Beth Polvino: Documenting My Brazilian Skippers

Cannas in one section of Beth Polvino’s backyard.

Beth Polvino has tracked and photographed the entire sequence of Brazilian skippers in her garden in North Cape May this year: from eggs to adults (still continuing).

Until this year the species was not known to breed in NJ. Thanks to Beth and other sharp observers (and a never-before-seen irruption), that story has changed this year!

Her account and photos are below:

The Brazilian Skipper is a butterfly that rarely strays north to NJ from its homeland in the southern US.  Before 2018 the South Jersey Butterfly Sightings log had fewer than a dozen sightings recorded in the last ten years.  Only once before had I seen the species in my garden in North Cape May — on August 14th and 15th in 2017.

It’s been a different story this  year.  One or two individuals were seen in Cape May in late May, at spots about two miles apart, and we have had many reports since, especially from the Cape May peninsula.

The first Brazilian I found in my yard this year appeared on August 10th — with the first caterpillars seen about a week later.  I soon found eggs and was able to document the entire sequence from eggs to caterpillars to chrysalises to the successful eclosure of an adult on Sept 7, 2018.

Each caterpillar consumes a lot of Canna on its route to adulthood, and the species is considered a pest by many gardeners in the South.

Adult on my Canna on 8-23-18.  I had first seen an adult on 8-18-18. (photo by Beth Polvino)

Eggs on Canna. (Beth Polvino).

Brazilian skipper caterpillars 8-18-18. (Beth Polvino)

Nests they use during the daytime. They feed at night. (B. Polvino)

Growing larger. (B. Polvino).

Caterpillar creating its nest for the coming night. (B. Polvino)

Changing into a chrysalis. 8-29-18 (B. Polvino.)

Now it’s a chrysalis. 8-30-18. (B. Polvino).

Emergence should be soon now, as chrysalis has changed colors. 9-6-18. (B. Polvino).

Early the next morning, 9-7-18, the adult emerged inside the protective enclosure where I keep the cats and chrysalises. (B. Polvino).

Harvey Tomlinson came over to photo the new adult. Isn’t it cool? 9-7-18. (Photo H. Tomlinson.)

The spent chrysalis. (B. Polvino).

— Beth Polvino

Beth originally posted this sequence on her own blog on September 7.

For events in her garden and other more recent reports of Brazilians in the week since, see our Sightings Log’s reports of the species here (up to September 17):

Brazilian Skipper reports on South Jersey Sightings log

Beth’s own blog is here:

Beachgirl’s Blog

Jack Connor

Beth’s front yard looks over the Delaware Bay — and her garden has attracted many Bay-crossing butterflies over the years. (Photo J. Connor)

Posted in Eggs, Cats, Chrysalids, First Emergences, Host Plants, Skippers | Leave a comment

Brazilian Skipper Redux

Brazilian skipper at Cape May Point Hawkwatch photo’d by Sam Galick, May 20, 2018.

We now have two mind-boggling reports of a Brazilian skipper in Cape May this spring:  the first by Sam Galick on the Cape May Point Hawkwatch Platform on Sunday, May 20; the second by Teresa Knipper in her garden in Cape May City yesterday, Sunday, May 27.

May 20 Report from Sam Galick

May 27 Report from Teresa Knipper

It was gloomy and wet through much of South Jersey yesterday, but Teresa reports that Cape May City did not get rain until late in the day. She found the skipper in mid-afternoon, a couple of hours before the rain, while walking in her yard with her grandson.

“At one point in the afternoon you could feel the winds shift so they came out of the south and a hot, humid day turned into cool and breezy. It was right after the winds shifted — about 3 PM – when an enormous skipper landed right in front of us!  It had a very long and striped proboscis and [nectared in] the pink evening-primrose.  Pretty nice for the first skipper of the year in the garden!”

