Partridge Pea: A New Wildflower Attraction

The glorious summer wildflowers in Eliza Howell Park continue to bloom for many weeks, but the exact make up of the blooming species changes constantly.

Since the beginning of August, I am finding myself drawn to a small flowering plant that has just begun to bloom, the Partridge Pea.

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I am currently aware of only one patch, a patch of 30 or more Patridge Pea flowers scattered among other plants.

By comparison with some very tall plants found among the meadow flowers, Partridge Pea is a quite small species; the ones in Eliza Howell now 1 stand betweeen 1 and 2 feet high.

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What I find most attractive is the showy 1-inch flower. It has 5 bright yellow rounded petals that vary in size and several stamens with a touch of red. It invites me to get down low for a close-up view.

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The Partridge Pea is more than just a pretty face, however.

It is a good source of nectar that provides food for different pollinators. This week it is being visited most frequently by bumblebees.

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A legume native to Eastern North America, it is a host plant for the caterpillars of several butterflies, including Sulphurs. 

Clouded Sulphur (pictured here) is a common butterfly in Eliza Howell.

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One of the reasons that I am fascinated by the Partridge Pea that I am now  seeing is that I do not recall observing it in the park in previous years. Perhaps the numbers are greater this year, making it more noticeable. Regardless, I an now very conscious of it and will be watching it as the summer flower season continues.

For me, it is a new star attraction.

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July Butterflies: Photos

July 2020 has been a great month for butterflies in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit. I returned many times to see which butterflies were present and to try to get some photos.

Here are photos of 10 species I watched this month, camera in hand.

20200731_112623Black Swallowtail

Resized_20200720_180214Silver-spotted Skipper

20200731_101038Giant Swallowtail

20200720_175730Common Wood-Nymph

Resized_20200731_124716E. Tiger Swallowtail

20200721_162531Common Buckeye

Resized_20200727_125009Painted Lady

20200731_124928Monarch

Resized_20200731_111123Viceroy

20200705_120545Clouded Sulphur

Nature walks don’t get much better than they were this month.

Hummingbird Moth: “What’s That?”

I usually see hummingbird moths — though not many of them — in late July and early August when I am frequently in the blooming wildflowers in Eliza Howell Park. They are referred to as “hummingbird moths” because of their behavior: they hover as they sip nectar, are able to fly in different directions, including backwards, beating their wings very fast — all hummingbird traits.

The moth in this photo is a Hummingbird Clearwing, the more common of the two hummingbird moths that can be seen occasionally in Eliza Howell.

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These are daytime-flying pollinating moths that can zip from flower to flower as hummingbirds do, using the proboscis to get the nectar.

They are larger than bumblebees, large enough that they might, at first glance,  be thought to be hummingbirds. When I first encountered one years ago in a flower garden, I had never heard of them. My “what’s that?” reaction is the same one I hear now from those who accompany me on walks at this time of the year.

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The Hummingbird Clearwing is the only one with “hummingbird” in its name, but there are others that are similar in behavior. One of the others sometimes in EHP is Snowberry Clearwing.

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Snowberry Clearwing Moth looks like a bumblebee and acts like a hummingbird. I don’t see it very often even in the peak of hummingbird moth season.

The differences between the two are evident when seen side by side, as below. In the field, of course, they are not seen together and usually seen only fleetingly as they hover briefly.

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In reviewing all the pictures I have of hummingbird moths, I made two observations.

One is that I do not have many pictures. They are very difficult to capture in a photo, primarily because they do not perch.

The second observation is that every photo I do have is of the moth at a Wild Bergamot bloom. It is obviously a favorite nectoring flower.

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Looking for hummingbird moths leads me to hang out by bergamot these hot summer days. I do not care for the heat, but these insects are fascinating.

Culver’s Root: An Introduction

When I am accompanied in my walks among the meadow wildflowers in Eliza Howell Park at this time of the year, I often get asked about specific plants. Culver’s Root is the one most commonly asked about.

Culver’s Root may not be noticed immediately as one approaches the wildflower patch in full bloom. It is a little more subtle than some of the purples and yellows.

