If “birding’ is now the accepted verbiage for bird-watching, then “bugging” must also be an okay description for my recently acquired interest in the orders Lepidoptera (butterflies & moths) and Odonata (dragonflies & damselflies), of the Class Insecta and Phylum Arthropoda. Several years ago while birding with talented guides in Cape Cod and Cape May I was impressed with their ability to identify insects that flew by and their knowledge about their life cycles, migratory habits, etc. But it all makes sense–you are outside, enjoying our natural world, and can’t always find a bird, especially in the dog days. Why not branch out and learn about the bugs. After all many fly, are quite beautiful, a food source for many birds, and have compelling life stories of their own. I’m mainly talking about butterflies, moths, dragonflies, and damselflies.
Until recently I did not fully comprehend the complete Monarch Butterfly migration story. We’ve all heard that they migrate great distances each fall, but that is only partly, 25%, true. As you probably know the adults lay their eggs on the milkweed plant only and undergo metamorphosis through larva, pupa, and adult stages. What I didn’t know was that the complete cycle occurs over 3 generations each spring and summer, with the adults mating and dying soon after laying eggs. Only the fourth generation of Monarchs, born in the late summer and fall migrates to the Carolinas, Florida, and Mexico, and returns north in the Spring. It must be the goal of every Monarch to be in that special fourth generation and enjoy a chance to see the world.
Photography has also given us butterfly chasers a much improved image. We no longer have to be the nerds following butterflies through the fields with our nets and no longer have to pin the dead bugs to our displays. Butterfly photography gives us wonderful chances to capture these creatures, posed on colorful plants and flowers, and the ability to display and share our collections digitally. My only issue is the need to back up to be able to focus with my 400mm birding lens. Its another argument for that new 100-400 zoom.
Butterflies are the colorful Ferrari of the Lepidoptera order and moths are the less flashy Chevrolet. A couple field observations help one to differentiate them. The butterflies generally hold their wings upright over their body when at rest and have a small knob at the end of the antenna. The moth wings are usually open and flat at rest and its antennae lack the knob. There are other anatomic and behavioral differences. The butterflies are attracted to mates by sight (hence their evolved beauty), while moths choose based on smell. Moths have ears for hearing, while butterflies have none. Butterflies depend on the sun for warmth, while moths flap their wings to generate heat.
Some butterflies are toxic to birds and other predators. The Monarch’s larval stage stores poisonous glycosides and birds learn to avoid the butterflies with the Monarch pattern. Other edible butterflies have evolved similar colorful patterns to fool the birds. It doesn’t always work.
The Order Odonata is divided into Suborders Anisoptera (Dragonflies) and Zygoptera (Damselflies). The Dragonflies are the more stocky and generally larger bugs with eyes almost meeting at the top of the head. Their wings are held open at rest. The Damselflies are longer and slender with distinctly separate eyes on each side of the head. Their wings are closed at rest. Both eat insects and breed only in fresh water.
As a child I had a fear of dragonflies, I think shared by others. Maybe I can blame it on my father. I vividly remember him taking me and several other children rowing across a small pond at the summer church school picnic. The hot humid air was filled with swarming dragonflies. He told us to keep our mouths open wide or else the dragonflies would sew our lips together. It must have been quite a scene with this boatload of kids, all with mouths agape, and my father smugly enjoying some quiet time in the boat.
I was at the end of a long hot trek through the wonderful Pickering Creek Audubon Center near Easton, Maryland. Birds were smart enough to lay low and avoid the heat and this birder was looking forward to the AC in the truck. The trail to the parking lot winds past the large freshwater pond and I was treated to the sight of dozens of Common White Tail Skimmers feeding and mating, reminding me that a day birding is never wasted. There’s always something to see and photograph.