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Oct 10, 2017 10:19 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Early Fall Foliage, Egrets And A Monarch Chrysalis

Oct 10, 2017 4:02 PM

We are a third of the way through October, well into our autumn season. Our native fall blossoms, dominated by an assortment of species of asters and goldenrods, are in full bloom. One of our native swamp trees, the tupelo, has already dropped many of its scarlet leaves while another, the red maple, is just beginning to show signs of its fall colors.Most of our woody shrubs and trees are still green. Among the native flora that has called it a season, put its chlorophyll away in storage and ceased photosynthesizing, and unmasked its colorful leaf pigments is the flowering dogwood, which is now quite conspicuous sporting a unique shade of reddish-purple. Sumac, a shade-intolerant shrub, has followed suit and its compound leaves are now a brilliant scarlet that is only matched in color and intensity by one of our native vines: the Virginia creeper. Grey birch, sassafras and the hickories all have some yellow leaves but the latter two species are far from reaching their peak fall color.

Back in the 1990s I started a weekend event to promote and celebrate our growing trail system that was scheduled for the third weekend in October to coincide with the peak in the fall colors here on the South Fork. With only 10 days until that third weekend, it appears doubtful that the foliage will advance quickly enough to peak at that time this year.

Quite a large number of great egrets were seen working Accabonac Harbor’s salt marsh at high tide, wading through the flooded marsh grasses in search of fish prey. Twenty were counted on the Great Meadow alone. This large, white egret is known to make a northward migration in late summer and early fall after its nesting season before heading south for the winter. At this time of year they are most numerous in our area. They winter in North Carolina and points south of there.

The great egret is one of many birds that were hunted for their feathers, which were used to adorn hats, in the latter half of the 1800s. One of my references states that, in 1903, an ounce of bird feathers commanded a price double that of an ounce of gold. By the time conservation laws were enacted in 1913, the millinery industry had nearly wiped out this species.

A slow and steady recovery began and by the 1950s it had expanded its nesting range north into coastal New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut. Today some of the larger nesting colonies in our area are located on Gardiners Island and Plum Island.

While cleaning some kale harvested from the garden last week, I found a Monarch butterfly chrysalis attached to one of the leaves. This striking light green case resembles a piece of jewelry and is created in a very unusual manner. It does not involve the spinning of a cocoon. Rather, the Monarch caterpillar spins a tiny silk button on its chosen support, and clings to this with the claws of its last two pairs of legs, head hanging down. Next, the black, white and yellow-banded larval skin splits behind the head, is pushed up toward the last pair of legs and discarded, exposing the smooth, light green-colored pupal skin, or chrysalis.

The chrysalis stage lasts about 10 days before the adult Monarch emerges. I was not sure of the age of this chrysalis, and placed it on a plant near my back door where I could photograph it each day, and hopefully get a video of the final transformation.

On the fifth day the chrysalis was completely transparent with the orange, black and white adult Monarch clearly visible stuffed inside. Less than two hours after taking the daily photo, I passed through the door and found the winged adult next to the shed chrysalis, occasionally pumping its soft, wrinkled wings in order to expand and harden them up for flight.

It was a male, as determined by the pair of black scent patches located on its hind wings. That was October 3, and by mid-afternoon it had started its 2,500-mile journey southward to the mountains of Mexico.

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