Wild Ideas: Species that light up late summer

White wood asters are now blooming in the forest.
White wood asters are now blooming in the forest. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

I’ve been so busy recently that summer almost ran past me. I finally wandered around and took stock of nature’s progress the first week of September.

At my house, down by the lower ponds, I found butterflies nectaring on the last of the joe-pye weed blossoms. New York ironweed, spotted jewelweed, narrowleaf sunflower and a few other late-summer bloomers were still hanging in there and attracting their fair share of pollinators — and their predators, including dragonflies and damselflies.

In my yard, in a small garden dominated by goldenrod, the golden blooms just started popping open last week, with lovely native smooth blue asters (Aster laevis) now adding their accents. A favorite of deer, the asters have been enjoying their location, which rarely is invaded by deer. These browsers usually just pass through the property by way of the driveway.

In open spaces, native smooth blue asters add cool accents to the warm yellow of goldenrod.
In open spaces, native smooth blue asters add cool accents to the warm yellow of goldenrod. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

While butterflies are not as interested in goldenrod as in other native flowers, scores of other small insects are, including bees, wasps, flies, bugs and beetles — and their predators. I found a large Chinese mantis and a gorgeous, tiny arrow-shaped micrathena spider, a female, on the goldenrod. I probably wouldn’t have seen the spider except for her bright yellow-and-black abdomen, covered in spines, which blended in with the blossoms around her but contrasted with the green stem she was perched on.

White-banded crab spiders are likely to show up on the goldenrod soon, as they have in past years. Although I keep looking each year, I have yet to find another spider in this genus, the goldenrod crab spider. Named for its preferred host plant, it is the largest and most-recognizable flower spider. Crab spiders are ambush predators. They can change their color to a great extent over time, blending in with the flowers on which they lie in wait for their prey.

A couple of new volunteer wild phlox are also blooming at the edges of the goldenrod garden, in front of the last of the butterfly milkweed blossoms. In the pollinator garden, a few yards away, a few more young wild phlox bloom, while the mature plants they came from in that garden have gone to seed, as has the cardinal flower, mountain mint and coneflower.

In open spots along the forest edge, and in the old vegetable garden (now a tree nursery), pale-yellow evening primrose is blooming. Two native sunflowers — Jerusalem artichoke and narrow-leaved sunflower — lend a warm glow to open areas along the forest edge. And on woodland trails where I live and in Shenandoah National Park, delicate little white wood asters (Aster divaricatus) are popping open everywhere.

At night, fall crickets and katydids are still in full chorus, and a barred owl and a screech owl have been calling up in the woods above my house, adding a sometimes startling counterpoint to the chatter and hum of the insects. At the upper pond, deep in the forest, the amphibians have left a bit early, probably because the water level dropped suddenly and mysteriously a few weeks ago.

Judging by the behavior and decreasing numbers of the ruby-throated hummingbirds visiting my nectar feeders, the current visitors are probably migrants coming in from the north, fueling up on their way south for the winter. The hummers that bred here seem to have already left — the males by mid-July, with most of the females sticking around until the last couple of weeks.

The red admiral butterfly only resorts to eating flower nectar when fermenting fruit, sap flows on trees and bird droppings are not available.
The red admiral butterfly only resorts to eating flower nectar when fermenting fruit, sap flows on trees and bird droppings are not available. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Now that most of the swallowtail butterflies’ favorite nectar plants in my gardens are done blooming, these large Lepidoptera have been dispersing to other plants. I see some on the sunflowers around the edge of the yard, on a nonnative sedum that having a spectacular bloom this year (in a planter at a corner of my house) and up in the trees.

I’m now seeing three smaller butterfly species that are not so interested in nectar: red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis), red admiral and eastern comma. The RSP is not big on nectar, although it will occasionally dine on that produced by small white flowers, including spiraea, privet and viburnum, according to the Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA) website. RSPs’ preferred fare consists of less-lovely, but nutritious, foods: sap flows on trees, rotting fruit, carrion and dung.

From inside my house one day, I even watched one RSP touching its tongue to a window screen. Something tasty (dead bug?) must have been on it. This butterfly’s coloring mimics that of the larger, poisonous pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor), which offers the smaller butterfly some protection from predators.

The red admiral (Vanessa atalanta), which is about the same size and in the same butterfly family (Nymphalidae) as the RSP, has totally different coloring. While red admirals will nectar on common milkweed, red clover, aster and alfalfa, among other flowering plants, according to BAMONA, they prefer a diet similar to the RSP’s: sap flows on trees, fermenting fruit and bird droppings — “visiting flowers only when these are not available.”

Although both of these butterfly species produce two broods from March through October and may overwinter as chrysalises, the red admiral cannot survive the coldest winters, according to BAMONA, and “most of North America must be recolonized each spring by southern migrants.”

The eastern comma, about the same size and in the same family as the other two butterflies, is quite cold-hardy. It is one of the earliest butterflies to appear in the spring and one of the last to disappear in the fall. Its ability to be out so early and late is also tied to its food preferences: rotting fruit and tree sap. I’ve also seen them on carrion and on pet-food dishes I’ve left outside.

While the commas are fairly easy to get close to, the other two Nymphalidae are not, as I found during several frustrating attempts to get photos of them for this column. They rarely stay in one place for long, perhaps because the food they like is mostly on the ground, making them more vulnerable to predation reptiles, terrestrial amphibians, and small mammals as well as birds. I finally managed to get a few shots of an obliging red admiral as it moved from a ladder to an old bench that were up against my house.

© 2015 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 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.”