Teresa’s yard is approximately two miles east of the Hawkwatch Platform, and seven days passed between Sam’s find and hers, but her garden visitor was likely the same individual Sam had seen earlier.  It is hard to imagine a second individual appearing in the same general area in May, an apparently-unprecedented time of year.   One spring stray from the deepest South is amazing enough!

A quick, unscientific review of Internet sites and some published sources suggests spring records of Brazilian skipper in the northeast (or anywhere else north of Georgia) are extremely few.

I have so far found no other spring records of the species in NJ, Delaware, or Pennsylvania.

We have fifteen reports of the species on our log, 2008-2017, but none earlier than mid-July.

There are a few old records from NJ listed with little detail by Art Shapiro in his Butterflies of the Delaware Valley (1966).   He names three specimens coming from three sites (one from Salem in SAL, and the other two from CAM: Mt Ephraim and Camden city).  He adds, “There are several records from Delaware and Cape May County, NJ,” but does not list them – or the dates.  He lists August and September as the months when the species might be hoped for.

Gochfeld and Burger in their Butterflies Of New Jersey (1997) note Shapiro’s summary and add that the species “apparently bred on Long Island in 1911,” as reported by William P. Comstock in his Butterflies of New Jersey (published in 1940).

James Monroe and David Wright in their new and excellent Butterflies of Pennsylvania (2017) list two records for that state:  one from 9-1-2012 in Northampton County and one older, undated record from Delaware County.

I surfed the Internet for spring records of the species north of the Gulf Coast states and came up with little to report.  Bug Guide has only a dozen records of the species before July, and most are from Florida and Texas — with two from Alabama, and one each from Mississippi and Louisiana.  BAMONA features the following map of reports with no spring records north of the Gulf Coast states (if I am reading the map correctly).

Butterfies And Moths of North America: Brazilian Skipper

The single spring record of an adult north of the Gulf States that I’ve found so far is from North Carolina:  the Butterflies of North Carolina database lists 21 reports of Brazilian skipper for the state with a single report before July.  That is of an individual photographed at the Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh on May 30, 2012 by R. Stickney.

A couple of other interesting notes from the Internet.

According to the University of Florida Entomology & Nematology website:

“In southern Florida, [adult Brazilian skippers] are usually first noticed in May with a second generation of adults appearing in early June. It is not known how many generations per year occur in Florida but adults have been collected in all months of the year (Kimball 1965) and all larval stages have been collected in January. It is thought that Calpodes ethlius can only overwinter in the very southernmost region of Florida and must recolonize more northern regions each year (Moore 1928).”

That bit of information makes an intriguing connection with details from the Alabama Butterfly Atlas.  That site reports, “The Brazilian Skipper is not common in Alabama, having been documented in only a few counties.”  Scroll down the graph of occurrences at the link below.  The atlas has compiled twenty-five reports for May, all along the coast (and none in June anywhere in the state), which suggests that those coastal flyers are likely first-brood wanderers from Florida – just as our Cape May visitor could be.

Alabama Butterfly Atlas on Brazilian Skipper

As many sources note, Brazilian skipper is a strong flyer:  it has colonized the Galapagos Islands and has been recorded at Point Pelee, Ontario (September 21, 1991).  A flight northbound for more than a thousand miles from the population centers in southern Florida to NJ seems extremely unlikely but not off-the-charts incredible.

Could this one occurrence foreshadow others to come later this year?  Let’s hope so.

Most of our NJ observers who have managed to see the species in the state have noted that the species is an easy ID:  the fast flight, the big body, the big head, the long Ocola-like forewings, the tell-tale spots on the underside of hindwings.  Teresa’s photo below  captures the pattern of white “hyaline” spots on the upper-side of the forewings, which also look distinctive.

Brazilian skipper photo’d by Teresa Knipper in her garden in Cape May City, May 27, 2018.

Stay alert, everyone – and good luck in the field!

Jack Connor

PS:  If anyone knows of other spring records in the  northeastern states, please pass along!

