Are The Anglewings In Sync?

We all know anglewings look very much alike. Can you ID this one with the telltale “punctuation” hidden? Photograph by Jeanine Apgar at Palmyra Nature Cove on September 18, 2021.

Our two local anglewings, the eastern comma and the question mark, show many similarities besides their physical resemblance:

  • They share a mostly-overlapping range with each other, south from Maine to Florida and west to the Dakotas, and are the most widespread and southernmost members of the genus Polygonia in eastern North America.  (The four other Polygonia of the East – gray comma, hoary comma, satyr comma, and green comma – are generally limited to northern woodlands).    
  • Their caterpillars feed on a similar mix of host plants, including elms and nettles.
  • Both species occur here in two, clearly-distinct broods – one brood in early summer and, weeks later, a second in late summer/early fall.  
  • Many individuals of both species of that second brood over-winter as adults in South Jersey (unlike all but two or three others of our 90+ species), and both species regularly fly in late-winter and early-spring, usually weeks ahead of all but the mourning cloak, their fellow Nymphalid.
  • As adults, both species feed frequently on sap, dung, and rotten fruit, and neither one nectars regularly on flowers.
A question mark sipping from a fruit dish in Pat Sutton’s backyard garden in Goshen, June 15, 2021 — a behavior also regularly seen in eastern commas.
  • Both species also migrate southward in fall and some individuals, at least, seem to migrate north in spring.  The question mark has occasionally erupted northward from southern states in huge migratory flights, most recently in May 2012.
  • Both their populations also ebb and flow obviously from year to year – numerous and hard-to-miss some years, tougher-to-find in other years.

And that leads to our ecology puzzle:  Are their two populations also in sync with each other?  In other words, do their many similarities lead to similar records of ups and downs, so that they share the same good years and bad years?  Or, do  they differ in their ecologies so much that one can boom while the other busts, and vice-versa?   

I called upon my junior-high spreadsheet skills to see how our log’s numbers might answer those questions.

A Note About Numbers:

The Reeves’ system that powers our log enables us to measure and compare abundance and yearly fluctuations in two different ways – by total reports for a species in a given year or by total individuals counted in all reports of that species for the year.  Each method has its pluses and minuses, but in this case the question mark irruption of 2012 distorts our individuals’ totals significantly.  Observers estimated a total of 5000+ individuals on the peak day of the flight, May 4.  That was more question marks reported in one day than we have ever recorded for the species in any other full year.  To avoid that distortion problem and to keep things simple, I am using total records as the comparison measures for the three graphs below.  

The question mark has long been considered the more numerous of the two species in our area. Arthur Shapiro made this point in his Butterflies of the Delaware  Valley in 1966, and Gochfeld & Burger came to the same conclusion in their Butterflies Of New Jersey in 1997 (citing sources going back to the late 1800s).  Our log records confirm that the question mark continues to be more common.  Over our log’s first ten full years, 2009-2018, we compiled an average of about 220 reports/year and 845 individuals totaled/year for the question mark.  The comma’s numbers were lower on both counts: 124 reports/year and 295 individuals totaled/year.  

Two Trend Lines:

The trend lines in the first two graphs below of all reports suggest that the comma seems to be increasing in South Jersey while the question mark seems to be declining.  I am uncertain whether these trends are meaningful.  Both trends are modest, and they might be temporary – part of a longer cycle, where a species increases or decreases for five or ten years and then returns to its former numbers.     

Booms & Busts:

But what about those booms and busts? Are commas and question marks so similar that they share good years and bad years in parallel? 

To make comparisons easier, the bars in the next graph indicate each species’ numbers vs. its own 10-year average (calculated for 2009-2018) as the standard.  The 100 line = 100% of that 10-year average.

“Good” & “Bad” Years

Each species has had five “good” (= above average) years and eight “bad” (below average).  The question mark’s five have been 2010, 2011, 2012 (its best year by far), 2017, and 2019.  The comma’s above-average years have been 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, a string of five good years in six and followed by 2020 with a count right at 100% of the 10-year average.  

In Sync? 

One hint that their similar ecologies lead them to struggle at the same time are the three years when both had numbers well below their averages – 2009, 2015, and last year, 2021.   They also have shared two or three “good” years – 2017 and 2019, and 2011, when the comma reached its average while the question mark totaled 120% of its average.  

Or Not?

The story grows more complicated when we look at the five years of 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018, when one species boomed while the other busted.  The years 2012 and 2014 seem the clearest examples of mismatched booms and busts:  in the question mark’s best year of 2012 the comma had its second-worst (of our log’s thirteen); in the question mark’s second-worst year in 2014, the comma had numbers well above its average.  

One key to these mismatches might be differences in their host plants.  Most texts list elms, nettles, and hops for both anglewings, but their specific preferences seem to differ. Our log has many reports of question mark using hackberry as a host, for example, but I don’t see that as a listed host for eastern comma, and I can’t seem to remember log reports or photos of comma using hackberry.  If you have photos or remember them doing so, can you please send me a note?

Another possible difference involves stinging nettle (Urtica diocia). That plant is often listed as a host for eastern commas but not, it seems, for question marks. Anyone with a photo or a memory of a question mark ovipositing on stinging nettle or their caterpillars using it? 

Butterfly gardeners, please let us know which plants the anglewings have used in your yard. You may know more about the host plants for these two species in South Jersey than anyone!

Your Thoughts?

I will stop here and invite comments from anyone with other thoughts about these numbers.  I see several complications we could explore, along with questions about host plants: 

Is thirteen years of logging too short a period to draw lines of population trends?  Does that question mark boom year of 2012 distort its record for all our log’s thirteen years so far?  As many of us have become better butterflyers over the years, with more experience and better field guides, do we now separate more commas from question marks than we used to?  (If so, that could create an apparent rise of the first and decline of the second.)  Are the ecologies of the two species actually so different – despite their many apparent similarities – that comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges and so finding parallels or contrasts is self-delusion?  And so on.  

I am also reminded of a line I saw recently in Doug Tallamy’s The Nature Of Oaks: “Ecology is not rocket science,” a friend once observed, “It’s much more complicated than that!”

Our blog’s comments tool had to be disabled as it was plagued by spam.  Thoughts, questions, or complaints can be emailed to me nacotejackATgmailDOTcom and I will post below.  Thanks for reading!


Tom Bailey managed this amazing photo of both anglewings perched together on the trunk of a pine at Palmyra Nature Cove on July 28, 2018. They would be easier to ID if they posed like this more often!

[PS: The anglewing in Jeanine Apgar’s photo at the top of this post is an eastern comma.]

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Jack Miller: Some Thoughts On South Jersey’s Dion Skippers

Male Dion on Rt 610 power line, CMY, on July 13, 2017 photographed by Jack Miller

[Update (8-3-21): In response to Jack Miller’s post below, Dale Schweitzer has kindly provided his own thoughts about the host plant for Euphyes dion in our area. See the end of this post for his comments.

Any observer observing ovipositing by this species should attempt to photo it and also include full shots of the plant involved and post on our Sightings Log. We could help solve this mystery! jc]

Dion skipper has an interesting history in the SJBP log.  Since the log began in 2008, Dions have been found in six of our eight South Jersey counties: CMY, ATL, CUM, CAM, BUR, and OCN; only SAL and GLO have not reported the species.  CMY has had by far the most reports with 122;  ATL has had 9 with only 3 reports north of the Tuckahoe River area;  BUR has had 7; CUM has had 5 reports; and CAM has had 1 report (2013).

From 2008 to 2011 we collected 19 reports from three counties (CMY, BUR, and ATL) with a total number of individuals of approximately 30 to 40 (numbers do not exist for 2008).  By 2011, the vast majority of reports started coming from CMY with peak years of 20 reports in 2016 and the log’s record of 33 reports in 2017.  Reports of 20 to 40 individuals became common with peak number of individuals in reports as high as 144 (2012), 60 (2017), 131 (2019), and the log’s record of 350 in 2020.

