The drive down to Sedalia, MO – my home base for the three days – is about 5 hours, generously interspersed with stops along the way to check out likely nectar sources. My first find of the trip was a Giant Swallowtail flying across the highway just after I crossed into Missouri from Iowa; it was the first of several of this relatively common species in the Ozarks I would see over the weekend. And it gave me the sense the spring was a little farther advanced, lep-wise, than it is here in the mid-Atlantic.I stopped shortly after to check out some white clover patches along the Grand River near Gallatin, picking up a couple of FOYs for me including Common Sootywing. But the clouds were already piling up for evening rain, so I continued on to Hotel Bothwell in Sedalia for an early dinner at a local steakhouse.
My plan for Saturday (May 14) was to check out the type locality for the region’s endemic swallowtail, Papilio joanae, described in 1973 by one of my early butterfly mentors, J. Richard Heitzman, and named for his wife Joanie. This cryptic species is practically indistinguishable from its close cousin, the common Black Swallowtail (P. polyxenes) unless you have it in hand. The first clue that this was a different beast altogether came from its habitat – unlike the open fields favored by polyxenes, Ozark Swallowtail is a butterflies of forest clearings and glades. P. joanae doesn’t use Queen Anne’s Lace or domestic carrot family members as caterpillar hosts; it uses a small number of related woodland species instead. I’d scoured all the recent data on P. joanae over the winter while planning this trip, and realized it hasn’t been reported definitively (at least in open literature) for many years. But the scant data available suggested that the species flies at the same time as Black Swallowtail, and mid-May seemed within the range of probable flight dates. I’d corresponded over the past few months with regional natural history mavens Allison Vaughn (check out her excellent website Ozark Highlands of Missouri) and Steve Buback, both of the MO Department of Conservation, who with Paul McKenzie of USFWS and Butterflies of Illinois co-author Jim Wiker will be doing a butterfly and skipper workshop next week in the same area, and it seemed this was as good a time to look for joanae as any.
Saturday dawned overcast and quite cool, and in fact the temperature only flirted with 60 degrees F. by late in the day. But I headed the 25 miles south of Sedalia to Harry Truman State Park, ground zero as type locality for joanae, in the hopes the clouds would burn off. And by the time I reached the park, the sun was showing regularly and eventually would win out. The stiff breezes, however, persisted all day, making butterfly observation and photography difficult. The glade habitat I had identified as my best chance for joanae – the Western Wallflower Glade Trail – was especially windy.
I won’t hold readers in suspense for too long about the search for Ozark Swallowtail; suffice it to say that in the two days I spent traipsing about glades and forest roads in the area I saw no adult swallowtails whatsoever of the polyxenes-joanae persuasion. Spicebush, Pipevine (very common), Giant, and Zebra were all on the wing that weekend, but not Black or Ozark.However, in my 1.5-mile circuit of the Western Wallflower Glade (whose appellation reflects the fact that the iconic Western Wallflower, an orange spring cress, is common here), I did check out likely host plants for Ozark Swallowtail, and somewhat to my surprise I did locate a handful of caterpillars in about the third instar that are almost certainly joanae, given their presence in an interior glade far from fields and roads and on a host plant seldom utilized by Black Swallowtail. Unfortunately the cats are indistinguishable from polyxenes, so it’s not definitive without rearing out the larvae. But the fact that there were well-grown larvae suggested that I might have been between flights of joanae, and that a repeat visit to this area in mid-June might be more productive.
There were other butterfly and botanical highlights on the trail, though, including good numbers of both Northern and Southern Cloudywings flying together on the extensive stands of Monarda bradburiana, as well as Common Roadside-skipper. Little Wood-satyrs were everywhere, ranging from relatively “normal” forms to extensively silvered underside specimens of the “viola” form. Botany was the highlight here, with many of the favorite species from my youth – larkspur, sessile trilliums, several uncommon milkweeds, and the spectacular Widow’s Cross sedum – competing for attention with the butterflies. I checked out a number of other trails and back areas, but saw little else of note except an exciting two Hoary Edges, so when the clouds rolled in again late the afternoon I was ready to call it a day. Day two, Sunday, was predicted to be sunny in the morning and cloudy in the afternoon, so I decided to hit a prairie habitat early for birds and butterflies and an Ozark fen/riverine area for botany in the afternoon. Early morning saw me out on the Hi Lonesome Prairie, a well-preserved tallgrass prairie remnant near Cole Camp MO – under cloudy skies. Butterflies were few and far between, mostly on the abundant blooming brambles, consisting mostly of Tawny Edge and Eastern Tailed-blues in the infrequent sun outbreaks. Birding was better, with Bell’s Vireos, Henslow’s and Grasshopper Sparrows, and dozens of Dickcissels singing all over the prairie. Botanizing was great, too; shooting stars and Cream Wild Indigo (Baptisia bracteata).
Toward the end of the morning, just as I was leaving and just as it was supposed to start clouding over, the sun came out with a vengeance and the temperatures began to climb. By the time I reached my next destination, Big Buffalo Creek Conservation Area, it was a gorgeous butterflying day. I checked the forecast again – it’s sunny, should I drive back another 45 minutes to Truman and check out the glades again? or persevere at Big Buffalo Creek, where I didn’t have much intel on good butterflying? Forecast was grim – cloudy within the hour, and overcast and cool the rest of the day. So Big Buffalo Creek it was.
I missed the turnoff for the conservation area on my first pass and ended up on a highridge road well above the creek and associated wet woodlands. Pussytoes, an early spring composite common on dry roadsides all through the area, showed extensive brown, webbed leaves, diagnostic for caterpillars of American Lady (I also saw a number of adults during the weekend) and sure enough, most of the webbed leaves hid a ready-to-pupate American Lady caterpillar. Farther up the road, around a dilapidated old cabin where a powerline right-of-way crossed the road, I lucked into a bonanza of hilltoppers – lots of black (not Black) swallowtails, mostly Pipevines and a few Spicebush, Zebra Swallowtails (so I knew there would be pawpaw in the lowlands below), and more Giant Swallowtails. And more Hoary Edges than I’ve ever seen in my life – it was the most common butterfly around. I spent a great hour or so here – in brilliant warm sunshine! – before heading back down toward the creek and the designated Natural Area that protects a bluffside fen habitat. Along the creek the first thing that popped out was Hobomok Skipper, flying in smaller numbers than ubiquitous Zabulon Skippers – they were simply everywhere. I stood at one trail intersection and counted more than a dozen male Zabs contesting the sunny trailside spots. One of the many Little Wood-satyrs turned out on inspection to be Gemmed Satyr, a real treat and the first time I’d seen this in Missouri. Back out on the road about 4 pm – still sunny and hot! – I picked up Southern Dogface, American Snout, azures (I’m guessing Spring Azure from the size, color of blue, and abundant Flowering Dogwood host plant), and other regulars. By now I’m kicking myself for not going back to Truman, so I hustled back there and pulled up around 5 pm – just as the sun disappeared behind the clouds and it started to rain. Well, there was nothing for it except to go have barbeque back in Sedalia.
Monday, my last day, was a complete washout. I slept in, headed to my office of convenience at Starbucks, reported back to Allison et al what I’d seen, and worked on plant ID for some of the botanicals I’d seen. Tuesday saw me back on a flight to DC, where this weekend is – you guessed it – wet and dreary, but with memories of hot, dry Ozark glades to keep my spirits up.