I hiked the Byron Shutz Nature Trail here at Powell Gardens on Saturday, January 5. Our official weather station said it was 62F! The trail is sloppy from this thaw over a low of +6F earlier this week, but still a great hike if you wear appropriate footwear.
On the north side of the native prairie remnant just north of the gas line crossing (butterfly hilltopping interpretive sign) I saw my first butterfly of the season. It flushed up from the prairie and flew about 30 feet before landing. It was obviously groggy and began opening and closing its wings and then positioned itself to warm up in sun. It was a female Goatweed Leafwing! I enjoyed watching her with close focusing binoculars and was tempted to pick her up but let her be. Goatweed Leafwings are one of five species of butterflies that overwinter as adult butterflies here. There are no eggs, caterpillars or chrysalises — just the adult butterflies out there now and they will begin mating and egg laying when the goatweeds (a native annual) germinate in midspring.
Other butterfly species including the Mourning Cloak, Question Mark, Eastern Comma and Gray Comma overwinter here as adult butterflies. Yes, they freeze solid and come back to life! They appreciate brush piles, log piles, loose bark or similar situations to find winter quarters. All these butterflies can be seen flying on warm sunny winter days just like this weekend and the hilltop portion of our nature trail is one of the best places to see them. Most butterflies overwinter here as chrysalises, quite a few as caterpillars and a few species of our hairstreak butterflies overwinter as eggs.
The Goatweed Leafwing is one of my favorite butterflies and Powell Gardens is one of the best places to see them anywhere. We have lots of wild goatweed growing on our prairie ridge and the male butterflies like to go the highest point around to stake out a territory to attract a mate. Many species of butterflies do this; it’s called hilltopping. If you are a butterfly and looking for love, fly to the highest point around! The males are brilliant velvety orange above and look just like a dead leaf with their wings closed. Hence their name is a combination of this cryptic leaf-like wing pattern and the butterfly’s food (host) plant. Males will fly out and investigate anything orange that passes by. The females are a more modest orange above with a band of yellow-orange on their forewing.
Come out and enjoy a hike on the Byron Shutz Nature Trail here at Powell Gardens and if it is a mild, sunny winter day you just may see some of our winter butterflies.