Jack Miller’s December Forecast: Cool and Sunny With Scattered Leps by Mid-morning

American lady is just one of the 19 species our log has recorded so far in our log’s  Decembers, 2008-16. (All photos by Jack Miller on 11/29/17.)

As you make plans for this holiday season and you are trying to come up with a fresh idea, consider taking your family and friends out for a butterfly search. After all, in the past six years we have recorded six species in four years on Christmas (2011, 2014, 2015, and 2016) and four species in three years on New Year’s Eve (2011, 2015, and 2016).

If you have already made plans for these two holidays, you still might want to get out for a December look. Since our log began in 2008, we have reported 19 species in 256 observations in December.

The 19 species that have been reported over the years are cabbage white, clouded sulphur, orange sulphur, cloudless sulphur, sleepy orange, eastern tailed-blue, summer azure, blueberry azure, variegated fritillary, question mark, eastern comma, mourning cloak, American lady, painted lady, common buckeye, red admiral, monarch, fiery skipper and sachem. (This list could be pared down to 18 if the lone report of a summer azure on December 10, 2015 is changed to blueberry azure, which would make it consistent with the other three reports of blueberry azure that month.)

Common buckeye is one of our most reliable December flyers.

Cape May County is the December hot-spot. This makes sense in that not only is it our southernmost county, but it is also surrounded by the “big heater” as some Capers refer to the ocean and Delaware Bay, as the relative warmth of these waters moderates temperatures in fall and early winter. Even if you are not interested in traveling to the Jersey Cape, there is no need to despair: of our eight southern counties, only OCN has failed to report December flyers.

Some enthusiasts might find it surprising that temperature is not the only weather factor to consider in finding December butterflies. A day in the 50’s that is cloudy and has winds howling from the SW may not be as suitable for butterflies as a day in the 40’s or even upper 30’s that is clear and calm. Butterflies desire warmth, and windy days do not allow for warmth to accumulate in micro-climates like tufts of grass or sun-facing tree trunks and rocks. It also seems probable that the energy expenditure required to fly in strong winds creates a negative balance on the survival sheet.

Our late bugs can be found in both fields and woods. Generally speaking, species likely to be found in open fields include cabbages, sulphurs, buckeyes, American ladies, painted ladies, variegated fritillaries, and monarchs.

Fidler Hill Road cornfield

Species that are more likely to be found in wooded areas include commas, question marks, mourning cloaks and red admirals. However, don’t be surprised to find a cloudless sulphur in the woods or a red admiral basking on a parking lot dividing strip.

Finding butterflies that prefer wooded areas is fairly simple: go to a wooded area, preferably one with sandy roads and paths that collect and hold warmth, and simply walk and observe.

The kind of sandy wood-side trail that might hold butterflies in December.

Open field butterflies are more complicated. The best open areas to search are fields that still have flowers, or in the case of orange and clouded sulphurs, fields that have grasses in 4-8” range. The best December fields are usually the products of late summer mowing. These fields that have been cut back are the most likely places to find last bloomers like mustards, dandelions, ground ivy and frost aster. All these blooms are highly attractive to butterflies. Corn fields that were harvested early often load up with a variety of weeds that can make them the most productive locations to walk. It is also worth keeping an eye out for gardens that still have blooms; even plants that we do not think of as butterfly favorites – Chrysanthemums, for example — attract late season species. My latest November sachems have all been found on this plant.

Apparently empty fields can surprise you with December butterflies.

The current December is looking promising. On my outings on November 28th and 29th in CMY, I found at least one species at seven of the eleven locations I visited. One field offered up five species, and the total number of species for the two days was seven. On a first of December outing I found three species in one site, and after three days of observations this month, our observers have already reported butterflies in three counties (CMY, GLO, and BUR) and we have totaled four species so far – orange sulphur, anglewing sp. (likely a question mark), common buckeye, and monarch.

Monarchs have continued to fly in South Jersey through late November in 2017 and now into December.

Will we reach 20 species for December species this year? There are a handful of species that could make a December showing. Species that have flown in late November include black swallowtail, pearl crescent, common checkered-skipper, Ocola skipper, and gray hairstreak. My favorite candidate for next on the list is a species I have seen in both November and January: the American snout.

Keep exploring and enjoying our winter species.

Jack Miller

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2017 Butterfly Big Years X Two

As many of you know, two of our most active veterans conducted Butterfly Big Years in 2017 — determined to spot as many species in the state as they could in one calendar year.

