Our first stop on today’s field trip, part of Pat Durkin’s class on butterflies and their conservation, was to Black Hill Regional Park and a captive breeding facility for Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton). This relative of the Pearl Crescent is dependent on wet conditions and its host plant of Turtlehead (Chelone glabra); in Maryland, it’s in decline but has earned special attention because its black and gold colors recall Lord Baltimore’s livery. It overwinters as larvae, wrapped in a self-spun web of silk. Adults from the first breeding season in this modest facility (a pair of mesh-walled pup tents) have already flown, but they have left a promising egg mass on this Turtlehead leaf.
We then moved on to the Native Grassland Conservancy property, 23 acres leased from Seneca Creek State Park. Randy Pheobus showed us the work that the conservancy is doing, attempting to reclaim this old field, overrun with some nasty invasives like Johnsongrass and Canada Thistle. Randy is passionate and very persuasive about the need to protect grassland and meadow habitat in the mid-Atlantic. While forests and wetlands warrant legal protections and mitigation, grasslands are in a “blindspot” and get short shrift, according to Randy.
After three years of work, he and other volunteers have established four tiny beachheads of native grassland plants, including the one you see here. Randy’s team has transplanted Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a grass, and Viola sagittata, a heliophilic violet. Not everything you see in the plot is native, but there are about 50 native species represented. As Randy might say, you have to pick your battles. The plastic pot holds rotting Star of Bethlehem, which apparently deters the deer population. Elsewhere on the property, a native thistle, Cirsium discolor, is gaining ground. Randy describes thistles as the keystone of any project managed for pollinators.
As interesting as the botany was, we were there to look at butterflies. The class found an even dozen species at this stop, including a fine Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia) and a couple of skippers that I hadn’t met, and I added several names to my extremely short twitcher’s list. We agreed that netting a butterfly and transferring it to an observation jar is trickier than it looks.
On the way back to the cars we left at the park, we made a quick stop at a garden planted for Monarchs; most of the planting has gone to Dogbane (Apocynum sp.) and were rewarded with great looks at a Banded Hairstreak (Satyrium calanus).