Have you seen me? Can you identify me?
No, you're a skipper, but which one are you?
The colorful brown skipper butterfly that touched down on our Jupiter's Beard in Vacaville, Calif., on May 17 puzzled us. First skipper we've seen this year in our pollinator garden, but what was it?
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has studied butterflies for more than four decades--and who posts his research and observations on his Art's Butterfly World website--identified it as Poanes (Paratrytone) melane, the Umber Skipper.
"It's having a HUGE year," Shapiro told us today. "It was extinct in Davis for over 30 years! But it came back a few years ago."
The Umber Skipper is also recorded on his website. "Although common in parts of the Bay Area where it is an urban 'lawn skipper,'" on our transect this is entirely a species of riparian forest and is generally uncommon or even rare. It perches in dappled light and shade along streamsides, generally well off the ground...In Berkeley it breeds happily on Bermuda Grass, which seems to have not discovered farther inland."
The Poanes melane adults visit Yerba Santa, dogbane, milkweed, thistles, yellowstar thistle, California buckeye, and coyote bush, among others.
The larvae of this skipper feed on the leaves of various grasses. Wikipedia describes the wings as "umber brown, the forewing with a darker disc and pale spots and the hindwing with a light yellow-brown band."
Quick research indicates that J. B. Heppener of the UC Berkeley Department of Entomology wrote about its 1941 spread in San Diego County in a piece published in 1972 in the Journal of Research on the Lepitoptera. He mentioned that when it spread into San Diego County in 1941 it "was sudden and well noted by resident collectors due to its previous absence from the county."
San Diego residents reportedly first encountered it in August 1941. "F. T. Thorne was one of the first collectors to encounter melane and he vividly recounts his excitement upon realizing what was being caught," Heppener wrote.
We know that feeling...that excitement!
The western migration of the Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) to their overwintering sites along the California coast is underway.
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, recorded four Monarchs at his Suisun monitoring site yesterday. He's been monitoring butterflies in Central California for some four decades.
This morning, a male Monarch fluttered into our yard to sip some nectar from a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). (A distinguishing feature of the male Monarch: a small black spot on each of its two hindwings. See photo below.)
Monarchs head for sites along the coast, including Santa Cruz, Monterey, Natural Bridges and Pacific Grove, to overwinter, Shapiro noted.
"There used to be a small site in Fairfield, near the old Juvenile Hall on West Texas Street, in a row of Eucalyptus. It's been gone for decades. Some years they try to overwinter in Marin and Sonoma counties, but usually give up and shift south in December. In the past few years there has been a little winter breeding on the south coast. This was never recorded before."
The migration of the Monarchs to overwintering sites in central Mexico is well-publicized, but some monarchs head for the California coast. According to the monarchwatch.org website, monarchs east of the continental divide generally migrate to central Mexico from as far away as Ontario, Canada. "Monarchs west of the divide fly to the coast of California to spend the winter. They cluster together on tree limbs during the winter months in California by the thousands, and in central Mexico by the millions." (Download the PDF on the monarchwatch.org site.)
We're glad to see the huge national campaign to plant milkweed, the host plant of the Monarchs. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has posted a wealth of information on its website for us to take action. The Monarch population has declined by more than 90 percent in under 20 years.
“Monarch butterflies are declining due to loss of habitat,” said Monarch Watch director Chip Taylor. “To assure a future for monarchs, conservation and restoration of milkweeds needs to become a national priority.”
It also helps to provide nectar resources for the Monarchs to help them along in their migration. In our yard, they like the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), and blue beard (Caryopteris × clandonensis). See list of Monarchs' favorite plants on the monarchwatch.org site.
Meanwhile, an occasional Monarch flutters into our family bee/butterfly garden to sip some nectar. Sometimes territorial native bees chase them away but the Monarchs return, determined to grab some flight fuel.
Don't look now, but a garden spider almost grabbed a tiger by the tail.