Most likely, the low number of reports from the log’s early years can be attributed to a learning process.  As more locations were discovered, an understanding of what comprised suitable habitats increased.  “New” locations soon became “old” locations that were visited each year, thus increasing the number of reports and the number of individuals seen.  Also, particularly in CMY, log participants realized that there were dozens of locations that were suitable for Dions.

Dion numbers in Cape May County fluctuate and sometimes these fluctuations are dramatic.  Boggy areas in power line cuts offer prime habitat for Dions. However, when these lines are mowed and/or “shaved,” populations may crash.  An example of this is the power line that extends from Route 610 to Corson’s Tavern Road. On July 22 2017, 68 individuals were reported from this location.  In 2018, after being mowed and having significant work completed with heavy equipment, the site’s high single-day count was five on July 25.  Conversely, the Hand Avenue colony location has not been mowed in years, and the population there has been growing recently.  The colony peaked with a report of 350 individuals on July 25, 2020.

Male Dion skipper at Hand Avenue, CMY, on July 17, 2020, photographed by Jack Miller

It also appears that the species may experience cyclical variations.  CMY’s record number of 33 reports in 2017 was followed by 6 reports in each of 2018 and 2019 with four of the 12 reports in 2018 and 2019 being single individuals from yard gardens. Only the Hand Avenue site thrived during 2018 and 2019.

Dions do not mind straying far from their host plants. An observer may encounter a Dion almost anywhere in the Cape.  They have been reported at Cape May Point and single individuals have been found in dozens of locations.  One individual was found in the middle of Wharton St Forest far from where any colony has been discovered.  It is possible that degradation in host locations can be responsible for the species abandoning some sites and relocating to other sites where the host plants exist.  In 2021, two locations in the Rio Grande area apparently have been abandoned.  It is clear that the sedges in one of the locations spent a long period of time under water which resulted fewer and weaker plants.  However, there is a small area within two miles of the previously mentioned sites where the host plant is healthy, and for the first time in five years Dions have appeared there.

Cech and Tudor (in their Butterflies of the East Coast) list “various sedges” as host plants including Carex lacustris and Scirpus cyperinus. Glassberg (in his Butterflies Through Binoculars) simply lists “Carexs.”  It is likely that the most common host plant in southern New Jersey for Dions is Carex lacustris.  This sedge is widely distributed and can be found in bogs, vernal wetlands and along brackish marshlands.  However, large patches of sedges does not guarantee the presence of Dions.  I know of a number of locations where C. lacustris thrives that I have searched for years, but have not seen Dions. It is interesting to note that most of these locations are near brackish tidal areas that can be flooded by storm-produced tidal flooding.  On the other hand, it may only take a few hundred square feet of C. lacustris in order for a colony to exist for years.  The Davies Sports Complex in CMY provides an example of one of these small colonies.  Most colonies seem to need both access to sunlight and proximity to wooded edges.

Glassberg writes that there are distinct northern and southern populations.  He describes the behavior of northern populations as “nervous and active” and southern populations as “sluggish” (92).  Cech and Tudor write that Dions are “shy and reclusive—challenging to locate, and harder still to approach” (296).  They also note that they are “limited to small colonies with low population density” (296).  These comments suggest the Dions of SJ are of the southern populations.  Our individuals are often sluggish and can remind one of fireflies as they slowly drift through and over their host plants. They are often cooperative with photographers and will allow close approach.  This is not to say that they are incapable of bursts of rapid and excited flight when disturbed — which often brings them back to their starting point.  Another support for the idea that our Dions are of the southern populations is that South Jersey bogs are acidic while northern colonies prefer calcareous fens.

Female Dion on Hand Avenue, July 19, 2018, photographed by Jack Miller

New Jersey Dions are single-brooded with third-stage caterpillars overwintering.  Is it possible that yearly population fluctuations are the result of the precarious locations of host plants?  There are years when water levels stay high in South Jersey bogs and wetlands which might affect caterpillar survival rates.

Although finding Dions in SJ is easier now than it was a decade ago, they remain a species that warrants study.

Log Reports, 2008- 2020 


CMY–  3 reports (number of individuals unknown)         (7/15 – 7/25)


BUR – 4 reports of 1, 4, 1 and 1; all from Franklin Parker Preserve       (8/3 – 8/18)


CMY  1 report of 1; Belleplain area

ATL    1 report of 2; Head of River/Tuckahoe River*

BUR   1 report of 1; FPP                                                (6/27 – 7/17)

* note: There are many reports from Head of River and the Tuckahoe River that create some confusion.  The river separates ATL and CMY counties and observers may on occasion be reporting the same individuals but from two different counties.


CMY  9 reports, some of 6 or 7 individuals. 

On 7/10 Mike Crewe reports “7th site for Dion skipper this year in CMY, so far.”

ATL   1 report of 1; Hirst Ponds, Galloway                         (7/6 – 7/19)


CMY  16 reports. 

On 7/14, a report of 117 in the Belleplain (Johnson/Kerling) area with three other nearby areas raising the day’s total to 144.  This was more Dions in one day than the log had reported in its first four years.

First report of Dion in yard (Allen) from CMCH on 7/15, and second report of Dion in yard (Sutton) from Goshen on 7/19.                                  

ATL   1 report of 28 from Tuckahoe River area.

 (7/15 – 7/24)


CMY 7 reports; high count of 37 from Tuckahoe River

CAM 1 report of 8 from West Jersey Bogs

ATL 1 report of 1 

1 new yard record in Port Republic (Connor) 

OCN 1  report of 1 from Klot’s Bog                        (7/9 – 7/28)


CMY 10 reports with high count of 42 from Head of River

ATL 1 report of 45 from Head of River

CUM 2 reports Haleyville Rd. 

OCN 1 report of 1 from Warren Grove                      (7/18 – 8/13)


CMY 2 reports with high count of 30 from Lizard Tail                  (7/22 – 7/24)


CMY 20 reports with a high count of 30 from Lizard Tail.  Totals for the year were skewed in that there were 9 reports from Lizard Tail.  4 reports from Tuckahoe River with a high count of 4.  

1 new yard record in Petersburg (Miller)

CUM 1 report of 7 from Bear Swamp                            (7/14 – 8/20)


CMY 33 reports from as many as 16 locations (SJBP log’s all time high number of reports).  

High counts of 44 from Lizard Tail, 60 from Corson’s Tavern power line, and 28 from Hand Ave.

No reports from Belleplain area or Head of River/Tuckahoe River area.         

1 new yard record in CMCH (Amesbury) and two other yard records (Allen and Miller)

CUM 1 report of 1 from near Fairton.                              (7/10 – 8/12)


CMY 6 reports with a high count of 18 from Hand Ave.

1 yard report in CMCH (Amesbury)

ATL 1 report of 1 from Wharton St Forest                     (7/12 – 8/22)


CMY 6 reports with a high count of 131 from Hand Ave; all other reports were singletons. 

3 reports of yard records: Amesbury 2 (CMCH) and Miller 1 (Petersburg)

ATL 2 reports with a high count of 12 from Tuckahoe River.

CUM 1 report of 1 from Glades Preserve.                        (7/12 – 8/2)


CMY 9 reports with a high count of 350 from Hand Ave (SJBP log’s all time high number of individuals from 1 report).  

5 reports of yard records: Amesbury 3 (CMCH), Allen 1 (CMCH) and Sutton 1 (Goshen)

ATL 1 report of 1 from Port Republic (yard record; Connor)

BUR 2 reports with a high count of 5 from Franklin Parker Preserve (this was the first report from BUR since 2010 which was also from FPP).

Jack Miller (July 27, 2021)

Dion Skipper, Rt 610, CMY, on July 13, 2017, photographed by Jack Miller

Comment from Dale Schweitzer, [added 8-3-31]

Hi Jack et al.

