Thursday, May 10, 2012

Of admirals, migrants and native plants for sale

Of admirals, migrants and native plants for sale

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During a recent phone call with my wife, my in-laws reported that they’d been enjoying a yard full of a certain kind of butterfly—medium-sized, mostly black, with red-orange markings, as well as some white spots. Embracing their inner naturalists, they had used their butterfly book to identify them as red admirals.

My in-laws live in Cleveland, Ohio, but I bet you’ve been seeing red admirals, too. If not, pay attention the next time you step out the door because they really are everywhere right now. 

Why are we seeing so many this spring?

I asked Mike Jeffords, a scientist who recently retired from the Illinois Natural History Survey, which is a division of the Prairie Research Institute at Illinois. He said it’s no great mystery: “When you don’t have winter, weird things happen.”

In a typical spring, the population of red admirals at our latitude is composed primarily of migrants, individuals that have overwintered either as pupae or adults somewhere to the south. That’s because few red admirals survive a typical winter as far north as central Illinois.

But this spring, the population of red admirals here includes all of those migrants plus every one that stayed on through winter; we had no cold snap severe enough to kill them. As Jeffords summed it up, “Every red admiral that could be around is around.”

He went on to point out that other butterflies have also been numerous and active far earlier than usual this spring. He and his spouse, who is also an entomologist, had seen 22 species of butterflies in Illinois before April, more than double the usual number.

Prothonotary warbler
When you slow down to look at a red admiral, you might also notice how greatly bird activity has picked up in recent weeks. Indeed, we’re in the midst of the best days of the year for birding. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are regular at nectar feeders again, and people who keep seed feeders out may be treated to the sight of the boldly patterned rose-breasted grosbeak, identifiable by his black hood, white bill, red chest and white belly.

The real highlight of early May, though, is warbler migration. Most of these spectacularly colored little insect eaters are just passing through—on their way from the tropical forests of central and South America to the boreal forest of the northern tier states and Canada—and they’re not here for long.

If you’re new to warbler watching, there’s no better place to start than the Sunday morning bird walks sponsored by the Champaign County Audubon Society, which continue through the month. These walks depart from the Urbana Park District’s Anita Purves Nature Center at 7:30 a.m., and cover much of Crystal Lake Park and Busey Woods, depending on where the birds are.

Enthusiastic GPF volunteer Bob Vaiden
provides advice at last year's plant sale 
You may already know that the most direct way to benefit butterflies, birds and other wildlife is to beautify your home landscape with native plants. Saturday offers the best opportunity of the year to obtain native plants locally at the annual sale conducted by Grand Prairie Friends. The sale takes place from 8am to 12pm at Lincoln Square in Urbana.

All plants sold are grown by volunteers, from seed collected locally, and all proceeds benefit this highly effective, all-volunteer organization, which works to preserve and restore natural communities in east central Illinois.