Seventy-seven Degrees and Counting

Can you believe this weather!  I had nearly 80 according to my car yesterday.  Last I checked today, it was 77.  And it’s only the Ides of March!  Unbelievable.  But, the up side is that people are OUT.  Driving uptown yesterday afternoon every sidewalk was loaded with people walking:  alone, with friends, with dogs.  Cascades Park – every parking lot was full!  Maybe they had some sort of event going on, but I suspect it was just the glorious weather.

And it’s not just people emerging.  The chorus frogs have been singing for about a week, and yesterday I heard my first peepers.  Last night I think I also heard wood frogs.

Today, we found this itty bitty iris in bloom in the Children’s Garden here at Dahlem.


But the thing that got me out of the office to photograph was Gary coming in and saying, “Do you want to see some commas nectaring?”

Well, who could resist?

The Cut-n-Dab Society was out clearing brush and removing logs from the Norway maples they’d previous cut down.  With this warm weather, cutting and dabbing is now over because the rising sap in plants would push out any herbicide applied to stumps.  So, the group with be tackling other tasks until next fall.

What they noticed, however, on one of the maple stumps, was the rising sap had coated the exposed wood and it was drawing in insects like, well, a bee to honey.  All sorts of flies were mopping up the sweet sap, and some commas came in as well.

There you go!  A comma.  Commas are butterflies, one of the earliest butterflies you will see in the spring (or late winter apparently).  Members of the brushfoot family, commas are one of the so-called “punctuation” butterflies, which include commas and question marks.  These names come from the little white “punctuation marks” that appear on the underside of the hind wings.  See that little white comma below?  Also note how the underside of the wings are the perfect camouflage for hiding in leaves and against tree bark.

There are four species of commas in Michigan:  satyr, green, grey and eastern.  Which one did we have out here today?  I can tell you for sure they weren’t satyrs or easterns – wrong markings and coloration.

Green commas are considered reclusive and live in boreal forests.  Now, even if it wasn’t 77 degrees, we are definitely not boreal around here.

Therefore, by process of elimination, these are grey commas, Polygonia progne.

Commas overwinter as adults, which explains why some of them were looking pretty ragged.  The careful naturalist might find them in log piles or hollow trees.  But once the weather warms up, they head out in search of food:  dung, carrion and tree sap.

These woodland butterflies are considered to be quite skittish, and both Gary and I can confirm that as we had a heck of a time trying to get close enough to photograph these guys.  My first batch of photos were a complete bust.  I went back out after lunch and look my chances with a smaller lens.  I had to get right up to the beasts, but soon they were so fixated on the sap that I was able to get a few good images.

The warm weather also brought out our first toad of the season!

American toads are pretty common.  And they are wonderful animals, eating all sorts of critters that gardeners would prefer not to have in their gardens.  Hence, the toad is the gardener’s friend.

And warts?  Yes, toads have them, but their warts are actually not the same as the warts people get.  Our warts are caused by a virus.  Their warts are just lumps and bumps on their skin.  And the two biggest bumps, the ones right behind the eyes, are actually poison glands known as paratoid glands.  These glands contain a neurotoxin known as bufotoxin, which helps toads escape predators.  One mouthful of toad and the predator gets a dose of this alkaloid, making it spit out the toad.  Toad hops away…if it is lucky.


About Dahlem Center

The Dahlem Center is a non-profit nature center/environmental education center located on almost 300 acres just south of the city of Jackson, Michigan. The Center is one arm of the Dahlem Conservancy, which includes land conservancy and stewardship in its mission.
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2 Responses to Seventy-seven Degrees and Counting

  1. Oh, how lovely! Even though we have not had much winter in northern NY, it’s still exciting to see so many signs of spring. Do you know if we have Comma butterflies up here? I don’t recall ever seeing one.

  2. Ellen says:

    Yes – commas are quite common. I’d see them up in Newcomb, so I’m sure you’ll have ’em down there in Saratoga. Look for the Eastern Comma (darker hind wings), as well as the grey. You MIGHT get green, although because it is boreal, you might have to get up to Lake Placid to see that one. As for the other species, well, I’m not sure. We have a lovely Butterflies of Michigan field guide that I can use here…maybe there’s one for NY? I bet you can find a butterfly afficianado who can tell you what your local butterflies are…there’s always one lurking in every community. 🙂

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