Re Euphyes dion, nearly half of its range is south of Carex lacustris. I have seen dion with Carex lacustris in nw NJ (Carex id is?), NY, CT, and I’m pretty sure w.MA. Forbes (1960) gave the foodplant for E. dion alabamae as Carex striata which some of you may know locally as Carex walteriana, the name I first knew it as. 

With one exception I am pretty sure that is the sedge I see it with in south Jersey.  The exception was two  a few minutes apart around Scirpus cyperinus in a ditch near the Port Norris fire station.  I have seen no others there on many visits since 1989-2021, almost daily 1989-ca. 2005 since the site was on my dog-walk route. C. lacustris was never present any other place I saw E. dion down here. 

I suspect, but definitely don’t know, that south Jersey dion are that southern “subspecies”. I have no opinion whether that taxon is worthy of subspecies, full species, or synonym status.  But besides the differences in behavior you note, South Jersey dion also fly rather late, mainly about July 20 to August 5, the earliest I have seen (a photo) is about July 10. It’s not unusual to see single dion around here out of habitat on flowers such as milkweeds if buttonbush is not flowering in the habitat.. I assume they can find their way home.

Feel free to share this message. Any actual oviposition or larval records would be interesting if the sedge identity is known.

Dale S.

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A Halfway Point Check: Who’s Missing?

A painted lady (with nibbled wing) photographed by Robert Koch at Lumberton Leas, BUR, on November 16, 2020 . When we will record our first for 2021?

As of the morning of July 1, our South Jersey Log’s list includes 81 species for 2021. We had found 82 species at this time last year.

A quick review of the species not yet recorded for 2021 that we have usually found by this time in past years:

Checkered White: Recorded all years 2019-2012, sometimes not until July but missed completely last year, 2020 and found only once (a sighting of five individuals) in 2019. No checkered whites have been recorded in North Jersey since 2017.

Harvester: Recorded all years 2020 to 2012 usually before July 1, but some years not until July or August. The North Jersey Sightings Log just recorded their first last week, June 24, at the Willowood Arboretum.

Meadow Fritillary: Recorded all years 2019-2009 but often not until July or August (not recorded at all last year, 2020). North Jersey has had a number of reports this year starting in late April.

Painted Lady (?!): Recorded all previous years of our log. Only once before have we have not recorded it by this time of year. That was in 2015 when we didn’t find our first until July 17, our latest-ever FOY for that species. North Jersey has had a number of sightings this year, starting in early May.

Other “expected” species not yet recorded in our area in 2021 generally first appear after July 1st and in some years not until late August or even September: Giant Swallowtail, Little Yellow, Long-tailed Skipper, Fiery Skipper, Dion Skipper, Brazilian Skipper, and Ocola Skipper.

Of course we can also hope for some species seen occasionally but too rare to depend on: Zebra Swallowtail, Clouded Skipper, and a couple of others.

You can find more details about our log’s history of Early & Late Dates by clicking on “Early & Late Dates All Years 2008-2021” above.

Let me know if you spot errors. I will correct them here. Thank you!

And while I am at this, and halfway through our 14th year of this log:

A Big Thank-You to Jack Miller for sharing moderating responsibilities with me!

We would not have made it this far without him.

Jack Connor

July 3 update: Thanks to Steve Glynn’s find today at Wheelabrator (GLO) we have now added Ocola skipper to our list.

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Sharon Wander Makes Skipper ID Easier

Can you ID this skipper photographed by John Maxwell at Rancocas Nature Center (BUR) on May 10, 2010? It remains our log’s solo record for the species in South Jersey. Find the answer quickly on Sharon Wander’s new Grass Skippers Tops Guide. (Hint: she notes it is fairly common north of the Coastal Plain.)

Sharon Wander has pulled together an amazingly helpful, informative, and easy-to-use document focused on New Jersey’s grass skippers.

You can find it on the NABA-NJ Resources page (where you will find lots of other good stuff):

NABA-NJ Resources Page

Or, you can find it here: Sharon Wander’s Grass Skippers Tops Guide

Thank you, Sharon!

Jack Connor

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Five Ways Of Understanding South Jersey’s Azures

Q: Without knowing the date or place of this photo, can you identify this butterfly to the satisfaction of all South Jersey observers?
A: Don’t even try!

[This post has been updated as on 5-5-21 to include the responses of Dale Schweitzer and Wade Wander, now to be found below “Sources“ at the end of the article]

“How many different azure species are there in South Jersey?” and “How should we ID them?” are questions that seem to come up each year about this time.

Unfortunately, the most accurate answer to both questions seems to be another question:  “Who knows?”

As a public service, the SJ Butterfly Project hereby offers five different ways to handle the conundrum. Choose the method that best matches your style and attitude and then take advantage of our money-back guarantee that you will sleep better forever after.   

Arranged by the amount of homework required for each, our five offerings include:

  • The Traditional & Simple Plan (a one-name system)
  • The Simplicity-Plus Plan (a two-name system)
  • The I-Love-Lucia Plan (a three-name system)
  • The Holly-Go-Lightly Plan (a four-name system)
  • The Welcome-To-The-Twilight-Zone Plan (an alternative four-name system)

Traditional & Simple (a one-name system):

From at least 1951 — when the Peterson Field Guide Series published A Field Guide To The Butterflies by Alexander Klots — through the 1980’s, most popular sources about butterflies and insects described a single species of “spring azure.”  It was understood to be a very variable species that showed seasonal and geographical differences in coloring and a mix of host plant preferences, and it ranged from Alaska to Florida.  In some areas it emerged in two or three broods and flew from early spring through summer.  Its hosts included blueberries (Vaccinium), hollies (Ilex), dogwoods (Cornus), meadowsweet (Spiraea), and many others. The scientific name had changed over the decades — Klots called it Lycaenopsis argiolus — but seemed to have settled on Celastrina ladon.  Opler & Krizek note in their Butterflies East Of The Great Plains (1984) that the name ladon comes from Ladon, the dragon of Greek myth with one hundred heads.  Apparently, that was intended to suggest the many forms found in the species. 

The various forms posed a challenge to any author trying to describe “spring azure” succinctly and clearly.  Klots gave it a go with just two sentences, “The pale, slightly violet-tinged blue of the upper side is frequently, sometimes strongly, whitish on the disc, particularly on the hind wings.  The underside is entirely without orange or iridescent markings and  has a ‘washed-out’ look even though it may be heavily marked with brown blotches.”  William Howe found Klots’ description so good that he copied it almost word for word in his Butterflies Of North America (1975). 

Ok, Traditional & Simple Planners, that’s all you need to know. Now it’s time for your Exit Quiz.  Name all butterflies in the following six photographs correctly, and you are excused from all further discussion immediately:

Beaver Dam Road (CMY) 3-8-16.

Higbee’s Beach WMA (CMY) April 4, 2019

Glassboro Woods WMA (GLO), April 6, 2021


Glassboro Woods WMA on April 17, 2016. 


Stockton College campus (ATL), May 19, 2012.

Mickleton backyard (GLO) July 26, 2020

Correct!  According to the Traditional & Simple Plan, they are all spring azures, Celastrina ladon

As you leave our virtual classroom today, do not be intimidated by those folks remaining here to consider other systems.  Our Traditional & Simple Plan has a solid principle at its base: Both professional and amateur lepidopterists have been using one name for all populations for more than a century.  Many, probably most, still do.   

One-Name System:


Species Name

Common Name

Host Plants in Southern NJ


Celastrina ladon

spring azure

Vaccinium, Cornus, Ilex, Spiraea, and other woody plants 

Simplicity-Plus (a two-name system):  

We turn next to those of you who are uncomfortable calling those little blue butterflies you find in your yard in July, August and September spring azures.  

The solution is our Simplicity-Plus Plan. Add a second species to your mental checklist: the summer azure. A scientific name widely recognized is Celastrina neglecta and links back to 1862 when W.H. Edwards described a summer-flying azure and gave it the species name “neglecta” because it had been so long overlooked.  

