THROUGH THE WOODS: The beauty of the fields

A clouded sulfur butterfly on an alfalfa blossom. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THIS TIME OF YEAR, as the Northeast summer ends and fall begins, all life is working hard to fatten up, reproduce if it hasn’t yet, produce flowers, seeds, nuts, fruit, and generally get ready for the cold weather to come. I found some huge fields of purple flowered green alfalfa, which are very pretty, and I often stop along these areas to listen and watch for birds. Sparrows love to glean insects and seeds, while the last of the migrating swallows swoop over them to catch the flying insects. Occasionally a few bronzed wild turkeys come along to catch grasshoppers or eat the grass blossoms, or sometimes flocks of Canada Geese will drop down to feed as they travel south.

People rarely realize how much geese like to eat grass, not just corn or grain. When I stopped to look at the purple fields there were literally thousands of yellow butterflies flitting from purple flower to purple flower. It was also exciting to see two or three monarch butterflies. I spent hours watching everything, including a big Red-tailed Hawk in a tree who was probably looking for a rabbit or mouse for its meal, and a doe and twin fawns came out at the field edge. The fawns had lost most of their spots and fed or played at a distance from their mother. They were trying out their independence and mom ignored them, probably happy they weren’t nursing. When they ran, they put up clouds of the yellow butterflies which became more yellow as the sun started to set.

I am not a butterfly expert so I tried to take photos so I could look them up when I got home. From my cell phone I learned they probably belonged to a group called “sulphurs.” From there they were narrowed down to what can be found in our area, which turned out to be the 1 to 1-and-a-1/2-inch Colias philodice, commonly called clouded sulphurs. They love to gather at mud puddles to drink and feed on minerals. There is quite a variety of shades of color of these butterflies from almost white with pink edged wings to bright, dark yellow. As the light shines on or through the wings they can have a slightly darker border.

Being retired is nice because I have the hours to study and photograph these details. The adults get nectar from alfalfa and clover blossoms and some other flowers and in turn pollinate the plants, then use these as host plants where they lay their eggs. After a few days, the small green larva (caterpillars) with a white stripe running along each side of the body develop and start eating the plants. The white stripes may contain bars or lines of pink or orange. The chrysalis stage overwinters, and the adult butterfly emerges in the early summer. The average lifespan of the adult butterfly is 5-7 days.

My first memory of watching a butterfly was my mother using a butterfly net to capture a lovely yellow swallowtail in our yard at the farm. She put it in a lidded glass jar with a cotton ball soaked in chloroform. After it fluttered and died, she used a straight pin to mount it to a piece of cardboard. This was sad, and I am much happier to use a camera to “capture” them and leave them to their life in the field.

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