What Is That … Northern Beastie?

Waddells

At last, warmer, spring weather has arrived and the ice has gone from White Lake.  As we were shivering and waiting impatiently for cottage weather, we were reminded that we live in a northern climate.   Other reminders are the common names of some plants, insects and other animals we observe at White Lake.  We have talked about a number of ‘northern’ beasties in previous articles, including the northern broken-dash skipper butterfly, northern flicker, northern leopard frog, northern paper wasp, northern water snake and northern waterthrush.  We want to share with you some additional ‘northern’ beasties we expect to see now that the warmer weather has arrived.

We start in the plant kingdom.  The northern blue flag is a member of the iris family.  This herbaceous perennial plant grows from rhizomes, a prostrate underground storage organ with numerous growing points.  Flags grow erect stems that can reach 80 centimeters in height and form large colonies along shorelines, in marshes, swamps and wet meadows.  The leaves are sword-shaped and usually grow as high as the flower stems.  The large six to eight centimeter wide flowers are actually made up of three downwardly curving petal-like sepals (termed falls) and three upward pointing petals that are violet to blue and occur June to July.  If you become hungry while viewing these flowers beware – the rhizomes are poisonous.  This colony of plants is right beside our cottage.

Next we turn to the world of butterflies.  The northern cloudywing is a member of the Skipper family.  This butterfly has a wing span ranging from 28 to 38 millimeters and flies at our cottage from May to July.  The brown-coloured adults inhabit open woodlands and fields where they feed on nectar of various flowering plants.  The caterpillar is green to brown in colour with minute pale spots and two pale lateral lines on each side.  The caterpillars feed on clover, vetch and other legumes.  Mature caterpillars overwinter in a leaf nest.  This adult was feeding on blueweed at the roadside near our cottage.

A member of the Brushfoots family of butterflies that we frequently see around the cottage is the northern crescent.  This orange and black butterfly has a wing span of 25 to 35 millimeters.  One distinctive feature that distinguishes them from other crescent butterflies is the orange tip of their antennae.  We typically find these butterflies during June and July in the open areas and ditches along the road side at our cottage where they are active mudpuddlers which means they sip moisture from mud puddles to acquire nutrients which aid in sexual maturation.  Caterpillars feed on various species of asters that are common along roadsides at White Lake.  They over winter as caterpillars which are brown with lighter brown or grey spines.  This male butterfly was resting on the roadside near the cottage.

The northern pearly-eye also is a member of the family of Brushfoots.   These butterflies have a wing span of 43 to 45 millimeters.  The upper side of their wings are dark brown with three to four black and yellow rimmed spots on the forewings and five spots on the hindwings.  These spots are also visible on the light brown undersides of the wings where most of the spots have an inner white spot.  We most often see the adults, from late June to early August in the dense understory of deciduous and mixed forest nearby.  They feed on sap and moisture from dung and mud.  This species also overwinters as caterpillars.  The caterpillars are green with yellow stripes along the body, two pink ‘tails’ and red horns on the head. The caterpillars feed primarily on woodland grasses.  These upper and under wing photos were taken beside our cottage.  What a thrill to see these beautiful butterflies!

We end this survey of northern beasties around White Lake with a member of the warbler family of birds, the northern parula.  This is one of the smallest but most colourful warblers we see at the cottage, weighing up to 8.6 grams with blue-grey, greenish and yellow plumage.  These small birds can be difficult to observe as they forage for insects in the upper most branches of mature trees.  Often the only way to know they are present is to hear their song which experts describe as a rising buzz with a final sharp note zeeeee-up.  This female was photographed while hiding in dense woods along our cottage road.

We relied on the following sources for preparing this article: T. Dickinson et al’s The ROM Field Guide to Wildflowers of Ontario; P. Hall et al’s The ROM Field Guide to Butterflies of Ontario; C. Earley’s Warblers of the Great Lakes Region & Eastern North America; and, D. Sibley’s The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.