Red Butte Canyon Lep Observations, First Day of Spring 2015

Since I couldn’t go caterpillar hunting with Todd today, I did the next best thing and ventured to Red Butte Canyon to see what might be going on there. As I don’t have a net, the plan was to look for larvae and/or eggs, not expecting to find much. At the very least I would have a nice walk. I’m fond of this canyon because it’s easily accessible, there are lots of side trails, and the main trail is short (must be only about half a mile). Not to mention that there are always plenty of dogs and few bikers. The habitat is a combination of dry grassy hills with scrub oak (actually Gambel’s oak) and varied deciduous trees along the creek. There are good patches of meadow with typical local wildflowers. At the end of the trail is a charming hollow where a footbridge crosses the creek and leads to the Natural History Museum and the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. Strategically placed rocks allow you to sit in the shade and listen to the water gurgle, the birds sing, and people chatter while watching for moisture-loving butterflies which no one else notices.

I got to the canyon about 9:30 a.m. and at first saw nothing. The abundant Lomatium in the area was sprouting but not yet up to a foot high. The few plants I pulled up had no swallowtail eggs or larvae. I also casually checked some oak twigs, but they were not leafed out at all and my lazy looking found nothing there either. Pink phlox was in bloom on the hills, along with a small pink-flowered plant that I don’t know but is a very common wildflower here in Utah in the spring (Astragalus sp.? Cranesbill type?)

The first lep I saw was the very common early moth which I believe is Litocala sexsignata. It has butterfly-like behavior and the first time I saw it I mistook it for a duskywing. It lights with its wings at an angle and likes to be in the part shade around the edge of oak thickets. After seeing a number of these, I saw a much larger dusky-yellow flash at about chest height (the moths stay nearer the ground). I thought perhaps it was an Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon) but lost sight of it among the oaks. Some time later I noticed a flash of orange, about crescent size, but again couldn’t follow it. By this time I was at the end of the trail and decided to hang out at the bridge to see what might turn up there. Sure enough, a large dark shape floated by and lit close enough to me to identify a handsome Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). He took charge of the area in typical Mourning Cloak fashion, circling around and lighting here and there. Something looking like an anglewing passed by but didn’t stop.

I began to wander back toward the trailhead, and with the temperature warming up I began seeing definite Anise Swallowtails and crescents. The crescents were Mylittas (Phyciodes mylitta) and Field Crescents (Phyciodes pulchella). They were teeming over a large patch of Gambel’s oak that had the sun on it. Every one of these butterflies was absolutely jewel-fresh and a joy to view. The light areas on the wings of the Field Crescents positively glowed against the offsetting black background. Among the numerous crescents were one or two anglewings that I believe were Satyr Commas (Polygonia satyrus). The sun turned them a lustrous gold especially on the hindwings. A few of the crescents chased these larger butterflies, but they kept coming back. The attraction was what I took for “oak flowers”–however, what I saw didn’t compare to online images of oak buds or flowers. They were tight clumps of pinhead-size buds, with the whole clump being only about a centimeter long. They were clustered at the tips of twigs where buds would be. Picking a few off, I certainly couldn’t see anything that looked like a flower bud, but there was perhaps a liquid substance in it. Certainly the butterflies (and the moths) were feeding on them avidly.

Continuing on toward the trailhead and my car, I saw a couple of whites (one Anthocharis and one unidentified) and a light-colored sulfur or two. Conforming to my experience with pierids, all of these butterflies had the attitude of “Catch me if you can, I’ve got places to go,” so I was only able to get a close look at the one Orangetip. While trying unsuccessfully to sneak up on the other white, I did see a Dreamy Duskywing (Erynnis icelus), the only butterfly all day that looked as if it might have lost a few scales. These pierids were not so interested in the oaks but were happier with some mule’s-ears that had just opened.

It was well after 11 a.m. when I left, without livestock or specimens of any kind and without even photos, but with a very satisfying morning of lepidopterous observations. I couldn’t have asked for more!

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