Tuesday, August 25, 2015

This Silver-Spotted Skipper Found the Sweet Life!

Last weekend I led a couple training sessions for new volunteers at Brookside Gardens' Wings of Fancy Live Butterfly and Caterpillar Exhibit, in Wheaton, Maryland. The exhibit contains hundreds of live butterflies from North America, Asia, and Africa, flying freely throughout the greenhouse (which we nickname the flight house while the exhibit is running). It's pretty cool! See below for details on coming to visit.

Anyway, as part of the training we go into the flight house to review duties associated with each volunteer station. The first morning, at one point I glanced at a damp area on the floor and saw a butterfly extremely familiar to me: a Silver-Spotted Skipper. There are scores of this butterfly currently flying wild throughout the gardens. I figured this individual was just a new addition to the exhibit, maybe recently eclosed from one of the chrysalises we buy from butterfly farms, and continued with the training. I saw the skipper again the next morning during training, but again didn't think much about it. I'm not closely enough involved with the exhibit to know what species we have or plan to have any given week, so the skipper's presence seemed entirely plausible to me.
A Silver-Spotted Skipper enjoying lantana blossoms at Brookside Gardens. This isn't the one I found inside the Wings of Fancy exhibit, rather it was outside in the gardens nearby.

It wasn't until a couple days later, however, that I found out the truth. While chatting with exhibit staff I learned they weren't importing Silver-Spotted Skippers at all. In fact, this little butterfly had snuck in on its own, unbeknownst to us! We're very careful at the exhibit to have each exiting visitor check himself or herself thoroughly for hitchikers, as butterflies are known to sometimes hide in folds of clothing or even sneak under pant legs in an attempt to hide from potential predators. Part of the USDA permit we have for this exhibit says we must be very careful about that so no butterflies could escape. The butterflies in our exhibit could be carrying parasites or disease from another part of the country or even the world, and we don't want that introduced to our local butterfly populations. However, we don't check visitors on their way IN. This wily little skipper must have stowed away on somebody's clothing, and now finds itself in the exhibit.
This Tawny Emperor landed on my pants leg during a hike recently. The salts and minerals from my sweat must have been pretty tasty, it came back several times. The butterflies in Wings of Fancy do this frequently too.

Now, if you ask me, that skipper is the smartest darn butterfly in Maryland! Now that it's been exposed to whatever disease or parasite that could theoretically be present in the imported species, we can't let it leave. It is a permanent resident of the exhibit now (well, permanent from the butterfly's perspective, anyway). At its disposal are all the nectar-rich flowers grown by our professional horticulturalists, the plates of overripe fruit slices refreshed several times daily, and of course the small army of staff and volunteers making sure no predators creep in (like mice or toads). The only thing missing is the chance to find a mate, but other than that this Silver-Spotted Skipper is now living a very sweet life! One of the staff members even told me that she found the skipper damaged one morning, with one of its wings askew somehow. So she repaired it and off it went to enjoy tasty nectar elsewhere in the exhibit. Really, what a life!

I'm not sure whether the skipper is still alive at this point, I haven't seen it again since the training sessions. When I asked staff a few days ago, they couldn't think of seeing it lately either. But of course, it's only one small butterfly in a throng of 400 or so, and there are plenty of hiding spots in the exhibit for species that prefer to hang out under cover. I was probably pretty lucky to spot it at all, let alone on two consecutive days. However, if you'd like to visit the exhibit yourself in hopes of seeing this tiny clever little butterfly, I've posted Wings of Fancy information below.

Even if that Silver-Spotted Skipper turns out to be no longer around, I think visiting Wings of Fancy would still be worth it. You'll see hundreds of butterflies flying around you, perhaps even landing on you if you're lucky. Don't miss the cage with chrysalises pinned up in the main exhibit, either, it's amazing watching a new butterfly emerge from chrysalis right in front of you. New this year as well is an ovipositing station, where appropriate larval hostplants are set out in hopes of attracting mated butterflies to lay eggs on them. Sometimes you actually get to watch butterflies lay eggs right before your eyes! Just amazing. After you've left the exhibit, if you have time and energy you should also enjoy the lovely grounds of Brookside Gardens. If the weather is nice, you're likely to see some of our native butterflies enjoying the flowers along with you.
Some of the chrysalises hanging in the case a few days ago. Staff dates each batch of chrysalises so they can remove a possibly-parasitized one that's taking too long to eclose.

To Visit Wings of Fancy

If you're interested in checking out the Wings of Fancy exhibit for yourself, it runs through October 25, 2015. Normally it's May through mid September, but it didn't start until July this year so will run later as well.

The exhibit is at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland, and is open seven days a week from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Tickets are $8 per adult and $5 per child age 3-12. You can purchase your tickets at the gift shop in the Conservatory.

 Please keep in mind that parking may be limited at the moment; consult the Brookside Gardens web site here for any updates or for suggested parking alternatives. The street address for the Conservatory and the exhibit is 1500 Glenallan Avenue, Wheaton, MD 20902.

The Conservatory (where Wings of Fancy is located) often gets very hot in the summertime, as it's  basically a greenhouse. But this year with the later season I'm hoping we get lots of comfortable cooler days to enjoy the exotic butterflies. I hope you get a chance to visit too!

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