Lep Scouting on the Eastern Shore

2018JUL07 Bronze Copper pair_MD-Dorchester Co-Vienna-Vienna Marsh-Mardela Springs Quad

A pair of courting Bronze Coppers on swamp milkweed in a Dorchester Co marsh [2018 July 7, photo by REB]

Tom Stock and I took advantage of what we thought would be picture-perfect butterfly observing conditions to do a targeted strike for King’s Hairstreak and a general scouting mission for my upcoming Eastern Shore field trip for the Audubon Naturalist Society.  We were on the road by 6 am, since you have to be in the habitat by around 9 am to have a good chance for King’s Hairstreak Early in the day they bask on eye-level broad leaves — sweetgum, greenbrier, grape — and on most days they go up into the canopy quickly by 10 or 10:30 am.  We’ve missed it many times before by arriving too late, and other times for inexplicable reasons.

Our planned trip would take us on an ambitious route from swamplands on the MD/DE line to the Hickory Point Natural Area near Pocomoke City to the back roads in and around Blackwater NWR. We were worried, though, as soon as we saw the high wind warning advisory at the Bay Bridge, and indeed the winds all day ranged from a very stiff breeze to almost gale force.  In fact at one point the wind brought a tree down across the back road we were on and forced us to drive in reverse for a half-mile or so.  Photography at times was all but impossible.  The temperature took a long time to climb out of the low 60’s and never got much above 73 or so, and for most of the day before noon clouds obscured the Sun and the resultant chill and wind kept many butterflies hunkered down.

Some coffee at Rise Up in Easton made us a little more optimistic, and we headed first to an isolated area on the MD/DE border that is the only somewhat reliable spot (and that’s probably overstating our success rate there) for King’s Hairstreak, a butterfly that is rare and local throughout its limited range in the Eastern US.  Maryland is pretty much at the far northern distribution of this primarily southern, coastal species, the range of which tracks that of its only host plant, sweetleaf or horse sugar (Symplocos tinctoria), which in MD is found only in a handful of far southern Eastern Shore counties.  King’s Hairstreak in MD is an S1 (Endangered) species.

We arrived onsite at a streamside in the middle of a coastal swamp a little after 9, dismayed by the low temperatures and overcast skies.  Wind gusts even in this protected location kept all the basking leaves in motion, but we were a little buoyed in our hopes by a few odes on the wing and a quick sighting of Red-banded Hairstreak. In a few moments, we got a rare break in the clouds and a relative lull in the winds, and we quickly spotted a dark hairstreak up in one of the sweetgum trees along the minimal trail.  When it and the breeze settled down, we were pleased to see it was indeed a King’s Hairstreak, but it allowed little opportunity to photograph before heading off into the shrubs.  A few minutes later a second King’s popped up further down the trail, and while it didn’t sit still for long at a time it moved around within sight, allowing good photos even with the wind blowing the leaves wildly.

2018JUL07 King's HS_MD-Worcester Co-Whaleysville-Nelson Rd at Careytown Br-Whaleysville Quad

King’s Hairstsreak basking in early morning along a streamside trail in Worcester Co. [2018 July 07, photo by REB]

An interesting behavior of these hairstreaks was their orientation to track the sun on this still-cool morning.  When basking in the fitful sunshine, they would tilt themselves toward the sun to take full advantage of the sun’s rays on the maximum expanse of their wings.  Sometimes this meant they lay almost prostrate on the leaf surface.  Other hairstreaks will do this, too, but the King’s were doing it in style.

2017JUL07 side basking to take in sun by King's HS

Side-basking behavior to maximize sun exposure by King’s Hairstreak [2018 JULY 07, photo by REB]. Sometimes they would lay almost flat on the leaf.

From the King’s Hairstreak locale we headed down into the Pocomoke River drainage west of Pocomoke City to the Hickory Point Natural Area, an expanse of swamplands along the river.  This has always been a go-to place for Great Purple Hairstreak, Palamedes Swallowtail, and Bronze Copper, and I expect to bring the ANS field trip here in search of these.  Yesterday, though, very little was happening at the prime location on Hickory Point Road where it bisects one of the feeder streams and gives a good view of the open marsh.  The real excitement along Hickory Point Road lay lay a quarter-mile or so before the swamp, on an unlikely verge with agricultural land (soybeans in this case)  on one side and a cleared-over woods on the other.  There were a few dogbanes in bloom here, and out of an abundance of caution Tom and I pulled over and checked them out.  The action wasn’t in the dogbane, though, but on the red clover along the road, where we quickly picked up a Dion Skipper and a handful of Aaron’s Skippers, in addition to a few Sachems, Horace’s Duskywings, and Least Skippers.

