A freshly emerged male Monarch butterfly.

Monarch reflections

This week Monarch butterflies started arriving in their winter grounds, the Mexican state of Michoacán. Preliminary reports are hopeful for greater numbers than last year’s low.

Here are highlights from the lifecycle of one Monarch that I hope is among those wintering at la Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca. It was one of several Monarch caterpillars on the Pink Milkweed and Butterflyweed in my native plant garden. It is the only one that I brought in as an early instar caterpillar simply to observe. Overall, it’s healthier for Monarchs to remain outside in a native plant habitat.

Monarchs speed through their metamorphosis compared to butterflies that don’t migrate. Depending on weather and other factors, a Monarch is a caterpillar for about two weeks, shedding its skin five times during that period, then remaining as a chrysalis for another two weeks.

MCat6 4th instar

September 4: Still small, this caterpillar had already molted two or three times to reach this size.


Mon Cat 6 5th instar

September 10:  It’s more than doubled in size in six days and almost at the stage to form its chrysalis.


Mon Cat6 ChrysWings

September 26: Wing color within the chrysalis is now visible. Any day now!

Mon cat 6 wing color

September 27: The chrysalis appears clear and the wing color is vibrant. Any hour now.

Monarch Cat6 eclosed

September 27: Monarch butterfly newly eclosed.

Monarch cat6 wingspread M crop

A freshly emerged male Monarch butterfly testing its wings.

The Mid-Atlantic’s late summer/early fall generation of Monarchs is the generation that migrates to Mexico to overwinter and then to breed in spring in the southern US. They are the longest-lived generation. Their offspring will make their way farther north, where there will be several generations during the summer breeding season, with the last making the long, amazing migration to Mexico.

Do yourself a favor. Plant milkweed and watch the show.


Look, but don’t touch!

Even in the vast and varied world of insects, the Assassin Wheel Bug (Arilus cristatus) is a standout. Described at once as robotic and prehistoric, its looks are definitely distinctive.

Assassin wheel bug goldenrod

Assassin Wheel Bug clings to underside of goldenrod

In a bug-eat-bug world, the family of Assassin Bugs get their name from their ability to grab then immobilize, actually liquefy, prey by injecting enzymes. For humans, the bite of the Assassin Wheel Bug is said to hurt many times worse than a hornet sting and the pain linger for days or weeks. That’s a lot of hurt from a bug just over an inch long.

The Assassin Wheel Bug is fairly common in the Eastern US and is a beneficial part of the native plant garden food web. So when I found this specimen in late October on goldenrod in my garden, I photographed it, but let it be.

In June, I discovered this nymph Assassin Wheel Bug on my gear while I monitored nest boxes in a meadow. Even at the nymph stage, its long, piercing mouthpart is evident.

Assassin Wheel Bug nymph

Assassin Wheel Bug nymph

Look, appreciate, but don’t touch!

Hummingbird adventures

A few days ago as dusk approached I discovered a large moth — no, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird — trapped on our sunporch. No time for a photo shoot, just a quick snap with my ever-present camera while I considered what to do and confirmed what I was seeing.

Hummingbird on wrong side of the window

Hummingbird on wrong side of the window

First, remove the cat, who fortunately was snoozing. Next, hang the nectar feeder in the open doorway, hoping to entice the hummingbird to freedom. No luck. It stayed high and on the far side of the room, repeatedly buzzing against the highest panes of glass, occasionally perching on a rail or on the ceiling fan.

Hummingbirds migrate thousands of miles, but still they seem like such tiny, fragile things. I was afraid to try to trap it.

Next, a cornhusk broom held high to block its view encouraged it to the other side of the room. Progress, but it was still flying at windows too high to find the doorway.

Then the unexpected happened. The hummingbird landed on the upright broom! I carried broom and bird outside, and away it flew.

Another hummingbird was flying high nearby and would have been within view from inside.

A happy ending.

Hummingbirds are feeding heavily this week on liatris and other flowers and at nectar feeders as they prepare for their fall migration. The flowers and feeders are well away from the sunporch, so the visit remains a mystery.

Here’s a juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbird fueling up for his first migration south. I wonder if he was the visitor.

RTHU feeder sip RTHU feeder RTHU takeoff

ETST top crop

Hillside meadow

I enjoyed a couple hours on a beautiful August day exploring a sunny, breezy hillside meadow and native plant garden at The Howard County Conservancy in central Maryland.

Here are some sights, in no particular order. As always, click on a photo for a larger view.

Pearl crescent

Pearl crescent butterfly





Bluebird feeding young

Bluebird feeding young

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Joe Pye Weed

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Joe Pye Weed

Monarch caterpillar

Monarch caterpillar

In the garden

In the garden

Known to millions as Miss Jean from Hodgepodge Lodge

Known to millions as Miss Jean of Hodgepodge Lodge

Pickerel-weed and other water-loving plants in the garden

Pickerel-weed and other water-loving plants in the garden

AI dangling seed

Assateague marshside

Assateague Island National Seashore is prized for its herd of wild ponies and its wide, beautiful, undeveloped Atlantic beach. Take a short walk across this barrier island to find treasures along the coastal bay side.

