Wow! A Revelation.

Hibiscus Flowers photographed by Jeff Zablow at Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, PA, 7/29/10
This flawless, magnificent Hibiscus bloom was growing at the entrance to the Phipps Conservatory’s Outdoor Gardens in my hometown, Pittsburgh. The earlier post we made, with this same flower, shared that despite alot of time spent posted right there, there were no insect visitors. None, and I was there in the middle morning, when flies, bees, butterflies, beetles and others are at their busiest. Nothing flew or walked or crawled to get the nectar of this stunning giant of a flower.

Recently, a visit to Kathy at Sylvania Natives, a Pittsburgh nursery that devotes itself to selling native plants, led to her recommendation that I read Douglas W. Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home (Timber Press, 2007). It was slow getting into it, then . . . . Wow! The Revelation? It was something that has puzzled me for much of my life. I remember the gardens, carefully coiffured, of the thousands of homes that surrounded ours in Long Island, New York. Green gardens, expansive lawns, few, few flowers, and leaves untouched. 100% of the leaves of those garden cultivars were in perfect form. Nothing missing, not a leaf tip missing. Then too, my own flower garden attracted few butterflies, bees, wasps, etc..

Tallamy explains that those gardens, and much of American suburbia, are planted with alien species that are  foreign to the U.S. His own research concluded that after many, many decades, insects and other herbivores here will not eat most of these leaves and stems. They will not nectar at most of these flowers and will not place their eggs on most of these plants. Sum total of these findings? Gardens without native plants do not attract and nurture our butterflies or our moths or our bees. His plea (it really is a plea) is to begin to intersperse native trees, bushes and annuals amongst our existing ornamentals. When an azalea bush fades, replace it with a native plant known to host our own insects.

Yes, then, this Hibiscus takes your breathe away, but it is alien to our region, if not to the United States. Pennsylvania bees, butterflies and moths do not recognize it as a food source. To my knowledge, no insects lay eggs on it, because it does not register as a food sources for their larvae. There is no re-education for most species of insects. They don’t know it, their genes don’t connect it to anything known to them. Nada. Nothing.

Since that visit to Kathy weeks ago, we’ve planted American Hornbeam (tree), American Plum (tree), Green-headed Coneflower (perennial), Monkeyflower (perennial), Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), and Chokecherry trees in our new garden. Yes, we do find that some leaves are getting munched-on (eaten for our international friends) here and there, but that is natural, the way it was and always will be. A pleasant revelation, even now.

Jeff

If You Were A Hungry Bird . . .

Gray Hairstreak butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, PA, 7/11

Let’s go with the “If” thing, something that we normally steer away from doing (i.e., If I had million of dollars) But let’s do it here.

If you were a bird, happily habituated in Schenley Park in the center of Pittsburgh, and it was a sunny July morning with blue skies, and you did your normal Park crawl-flight and flew into the Outdoor Gardens of the Phipps Conservatory but, come to think of it, you’ve eaten few insects this morning, and even fewer seeds…. So the sun is heating up the Gardens, you’re a hungry bird, say a Cardinal, or a Mockingbird, or a Blue Jay. Hungry, thirsty, hot sun . . . and there you see it! A tiny morsel of yummy food, with a pair of long antennae, a pair of deep red eyes, each fitted with a black eyeball, a pair of gray wings . . . Our bird becomes a deadly predator, pause, prepare, Strike!

Biologists and naturalists for more than 100 years have positioned that the posterior end of Hairstreak butterflies, as with this Gray Hairstreak, have come to resemble the anterior end of the butterfly, especially when these Grays methodically move the “tails” in a alternating motion. Why, they offer? Because of what often happens next.

The bird strikes, the Gray begins to flee, and the butterfly survives, but remains ‘bird-struck.’ That is, a bit of the ends of both hindwings have been bitten off. Can it fly still? Yes, seemingly with little loss of flight agility. Will the end of the hindwings regrow? No. But, can it reproduce young? Yes, as long as it can convince prospective mates that it is still shmeksy!

Better to be bird-struck . . .