Congratulations to Steve Glynn and Jack Miller for their amazingly successful chases — and for sharing their stories here.

Just click below for their first-person accounts….and maybe start planning your own effort for 2018?


Steve Glynn NJ Butterfly Big Year Report

Jack Miller Big Year Review

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Upcoming Field Trip to Dix WMA

Apparently freshly-emerged sleepy orange in CUM on August 23, 2017. Photo by Steve Glynn.

Steve Glynn has kindly offered to lead a field trip for our group to Dix Wildlife Management Area this Sunday, August 27, to search for sleepy oranges and other butterflies he and others have been finding at this site recently.

Steve suggests: “Let’s meet at the Dix WMA entrance at the corner of School House Road and Back Neck Road. The coordinates are: 39.373894, -75.307916

“We can meet at 9:30 am and explore the area at least until noon-time and perhaps search other spots for those wanting to go longer into the afternoon.”

If you plan to go, please contact him so that he knows to expect you and can plan the excursion with a sense of the number of participants in mind. Please email him at: OGColl at AOL dot com.

This excursion sounds like an exciting opportunity to see numbers of a species that has been generally considered only a stray to NJ. It is breeding in NJ now, at least at this site. “The colony is in full flight right now,” Steve reports.

Jack Connor

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New Jersey’s First Great Purple Hairstreak Since….?

This great purple hairstreak, found and photo’d by Beth Polvino in her garden in North Cape May, seems to be the first individual documented in New Jersey in more than a century.

Beth Polvino shook up NJ’s butterfly community on June 15 when she found and photo’d a great purple hairstreak, one of the most beautiful and sought-after butterflies in all North America, nectaring on Coreopsis in her garden in North Cape May along the Delaware Bayshore.

The find sends my mind spinning with hyperboles.  Can we call this discovery New Jersey’s Best Butterfly Find of the 21st Century?  And if we get totally carried away, how about New Jersey’s Best Butterfly Find Since The 19th Century?

Scroll through the sources/status list for Altides halesus in Gochfeld and Burger’s Butterflies of New Jersey (1997), and you will come upon a long series of assessments over the years (from 1890 on) agreeing this species has been long gone from the state:  “Not listed,” “No evidence of recent vagrancy,” “No recent records,” and so on.   David Wright and Pat Sutton in their Checklist Of The Butterflies of Cape May (1993) sum up the situation concisely, “Historically present; no recent records.”  Lepidopterist Dale Schweitzer is cited by Gochfeld and Burger as noting the species was  “probably resident in the last century [i.e. the 1800s], but extirpated due to the decline of its host.” [See the Update at the bottom of this post for DS’s response to Beth’s find.]

The single positive data point in Gochfeld and Burger’s list comes from Arthur Shapiro and his Butterflies Of the Delaware Valley (1966). On page 29 of his booklet Shapiro explains that he decided to include the species  (which he calls “the great blue hairstreak”) in his compilation on the basis of a single record by Skinner and Aaron of “two or three…near Westville, NJ.”

Shapiro’s reference is to Skinner and Aaron’s checklist “Butterflies of Philadelphia, PA” published in two parts in  the journal Canadian Entomologist in 1889.

Henry Skinner and Eugene M. Aaron were entomologists associated with the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia who worked together in the late 1800s and into the 1900s. Skinner, who gave up his career as a doctor to dedicate himself full-time to the study of insects, became the state entomologist of Pennsylvania and the editor of the Entomological News. Eugene Aaron was the older brother of Samuel Aaron, who later discovered the skipper Skinner described and named for him.

Westville, N.J., just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia and accessible by ferry in those days, was apparently one of the favorite hunting grounds of all three lep-chasers, as it is listed on the checklist as the source of a number of their specimens.

As far as I can determine, Skinner and E.M. Aaron’s report names the only specific site listed for the species in the state of New Jersey and is also the most recently documented occurrence here.

So!:  Beth’s great purple hairstreak might be the the first identified in New Jersey in more than 128 years.

Even more certainly, it seems to be the first living individual ever photographed here.

But where did Beth’s visitor come from? The species occurs in all three Delaware counties, although various sources suggest it is not numerous in any of them, nor in Maryland. The closest large colonies seem to be those in the Great Dismal Swamp, which straddles the border of Virginia and North Carolina.