How can you identify a summer azure in the simplest way possible?  Wait until summer!  By then blueberries, hollies, and dogwoods are long past flowering.  Once those plants have set seed, any little blue butterfly you see in our area without orange below can safely be called a summer azure.   

The caterpillars feed on the flower parts of Spiraea (meadowsweet) and also must feed on the flowers of other summer-blooming host plants — because, unlike all other azure forms, neglecta adults fly in multiple broods. Also unlike all others, they continue flying into late summer and even early fall.  The full list of summer plants the adults use for ovipositing seems undetermined for our area, however.  

But you need not worry about a host plant list to adopt our Simplicity-Plus Plan.  Can you look back at our six quiz photos above and choose the butterfly you can call summer azure? 

[Hint: Ignore the field marks. Read the captions. ]

Yes, Simplicity-Plus Planners, the sixth photo — taken by Lucy Hooper in her backyard — is the only one with a summer date. You have used the two-name plan successfully. On your way out of the classroom be prepared for smart-alecks in the back of the class muttering at you, “You’re ignoring the challenge and missing all the fun! Different azures use different host plants all spring!” We recommend you respond with a snappy, “I like to be sure of my IDs!”

Two-Name System

March-May Celastrina ladon spring azure Vaccinium, Cornus, Ilex, and other spring-blooming woody plants
June-Sept Celastrina neglecta summer azure Spiraea and other summer-blooming woody plants

The I-Love-Lucia (a three-name system):  

At this point, those of you remaining are warned that azure-ID gets increasingly murky at each of the remaining three steps.  Authorities disagree with each other, field marks grow uncertain, and each observer’s subjective judgment becomes a critical factor. 

It could be worse.  Just be grateful that our five plans focus only on the azures that have been documented in NJ’s Coastal Plain counties.  Pity the poor butterflyers in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and North Jersey who (depending on where they live) might stumble upon a dusky azure (C. nigra), an Appalachian azure (C. neglectamajor), or a cherry gall azure (C. serotina).

In southern NJ it’s simpler (apparently). But you can dip just a little deeper into the complexity of azures by adding a third name to your personal checklist. This is Celastrina lucia, the blueberry azure, a.k.a. the northern azure. 

The idea that the northernmost populations of azures might represent a separate species of butterfly dates back to 1837, when William Kirby, collecting insects in Saskatchewan, named the azures he had netted there Polyommatus lucia.   For an excellent review of the many name changes since Kirby’s discovery and their different interpretations across North America, see “A Short Discussion Of Celastrina lucia” in Wright and Pavulaan (2005) at the end of this post.  

For South Jersey purposes the key message from that review is, “Recent reappraisals by Wright (1998), Nielsen (1999), Ochlenschlager& Huber (2002), and Opler & Warren (2002) have returned C. lucia (Kirby) to a full species.”  

A “textbook” photo of lucia by Dave Amadio at Glassboro Woods (GLO) on April 6, 2021: a “marginata” (the most common morph) ovipositing on the unopened bud of a blueberry in early spring.

The most distinctive feature of lucia is its close association with blueberry plants, Vaccinium.  Their annual emergence is timed to enable the adults to mate and lay eggs on the buds of blueberries, so that their caterpillars can consume the flower parts as the buds open. Unlike most butterfly species, but like all other azures, the caterpillars do not eat the leaves of their host plants. By the time blueberry leaves are fully open, the pupae of lucia are buried in the soil, where they will remain for the next ten or eleven months.

Be warned: a number of sources do not accept that the Vaccinium dependence and early emergence qualifies lucia for full species status. The North American Butterfly Association, for example, does not recognize C. lucia as a separate species.  Rick Cech & Guy Tudor in their Butterflies Of The East Coast (2005) call it a “form” of spring azure, C. ladon. They note correctly that lucia appears in different color morphs, from dark to light, and that “Separation by sight [of lucia or any azure form] is not always possible.”   Jeffrey Glassberg in his Swift Guide To The Butterflies Of North America (2012) lists only two species of azure for the entire continent:  Appalachian azure (C. neglectamajor) and spring azure (C. ladon), the latter made up of “populations using different food plants with different flight times.”    

But those of you adopting the I-Love-Lucia Plan might want to counter nay-sayers with, “Give us a break!”  You have walked the sunny, forest trails of the Coastal Plain in March and early April, when it is still weeks too early for trees to have leafed-out, and you have been thrilled to see tiny blue butterflies already flying.  These first flyers emerge while Vaccinium is just coming into bud — or even earlier.  Very few other insects can be found, but azures flutter here and there at your feet, landing on the ground or on pebbles, trying to warm themselves. Kneeling to appreciate them better, you have noticed that almost all you see — especially in March and early April — show darker undersides than any azures you encounter later in the year.  Ten different individuals can show you ten different patterns of brown, gray, and white below.  Whether that and their host plant association are evidence that they deserve full species status seems almost irrelevant.  Lucia azures are charming.  Checking them off only as “spring azures” can feel disappointing, even disrespectful.  

Lovely shot of dorsal blue on male blueberry azure, C. lucia, by Will Kerling
March 8, 2016 on Beaver Dam Road (CMY).

Unfortunately, trouble develops shortly.  By mid-to-late April other azures fly in our area, and they can be confused with lucia light-morphs. 

Sandra Keller took this intriguing photo at Glassboro Woods on April 17, 2016. All azures here look fresh and show different color patterns both among themselves and in contrast to the two previous photos. Is the dorsal male here showing a different blue than Will Kerling’s above? Are these all lucia? Or something else? Or a mix?

If you adopt the “I Love Lucia” three-name system, we recommend that you call the earliest and darkest individuals blueberry (or northern) azures, but consider dialing back your confidence level in mid-April, especially when you encounter fresh, lightly-marked azures.  Under our three-name plan you can call lightly-marked individuals after April 10-20th “spring azures” or “azure sp” until June, when summer azures (C. neglecta) emerge.  

Three-Name System 



Celastrina lucia

Celastrina ladon

blueberry (northern) azure

spring azure


Cornus, Ilex, and other  spring-blooming woody plants

June-Sept Celastrina neglecta summer azure Spiraea  and other summer- blooming woody plants

The Holly-Go-Lightly Plan (a four-name system):

Amazingly, the original suggestion that North America may hold a separate population of azures that depends on hollies for their host plants goes all the way back to the 18th century — when very little was known about Lepidoptera in the New World.  John Abott, working in Georgia, where he later discovered the first rare skippers known to science (Problema bulenta), wrote a note about azures possibly depending on Ilex in 1792.   

David Wright and Harry Pavulaan tell this story in their “Celastrina idella: A New Butterfly Species From The Atlantic Coastal Plain” (linked at the end of this post).  They describe their own discovery two centuries later of holly-feeding azures first near Chatsworth in the New Jersey Pine Barrens and later south along the coast through Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and into Georgia.  They make their argument in thorough detail that holly azure should be recognized as a new species.  

They also include a very helpful colored plate of the various forms and species of Celastrina of the Coastal Plain, which is worth studying to learn idella and other members of the complex.  In fact, you really shouldn’t try to identify holly azures until you have studied that plate and read the full article at least a couple of times.  

Three key difficulties for South Jersey observers hoping to adopt our four-name plan:   

One crucial “field mark” separating idella are the differences in its dorsal wing structures that are best seen with a dissecting microscope.   

Identifying idella by sight is tougher than lucia because the typical idella azures are lightly-colored beneath and so look more like other azures than typical dark morphs of lucia azures do.  

Finally, the flight time of idella overlaps with the flight of other azures.  Lucia, by contrast, seems to have at least a couple of weeks to itself in our area — that early period (varying by county) from early or mid-March through the first week or ten days in April.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is hollyazovipositing051912Stocktonjc.jpg
C. idella, holly azure, ovipositing on inkberry buds, May 19, 2012.

