Sunday, July 15, 2012

Butterflies on my mind...

This weekend's weather has been a bit variable, with some rain falling Saturday morning to put a bit of a dampener on our programs but it wasn't enough to keep our dragonfly workshop group out of the field. Despite gray skies for much of the day, we saw a fine selection of Cape May's dragonflies and witnessed all sorts of interesting behavior. Here's a couple of stars of the show:
This female Bar-winged Skimmer posed beautifully on a greenbrier stem for us, showing off a wonderful color-coordinated body and those smart, black-margined wings. Bar-winged Skimmers are rather localized in Cape May and can mostly be found in the top third of the county. [photo by Mike Crewe].

Always a show-stopper! A male Widow Skimmer - just one of some 20 individuals that we saw of this relatively recent colonist to our area [photo by Mike Crewe].

Insects have certainly been the main focus of our wildlife walks this past week and one particular little beastie that has come to our attention has been a red-and-black species known as a Cow-killer - sounds ominous doesn't it! Cow-killers are a large member of the group known as velvet ants. These insects are not actually ants, but wingless wasps and as such they have a sting in their tail. The reason for the strange English name is that it is said that the sting is so powerful it can kill a cow, and that being stung by one is akin to being shot! I am not sure whether this is really the case, but I do have a healthy respect for them! Look for Cow-killers anywhere on open ground, and look for a bright red and black thing that looks like a very busy ant. There are a number of other velvet ant species, most of which are similarly-colored, though often more orange in appearance, but none are as big as the Cow-killer, which can get up to an inch long. Females lay eggs  at the entrance to bumblebee nests and their larvae are parasitic, crawling into the nest and eating the bumblebee larvae.

Female Cow-killer - an awesome beast! Stories of killing cows appears to be scientifically unfounded, but I'm not going to be the guinea-pig!! Keep an eye out for these interesting insects, but don't be worried by them, they are perfectly happy ignoring us and are extremely unlikely to sting you unless you really annoy them [photo by Mike Crewe].

With this year's dragonfly workshop now complete, I find myself looking ahead to the butterfly workshop that Will Kerling will again be leading for us. Certainly I've noticed that our summer butterfly species are now emerging in good numbers, in perfect time for our workshop this coming Thursday. We still have a few vacancies on this fabulous day out around Cape May, which offers a superb opportunity to enjoy a nice range of butterfly species, while learning more about the lives of these fascinating insects. As ever, please call our Program Registrar on 609-861-0700 for more details or register. Here's a few tempters for you:

Hayhurst's Scallopwing on our dragonfly workshop yesterday. This may be the classic 'little brown job' but it's an interesting butterfly and never easy to find in Cape May County, so it's always a nice bonus to a day in the field [photo by Mike Crewe].

Late afternoon light shining through the wings of a Viceroy - our butterfly workshop will help you easily learn how to tell this species apart from the Monarch butterfly [photo by Mike Crewe].

It could be a good year for the Little Yellow as several have been seen already around Cape May. This southern species moves its range northward periodically and can occasionally be found in good numbers when conditions are right [photo by Mike Crewe].

Recent sightings
Shorebirds are still in the news as numbers swell around Cape May and wetland habitats are certainly the place to be right now. Top prize in the area at the moment would be the two Black-bellied Whistling-ducks which have so far spent two days at Brigantine and this site also still has a summering Dickcissel and White-faced Ibis. A good variety of herons, egrets and ibises continues to build up and the Great Shearwater may well still be lurking off the point if you fancy a nice day on the beach!

Adult Green Heron at Bunker Pond on our state park walk last Wednesday. It;s worth getting out every day from now on as migrants are well and truly on the move... [photo by Mike Crewe]