Painted Ladies at Mud Lake

Painted Lady

Back in September 2017 our region experienced an incredible influx of Painted Lady butterflies. When I visited the Eagleson storm water ponds one afternoon just past the autumn equinox, I was surprised to see so many Painted Ladies nectaring on the flowers, and later learned that this butterfly had had an exceptionally successful breeding season in the northeast. We did not see the same numbers of this migratory species last year (2018), so it seemed that the enormous 2017 population explosion – stretching from Ontario all the way to P.E.I. – was a one-time occurrence.

I didn’t see very many Painted Ladies over the summer, only two at the Eagleson Ponds on July 7 and 13, which is two more than I usually see each summer! I also saw two American Ladies there in early August, a rare occurrence when I’ve seen both species at the same place, if not the same time.

I wasn’t expecting this fall to be as exciting as the fall of 2017, although I have been enjoying all the Monarch butterflies migrating south. This morning I headed out to Mud Lake with birds, not butterflies, in mind, although I was hoping to see a few dragonflies. The day started off cool and cloudy, but it grew quite warm when the sun came out – though nowhere near the hot 30°C weather we had back in 2017. I found a few warblers on the ridge, including Black-and-White Warbler, a few Northern Parulas, a Yellow Warbler, a Wilson’s Warbler, a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a couple of Bay-breasted Warblers with pinkish sides, and a Black-throated Green Warbler. I also got good looks at a Philadelphia Vireo, Warbling Vireo and Red-eyed Vireo.

I checked behind the ridge but there wasn’t any activity. I followed the trail to the filtration plant where I found an Eastern Phoebe and a pair of Pine Warblers foraging in the two pines at the top of the hill right beside the building. I climbed up the hill and spent some time photographing the Pine Warblers; I hardly ever see them in fall – most likely because I don’t get good enough looks at all the little yellowish warblers flitting in the trees before they move on!

Pine Warbler

I walked down to the bay and spent some time along the river looking for dragonflies. Twice I saw a few big ones fly by, but they didn’t land. I scared this Painted Lady off the ground, saw where it landed, and went to take a few pictures. The absence of a small white dot in the orange part of the forewing near the outer edge is what differentiates this butterfly from the similar-looking American Lady. It also has more pointed wings and a pinkish hue compared to the bright orange of an American Lady.

Painted Lady

I didn’t think much of this sighting as I had already seen a few at the Eagleson ponds in July, so I knew they were around. I retraced my steps to the point and found another Painted Lady nectaring on some flowers, notably the Purple Loosestrife growing out of the rocks and some little yellow flowers growing low to the ground.

Painted Lady on Purple Loosestrife

I continued my walk behind the filtration plant and found a pair of Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars munching on some Common Milkweed leaves. This species seems to be having a good year, as I’ve seen them twice now at Mud Lake.

Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars

In the back southeast corner just inside the gate I found some more bird activity, including two more Philadelphia Vireos, a Tennessee Warbler, a couple of Cape May Warblers, a couple of American Redstarts and an unidentified Empidonax flycatcher flicking its tail like an Eastern Phoebe. I checked the little storm water pond and found two Common Yellowthroats, a species that I don’t see very often at Mud Lake. This brought my warbler total up to 13. I also saw two more Painted Ladies, bringing my total up to four.

After circling the pond, I passed by a field full of flowers and stopped to look for dragonflies. Instead I found another Painted Lady, but it was unusually still and leaning at a strange angle. Upon closer inspection I saw that the abdomen was in the process of being devoured by a pair of Ambush Bugs. Whenever I see a butterfly, moth, bee or other insect sitting unnaturally still or resting at a peculiar angle on a flower, I always almost find that it has been caught by a predator, usually an Ambush Bug or a Goldenrod Crab Spider lurking among the florets. This was a sad sight as the butterfly was so fresh-looking that it had probably only emerged from its chrysalis a day or two ago.

Ambush Bug with Painted Lady

I was starting to wonder if we were in midst of another mass emergence or movement of Painted Ladies, so when I walked up the bike path to re-enter the Mud Lake conservation area and saw a large patch of Jerusalem Artichokes I stopped to check them out for more butterflies. The bright yellow flowers were buzzing with insects, and I saw two or three Painted Ladies resting on the flowers. I walked into the mass of elbow-high flowers and starting taking pictures.

Painted Ladies

Most flew away when I got too close, but by moving slowly I was able to get some great macro shots. There were more butterflies hiding in the flowers, and at one point I counted nine of them within my view!

Painted Lady

The Painted Lady butterfly usually does not overwinter in Canada, as it does not tolerate the cold. According to the Butterflies of Canada website (which is not updated very often), this butterfly is considered rare in Canada, except in years when large migrations from the south occur in the spring. As such, in good migration years we could see two or three generations here in Canada, with the first flying up from the south in May, and two successive generations resulting from the eggs laid by this migrant population. These offspring fly from June to October where they are common in waste areas, along roadsides, and in agricultural fields.

Painted Lady

While walking through the large flower patch I noticed a Monarch butterfly hanging motionlessly among the vegetation. It didn’t appear to have been caught by another Ambush Bug or similar predator, so I figured it was resting while waiting for the sun to come out. It wasn’t until I got home and reviewed my photos that I noticed the chrysalis it must have emerged from just to its right!

Freshly emerged Monarch with chrysalis

Still, it was the Painted Ladies that captivated me the most, and I spent at least 20 minutes photographing these beautiful, colourful butterflies.

Painted Lady

Eventually I resumed my walk around Mud Lake. I found one more warbler flock in the southwest corner, but didn’t see anything else of interest until another birder and I reached the western sumac field and noticed this Field Sparrow lurking in the shrubs. It’s not often that I see this species here, and we pished at it until we were able to get some good enough photos to identify it. The bright pink bill and rusty wash over its chest are good field marks for this species.

Field Sparrow

Although I didn’t get any warbler photos, I tremendously enjoyed seeing all the Painted Ladies on the eastern side of the conservation area and the time I spent photographing them. Most years they are few and far between, so a large emergence such as this is definitely something to enjoy!

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