Category Archives: Nature Notes

A Butterfly Boom

Bees swarm. Locusts swarm. Butterflies, not so much. But at the moment, many thousands of painted lady butterflies are filling gardens and roadside stands of fall wildflowers at the end of a long flight from Southwestern deserts.

Painted Lady © Gillian Henry

There are two species of very similar “Lady butterflies” that occur in Massachusetts. The American lady is a common resident species that flies throughout the warm seasons and overwinters in the pupal stage or as an adult butterfly. The life cycle of the painted lady is considerably more dramatic.

The butterflies involved in the present “irruption” presumably originated in the deserts of northern Mexico. Triggered by poorly understood conditions on the wintering grounds, Painted Ladies emerge in enormous numbers (think locusts) and disperse northward occasionally reaching as far as New England.

If, as sometimes happens, the irruption occurs in spring or summer the species can reproduce here, but cannot overwinter at this latitude. So unless there is another mass migration next year, you may see no painted ladies at all in Massachusetts next year.

A sense of the enormity and drama of the largest of the Lady irruptions is given in this 1869 account by S. B. J. Skertchl from the Sudanese desert:

Three painted ladies © Lucy Merrill-Hills

“Our caravan had started for the coast, leaving the mountains shrouded in heavy clouds, soon after daybreak. At the foot of the high country is a stretch of wiry grass, beyond which lies the rainless desert as far as the sea. From my camel I noticed that the whole mass of the grass seemed violently agitated, although there was no wind. On dismounting I found that the motion was caused by the contortions of pupae of V. cardui, which were so numerous that almost every blade of grass seemed to bear one…Presently the pupae began to burst and the red fluid that escaped sprinkled the ground like a rain of blood. Myriads of butterflies, limp and helpless, sprinkled the ground. Presently the sun shone forth and the insects began to dry their wings, and about half an hour after the birth of the first the whole swarm rose as a dense cloud and flew away eastwards towards the sea. I do not know how long the swarm was, but it was certainly more than a mile, and its breadth exceeded a quarter of a mile.”

Want to witness this butterfly irruption?

You may have to travel no farther than your garden. Like many butterflies, the painted lady isn’t especially picky about which flowers to nectar on. Or head for coastal areas where they tend to concentrate and seek out patches of late-blooming wildflowers such as goldenrods and asters.

For more information on this fascinating butterfly, check out Mass Audubon’s Butterfly Atlas, which includes data collected between 1986 and 1990.

 

A Good Year for Monarchs?

During the last week of August, Regional Scientist Robert Buchsbaum and several Mass Audubon naturalists and scientists took a field trip to Conway Hills Wildlife Sanctuary just west of the Connecticut River in Conway, MA. While there, they were pleasantly surprised by what they saw. Here’s Robert’s report:

The initial goal of our exploration was to document the odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) that are present at this sanctuary. Conway Hills is a relatively new sanctuary for Mass Audubon so our records of species that occur there is still a work in progress.

While rambling through a big field in the center of the sanctuary, we couldn’t help but notice the large number of monarch butterfly caterpillars that were feasting on the milkweed plants in the field. Just about every one of the milkweed plants (the common milkweed—Asclepias syriaca) had a monarch caterpillar on it, busily chewing on leaves.

Monarch caterpillar at Conway Hills

This was very heartening to all of us, given how scarce monarch butterflies were last summer and the overall concern about the future of this stunning butterfly.

Have you noticed more monarchs this year?

Let us know in the comments!

Protecting Pollinators

Mass Audubon has made it a priority to protect and promote pollinators’ health.

A rapid decline in pollinators like beesbirdsbutterflies, and bats is threatening biodiversity both globally and here at home.  The thousands of plant-pollinator interactions that sustain our food supply and natural environment are under threat by multiple, interacting factors including habitat loss, pesticide use, invasive species, disease, and climate change.

