Friday, October 28, 2016

Swallowtail Butterfly Mimicry

While I was out to the garden, collecting a sprig or two of parsley for a veggie stir fry, I was startled by a beautiful caterpillar:

When I looked closer, there were over 10 of them in my parsley patch.

After some investigation, I identified them as the Eastern Black Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) caterpillar.

They start as a little greenish-yellow iridescent egg, from which emerges after 4 to 9 days, depending on the weather, a black larvae, with a conspicuous white saddle, which mimics bird droppings. This stage lasts 10 to 30 days, and includes several instar phases and a caterpillar.

Another 9 to 18 days, as a pupa, are needed to become a butterfly.

Black swallowtail butterflies frequent the zinnia garden, 

but wait, after some double checking, I find these butterflies are NOT Eastern Black Swallowtails, but a dark morph of the female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Paplio glaucus) and their caterpillar looks like this:

Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are dimorphic and this chart from Wikipedia shows the differences :

3 - dorsal female dark morph; 6 - ventral female dark morph

"In the dark morph, the areas that are normally yellow are replaced with dark gray or black. A shadow of the "tiger stripes" can be seen on the underside of the some of the dark females."

From one of the photos above, I zoomed in closer, and indeed, you can see the "tiger stripes":

So the differences are easier to identify, pictured below together are the female Eastern Black Swallowtail and then the female Eastern Tiger Swallow tail- dark morph.

Note the prominent white spots on the body and wings, for starters.

Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail - dark morph (Papilio glaucus)

There is also a Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), which also looks similar:

and all these dark swallowtails are mimicking the poisonous Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)

This is called Batesian mimicry, where the butterfly's resemblance to a noxious one, protects it from predators.

There are numerous interesting scientific articles on the subject, but these two studies are especially relevant. In Evolution (33 (1) March 1979), "Batesian Mimicry: Field Demonstration of the Survival Value of Pipevine Swallowtail and Monarch Color Patterns" by M.R. Jeffords, it was shown that mimetic swallowtail butterflies have longer survival times, and are less frequently and vigorously attacked by predators.

Also, why are only the females mimetic? 

In an article in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, titled "Diversity in mimicry: paradox or paradigm", by M. Juron, three possibliities are offered, including 1. being mimetic reduces mating success in males, 2. reduces success competing against other males and 3. since females are more vulnerable to predators because of their predictable behavior while feeding, mimicry would offset this. 

Here is a link to the full article: 

A simple visit and observation in the garden led to just a peek 
into such a fascinating and 
complex world. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

Carpenter Bees, Blueberries and Catbirds

In early spring, a queen Carpenter bee took up residence right next to our blueberry field. 
See the hole on the post to the right:

She regularly worked the blueberry blossoms, pollinating them, one by one, day by day. 
This helped ensure fully developed fruit.

She attempted to make additional homes in the poles, as you can see here, with her flying around, checking out different locations,  

and then actively chewing on the wood.

This is what her home looks like inside the post:

After mating, the female will burrow like this into untreated wood and lay eggs in a series of cells, providing balls of pollen for the larvae to feed on. The adults emerge in late summer.


Four of the 14 bushes were netted to keep the birds out.

The 6' foot bushes were ladened with fruit this year, thanks to the excellent pollination by the Carpenter bee. These bees are also important pollinators for eggplants and tomatoes. 

Carpenter bees are the largest native pollinators in the US. 
They emerge in early spring and work early in the morning until late in the evening. 
They have a medium length tongue, are sturdy, with a hairy thorax and a shiny black abdomen. 
These bees can travel up to a mile. 

(See a previous blog entry on March 12, 2012)

Every day, at least 2 - 4 Catbirds found their way into the netted enclosure. 
This has gone on for 2 weeks. I went out twice a day to check and let them out, where they then dashed back into the thicket, turning to meow, squeak or squawk at me.

It was always Catbirds! 

Gray Catbirds especially love blueberries and other fruit. 
They are mimics repeating a variety of sounds and can sing a song for up to 10 minutes.

Here is the first bowl. 

Yesterday afternoon, I went out and found 5 Catbirds in the enclosure and decided to go ahead, take down the netting and pick all the berries. 

After picking over 2 hours, 
the total collection came to 19 pounds or 27 pints.

There were still lots of berries left on the bushes and as I came out to the field today, I found over 10 birds feasting, including Thrashers, Robins, Sparrows and 
Catbirds, of course!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Early July Garden Report

Despite the late cold temperatures this spring, 
along with the frosts, then wet, now dry, 

the garden is doing well:

The lettuces have bolted and flowered and now lay composting, making room for green beans: heirloom Kentucky Wonder Bush (matures in 57 days) and Contender Stringless Beans (40 days). 

Earlier planted beans are flowering beautifully:

The zucchini and squash are prolific with numerous fruits growing right before my eyes:

The edamame is a new addition to the garden this year and growing 
nicely along with fuzzy pods. 

They are soybeans and harvested usually 35-40 days after flowering. 
They can be boiled or steamed and then salted for a healthy treat. 
They are quite tasty as soon as harvested, 
but can be refrigerated up to 3 days.

The July 4 Tomatoes have tomatoes, 

as promised!

But what I'm most excited about are the peas. 

Although we've had some quite hot days, but cool nights, 

the peas are producing!

Peas, peas, peas! 

I love how they are silhouetted in their pea pods:

They are delicious and I can't help but keep eating them 
as I pick them, 
delicately warm and crunchy.

Peas can be stored unshelled and unwashed in the refrigerator for several days. Fresh peas can be blanched in boiling water for 1-2 minutes and then frozen up to 6 months.

