Great Egret

Great Egret

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Backyard Wildlife

With the recent hot and humid weather, I found it difficult to spend much time outside. So it was great to have a variety of plants in the back yard to attract wildlife. I can get out for brief periods, and head back to the A/C when necessary.

The drier than normal conditions have not been conducive for a lot of butterfly activity, as anyone who has participated in recent butterfly counts will be aware. Marie noted in her facebook entry of 5 years ago on this date, that we had 7 species in our yard that day. This year I've only seen about a dozen species all season! But there has been some interesting action on the butterfly front.

One day I noted a male, and then a female, Black Swallowtail. The male was busily feeding on milkweed, while the female was searching for a place to lay eggs on the dill. At one point, I saw her lay an egg and was able to pick it out from the edge of a dill leaf. Out came the camera with 100 mm macro lens as well as all the extension tubes. This first image is of an egg, and it is barely one mm in diameter. I didn't notice until later, that there was an even tinier aphid type critter on another dill leaf, just a bit lower and to the left of the egg.

I watched it for a few days, and then one day it disappeared. Thinking that something had come along and picked it off, I figured I wouldn't see any larva, but then I read where upon hatching, it then consumes what is left of the egg. A few days later, I saw a tiny larva on the dill. At this point, it is quite dark, except for a light-coloured saddle across its middle, and is between 5-10 mm in length.
 The 'saddle' gradually disappears as it goes through several instars, or stages.
 It has a voracious appetite.
Once it gets looking like this, with the saddle all gone, it disappears from the dill plant and looks for a suitably obscure place to form a chrysalis or pupa. The pupa is hard to find if it is left in the wild.
During the early part of the season, after a couple of weeks more or less, it will emerge as an adult. Pupae that are formed in the late part of the season will overwinter as such, and emerge in the spring.

Monarchs, too, have been in the yard.
The egg is laid on the underside of a young milkweed leaf. It is slightly oblong, is about the same diameter as that of a Black Swallowtail and has slight grooves from top to bottom.
After a few days, a caterpillar hatches out, and feeds voraciously on milkweed leaves. In my experience, they seem to prefer Common Milkweed over most of the other milkweed species. I have over 100 milkweed plants in the yard, hoping to attract lots of Monarchs. However the numbers have been down this year throughout their range, due to an unfortunate severe weather event just as they were leaving their Mexican wintering ground, where an estimated half of the population died off. The two caterpillars in this next image left the milkweed plant the next day, presumably to find a suitable place to form their chrysalis.

Other butterflies have been through the yard, including Red-spotted Purples.

Silver-spotted Skippers
 Question Marks
 Red Admirals
 and the ubiquitous Cabbage Whites, plus others. There isn't a day that goes by without at least one or two Cabbage Whites around.
 And at least some of them lay eggs, hatch larvae and get to the pupal stage, as shown next.
 This next image shows one just emerging from the pupa.

With so many plants in the yard, there is lots of other invertebrate action, often around one of the milkweed plants. This next image shows the Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus), a fairly large wasp often found on milkweeds.
An even larger and more formidable looking one is the Great Black Wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus), shown next. Its body can be up to 35 mm long, and looks menacing. However in its frantic flight, it is expending energy either looking for nectar or looking for katydids. These wasps specialize in capturing katydids and other members of the Orthopteran (grasshopper) group. After capturing one, they sting them to paralyze them and then deposit them at the end of a tunnel under ground where the adult wasp lays an egg. The paralyzed katydid will live for a few days until the wasp larva emerges from the egg to feed on the katydid.

Apparently they very seldom sting people, unless they are handled, and so it is purely a defensive action if they do sting. In fact with so many plants providing sources of nectar, the yard is sometimes quite a-buzz with bees and bee-like critters. I always move slowly, so as to not threaten them. I often can use a macro lens and flash for them, and they don't seem to be bothered a bit.
 Milkweed beetles abound.
 One other attractive, although not desirable critter if you have squash or similar vegetables, is the Squash Vine Borer.

Mayflies did not seem to be as abundant as some years, although some were around.

A few dragonflies passed through, such as this female Blue Dasher, either for a rest or on the search for other flying insects that would do for a meal.

Wildlife action isn't limited to invertebrates. House Wrens like the abundance of insects in our yard. This family group was busy in our yard for weeks while feeding themselves and eventually their young. I suspect some of the small caterpillar larvae disappeared from the plants I was watching them on and went down the hatch of the youngsters in the wren box.

What's in your back yard?


  1. Allen, great back yard observations during these dog days of summer. I have a new yard with a sterile monoculture of Strathroy Sod. But, I already have two areas dedicated to prairie perennials. I will have to followup with your closing question - Whats in your back yard? -DM (PS: Samuel L Jackson has a tagline for Citibank Mastercard --- Whats in your wallet?) Just had to mention that. lol

    1. Thanks, Dwayne. Hopefully your newly acquired back yard will develop a good variety of flora and fauna over time.
      Yes....I recalled the S. L. Jackson tagline as I was adding my version to this seemed appropriate :-).

  2. It is interesting what one finds in the backyard once you get looking. I am always on the lookout!

  3. Indeed...the more vegetation diversity, the more wildlife diversity!

  4. You've certainly got more butterflies than we've seen this year. But we have deer, groundhogs, rabbits, red squirrels and chipmunks, the smallest of which of course are the noisiest!