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The plant that inspires the most questions is the one with a number of spikes (perhaps suggestive of a candelabra), each spike with many small tubular white flowers (sometimes tinged with pink). It is striking in its own way but, apparently, not so well known.

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The flowers open from the bottom of the spike up. Each flower has a couple brown or orange stamens.

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The common name — Culver’s Root — reflects the medicinal use of the plant (primarily as a laxative). “Culver” was reportedly a physician who promoted its use.

This year the plants seem more common and larger than in previous summers.

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Culver’s Root is native to eastern North America and is one of the many Eliza Howell flowers that attract many bees.

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Before Eliza Howell became my nature study park, I was not familiar with Culver’s Root. Now I am pleased to be able to introduce others to this elegant flower.

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Purple Coneflower: Irresistible

I was recently asked about flowers that I would recommend for a large wildflower patch in the Detroit area. Thinking in terms of flowers that are definitely attractive to both insects and to humans, I quickly came up with a list of 10.

High on the list was Purple Coneflower, a July boomer that seems to be irresistible.

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The pink or purple flowers are large and colorful, several or many to a plant. While the petals droop at times as in some other coneflowers species, they are frequently flat and occasionally rising.

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They attract butterflies more than most other flowers. Monarchs, it seems, find them irresistible. This picture found two.

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I often stop near Purple Coneflowers when I am thinking of trying to get  butterfly photos and have found that this is a good strategy.

Here is a Tiger Swallowtail

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Others include, top left clockwise, Clouded Sulphur, Peck’s Skipper, Red Admiral, and Eastern Black Swallowtail.

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In addition, they attract a wide variety of bees and wasps. Most recently, Bumblebees have been present in large numbers.

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The relationship of insects and flowers is, of course, a mutually beneficial one: insects get fed and flowers get pollinated.

Many of us humans are also drawn to Purple Coneflowers, and I am wondering how this can be somewhat mutually beneficial. We benefit from their beauty and from the opportunity to observe the insects up close. Perhaps they benefit by our planting and promoting them.

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Now is the best time of the summer to observe these coneflowers and the critters they attract.

Hairstreak Butterflies

The larger and brighter butterflies, like Monarchs and Tiger Swallowtails, tend to get most of our attention. Recently, however, I have been trying to become more informed about one group of small and less colorful butterflies that are found in Eliza Howell Park — Hairstreaks.

Hairstreaks are small — with a wingspan of only about 1 inch — and they close their wings when they perch.

The most common Hairstreak in EHP is, probably

Banded Hairstreak

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Most Hairstreaks have narrow “tails” on the hindwing. They fly rapidly and, given their small size, are not identifiable until they perch. Even then, it is often difficult to tell one Hairstreak from another.

The next one looks like a Hickory Hairstreak, though I probably would not have been able to recognize that  without havng the photo to study.

Hickory Hairstreak

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The identification challenge is further exemplified by the most recent species I have been able to photograph:

Acadian Hairstreak.

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Before I became more familiar with Hairstreaks, a small tailed butterfly always made me think of the Eastern Tailed-Blue. The lovely blue color is only visible when the wings are open, which is rarely the case when it is perched.

It is not a Hairstreak, but it adds to the identification challenge.

Eastern Tailed-Blue

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It is not necessary to be able to distinguish the different species to be able enjoy watching these small butterflies, but getting pictures has enhanced my appreciation. It is fascinating to note the variation in the bands / spots and in the orange and blue coloration.

Here is another Banded Hairstreak.

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Hairstreaks are small and often hard to find, but they do let me get close enough for pictures.

For this I thank them

Punctuation Butterflies: Comma and Question Mark

I have long been fascinated by the fact that some butterflies are named after punctuation marks. Two of these are found in Eliza Howell Park every year: Eastern Comma and Question Mark.

Eastern Comma

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Question Mark

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It can be quite challenging to tell the difference between E. Comma and Question Mark in the field, even with binoculars.

They usually perch with their wings open, but the names come from underwing markings visible only when the wings are closed.

