But I admit, it’s been harder lately. I swear, this has been the longest winter ever, and I’ll cop to wishing a little of it away. While this has been a truly fine winter for seeing some rare winter birds in Hampton Roads, I’m chomping at the bit to roll into spring. I have spring fever so bad my teeth ache!
I’ve been to the Great Dismal Swamp for the last three weekends, trying to hurry spring along. The Swamp is a treasure that we are so lucky to have right here in our own backyard. It covers 112,000 acres of forested wetlands, and is home to everything from Black Bears to Bobcats to 200+ species of birds. The Swamp is my favorite place to go in the spring. Mid-to-late April, May and early June are the most productive times to visit. Bird numbers swell as migration begins, and migrants pass through on their way to points farther north. Resident birds are in full song. The warmer temperatures bring out the bears and other mammals, as well large numbers of insects, reptiles and amphibians.
But, it’s only March. My head knows that Mother Nature will not change the schedule that she has honed to perfection over the past few millenniums just for me. But my heart can’t help it; I desperately want to see a butterfly, a dragonfly --- anything! So off I go to the Swamp.
And, there is life!
The first butterfly I saw at The Swamp this year, in mid-March, was an Eastern Comma. The second was its cousin, the Question Mark. This is not a joke; those are their real names, and my pictures will illustrate why. These two are known as “anglewings” because of the sharp angles and ragged edges of their wings. On the upperwing they look very similar, but on the underwing, look closely and you will see a little white “comma” on the Eastern Comma, and a little white “question mark” on the Question mark.
Both of these guys are quite common in The Swamp. I’ve attracted Questions Marks to my Chesapeake garden by planting hops and a Hackberry tree; these are two of the plants that Question Marks lay their eggs on. The larvae feed on these particular kinds of leaves.
Another early-flying butterfly at The Swamp is the stunning Mourning Cloak. You can stumble upon them in all kinds of habitats early in spring. I saw one at Back Bay last year in January, flying on a warm day.
Henry’s Elfin is a tiny brown butterfly about the size of your thumbnail. If you’re not a butterfly enthusiast, you’ve probably never noticed one. They’re not likely to visit your yard, and they fly early in the spring and are gone by mid-May. But beautiful things come in small packages; when you can get close to one of these tiny jewels, you are rewarded with a beautiful little miracle.
And, what is this? Does anyone out there know about beetles? I saw it yesterday, and it’s so colorful and iridescent that looks like it belongs in the tropics. But here it is, moving about in March in Virginia. Tell me if you know what it is!
It takes time and experience to learn what bird is singing what song, what kinds of butterflies occur here in Virginia, and when and where one can expect to see them. There are two essential components to this learning process: lots of experience out in the field, and studying up before you ever go out. A good field guide will teach you what you might expect to see at a certain time and place, so if you get some knowledge ahead of time, you’re far more likely to recognize what you see when you see it.
I’ve spent hours reading, re-reading and memorizing books and field guides. Hands down, my favorite butterfly book is “Butterflies of the East Coast” by Rick Cech. It’s a large book, one that you would not carry in the field, but it has taught me more about what I can expect to find here in Virginia (and when) than any other book. Kenn Kaufman’s “Field Guide to Butterflies of North America” is a popular general field guide that includes all the butterflies likely to be seen in North America. Both books include range maps so that you can tell at a glance whether a particular butterfly occurs in your particular area. These and many other butterfly books, both local and global, are available for you to check out at the Chesapeake Public Library. Test a few out, and then decide which one suits you the best. You might want to purchase it later for yourself. We’ll discuss other kinds of field guides later on.
I’m not wishing my life away, but, April is right around the corner, and every day, more butterflies, dragonflies, and birds will be wakening in The Swamp and in other places. The first hummingbirds always arrive at my feeders around April 12; Chimney Swifts will be twittering in the skies within a week or two. I’ll tell you about what I see in my next entry.