Thursday, July 19, 2012

Recent Flowers, Butterflies and 2 Sphinx Moths

The Common Buckeye Butterfly is not so "common" in Central New York

It’s been a very dry summer so far. In fact, like much of the country, here in Upstate New York we’ve been experiencing a moderate drought. Still, life at the nature preserve goes on and the season's procession of blooming wildflowers and their visiting insect pollinators continues.
The Wildflower meadow is dominated by Gray-headed Coneflower
As our wildflower meadow’s spiderwort plants finally run out of blossoms, the ground becomes dominated by Gray-headed Coneflower and Bergamot. This Coneflower’s blooms are pale yellow and the plants themselves are quite tall with thin foliage that no doubt helps them to be drought resistant. Indeed, they show little sings of stress as thousands of them wave to and fro in the hot breeze.

The Northern Broken-Dash Skipper feeds on Bergamot

Only about half as tall as the coneflowers, the Bergamot is a real insect magnet. If you scan any grouping of these pale blue flowers you’re likely to see a variety of butterflies and bees working diligently on them. The tubular flowers of Bergamot are especially compelling to any creature with a long proboscis.
Clouded Sulfur Butterfly on Oxeye
The small skipper butterflies are more common this year than they have been for the last 5. The Bergamot seems to really bring them out at this time in the summer. Several varieties of tiny dark skipper like the Dun Skipper, the Northern Broken-Dash and the Little Glassywing seem to be the most common. 2 days ago, a Common Checkered Skipper was seen for the first time in several years. Aptly named, this species shows bold white checkered markings that make it easy to identify.

Hummingbird Sphinx Moth hovers over Begamot as it feeds
Some moths are also visiting the flowers, including the Hummingbird Sphinx Moth (also called the Hummingbird Clearwing). This moth’s behavior closely resembles that of a hummingbird; its rapidly moving wings and its ability to precisely control its flight –to hover and fly backward, invites the comparison. This unusual moth is only one member in the family of Sphinx Moths. The others share similar feeding behavior, but unlike the day-active Hummingbird Moth, these related species only become active after the sun sets.
The Pandorus Sphinx Moth at rest on the garage floor
The amount of eyeshine alone tells of this moth's noctural habits
I had a recent encounter with a Pandorus Sphinx Moth. One evening last week, one flew into our garage when I was coming back from walking our dog. The moth was confused by the inside light and it flew rapidly around the ceiling, noisily bumping against it. Its body was impressively large –about the size of an actual hummingbird. I turned off the inside light and I spent some time trying to get the disoriented creature back outside, but it seemed intent on continuing its battle with the ceiling.

At one point I shined a flashlight on it and was amazed by the amount of reflection that came back from its eyes. Obviously, this is a moth that is well geared for low light conditions. Eventually, the moth did settle down on the floor and I was able to capture it and release it outside –seemingly undamaged by the ordeal.

Eastern-tailed Blue Buttefly
Compass Plant are the tallest both above and below the ground

The incredibly tall Compass Plants have started to bloom along the meadow’s edge. This perennial sunflower has finely cut leaves that are a little fern-like. It’s likely that this adaptation helps the plant from losing moisture. Also, the leaves have a rough texture which aid in the retention of water. The roots of the Compass Plant grow astoundingly deep  –likely yet another adaptation to dry conditions. You would expect no less from a plant that evolved in a prairie environment. The Compass Plant flower is like a smaller version of a typical annual sunflower bloom, but usually with lighter yellow petals.
Royal Catchfly

Royal Catchfly has also begun to bloom on the other side of the meadow  –where the meadow meets Wick’s Pond. From a distance its brilliant red flower could be mistaken for Cardinal Flower, but it’s no relation. However, the Cardinal Flower’s relative, Blue Lobelia, is growing nearby at the shore of the pond, but it’s nowhere close to blooming at this point in the summer.
A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits Culver's Root growing in the meadow

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