Monday, May 31, 2010

Uglifying a plant to make a beautiful butterfly

A few years ago, I thought there was some horrible insect destroying my pussytoes (Antennaria) and pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) plants. They were covered with white cottony structures with ugly black things in them. Sometimes you could even see a caterpillar inside these structures. BUT I learned that these are the caterpillars of the American Lady butterfly, and despite the apparent destruction, it doesn't hurt the plants at all. After being eaten year after year, they're as healthy as ever. Their relationship with the American Lady butterfly goes back a long ways! I admit this isn't exactly the way I'd like the plants to look, but my reward is knowing that they're helping make more American Lady butterflies, an especially cute little butterfly. So I've been dividing and transplanting more and more pussytoes and pearly everlasting plants to create even more host plants for these butterflies. They're one of the easiest butterflies to raise inside, too. I've brought some plants with caterpillars inside and I'm raising them in an aquarium. Just make sure you have plenty of these plants available so you can supply fresh leaves for them.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Amazing migration right in my own yard!

I've been participating in the Vanessa Migration project, a citizen science project that tracks the migration of the Vanessa butterflies (Red Admiral, American Lady, Painted Lady, and West Coast Lady). I had sent in a few observations of American Lady and Red Admiral butterflies I had seen in my yard during the past week. I recorded them as "Presence of butterfly in my area." The photo is of one of these butterflies exploring my yard.

I was amused that they asked for "Flight direction." What do you mean "flight direction"? Don't butterflies just fly around? Well today, I saw a couple of red admirals, then a couple more, then a steady stream of about one every few minutes. And they all entered my yard from one direction and left heading North-northeast! They actually did have a "flight direction"!

Later when we walked to Wegmans (lately we've gotten all our food by taking our backpacks on the 3-mile round trip about four times a week), we saw Red Admirals all along our walk, all heading NNE. Truly amazing!

The wonderful thing about citizen science -- apart from the fact that it helps collect important data that can't be collected any other way -- is that it sharpens your powers of observation and alerts you to all these events in nature. I imagine this migration has taken place every year, but I never bothered to notice before now.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Warblers and tadpoles

We saw two warblers yesterday - a gift of our stream, since we rarely had warblers before we built the stream and pond. One was a yellow-rumped warbler and the other was a common yellowthroat, though not so common anymore. We also decided to rescue more tadpoles from the swimming pool down the street. This time I took our pond net. I learned last weekend that chasing tadpoles with a small plastic box wasn't very efficient. There were *literally* millions -- possibly zillions! -- of tadpoles of various stages of development, so there were obviously more than a few batches laid in that pool. They were so far surviving very well in the shallow water above the plastic pool cover, but either they will be killed when chlorine is added or they (probably) won't be able to manage the slippery plastic to leave the pond when they're ready. I hear toads singing all over the neighborhood, and I suspect almost all are in swimming pools. So sad! Because of our last few years' failures in getting tadpoles to the stage where they can leave, we've put some in an aquarium, which is now residing on our kitchen countertop. (We're making good use of our small handlens, shown in the photo, to see not only the tadpoles, but all the other fascinating micro-creatures in the pond water.) I think they're probably happier there than they would be in the very cold ponds at the moment, but it mainly is an experiment to see if they survive better than their siblings in the ponds. Probably this year there won't be a difference, though, since now we suspect that it was our own green frogs that were eating the tadpoles in previous years. Since our frog didn't overwinter successfully, we don't have that problem this year. If we get frogs this year, we'll know whether we can in the future raise them in aquariums after the eggs are raised. After all, we don't need the aquariums again until the monarchs come back and we use them to raise the caterpillars!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

An American Lady laying eggs

We saw our first American Lady butterfly, and she was laying eggs on the pussytoes (Antennaria) and on the Pearly Everlastings (Anaphalis). It's always amazing to me that in a yard full of all sorts of plants, butterflies can find exactly the ones they need to lay eggs on. This butterfly probably wasn't going to live much longer with such tattered wings. It shows how important it is for there to be readily-available larval host plants. I recorded the sighting on The Vanessa Migration Project.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Birds and tadpoles

Since the last post, we've had many seasonal "firsts." The first catbird returned two days ago, and the first wren yesterday. The catbird is one of my favorites because of his beautiful gray color, his sleek silhouette, and his beautiful singing (when he's imitating a bird that sings beautifully anyway). I also enjoy the scurrying of the house wrens. They're sometimes justifiably nicknamed "mouse wrens" because when you see them out of the corner of your eye scurrying on the ground, they can easily be mistaken for a mouse. Too bad they have the annoying habit of taking over other bird's nests by putting what we call "wren sticks" on top of existing nests. (The photo shows the wren with some of the nest materials he's been removing from the existing nest. Fortunately, it's just a house sparrow's nest.) Our toad tadpoles are developing well, though somewhat more slowly than we expected, probably because of the cold weather. For the last few years, they've reached this point in their development and then disappeared. We're trying to increase the odds of repeating the success we had the first few years by raising at least some of them in an aquarium, safe from predators. We suspect that our green frogs might have been the culprit, since the toad failures started about the same time we acquired green frogs. Our frogs haven't survived the past few winters, so weren't currently frogless - a real disappointment since we enjoyed them so much in the past.