In Return of the King, Gandalf and Pippin look far across the expanse to Mordor, where Sauron’s armies are building and about to attack Gondor. Pippin knows that Frodo and Sam have to avoid those armies to destroy the Ring, and everyone knew this was a dicey proposition from the get-go. Pippin asks Gandalf:
Pippin: Is there any hope, Gandalf, for Frodo and Sam?
Gandalf: There never was much hope. Just a fool’s hope.
That was basically my perspective when I left the house at 6 am yesterday to make my FOURTH assay on the King’s Hairstreak location near DelMar. I’d been three times – once solo, once with Tom Stock, and once with Tom and Beth Johnson, and we’d all dipped. My hopes were not high, but at least two others have seen it here this season, and at least this time I had a new target – Palamedes Swallowtail – if King’s didn’t work out. And being perpetually stuck at #99 on my Maryland Big Butterfly Year goal of 100 was getting old. That and Starbuck’s provided the motivation to get on the road under cool, gray skies.
The drive down was uneventful (note to field colleagues – The restrooms at the Cambridge Sailwinds Visitor Center, the first stop on the Eastern Shore for many of us after crossing the Bay Bridge, are locked and you have to get the key, the ONE key, from the visitor desk. And their hours aren’t posted. Arrive early or late or when they’ve stopped out and you are crossing your legs for a while). The temperature remained cool, in the low 70’s, and the cloud cover remained intact but thin. The yard of zinnias one road over that had been swarmed by Zebra and Spicebush Swallowtails last week was empty.
I arrived at the King’s location at about 8:30, and nothing was flying. Even the mosquitoes were mostly quiescent. There was already a truck parked in the pullout (? At this hour) but nobody in evidence. I parked in the other dip in the road along the canal and began to scrutinize the trailside vegetation. Nothing. I walked a couple hundred yards down one side of the trail, and slowly back. Kicked up one dew-bedraggled Zebra. I crossed the road and started on the other side of the bridge.
And suddenly the sun came out for a few brief moments. My heart stopped for a few seconds as a Peck’s Skipper buzzed around before it came into focus as a skipper, not a hairstreak. But sitting quietly just above it on a wide blade of grass was #100 — a King’s Hairstreak. It posed cooperatively for documentary photos until 9 o’clock sharp when it launched up into the canopy.
I poked around the trail a little more to no effect, and walked down the road a little ways to check out the blooming Clethra. Aside from a couple of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, it was still very slow. The condition of the King’s I saw was clearly declining fast, so I suspect the season for them is pretty much over.
The Pocomoke River marshes that Jim Stasz kindly shared as a possible location for a colony of Palamedes Swallowtail is about an hour from the King’s location, but the weather had turned out fine and there is good botanical exploration along the way, including my first look at orange milkwort, Polygala, along MD113 on the way past Berlin. I arrived at the dead-end road in question a little before noon.
The first thing I noticed was that one side of the road was lined with blooming Clethra, and of course only knowing Palamedes as the common swallowtail in Great Dismal Swamp smothering the Clethra there, I was sure I’d see them among the many Spicebush and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails working the ones here. But no. A couple of interesting other critters did get my attention – a Great Purple Hairstreak, a fair number of recently emerged Zabulon males, and a Snout among them. There was dogbane in full bloom on the other side of the road, with more Great Purple Hairstreaks, Monarchs, and a veritable explosion of Variegated Fritillaries, Common Buckeyes, and Silver-spotted Skippers. But no Palamedes.
I drove farther down the road, the sides of which soon turned into open wooded swamp with lots of bayberry, maple, and flowering hibiscus. And – Palamedes, always staying just out of net reach and never stopping for pics. I counted seven for sure, but more likely saw twice that number as they zipped in and out of the bayberry. And I saw my first Maryland redbay, the Palamedes host plant related to sassafras and spicebush and endangered in Maryland, among the abundant sweet bay magnolia in the swamp. The relative scarcity of redbay, and the swamp habitat preferred by Palamedes, accounts for infrequent sightings of the swallowtail this far north.
Unfortunately, redbay may be in serious trouble, even where it’s very common, from a fungus related to Dutch elm disease that is currently working its way north from the Carolinas. The fungus is spread by a tiny beetle, an ambrosia beetle, accidentally introduced from Asia, and also affects relatives of redbay in the laboratory.
I finally found one Palamedes nectaring at a lone swamp milkweed and snapped a few shots before it sailed away again over the water.
So – the MD100 count now stands at 101, practically unthinkable when we hatched this idea back in March. One hundred was a stretch goal in itself – I had some tremendous serendipity and the help of dozens of local naturalists who made this happen. There are still a few species this year that could boost the total to MAYBE 105. After all, I still haven’t seen Painted Lady, and Ocola Skipper is due in the area soon. Leonard’s Skipper will give me another species if I get to the right habitat during its short flight period. Harvester and Bronze Copper have proved as elusive for me this year as last (low populations of woolly aphids for the Harvester, and who knows what’s up with the crash of Bronze Copper in Maryland); Little Yellow appears not to be flying here at all this year unless we get a sudden southern surge.
Of course, I’d love to get all of them on my 2013 Maryland Butterfly Big Year count. But even more important to me now is making sure my friends and colleagues in the field also reach 100, or at least get their highest season count ever. So you’ll still see me in the field for the next two months until the butterflies run out …