Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. He subsequently received his PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University, thanks to a career spent teaching and researching the physiological ecology and ecotoxicology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. Join him as he observes our better nature on the Island, his newest home.
Friday, May 23, 2014
The Joys of Butterfly Watching
I always advocate going into nature with an open mind to observe everything of interest. A small point and shoot optical zoom (40-60 x) camera is of great assistance in identifying your finds since you will need to examine the details later in comparison with reference books or websites. I have found this particularly important in trying to learn the butterflies which can be complicated. Yet there is nothing in nature more beautiful than a butterfly. But the excitement of finding a new or unusual butterfly is enhanced if you are able to identify it and share the find with others via your photos.
Little wood satyr
If you focus on learning the most common ten species in your area you will find it much easier and less frustrating to make progress. Many species are widespread so you can also practice while you are traveling. We spend most of our year in FL and VA, but were recently visiting my son's family in Chapel Hill, NC. On a single short morning walk (after 10 am is best when it is warmer) along a wooded path with some flowers in bloom we found some species I knew and some I did not recognize.
Red spotted purple
The red spotted purple is one of the confusing "black and blue" butterflies that apparently mimics the toxic pipevine swallowtail. But it is not a swallowtail but a brushfoot butterfly and lacks the tails. The bright coloration and its habit of spreading its wings along sunny pathways are characteristic. It occurs from middle FL all the way to Canada where it interbreeds with the white admiral.
The silvery checkerspot is widespread in the east but is only found in FL in the western panhandle. It strongly resembles the pearl crescent which is smaller and common from FL north. The question mark in its orange form is quite beautiful and confusing to separate from the comma unless you take a photo so that you can count the black spots and examine the wing shape.
The satyr butterflies comprise a group which can also be confusing. They fly when it is fairly cool so you may often see them from FL northwards. The spot patterns on the outside and inside of the wings are the key to identification. Note that the Carolina satyr has only one eye spot on the fore-wing whereas the little wood satyr has two. The Carolina has no eye spots on the inner surfaces of the wings in contrast with the little wood which has eight eye spots. A cryptic species of the Carolina has been discovered in TX (the intricate satyr) which looks the same but has different genitalia and genetic makeup. Since the eye spots are believed to fool predators into thinking that the helpless butterfly is a scary snake or owl, variation in the numbers and placement of the spots is interesting.
Zebulon skipper, male
Certainly the most confusing of all butterflies are the skippers which have few distinguishing marks that are obvious without prolonged study. There were several zabulon skipper males sunning along the path and a photograph enabled me to get expert opinion to identify them.
Finally one of the most beautiful insects along the path was not a butterfly but a beetle. A common and very easily recognized tiger beetle (due to its bright green color) is the six spotted tiger beetle. They run along the ground and sun themselves to raise their body temperature, and make short flights which searching for prey. They resemble a tiny tiger in their predaceous feeding behavior.
Six spotted tiger beetle
So I encourage you to broaden your natural history horizons to include any and all objects of interest. A walk in virtually any habitat will yield numerous critters and plants that will brighten your day and challenge your identification skills.