Given the unaccountably nice weather toward the end of last week, I decided to head off to Chincoteague NWR for a three-day sojourn to get in some shorebirding (black-bellied whistling duck and an immature white ibis had been seen there recently, in addition to building flocks of peeps and other shorebirds). Having dipped on the white ibis at Lilypons earlier in the week (coming soon in another post), I figured I’d stand a chance of some southern specialties like Ocola skipper and whirlabout on the Eastern Shore.
So I headed down on Wednesday with reservations for Wednesday and Thursday nights on the Island. But I decided to swing by Bombay Hook first; a lot of shorebirds had been reported there in the past week or so also. Unfortunately, the water levels were very high when I got there and most shorebird action was at a standstill. But as I drove through Delaware I already began to notice the absence of nectar sources; even when I stopped at Tuckahoe State Park (and the Adkins Arboretum) the few plants in flower (some Joe-pye weed, climbing hemp, etc.) held very few leps — a couple of pearl crescents and a common buckeye.
The situation didn’t improve much driving onto the Bombay Hook property; Refuge staff didn’t have much counsel to offer about butterflies. But when I drove down the road just past the visitor center I noticed a HUGE field of short white clover in full bloom — acres and acres of it. I parked and walked out about 10 feet into the field, and — lo and behold — started kicking up salt-marsh skippers at almost every step. I stopped counting in the first 10 minutes at about 50; interspersed with a couple of broad-winged skippers, two Delaware skippers, and nine Aaron’s skippers. I was jolted out of my reverie and dreams of Ocola and rare skipper when an officious maintenance worker started bellowing at me from the road that the field was closed “to protect the wildlife.” I explained politely what I was up to, mentioned I was scouting for a field trip for WABC, and that there were some very interesting butterflies in the field that should be documented. No dice — he insisted that to walk off the road required a “special use permit” and I could only get that from the Refuge Manager or Deputy Manager (whose names he eventually supplied). I also asked rather incredulously what wildlife was being “protected” on the three-inch tall clover — not a bird or mammal in sight — but he was intent on fulfilling the mandate of refuge regulations.
That evening I went online to request said special use permit, only to find that there is no email info for the Refuge Manager. There’s a ton of email listings for the Deputy Manager (it appears he gets to handle all the public complaints) BUT … his email bounced back because he’s on assignment elsewhere in the system until next week. I’ll press on again next week.
The day sort of went downhill from there. I realized I’d left an important piece of luggage back at home, leading me to wonder whether I should just spend the night back in College Park and drive out early in the morning, eating the cost of the reservation for one night and keeping the second night, or turn back around and drive the three hours down to Chincoteague with the rest of the beach bound.
As it turned out, I made good time getting home, fixed an early dinner, tanked up at Starbucks, and hit the road. Was at Chincoteague by 10 pm.
Birding was stupendous; butterflying was not. In two days on Chincoteague NWR I saw clouds of black swallowtails (out of which I pulled exactly ONE Palamedes swallowtail), and a couple each of viceroy and monarch. Not a skipper to be had. However, back in town at the Main Street Shop (the local equivalent of Starbucks), I took my latte out to the mint bed and rapidly racked up common buckeye, cabbage white, least skipper, red-banded hairstreak, salt-marsh skipper, black swallowtail and a very flashy southern broken-dash, which delighted a birding couple from Silver Spring (drawn of course to the use of binoculars) and may have sparked a new interest in leps!
Leaving Chincoteague for home on Friday afternoon, I made my obligatory stop at the crossroads of VA 175 (the Chincoteague turn-off) and Highway 13 to visit Thomas Gardens, about as close to an ideal plant nursery as I could dream up. First off, it’s huge — and much of it is unkempt — untidy, but not derelict, I mean. Perfect hiding spots for adult butterflies, and larval foodplants abound. Second, the management here prizes plant knowledge above the ability to read labels on pots, so it’s always a surprise what you might find lurking in a side bed or a jumble of unlabeled and overgrown pots of plants. Third, the selection is pretty incredible — over the years, I’ve picked up a couple of crinums that have proved hardy here in College Park, a lace-leafed chaste tree, the violet ‘Etain,’ a huge flowering bush lespedeza called ‘Pink Fountain’ that skippers find irresistible in the late fall, and a host of other things. I can’t get out of there ever without buying something (this time it was a red cane begonia to complement my existing white one). And lastly, they’re just delightful when I ask if I can putter around in the clethra, scabiosa, lantana and salvias — just the opposite of our friends at Bombay Hook.
The lep numbers are usually pretty good, too — it being about the only nectar source in 20 miles. Friday was no exception, including tawny-edged, dun, broad-winged and swarthy skippers.
-==| Field Trip |==-
Number of Species: 15
Number of Individuals: 30
Thomas Gardens plant nursery
VA , USA 23415
Notes: 1100-1300 hours walking through the grounds at this large commercial nursery near Chincoteague NWR. Temperatures were pleasantly warm (mid-80s) with a light breeze and clear skies. Abundant nectar sources.
Common Name Scientific Name Life Stage Number Seen Notes
Black Swallowtail Papilio polyxenes Adult 2
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Papilio glaucus Adult 1
Spicebush Swallowtail Papilio troilus Adult 2
Cabbage White Pieris rapae Adult 1
Gray Hairstreak Strymon melinus Adult 1
Common Buckeye Junonia coenia Adult 1
Silver-spotted Skipper Epargyreus clarus Adult 5
Swarthy Skipper Nastra lherminier Adult 2
Least Skipper Ancyloxypha numitor Adult 3
Tawny-edged Skipper Polites themistocles Adult 3
Crossline Skipper Polites origenes Adult 1
Sachem Atalopedes campestris Adult 1
Zabulon Skipper Poanes zabulon Adult 5
Broad-winged Skipper Poanes viator Adult 1
Dun Skipper Euphyes vestris Adult 1