Painted Ladies!

Painted Lady

A large influx of Painted Ladies over the past couple of days has made for some exciting butterflying. Until now, I had only seen three of these gorgeous butterflies, one several years ago at a sewage lagoon, and two earlier this year on Canada Day. American Ladies are usually the more common of the two migratory ladies, and were present during the massive Red Admiral migration last spring. However, when reports of large numbers of Painted Ladies across Ottawa began flooding in this month, it was clear we were witnessing another large wave of butterflies… though just where they had come from and where they were going remained a bit of a mystery.

I saw my first Painted Ladies at Hurdman, of all places. In fact, it was turning out to be a rather dull walk until I spotted one fluttering about a large patch of thistles along the shore of the Rideau River. On closer inspection I noticed that there were at least three of them, all busy nectaring on the purple thistle flowers which are abundant along this stretch of the river.

Painted Lady

The Painted Lady looks similar to the American Lady on the upper side but is a deeper pinkish-orange in colour and lacks the small white spot in the orange field below the dark apical patch. The underside has a brown and gray “cobweb” pattern with four small submarginal eyespots on the hindwings rather than two large spots.

I found more Painted Ladies on my outing to Jack Pine Trail on Saturday. The morning started off cool and cloudy, so I didn’t see many insects on the wing at first; then I saw a Painted Lady zip by me in the large wetland at the back of the third loop. More flew up out of the grass in the alvar as I walked by, but were quick to land again while waiting for the sun to come out.

It had warmed up by the time I headed to Shirley’s Bay, and several ladies were feeding on the flowers growing along Shirley Blvd. Painted Ladies prefer nectar from composites (i.e. flowers with with heads composed of many florets) 3-6 feet high, especially thistles, asters, Cosmos, Blazing Star and Joe-pye Weed; however, I only saw them nectaring on two plants, Queen Anne’s Lace and thistle.

The most widely distributed butterfly in the world, the Painted Lady is found on all continents except South America and Antarctica. This butterfly is rare in Canada except in years when mass migration occurs. The Painted Lady overwinters in Mexico, then disperses northward in the spring to recolonize the North American continent. Sometimes, especially in years when an exceptionally large number of butterflies migrate north, Painted Ladies end up all the way in northern Canada.

These butterflies can turn up almost anywhere. Look for them in open or disturbed areas including gardens, old fields, dunes, waste areas, roadsides, and farmers’ fields; they have even been found in the deserts of southern British Columbia, on the tundra, and in heavily wooded areas. It is most often found where thistles are abundant.

The following day I went out to Andrew Haydon Park. At Ottawa Beach I saw a couple of Wandering Gliders zipping through the air; then, after flushing one up from the vegetation, I spent some time walking in the long grass looking for more perching. I failed, but found something just as interesting: a cicada! These are the insects that hum endlessly on hot summer days, and, given their preference for hiding in the tops of large trees, I had never seen one so close before.

Cicada

I also found a Painted Lady on some Purple Loosestrife, an invasive plant that provides nectar for a surprising number of butterflies.

Painted Lady

Several shorebirds were feeding on the mudflats; there were at least ten Least Sandpipers, two dozen Semipalmated Plovers and three Killdeer working their way along the edges of the water and in the small puddles scattered across the sand. From there I walked to the marsh at the west end of Andrew Haydon Park, watching as an Osprey flew over. A female Hooded Merganser was resting on a rock in the western pond.

Hooded Merganser

A single Great Egret and four Blue-winged Teals were feeding in the western mudflats, and further out a Caspian Tern was hunting by hovering and then splashing into the water for fish. While I was watching a group of shorebirds flew in; I counted four Lesser Yellowlegs and two Red-necked Phalaropes!

Red-necked Phalarope

The phalaropes landed close enough to photograph, but quickly moved away. These guys don’t sit still for very long, and feed by actively scurrying through the water, churning up small insects and crustaceans. They may also swim in small, rapid circles, creating a small vortex that also brings their preferred food items up to the surface. In contrast, the Lesser Yellowlegs walks rapidly and erratically through shallow water, picking up food items such as flies, beetles, snails, naiads, worms, and spiders.

Lesser Yellowlegs

It was a great weekend for birds and butterflies, but one of my favourite wildlife sightings was a mammal right in my own backyard. I’d seen this baby Cottontail rabbit every now and then since our return from Alberta, usually first thing in the morning or around dusk, feeding on the abundant weeds. I’m guessing this is the offspring of the rabbit that was hanging around the neighbourhood last winter. We don’t often see rabbits in our yard; it’s nice to have one hanging around, even if he is very skittish! He has also provided me with the motivation to finally update my yard list page and add a section for birds. (It’s still a work in progress.)

Eastern Cottontail

I keep hoping to find a Painted Lady butterfly in my yard to add to my list, but as most of my flowers have been decimated by the drought, the few that I’ve seen keep flying by.

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