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137 Butterfly Summer A few days following the summer solstice, a prairie hay meadow near the Kansas-Oklahoma state line filled with orchids. Back in May, it had been a vast pale purple field of wild hyacinths. Then near the end of June,the bright green meadow erupted in low white orchids,unique in the way that the small flowers encircled the stalk, spiraling around the stem like the stripe on a barber’s pole. Ladies’ tresses orchids aren’t showy plants. Yet they’re structurally remarkable and rarely as common as those I found growing during the wet spring of 2015. The summer of this El Niño year produced flooding throughout the region and removed any lingering counties from the regional drought map. Frequent rains kept the climate uncharacteristically humid, while temperatures along the Kansas-Oklahoma line remained below the hundred-degree mark throughout the summer. Yet even though the temperatures remained cooler than average, July and August days were sometimes sweltering due to high dew points. Essentially it was grass-growing weather, perfect for producing fat cattle and plenty of bugs. Early in July, buttonbush began to flower along the banks of Sand Creek, a tributary of the Caney River. A beautiful section of this stream is protected in Oklahoma’s Osage Hills State Park, including a stretch 138 Butterfly Summer of sandstone bedrock where the creek splashes over a series of low waterfalls. Buttonbush tends to grow thickly through cracks in the sandstone here, and on a hot, calm July morning its white flowers, round and nearly as big as golf balls, were swarming with pipevine swallowtail butterflies. Dozens of bright neon blue and black insects circled the plants, flashing vivid orange spots concealed under their wings. These swallowtails were big butterflies and colorful, powerful fliers. However , their easily overlooked companions were anything but. Buttonbush flowers also appeared to be a magnet for numerous silver-spotted skippers, none of them much bigger than the tip of a man’s thumb. These tiny butterflies sipped nectar with their wings folded like little jet fighter planes grounded by foul weather. The skipper color scheme, compared to the flashiness of the swallowtails, was subdued yet tasteful —dark brown wings bearing orange windows, along with a prominent white or silver spot. For several weeks that summer, both variegated and gulf fritillaries dominated the place where the passionflowers grew near the mouth of Birch Creek, a small prairie stream. Variegated fritillaries were tastefully handsome in their orange and black color scheme, an eyecatching insect showy enough for the passionflower extravaganza providing the attraction. The gulf fritillaries, on the other hand, were almost magical. Their longer, slimmer wings hinted at something bird- or batlike, while the color of their wings mirrored that of a glowing red-orange rising sun. Upper wing surfaces were streaked with stylistic black lines and scattered black spots. The butterflies’ lower wings sported small silver panes that glowed like stained glass with each beat. Fritillaries and friends enjoyed a floral smorgasbord that splendid summer growing season, including an extended flowering period for the passionflowers. Prairie openings soon filled with the rich purple hues of Liatris, or prairie blazing star, a butterfly favorite. And from midsummer through most of October, the grasses were tinted yellow by both the sunflower and the Silphium tribes. The yellow season started with golden blooms atop the coarse stalks and foliage of compass plant and rosinweed. By the time the meadows were daubed with purple patches of Liatris,ashy,Maximilian,and common sunflowers had joined the mix. Rounding out this flood of nectar providers were milky white mallows and, as a last hurrah, a burst of 139 Butterfly Summer golden bidens appeared near the end of the growing season. All this nectar on the stem drew butterflies of every size, hue, and description, with the final round flying into November. That’s when orange fiery skippers visited hardy asters along with yellow sulphurs both large and small.Unfortunately,the butterflies that usually dominate the end of summer on the southern prairie remained elusive, noticeably so. The monarchs seemed to be missing. As recently as twenty years ago, I’d watched September skies over the Arkansas River fill with uncountable monarch butterflies journeying southward, some fluttering along in undulating flight at treetop height, others barely visible pinpoints of orange, surging irresistibly toward Mexico at the same altitude as circling bald eagles. At times in the past, there seemed to be so many of these handsome...


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MARC Record
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