Tips For ID:  

1. Study lucia in March and early April before idella should be flying to become familiar with blueberry azure’s wide variety.  Take especially careful looks at light-colored individuals, the “violacea” morphs that look most like idella.

2. Tune into the spring bud and flower sequence in your stomping grounds for both Vaccinium and Ilex.  

a) This differs by a week or two from Cape May County north to Ocean and Burlington, but in any one area blueberries bud and begin to bloom at least three weeks (four?) before any holly does.  The prime host plants for idella in South Jersey are inkberry, (Ilex glabra), American holly (I. opaca), and smooth winterberry (I. laevigata).  The prime time for ovipositing by holly azure females is just before the flower buds of these plants open, late April and into May (varying by county).

b) Wait until local blueberries are in full flower (end of April-first week of May?) before you get overly confident in your pursuit of idella.  By that point any surviving lucia individuals still flying should be well-worn.  So, fresh azures with bright ventral patterns and hints of violet on the dorsal and circling hollies or landing on them are more likely idella

3. Dorsal colors can be hard to see and deceptive.  Try to photo them for later study.  Wright & Pavulaan describe the dorsal color of male idella individuals as “uniform light blue; some individuals with distinct purplish tint (especially in NJ pine barrens).”   In the pine barrens females sometimes also show a purplish tint, they note.

4. Finally, admit to yourself that it is often not possible to put a name (other than “spring azure” or “azure, sp.”) on every azure you see.  Trying to identify an azure in non-stop flight is especially dubious.    

Four-Name System 

March-April Celastrina lucia blueberry (northern) azure Vaccinium
April-May Celastrina idella

Celastrina ladon

holly azure

spring azure


Cornus & other woody plants 

June-Sept Celastrina neglecta summer azure Spiraea & other summer blooming woody plants

Welcome To The Twilight Zone (an alternative four-name plan)  

All South Jersey butterflyers live in an azure twilight zone whether we want to admit it or not.  In fact, butterflyers across most of North America live in that zone.  Experts disagree with one another about how many different populations should be called separate species, but all seem to agree that Celastrina is a complex in flux.  

Most authorities also seem to agree that distinguishing the populations from each other is difficult for all observers, even veterans and experts. For observers equipped only with binoculars and cameras species-ID may sometimes be borderline-impossible.  

But if you are willing to accept that the azures are in flux and keep in mind that any name you assign to any single azure should be considered tentative, exploring the twilight zone can be fun.   With the right can-do spirit you might even contribute to a better understanding of the group.

Our South Jersey Butterfly Sightings Log could certainly use more photographs of azures ovipositing, especially those in which the plants can be identified.  At the moment we have very few such shots — even of the multi-brooded summer azure, C. neglecta.  We do not seem to have a single photograph of an azure laying eggs on dogwood buds, although Cornus is a well-known host for azures.  Other plants of NJ’s Coastal Plain that have been listed as suspected host plants for azures include species of Aronia, Viburnum, and Prunus.  We seem to have few, if any, notes or photos from observers recording ovipositing by azures on any of those plants.  (Please write to me if I have overlooked any such observations by you or someone else!)  If you are willing to take on the full challenges of azure chasing, trying to document adults laying their eggs or azure caterpillars feeding on flower parts would make worthy focus points.    

The four-name plan below adds question marks to the host plants lists to accentuate the need for more data. The alternative common name “Edward’s azure” has been substituted for “spring azure” to clarify that C. ladon in the Wright & Pavulaan system is a dogwood-feeding early-spring azure, not the general name a complex of populations with multiple host plants as most observers use “spring azure.”  C. ladon has also been moved ahead of C. idella because dogwood forms buds before hollies do.

C. ladon, as Wright & Pavulaan use the name, seems a rare butterfly in our area — or at least has been escaping detection. Could using the name “Edward’s azure” help us be alert to it?  Paging through the past few years of azure reports, I found several photographs of “spring azures” that are at least suggestive of Edward’s.  The second photo in our line-up above — by Harvey Tomlinson at Higbee’s Beach WMA — was one.  I chose to include it because it is an exceptionally sharp shot and was taken in early April (around the time when flowering dogwood could be budding, weeks before any hollies would be).  It could be C. lucia, obviously, but I can persuade myself that it seems a little too dark for a “violaceae” lucia and a little too light for “marginata.” In any case, this blog post needed to end with a puzzler, so here it is again for your contemplation or comments.  

A puzzler — photographed by Harvey Tomlison at Higbee’s Beach WMA on April 4, 2019.

Alternative Four-Name System

March-April Celastrina lucia blueberry (northern) azure Vaccinium and ??
April only (?) Celastrina ladon Edward’s azure Cornus and ??  
April-May Celastrina idella holly azure Ilex and ??
June-Sept Celastrina neglecta summer azure Spiraea and ??

Sources & Supplemental Infoand a request for comments

The field guide with the best section on the azure complex is James Monroe’s and David Wright’s Butterflies Of Pennsylvania (2017).  Holly azure is not included because it has not yet been found in that state, but six other azures are described in detail and illustrated with multiple images each.  Monroe and Wright also include a very helpful chart of seasonal flight times and host plants. And the book makes a superb addition to your butterfly sources for many other reasons as well.

David Wright and Harry Pavulaan have authored many relevant papers that you can find on-line. Two that were especially helpful in composing this post:

Wright & Pavulaan, Celastrina idella: A New Butterfly Species From The Atlantic Coastal Plain (1999):

Wright & Pavulaan, Celastrina serotina: A New Butterfly Species From The Northeastern U.S. and Eastern Canada (2005):

Finally, I recognize that I have simplified the complexities of this complex — and skipped past some alternative interpretations — in an attempt to help observers try to make sense of this puzzling group. No doubt I have made errors as well. Please email me if you can suggest corrections or have additions that you think worthy of inclusion. I will appreciate any comments or questions that come my way. (Please use email; spam bots have forced us to disable the Comments Tool for this blog.)

And thanks to all who have made it to the end of this long post!

Jack Connor

Update on 5-5-21:

Dale Schweitzer and Wade Wander have both kindly responded with their own views on the topic:

Dale Schweitzer:

Thanks for sending.  I read it and rechecked a couple of books.  Gochfeld and Burger may well be the first book to get them right or very close [jc: This is Butterflies Of New Jersey (1997) which I should have mentioned myself as Dale is correct that G&B were ahead of their time in describing the the azure complex so well].  Their Pine Barrens azure is now C. idella.  Monroe and Wright’s PA book [Butterflies Of Pennsylvania (2019)] is the most accurate, but since C. idella is not in PA it’s less helpful around here.  The four in South Jersey seem to have completely non-overlapping local food plants except that local ladon sometimes use holly, but usually are not found with it. C. lucia occasionally uses other Ericaceae and Prunus farther north but is almost exclusively highbush blueberries here

 Identifications are much easier without ladon, e.g. in the Pine Barrens. C. lucia is rather easy to separate from C. idella  as well as C.neglecta, including the early (April) neglecta. BTW the phenology for C. neglecta given for PA matches here perfectly. There is a small April emergence, about a month before the main peak. Neglecta and idella are often apparent by habitat, e.g. 99% neglecta in my yard vs. close to or quite zero in the woods. The April neglecta females oviposit on Prunus serotina flowers in my yard. I reared a brood a few years ago from an April female neglecta and eclosion was very staggered with a few in each of June, July, August, September, and April, all normal summer azures.  They overlapped the end of the first brood.  It is worth pointing out that Delaware Bay (holly–feeding) C. idella fly earlier than the PB inkberry feeders.  C. idella here consistently start by mid-late April.  BTW C. lucia starts in late February in  mild winters here.

