Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Butterfly in a Strawberry Tree

This Red Admiral was intent on fueling up on nectar and wasn't the
least bit distracted by me or the romping Labrador.
Azure sky, glowing leaves, and a fetch-hungry Labrador conspired to drag me away from my desk and outside yesterday afternoon, giving me an opportunity to check on the continuing growth-and-decay on display in our little plot of Earth.

The squash plants were still bravely opening Cheddar-orange blossoms, laboring to produce fruits even as fallen, split cherry tomatoes surround them in heaps, rotting into the soil. The creeping geraniums flaunted a few vivid, purple blooms, and a little forget-me-not vied for attention with one last tiny blue flower.

For the strawberry tree, though, fall isn't the off-season at all; that's when it flowers, and it's covered with bunches of bell-like blooms--which made it the perfect rest stop for the only not-a-cabbage-white butterfly I've seen in our garden all year: a gorgeous Red Admiral probing for nectar in the topmost bundle of flowers.

Red Admirals are very common, widespread butterflies--the book Butterflies of North America by James A. Scott says that their habitat is "almost everywhere from the subtropics to the edge of arctic tundra south to Guatemala and the Greater Antilles" as well as much of Africa, Eurasia, New Zealand; it's also "a stray to Iceland." Even so, seeing one of these splendidly colored butterflies perched in one's garden still feels like a one-of-a-kind encounter.

They're known for displaying quite a lot of self-confidence--unlike most butterflies that quickly flutter away from your approach, Red Admirals will seemingly inspect you. They will even alight on your arm.

They're related to the Painted Lady, a species known for its migratory behavior, so I wasn't surprised to learn that Red Admirals are migatory, too. There are two flights northward in much of the nation and four or more flights in southern parts of its range. The Audubon field guide suggests that adults and chrysalises overwinter in mild areas, but I think the fact that we do get freezing days in winter makes it unlikely that this butterfly would be riding out winter here. The Audubon guide also notes that "there is some evidence of a dispersed return flight in the fall," so maybe this butterfly is fueling up for a southern trip.

I thought it might be a marvelous idea to plant some of the Red Admiral's host plants next spring, so as to lure it to lay eggs here. The caterpillars use silk to bind leaves together to make little tubes, in which they can safely feed out of the sight of birds. A marvelous idea--until I learned that their host plant is the stinging nettle. Which is about the last thing I want growing in my garden. (Other related, supposedly less painful plants will also do, so if I'm not overwhelmed by inertia next spring, maybe I'll track them down.)

Still can't get over the insect feeding frenzy going on, of which the Red Admiral was just the most visible example. The dog and I walked past a wall of English ivy afterward, and the whole thing thrummed with the sound of busy sweat bees and flies going at the small round flowers. The honeybees are still rampaging over the goldenrod and anything else that's blooming, the spiders are still snaring the distracted bees, and yellowjackets clamber through the foliage looking as though they're desperately searching for a carelessly discarded winning lottery ticket.