Change of Command: Summer visitors give way to natives – Monarch to Sulphur

"Let's celebrate," said one Sulphur to another. "We've got the place to ourselves!" But the reply came back - "Not now, farmer boy, you're too late." Or so I can imagine.

Bren looked at the two butterflies above as they fluttered skyward near the south beach and assumed they were Monarchs – and with good reason. They do give off a significant tint of orange and black.  But if you click on the image and look closely you will see they are Sulphurs and the orange tint is a sign that they are probably Alfalfa Sulphurs, not the Clouded Sulphur I had assumed they were. (The Alfalfa Sulphur is also known as the Orange Sulphur.) I believe the top one is a female and the other is a male and I think she is trying to get away from him, but it is pure assumption on my part that it is because it is too late in the season to mate.

On amore general note, it looks like the summer visitors have left and the place belongs to the natives once again. At least, that’s the way it seems. Truth is, the campers have pretty much abandoned the Horseneck camp ground – hmmm . . . maybe it’s closed now?  The shore bird populations certainly seems to be changing, though I really don’t know for sure yet who’s a transient and who stays on, but I am pretty sure about the Monarchs – they’re all but gone.

What I consider Monarch Haven – the goldenrod  in the patch of ground between the marsh and the south beach, didn’t have a single Monarch on it Tuesday afternoon when Bren and I and Eliza and Higgins passed through – but it had a wealth of Sulphurs.  They’re the ubiquitous yellow butterfly that we frequently see just about anywhere on Gooseberry, basking in the Sun with their wings folded . Only, I never really took note of the patterns on their unfolded wings – quite glorious – and not only that, it turns out there are three different varities that I may have been seeing all along and didn’t know it.

But before getting to the Sulphurs – and they’re quite a clan – I wanted to  share a few shots of the last stand – or last hang out – of the Monarchs. It really is incredible to see these guys on a cool October morning before they have had a chance to heat up their little engines.  I was out there October 7  with my friend Don Douglas – it was about 45-50 degrees –  and here’s what we saw.

Count 'em - there were a baker's dozen jammed on the top of one Goldenrod plant - and there were several batches like this, plus some in pairs and singles. In the space of 10 minutes we easily saw 50, though that was about half what I had seen a day or two before.

More Monarchs hanging out in the cool morning air.

They seemed oblivious to visitors walkingup for a close look - but then, most of them couldn't fly. Their bodies simply weren't warm enough yet.

OK – so the monarch will still be out here as a few stragglers head south, but I think the big wave has passed. Still, the more-or-less permanent residents – which includes some of the Sulphurs – seemed to be in greater numbers than usual. Maybe it was simply the time of day and the temperature – and maybe I just didn’t pay them enough attention when the Monarchs were here. But there were over a dozen seen in about 10 minutes and that was downright pretty. Their flight is a little easier to follow, though I had never gotten a close look – or a picture – of their spread wings before and  at first it threw me a bit.  Here’s what I’m used to seeing when it comes to the Clouded Sulphur.

This is the underside of the Clouded Sulphur wings - the way we frequently see them. They're quite distinctive and can be white, a pale yellow, or have an orange or greenish tinge. Notice this one is competing with a bee for the Goldenrod nectar.

Looking at the underside of the wing there is only the faintest hint of what’s topside.  But I was lucky and caught a few in flight, including this one. (The yellow ones can be either sex – the Clouded Sulphur that tends more to white is a female, but females can be yellow as well. )

Clouded Suphur in flight. Notice the black trim on the wings with spots in it? That indicates a female, male's black trim is solid. It's quite a beautiful beastie!

OK, back to that first picture.  The Stokes butterfly book says that when you see a pair in rising flight it is usually a male trying to seduce a female and the female is saying no by going higher.  In this case the topside utterfly has black trim with spots, so I would say it is the female,w hile the one below it has black trim that is solid,s o it’s a male.

But what get’s really interesting is the way the Clouded Sulphur female can reject a suitor of a slightly different variety – the Alfalafa or Orange Sukphur.  Butterflies can see ultraviolet light – we can’t. And the male Alfalfa Sulphur reflects much more ultraviolet light then the male Clouded Sulphur does.  Yes, they could mate – and that’s what can make identifying butterflies complicated!  The more I look at the pictures of the Clouded Sulphur vs the Alfalfa the more ocnfused I get 😉 The third one that might be up here, but is far more common in the South, is the Dog Face Sukphur and that has a distinctive black pattern on the wing that outlines what some see as a dog face.   (Thanks to “The Butterfly Book” by Donald and Lillian Stokes/Ernest Williams for this explanation!)

Radiating in ultraviolet, a male Alfalfa Sulphur pursues a female .

Here’s a closer look at the Alfalfa Sulphu – I think. This is a male and to me has an orange tint.

Male Alfalfa Sulphur - note the solid black trim on the wings.

Ruff! Ruff! Eliza and Higgins, our Cockapoos, would  like this next butterfly the best!

OK, and here are a couple more Sulphurs - but which?

I thought the top butterfly pictured abovc might be the Dog Face Sulphur because the black wing pattern seems more complex than I expect in the Clouded or Alfalfa Sukphur – but I am not at all sure. The Dog Face really does have a distinctive pattern and this just doesn’t quite make it. Maybe it’s a hybrid?  Well, there are two here – enlarge the picture by clicking on it for a better look. The lower one is a male and there my certainty ends. And here’s a second picture of the same two.

That's the one with the more complicated wing pattern on the lam off to the left.

There are other Sulphurs as well, but these two – or three – seems to be the ones we would expect to see here. As I do a web search and find all the variations and confusing pictures – and perhaps erroneous designations – I start to question my own sanity. Why not just sit back and enjoy them. Not everything has to be labelled to be appreciated!

So check out this last sequence, taken near the towers. In it we get a white variation and I think it’s another female/male “hit the road Jack”  encounter. But you decide.


Sulphur - note how white it gets as wings open.

Sulphur encounter.

No date!

Sulphur - so much to know, so much more to experience! What a planet!

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2 Responses to Change of Command: Summer visitors give way to natives – Monarch to Sulphur

  1. Daphne says:

    Learnt a lot about the Sulphurs. Don’t know whether we have all these Down Under, but I’m sure going to look when summer is here.

  2. Bradie Metheny says:

    Fantastically beautiful. Don I am sorry I missed you the first time around when I looked at these pictures. Greg this is a wonderful post to educate those of us who appreciate these magnificent creatures …but know so little about them.

    Thanks for doing this

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