Nature Watch: Made in the Shade
About the author: Steve Ellis is a naturalist and Land Trust member who enjoys sharing his love of the natural world. His blog series, “Nature Watch,” will appear each month in “Habitchat,” chronicling native plants and wildlife you can expect to see during that particular time of year. We thank Steve for sharing his passion, illustrating the importance of island conservation.
Nature’s thermostat is turned on high, presenting both opportunities and challenges to local bird life.
Abundant sunshine and lack of rain dries out unshaded areas, leaving the ground’s surface brick-hard. This makes earthworms, cranefly larva and other invertebrates safe from birds looking for a quick meal.
Other forms of food disappear as well. Insects which were available as slow-moving larva are now winged adults, capable of taking flight and escaping all but the most adroit birds. The salmonberry crop is done, and thimbleberries may not be ripe for a few more weeks.
It’s not just a scarcity of food that becomes a challenge during July’s long, sunny days. Dehydration is a possibility, and there’s the risk of predation. The solution to these problems can be found in the forests. American Robins and other species abandon open areas to find more hospitable conditions among the trees.
The forest floor is soft and allows for easy extraction of invertebrates. Red huckleberries ripen and offer a bridge until thimbleberries are ready for harvest. Cool forest shade lessens dehydration and provides shelter from predators. Should a hawk appear, a potential victim can immediately hide in the salal or sword ferns.
When the heat is on, many birds find they have it made in the shade.
Flora: Cooley’s Hedge Nettle, Stachys cooleyae
This square-stemmed member of the mint family grows in clusters and can reach a height of five feet. Leaves are lance- to egg-shaped, 2 to 5 inches long and hairy on the upper and lower sides.
Red to reddish-purple, tube-shaped flowers bloom in midsummer. The lower lip is much wider than the top and offers an inviting pathway for pollinators. Hummingbirds, butterflies and native bees take nectar from the flowers. Each flower produces four nutlet seeds which are occasionally eaten by sparrows and juncos. Deer browse on the leaves.
Look for Cooley’s hedge nettle and its close relative, Mexican hedge nettle (S. mexicana,), in thickets, open forests and along moist roadsides. They are one of the few wildflowers to bloom in July.
Fauna: Lorquin’s Admiral, Limenitis lorquini
Lorquin’s Admirals are the most widespread and abundant native butterflies in our region. The upper wings are dark brown with orange tips. A creamy white band extends across the wings. The underwings are dull red with a white band.
Females lay eggs on the tips of willow or oceanspray leaves. Multiple broods in a year are possible. As with other butterflies, Lorquin’s caterpillars go through several changes called instars. The second instar resembles inedible bird droppings, a deterrent to would-be predators. An instar of the last brood of summer overwinters by wrapping a leaf of the host plant around itself and essentially sewing it shut. This shelter is called a “hibernaculum.”
Adult Lorquin’s Admirals take nectar from hedge nettle, yarrow and other wildflowers. They are aggressive butterflies that chase other insects in their territory and have even been seen flying at birds.
Watch for these energetic butterflies in forest openings, roadsides and back yards.