A sometimes overlooked character is that ladon rarely and neglecta possibly never have the “lucia” patch on the HW.  Most C. lucia also lack it and I cannot usually separate these “marginata” forms of  lucia from ladon in the field.  Ladon and lucia males in hand (by wing scales) may be the only really certain identifications.  C. idella and C. serotina seem virtually impossible to separate but apparently their ranges do not overlap.


Wade Wander:

Your recap on the azures was interesting and enjoyable to read. I can appreciate how much work you put into it. Now, however, I have to list some of the things I believe and some I don’t believe:  

I believe in the Seven Fundamental Laws Of Nature; Bernoulli’s Principle; Newton’s laws of motion; the laws of supply and demand; a $15 minimum wage; Reese’s peanut butter cups; tiger beetles; mask-wearing; the inherent goodness and generosity of human beings; that butterflies are nothing more than day-flying moths; that lawns should be small and poorly maintained; that there will always be winners and losers as a result of environmental change; that qualified immunity for police and gerrymandering need to be done away with; that the photo of Elvis, Bigfoot, and an alien from another world standing together is probably a fake; that corporations are not people; and that Orangutans are morally superior to most politicians. 

But as an avowed taxonomic lumper:

I do not believe in the “Alder Flycatcher” or in the “Cackling Goose”; nor do I believe in the variously split “species” of Red Crossbill; nor in the idea that there are more than three species of violets in NJ (white, yellow, and purple); 

… and most of all I do not believe there is more than one species of azure—Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon)!


Posted in Host Plants, ID Challenges & Tips, Lycaenids | Comments Off on Five Ways Of Understanding South Jersey’s Azures

Wade Wander: The Cicadas Are Coming

(Wikicommons image.)

Get ready, everyone!  Sometime in the next month or so, Brood X periodical cicadas should emerge from underground, where they have been feeding on tree roots since 2004.  According to the University of Connecticut’s newest map, Brood X ranges from western New Jersey west through Indiana to eastern Illinois and south to eastern Kentucky and northern Georgia.

Periodical Cicada Broods Map from The University of Connecticut. Brood X is represented by purple ovals.

How many you will see (and hear!) seems hard to predict and also may depend on where in the state you live — or how far from home you care to explore.  As a public service for all interested, Wade Wander has provided the informative account and wonderful photos at the link below to help us understand this amazing phenomenon.    

Wade Wander: The Cicadas Are Coming


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A Male Monarch Mystery?

A male monarch photographed by Kathy Horn at Cape May Point State Park on May 16, 2020. Could this be a new record early date for a male monarch on our log?

[This post has been updated as of 5/29/20.  See Comments from Emile DeVito and Jack Miller below — and a link to Journey North with further information.]

Kathy Horn’s photograph above sparked a search for comments or other photos on the log of male monarchs arriving in April and May, when the species first reaches our area each spring.  

Female monarchs are fairly easy to find in South Jersey in spring, especially as May nears its end.  Many gardeners with milkweed in their yards have seen their first monarch of the year fly quickly to the new shoots and immediately begin laying eggs.

How often has your first monarch in spring been a male, however? 

The first arriving monarchs are most likely “Generation 1” individuals, off-spring of their long-lived parents that wintered in the Mexican mountains — the “Methuselah” generation.  That brood lives for eight months, emerging from chrysalises in late summer, migrating south in fall to over-winter in the Mexico, and mating there in late winter.  Some Internet searching failed to find information about the percentage of males vs. females that migrate northward back to the U.S. (anyone know a source?).  Female “Methuselahs” cross the border for a second time and lay eggs on emerging milkweeds in Texas, Louisiana, and other southern states in March and April.  Over the next six weeks or so those eggs hatch and the caterpillars emerge, grow through five instars, pupate, and emerge to mate and fly north themselves.  These are “Generation 1,” the first of the new year.  

For details about the timing and migration strategy of all 3-4 annual generations, see the Monarch Joint Venture’s excellent website: 

The Monarch Joint Venture: Annual Cycle

Our Sightings Log allows searches for photographs back to fall 2015 when we adopted the David Reese system.  We collected a couple of dozen reports of monarchs in April and May 2016-2019, but no observer mentioned seeing a male.  Of the eight photos of the species posted during those two months only one shows a certain male:

Our only certain male monarch photographed before June 1, 2016-2019 — and it was found on the last day of the period, May 31, 2017, by Steve Glynn at Lummis Pond, CUM.

Males are most easily differentiated with dorsal views when their two bulging scent patches on the hind wings are generally visible, as in Kathy Horn’s photo.  Sexing monarchs from their ventral sides requires a closer look.  The scent patch on each hind wing creates a slight bulge to the vein that holds it.  Here’s a helpful image from Monarch Butterfy

You can see this subtle difference by comparing Steve’s photo with Dolores Amesbury’s photo here:

A female monarch:  no bulge evident in the distinguishing vein.  Photo’d by Dolores Amesbury in her garden in Cape May Courthouse, 5-29-19. 

The lack of reports and photographs of males in April and May could very well be due to chance and our scant data. It might also simply be a consequence of females being easier to spot as they come to gardens to oviposit. 

Still, it might be a real pattern, worth trying to track and document.  Could it be more advantageous for adult males of “Generation 1” to remain in the southern areas where they emerged and spend their energy chasing down mates rather than risk the migration northward? If they can fertilize females on their original home grounds, who will carry their DNA northward, why fly north themselves?  

So, this post is a request for comments and/or photographs of male monarchs recorded before June 1 in South Jersey.   You may have some photos from that period that you simply did not submit to the log — or you may have shots of early males that date back to years before 2015. 

Any comments or photos emailed to nacotejackATgmailDOTcom will be included immediately in updates to this post.  (If you would prefer not to have them posted, just let me know.) 

NOTE:  the Comments tool below has been disabled by  spam-bot attacks.  Just email me and I will upload your comments.  

Thanks to anyone who can contribute to this discussion!

Jack Connor

Update, May 26, 2020:

Emile DeVito:

“Who needs males? If the arriving females are fertile and laying eggs, presumably they mated farther south where the generation 1 adults emerged. There is no need for males to migrate north, IF and only IF they fertilize the females upon emergence down south. It would make evolutionary sense for ONLY the fertile females to have to continue the northward expansion, since then fewer individuals would need to succeed on the perilous trip. Only fertile females really need to come north, UNLESS they have to mate here just before laying eggs. Can they store sperm like female rattlesnakes, and make the heavier eggs when they get here?”
Thank you, Emile!  Your comment inspired a little more Internet searching and a find of the page linked below from Journey North, quoting Dr. Karen Obenhauser who has been studying monarchs since 1985.  She notes that females can store sperm that remain viable for several weeks and that her studies using mark/release/recapture have found that females generally disperse more quickly from their original place of emergence,
“We rarely recapture females in the same locations in which we release them. However, we recapture about 15-20% of the males if we go back to the same area one to four days later. This suggests that females are leaving the areas, while many males remain longer in the same location. Males tend to patrol an area–leading to their being recaptured more frequently in the same locale. In contrast, female flight appears to be more directional. Females are captured less frequently because they do not remain in the same area as long. Rather, they cover more area in their lifetime, probably in pursuit of milkweed.”
That suggests males are more likely to remain behind while females migrate away.  However, she also notes, 
“When females mate multiple times, most (but not all) of the eggs they lay are fertilized by sperm from the LAST male with which they mated.”
That suggests, it would seem, that there might be an advantage to a male flying north to NJ to mate with a newly arriving female. 
So, the question has complications, which makes it more fun, imho!
jc 5/27/20
from Jack Miller, 5/29/20:
“It makes sense that males might lag behind to greet and mate with arriving or emerging females.  This strategy would be more efficient than flying north and hoping to find milkweed patches where females are present. I have noticed that females in May will often only spend minutes at my yard’s milkweed patch. Later in the summer, they will hang around for hours.  I wonder if the summer bugs were tagged or had significant identifying wear marks if we would find that they might stay for days?  I will pay more attention to that this summer.
Where do the males come from that fertilize eggs for future generations as monarchs continue their northward migration?  Do males live longer?  Do southern males eventually fly north to arrive in time to mate with emerging next generation females?  Do next generation males eclose before next generation females? 
Almost all of the May and early June monarchs I have seen have been flying due north as fast as they can unless there is a milkweed patch; therefore, there are few opportunities for photos.  It is not surprising that we have so few photos of early season monarchs in our log.”
Jack Miller
Thank you, Jack.  More questions to try to answer about this butterfly, even though it may be the best-studied butterfly in North America.