On a windy morning, only a Great Egret was seen in the marsh. And, overhead, a pair of ospreys calling to their young for a fishing excursion. No photo; just a memory.

Great Egret foraging in the grasses

Great Egret forages in the grasses

There was more to see on a calm morning. A Little Blue Heron hunted in the marshy shallows, quietly, furtively, then racing to another spot.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron …

Taking a closer look

… takes a closer look

Other avian, reptile and insect beauties.

Diamondback Terrapin swimming in the coastal bay

Diamondback Terrapin swims in the coastal bay

Laughing Gull appreciating the calm

Laughing Gull reflects the calm

Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly

Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly female shows off her bold stripes

Sitting across the causeway on the coastal bay shoreline, the visitor center’s native plant flower beds also support local wildlife. In my opinion, all public buildings should adopt a native plant first policy.

Zabulon Skipper butterfly on Buttonbush

Zabulon Skipper butterfly on Buttonbush

Monarch on Ironweed

Monarch on Ironweed, Assateague Island National Seashore Visitor Center

A little birdie told me

CACH kitchen c2015

This Carolina Chickadee perched right outside my kitchen window between visits to a feeder filled with safflower seed. Chickadees, cardinals, bluejay, tufted titmice, house finches, mourning dove, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers and even a catbird have been visiting the feeder, freshly filled now that many birds need extra energy during molting season.

My bird-friendly yard provides shelter, water, native plants bearing berries and seed, and loads of insects and larva for birds to feed their nestlings. The rewards are many, but a close-up visit like this one is a rare treat.

monarch closer

Piedmont wildflowers

One of the joys of regularly walking trails and monitoring bluebird nestboxes at a local park is seeing a succession of wildflowers emerge as the seasons change. Here’s a slideshow collection of wildflowers I’ve seen during the last few years’ rambles in Oregon Ridge Park, a 1,000 acres of woodland, streams and meadows in Baltimore County, MD.

Click here to see the slideshow. (Note: It will open in Smilebox and run about seven minutes.)

Eastern tailed-blue on clover

On gossamer wings

Eastern tailed-blue on clover

Eastern tailed-blue on clover

The family of butterflies that includes Azures, Blues and Hairstreaks are called Gossamer-wings for the sheer appearance of their wings. These are our smallest North American butterflies — abundant, but not as conspicuous as larger, showier butterflies like Monarchs and Swallowtails. By small, consider that the Eastern Tailed-blue pictured above is perched on common white clover.

Gray hairstreak on mountain mint

Gray Hairstreak on mountain mint

Summer Azure on milkweed

Summer Azure on milkweed

Bring them to your yard. Many nectar on common composite flowers — those flowers that pack so many tiny blossoms in the center that they look like one blossom. Think asters, black-eyed susans, sunflowers, goldenrods and zinnias. Legumes such as clover are a favorite host plant for Gossamer-wing caterpillars, so let it grow.

Buzzing back

Hummingbird Clearwing moth on bee balm

Hummingbird Clearwing moth on bee balm

The Hummingbird Clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) featured last week is just too amazing not to bring back for another visit — this time with video!

Click here to watch one nectaring on native bee balm.

Like so many beautiful and fascinating butterflies, pollinators and songbirds, Hummingbird Clearwing moths need native plants and meadow to feed and breed. You can help! Add native plants to your garden and support the protection of meadows in your favorite parks.

Just humming along

On a sunny Sunday, hummingbirds and hummingbird moths hovered above flowers rich with nectar.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth nectaring on bee balm

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth nectaring on bee balm

This Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) found a patch of bee balm at Oregon Ridge Park. Just two inches across, darting from blossom to blossom with wings nearly invisible, it’s easily mistaken for a hummingbird. Unlike most moths, hummingbird moths are day-flyers. They feed on a variety of flowers. Like other moths and butterflies, their caterpillars need to feed on certain host plants like wild cherry and hawthorn to survive.

Here’s another view. And, yes, you can hear their wings hum.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth dorsal view

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth dorsal view

And in the backyard garden, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Hemaris thysbe) found a hanging planter of lantana, a bit of showy fast food in an otherwise native plant garden.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

The speckling on the throat and emerging red spots tell us this is a juvenile male. When full grown, he will have the species’ distinctive ruby throat.

Speckled throat of juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Speckled throat of juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbird

And off he flew.

Of the two, the hummingbird moth is easier to observe and photograph, feeding for several minutes within the same patch, often joined by several others nectaring on the same plants.


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