Happy Gardening 
and may we continue to be showered with rain, 
keeping a drought at bay.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Beware of Aggressive House Sparrows!

The Tree Swallows have been hunting insects in the meadow, swirling overhead and then off into the nesting box. Great news! They must have a nest!

But, wait, a House Sparrow followed it into the nesting box?

Did I see this correctly? What was going on? I dashed inside and did a quick search of Tree Swallows versus House Sparrow and this is what I found out:

House Sparrows are over 80,000,000 strong here in the U.S. and counting. Also known as English Sparrows, they were introduced from Great Britain 150 years ago and they are NOT a native bird. They are extremely aggressive and will corner Tree Swallows, Blue Birds, and other native birds, who they are competing with, following them into a nesting box and pecking them to death. Yikes!

This is the picture shown on the site listed below:

Shocked and disturbed, I raced to the nesting box to investigate. I found 5 baby House Sparrow inside, which I left in place and they are thriving. I was relieved not to find a dead Tree Swallow.

What was going on in the rest of the nesting boxes? These are nesting boxes that had been erected specifically to help the Blue Bird population in the area!

The nesting box by the fence, historically, always a Blue Bird nesting box, had House Sparrows and 4 eggs. Out that nest came! The Blue Birds had been over wintering in this box all winter and had clearly been chased off.

In the upper meadow, 2 of the nesting boxes housed House Sparrow nests. Out they came. The middle nesting box have a Blue Bird family nesting and they were already being harassed by House Sparrows.

What to do? The site above offers some great suggestions, which I will pursue, including a Sparrow Spooker and Hironbec Pendulum.

Here is the site to access this information:

Another outstanding site offers further suggestions on how to deal with this serious problem:

Before acting, be sure to make a correct ID:

Egg comparisons for making correct ID:

I will continue to monitor these nesting boxes and remove House Sparrow nests every 10-12 days, as recommended.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Eggs of Blue

Along the driveway, there were 2 small, broken, very blue eggs.

Why? Why along the driveway? 

Was the robbing bird using the hard surface to help break the eggs? 

Why not just use their pointy beak?

Whose eggs were these? 

They seemed smaller than a robins?

Which other birds lay blue eggs with no markings or spots and are smooth?

Using Peterson's Field Guide: Eastern Bird's Nest, this is what I found:

From small to large:
14 x 11 mm - blue-gray gnatcatcher -  pale - bluish, bluish white
18 x 13 mm - house finch - pale bluish green
20 x 16 mm - bluebird - pale blue, bluish white
22 x 16 mm - veery - pale blue, similar to robins
22 x 16 mm - hermit thrush - very pale blue
23 x 17 mm - gray catbird -  deep greenish blue
25 x 18 mm - wood thrush - pale blue
28 x 20 mm - robin - robin egg's blue
29 x 21 mm - common starling - pale bluish or greenish white

Here is an online site for egg and nest identification:

In measuring the egg, it is around 28 mm and with it's distinct blue, it's most likely a robin's egg.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Spring Discoveries

It is a blustery, damp, dreary, cold Spring day. It's hard to believe, that it's the end of April. Despite the cold, there are some interesting discoveries, that have been awaiting me in the garden.

First Discovery/Confirmation:
Look what was sparkling amongst the weeds:

Raspberry Dressing Lettuce!!

This is a keeper and something I will be sure to plant yearly!

Second Discovery/Confirmation: 
- The zinnia bed covered in old zinnia stocks did well. Just a few weeds, but overall the soil is in place and in excellent shape. The left over seeds were enjoyed by the over-wintering birds, as well.

- The beds covered in black plastic are in great shape, although the soil was more compacted and reduced. In any case, the soil is like black chocolate cake: moist, crumbly and deliciously perfect for planting new spring plants. 

- The beds covered in weed barrier did not fare well. The barriers were not anchored well enough and simply blew away. Those beds are covered in weeds. Argh!  (See previous post on October 25, 2015)

Spring plantings are well underway. I've planted red, romaine and bibb lettuces and parsley plants and pea seeds and mounded starter potatoes. I threw in a tomato and some eggplant just for fun, but it's been too cool for them to make much progress. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Snapper crossing!

Last Thursday afternoon, March 10th, 2 female snapper turtles journeyed from the lower boreal pond and creek, over the road, to the upper pond, where they will reside until the end of summer. It was in the 60's, sunny with a light breeze.

It's a difficult and dangerous trip, as they must cross over a busy road. 

That's where I come in! 

This is the first year in 10 years, that I have witnessed 2 traveling not only on the same day, but at the same time.

The first female followed almost the exact same path as last year, traveling

  up from the creek still covered in thick, wet, black mud. 

and onto my neighbors driveway and then over the road, where 
I stopped traffic, so she could cross safely. 

After crossing the road and safely on the other side, she allowed me to approach her closely without hissing. I could then appreciate her large muscular legs and long claws as she hurried along 
with an ungainly stride.

The second snapper came straight from the pond, through the leaves, vines and branches.

Slowly, she made her way, inching across the driveway and then lumbering up the hill.

As I collected sticks from the winter's winds and keeping my distance, I noticed she continued to choose the most difficult path. 
She walked into some brambles and became tangled in an old wire fence, that took me, 
and some pulling, while wearing thick protective gloves, to get her out.

 Finally, I just carried her the rest of the way, over the road, 
as she wiggled and snapped at me.

I'm so glad to have discovered them, 
to insure their safe travels over the road 
for another season!

For previous snapper turtle encounters, see blog entries: 
May 7, 2010: 

November 20, 2009: