Saturday, October 09, 2010

Getting Serious About Butterflies

It's been years since I seriously tried to identify butterflies and skippers on a regular basis, but I've decided to start a database of all the plant and animal species that I find on our property...which will encourage me to brush up on all sorts of identification skills and, hopefully, keep learning more and more about what I'm observing. With that in mind, I have worked on the photos I took on Thursday with an eye to identifying every insect that I could.

Identifying some of these little babies is a real challenge, especially identifying them with photos only, rather than with dead specimens. That said, I'm not in the mood to do the whole "catch, kill, spread and pin, then identify and store" routine, so I'm going to do the best I can with the digital images.

First of all, along those lines, I have decided that the white aster growing in 10' wide colonies in this often wet swale is Panicled Aster, Symphyotrichum lanceolatum. Just so you and I both know what the flower is that we're seeing in all these photos....

Moving on, and in no particular order, here are the butterflies that I found feeding on the panicled aster two days ago....

One of the most widespread and beloved of butterflies is the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). With its caterpillars feeding on thistles, mallows and many other common plants, the painted lady is found throughout North America, even up to the Hudson Bay and almost to Alaska. The adults don't survive where the temperatures are consistently below freezing, so the northern reaches of its range are annually repopulated by individuals moving up from the southern regions.

The common buckeye (Junonia coenia) is one butterfly that I always recognize, but despite its "common" name and the fact that its larval plants are fairly widespread too, I don't see it all that frequently. Some of its larval plants are plantains and snapdragons. The large eyespots on the buckeye's wings are a diversionary tactic - a bird or other predator pursuing one is tricked into going after the big "eyes", taking a bite out of the wing, and thus letting the butterfly fly on, a little tattered for the experience but with all its "important parts" intact.

Colored as if costumed for Halloween, the Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) is quite a common little beauty with a range that covers the entire east half of the U.S. down into Mexico. Asters are its larval plant as well as, in this case, its nectar plant. This is one of those butterflies where you think to yourself, "I've seen this one so often, but what is it called?!"

The "rarest" butterfly I identified from Thursday's gleanings (and I'm using the term "rare" VERY loosely here) is the Texan Crescent (Phyciodes texana). The Texan Crescent is a very pretty, little, black butterfly whose larval food is twin-seeds and their relatives in the acanthus family. The actual range for the Texan Crescent is considered to be far south of Kansas, in mid-Texas and south, but they stray north occasionally and this appears to be one of those years. The males apparently hang out in shaded gullies, waiting to pounce on the females as they fly by, so the habitat I found it in is pretty appropriate.

I found one other butterfly, the orange sulfur (Colias eurytheme) feeding on the panicled asters. However, I took several photos of it that I want to share, so I think I'll make a separate post to talk about and share those images.
Last but certainly not least, in this post most of my information about the range, larval plants and general habits is coming from Butterflies of North America by Jim P. Brock and Kenn Kaufman, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2003, 383 pp.

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