Maryland’s Big Butterfly Challenges

Applachian Grizzled Skipper [photo courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service]

Appalachian Grizzled Skipper [photo courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service]

Every now and then I run into a member of the non-lepidopterologist public who says he or she really likes butterflies but thinks we know everything about them already. Most of you know that’s utterly absurd, and that for even the most common butterflies a lot remains to be studied, much of which can be accomplished by dedicated citizen scientists or amateur naturalists.

I’ve been thinking through what some of the top questions are for Maryland lepsters — amateur or professional — to pursue, and the list is LONG! For contemplation over the winter months, though, here’s a short Top 10 list of challenges that will have me in the field next season:

10. We have plenty of locations in the region where columbine is native, some of them in sizable stands. Why then is  Columbine Duskywing not seen in MD? Or is it, but just not studied closely enough to differentiate it from other spring-flying erynnids?

9.  What the heck happened to Little Yellows the past two years?

8.  What the heck happened to Giant Swallowtails? And do the few remaining annual sightings represent cresphontes that have made the switch to a host plant other than prickly ash? This critter is going gangbusters in the Northeast after a crash in the 1930’s — sightings of 20 or 30 a day.

7.  Can MD Baltimore Checkerspots make the leap to plantain as a larval food source as New England Baltimore Checkerspots have? Or does this suggest there is a cryptic second species in the mix?

6.  How many species of Phyciodes crescents are really in MD? We know we have Pearl, but how about batesii, cocyta, even phaon? Are we paying enough attention to these crescents to know or just writing them off as tharos?

5.  Do any of the vanessids overwinter here? Or are all the early spring ladies and admirals migrants from the south?

4.  What’s behind the crash of Bronze Copper on the Eastern Shore?

3.  How much farther will Carolina Satyr spread in MD?

2.  Is Appalachian Grizzled Skipper extirpated in MD, or is it still hanging on in a small shale barren somewhere in Washington Co? After all, the best known PA location is only a few acres in dimension.

1.  How many more species of wood satyrs will Harry Pavulaan come up with in the region when he’s done rearing out all the odd off-cycle populations?

Those are my Top 10; use the comment button below to add some of your own.

[Dick Smith had some interesting comments that I’ve pulled up into the main text below rather than force readers to go to the comments section!]

Rick,

I have a few notes to fill in on your top ten, some of which may alter your unknowns slightly, but all of the questions still remain.

10. I found Columbine Duskywing along the limestone banks of the North Branch Potomac (West Virginia side) about 20 years ago. The area is just a few miles south of Cumberland. Of course Columbine grows heavily in that area. I have checked multiple limestone cliff habitats around Maryland with no luck. All are very scant or occur in non-mountainous areas. Paul Opler once wrote that it is a montane species, and I have just not found any location in Maryland mountains with the magnitude of the limestone cliffs in the WV area.
9. I grew up in Maryland, and Little Yellows were relatively frequent in late summer everywhere prior to the 1980s. Then there was almost like a grand extinction for the next 30 years. Starting in 2010 they staged a sudden irruption for several years in the Northeast. Now we are back to zero. Apparently, it just can’t survive winter weather and is slow to emigrate north except in very high population years.
8. Northern Prickly-ash in Maryland is known to be suffering from deer herbivory, and it is very scarce now in previous areas of concentration (usually mountainous limestone habitats). I have checked some of these areas several times recently (Roundtop Hill southwest of Hancock for one), which was popular for Giants 20 years ago, and there were none, nor could I find Prickly-ash. I suspect Hoptree saplings are suffering the same fate. The Giants are still here but they are dispersing far and wide over the state now, probably to find surviving hostplants. Deer are less of a problem further north (more winter die-off?, more Prickly-ash?), so the butterfly is more frequent, even in PA.
7. Occasionally, Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars are found maturing well on English Plantain in Maryland. I have not heard of any potential species differences related to this. However, except in lawns, I think the plant has a tough time surviving against competing plants at Maryland latitudes, so there is not enough of it locally to support Baltimore Checkerspot populations. In New England, there are apparently large areas with English Plantain, and the butterfly does well in these.
6. I have searched for Tawny Crescents in concentration areas of Wavy-leaved Aster in MD, WV, and VA for over 30 years with no luck, even in one of the species Type Localities (Winchester, VA). I think it went the way of the Passenger Pigeon locally after the 19th century.
5. Interesting question about the Vanessids. In the early spring, I have never found a fresh Vanessid, and they all seem to be “passing through” in any particular spot. Has anyone reared a batch of these locally to see if they can survive Maryland winters?
4. I think your complaint about the extensive roadside mowing and herbicide overuse on the Eastern Shore, even into the drainage ditches now, is right on for explaining the Bronze Copper scarcity. The Blackwater Refuge people need to reserve unmowed areas for them. I think they are only surviving in areas next to state lands where herbicide use may be restricted.
3. Carolina Satyrs were found in Garrett County in 2012, and an MES member even found one in Green Ridge this past June (I just learned this). Global warming may be pushing them up from known occurrence areas further south (it’s southern WV for the mountain population). Butterfliers should keep an eye out for them almost anywhere now. Strangely, there are no records yet for PG or Anne Arundel Counties.
2. I have been searching for Grizzled Skippers in Maryland for 15 years now with no luck. Not encouraging, but maybe need a good year or better spots.
1. No records in Howard County for second brood Little Wood-Satyr varieties. Virginia may be the northern limit for that.

