2016 monarch recap

Remember back in late June when I whined that there were no monarchs in my yet? The very first monarch I saw was this tattered female in mid-July:

butterfly with wings spread and a chunk taken out of its lower wings, climbing on a purple flower stalk

I also saw a few others, like this one two days later that tried and tried to get the unopened joe-pye weed to work before giving up and flying off to the fully open purple coneflower

monarch standing on the center of a flower, its wings folded closed

and this gorgeous male two weeks later that spent more than an hour in the garden, splitting time between the now-open joe-pye weed and the cup plant

butterfly with its wings stretched wide and the flower in the background, viewed from above

zoomed-in photo of a small orange butterfly from the side, on a yellow flower

and I saw evidence of caterpillars

the underside of a milkweed leaf with a tiny crescent-shaped hole in the lower left and a small circle hole in the middle

but until late September, I never saw even one caterpillar in my yard. After last summer’s excitement of fostering 13 caterpillars over two generations, this was disheartening, especially after bad news about the freak March snowstorm that killed many monarchs in their overwintering habitat in Mexico.

But I tried to stay positive with news from real friends and internet friends about monarch and caterpillar sightings in the area, even though I was seeing fewer butterflies than last year. The reports seemed to be more numerous as the migration generation was growing.

right-side view of a butterfly with wings closed, climbing on joe-pye weed buds

As the season was winding down, I had a blast at Ney Nature Center in Henderson, “hunting” monarchs at sunrise to tag them for their journey to Mexico. There were far fewer sleeping in the trees than the staff anticipated – in fact, we only saw one (and it got away). I then spent many hours walking through the prairie and saw quite a few monarchs

butterfly in a large clump of light-purple asters, with other flower seedheads nearby

and my first-ever viceroys! Such a convincing monarch mimic. This butterfly is much smaller than a monarch, though that’s not obvious unless comparing them side-by-side. The biggest visual difference is that viceroys have a black line through their lower wings, while monarchs do not.

viceroy butterfly with its wings unfolded, viewed from above

In the end, I caught five, though two escaped, so I tagged three.

two butterflies inside a mesh monarch cage

fingers holding a monarch's wings closed, with a small sticker tag on the lower wing

And then – on the first day of autumn – I found a caterpillar in my front yard, moments away from beginning its transformation. I brought it inside, where it created its chrysalis. It stayed that way for two weeks, to the point where I was getting worried that the process had failed. But then, the green darkened to show wings forming inside.

a hand holding a chrysalis with the top still green, viewed from the side with one wing somewhat visible

The butterfly emerged the next day, but I wasn’t home until the evening and so I decided to keep him inside overnight. Then next afternoon he was so antsy to get outside that he climbed out of the (nonsecure) mesh cage (really, a laundry container without a top). Fortunately, I had anticipated this and covered it with a towel, so he didn’t escape. But the release day was chilly – barely 50 degrees even though it was sunny – and I wondered if he felt tricked when I took him outside; he was suddenly in no hurry to move.

butterfly sitting on the top of a white mesh laundry hamper

After I let him climb onto my finger, he flew right up to a tree, like all of last year’s monarchs did, but this one perched in the shade. I knew he was not going to warm up there, so when he was still there an hour later, I climbed up a stepstool and took him down to find a better spot.

monarch hanging from a leaf of a birch tree, viewed from the right side

The backyard was somehow much warmer, so he rested on my finger for a few minutes while his wings warmed up, and then away he flew.

butterfly with wings unfolded, resting on my outstretched finger

I’m thrilled to find out that our common milkweed still attracted monarchs late in the season, when it didn’t look so good anymore. This year we added three other types of milkweed as small plants in the backyard garden, and hopefully 2017 will be the year the swamp milkweed seeds take off, too. The more variety we can provide for summer-long habitat, the better.

A caterpillar at last

In mid-July I finally started seeing a few monarch butterflies in the garden, but I did not find even one caterpillar all summer. That changed today – the first day of autumn – when I was collecting flower seeds and a line of yellow-and-black stripes caught my eye.

caterpillar on the underside of a deteriorating milkweed leaf, with coneflower and milkweed seedpods nearby

With the nights getting colder, I brought this little one inside to form a chrysalis (at any moment). When he or she emerges as a butterfly in about two weeks, I hope it will not be too late to join the migration to Mexico.


Trilliums in September

Spring ephemerals are plants that bloom for a short amount of time and then die back completely.

Are trilliums ephemerals? They bloom at the same time as other ephemerals such as Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, and spring beauty. It seems every site on the internet says they are indeed ephemerals.

But I am sure I once read an argument that trilliums are not true ephemerals because they don’t die back right away. And now I can’t find that source.