Jeff

Heinz Ketchup and the Phipps Conservatory

Gray Hairstreak butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, PA, 8/25/10

Here we are 3 days into Spring, and Pittsburgh thermometers read 38 degrees F, plus or minus. Most of the U.S. shares the same mood, popularized by those Heinz TV commercials, not long ago. A..N..T..I..C..I..P..A..T..I..O..N, there awaiting the tasty ketchup, born in this city and consumed nationally, and here, the retreat of wintry cold weather, and replacing that, beautiful moments like this one, Gray Hairstreak butterflies, nectaring peacefully on tall verbena perennials, Outdoor Gardens of Pittsburgh’s Phipps Conservatory…one of the greatest botanical destinations in the world.

Verbenas are native to the U.S., though I’ll need feedback as to the origin of tall verbena. We’ve pictured this garden favorite several times before, noting how it is so easy to grow, produces flowers from June to October, and PUMPS nectar for just about that whole time span. Oh, and it is pretty, quietly, elegantly  pretty.

Strymon melinus is also a native butterfly, and it’s found across most of the United States. When fresh, like this instant one is, it is a gem, offering any who will lean in to examine it, a richly red patch with built-in black spot, against a fashionable gray fedora colored background, complemented by that tri-colored post median dash line, and those tails, those tails that often are moved this way and that.

The tail thing is fascinating. We see hairstreaks like this Gray, with birdstruck hindwings. Birdstruck? Some time in the last several days, a bird or mantid or lizard has attacked the butterfly. Concluding that the tails and red patches (with black dot = eyeball?), twitching this way and that, are the nutritious head, thorax and abdomen, the bird strikes! What does it often get? Just the posterior ends of the hindwings. The butterfly loses a bit of hindwing, but retains 90% of its ability to fly…so it goes on to live…

Heinz Ketchup, Yummy. The Phipps Conservatory Outdoor Gardens, Yummy. Gray Hairstreaks, Yummy. Spring and all of the above? Right, around, the corner.

Jeff

Milbert’s Tortoiseshell – Do you see what I see?

Milbert's Tortoiseshell Butterfly

Painters keep painting. Writers keep writing. Athletes keep playing tennis, softball and coach their beloved baseball, basketball or football, if they can. Gardeners keep gardening. Folks hunt and fish for a lifetime, if they can.

When I caught this image of Nymphalis milberti, at the Outdoor Gardens of the Phipps Conservatory, I was ecstatic. Her coloration was fresh and rich in color. Rarely seen, and at the southerly edge of its range, it was also well into the perennial beds, preventing me from stepping in to get closer. So, this image was taken at some distance, and each time I view it, I return to the same thought, I want to get a closer image of an equally magnificent Milbert’s.

So 2014 looms ahead as, I hope and pray, a bust-out year. Given limitations of time and $, I aim for some combination of destinations, to broaden our selection of butterfly images and knowledge. Challenge with a capital ‘C.’ I’m not Pyle. I am a member of NABA and Xerces. Nevertheless I have a paucity (an especially useful word here) of contacts and useful advice about the potential destinations that I want to get to: The Keys, Mts. Greylock and Everett, Mt. Meron, Ontario, Portal, a special locale near Albany, Telluride and Regal frit habitat. Fuji film, macro-lens, gluten-free wafers, Redwing boots, Brown hat and raring to go.

You see an image of Nymphalis m. I see challenge. Long drives, airports, motels (?), scouting for gluten free stuff- and then joy! Sheer joy ahead. G-d willing.

Jeff

The Universal Subject Butterfly

Gray-spotted skipper butterfly photographed by Jeffrey Zablow at Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh

The place to be on a July 6th morning. The Outdoor Gardens of the Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh. Sun above, minimal wind and flowers abloom everywhere. Few folks about yet, except for a lone woman sitting on the benches under the low tree, across from the large perrenial bed, and the couple strolling the garden paths, no doubt taking mental notes, should we try this or this in our garden next Spring?

Like Pyle, and Cech and Kauffman, I’m working the garden paths, seeing what’s come to bloom and thinking . . . now that the flower buds have opened, what butterflies may come to enjoy the sweet nectars now pumping.

Reaching a turn in the path, there stood this yummy cultivar. Clair?

I positioned myself and awaited the Monarch. Or the Eastern tiger swallowtail. Or the Eastern black swallowtail. Or dare to dream, the errant Milbert’s, still flying this first week of July.

Nothing, nothing, nothing . . . then action. Who? This Silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus) the universal opportunist across much of the United States.

Good, Pop! pop! Pop! pop! Flash your “Bold, irregular white patch” (Cech and Tudor, 2005). A real butterfly not shy to sip at a beckoning bloom.

Jeff