Monarch miracle


Monarch butterfly

Think about it. The Monarch butterflies that are arriving now by the millions in the mountains of Mexico were born on the underside of a milkweed leaf in North America. If all went well, some of those leaves and butterflies were in my backyard in the Maryland Piedmont.

Monarch adults — butterflies on the wing — can feed on any nectar, but Monarch caterpillars can only feed on milkweed. I offer both milkweed and a succession of nectar plants in my yard.

It’s estimated that only one in ten Monarch eggs successfully reaches adult butterfly stage. To improve those odds, I reared Monarch eggs and caterpillars that I found in my yard, protecting and feeding them in airy enclosures. Eighteen out of 22 Monarch eggs and caterpillars made it to adulthood and flew away. (I tip my hat to Monarch champions who raise hundreds each year from eggs and caterpillars found in fields and roadsides.)

Here are a few scenes from this summer’s Monarch adventure:  egg, five caterpillar stages of growth, chrysalis stage, and adult butterfly.

Monarch female ovipositing

This Monarch is laying eggs. I followed her path, collected and successfully reared six of her eggs.

Monarch egg

Monarch eggs, laid one per leaf, are hard to find and harder to photograph. Eggs hatch after three to five days.

Monarch hatched instar mag

Incredibly tiny, just-hatched Monarch caterpillar. Called a 1st instar, it will eat its shell.

1st instar Monarch caterpillars

1st instar Monarch caterpillars eat a tiny pattern in milkweed leaves.

Mon 2nd instar 0803

Monarch caterpillars shed their skins with each new instar. These are 2nd instar.

Mon 3rd instar 0805

Still small, but growing. Their antennae are longer at this stage.

Monarch cats 4th 0812

Larger and eating lots of fresh milkweed every day. Their antennae extend beyond their heads at this stage.

Monarch cats 4th instar 0811

Growing and eating, Monarchs remain in caterpillar stage about two weeks.

Monarch five cats writing

At 5th and last instar, caterpillars are plump and their antennae are more than 1/4 the length of their bodies. Soon they will form a chrysalis.

When ready to pupate, a Monarch caterpillar climbs to a high spot, fixes itself to a surface with silk, and drops to a “J” before shedding its skin one more time to form a chrysalis.

Mon chrys

It takes a Monarch caterpillar about two weeks to transform to an adult butterfly. Wings become visible in the chrysalis as the time to emerge approaches.


The chrysalis is transparent right before the butterfly ecloses, i.e., emerges.


Butterflies need a couple hours for their wings to harden and strengthen for flight.

Monarch #14 Fem

Monarch female gathering strength in an enclosure

Monarch watermelon

Monarchs don’t need to eat for 24 hours after eclosure. This one was offered watermelon fast food when cool and rainy weather delayed release.


Two Monarchs, tagged for tracking as part of Monarch Watch, ready for take-off


Monarchs that emerge in late August to October are the “super generation” that migrates to overwinter in Mexico. They will resume their journey in the spring, beginning a new generation in the southern US. That generation will bear another generation, with several successive and shorter-lived generations continuing north until the next “super generation.” 

You can help Monarchs! Plant milkweed for caterpillars and flowers that are good sources of nectar for butterflies. Monarchs especially need gardeners to grow flowers that bloom in late summer and autumn, when many gardens have passed peak, to fuel their journey to Mexico.  Think asters, zinnias, cosmos, lantana, Montauk daisies. Find Monarch Watch’s plant list here. You’ll be rewarded with butterflies.


Ladies present! Painted Lady butterflies

Painted Lady zinnia mkj

Painted Lady butterfly

Butterfly fanciers have been positively giddy about the abundance of Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) this year. If you have admired a garden patch of zinnias or cosmos or driven through the countryside this fall, odds are you’ve seen this butterfly. These photos are from Maryland’s Piedmont.

Painted Lady BF dorsal mkj

Painted Lady butterfly dorsal view

Painted Ladies breed throughout the US and most of Canada, then travel south to overwinter in the southern states’ warmer climate. A few weeks ago, a 70-mile wide mass of migrating Painted Ladies was picked up on National Weather Service radar over Colorado. See the radar image here. That’s a lot of butterflies.

Painted Ladies are one of the most common butterflies in the world, found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. Just as they migrate in North America, Painted Ladies also stage annual mass migrations from Europe to North Africa.

Another familiar Lady is the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis). The difference is in the eyes.