I have seen trillium leaves linger into early summer, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen trilliums stick around until September – but they did this year. Both the large-flowered trilliums and the Trillium sessile are still visible today.

three large light-green bracts with a little brown around the edges, two mostly-brown sepals and the third mostly green, only the very center of the three petals remaining and brown

two Trillium sessile plants, the left with wet bracts, dried sepals and no visible petals, the right with intact sepals with dried petals

Clearwing borer moth

The stiff goldenrod began blooming this week, and that’s attracting many bumblebees and honeybees and at least three locust borers, which are yellow-and-black longhorned beetles. And then I spotted this:

long and thin insect, mostly black with two yellow horizontal bands around the middle, with transparent wings

It looked like a tiny hummingbird moth with its transparent wings and tail shaped like a lobster’s. In fact, when I searched for “clear wings lobster tail,” all the results were about hummingbird moths – but this is just a fraction of the size, and it doesn’t flit like a hummingbird but instead it acts like a bee or fly. It swishes its “tail” up and down like a mermaid.

Instagram to the rescue. Just 20 minutes after I posted a photo and asked for help identifying the insect, one of my buddies identified it as a clearwing borer moth, and I think I’ve further identified it as a dogwood borer.

The University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability calls clearwing borers “native pests” that sometimes kill trees and sometimes don’t cause serious damage.

This is the third borer I’ve seen in the last two years. The others:

Perhaps the most famous borer these days is the destructive, invasive emerald ash borer beetle – fortunately, I haven’t seen one of these yet. And there are others that aren’t quite as destructive, though they do cause damage.

More about clearwing borer moths


Pop-up mushroom

We’ve received a lot of rain over the last two weeks. On Wednesday when I got home and was making my rounds through the gardens, this cute mushroom jumped out at me from under a tree on the hillside:

mushroom with a thick white stem and a beige rounded cap

The next day its “umbrella” had unfurled.

top view of a flat, round mushroom with a darker spot in the center

side view of the mushroom, with many gills

And one day later, the umbrella was turning brown.

same view but the gills are much darker and starting to fall apart

We were out of town for the weekend, so I didn’t see what happened next. All I know is that on Monday evening, this is what I found:

decomposed black plant material

…which makes me very interested in finding another one so I can watch it every day until the end to see what happens at each step.

Though I can guess that it’s some type of inky cap mushroom, based on the disintegration behavior, DO NOT take this as confirmation or denial for identification purposes. I am way too nervous about mushrooms’ potential for being poisonous, so I’ll just enjoy them in nature and leave my mushroom-eating to what I find in the store.

Red Admiral party

One morning last week I found five Red Admiral butterflies on the purple coneflower. Of course, I was running late and didn’t have time to grab the camera. That evening three butterflies returned.

three red admirals, each on its own purple coneflower within 3 feet of each other

Two of them danced on one past-peak flower and then separated.

one butterfly on each side of the flower, the left with open wings and the right with closed wings

same two butterflies, both with wings closed, one climbing up from the left and the other facing left, their antennae overlapping

one butterfly facing left on a flower, the second a mirror image behind it

Hummingbird moth

Giant bumblebee? Small hummingbird? Flying shrimp?

bee balm with a large yellow-and-black insect

Twice in the last week I saw a hummingbird moth in our garden. The first time I had only my phone to document it. It appears to be a hummingbird clearwing, Hemaris thysbe, and sort of looks like a flying shrimp or lobster.

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to see one again when I had a “real” camera. This time it was a different moth – snowberry clearwing, or Hemaris diffinis – which looks more like a giant bumblebee.

yellow-and-black moth viewed from the left side, flying vertically with its proboscis inside a light purple bee balm

I reeled off more than a hundred shots, hoping that at least a few would be clear.

same moth viewed from above, its wings flat but blurry

A hummingbird moth looks like a hummingbird with its small size, darting behavior, and wings that move so fast they can barely be seen, but it is about half the size of a hummingbird and has antennae and a curling proboscis, which the birds do not.

moth nearing a bee balm from the top right, with its proboscis curled

Look how long the proboscis is when unfurled – all the way down into the flower:

moth to the left of a bee balm, with its proboscis extending two inches into the flower tube

The reason for the “clearwing” descriptor is obvious in this photo (at least, one of the clear wings is visible):

moth at the bottom left of a bee balm, with its left wing in focus and the green background visible through the wing

There are four species of hummingbird moths in North America, and in one week, I saw two of them in my own garden! Both times I saw this moth, it was evening, after the sun had gone behind the trees, and both times it was on our big cluster of bee balm.

snowberry at the right of a bee balm with its proboscis deep in the flower

hummingbird clearwing at the left of a bee balm, a little farther away but reaching its front foot to touch the flower

I also tried video both nights, with amateurish results because I could never accurately anticipate where they were going to go next – though a faint humming noise can be heard. This is the hummingbird clearwing:

And this is the snowberry clearwing:

Both nights the moths let me watch them flutter around for more than 10 minutes – and then, suddenly, each was gone.

bee balm on the left, snowberry flying straight up out of the top right of the picture

More about hummingbird moths