PS:  Anyone who would like to try their own hand at finding a male in our other photographs of monarchs, April to May, 2016-2020, can go to the relevant log reports here (corrections will be welcomed):

May 31, 2019 Meredith Koenig Vineland CUM

May 19, 2019 Dave Amadio Wheelabrator GLO

April 22, 2019 Harvey Tomlinson Stimpson Is CMY

May 11, 2018, Fred Kahan Medford Leas BUR

April 26, 2018, Jesse Amesbury Holgate, OCN

May 31, 2017, Debbie Lux Medford Leas BUR


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Log Sightings & Park Closures

[May 2 Update: Governor Murphy re-opened the state parks today. Leaving the note below for future reference.]

South Jersey Butterflyers & Friends,

As everyone knows, we are living through a disorienting and frightening time.  Decisions that were so simple two months ago have become problematic.  Even “Where should I go walking today?” has become a complicated question.

Governor Murphy’s Executive Order on April 7 closing all state and county parks has also created a problem for us as moderators of the South Jersey Butterfly Sightings Log.  We want to encourage everyone to get out and search for butterflies — walking outdoors in safe areas is good for any naturalist’s mental and physical health (obviously), and your reports create valuable data. We believe, however, that allowing reports from restricted areas could be seen as disrespect for the Governor’s measures.  

Whether or not it was the right choice to close the parks, the Executive Order came as one component of a much larger and crucially important effort to save lives by flattening the curve of the pandemic.  

Out of respect for that decision and in general support of any attempt to protect NJ residents from the virus, we are encouraging people to stay away from closed areas. 

We are also announcing here that the log will not be posting reports from those closed areas.

Questions, comments, and suggestions are welcome, of course.

Stay safe and keep exploring — when and where you can!

Jack Miller
Jack Connor


South Jersey Butterfly Project

Update: Emile DeVito, Manager of Science & Stewardship for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, has kindly responded to our email about this desicion with a reminder about New Jersey WMAs and NJCF Preserves.  He has also sent a helpful map of Michael Huber Preserve which is linked below.  

He writes, “Southern NJ has so many NJ Div F&W WMAs and they are ALL still open. Please encourage folks to use those areas with proper safeguards until other areas open up. Also, all NJCF Preserves in southern NJ are open except Franklin Parker Preserve. Explore especially Michael Huber Preserve!”

The map is here: NJCF Michael Huber Preserve Trail Map

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Marching Back To 2012

An amazing IPhone close-up of  a Henry’s elfin taken by Keara Giannotti, one of our new contributors, at Camp Creek Run, BUR, on March 31. 

We recorded 19 species in March, 2020, the best count for the third month of the year since March 2016, when we also found 19.  We also broke three earliest First-Of-Year records for the log and tied two others.

Our March 2020 list:

  • black swallowtail [3/17/20 FOY ties 3/17/12 for our earliest ever]
  • cabbage white
  • falcate orange-tip [3/20 one day earlier than previous earliest, 3/21/12]
  • clouded sulphur
  • orange sulpur
  • American copper [3/27 one day earlier than previous earliest, 3/28/12]
  • Henry’s elfin [3/14 ties 3/14/12 for our earliest ever]
  • eastern pine elfin
  • gray hairstreak
  • blueberry azure
  • holly azure
  • eastern-tailed blue
  • American snout
  • question mark
  • eastern comma
  • mourning cloak
  • red admiral
  • monarch [3/9 more than month earlier than previous earliest 4/11/08]
  • Juvenal’s duskywing

We totaled 89 reports, our third best total for March since our log began in 2008, and we had reports from 29 observers,  including four new contributors:  Jason Bojcyzk, Lynn Day, Keara Giannotti, and Nancy Larrabee.  Welcome to each of you! 

The monarch flying northbound over Delaware Bay spotted by Tom Reed on March 9 seems the most extraordinary find of the month.  Even today as I write this — April 6th, 27 days later — the closest monarch reports on Journey North are two from the southeastern corner of Virginia:  one from Virginia Beach on 3/29/20 and the other from Newport News on 4/2/20.   Here is Tom’s report: 

Monarch 3-9-20, Cape May Point

A photo from the month worth studying is this intriguing shot from Karen and Brian Johnson taken at Belleplain State Forest on March 14. How many species can you find?

A unusually diverse March puddle party of at least nine individuals at Belleplain from Karen & Brian Johnson on March 14. How many species can you find?

Answer: Guests At The Puddle Party

Another photo worth a careful study is this one by Steve Glynn:

Steve Glynn photo’d this nearly unspotted cabbage white, at Wheelabrator Refuge, GLO on March 27.

Has anyone else seen or photographed this form of cabbage white? Cech & Tudor note in their Butterflies Of The East Coast, “Some spring males are almost pure white and must be distinguished with care from mustard white.” This comment seems to suggest that such individuals are not rare, but I can’t find any similar photos on our log. If you have one, please send along.

Do March Butterfly Numbers Jump In Leap Years?

The three best March counts of our log’s thirteen years have all come in leap years: Both 2020 and 2016 gave us 19 species; 2012, by far our best March ever, yielded 32! Our log began in March of the previous leap year, 2008, with half a dozen observers, too few to confirm or deny any patterns.

To appreciate the numbers of the three recent leap years you have to contrast them with more ordinary March counts, e.g. last year with 10 species; 2018 with 8; and 2017 with a respectable count of 14. In 2015, our worst March, we totaled only three species: mourning cloak, eastern comma, and a spring azure — which squeaked in with a single report of a single individual on the last day of the month.

We gain a day in leap years, of course. March 1 is the 60th day of the year instead of the 59th, but that small difference can’t be the explanation.

More often than not, March’s in-like-a-lion winds, wildly-fluctuating temperatures, occasional sleet and sometimes snow make trouble for butterflies of early spring. Those days also discourage potential observers who know they will have more fun chasing ducks, gannets, and other seabirds out on the coast or staying home with a hot cup of cocoa.

However, every few years — by chance recently every four years — March gives our butterflies and our observers a break.

Dave Amadio photographed this blueberry azure at Glassboro WMA (GLO) on March 9, one of 11 reports and 69 individuals of this species (found in four different counties) recorded in the first ten days of the month.

And could it be that it is just as important that the preceding winter months are warmer than usual? That has been the situation for each of our recent leap year winters.

It does not seem much of a reach to speculate that March 2020’s good butterfly life could have been triggered by the very mild months of December, January, and February that preceded it. (See “A Snoutstanding Winter” below.) Certainly, our numbers for four over-wintering species — snout, question mark, comma, and mourning cloak — seem to reflect that. Individuals of these species almost certainly survived in higher numbers because we had so few days of sleet, snow, and sub-freezing temperatures December to February. This case is clearest with mourning cloak. The species had one of the worst breeding seasons of any South Jersey butterfly in 2019 — with total reports down to a third of its ten-year average and barely a fifth its ten-year average in individual numbers. (See “A Teaser Challenge” post below.) Yet, we had 31 reports of mourning cloaks this past month — many of multiple individuals — which is more than the March report totals for 2019 (10), 2018 (7), and 2017 (8) combined. In fact, our 31 mourning cloak reports in March 2020 nearly matched our total of 38 reports for all months of 2019, January to December.

