Friday, August 24, 2012

The Remarkable Monarch Migration Begins, Also Painted Lady Butterflies Become Common at the Preserve

A Monarch nectars on blooms of the Rattlesnake Master  plant
Monarch Butterflies are pretty common this summer and currently they can be found in all different phases of their life cycle --from egg to larva, and from to pupa to adult. All around the nature preserve and throughout the region they are being seen nectaring, mating and laying eggs.
A very small Monarch egg on the underside of a Milkweed Leaf
There are also a fair number of migrant Monarchs passing through on the first leg of their incredible 2,000 mile journey to one small group of forested mountains in Mexico. It’s the season’s last generation of Monarchs that undertake this migration, and for that purpose they will live much longer than the season’s previous generations. Instead of surviving for only 1 or 2 months, these new Monarchs will live for up to 9 months, which is long enough to complete their migration and survive through the winter.

The Monarch Chrysalis 
 While traveling, the Monarchs need to make frequent stops for nectar and for water, and this is when we are lucky enough to see them. Usually, they are observed flying low over meadows and other habitats, but they are also capable of flying quite high. I’ve seen Monarchs flying where few other butterflies do –actually hundreds of feet up in the sky. They do this by taking advantage of rising columns of air, and then just like raptors, they are able to soar toward their destination without expending so much energy flapping their wings. By this method they are able to fly over 50 miles per day.

The Monarch caterpillar feeding on a Common Milkweed Leaf
This season, more Painted Lady Butterflies have been seen at the nature preserve than ever before. Their numbers don't compare with what we experienced earlier in the year with the Red Admirals, but nevertheless, it has been quite interesting.
The Painted Lady Butterfly on a Spotted Knapweed flower
The Painted Lady strongly resembles our more frequently encountered American Lady Butterfly. One easy way to tell the 2 species apart is to count the number of eye-spots present on the insects' underwing. The American Lady has 2 large eyespots, while the Painted Lady has 4 small eye-spots.
Note the 4 small eye-spots on the underwing of the Painted Lady
The Painted Lady is at home in nearly every continent in the world. They are also famous for their own large scale migrations. Every year, swarms of Painted Ladies come out of Mexico and spread north throughout the rest of North America.
Note 4 black spots on the top of  each hindwing on the Painted Lady

The main foodplants for the American Lady are Pussytoes and Pearly Everlasting --2 plants that grow in our meadows. The latter plant is especially common. The Painted Lady is much more of a generalist when it comes to its main foodplants --and their caterpillars are able to feed on the leaves of a variety of plants including many common thistles. Just this past June, I watched one of these butterflies laying her eggs on a Canada Thistle plant. Certainly if they can get nourishment from this abundant plant they will never go hungry.
The American Lady (even this damaged one), on its hindwing shows "blurred" black spots with bluish centers
 This Painted Lady Butterfly is raised commercially and often sold to people that wish to release butterflies at weddings and other functions. So whenever I see one, I wonder if it’s a refugee of one of these events. However, I think it’s safe to conclude that the generation that I’m currently seeing were born and bred locally and in the wild. 
A Gray Comma licks a stream-side stone for minerals
The underwing of a tiny Eastern-tailed Blue Butterfly

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