Posted in Early Dates, ID Challenges & Tips, Looking At Our Data, Skippers | Comments Off on Brazilian Skipper Redux

A Slow, Cold Spring…

A Henry’s elfin photo’d beautifully by new SJBP participant Ben Barkley at Belleplain SF on April 20.   Like most butterflies so far this year, Henry’s emerged later than usual.  They are often flying in South Jersey by mid- to late March.  Our FOYs this year were not discovered until April 11. 


Thanks to Jack Miller and to Michael Gochfeld for their help in assembling this post.

Our South Jersey Butterfly Project log’s numbers so far this year seem good evidence of the simple truth that temperature affects butterfly activity – especially in early spring.

January and March were 1-2 degrees cooler than average state-wide, and April was much cooler than average (more than 3 degrees colder).  Despite a very warm February, our SJBF team found far fewer butterflies than we usually do through the first four months of the year.

Our previous least-active spring was in the cool of 2015 when we compiled only 181 reports January through April. In 2018 our total for the four months is a mere 128, by far our fewest for January-April in our eleven years logging.  We have twice compiled more than 128 reports in March alone, and we have compiled more than 128 reports in April alone in every one of our previous ten years.

From 2008-2017 we averaged ~86 reports in March (with a high of 272 in March 2012 and a low 0f 18 in March 2015) and we averaged ~243 in April (high of 352 in April 2017; a low of 163 in April 2015).

This year we compiled only 27 reports in March (tying for our 3rd-lowest total of our 11 years) and managed only 91 reports in April, a new record low for the month.

April 2018 was the 30th coldest April in New Jersey since 1895 (and the 13th coldest in the continental US over the same period).  Rainfall during the month was also above average in the state.

Jack Miller cataloged the many FOY emergences that were generally late to very late.

Among the latest-ever first dates:

Our first report of Henry’s elfin was on April 11.  Previous latest FOY:  4/9/14.

Our first falcate orange-tip flew on April 21.  Previous latest FOY: 4/16/15.

Our first eastern tiger swallowtail was found on April 22.  Previous latest FOY:  4/19/14.

Our first juniper hairstreak was found on April 26. Previous latest FOY:  4/23/11.

Our first frosted elfin flew on May 1.  Previous latest FOY:  4/24/13. 

Our first black swallowtail was found on May 2.  Previous latest FOY:  4/30/15.

We had other late records and near-late records – and may have more to come as other FOYs finally appear.

One interesting question to contemplate:

Will the flights of single-brooded butterflies (elfins, orange-tips, and others) be shifted or shortened? In other words, will we establish some latest-ever late dates (as species extend their flight beyond the usual dates in response to their delayed starts) or will their flight periods simply be cut short, ending around the generally-expected late dates despite the slowed emergences?

Keep exploring and reporting, everyone!

Jack Connor


You can read NJ Climatologist David Robinson’s analysis of April 2018 here:

Office of New Jersey State Climatologist

Selected comments from his full write-up: 

“If you think it has been a long time since New Jersey experienced as chilly an April as this past one, you are correct. With snow accumulating in a storm on the 2nd to snow showers on the 30th, one was hard pressed to find many days when pleasant spring conditions could be found. . . [Overall], it was the persistent chill that captured the most attention, with the green up of lawns and foliage, accompanied by the blossoming of spring flowers, delayed from normal by upwards of two weeks.

“Statewide, the April average temperature of 47.7° was 3.2° below the 1981–2010 mean (2.0° below the 1895–2017 mean). This ranks as the 28th coolest April since 1895 and the chilliest since 1982 (also 47.7°). . .

“April precipitation across NJ averaged 4.20”. This was 0.21” above the 1981–2010 mean (0.48” above the period-of-record mean). This was the 38th wettest April on record.”

Graph from David Robinson’s full report. See more at NJ Climatologist’s link above. 