The weather of the 2015-16 “cold” months also looks like it might have something to do with our previous good butterfly March — in 2016. Remember December 2015 — when violets bloomed and blueberry azures emerged before Christmas? November 2015 was also extraordinarily warm. In fact, November 2015 and December 2015 were — and remain — the warmest November and December ever recorded in southern NJ. March 2016 was also well above average — one of the five warmest March months ever recorded in southern NJ.

Finally, there is March 2012, possibly the most extraordinary single month of any in our log’s history. We found 32 species that month, more than double the March average, and established 23 earliest-ever records, most of which still stand now, eight years later. You can review it here:

A Month To Remember

That explosion too seems set up by the warm four months that preceded it. November 2011 and December 2011 are among the five warmest Novembers and Decembers ever recorded, January and February 2012 were each more than five degrees above average, and March 2012 itself was and remains the warmest March ever documented in southern NJ since record-keeping began in 1895. It was also dry — a rare March with less than two inches of precipitation. We found butterflies on 29 of its 31 days. How often has that happened in any month of the year, much less March?

If you want to review these historical monthly records from the New Jersey Climatologist’s Office yourself (it can be very educational to dive into this rabbit hole!), go here:

New Jersey Historic Monthly Climate Tables

Thanks to all contributors this month:

Cynthia Allen, Pat & Dave Amadio, Dolores Amesbury, Tom Bailey, Tom Baxter, Jason Bojcyzk, Jennifer Bulava, Claire Campbell, Jesse & Jack Connor, Lynn Day, Keara Giannotti, Steven Glynn, Chris Herz, Karen & Brian Johnson, Sandra Keller, Meredith Koenig, Chip Krilowicz, Nancy Larrabee, Mike Lee, Jack Miller, Beth Polvino, Tom Reed, Pat & Clay Sutton, Harvey Tomlinson, and C. Wylunda.

Keep exploring and reporting, everyone. And stay safe!

Jack Connor 4/6/20

One of 101 Henry’s elfins counted by Harvey Tomlinson and Jack Miller on Narrows Road in Belleplain State Forest on March 26.

Update May 6, 2020:

The New Jersey Climatologist’s Office has posted the bar graphs for temperature and precipitation now including March, 2020. Statewide, the month was much warmer than March’s average (South Jersey’s average temperature was 47.6, more than 5 degrees above our March average for the last 30 years). We had slightly less rain than average for the month. (South Jersey recorded 3.86 inches vs our 30-year-March average of 4.19 inches.) Both factors almost certainly contributed to the good number of species and individuals we recorded.

Posted in Compilations, First Emergences, Looking At Our Data | Comments Off on Marching Back To 2012

A Snoutstanding Winter

An American snout photo’d by Sandra Keller in Glassboro Woods on 3-14-20 toward the end of the species’ extraordinary winter in 2019-2020.

As of March 20, the first official full day of spring 2020, we can point to a startling sequence of numbers that spanned the South Jersey winter of 2019-2020:

1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 4, 1, 1, 6, 3, 1, 1, 1, 9 (!), 4, 1, 2, 1, 5, 2, 31 (!!!), 5, 2, 4, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 6

Those numbers are the individual American snouts found and reported by our observers between December 21, 2019, the day winter began, and March 19, the day it ended.  We generated thirty-three reports of the species in that period — three reports in the last ten days of December, two reports in January, six in February, and twenty-two (!) in the first nineteen days of March.  Total individuals counted = 94, an average of just over one individual per day for the ninety-three official winter days.

One of seven red admirals Matt Webster found at Cape May Point SP on 12-28-19. They too were far more numerous than usual this winter.

Red admiral has always been a far more likely winter find and generally as likely a winter find of any South Jersey butterfly. The warm winter of 2019-20 was an especially good season for them.  In fact, that species also may have set new record winter totals (haven’t been checked yet) with 32 reports and 45 individuals.  But even the hardy admiral could not match the surprising snout.

Pat Sutton photographed this snout on 3-9-20 in Belleplain State Park.

Another perspective on the extraordinary numbers:  from 2009-10 (when we first began logging individual counts) to last winter, 2018-19, we had seven winters with zero reports of the species and totaled just 29 reports of snout and only 59 individuals in the other four added together.   That’s an average of ~2.6 reports and ~5.4 individuals per winter.  So, winter 2019-20 represents more than an order-of-magnitude leap above the snout’s previous average.

Two apparent reasons for the surge: 

First, American snouts bred with extraordinary success in 2019 throughout the state.  Michael Gochfeld  has noted that it was the best  year for the species in New Jersey since at least the mid-1980s. (See “A Teaser Challenge for Ten-Year Reports” post below.) That meant that far more snouts than usual hunkered down to take their chances on surviving the winter as adults.  

Second, December 21 to March 19 was far from wintry. In South Jersey we had little snow and only a handful of days with temperatures well below freezing.

The latest chart from the New Jersey Climatologist’s Office:  

All but two of the past twelve months have been warmer than average. February 2020 was the third warmest February since 1895, when NJ record-keeping began.

But enough numbers!  Let’s take a few moments to celebrate the snout as a butterfly worth pursuing and enjoying:  its “anteater nose,” its Halloween colors on topside, the zig-zagging flight, its pugnacious attitude and aerial dog-fights, its devoted attention to hackberry. . .   

Did you know that, if you get a close enough look at just the right angle, you can tell male from female – or at least guess at distinguishing them? 

Starting with Sandra Keller’s photo at the top of this post you can find here seven recent photos of snouts in reverse chronological order.  Can you say which are apparently male and which apparently female? Hint: the varying hind-wing underside color patterns are not the key.

Dolores Amesbury photographed this snout in her yard in Cape May Courthouse on 2-3-20.


Sam Galick photographed this snout on the Maurice River Bluffs (CUM) on 12-28-19.


Snout photographed by Beth Polvino in her yard in North Cape May on 12-24-19.


Snout photo’d by Harold Davis at Cape May Point State Park on 10-15-19.


Brian Johnson’s photo of a snout at the Glades Preserve (CUM) on 10-10-19.

The answers (in my possibly inaccurate opinion):

Keller’s = male

Sutton’s = male

Amesbury’s = male?

Galick’s = female

Polvino’s = male

Davis’s  = male

Johnson’s = female

American snout is unique among the Nymphalidae in that one of its sexes — the female — has retained all six legs. The male snout, like both genders of the rest the members of the family (including in NJ the Fritillaries, Crescents, Anglewings, Emperors, and the Monarch), has lost its forelegs through evolution.

Some taxonomists place the snouts in a separate family because of this difference. In his wonderful 1966 publication, Butterflies Of The Delaware Valley, Arthur Shapiro followed the thinking of the time and listed the species as a separate family and added, “In this respect the Libytheids [with their six-legged females] seem to form a link between the Nymphaloid[s] and Lycaenoid[s].” James Scott in his The Butterflies of North America (1986) also listed the snout as a separate family.

I do not see evidence of a foreleg pair on the butterflies in Sandra’s, Pat’s, Beth’s, and Harold’s shots. I am not sure about Dolores’s individual — because of the way it is resting with body against the branch — but I am guessing it’s a male. I am more confident about the other two snouts here. Three pairs of legs seem evident in Sam’s and Brian’s photos, making those snouts females. I will happily accept corrections!

Another feature on snouts that’s fun to look for are the different underwing patterns. The hindwings below vary from striated and contrasty, as in Sandra’s and Harold’s photos here, to plain and relatively unmarked, as in Dolores’s, Sam’s and Beth’s shots. Some show intermediate patterns as seen in Pat’s and Brian’s pix. Shapiro called the two basic patterns different “forms” and noted, “The variation is certainly genetic.”

In this sad and scary time of a pandemic virus, I hope everyone can find some good hours to venture outside, at proper social distance, to chase snouts and other butterflies — or whatever else draws your attention in our still delightful natural world.

Stay safe and keep exploring and reporting,

Jack Connor

Posted in Looking At Our Data, Nymphalids | Comments Off on A Snoutstanding Winter