Seeing the Wild in Wild Cherry

The most beautiful gift of Nature is that it gives one pleasure to look around and try to comprehend what we see.

~Albert Einstein

There is a wild cherry (Prunus serotina) sapling just outside our screen porch that is a favorite spot for all sorts of natural events. Wild cherry is a great host plant for a variety of moths and butterflies so I let this young tree grow in a spot too close to the house to ever reach any height just so I can keep track of the comings and goings of its tenants. It has been a busy place these past few days.

red-spotted purple early instar

Red-spotted purple early instar larva (click on photos to enlarge)

Throughout the year, I can always count on seeing some sign of one of the primary occupants of this species of tree, the red-spotted purple butterfly, Limenitis arthemis. They lay their eggs at the tip of cherry leaves, and the larvae feed on the leaves through their entire caterpillar and chrysalis stage, appearing as bird poop mimics. And they even overwinter on the plant, with the third instar larvae of the fall generation making tiny sleeping bags, or hibernacula, by cutting away much of a leaf and rolling the base into a hollow tube where they spend the winter. Next spring, when the cherry leaves first sprout, the tiny larvae will emerge form their tube, begin feeding on the fresh leaves, and begin the whole cycle again. In the photo above, the larvae has already attached the leaf to the twig with silk (so the leaf fragment remains on the tree all winter) and is just beginning to curl the base of the leaf with even more silk (silk strands shrink as they dry, pulling the leaf together).

red-spotted purple hibernaculum 1

One day later, a hibernaculum!

By the next day, the larvae had finished constructing its hibernaculum and was resting inside. I’m a bit surprised it has constructed this so soon as there is still plenty of time for it to grow, pupate, and start another generation before cold weather. But, there are not many leaves left on this tree at this point, so maybe caterpillars can take a cue from food availability and go ahead and go into a resting phase for the winter.

red-spotted purple last instar

Last instar red-spotted purple caterpillar on a different sapling

On a nearby cherry sapling, I found a much larger red-spotted purple larva which will soon, no doubt, form a chrysalis.

white-marked tussock early instar

White-marked tussock moth larva, early instar

Back at the original tree, there were a couple of other caterpillars to observe. One of my favorite finds this time of year is the white-marked tussock moth caterpillar, Orgyia leucostigma . They remind me of a combination caterpillar and toothbrush, due to the four prominent tufts protruding near the head, plus the two black-colored tufts of setae out front that resemble some fancy flossing tool.

white-marked tussock just after molt

White-marked tussock moth larva and shed skin

Nearby was another one that had just molted. This species is a generalist feeder, so I find it on a variety of plant species around the yard.

Unicorn caterpillar second instar

An early instar unicorn caterpillar

Nearby was another of my favorites, an early instar of the unicorn caterpillar, Schizura unicornis. These guys do an amazing job of blending in with the edges of the leaves of whatever they are feeding on. As I looked around, I found a few more…and that will be some fodder for my next post.


So Many Butterflies… Go FIGure

‘Tis the season… a little later than usual, but the season nonetheless. While I was camping in New England, the figs on the trees outside my garden decided to start ripening in my absence. By the time I returned this past week, they were fully ripe, which had not gone unnoticed by many of my woodland neighbors.

As in past summers there is a bit of a race to see who gets to the ripe figs first. I tend go out each morning and pick those figs that are starting to ripen before they fall prey to the other local fig-eaters. In the past it’s been the usual suspects… Hornets, Yellow-jackets, June beetles, and a few species of birds – especially woodpeckers and crows. But the trees were full of overripe figs when I returned and the table had been set for everyone. Now there are fruit flies, hornets, birds, and butterflies all over the fig trees.

Fig with fruit flies

Ripe fig with fruit flies (click on photos to enlarge)

Many types of butterflies do not live on nectar alone – some species prefer overripe fruit, tree sap, and even decaying animals or scat (animal poop) to feed on. Decaying fruits have carbohydrates and minerals, necessary to most butterflies. Butterflies have excellent chemo-receptors and are able to locate sources of food like rotting fruit from great distances.

Butterflies feeding on fig

Butterflies feeding on fig dropped on fence post by a bird

These figs must have the right sensory signals as I was amazed at the number and variety of species attracted to the fig feast.

Red-spotted Purple on fence post

Red-spotted Purple showing underside of wings

The most noticeable of the scaly-winged fig-feeders are the Red-spotted Purple butterflies. They are common here in the Piedmont and are easily recognized by the red-orange spots on the undersides and the bright iridescence on the upper surface of their wings. I rarely see them nectar at flowers but often find them on tree sap, bird droppings, and rotten fruit.

Red-spotted Purple spread wing

Red-spotted Purple basking

Yesterday afternoon there were over a dozen of these beauties flitting around the fig trees. With so many around, it should be a good year for finding their highly sculpted eggs at the tips of Black Cherry leaves, an abundant tree along the power line.

Carolina Satyr

Carolina Satyr

Another abundant butterfly on the figs is much less noticeable – the diminutive Carolina Satyr. There may actually be even more of these flying around than the Red-spotted Purples, but they have an erratic, lilting flight and when they land, they can be tough to see.

Carolina Satyr top view

Carolina Satyr top view

The undersides have a few noticeable eye spots but the upper wings are more moth-like and drab than most species of butterfly. Since they tend to be low-flying, they are often overlooked in the garden. I have yet to find one of their eggs or a caterpillar, which feed on various species of grasses. Guess I will just need to spend a little more time observing since there are now so many out and about.

Comma feeding on fig 1

Eastern Comma feeding on fig

The Eastern Comma is a quick and erratic flyer that is fond of fruit, tree sap, and carrion. One of the so-called Anglewings (named for their sculpted wing edges), it can be separated from its close cousin, the Question Mark, by looking at the silvery marking on the underside of the hind wings. You can see the curved punctuation mark clearly in this photo and also see that it lacks the small dot on the distal end of the mark, so this is an Eastern Comma.

Comma feeding on fig

Eastern Coma showing bright orange upper surface

When they flash open their wings, they are a beautiful brownish orange with dark spots. This is one of the few NC species of butterflies that overwinters as an adult.

Tawny Emperor

Tawny Emperor

My favorite fig-feeder is one I rarely see elsewhere – the Tawny Emperor. Very similar to the more common Hackberry Emperor, both species share the restrictive habitat needs of an area with Hackberry or Sugarberry trees for host plants. Both species also share the unusual habit of often landing on sweaty human observers to probe for salt. As hot as it is supposed to be today, maybe I will go out and sit near the fig trees and see if I can attract a few. The things we do for science:)