I discovered in August that butterfly surprises did not end when we finished our Fourth of July count season.
For a few years, Marlene and I have conducted, with the help of others, a spring Nevis count in May and a fall one in August.
Here I lay out the chronicle of a surprising mini-saga in our neck of the woods:
Aug. 5, 2018
We are short-handed on our fall nevis count. Marlene becomes a team of one. Though having close focusing binoculars (to 1.6 feet!), she doesn't have a camera.
While at one stop, she saw a butterfly the size of an American Copper. Back home, she remembered pictures I'd taken earlier this summer of Melissa Blues in western Minnesota. When she reviewed a number of butterfly guides, she felt one guide showing female Melissa Blues in South Dakota and Colorado matched what she'd seen.
Her initial impression that the butterfly in question was American Copper-sized was very perceptive. The Ontario guide states wingspan of the American Copper is 21 to 30 mm; Melissa Blue 18 to 28 mm — same size range!
However, recent range maps show Melissas hugging the Minnesota side of the border with the Dakotas, not extending 100 miles further east to Hubbard County.
Aug. 6, 2018
Even though Marlene had made a careful observation, photographic proof would clinch the I.D. If so, it would be a species new to a Nevis count, regardless of season.
So, we both returned to the scene of the intrigue. I did get four photos confirming the female Melissa.
As I write these lines, I'm still amazed at our luck. First, we were looking for a very small butterfly in the wild, not inside a butterfly house. Second, over 24 hours had elapsed since Marlene's sighting. A lot can happen in one day!
Adding to the intrigue was a tell-tale slight, but distinctive shredding of one of the Melissas' wings showed up in the confirmation photos. This seemingly-slight feature turned out to be very important in the days ahead.
Aug. 7, 2018
I returned by myself to see if my luck continued. While looking at a skipper nectaring hyssop, my peripheral vision detected a tannish butterfly heading to a composite. Yes, it was the Melissa!
In flight, if you mix the ventral gray-white with the dorsal chocolate of the female, you get tannish.
I did get four photos of her nectaring that composite before an insect dislodged her and she flew back into woods. The tell-tale shredded wing indicated it was the same butterfly!
As I climbed down the hill from my female encounter, I felt another Melissa was present (i.e. same tannish effect, same size, etc.) at the road edge, but flew east before I got close...and disappeared.
Aug. 8, 2018
I return again. I got 18 photos since no insects bumped her from nectaring Grass-leaved Goldenrod. (Naturalist Larry Webber says this is no longer a true goldenrod.)
Aug. 9, 2018
Could my luck last for another day? Yes, as I got two photos of her again nectaring Grass-leaved Goldenrod just several feet away where she'd been on the 8th.
Aug. 10, 2018
I return again. I am rewarded with getting 12 more photos. These are a combination of 1) her nectaring a very small daisy and 2) egg-laying on a legume/pea. The same tell-tale shredding still visible in the photo. That meant the same female from Aug. 5 still present!
Aug. 11, 2018
Stood up. No Melissa today. However, I realized the female had fulfilled her destiny as an egg-layer on the 10th.
Overall, I had an incredible 17 minutes of photographic contact with the same individual Melissa spread over five days! Normally, we see a butterfly in terms of a few seconds at most.
My previous longest-duration encounter with a single butterfly was five minutes as I studied a female Ottoe Skipper on a Polk County count some years ago. Since it was fairly winder that day, I'd left my slide camera in the Blazer. Marlene agreed to "stake out" the Ottoe, a rare prairie species, while I retrieved my camera.
But alas, just as I almost made it back, a bee dislodged the nectaring skipper, forcing her into the brisk breeze that quickly carried her far away.
Since I did not get photographic proof for that Ottoe it was deemed an "unacceptable sighting" by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) because I was outside her "normal range."
So, I was very glad that the mini-saga with the Melissa Blue had a far happier ending.
Karner Blue (Plebejus samuelis) is a close relative of the Melissa. In fact, so "close" that it was considered a subspecies of the Melissa until fairly recently. Karners, if found at all, are in Wisconsin and points east. Caterpillars feed only on sundial lupine, also known as wild lupine (Lupinus perennis). It's listed as federally endangered.
On the other hand, Melissas are not "picky eaters" like the Karners. NABA President Jeffrey Glassberg cites "many legume, but especially lupines, alfalfa and rattleweds as host plants."
(I found out that other common names for rattleweeds include Lambert crazyweed and purple locoweed, which are native perennials.)