This is why our Advocacy department identified An Act to Protect Pollinators as a legislative priority. This Act, sponsored by Representative Mary Keefe (D-Worcester) and Senator Jason Lewis (D-Winchester), establishes a commission to investigate methods and solutions to protect and promote pollinators’ health. The bill would require the commission to include individuals with expertise in the protection of pollinators, wildlife protection and expertise in native plants.

In addition, Mass Audubon provided extensive input that helped shape the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ (MDAR) recently released Pollinator Protection Plan, which includes Best Management Practices for groups from beekeepers to farmers to homeowners and gardeners, all of whom can take steps to minimize impacts to pollinators and encourage their populations to thrive.

MDAR is also updating its Apiary Program, which provides supports to honey beekeepers, pesticide applicators, farmers, land managers, educators, regulators and government officials.

Most recently, Mass Audubon’s President Gary Clayton (pictured) was on hand to celebrate the opening of the second state apiary at Essex Technical High School, a collection of beehives, which will be used for education and academic research. This state-funded new apiary will consist of six honey bee hives located within a 30 foot by 100 foot plot on the campus of Essex Technical High School.

Learn more about the MDAR Apiary Program and what you can do to protect pollinators.

Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?

To get to the other side…to lay her eggs!

Turtle Crossing sign at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

Turtle Crossing sign at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

In late spring and early summer, adult female turtles cross roads in search of nest sites. Each species has a different habitat requirement, but when searching for a nest site they usually choose sandy or loose soil in lawns, tilled or mowed fields, roadsides, and occasionally backyard compost piles.

Many people assume that something is wrong when a turtle is crossing the road. People, with best intentions, mistakenly attempt to return it to water, take it home, or, take it somewhere that seems safer and release it. But the best thing to do is leave it alone. The turtle knows where it wants to go and may have been nesting in the same spot for many years—or even decades.

Small Turtles

If you spot a small turtle that is in danger of being hit by cars, you can protect it by temporarily blocking traffic if it is safe to do so. You can also speed things along by carefully picking it up by its carapace (the top half of its shell) and moving it to the other side of the road, in the direction it was already headed.

Snapping Turtles

Snapping turtles, however, can be dangerous and should not be handled. They are surprisingly fast for their size and can extend their necks the length of their carapace. Never pick up a snapping turtle by the tail because you could seriously injure it.

Snapping Turtle at Drumlin Farm © Mass Audubon

Snapping Turtle at Drumlin Farm © Mass Audubon

Learn all about turtles on our website and check out our Turtles By the Numbers.

A Quick Guide to Hummingbirds

Have you spotted hummingbirds in your garden yet?

Ruby-throated Hummingbird © Phil Sorrentino

Ruby-throated Hummingbird © Phil Sorrentino

These tiny, buzzing birds are a welcome sight in gardens across Massachusetts every spring, returning from their spring migration in late April and early May. With plenty of nectar-bearing flowers about now, they’re definitely back—and they are HUNGRY. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that hummingbirds have to consume their own weight in nectar and insects every day to survive!

Easy to Identify

The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species of hummingbird that breeds in Massachusetts. The males are unmistakable with their bright red throats, while females and juveniles are just as stunning with their glossy, green plumage.

Learn More

Check out the Quick Guide below, read hummingbird faqs, and report a hummingbird sighting. Looking for a new feeder? We’ve got plenty of options for you in the Audubon Shop.

Hummingbird Quick Guide

Invasion of the Fuzzy Black Caterpillar

If you’ve noticed a bunch small, fuzzy black caterpillars with a red stripe you’re not alone.

This invasive insect, which typically hatches in May, will spin long silken threads on which it travels up and down to find foliage. Once the caterpillars find a suitable tree (oak, birch, and apple trees are favorites), they begin eating the leaves, growing rapidly, and molting their skins to accommodate their increasing size.

The Problem

During a boom, or outbreak, gypsy moth caterpillars can cause massive defoliation most likely in uniform stands of tree species, particularly oaks.