2018JUL7 Aaron's Skipper_MD-Worcester Co-Pocomoke City-Hickory Point Rd-Pocomoke City Quad

Aaron’s Skipper in Worcester Co MD along Hickory Point Rd. [2018 July 7, photo by REB]


Aaron’s Skipper, Worcester Co MD along Hickory Point Rd [2018 July 7, photo by Tom Stock]


Dion Skipper, along Hickory Point Rd in Worcester Co MD [2018 July 7, photo by Tom Stock]

2018JUL07 Dion Skipper female_MD-Worcester Co-Pocomoke City-Hickory Point Rd-Pocomoke City Quad

Dion Skipper, female, along Hickory Point Rd in Worcester Co MD. [2018 July 7, photo by REB]

Backtracking to US 50, we drove north to Vienna to a marshy area on the way to Blackwater that sometimes holds Bronze Copper.  Today would be a lucky day for us; we were on one almost immediately, and then a second as they engaged in courtship behavior on and around a swamp milkweed in bloom.  We later found a third pristine copper that had fallen victim to the milkweed’s sometimes brutal habit of ensnaring unsuitable pollinators (see Alonso Abugattas’ excellent post on this at his blog, Capital Naturalist).


Bronze Copper in Dorchester Co. [2018 July 7, photo by REB]


Bronze Copper in Dorchester Co MD [2018 July 7, photo by REB]


Bronze Copper in Dorchester Co MD [2018 July 7, photo by Tom Stock]

Finally blessed with brilliant sunshine — but still a good stiff breeze — we circumnavigated the back roads around Blackwater NWR, paying particular attention to wet or swampy areas with blooming buttonbush, Cephalanthus.  Buttonbush in many places is just coming into bloom, and at various locations we had Rare Skipper, a multitude of Broad-winged Skippers, Appalachian Brown, Common Wood Nymph, and a freshly emerged second-brood Viceroy, among others.  We also had uncommonly good looks at Turk’s-cap Lily and a few other Dorchester botanical notables.

2018JUL07 Rare Skipper dorsal female_MD-Dorchester Co-Decoursey Bridge Rd:Hurlow Creek-Chicamacomico River Quad

Rare Skipper, Dorchester Co., female. [2018 July 7, photo by REB]


A roadside Turk’s-cap Lily along the back roads of Dorchester Co. [2018 July 7, photo by REB]

A stop after hours at the pollinator garden of the new Blackwater NWR visitor center was uneventful despite the abundant nectar there.

With light traffic and still pleasant weather, we opted for a celebratory stop at the Easton Dairy Queen before arriving home just at dark — roughly 15 hours and 340 miles later.

Tom’s notes on our finds are below:

2018 JUL 07 Naturalist photographing King's Hairstreak

Tom in place trying to get a good shot of a restless King’s Hairstreak.

July 7, 2018: Eastern Shore of Maryland, Various Locations

1. Chesapeake Forest,  Worcester County

Zebra Swallowtail (1)
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (2)
Spicebush Swallowtail (2)
Cabbage White (1)
King’s Hairstreak (2)
Red-banded Hairstreak (1)
Red-spotted Purple (1)
Little Wood Satyr (1)

2. Hickory Point Road, Worcester County

Orange Sulphur (1)
Eastern Tailed Blue (5)
Pearl Crescent (3)
Monarch (3)
Horace’s Duskywing (4)
Least Skipper (12)
Sachem (6)
Aaron’s Skipper (5)
Dion Skipper (1)

3. Dorchester County, various locations

Cabbage White (8)
Orange Sulphur (5)
Bronze Copper (3) marsh south of Vienna
Gray Hairstreak (1) marsh south of Vienna
Eastern Tailed Blue (14)
Summer Azure (6)
Pearl Crescent (4)
Red Admiral (5)
Viceroy (3) Decoursey Bridge Road
Common Wood-Nymph (2)
Monarch (common)
Silver-spotted Skipper (4)
Horace’s Duskywing (7)
Least Skipper (common)
Rare Skipper (1) Decoursey Bridge Road
Broad-winged Skipper (abundant) Decoursey Bridge Road
Dion Skipper (1) New Bridge

[+ Appalachian Brown that Tom didn’t get onto well enough to report]

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

1 Response to Lep Scouting on the Eastern Shore

  1. Pingback: Question Mark Death by Tar - The BushWhacking ButterFlyer

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