American Lady ventral mkj

American Lady has two prominent eyespots on its hindwings

Painted Lady BF zinnia leaves mkj

Painted Lady hindwing has a row of four smaller eyespots

You can help migrating butterflies by planting late-season nectar sources like asters, zinnias, cosmos, goldenrod and mistflower. Learn more here.


Eclipse Mallard

Monday’s coast-to-coast solar eclipse reminds me of another eclipse from this year. This “eclipse” Mallard.

Eclipse mallard drake NPSP

Eclipse Mallard drake (June 2017)

An “eclipse” duck is a drake that has molted from its breeding plumage. The bright head pictured here suggests this one’s molt is incomplete. A partial eclipse, one might say. This drake will eventually have muted colors, more like a Mallard hen, and will lose its ability to fly until new flight feathers grow in.

Mallard hen marsh colors

Mallard hen (June 2017)

All birds molt to replace worn feathers. Juvenile birds molt as they attain adult feathering. The casual backyard birder notices seasonal molts, for instance, when that male cardinal at the feeder isn’t quite as brilliant a red in late summer and its crest is looking kind of shabby. For species with distinctive breeding plumage, the transitions are particularly conspicuous.

So add eclipse plumage to the list of variations that confound birders.

MALL M eclipse call

Mallard drake showing off its plumage (June 2017)


Time to meet the world, little bluebird

EABL coax touch down mkj

Eastern Bluebird coaxing nestling to fledge

Monday was fledge day for a nest of Eastern Bluebirds. I watched this mother bluebird swoop and sing to entice the last nestling out of the nestbox, while the father tended the three that had already fledged.

She chattered, sang and flew back and forth within view of the nestbox’s entry hole. Her efforts were successful and the straggler left the nest while I monitored the rest of the trail.

EABL coax 2A voc 2 mkj

Eastern Bluebird calling to remaining chick in nestbox

It’s a real treat to witness bluebird parents’ song and dance on fledge day. Tree swallows too, who are joined by other fledglings and extended family in soaring around the nest.

For the bluebird parents, it’s the beginning of a next phase of feeding and protecting the young birds, a process that began when the straw nest was built and eggs laid in late June. The chicks hatched a little over two weeks later and fledged at 17 days old.

From another nest, here’s a look at Eastern Bluebird nestlings fully feathered and ready to fledge.

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Fully feathered Eastern Bluebirds ready to fledge (from a different nestbox)


Note:  All in-box photos are taken in the course of normal nestbox monitoring without the use of flash. External photos are taken at respectful and safe distances.





Moth enchantment

Think all moths are drab, dull, destructive? Think again! Some look like hummingbirds. Others like jewels. One is named for a mythical giant.

This is a Hummingbird Clearwing moth. Resembling a hummingbird in size and flight, it hovers while feeding on nectar, working its way around a blossom, then flitting to another flower.

Hummingbird clearwing facing right mkj

Look for Hummingbird Clearwing moths feeding on beebalm



Next is a small, jewel-like moth often mistaken for a flower beetle. It is the Ailanthus Webworm moth (Atteva aurea). Native to Florida and Central America, it has migrated north and adopted the invasive Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) as a larval host plant.


A close-up look at the diminutive Ailanthus Webworm moth. It is commonly found with bees, butterflies and other pollinators on flowers like this native Mountain Mint.

Turning to a much larger moth, the stunning Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) takes its name from the mythical Cyclops Polyphemus. A type of giant silk moth, its wingspan reaches six inches.


This Cyclops has two eyes — a giant Polyphemus moth







Bluebirds of happiness

EABL M perch side mkj

This Eastern Bluebird male and its mate have built a nest in a nearby box. Keen eyesight enables bluebirds to hunt from trees for insects on the ground.

Eastern Bluebird nesting season is well under way in Maryland. Here are scenes this spring from a few of the bluebird nests that I have the privilege to monitor.**

EABL female guarding

This Eastern Bluebird female is guarding her nest from Tree Swallows, which have been perching on the nestbox roof. Note the female’s subtler colors.

EABL 5 eggs 4B crop

Eastern Bluebird eggs in a characteristic straw nest. Bluebird eggs incubate 12 to 14 days before hatching.

5 EABL at 7 days 4B crop

Eastern Bluebird nestlings about a week old. Nestlings typically leave the nest 16 to 22 days after hatching.

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In a different nest, these two nestlings are about ready to fledge. Adults will fly back and forth in front of a nestbox to entice chicks when it’s time to leave the nest and enter the outside world.