Posted in Compilations, Early Dates, First Emergences | Comments Off on A Slow, Cold Spring…

Coming Soon?

Steve Glynn photo’d this Henry’s elfin at Bevan WMA (CUM) on March 29 last year, close to its average first emergence date of March 28.  The first report last year was on March 25.  The species is currently about two weeks overdue for 2018.

I unplugged the heaters from the yard’s bird baths the other day.

Wishful thinking!

Both were frozen solid this morning.

Needless to say, 2018 has been a late-starting butterfly year.

As of noon, today, April 11, SJBP observer/reporters have found only eight or nine species (depending on how we count the azures):

mourning cloak, question mark, eastern comma, spring azure, orange sulphur, blueberry azure, holly azure, cabbage white, and American snout.

Local weather forecasters are promising temperatures climbing into the 60s tomorrow, however,  and — can it be true??– temperatures in the 70s over the weekend.

Which other species can we hope to see soon?

I looked back over ten years of first reports to calculate average early-emergence dates for the butterflies that usually appear by April 20th or so but haven’t yet been reported this year.

My calculations are rough and quick, and I wasn’t sure where to place clouded sulphur and red admiral in  the sequence as some of our first reports were likely late flyers from the previous year.  Both could appear soon.  Please let me know if you note any other species missing — or see any errors.

Henry’s elfin: March 28 (average first report date).  Has first emerged in March in five of our ten years — and before April 11 (today’s date) in all ten  years. Latest first report: 4-9-14.  

Eastern tailed-blue:  April 2 (average first report date).  Has first emerged in March in four of our ten years — and before April 11 in six of our ten years.  Latest first report:  4-24-15.

Eastern pine elfin: April 5.  Has first emerged in March in three of our ten years — and before April 11 in six of our ten years.  Latest first report: 4-21-15.

American lady:  April 5:  Has first emerged in March twice in our ten years — and before April 11 in seven of our ten years. Latest first report: 4-15-15.

Falcate orange-tipApril 7. Has first emerged in March in two of our ten years — and before April 11 in six of our ten years. Latest first report: 4-16-15.  

Dave Amadio photographed this falcate orange-tip at Riverwinds (GLO) on April 9 last year.  Our first report in 2017 was on April 4. It’s another species overdue for 2018.

Juvenal’s duskywingApril 8. Has first emerged in March in two of our ten years — and before today’s date in four of our ten years.  Latest first report: 4-17-09.  

Frosted elfin: April 10.  Has been first reported in March three times in our ten years — and before April 11 in four of our ten years.  Latest first report:  4-24-13.

Eastern tiger swallowtail:  April 11.  Has first emerged in March once (3-31-16) — and before April 11 in four of our ten years.  Latest first report: 4-19-14.

American copper: April 12.  Has first emerged once in March (3-28-12) — and before April 11 in six of our ten years. Latest first report:  4-28-15.

Pearl crescent:  April 15.  Has first emerged once in March (3-19-12) — and before April 11 twice in our ten years. Latest first report:  4-30-15.

Black swallowtail:  April 18.  Has first emerged once in March (3-17-12) — and before April 11 three times in our log’s life. Latest first report:  4-30-15.

Wild indigo duskywing:  April 18.  Has first emerged once in March (3-30-12) — and twice before April 11. Latest first report: 4-29-17.

Horace’s duskywing:  April 19.  Has emerged once in March (3-23-12), the only time our first report came before April 11. Latest first report:  4-30-15. 

Spicebush swallowtail: April 21.  Has first emerged once in March (3-28-12) and twice in May.  Latest first report: 5-7-09.  

Sleepy duskywing: April 22.  Has first emerged once in March (3-29-12) and before today’s date in two of our ten years. Latest first report: 5-7-09.

Keep exploring, everyone!

Jack Connor

Jen Bulava photo’d this Juvenal’s duskywing on April 9 at Wharton SF (BUR) last year. Our first report was on April 2.  Its average first date of April 8 suggests it should emerge very soon.  

