It has really been far too long since I posted anything here. My last post, in August, was about some of Virginia’s damselflies, and I promised to write about the dragonflies next, but suddenly it is the end of November, it’s cold and rainy and windy, and it seems totally inappropriate to choose dragonflies as a topic now.
I have not taken any good field trips this fall, and did not have a singular, amazing outdoor experience to write about; most of my time lately was spent re-roofing my house, remodeling an old bathroom, and dealing with things that required me to stay home much of the time. So I’ll give you a little capsule, a hodgepodge of nature experiences I’ve had this fall between the roofers and plumbers and such.
The photos above are of the best bird I saw this fall, without a doubt (“best” in birder-speak means “rare.”) This is a juvenile Scissor-tailed Flycatcher that someone spotted on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in October. I gave chase on the first day I could, and was able to photograph it. I was not able to get close to the bird; it was on private property, and I will not trespass, nor will I knowingly get so close to a bird that I bother it. So this was a case where I hand-held my long lens, held my breath and tried my best not to move or shake, hoping for the sharpest photo possible under the circumstances! The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is common in the Great Plains but is extremely rare in Virginia. This individual is a juvenile that was hatched this summer, and it simply migrated in the wrong direction; it went east instead of south. Do a Google image search for this bird and see what this guy will look like when he’s grown; you will be amazed at the size of the adult bird’s tail!
I went to the Eastern Shore on a dark day in November with a friend, hoping for some vagrant birds. We had no luck with rarities, but on the return trip, I spotted a Peregrine Falcon perched on a light post. After slamming on my brakes and backing up down the highway, I got some photos, but they were all dark and muddy looking because of the weather. I’ve never had photo-editing software other than the basic tools that come free with the camera (I’ve always been unreasonably stubborn about not using “tricks” or “cheating” to get a better photo than what I took). But my friend took one of the photos and did some work on it with PhotoShop, and when he sent me the result, it blew me away! I immediately decided that I must trash all my principles, buy Lightroom, and start learning how to use it to improve my photos. Here are the before and after results of the Peregrine:
As I do every summer, I did raise and release some butterflies in my yard from caterpillars that I search for and find on the native plants in my garden. I’ve talk about this before; I collect the caterpillars and house them in screen cages in my garage, where I feed them at least twice a day. After a couple of weeks of doing nothing but eating and pooping, the caterpillar morphs into its chrysalis stage and remains dormant until it emerges as an adult butterfly. This process requires tending to the caterpillars at least twice a day, and is actually a main cause of my not being able to go out on field trips; if you’re not there to clean the cages and feed the caterpillars on time, they will not survive.
Over the past few years I have raised and released over 6000 butterflies of over 20 different species, which is very rewarding. The survival rate of caterpillars in the wild is extremely low, so raising and releasing results in a few more butterflies out there in the neighborhood and the world. This year I was thrilled to raise and release two new species that had never laid eggs in my yard before, the Viceroy butterfly and the Giant Swallowtail.
Freshly-hatched Viceroy butterfly. That’s its chrysalis on the right, from which it just emerged.
First the Viceroy: Different butterfly species are dedicated to specific kinds of plants (called “host plants”) when it comes to laying their eggs; they only lay them on the foodplants that the hatched caterpillars will eat. I had never planted the Viceroy’s host plant before; I had seen a few adults nectaring at my flowering trees and shrubs, but had never found caterpillars until I found them this year on my new Corkscrew Willow. My father died a couple of years ago, and as a memento, I took some of the Corkscrew Willow cuttings from the flower arrangements at his funeral, wrapped them in wet tissue and flew home with them in my suitcase. Once I got home I put them back in water until they rooted, then I planted them in dirt. This year they were large enough to put outdoors in big pots, and they grew into trees that are 6-8 feet tall now. Corkscrew Willows are one of the Viceroy’s host plants, and one or two adults found them and laid their eggs. Success! (If you plant it, they will come….)
The other new butterfly species to lay eggs in my yard this year was the Giant Swallowtail (above). This is a southern species that is common in Florida but is decidedly uncommon in Virginia; they do not even occur here most years. One day I noticed a bunch of tiny, newly-hatched caterpillars on a small little Rue plant that I had in a pot. I presumed they were common Black Swallowtail caterpillars, which eat Rue, and I checked them every day or so to see whether they were running out of food and needed to be moved to my Parsley or Fennel plants, which they also eat. I finally noticed that they looked “different,” and realized that these were, unbelievably, about 60 Giant Swallowtail caterpillars! Giants also eat Rue, but not Parsley and Fennel, so I was out of food for them. I called my butterfly friends immediately, and they saved the day when they brought me a potted Citrus tree; in Florida, citrus trees are the most common Giant Swallowtail host plant. I gave away most of the caterpillars, but kept about a dozen that fed on the citrus tree and then went into chrysalis. Most later emerged as adult butterflies, like the one above.
Young Giant Swallowtail caterpillar. They look like bird poop to predators,
which is a very effective defense mechanism.
Here he is, several days older. He has lost his slick sheen, but
still looks rather distasteful!
If bothered, these caterpillars attempt to scare away whatever is bothering them
by displaying their red osmeterium, or “horns.”
Unlike our other black swallowtail species, the
Giant Swallowtail’s underwings and body are yellow.
Some of the Giants went to Lauren Tafoya, who manages the butterfly house at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens. She does an amazing job there, raising and releasing thousands of butterflies of many species each year. She had a few Giants at the Gardens already, but the ones she added from my yard will expand their genetic base and obviously increase the population. If you go to the Botanical Gardens next spring, you might see some of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the butterfly that laid eggs on the little Rue plant in my little yard.