Monarch Butterfly

Monarch butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park

It’s September 27th in Nichol field at Raccoon Creek State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania. The kids are back in school, 99.9% of us have taken our vacations and  after Labor Day, the swimming beach at the lake is closed.

Danaus Plexxipus has been flying for some weeks now. Blessed with its lode of toxic glycosides, its wings remain whole and powerful. Just days ahead it will continue its migration hundreds and hundreds of miles down to Mississippi or Louisiana. Don’t get me started as to how incredible that is! Our monarch butterflies will navigate without roadmap and without GPS. Explain that to me please? I still get razzed because I am GPS challenged.

This one may have travelled down from Meadville or points north. Milkweed, dogbane, teasel, and butterflyweed flowers are gone. Huge expanses of Goldenrod await to replace their nectar pumps. The Plan is to sustain North America’s beloved Monarch travelers with billions of goldenrod flowers, each one producing the nutrients to feed the Monarchs. They are joined by Painted Ladies and other butterflies passing through on their sylvan wings to West Virginia,  Kentucky, Tennessee and southward.

Goldenrod is not regularly noticed and is little appreciated.  The plant supports America’s Monarchs year after year, and this is a nice tale to tell.



Wild Bergamot

Wild Bergamot photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park, PA

It’s July 22nd in Raccoon Creek State Park’s Nichol field.  Some 90 or 100 acres of that rare habitat is an open field. Monarda Fistulosa prefers dry fields. That contrasts with closely related Bee balm (Monarda Didyma) which we find in moist habitats. Two related species but they live two different habitats.

Wild Bergamot  is open for business mid-mornings, attracting fritillaries and swallowtail butterflies. Their nectar must be tasty, because these butterflies hover over these blooms for many minutes at a time. This behavior continues for several weeks, until there are few blooms and there is no use in the butterfly making a stop there.

At 4 feet tall or more, wild Bergamot presents a great subject for photographing. It’s the right place and time. It’s time to slow down, savor and reflect on native wildflowers.


Monarch Caterpillar on Asclepias Incarnata milkweed plant

Monarch caterpillar photographed by Jeff Zablow at at Raccoon Creek State Park

It’s  a good time to share this image of Danaus Plexxipus feeding on a healthy leaf of swamp milkweed  more formally known as Asclepias Incarnata. Why? you might be asking yourself.  As we review reports from NABA-CHAT contributors across the country, it has become apparent that Monarch caterpillars are scarce, verifiably scarce this year. Some people are so excited to find Monarch eggs and they are reporting their finds with much urgency.  For Monarch butterflies and caterpillars, it’s an unusual year for sure here in the U.S..

We do not know the gender of the caterpillar in this photograph. We do know that it was not a 2013 caterpillar and that it is an one of striking beauty. Central casting could not have produced a more handsome actor. All this in Nichol field at Raccoon Creek State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania.

We’ve posted quite a few Monarch butterflies and caterpillars, as well as a Monarch chrysalis, illustrating an important point in the Monarch Caterpillar life cycle. All would have presented a great challenge to Tiffany or Van Cleef and Arpels or Cartier or David Webb, if their jewelry makers were assigned to replicate them.


Poisonous Monarch Caterpillar at Raccoon Creek State Park

Monarch caterpillar photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park

This “bug” is one that we have been seeing little of these last weeks, and it’s a sight that grows a little smile at the corners of your mouth. Danaus plexxipus working its way along a Common milkweed leaf, gently eating the leaf in about the same way that some of us work through corn on the cob.

The Asclepias Syriaca milkweed leaf is gently cut and mashed by the caterpillar’s mouth parts. It is digested, except some of its molecules are not broken down. It’s the glycosides that do not get digested (broken-up). They will be stored in the caterpillar’s body, remaining inert in the pupa and then again in the adult Monarch butterfly. Why is that such a big deal? The glycosides and other related molecules that come from the milkweed leaf are very bitter in taste. Birds, flies, wasps, lizards, snakes–any animal foolish enough to capture a Monarch caterpillar or butterfly will hold it for approximately 0.001 seconds and then violently spit it out. That, my readers, is classic Protecia.

That is why I like to photograph Monarch butterflies.  They have beauty, grace, mystery, are native to our land, and their consumption of milkweed almost guarantees that their wings will not show damage. Animals, birds and reptiles know that Monarchs and their caterpillars are like those wiseguys who lived where I did in Brooklyn:  You see them. You know they are there, and yet you avoid them as best you can. They are just way too toxic.

Funny how frequently I am asked about the toxic and poisonous aspect of Monarch butterflies. It fascinates many people, almost as much as the migration of Monarchs does. To my knowledge this subject remains in the realm of researchers and has not been persuasively explained to the masses in layman’s language. Tens of millions of Americans have some awareness of its existence, but few understand.


Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly

Cabbage white butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, PA
It was an August morning on Tybee Island, Georgia. It was morning number 4? Or was it 5? I’m like a little kid when it comes to driving down to Tybee and Savannah. Can we do it again? I keep asking. In Pittsburgh, January and February last like a million years, or that’s how it feels as you go from one icy morning to the next snowy one. Going to Tybee and working the edges of the dunes for butterflies, as early as you can get your bones out there; now, that’s nirvana!

We stayed 3/4 of a block from the beach. It was easy to get back to the rental and change into a Beach Boy! Spending a couple of hours on the beach without July crowds. I’m telling you that you’re a lucky soul to be on Tybee island on a bright sparkling August day.

This Phoebis Sennae male was working the flowerbed of its first and second homes from the dunes. This Sulphur butterfly’s 2.5″ wingspan kept him from me each time I made my approach, but the butterfly suddenly became less vigilant when he got to this bloom. Cloudless sulphurs are generalists who sip nectar from a great variety of flowering plants. That helps because they alight often, increasing your chances of taking a fine photograph.

Described as “sun-loving” puts Tybee’s Cloudless sulphur butterflies in the right place:  Sunny, inviting Tybee Island.

Yes the field guides report them as occasional visitors up here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I MAY have seen one once, in Raccoon Creek State Park. It flew up so fast I couldn’t make a definitive identification.

Walk through downtown Savannah. Tour its art museums, shops & restaurants. Take a break in one of the many, planned downtown parks and daydream about Savannah back in 1850 or 1900. Go and see the porpoises as they cavort in the many river outlets, and marvel at their proximity to HUGE freighters, just several feet in front of the deadly looking bow. Walk the edge of the beach, together, as day drifts to night.

Isn’t it wonderful how a photograph of a Giant sulphur triggers such yummy memories?