespread clover is the primary reason there are so many American Ladies. The clover is, without a doubt, the Lady’s favorite flower.

The relationship between the two is not an exclusive one, of course. The clover welcomes other pollinators, not only bees, but other butterflies. I have seen visiting Red Admirals and Monarchs.

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And the American Lady also likes to check out other flowers from time to time. Here it is on coreopsis.

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It is fascinating to observe the American Lady’s strong preference for Red Clover, but I am left with a question: What was the American Lady’s favorite flower before Red Clover was introduced to North America?

Nature Discovery Day Is July 13

On Saturday, July 13,  there is a great opportunity for visitors to the park to become more familiar with the wildflowers, butterflies, birds, mammals, trees — and more – of Eliza Howell Park: 9:00 – noon. Free and open to everyone.

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There will be exhibits, activities, and options of guided walks designed to point out some of the natural wealth of this Detroit park. The park entrance is on Fenkell east of Telegraph. The event also includes an opportunity to learn more about the U-M wildlife motion-activated camera project (which includes Eliza Howell Park).

Among the highlights of mid-July are the meadow/prairie wildflowers. Among those catching my attention recently are these.

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Clockwise from top left: Foxglove Beardtongue, Black-eyed Susan, Butterfly Weed, Common Milkweed

The event is organized by Eliza Howell Park Partnership (EHPP), a coalition of persons with different organizational affiliations and a common interest in highlighting Eliza Howell as a place for observing and enjoying nature in an urban environment.

Guides will be present to assist in identifying the varieties of flowers, as well as the specific species of butterflies they attract. These are among the common butterflies at this time of the year.

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Clockwise from top left: Monarch, Common Ringlet, Red Admiral, Pearl Crescent.

While I am often unable to get a picture of a butterfly I see, it is never difficult to find flowers waiting to be photographed.

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Clockwise from top left: Staghorn Sumac, Chicory, Wild Bergamot, St John’s Wort.

Eliza Howell is the kind of nature park it is, in significant part, because the Rouge River runs through it. For those who wish to take it on Saturday, a short walk to the footbridge provides a good view of the shaded river.

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Back in the field, one flower not to be missed is Wild Bergamot, a mint family flower, sometimes called beebalm, that has only recently begun its summer blooming season. It is a magnet for a variety of insects. In this picture, the visitor is a Hummingbird Moth.

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Many mammals are more active at night than during the day. The cameras used in the UM wildlife camera project have located and identified some of the mammals of the night, as will be reported on July 13.

Two that I have recently seen during the day are White-tailed Deer and Groundhog.

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I thank EHPP for providing this opportunity to witness and enjoy the natural wealth of the park.

 

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.