Thursday, August 8, 2013

More nice butterflies

In an earlier post I wrote about chasing after some attractive butterflies in early summer: The Olympia Marble, the Frosted Elfin, the Silvery Blue, and the Great Purple Hairstreak. Three of these have in common being in the group of butterflies known as the Gossamer-wings (family Lycaenidae). The other butterfly groups are more familiar to most people, the big swallowtails, and the whites and sulphurs flying over open fields, and the "regular" butterflies, the painted ladies, the buckeyes, the monarchs, the red-spotted purples.

Least familiar (and therefore most special) are the Lycaenids, which, I have written in another context, are to butterfliers what warblers are to birdwatchers. They are small, fast moving, often brightly or intricately patterned, sometimes appearing in great numbers, often very rare, always appearing unpredictably, always a pleasure to see, even the commonest ones. These are the harvesters, the coppers, the hairstreaks, the elfins, the blues.

Of the four species I wrote about in the earlier post, the marble is a white, but the other three were Lycaenids. Of the four special butterflies we have run into just now in mid summer, once again three are Lycaenids.

The first is not a great rarity, but it is so beautiful we are always grateful to see it. Some years there are a lot around, but some years they can be very scarce. This is the Juniper Hairstreak. A week or so ago we were walking along a dirt road at the Harold Alexander WMA, a road where we had often found special insects in the past. We were looking for tiger beetles, robber flies, grasshoppers, and of course butterflies. Recent rains had moistened the dirt of the road, which always brings dissolved salts to the surface, and freshly emerged male butterflies in their brightest colors were coming down to drink the salts, which they require to get into breeding condition. Cheryl spotted the tiny beautiful green butterfly (not much more than an inch wingspread) mud-puddling so intently it paid no attention to us at all. We could photograph it all we wanted, but, because it was at an awkward angle for us flat on the ground of the road, Cheryl enticed it up on her hand, to drink the salts on her skin.

A day later, taking advantage of the relatively cool settled weather, we were at Big Lake. A couple of weeks before we had been there and seen a few Bronze Coppers that looked like they could have been freshly emerged (the technical term is eclosed) from the chrysalis that day. Bronze Coppers are not only beautiful, they are also, in Arkansas, rare. Some years ago we found them at Wapanocca NWR, and then here at the Moist Soils Unit at Big Lake. So far as anyone knows, these are the only two sites where this species can be found in the state. It seems to be diminishing at Wapanocca, but it is getting commoner at Big Lake. When we found them here this year, we sent out the word, and a number of people had been here to photograph them. Now we were back checking on them, and they were everywhere, and we could not resist taking more pictures ourselves. The best thing was, the females were egg-laying on the water dock, their caterpillar host plant, which is common along the edge of the dirt path around the unit.

This was followed by a bit of serendipity, which it always is when you find a Harvester. You don't look for a Harvester, they just magically appear. This little Lycaenid has a subtle and quite handsome pattern and is noteworthy because it has carnivorous caterpillars. The female Harvester looks for some plant with an infestation of aphids and lays her egg on that plant, and the caterpillar goes off looking for the aphids to devour. But on this day it wasn't a female we found, it was a male who had set up a territory and was waiting for a female to come by (maybe they have as hard a time finding them as we do). The male carves out a territory of about ten feet along a path. He flies up and down the path slowly, showing off his tasteful pattern, and then he lands on a bush at about eye height looking around eagerly. Here he is on his bush.

Well, we don't have a Lycaenid for our fourth species; it barely counts as a butterfly. It is a Silver-spotted Skipper. And indeed we didn't even find the adult skipper, we found its caterpillar. The Silver-spotted Skipper itself is a nice enough creature which flashes a big silver spot on its underwing when it flies, but way too common to rate as being special. But you don't see the caterpillar every day, and get a chance to interact with it.

Cheryl found a rolled up pea leaf and unrolled it, and there was the caterpillar inside, immediately identifiable by its dark head capsule with the huge yellow fake eyes on it, to make it look like something dangerous to any bird that peaked inside the leaf roll. We had exposed it, so it went into its next defensive act, which was to open its jaws as wide as possible and try its best to look like the furious fiend from hell. We were impressed and rolled him back up.

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