Beth’s superb photographs suggest it was a female (lacking the flashing blue on underside forewing).

Was it a stray that wandered across the Bay from Delaware?  Or could it possibly be — just possibly be — a resident from an unknown, newly-established colony in South Jersey??

One of the frustrations of trying to put this rarity into perspective is the inaccuracy of many maps of the species’ range that you can find in various published sources as well as on the Internet.  Opler’s Butterflies East Of The Great Plains (1984), for example, claims the species “ranges from New Jersey….south to Florida and the Gulf.”  Opler’s map, which might be the source of later, even more misleading maps, colors in the whole state except for the northern Highlands.  Some later texts (e.g. Scott’s The Butterflies Of North America [1986]) and many Internet sources amplify this inaccuracy by coloring in the entire state as part of the hairstreak’s range.

The problem with those maps goes back to the species’ sole host plant, Phoradendron leucarpum, sometimes called “American mistletoe,” “oak mistletoe,” or “false mistletoe.” This plant is a woody, evergreen, hemiparasite common throughout the southern states (in the normal range of the great purple hairstreak) where it parasitizes live oak and  several other tree species. In New Jersey it is a rare plant, limited to the southern half of the state. Here it most often attacks Nyssa sylvatica — tupelo, a.k.a. black gum.  The demise of the mistletoe in southern New Jersey during the late 1800s and early 1900s seems to have been caused by the local industry of collecting it for sale at Christmas time.  It’s an evergreen with berries present in December, so it made an eye-catching decoration in the years before plastic took its place. It was often shot out of trees to be sold.

Here’s a good account of the practice of collecting it then and now:

Hunting mistletoe in South Jersey

How far north did mistletoe range in the 1800s and early 1900s? Witmer Stone in his The Plants of Southern New Jersey (1911) notes its sensitivity to hard winters and mourned its loss to collectors: “Comparatively little has been left on record regarding this interesting plant, now nearly exterminated in the State.” The two northernmost specimens he knew of were one just north of Keyport in Monmouth County that had died sometime around 1880 and another between Trenton and New Brunswick (Mercer Co) reportedly still alive up to 1884. In Stone’s time, as far as he could determine, Phoradendron survived only in scattered locales south of those points.

Mistletoe in tupelo Great Egg Harbor River, 1-28-12.

The plant is a hemiparasite: photosynthesizing for itself to some extent and also parasitizing from its host by penetrating into its wood to steal nutrients.

Today it remains a rare or localized plant in scattered spots on South Jersey’s Coastal Plain: on the upper reaches of the Great Egg Harbor River, in Bear Swamp in Cumberland County, in a couple of spots on the Mullica River, and a few other spots. Pat Sutton reports that the two places where she has found it closest to Beth’s garden are in Beaver Swamp WMA and Belleplain State Forest, both in Cape May County.

If a colony of great purple hairstreak does exist in New Jersey, can we find it?

Since the plant is no longer being shot from trees, and South Jersey winters have become so mild, as climate change takes hold, we can hope that the population of mistletoe is on the rise here.

Mistletoe is best found in winter — when its evergreen leaves stand out in the deciduous trees.  We could perhaps expand our searching places for the hairstreak by keeping track of mistletoe colonies we see next winter — and then returning to those spots next June and July to search of the butterfly nectaring beneath.  The odds are high against, obviously — but wouldn’t that be a discovery?

Or maybe we just have to settle for serendipity and wait for a lucky butterflyer to stumble on another great purple hairstreak (or two or three) this summer or next or the summer after.

The possibility is fun to imagine, at least!

— Jack Connor

Update (June 29, 2017):
Dale Schweitzer (cited above) emailed his thoughts in response to Beth’s find:

“I hope this GPH sighting, which could be as significant as the first NJ Rare Skipper, proves to be the first of many — as the first find of Rare Skipper proved to be.   GPH occurs regularly in fairly comparable climates. The climate here is becoming more favorable, there is mistletoe in the general area, and if there is enough of it it, it seems reasonable this butterfly could establish itself (or re-establish if it was resident before 1900 when mistletoe was more numerous). 
“I suspect this butterfly is limited northward by its food plant and not by climate (pupae under the leaf litter are not going to get very cold).  Its eastern range is very similar to that of the food plant.” 


A second photo by Beth P of her find. Will we have to wait another 128 years for our next great purple hairstreak? Let’s hope not!

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