Butterflies in an Open Meadow


(This 1065th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 21, 2011.)


Recently I joined David Cooper, Julie Tedesco, Dave Muller and Chris Hollister on a visit to the landfill you reach by a path running from the end of Shisler Road in Clarence. We were looking for butterflies.


And clearly we had come to the right place. We found this vast open meadow next to the Tillman Road Wildlife Management Area a butterfly haven.


Monarchs were everywhere and a few of the monarch look-alike viceroys were found as well. Both are beautiful orange and black insects, the viceroy a bit smaller and best identified by an additional black line in mid-wing.


It was formerly thought that the viceroy was a batesian mimic of the monarch. Many monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed and absorb the milkweed's evil-tasting cardenolide toxins. This makes them unpalatable to predators like kingbirds and dragonflies. Earlier entomologists believed that the viceroy developed its monarch-like appearance to mimic their appearance and thus their tastelessness. Recent studies have shown, however, that the viceroy is equally unpalatable. It feeds on willows, absorbing their bitter salicylic acid, aspirin taste. So much for a long-accepted story.


We also found many other butterfly species. (I say we, but I remain a butterfly neophyte: they are pointed out to me.) Among them were white admirals, red-spotted purples, black and tiger swallowtails, common ringlets, orange sulfurs, cabbage whites, pearl crescents and Eastern tailed blues.


I like best those tiny blues. There are many species of blues and hairstreaks that look similar but the Eastern tailed blue is not only the most common but, if you look closely, the most distinctive. It is one of those many butterflies that looks very different when it is at rest with its wings folded. Then it appears quite gray, with a few black marks, a tiny bit of orange in the wings and equally tiny tails. It is only when it opens its wings to fly when that lovely blue is exposed.


Most butterfly species go through several life cycles each summer following quite strict temporal patterns. Thus a particular species will be very common one week and virtually absent the next, returning in numbers a few weeks later. For example, we found hardly any skippers on this morning, species that were abundant on the annual Fourth of July census. And there were few pearl crescents, butterflies that are in some seasons found everywhere.


This open area is not just known for its butterflies. Bird watchers visit to seek the increasingly rare upland sandpipers that nest here. Hollister pointed out one but I missed it. Fortunately, I did not miss several grasshopper and savannah sparrows and meadowlarks that we also flushed.


What most impressed me about this visit was the spread of black swallowwort. Last year I first found a few of these plants along the path leading into this area. Now, just one year later, we found them everywhere. And the plants had thousands of pods ready to release more parachute-carrying seeds.


Swallowwort is a vine but, like poison ivy, it also grows as a shrub in open areas. Earlier it had tiny purple flowers shaped like five-pointed stars. The pods they now carried were long and thin, unlike the fatter pods of milkweed.


This is a plant native to southwestern Europe that was introduced to this country in about 1850. It evidently escaped from a botanical garden near Cambridge, Massachusetts at about that time. Since then it has already spread through not only Massachusetts but Connecticut and New Hampshire, as well as New York. Outbreaks have also been identified in Wisconsin and even in California. It is thought that people who visit a field of swallowwort when the seeds are being distributed carry them to other areas on their clothing, but this open area borders the Thruway and I wonder if this alien plant isn't spreading westward along the margins of that highway.


I was saddened to learn from David Cooper that the natural area in Lewiston that he and Bob Baxter worked so hard to protect is again threatened by a thoughtless politician. The original agreement to keep model airplanes away from this bird sanctuary is being abrogated by the new mayor, Terry Collesano. When Cooper visited the mayor to complain, the mayor's response was simply, "Times change."-- Gerry Rising