While a disheartening sight, the long-term effect is not as disastrous as some commonly assume and may in some ways be beneficial. Thinning of forests by gypsy moths may produce a healthier, more diverse, and perhaps a more gypsy-moth resistant stand of trees. Moderate defoliation benefits forest wildlife by stimulating understory growth of shrubs and berry-producing thickets.

Plus, they are a food source for native birds such as cuckoos, downy woodpeckers, gray catbirds, and common grackles.

What You Can Do

That being said, there are efforts taken to minimize the damage.

  • When the caterpillars are still small, contact a reputable pest management firm or arborist for advice. 
  • If spraying of pesticides is recommended, make sure the treatment uses B.t. kurtstaki (Bacillus thuringiensis kurtstaki), a bacterial pesticide that has proven effective in killing young caterpillars of a number of pest species.

What Not To Do

As tempting as it may be, do not use chemical pesticides. Although these substances do kill the larvae and thereby protect the foliage in the year of application, the insects are never totally eliminated. Also targeted by these pesticides are natural predators of the gypsy moth. And some chemical pesticides may actually prolong or exacerbate outbreaks.

And don’t bother gathering and destroying the caterpillars by hand. It’s a waste of time and effort. And many people experience allergic reactions.

Learn More

Find out more about the life stages of a gypsy moth caterpillar and management strategies >

Banding Peregrines 2017 Edition

Every May, Norman Smith, Director of Mass Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum, and Tom French, Director of Mass Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program, band peregrine falcon chicks in Boston. You can learn more about why we band falcons here.

Norman Smith with an adult peregrine falcon via Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Among this year’s banding locations were the Marriott Vacation Club Pulse at Custom House and Christian Science Center Building. At the latter, Smith and French were joined by Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton and President of Mass Audubon Gary Clayton.

Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Director Tom French, Mass Audubon Blue Hills Trailside Museum Director Norman Smith, Mass Audubon President Gary Clayton, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton via Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Read some of the local coverage about the banding here, here and here.

5 Tips for Attracting Butterflies

Sure butterflies can be found frolicking in open meadows on warm, breezy summer days, but these exuberant and colorful insects can also be found in your own backyard—if you play your cards right! What does it take to bring the flutter closer to home?

Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary Conservation Coordinator Martha Gach weighs in on the top 5 ways to attract butterflies.


Plant so that your yard has flowers blooming all season long

Monarch

Why Between March and October, over 100 different butterflies can be found in Massachusetts, but not all at the same time. Mourning cloaks are seen mainly early spring, mid-summer, and fall; swallowtails are present late May to September and monarchs June to October. If you have the right kind of flowers, butterflies will come.

How Nothing blooms all season long, but by choosing plants that flower at different times you can attract a constant stream of butterflies. For spring, think dandelions and chives. Mid-season beauties include milkweeds, butterfly bush, zinnias, verbena, and blazing star. Asters, sunflowers, and Joe-Pye weed attract late-season butterflies.

Did you know? Over 60 different insects, including monarch butterflies, need milkweed to complete their life cycle. These insects not only have adapted to potent chemicals in milkweed, but some use them to repel predators.


Keep caterpillars in mind

Why Baby butterflies are picky eaters. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed, fritillaries like violets, spicebush swallowtails eat … well, spicebush (as well as sassafras).

How Your yard should include a variety of host plants and trees to support butterfly caterpillars. In addition to the several kinds of milkweed, consider willow, poplar, cherry, sassafras or spicebush, parsley or dill, and pussytoes to feed and shelter baby butterflies during their growing season.

Did you know? Early instar swallowtail and viceroy caterpillars are camouflaged to look like bird droppings. Late instar swallowtails have big spots that resemble snake eyes. When threatened, these caterpillars will rear up “eyes” first and the “snake” scares the predator away.


Make a “Puddle”

Common wood nymph

Why Dirt contains salts and minerals that butterflies need to supplement their nectar-rich diet. Butterflies sip, so they need mud or small puddles to get their mineral fix.

How A sandy area or one covered with small gravel works well as a “puddling spot.” Just keep it damp and watch for butterflies hanging out, poking in the dirt with their straw-shaped proboscis (kind of like a tongue).

