Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 22, 2008

Sap Suck’n Brushfoots

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 6:15 pm

     A relationship in the natural world where one organism benefits from the actions of another is called symbiosis.  Unlike the sometimes parasitic relationship between a parent and a child, where the lesser life form sucks the life out of the greater beast, a symbiotic partnership is generally a plus-plus scenario. In this case, both parties benefit and need each other.  Since our children can occasionally be coerced into performing beneficial labor around the house and yard, I guess I should alter my parasitic child comment. After all, children bear a closer resemblance to those helpful tick picking birds on the backs of Cape Water Buffalo than they do to Tapeworms.

  Sometimes a symbiotic relationship becomes a plus-neutral interaction in which one party benefits and the other could care less. This latter interaction best describes the bond between the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and the early spring butterflies.

  Sapsuckers are among the best named animals on the planet.  They are medium sized woodpeckers that suck sap and have yellow bellies, what more can I say. It is their habit to create a linear arrangement of shallow holes, or wells, in tree bark in order to induce them to weep a torrent of sap (see here and a detail view here).  Often there are so many wells on a trunk that it looks like it has been strafed by machine gun fire. The birds routinely return to these wells to lick up the sweet sap and sometimes nibble on the insects attracted to it.

  Two butterflies that regularly find comfort in seeping sapsucker wells are the Red Admiral (see here) and the Mourningcloak (see above).  Both of these gentle flyers are classified as Brush-footed butterflies because their front pair of legs are reduced to hairy pods. They are also called angle wings because the outline of the wings looks tattered and irregular. Both species over winter as adults – in other words they hibernate or go through “cryptopreservation” (controlled freezing).  They emerge from winter slumber well before other butterflies and don’t mind the chill of a crisp spring day. I mean, really, if you’ve already been frozen what’s a little dip into the 30’s!

  Cold loving butterflies, like these two, have hairy bodies and dark coloration in order to absorb as much of the sun’s energy as possible.  They spend a lot of time basking and eating high energy food such as rotting fruit, bird droppings (hey, don’t knock it), and sugary tree sap. With proper sunbathing and fuel intake, they can raise their body temperatures to a level near to our own and this enables them to fly. Since flowering plants are not available in the early season both early risers skip the traditional “butterfly at flower” thing.

  I came upon the two pictured butterflies while walking through a woodlot the other day.  I flushed the Mourningcloak first. It was imbibing at one of the sapsucker wells I showed you a few paragraphs ago. Several dozen flies were also there feeding but they didn’t acknowledge my presence at all (kinda like my kids).  Cloaks are deep purple in color with a bright yellow fringe decorated by intense blue dots. This pattern reminded the early naturalists of the cloaks worn by people mourning their dead – thus the reason they have a “u” in their name (as in “sad”). Their underwings are cryptically mottled with brown and they blend in when their wings are folded over their backs.

  The sad butterfly did not return to the sap wells during the few minutes I hung around, but instead proceeded to patrol its territory. A few trees over, several Red Admiral butterflies were more than willing to return to the bar after being flushed. Admirals are smaller than the cloaks and are distinguished by bright orange-red bands across each wing and antennae brightly tipped like match-heads. They too are mottled underneath so as to blend in when necessary.

  They usually feed upside down and you can see here the extended tongue that delivers the sap. But, they never stay in place for long.  Like the cloaks, they are territorial. The males patrol an elliptical space of ground up to 40 ft. by 75 ft. or so. Anything entering that space is chased off (even people) or, if it’s a female, mated with.  My admirals were constantly flying off, doing aerial combat with intruders and then returning for a second round of drinks.  They didn’t pay attention to the ever-present bar flies either.

  Take another look at these butterfly pictures and I’d like to point something out to you. You’ll note that these guys look pretty rag-tag at this time of year. They are near the end of their life cycle and looking for one last fling before cashing it all in. The cloaks emerged as adults last June. They dallied about for a while then estivated (a term for warm weather hibernating) until fall at which time they suck on some sap and go into hibernation. So, we are looking at a 10 month old butterfly here.

  The admirals have two generations per year, and the current individuals emerged late last summer as adults before they sucked sap and hibernated. They look a little better than the cloaks because they are four months younger.

  You know, they are always telling us to hug or kids -which is darn good advice – but have you hugged a Sapsucker lately?  They are the ones who make the trees cry and the angle wings fly.

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