Why am I so surprised? Of course there are butterflies. It’s not (literally) freezing, there is sunshine for extra warmth, there are flowers for food. There is something absurdly wonderful walking with butterflies fluttering about in January for this Northern girl. I am fascinated by one in particular with bold yellow stripes and an exotic flair. I had to look it up on one of my favorite sites, Butterflies and Moths of North America, and discovered that what I am seeing is the Florida State Butterfly, a Zebra Longwing. A spectacular beauty! Reading up on them, I learned that Passion Vines (specifically Passiflora suberosa, P. lutea, P. affinis) are their host plant. There are plenty of vines here but none that I see in flower and I am not adept enough on Florida Flora & Fauna to recognize by leaves only. Oh, how I would love to see the beautiful blooms of Passion Vine! I tried to start some from seed last summer but they take months to germinate and I wasn’t patient enough. I think I will invest in a plant start this year. I also learned Shepherd’s Needle, Bidens Alba (check! plenty of that around) and Lantana (check! see that around, too) are their favorite foods. What’s interesting is that they forage on a route or “trapline” (trapline foraging). I spent weeks trying to capture a picture of one and had I known this interesting behavior I could have simply learned one of their routes. However, on a cooler day, I lucked out while visiting the Shell Mound, one rested long enough for me to aim and focus! I suppose in this pocket of sun the gravel-shell base felt warm.
The Shell Mound is one of the largest preserved on the West coast of Florida. It is literally, a shell mound, made up of discarded oyster and clam shells – the food source of the Eastern Woodland Indians.
There are also Sulphur Butterflies that I have not managed to capture but there really isn’t any mistaking their beautiful color. Lantana – check! – is on their nectar list, too. Then there are also orange butterflies flitting about. At first I wasn’t sure what they were. One day I was able to get a closer look and confirm it with the flap of a wing – Gulf Fritillaries. Passion vines are also their choice of host, specifically Passiflora incarnata (my choice, too, to grow), and P. foetida. They also like nectar from Shepherd’s Needle and, yes, Lantana, as well as a few others. They aren’t as camera shy as those Longwings and lo and behold here is one on Shepherd’s Needle.
But Fritillaries are not the only orangish butterflies here! There are MONARCHS! There are more Monarchs here than I’ve seen the past few years in my own garden up North. At first I thought, I must be mistaken, maybe these are Viceroys. But a real close view with my binoculars and it’s confirmed – honest to goodness Monarchs! (Learn to tell the difference between Viceroy and Monarch Butterflies). I am not sure how to look up or who to ask about them overwintering here. They aren’t in large numbers. Every now and then one just happily floats by. Here is one who posed for me on Goldenrod. They also will nectar on … you guessed it, Lantana! Lantana is a plant that all these butterflies share in common!
There are plenty of Cedar trees here in Cedar Key, of course – perhaps a good night roost? I know I’ve read about Monarchs resting overnight in Cedar trees on their migration. “Often pine, fir and cedar trees are chosen for roosting. These trees have thick canopies that moderate the temperature and humidity at the roost site.”* I’ve also learned, to add to my surprise, from Butterflies and Moths of North America and a few other online sources that “A few overwinter along the Gulf coast or south Atlantic coast.” WELL, that’s where I am! Along the Gulf Coast! It is such a wonderful treat to see these beauties floating about. I wonder if people here find it extraordinary and special that Monarchs overwinter in Cedar Key? I sure do! It shouldn’t surprise me, Cedar Key is a special place immersed in nature. It is a very special place indeed.