Did you know? Butterflies that gather at puddles are mostly males, which need the additional nutrients for reproduction. Drive slowly down sunny dirt roads and look for butterflies hanging out on the edges. They are probably “puddling”!


Skip Insecticides

Why Many insecticides are general and kill everything, including beneficial insects such as ladybugs (which eat aphids) and butterfly caterpillars. Insecticides can also stay in the environment for many years.

How Learn which bugs are destructive and hand-pick them off your plants (whatsthatbug.com and bugguide.net are good online ID guides). If you absolutely must, use gentle and effective insecticidal soap.

Did you know? That striped caterpillar chowing down on your parsley will someday become a beautiful black swallowtail butterfly!


Leave the Leaves

Mourning Cloak

Why Unlike monarchs, not every butterfly migrates before cold weather hits. Many spend the winter as caterpillars or chrysalids dormant in leaf litter or just under the soil. If you rake up all your leaves, you could be disposing of the next summer’s butterflies.

How Leaves under your shrubs and along fences are a whole ecosystem unto themselves. Avoid the urge to rake until early June, when caterpillars have woken up and moved out.

Did you know? Mourning cloaks, one of our earliest butterflies, overwinter as adults, hidden under loose bark and under logs (and perhaps in the walls of your home). They emerge before the flowers, nectaring on tree sap.


Want to know more?

For more information on attracting butterflies:

Owling 101: How to Spot an Owl

You may be surprised to learn that owls can be heard in most neighborhoods and backyards, even in Boston and the near suburbs. Since many owl species begin looking for mates in winter and are at their most vocal this time of year, now is the perfect time to go “owling”—looking and listening for owls—either at a wildlife sanctuary or even in your own backyard!

The Secret Is…

…That there is no great secret to owling. The best thing to do, though, is to listen and study calls in advance. There are only a handful of species in Massachusetts in winter, so it is an easy group of birds to learn and listen for. Learn more about the eight owl species commonly found in Massachusetts and listen to recordings of their calls on our website.

Once you’ve got a few calls down pat, just go outside and start listening! Steer clear of windy nights because it can be hard to hear, and it’s best to avoid using a flashlight unless you need to since they can scare off the owls. For this reason, nights with bright moonlight are perfect for owling.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

What to Listen and Look For

This time of year, you’ll hear great horned owls, found throughout most of the state, calling around dusk. If they duet (two owls calling to one another), they are likely courting. You can tell male from female by the pitch: the females tend to “hoo, hoo” at a higher pitch than the baritone males.

Screech owls will nest in Boston backyards and use nestboxes readily (of course, so do squirrels!). Ounce for ounce, they are among the toughest owls around. Barred owls, found in most of Massachusetts other than the southeast, will call during the day with their famous refrain of “Who cooks for you?

Of course, snowy owls are in a category by themselves; these large owls breed in the Arctic, but can often be seen during their migrations in spring and fall.

Barred Owl ©Rene Laubach/Mass Audubon

Barred Owl © Rene Laubach/Mass Audubon

Once you start to hear owls regularly in the same place, you can look for nests and later for owl “pellets”—regurgitated bones, fur, and feathers from their most recent meal—and eventually downy chicks. If you manage to spot one, you can report the sighting using our online sighting tool. These reports provide valuable information about the owl population in the state.

Find a Program

Not ready to go on your own? You can always join an Owl Prowl program at one of our wildlife sanctuaries to benefit from the expert guidance of one of our naturalists. Happy owling!

Snowy Owl Release in Duxbury Video

Watch Norman Smith of Blue Hills Trailside Museum talk about this snowy owl, which he safely rescued from Logan Airport on Monday, January 23, and released at Duxbury Beach.

Norman has been safely rescuing snowy owls from Logan Airport for more than 30 years. This was the 12th snowy owl that Norman has rescued this season.

Learn more about the Snowy Owl Project and if Norman’s work inspires you, consider making a donation to support his efforts.

Watch the video >