Late-summer changes in full view for all

  • It’s a boom year for painted lady butterflies, migrants from Mexico like monarch butterflies but not as well known. Some years there are few to none, but not so this year. When the sun shines, the Harris Center’s pollinator garden reliably hosts the ladies, including this visitor a few weeks ago. Francie Von Merten

Thursday, September 07, 2017 6:55AM

We’ve been away just about a week and returned to so many changes that are easy to miss on a day-by-day basis. Flowers, vegetables and weeds marched along in our absence, and our one barn swallow family departed.

Hawks are beginning to head south as the fall hawkwatch season begins. More about that later – including the mid-month “Big Day” up at New Hampshire Audubon’s local hawkwatch.

When the sun comes out, pollinators will be busy in our gardens, visiting the asters’ first blooms – planted as late-summer food for native bees, the heavy-lifters when it comes to pollination.

And for butterflies – they’re not top pollinators, but they bring such pleasure to the world.

We were in coastal Maine where the summer has been dry, with brown lawns everywhere while Texas drowns. A niece lives in Houston. We received updates during the week.

As I wander the yard, exploring a week’s changes, I can’t imagine it flooded with toxic waters. So sickening in all senses.

We saw the two butterflies so notable this summer: monarchs in good numbers compared to recent very lean years; and so many painted lady butterflies.

The joke with granddaughter Hayden involved painted gentlemen. What about them?

Male monarchs can be identified by a black scent patch on each hindwing, visible if you know to look. They emit chemical scents (pheromones) that likely help females recognize male as a monarch. “Likely” is the key word here. All species accounts mention the patch but few explain its purpose. Typically females, monarch females included, are the ones that produce pheromones that lure males.

The male’s scent patch remains a mystery.

As for painted ladies, they’re everywhere. If you see more than one or two butterflies of the same species, it’s the ladies – male and female as there’s no ready way to tell them apart.

Every handful of years, painted ladies errupt north from Mexico, a population boom in a boom-or-bust annual cycle. It’s a worldwide phenomenon for this most widespread butterfly of all, often called the “cosmopolitan.”

Visit the Harris Center’s pollinator garden on a sunny day and you’ll likely see a bunch. The garden is in full glory now, definitely worth a visit – on a sunny day.

I talked some pals into visiting a butterfly garden on Mount Desert in Maine and forgot about the sun factor. It was a foggy Maine morning.

The painted lady shown here (in full sun) is nectaring on pollinator-popular echinaceas at the Harris Center. I hope every reader is familiar with the Harris Center in Hancock, its many field trips, teacher naturalists in local schools and naturalist presentations and projects. The garden was created in a former swimming pool, small in size but big with pollinators on flowers chosen because they’re pollinator magnets.

September brings hawks crowding the skies for possibly the greatest local natural show there is – if you’re at the right place at the right time to catch the flights of broad-winged hawks that reach seemingly uncountable numbers.

One right place is local: New Hampshire Audubon’s fall hawkwatch at Miller State Park, atop Pack Monadnock, staffed Sept. 1 through mid-November.

Warm mid-September days are best as sun warms Earth in shimmering, rising heat waves that carry hawks high in swirling eddies. The numbers increase to a handful of peak days, and you can track the trend online to help determine the best days to keep eyes to the sky. Search “hawkcount.org Pack Monadnock” and click on “latest count data” to see the daily numbers plus predictions for the coming day or days.

Katrina Fenton staffs the site for New Hampshire Audubon and enters numbers plus a narrative with predictions each evening. (She’s spelled by Iain MacLeod on Mondays and Henry Walters on Tuesdays.)

Mass flights of broad-winged hawks are the crowd pleasers, but over a dozen other raptors offer interest: lone ospreys or eagles drifting by, a peregrine falcon powering through, or the smallest falcon, an American kestrel, just above the treetops on rapid butterfly wingbeats.

And always there’s good company: Katrina, Iain and Henry, and others that know the pleasures of the watch. It’s a welcoming group, eager to share the pleasures and to hear “Wow” and “Oh my god” from newcomers – my favorite words up there.

The hawkwatch’s annual Big Day celebration is Sept. 16, with a 1 p.m. release of rehabilitated raptors back to their wild world. Lots of people know to be there, so arrive early and take the summit shuttle provided.

Of course the day is timed to coincide with the big flights, with all fingers crossed for favorable weather that triggers them.

Wherever you are mid-month, especially if a cold or rainy front passes, look up. You just might see swirling crowds of hawks riding thermal lift high before setting wings for a long glide south.

On Sept. 19 from 9 a.m. to noon, I’ll be taking a group up the south side of Crotched Mountain to Blueberry Ridge for great views across the valley. We’ll walk the Rehabilitation Center’s Gregg Trail, a moderate rise, with eyes to the sky for hawks and to trailside for blackberries and any other natural treasures.

Meet at the trailhead just beyond the Rehab Center’s entrance on Crotched Mt. Road in Greenfield, off Route 31. Return by noon. Binoculars and snacks are a good idea.

Either day, hawkwatch or hike, come on along.