EABL male with food 0101 group

Both male and female Eastern Bluebirds are attentive parents. This male has caught an insect to feed to nestlings.


There are more than 60 nestboxes at the two parks where I help monitor. Our boxes attract Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, Carolina Chickadees and House Wrens. Year-round, nestboxes are constructed, installed, repaired and maintained. During nesting season, nests are visited at least weekly to address any problems and to collect breeding data, which is entered to the database at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology for use by researchers worldwide.


** Note:  All nestbox photos were taken to aid monitoring and with the least intrusion. Photos inside nestboxes never use flash. Photos of adults were taken from a distance.





Wildflowers prevail

Despite a wild spring that careened from drought to driving rains to 90 degree heat to freeze warnings, wildflowers continued to bloom in Maryland’s Piedmont. Here are a few.

Some are showy.

showy orchis panther branch hz

Showy Orchis, one of Maryland’s native orchids

Bellwort HZ

Perfoliate Bellwort. Note how the blossom’s stem seems to pierce the leaf.

Smooth Solomon Seal OR

Smooth Solomon’s Seal

violet HZ Panther Branch stream

Violet seeds are carried by ants, even to this rock overlooking a stream.

jack-in-the-pulpit HZ

Easily recognized Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Its three leaves are sometimes mistaken for poison ivy. (Better safe than sorry.)

Others wildflowers have a more subtle charm and are often overlooked. All have a place in nature.

dwarf ginseng HZ2

Dwarf Ginseng does not share the medicinal qualities of its cousin, American Ginseng.

star chickweed

Star Chickweed providing food for an early pollinator

Two-leaved mitrewort

The petals of the Two-leaved Mitrewort are shaped like snowflakes.

Indian cucumber root blossom OR

Indian Cucumber-Root has two tiers of whorled leaves. In the fall, the base of the top leaves will be deep red, forming a ring around the plant’s fruit.

Indian cucumber root blossom crop OR

Closer look at the Indian Cucumber-Root blossom

Blue-eyed grass

Blue-eyed Grass along the wood’s edge


Pink Lady Slippers and Large Yellow Lady Slippers, Maryland’s largest native orchids, eluded me again this spring. The ones I saw were already past bloom. Wait ’til next year!



Wildflowers here for a moment



Spring ephemerals are just that — ephemeral. They appear for a few days or weeks, then disappear. For some, a few leaves remain as a reminder.

last bloodroot LR

Distinctive Bloodroot leaves above fading blossom

Rich woods before the trees leaf out, near a stream, is the best place in Maryland’s Piedmont to find spring ephemerals.

They are still springing up. Here are a few of the earliest blossoms.

Early rue anemone

Rue Anemone can be pinkish when it first emerges. This one is especially colorful.

Rue white

Rue Anemone

Trout lily

Look along a stream for Trout Lilies

spring beauty colony

Spring Beauty colony

Pennywort crop

Pennyworts are easy to miss in the leaf litter

Dutchman's breeches

On the other hand, Dutchman’s Breeches are hard to miss!

cut leaved toothwort

Cut-leaved Toothwort

yellow violet 2

A cheery yellow violet



Waxwing shimmer

Cedar Waxwing among cedar berries

Cedar Waxwing among cedar berries

One might think that Cedar Waxwings were named for their overall glossy feathering. In fact, Waxwings are named for the red wax-like substance that forms on wing feather tips of some older birds. The purpose of this unusual secretion is unknown. Cedar represents their favored cedar berries. The Cedar Waxwing is the rare songbird that feeds almost exclusively on fruit. Even nestlings grow on a diet of fruit after a first few days of insects.

Cedar waxwing 1

Wax wing tips

Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are social birds, feeding communally. Look for flocks feeding among berry trees like wax myrtle, black cherry and of course cedars. Cedar Waxwings have been known to experience a drunken state after consuming quantities of old, fermented fruit.

CEDW flock tree

Flock of Cedar Waxwings between forays to the cedar tree

Cedar waxwing berry wax

Chowing down

CEDW berry tongue

Cedar Waxwing in its glory

These Cedar Waxwings were observed feeding in late March at a waterfront park in Harford County, MD. The park is also home to a colony of black-morph Eastern Gray Squirrels. It is thought that the black morph squirrels in Maryland are escapees from a number of black squirrels brought to a local zoo from Canada, where their black fur is needed to absorb sunshine and better protect from the cold. Too cute not to share a photo.

Black squirrel3

Eastern Gray Squirrel black morph

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