A Different Form of Cloudlessness

With Tropical Storm Nicholas wandering off to the northeast, rain turned to drizzle and the wind began to lay, but no more than a tiny patch of blue decorated our afternoon sky. Two hundred miles to the west, lovely blue after-storm skies were beginning to appear, but, in southeast Texas, clouds were the order of the day.

On the other hand, I had a different sort of cloudlessness to enjoy, having discovered this Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) near the beach on Sunday. I almost always see this butterfly in flight, but this one had chosen to pause and sip nectar from a deeply shaded Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), said to be one of its favorite flowers.

As autumn approaches, I sometimes see dozens of these butterflies in a single afternoon as they migrate back into the area. One of our most common butterflies, their colors range from an eye-catching lemon yellow to a darker yellow or white; in this instance, I suspect the wings may appear a bit green because of the foliage surrounding the insect.

They do make a nice substitute for an uncloudy day.

 

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Sipping Summer’s Sweetness

Despite the inevitable heat and humidity, August has its rewards. Here, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail ( (Papilio glaucus) visits Sweet Pepperbush, or Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia): a deciduous shrub native to swampy woodlands, wet marshes, and stream banks.

Although found along the coast from Maine to Florida, and west into Texas, Summersweet’s native presence here is limited to a few counties in the area of the Big Thicket, where this photo was taken.

At first, I assumed I’d found a Black Swallowtail visiting the flowers, but I soon learned those butterflies have yellow spots on their bodies, while Tiger Swallowtails exhibit yellow streaks along each side of the thorax and abdomen. The existence of dark morphs like this one among the Tigers can make things even more confusing, but the sight of one is immensely enjoyable.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Note: Two readers have suggested that this little beauty actually is a Palamedes Swallowtail  (Papilio palamedes). I never had heard of that one, so I never considered it as a possibility. The Palamedes is common in Florida, so I’m interested to see what my Florida readers say. Some revision of the post may be necessary!

The Day It Rained Caterpillars

Live Oak Tussock Moth ~ Orgyia detrita

Inchworms move more quickly than you might think. Intent on trying to photograph patterns on an especially tiny one trucking along a boardwalk at the San Bernard Wildlife Refuge, I assumed a twig had fallen into my hair, and brushed it off. Then, as I brushed away a second and third ‘twig,’ I realized they weren’t bits of a tree branch at all. They were caterpillars.

As the wind rose, the number of falling caterpillars increased, until the boardwalk was covered with them. In only a few hours, hundreds of them were crawling over plants, the decking — and me.

Eventually, I learned I’d encountered the Live Oak Tussock Moth (Orgyia detrita), a moth species whose life cycle coincides with the emergence of Coastal Live Oak leaves in spring. Quercus virginiana serves as their primary host plant, and emerging caterpillars may completely defoliate a tree, although wind-blown Tussock Moths may defoliate other small trees and shrubs; all of the oaks and other plants usually rebound without suffering permanent damage.

The caterpillars, named for the ‘tussocks,’ or tufts of hair on their back, are strikingly pretty. Those tufts are so striking that, when I spotted this caterpillar on Pete Hillman’s nature blog, I suspected his English caterpillar was related to the species I’d found in mid-April.

Vapourer or Rusty Tussock Moth ~ Orgyia antiqua

Indeed, it is. Known in the United Kingdom as the Vapourer, in the United States the non-native species is known as the Rusty Tussock Moth. Like our Live Oak Tussock Moth, the Vapourer feeds on a variety of broad-leaved trees and shrubs throughout woodlands, moorlands, valleys, and urban gardens from northern Scotland to the extreme southwest of Cornwall.

While the Vapourer shares the distinctive hair tufts of our Tussock Moth, its common name refers to the pheromones — the ‘vapours’ — that males follow to find females with which to mate.

The hairs of both species can be irritating to human skin, but there was nothing at all irritating about finding myself in the midst of a caterpillar ‘shower,’ or in the discovery that our native species has an equally attractive counterpart across the Atlantic.

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A Ninety-Degree Difference

A young friend once described dragonflies as being “all buzz and all wings.” It’s an apt description, although “jewel of the skies” seems equally appropriate.

It’s always a treat to find one at rest, showing off those jewel-like qualities. This one, which I take to be a pennant of some kind — perhaps a Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) — was kind enough to remain at rest for several minutes. From my vantage point at the side of a county road, I was able to photograph it with a background of grasses on the other side of the ditch that was attracting so many of its kind.

Then, I decided to change position. Turning ninety degrees to my right, I posed the dragonfly against the gray and not necessarily appealing ditch water; the striations in the background are reflections of the reeds on the other side of the ditch.

It’s the same dragonfly and the same perch, shown only minutes apart, but the feel of the photo has changed. As in photography, so in life: what’s offered as ‘background’ — of a person or of an issue — can make quite a difference in our perception.

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Fall’s Final Flutterings

Even in December, an assortment of butterflies graces the Texas landscape, taking advantage of our relative warmth and lingering nectar sources.

The Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus) shown above can be distinguished from Monarchs and Viceroys by the white spots on its hindwings and darker color. I recently found a dozen of these beauties flocking around the remnants of Gregg’s mistflower (Conoclinium greggii ) in a Kerrville garden.

On the other hand, this Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) found a congenial resting spot alongside the Willow City Loop in Gillespie County. Its family, the Nymphalidae, contains butterflies called ‘brushfooted,’ due to the reduced size of their front legs. Seventy-three species of this largest butterfly family are found in Texas, including fritillaries, checker spots, crescents, American Painted Ladies, and Red Admirals.

At the Lost Maples State Natural Area, I got my first look at a somewhat amusing butterfly known as the American Snout (Libytheana carinenta).There’s no question how its name arose. The pronounced elongation of its mouth parts look very much like a snout; they remind me of an anteater.

The Snout’s larvae, pupae, and adults are quite dull, resembling partially opened leaves. When adults rest on twigs with their wings folded and their antennae and snout aligned toward the twig, they often resemble a dead leaf.

Hackberry trees serve as hosts for the American Snout; adults feed on a wide variety of flowers, and often can be found sipping water and minerals from mud.

American Snouts do migrate, but not in a traditional north to south direction. Instead, they move locally among patches of suitable habitat, particularly after rains produce fresh hackberry leaves. A 1976 study discovered the butterflies moving in three different directions east of I-35, with one flight reversing directions between morning and afternoon. Their migrations are fascinating; this article provides more complete details.

 

Comments always are welcome.