Spring Butterflies at Quarry Gardens

The hairstreaks and elfins in the genus Callophrys are some of my favorite butterflies.  They are tiny, usually not much bigger than a dime.  Their wings range in color from brilliant green to iridescent brown, blue and even pinkish.  Elfins especially fly only early in the season, so I was anxious to try to see and photograph some before they disappeared for the year.  A late April trip to Quarry Gardens at Schuyler provided the perfect opportunity.  Extensive stands of short-leaf and Virginia pine with eastern juniper in the understory — the host plants of pine elfin and juniper hairstreak — grow there.  Brown elfins have also been recorded, although their host plants, blueberries, are less numerous.

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Golden Ragwort at Quarry Gardens

Quarry Gardens is a botanical garden designed to showcase the flora and fauna native to Schuyler, VA and the surrounding area.  The Center for Urban Habitats inventoried the plants and animals naturally occurring there, and used that information to design and plant gardens representative of particular native plant communities.  It lies partly on top of a formation of soapstone rock, and several abandoned, water-filled, soapstone quarries are on the property.  It is home to fragments of a state rare plant community — ultramafic woodland — which only grows on magnesium rich (ultramafic) rocks like soapstone.  Many locally and regionally uncommon species have been documented there.  For more information about Quarry Gardens’ unique history, geology, plants and animals, see my older post: Quarry Gardens: Ecosystem Modeling Under Geological Constraints.

Bernice Thieblot and Devin Floyd — the owner of Quarry Gardens and the director of the Center for Urban Habitats, respectively — met my brother, Theo, and me at the gates.  My friend Drew and a photographer named Emily soon arrived.  We walked down to the visitor center, where a large patch of golden ragwort was in full bloom.  We hoped to find elfins nectaring on the ragwort, as Devin had seen them there last year.  Juvenal’s dusky-wings and native bees buzzed around.  It wasn’t long before we spotted what would be the first of many juniper hairstreaks, drinking from a ragwort flower.  We all pressed forward, hoping to get a picture of this stunningly green little butterfly.

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Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus) on golden ragwort (Packera aurea)

We decided to meander down the path that led around the old quarry pits.  It was cool and shady under a thick canopy of pines.  Lichens carpeted the ground in places.  The mulch covered trail led down rock steps into an area planted with rich forest spring ephemerals.  Mayapples, Solomon’s seals, wild geraniums, dwarf larkspur and wild ginger bloomed near the path.

We emerged from the trees into a small meadow, sloping down towards the edge of the water in the quarry pit to our right.  The white flowers of pussytoes and wild strawberries were just beginning to open.  Suddenly, Theo called out that he saw an elfin.  Drew and I rushed over, and we watched it land on a barely opened pussytoes flower.  One of its hindwings was damaged, but it was able to fly well enough to make getting a good photo difficult.  Eventually it settled down, and we watched as the brown elfin tilted its wings into the sun.  For a moment, the color seemed to change from plain brown to a rich assortment of pinkish and orangey hues.

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Brown Elfin (Callophrys augustinus) on pussytoes (Antennaria sp.)

We left the brown elfin and continued down the trail.  We looked for mountain bellwort, one of the rare plants growing at Quarry Gardens.  We were excited to discover all 10 of the plants growing there in full bloom.

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Mountain Bellwort (Uvularia puberula)

Drew, Theo and I walked to a swale planting, filled with golden ragwort, swamp rose, marsh marigold, skunk cabbage and various sedges.  Emily, who had been wandering around separately from us, showed us a picture of a pine elfin she had just seen.  Pine elfins look like brown elfins, but their wings are covered with intricate pink and brown mottling.  They are also less common and more difficult to see than brown elfins.  We fanned out, scanning the ground and the sky trying to re-find it.  I decided to walk down by the edge of the quarry pits, where I found my first of year Selys’ sundragon, but no pine elfin.

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Selys’ Sundragon (Helocordulia selysii)

Just as I was getting back toward the seep, I heard Theo yelling his head off about a pine elfin.  I ran toward him, and arrived just as he lost the butterfly into the trees.  We set about walking around once again, desperately trying to re-find it.  I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.  Turning, I saw a nickel sized butterfly bouncing away from me.  We chased after it, and soon the pine elfin landed.  The sunlight sparkled off of its metallic wings in a way that photos never seem to do justice to.  The white bands and mottling flashed in the light.  Then, before I could even reach for my camera, it was gone.

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Pine Elfin (Callophrys niphon), Photo by Emily Luebke.

As I was walking back, still hoping for another pine elfin to photograph, I looked at a small brownish butterfly sitting on an American holly leaf.  I assumed it would be another juniper hairstreak — they were one of the most common butterflies out — or a brown elfin.  To my surprise, I saw a white band on the hindwing, meaning it was not a brown but a Henry’s elfin — a first Quarry Gardens record!

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Brown Elfin (Callophrys henrici) on American Holly (Ilex opaca)

In retrospect, I probably should have realized it might have been a Henry’s sooner, as it was sitting on a holly leaf, which is a host plant for Henry’s elfin.  With three species of elfins in one day, I was ready to forego my dreams of perfect pine elfin photos.  Maybe next year…

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