This American copper, photographed by Chris Herz at Riverwinds (GLO) on April 14 was flying close to the species’ average first report date of April 12.  Will someone find one in the next week?  

Posted in Early Dates, First Emergences, Looking At Our Data | 1 Comment

A Backward Glance at 2017

Great spangled fritillary, photographed  by Brian Johnson in SAL on June 12, 2017 — our first report of that species for the year.

As of March 6, 2018, our “un-butterfly” weather continues.  It has been so regularly cold, windy, rainy, icy, snowy, or all of the above that we have records for flying butterflies on only three days so far this year: Feb 20 (seven reports), Feb 27 (one report), and Feb 28 (two reports).

Maybe we can change the topic and take heart by reflecting on 2017.

Last year was a good one for us.  Among other positive news:

  • 93 (or 94?) species were recorded, our best total since 2013;
  • a great purple hairstreak, a totally-unexpected species, was added to our all-time list;
  • an apparent southern broken-dash  was found for the second year running (= the 94th? species above);
  • Brazilian skipper was found for only the fourth year of our ten, and for the first time since 2014;
  • sleepy orange was documented in larger numbers than ever, with sightings from June into November — and solid evidence of breeding;
  • cloudless sulphur continued to strengthen its toe-hold in South Jersey, becoming more and more expected as a breeder, it seems, each year — with eggs, cats, and chrysalids all found by multiple observers (in CMY County, at least);
  • another sulphur, little yellow, was recorded for the fourth year in a row and seems to have moved into the “expected southern wanderer” group, joining long-tailed skipper, Ocola skipper, and others;
  • Georgia satyr was recorded in good numbers again and in two different counties (BUR and ATL);
  • great spangled fritillary was found in four different counties, SAL, GLO, CUM and CMY (where it is especially rare);
  • the “three-spotted” cabbage white, a previously little-known or unknown form, became something to look for (Can we find more 3-spotted cabbage whites?)
  • orange sulphur flew to the last week of the year;
  • and lots else.

The not-yet-recognized “Tomlinsonian” form of Pieris rapae?  One of at least eight “three-spotted” cabbage whites photo’d by Harvey T at several sites through summer, 2017.

On the darker side:

  • Leonard’s skipper went unrecorded for the fifth year in a row;
  • hoary-edged skipper also went unrecorded for the fifth year in a row (and apparently no member of our group has photographed that species in South Jersey in the ten years of our log’s existence);
  • Arogos skipper went unrecorded for the ninth year in a row;
  • oak hairstreak went unrecorded for the fourth year in a row;
  • two-spotted skipper was found at only two sites for a total of only seven individuals;
  • cobweb skipper was recorded in only five reports and for a total of only six individuals (with four of the reports from the same spot in Warren Grove).
  • dotted skipper was found only at a single site (and not at Parker Preserve, once a place to find it).

Here’s the spreadsheet for Early and Late Dates through 2017. Click the + button for easier viewing.

Early & Late Dates, 2008-2017

Also added here is the updated “55 Species You Can Find in South Jersey” checklist you can pass along to any birder, botanist, or beginning butterflyer you come upon to help get her or him started.  We could use some younger observers especially.

Fifty-Five BFs To Find In South Jersey

Keep exploring, everyone!

Jack Connor

Sleepy oranges were still flying deep into November, as documented by Steve Glynn with this photo on November 2 in CUM and others even later.

Posted in Compilations, Early Dates, Eggs, Cats, Chrysalids, Late Dates, Looking At Our Data, PR for the SJBF Project | Comments Off on A Backward Glance at 2017

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

Posted in ID Challenges & Tips, Late Dates | Comments Off on Jack Miller’s December Forecast: Cool and Sunny With Scattered Leps by Mid-morning

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

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

Posted in Field Trips, Pierids | Comments Off on Upcoming Field Trip to Dix WMA

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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