E. Comma has a light colored mark shaped like a comma – or a “c” – on its side.

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The light-colored mark on a Question Mark is followed by a separate dot. Apparently this reminded someone of a question mark, probably someone who was already thinking of punctuation.

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One way of identifying which is which when the wings are open is to count the dark wing spots on a portion of the wing.

A Comma has three spots basically in a line behind the larger mark at the front. A Question Mark has a fourth mark a little more forward. In the next 2 pictures I have used yellow dots to indicate this difference.

Eastern Comma

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Question Mark

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Both these butterflies overwinter as adults; that is, they hibernate. Consequently, they are among the earliest to appear in the spring.

The butterfly group is known as “Anglewings” because of the shape of their wings.

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It has been an enjoyable part of my Eliza Howell butterfly watching to get to know the punctuation butterflies better. I hope others have a similar opportunity.

In a Milkweed Patch

Common Milkweed is indeed common in Eliza Howell Park and many of the plants are in bloom now.

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Milkweeds attract many insect species and I often seek out one of the milkweed patches to see who is visiting. Naturally, I look for Monarch Butterflies, the bug that made milkweed famous.

I am rarely disappointed.

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The Monarch caught in this photo is sharing the flower with another insect that is just as closely tied to the milkweed plant as it is — the Red Milkweed Beetle.

Here is a better look at the beetle, on a neighboring plant.

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These beetles eat milkweed leaves, buds, and flowers and they lay their eggs on stems. The larvae overwinter in the milkweed roots. They rightly have “milkweed” in their name.

Many of the insects on the milkweeds are pollinators. There are bees, of course.

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Other butterflies, in addition to  Monarchs, seek milkweed nectar. Here is an Eastern Tailed-blue.

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Perhaps the most exciting milkweed visitor on a recent stop in the patch was a Golden Digger Wasp.

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I, like many others, grew up being taught that Common Milkweed was a WEED, something to be removed because it competed with more desirable plants.

Now I seek out clusters of milkweed, where I move slowly, camera in hand, from one plant to another. Perhaps other park visitors wonder what that old guy is doing in the weeds, but, in my opinion, there are few better places for a nature lover to be in July than in a milkweed patch!

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July Wildflowers: Now Showing

July and August are the best months for enjoying the showy meadow wildflowers in Eliza Howell Park.

Here are some that are calling to me these first days of July.

Resized_20200702_144433St. John’s Wort

Resized_20200701_173313Wild Bergamot

Resized_20200702_215328Black-eyed Susan

Resized_20200702_143618Butterfly Weed

Resized_20200702_143538Hoary Vervain

Resized_20200703_090609Yarrow

Resized_20200703_131653Chicory (in shade and in sun)

Resized_20200703_133224False Sunflower

There are others blooming now, as well, and a good number of additional ones will flower as summer continues.

It is time to walk among the flowers!

Dragonflies: Summer Predators

July and August are the best months to see dragonflies in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park. When I walk among the summer wildflowers, my attention is often focused on the many insects attracted by the blooms. These are the very insects that attract the dragonflies.

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Adult dragonflies capture live prey and do so on the fly. I usually see them flying, but they do find perches. A perched dragonfly gives me an opportunity to get a look and, occasionally, to get a picture. Above is a Twelve-spotted Skimmer (three dark spots on each of 4 wings).

Dragonflies can be somewhat difficult to get to know, in part because it is not easy to get the good looks and in part because many species look similar. My species identification is usually tentative.

Below is one of the several species of reddish Meadowhawks.

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Dragonflies have large eyes and find flying insects visually. They catch smaller prey directly in the mouth and use a ‘basket” formed by their legs for larger prey.

Note the way the legs are prepared for gripping.

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Dragonflies are usually found near water (they are aquatic in the larva phase) and the Rouge River in Eliza Howell helps to account for their presence here.

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This is another Skimmer, a Widow Skimmer, a male, I think.

The next picture is of the head of a  female Widow Skimmer. In close ups like this, one can get a sense that dragonflies are indeed predators, able to grap and consume any flying insect in the park.

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Especially when they are clear, dragonfly wings appear delicate. But they propel an efficient hunter.

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