Monday, August 13, 2012

An exotic stranger

A report went out on the Arkansas butterfly chat room that a Long-tailed Skipper had appeared in someone's garden. Years ago about once every three or four years we would have one of these pretty butterflies appear in our garden, but we had not seen one for years. They're a subtropical species, southern Texas, Louisiana, Florida, that from time to time heads north and can appear anywhere. So, we envied the finders' good luck, walked out in our front yard, and there was a Long-tailed Skipper nectaring at a lantana bush.

This one had lost its long tails in some accident, perhaps a bird trying to catch it, but it still had the brilliant blue upperparts against the otherwise black body and wings that helped to make it such a striking insect.

We were pleased to see it, and took a number of pictures. Then we went in the house and had a cup of tea, and when we checked later, there was a second Long-tailed Skipper, this one with perfect tails, feeding at the same lantana bush.

All this probably is not just bizarre coincidence. Probably right now the state is flooded with Long-tails. The alert has been sent out, and interested people will be checking their own gardens.

In fact there has been a sort of uptick in butterfly activity lately. Tiny little orange Least Skippers, usually rather common here in the Delta, had been scarce all year. But suddenly they are swarming in our garden. Maybe it's because the temperature is relenting slightly, as if the season has come unstuck and started moving forward again. A few days ago when I got up in the morning and checked my thermometer, it was 61.

There have been some good moths around as well. We had a big handsome Tulip-tree Beauty on our bedroom window, and sitting on the edge of the pond was a Peachtree Borer, one of that group of moths that bore into fruit trees and cause no end of damage but are forgiven by us for all the imaginative ways they mimic wasps.

A big Obscure Bird Grasshopper (Schistocerca obscura) showed up in our yard the other day. It can be pretty destructive to plants too, but we readily forgive it. (Cheryl says she doesn't forgive it quite as readily.) Despite its unsuitable name it's as exotic and gorgeous as anything that can irrupt into the state from Florida or southern Texas, and it's just our Arkansas run-of-the-mill.

Genuinely pestiferous things, our mosquitoes, amuse us too with their idea of a roosting site. Years ago we extended the size of our kitchen, and where it comes forward from the front of the house, there is an inward pointing angle, and funnel-web spiders build their nets across the gap. During the day dozens of mosquitoes roost there, hanging to the web. The spiders are right there, manning their webs, but the mosquitoes, that would make a nice snack for them, somehow don't count as food, and sit there immune to attack. The mosquitoes must have an immensely light touch. Perhaps they land on the web as they land on our skin while we are sleeping.

I planted some spider lilies in the backyard years ago, and they have continued growing and spreading. This spring their strap-like leaves came up, grew vigorously for a while, then died off and disappeared, and we forgot all about them. Then seemingly overnight, the other day their flower stalks shot up out of the ground, buds clustered at the top. Like many white flowers, they flower at night, and attract moths as their pollinators. You can see when a bud is fat and ready to open. In the past I would occasionally get a folding chair and a glass of wine, and sit by the bud just at dusk, and watch the fragile skin break so the flower can spring open. This year we were doing other things, but we noticed that only a few days after the buds came up, they were in full bloom. The flowers will just as quickly die and shrivel up and be gone until next year.

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