Dick Smith
Columbia, MD

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3 Responses to Maryland’s Big Butterfly Challenges

  1. Dick Smith says:

    Rick,

    I have a few notes to fill in on your top ten, some of which may alter your unknowns slightly, but all of the questions still remain.

    10. I found Columbine Duskywing along the limestone banks of the North Branch Potomac (West Virginia side) about 20 years ago. The area is just a few miles south of Cumberland. Of course Columbine grows heavily in that area. I have checked multiple limestone cliff habitats around Maryland with no luck. All are very scant or occur in non-mountainous areas. Paul Opler once wrote that it is a montane species, and I have just not found any location in Maryland mountains with the magnitude of the limestone cliffs in the WV area.
    9. I grew up in Maryland, and Little Yellows were relatively frequent in late summer everywhere prior to the 1980s. Then there was almost like a grand extinction for the next 30 years. Starting in 2010 they staged a sudden irruption for several years in the Northeast. Now we are back to zero. Apparently, it just can’t survive winter weather and is slow to emigrate north except in very high population years.
    8. Northern Prickly-ash in Maryland is known to be suffering from deer herbivory, and it is very scarce now in previous areas of concentration (usually mountainous limestone habitats). I have checked some of these areas several times recently (Roundtop Hill southwest of Hancock for one), which was popular for Giants 20 years ago, and there were none, nor could I find Prickly-ash. I suspect Hoptree saplings are suffering the same fate. The Giants are still here but they are dispersing far and wide over the state now, probably to find surviving hostplants. Deer are less of a problem further north (more winter die-off?, more Prickly-ash?), so the butterfly is more frequent, even in PA.
    7. Occasionally, Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars are found maturing well on English Plantain in Maryland. I have not heard of any potential species differences related to this. However, except in lawns, I think the plant has a tough time surviving against competing plants at Maryland latitudes, so there is not enough of it locally to support Baltimore Checkerspot populations. In New England, there are apparently large areas with English Plantain, and the butterfly does well in these.
    6. I have searched for Tawny Crescents in concentration areas of Wavy-leaved Aster in MD, WV, and VA for over 30 years with no luck, even in one of the species Type Localities (Winchester, VA). I think it went the way of the Passenger Pigeon locally after the 19th century.
    5. Interesting question about the Vanessids. In the early spring, I have never found a fresh Vanessid, and they all seem to be “passing through” in any particular spot. Has anyone reared a batch of these locally to see if they can survive Maryland winters?
    4. I think your complaint about the extensive roadside mowing and herbicide overuse on the Eastern Shore, even into the drainage ditches now, is right on for explaining the Bronze Copper scarcity. The Blackwater Refuge people need to reserve unmowed areas for them. I think they are only surviving in areas next to state lands where herbicide use may be restricted.
    3. Carolina Satyrs were found in Garrett County in 2012, and an MES member even found one in Green Ridge this past June (I just learned this). Global warming may be pushing them up from known occurrence areas further south (it’s southern WV for the mountain population). Butterfliers should keep an eye out for them almost anywhere now. Strangely, there are no records yet for PG or Anne Arundel Counties.
    2. I have been searching for Grizzled Skippers in Maryland for 15 years now with no luck. Not encouraging, but maybe need a good year or better spots.
    1. No records in Howard County for second brood Little Wood-Satyr varieties. Virginia may be the northern limit for that.

    Dick Smith
    Columbia, MD

  2. Rick says:

    Dick, I think the narrow-leaved (aka English) plantain, P. lanceolata, competes quite well in fallow fields and disturbed areas — at Governor Bridge, for example, it has persisted for a decade or more along the gravel roads and mowed areas. The broad-leaved P. major that we see in our lawns, however, isn’t so good at outcompeting native weeds.

    In the Ozarks when I was growing up, Baltimores (E. phaeton ozarkae) used hairy beardstongue (same Penstemon we get here in abundance) and false foxglove (Aureolaria) as larval hosts. These grow in a much different habitat — dry woods — so I never connected Baltimores as a wetland plant until I moved east.

    • Dick Smith says:

      Interesting. Another problem with Baltimore Checkerspots is that Maryland is roughly at its southern range boundary in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. Added to this, the butterfly is no longer found at areas of historical records in Maryland south of about the Baltimore City latitude. Jen Frye (MD DNR Wildlife & Heritage Service) sees a correlation between current surviving and lost populations of Baltimores and temperature isocline changes in Maryland from global warming.

      The Ozark Baltimore population is distinctly different. Don’t recall how long this has been accepted, but as you indicate, it is recognized as a separate subspecies from east coast populations.

      Dick Smith
      Columbia, MD

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