The tiger? That would be the Western tiger swallowtail, Papilio rutulus.
The ragged wings of the butterfly (below) show signs of a close encounter with a predator--maybe another spider, a praying mantis or a bird.
The Western tiger swallowtails are drop-dead gorgeous. Sporting a yellow-and-black wingspan of 2.75 to 4 inches (when not tattered by a predator!), these butterflies attract attention as they glide around gardens and parks and in riparian forests.
This is one of the butterflies that distinguished scientist Arthur Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis studies. Check out his amazing butterfly website.
LiveScience, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, recently showcased him in a feature story, "Passion for Butterflies Becomes a Study in Climate Change Impact."
You'll want to read how Shapiro first became involved in the wonderful world of butterflies, and how that passion led to a massive butterfly data collection he launched more than 40 years ago.
Despite "the high altitudes, rigorous walks and over cooperative weather, he's still going strong, exploring mountains across central California, pen and notebook in hand," wrote Ayesha Monga Kravtz of the National Science Foundation.
"Through phylogeography, Shapiro is trying to reconstruct the history of the high-mountain butterfly faunas both on the West coast of North America and in the southern parts of South America, such as Argentina and Chile," Kravtz wrote. "By reconstructing the history of these faunas, where they came from, how they moved and when, scientists and researchers can make predictions as to how the fauna will respond to climate change in the future."
And, as Shapiro told Kravtz: "The past is the key to the future."
Indeed it is. And that would include the comings and goings of the Western tiger swallowtail.
Pop goes the Pieris.
So wrote professor Art Shapiro of the UC Davis Department of Evolution and Ecology from his office in Storer Hall.
Yes, he won his own contest again.
Every year since 1972, the butterfly expert has sponsored a beer-for-a-butterfly contest to see who can find the first cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae) of 2012 in the three-county area of Sacramento, Yolo and Solano.
He netted a newly emerged male at 11:50 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 8 in in West Sacramento, Yolo County, to claim his own prize.
Shapiro immediately announced he would take his graduate students and their significant others out for a beer in a few days to celebrate. His students are typically his fiercest competitors in the contest, which is designed to aid in his studies of biological response to climate change.
Sunday’s capture date is the second earliest of record in 40 years, the earliest being Jan. 4, 1990. Shapiro said it reflects “the extraordinary sunny and dry weather that has persisted all winter, with warm afternoons, frosty nights, and little cloudiness or fog.”
“There have been numerous high-temperature records set in northern California, both in the valleys and in the Sierra Nevada, “ Shapiro said. “The abnormal conditions cannot be linked causally to global warming but are related somehow to the current La Nina, now in its second year.”
Shapiro noted that many regional first-flight records for butterflies were set during the severe drought of 1975-76, before “ the signature of global warming was observed.”
“In 1976 we had species flying at the end of January that normally come out in March,” Shapiro observed. “If the current weather pattern continues another two weeks, all those records will be at risk.”
He also pointed out that due to the lack of rainfall, germination of herbaceous plants has been very poor. “If butterflies and other insects are tricked by the weather into emerging early, the resources they need will simply not be there!”
Showing his keen sense of humor, Shapiro joked that politicians of a certain persuasion had something to say about the contest. "Despite my willingness to share the prize, news that I had won again drew harsh criticism" from them, he said. "Despite their own differences, they unanimously pointed out that I teach evolution and study climate change, both of which they consider to be hoaxes."
Shapiro, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Entomological Society and the California Academy of Sciences, maintains a website on butterflies at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/, where he monitors butterfly population trends in Central California. He has surveyed fixed routes at 10 sites since as early as 1972. They range from the Sacramento River delta, through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains, to the high desert of the western Great Basin. The sites, he said, represent the great biological, geological, and climatological diversity of central California.
Meanwhile, we're waiting for the 2013 beer-for-a-butterfly contest. We think we know who will win it! The winner's name starts with an "A."