Wild Ideas: Bobcats, butterflies and the dog days of summer

A white-throated sparrow is a common bird in Virginia in the winter but moves further north in the spring to breed and spend the summer. Photo by Cephas via Wikimedia Commons.
A white-throated sparrow is a common bird in Virginia in the winter but moves further north in the spring to breed and spend the summer. Photo by Cephas via Wikimedia Commons.

The column on my bobcat sighting triggered the biggest response from readers of any column I’ve written. Lots of folks sent me their bobcat stories, some with photos. Thanks to everyone who shared. We obviously are drawn to this beautiful, mysterious cat, maybe because it reminds of us what truly wild looks like.

I always appreciate hearing from my readers, even when they point out an error. An avid birder, which I admittedly am not, was intrigued to read in the column I wrote about the derecho in early July that I saw a pair of white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicoll) mating the day after the storm. It was only then that it clicked for me that the pair of sparrows I saw was unlikely to have been white-throateds, since they are winter residents and go north to breed in the spring.

My sighting of the pair had been brief and from a distance, so my brain apparently had filled in the blanks, having gotten used to seeing white-throateds all winter. More likely these were field sparrows (Spizella pusilla), which are here year round. It is the species whose song I now wake up to and the only sparrows I’ve seen near my house since spring.

One of the keys to accurate species identification is knowing when and where species are likely to occur. Another important point in species ID, at least for someone like me with a poor memory, is to never assume anything – always double-check to avoid the “duh” factor from kicking in.

Species identification came to the forefront again on July 28, when Old Rag Master Naturalists (ORMN) had its second annual butterfly count in Rappahannock, under the auspices of the North American Butterfly Association. Unfortunately, butterflies are most likely to be out and about in the peak heat of summer, the reason the chapter has the count at the end of July, and some health issues kept me going into the field this year. Instead I volunteered to hold the fort at the Washington Town Hall while several dozen volunteers were working up a good sweat out in the field on that hot Saturday.

The count, which covers more than a dozen sites in a circle that is 15 miles in diameter, went well, according to count coordinator Robin Williams, so we’ll have plenty of data to compare to last year’s. We’ll need data over more years to really determine trends, but these first two years will help establish a baseline.

Before the count, Robin and another ORMN member, Julie Connelly, did a short presentation on species identification for new volunteers and anyone needing a refresher course. Once everyone had taken off, I sat outside on the town hall steps and practiced my ID skills.

The Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly is one of several large, dark butterflies common to Virginia. Photo by Daniel Spurgeon via Wikimedia Commons.
The Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly is one of several large, dark butterflies common to Virginia. Photo by Daniel Spurgeon via Wikimedia Commons.

Two gorgeous spicebush swallowtails soon showed to check out the flowers in the large pots there. One of several large, black butterfly species, its splashes of blue on the top of its rear wings and orange spots underneath are important ID points. It lays its eggs on native spicebush, sassafras and other plants in the laurel family, but these two adults were apparently attracted to the nectar in the nonnative red petunias.

Eastern tiger swallowtails, various species of fritillaries and sulphurs and other common butterflies also visited the pots and cruised the flowers growing in yards nearby. And a very large, rusty-brown dragonfly was trolling the area for prey. A catbird, which can mimic sounds, was running through his extensive repertoire in a nearby tree throughout the day.

As we settle into the dog days of summer, natural cycles continue to be unpredictable, as they have been all year. Up on the mountain where I live, the native black raspberries and nonnative wineberries came early and went really rapidly, and the wild blackberries never quite came good. Most are still green, and the ones that do turn black are generally small and sour, so the berry crop was a bit of a bust, a bit disappointment for me, since berries are among my favorite fruits.

Native Joe-Pye weed and narrow-leaf sunflower have been blooming for a couple of weeks along the forest edge, and poke weed is showing its full bloom cycle – from bud to flower, to garish purple berries – often on the same plant. Other wildflowers, natives and nonnative, have shot up in patch along the forest edge that my landlords had cleared of brush to get access to the well pump.

Little blue Asiatic dayflowers, lovely but nonnative and invasive, are blooming there, and what appears to be a species of evening primrose has been opening its blooms in the evening and on cloudy days. Native phlox, introduced common chicory and lacy white flowers in the wild carrot family seem to be in bloom anywhere they can find enough sun.

Small bunnies and birds are also in abundance – indicating the success of this year’s crop of young. Chimney swifts have joined the predators at the lower ponds, where northern green frogs, American bullfrogs, and gray treefrogs have been sounding their mating calls for weeks.

My landlord has just built a nice little deck over one of the open tanks that feed spring water from the mountain into the ponds. The temperature on the deck is a few degrees lower, thanks to water underneath and around it, which is kept cool by a roof that was built over the tanks. Any breeze coming across the tanks is also cooled, so this is a great spot to spend a hot, humid summer afternoon, and there are likely plenty still to come as we move into the dog days of August.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 286 Articles

Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity,” “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”