The dog days of summer are almost here! The current heat wave of 90 degree weather may be typical of the season, but there is another phenomenon that is less known that takes advantage of the summer heat, the blooming flowers native to our region. The natural order that has evolved for over millennia is unfolding now. For example, the breeding season for our amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds are mostly finished with family groups wandering in our woodlands, wetlands and parks.
Now comes the real blooming season! Forget the spring gardening that you did. That is mostly a creature of humans. Nature’s order is altogether different. Sneezeweed, Ironweed, Joe Pye Weed, Butterfly Weed, Swamp Milkweed and other beneficial ‘weeds’ are the true perennials that are native to the region and grow in the mid to late summer period. Coinciding with this growing season is the pinnacle of the butterfly activity. The greatest occurrence of butterfly species is busily taking advantage of the blooming season.
Butterfly watching is a booming hobby especially among veteran bird watchers such as me that have seen or heard our native birds many times over. It is an easy pastime for novices or veteran birders since donning binoculars and knowing where to find our region’s nature preserves and parkland is relatively inexpensive.
Butterfly watching is an ideal gateway to learn about and enjoy nature. Butterflies tend to cooperate more than birds since they do not usually fly neither very far away nor too fast unless startled or feeling threatened. They are always most active at the height of the day, especially sunny, warm afternoons.
Armed with a good butterfly guide such as Butterflies through Binoculars by Jeffrey Glassberg, a novice watcher can learn very quickly about beautiful wonders of flight such the speedy Red Admiral, the gorgeous Tiger Swallowtail, or the exquisite Mourning Cloak. Other species have catchy names such Skippers, Fritillaries and Hairstreaks.
Still others have literary nomenclature like Commas and Question Marks. Many names end in wing; Duskywings, Cloudywings and Purplewings.
The parallel occurrence between butterflies and flowers is an example of mutualism where both the flowers and the butterflies need each other for survival. For example, the Monarch Butterfly relies solely on the Swamp Milkweed to survive. Adult Monarch Butterflies will feed off of the nectar of the Milkweed. As they congregate on the Milkweed, Monarch Butterflies will breed and females will lay their eggs on the plant. The young milkweed caterpillars that emerge from the eggs will feed exclusively on the leaves and grow until they form a chrysalis. Later, the new Monarch Butterfly will form and fly to Mexico for the winter only to return the following spring.
Many other butterflies are now fluttering in our natural areas of the Wissahickon Creek watershed. Visit one of the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association’s Preserves such as the Willow Lake Preserve at the corners of Butler and Skippack Pikes behind the CVS Store. Or, you can explore the overgrown fields of the Armentrout Preserve by hiking the trails at the end of Beale Road off of Penllyn Pike just west of Morris Road. You can also visit Fort Washington State Park, especially the right of way shrubby habitat near the hawk watching tower or the fields and woods of Prophecy Creek Park on Route 73.
Even in our gardens, you can plant flowers that will surely attract butterflies such as Purple Coneflower, Black Eyed Susans, and Bee Balm. Hardy native shrubs that bloom in fragrant flowers in the summer are readily attainable for your home; Sweet Pepperbush, Bottlebrush Buckeye, Steeplebush, and New Jersey Tea. For an instant magnet, try Butterfly Bush, although non-native, it is one of the best attractants for nectar thirsty butterflies.
Add butterfly watching to your annual summer activities. You will be rewarded with great sights and you learn a little bit more about the need to preserve and manage our woods, fields and wetlands for all living things!