Butterflies in the Summer Garden

Photos by Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted August 2010
by Clay and Pat Sutton

As we moved slowly along the lush garden walkway, we felt a bit disoriented. It seemed as if the flowers were taking wing, but it was clouds of butterflies erupting in front of us and floating above the path.

Butterflies can be seen at the Cape from early March through November, but seem to reach their highest numbers and variety in late summer.

Some years are far better than others for butterfly populations in general, and this year is a good one. The annual Cape May Butterfly Count, held on 22 July, tallied 48 species, a very good tally.

Despite the winter snowfall, it was slightly warmer than usual, and this was followed by a warm, very wet spring. A wet spring means a good growing season, conditions that lead to lush growth of flowers and fruiting trees that provide nectar and food sources for both butterflies and caterpillars.

Wildlife gardens – those that target butterflies and hummingbirds – currently are bursting with bright butterflies. It is a banner year providing blazes of color and motion that never fail to brighten the classic lazy, hazy hot summer days.

In our own garden, we set a new daily record of 31 species seen in a single day (with 40 seen that week) and there are hundreds of individuals present.

We do a daily “count” in the garden, and we’ve seen up to eight Tiger Swallowtails (at once – who knows how many come and go over the course of the day), six Spicebush Swallowtails, and five Monarchs.

Red Admirals are seeing a record year (the “50-year storm” of Red Admirals), and four or five are always dashing about.

Skippers, the smaller and generally less obvious butterflies, are providing much of the action (the eruption as one moves through the garden that we spoke of).

We have counted up to 117 Broad-winged Skippers in sight at once in the garden – butterflies decorating many or most flower stalks, then dashing about chasing one another.

Add in hairstreaks, blues, sulphurs, satyrs, and emperors, and our summer wildlife garden offers a cornucopia of butterflies.

Wildlife gardeners plant gardens that provide food, cover, water, and shelter for both birds and butterflies. The gardens also provide specific caterpillar food plants necessary for butterflies to complete their complex life style and create the next generation.

A popular term for this is “backyard habitat” and in the Cape May area, with so many migratory birds, butterflies, and dragonflies passing through this narrow bottleneck, the provision of abundant food resources in one’s yard can really make a difference.

It’s also called conservation gardening, with the goal and knowledge that backyard habitats are a true oasis for both local and migratory wildlife to rest and feed.

If you'd like to see some of these private butterfly and hummingbird-filled oases, join Pat Sutton for the next two sets of “Tours of Private Wildlife Gardens.”

These all day tours cover gardens throughout three separate areas of Cape May County: Cape Island, the Villas/ Delaware Bay area and the Goshen/ Dennisville area. Call the Nature Center of Cape May at 609-898-8848 to make reservations for one of the August 13-15 garden tours or the September 10-12th tours. See you there!

Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and authors.

Read the Suttons’ Cape May book, Birds and Birding at Cape May.


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