Monday, June 8, 2015

Great Smoky Mountains butterflies

We spent a lovely weekend at Deep Creek, near Bryson City NC. The creek flings itself down from summits in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park towards the valley of the Tuckasegee River.We were about 1,500 feet above sea level, well below the 5,000-6,000 foot summits nearby. Mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia) were in bloom at all altitudes.

We only saw rhododendrons at the tops of the mountains, where early bumblebee workers were foraging. I was interested to see the humble bumbles, since I've signed up to help find mountain bumblebees next month (July) as part of the Bumblebee Megatransect. This is an effort to use citizen science to help find some of our rapidly dwindling Bombus species in the Appalachian mountains.

Along the sides of Deep Creek there are numerous seeps where butterflies congregate to sip mineral-laden water. The park paths host horse as well as humans, so there are places with strong organic enrichment of the seeps. We frequently saw groups of Silver Spotted Skippers (Epargyreus clarus) and Spring Azure (Celestrina ladon) butterflies together, sometimes in large numbers.
At one favored spots the azures and skippers were joined by a Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) showing off its beautiful imitation of a poisonous pipevine swallowtail.

So, if you are making a pollinator garden, try to include a place where damp soils or sand is available to butterflies. You may be surprised at the variety of beautiful species you can get - I've seen dozens of Tiger Swallowtails drinking from the edges of  a damp spot.