After the amazing Monarch departure, it went a little quiet for these amazing long-distance travellers for a while; but small numbers still continued to pass through and their black-and-orange colours always look good when they are feeding at the Giant Sunflowers in the Cape May Point State Park.
One useful thing to know about Monarchs though and that is that not everything you think is a Monarch, is a Monarch! So here's a classic Monarch from below, feeding at Japanese Honeysuckle - but compare it with the next picture...
...still looks like a Monarch - or does it? This in fact is a butterfly called a Viceroy which isn't even in the same family as a Monarch (it's actually related to the fritillaries and admirals) and yet looks pretty similar. Similar enough, in fact, that once a predator has learned that Monarchs are poisonous and should be left alone, they leave Viceroys alone too. Initially this was thought to be one of the most basic forms of mimicry, called Batesian Mimicry, where a harmless species looks like a poisonous one and thus benefits from this arrangement by not being eaten. In fact, it turns out that Viceroys are poisonous too - so called Mullerian Mimicry - where harmful animals with similar traits look similar, that way the message gets across quickly and they're all left alone; sort of benefits both sides really! To most predators, the two butterfly species above look similar enough that they are considered to be the same thing. With our more discerning eye, we see many differences, the most obvious being the extra black line across the middle of the Viceroy's wing. There are other subtle differences too, in the arrangement and shape of the white marks for example.
From above, the same differences as can be seen from below are evident, with the line across the hindwing on this Viceroy being the most obvious feature.
Monarch top side - compare with above. You can also tell male and female Monarchs apart from each other. This is a male, as told by the narrow black veining and the two round, black dots on the hindwings.
Our own butterfly garden is still at very humble beginnings, but the mass of plants we've been given by friends and neighbours has certainly got us off to a good start. In this bed, a Mexican Sunflower stands tall above New England Aster and Red Sage.
Another insect mimic that isn't quite what it seems! This may look like a bumble bee, but notice the long antennae. This is a Snowberry Clearwing - a species of hawkmoth - which is able to fly by day unmolested as it looks like a bee, so is left alone. Unfortunately this is yet another of those New World things that has been wrongly named and now it's too late to change; the clearwings are actually a completely different family of moths, unrelated to the hawkmoths. This should best be called Snowberry Beehawk as it is closely related to the Beehawk moths of the Old World. This is a common species around Cape May and best told by its black legs (though the light shining on them makes them look pale in places here). The similar Hummingbird Clearwing has white legs.
While enjoying skimmers and terns on the beaches on September 9th, I was intrigued by the bird on the left. These are clearly both Royal Terns, a common species at Cape May, though not a regular breeder with us at present. What intrigued me about the bird on the left is just how relatively dainty it looks when compared with the typical bird on the right. While Royals Terns do vary a little in size, bill size is one of the features that is used to define the West African population from the Western Atlantic population in the USA. This smaller-billed bird would certainly not look out of place in The Gambia where I have seen many birds of the race albidorsalis and it does make me wonder whether some of them make it across the Atlantic on the back of stormy weather. Something to ponder upon over a few beers I think!
The wide expanses of intertidal flats and beaches around Stone Harbour are great places for shorebirds and a few Red Knot were on their amazing southbound migration from the High Arctic to South America and had dropped in for a refuel last time I was there. This is clearly an adult with remnants of its rufous breeding plumage still showing. Note the old and very worn wing coverts with their very pointy tips, the result of the softer parts of the feathers wearing away and just leaving the central shafts.
Well Cape May is, after all, all about migration and September is the peak month for the movement of American Kestrels - though October is continuing to be good for them this year too. On October 20th, Megan and I went down to Sunset Boulevard in the evening where up to 40 American Kestrels had been gathering to feed on grasshoppers in the open, short grassland there. It was getting late by the time we got down there, but here's just a few of a party of seventeen which were strung out on wires near the Magnasite Plant and put on a fabulous display. With Merlins zipping through every few minutes too, it really was a treat!
As if we needed signs from the birds that October was only just around the corner, a nice Blue Jay movement took place on September 29th and my Wednesday walk started with a wonderful flock of 147 of them flying around the lighthouse and seeming a bit unsure what to do next. Blue Jays are poorly equipped for taking the Delware Bay on so many probably head back up the shore to cross further north where the bay is much narrower. That morning, we had at least 300 Blue Jays looping around Cape May Point with some bigger flocks coming a few days later.