Life Butterfly: King’s Hairstreak

Hairstreaks are a furtive bunch, many of them.  Especially the woodland species, several of which spend short amounts of time near the ground and nectaring early in the morning and then disappear high into the tree canopy for the rest of the day.

Such is King’s hairstreak, a beautiful cocoa brown butterfly that’s usually seen basking in sunny woodland glades in the early morning before taking a powder the rest of the day.  They’re also pretty rare to boot, since their food plant — sweetleaf, Symplocos tinctoria, so named because the bark yield a brilliant yellow dye — is uncommon through much of its range.  In Maryland, it’s mostly a plant of coastal swamps, which is where Tom Stock and I hunted for King’s hairstreak yesterday. (Sweetleaf is easiest to find for future King’s hunts when it is in bloom in early spring, as the picture to the right illustrates)

Guided by good intelligence from ace naturalist Rick Cheicante, we checked out a likely spot and bam! — within 10 steps of the car on a path through wet woods near the Delaware line — Tom spotted our first King’s hairstreak on a leaf in a grapevine tangle, a life butterfly for both us.  In two hours or so of diligent searching, we found only one more for sure, although we spooked up a couple of likely hairstreak candidates from similar grapey masses.  Sweetleaf was relatively abundant here.

One reason for the early appearance and then skulking of these endangered (in MD) woodland hairstreaks might be that predation pressure from dragonflies has got to be heavy in this environment as the morning warms up — slaty blue and great blue skimmers were everywhere patrolling the grape thickets and the trail we were on.  Perhaps by being active in the couple hours before ode activity spikes they’re able to escape the worst of ode-lep encounters.

Tom got some good pics of the last one we saw (see left).  We left the area around 11 am and spent the rest of the day exploring other parts of the Eastern Shore, notably a possible area for Hessel’s hairstreak near Galestown MD — despite diligent searching, we never found spring brood Hessel’s in the state and hunting for a summer brood that should be emerging now hasn’t proved any more successful.  Then we decamped to areas near Blackwater NWR that we’ve known to be productive in the past.

Milkweed and dogbane are past peak on the Eastern Shore except where they were mowed early in the season and are now in delayed bloom.  Buttonbush — Ceanothus — is at peak in most locations we checked.

We were very disappointed in the old standby stretch of New Bridge Road, which has reliably yielded fine skippers including Dion in the past.  But frequent mowing and clearing along the roadside seems to have done in most of the buttonbush, and the dogbane and milkweed from two weeks ago had been mowed down.  Our new favorite haunt along Decoursey Bridge Road was still productive of rare skipper and broadwinged skipper, but nothing else exciting.  The roads around the NWR itself — Bestpitch and Key Wallace — had all been recently and closely mown, so not even white clover was around.  We did manage to locate a ditch of second bloom (from an earlier mowing) dogbane near the NWR entrance that yielded  FOYs checkered white (always a good find in the region) and saltmarsh skipper.

The day’s tally, courtesy of Tom’s notekeeping:

July 4, 2012: Eastern Shore of Maryland, various locations
Total species: 29
At the Mason-Dixon Stone on Route 54, Wicomico County
Spicebush Swallowtail (2)
Cabbage White (1)
Chesapeake Forest, Worcester County
Zebra Swallowtail (6)
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (1)
Spicebush Swallowtail (16)
Cabbage White (1)
King’s Hairstreak (2) LIFER Satyrium kingi
Red-banded Hairstreak (1)
Summer Azure (1)
Variegated Fritillary (1)
Question Mark (2)
Red Admiral (5)
Red-spotted Purple (4)
Least Skipper (3)
Dorchester County, various locations including Galestown, New Bridge, Decoursey Bridge Road, and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Black Swallowtail (11)
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (6)
Spicebush Swallowtail (1)
Checkered White (1) Key Wallace Drive
Orange Sulphur (common)
Cloudless Sulphur (5)
Gray Hairstreak (2)
Eastern Tailed Blue (8)
Variegated Fritillary (common)
Pearl Crescent (18)
American Lady (4)
Painted Lady (3)
Red-spotted Purple (1)
Viceroy (2)
Silver-spotted Skipper (7)
Horace’s Duskywing (3)
Least Skipper (common)
Sachem (19)
Rare Skipper (1) Decoursey Bridge Road
Broad-winged Skipper (abundant)
Salt Marsh Skipper (1)
Choptank River DNR Preserve, Talbot County (early evening)

Red-banded Hairstreak (4)
Eastern Tailed Blue (common)
Red-spotted Purple (1)
Monarch (2)
Silver-spotted Skipper (2)
Sachem (8)

LepLunch:  Hot and exhausted, we retired for an early dinner to the Suicide Bridge Restaurant outside Cambridge (officially in Hurlock, just down the road from Secretary) at the northern foot of Suicide Bridge over Cabin Creek.  We both celebrated with the deluxe crab cake — an incredible choice — and Shocktop Belgian White.   A dinner fit for King’s!

This entry was posted in endangered species, Field Trips/Annual Counts, sightings. Bookmark the permalink.

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