Bye bye, butterfly

It’s been a spectacular Sunday on the razor’s edge between summer and fall: brilliant blue sky, mid-70s, cool dry breeze, surely the last weekend day of its kind before the coats come out. On Labor Day morning last week, I took my husband to the zoo to say a seasonal farewell to its butterfly garden on the more official “last day of summer.” This morning, in my own mini-butterfly garden (modeled on the zoo’s), I saw a late-season monarch stop by, perching for a minute or two on a stalk of my joe-pye weed before it was on its way.

tiger swallowtail and joe-pye weed

This is my joe-pye weed — a superb, hardy, pollinator-attracting plant I would not have tracked down for my yard if I hadn’t seen monarchs all over it a couple years back at the zoo. Just keep it watered, and it will spread on its own. That is not, of course, a monarch up there but an Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly that hung out in my yard for two weeks straight in August. Last year I was a little sad that only bees were drawn to the tall plants — although this year at the zoo, as we focused on the importance of pollinators, I realized that bees need our help more than butterflies in that respect, with the added risk of colony collapse disorder and bees’ crucial role in providing not just honey, but essentials like chocolate and coffee as well, by spreading pollen from plant to plant as they sip nectar. This year, bees and the butterfly, which finally appeared in August, shared the joe-pye weed.

julia on trunk

julia butterfly

On Labor Day, the zoo’s butterfly garden’s last hurrah for the season, the most active and visible subspecies was this orange one, known as a julia.But even after that garden goes dark for nine months, the zoo keeps its hand in butterfly-conservation efforts — specifically, preserving the Dakota skipper and Powesheik skipperling, inhabitants of Minnesota’s ever-shrinking tall-grass prairie. (Skippers are a butterfly-moth hybrid explained here by the self-described Old Naturalist. And the key differences between butterflies and moths — butterflies have knobbier antennae and hold their wings closed while perching) are detailed here by the Lepidopterist’s Society.)

My tiger swallowtail (so reliably present for a couple of weeks that I dubbed it my “yard pet”) has moved on — either by migration or by virtue of a lifespan measured in weeks. There’s a sadness in the fleeting beauty, but still hope that careful perennial-planting choices can lure next year’s generation, too.




Tail end of summer

As Labor Day approaches, along with the departure of our traveling summer dino exhibit, I must thank my fellow volunteer Emily for showing me how to make the most of a scheduled hour at the exhibit trail’s endpoint, Dino Village. We’ve had two such hours together in the past month, both on rainy days. Both times we took shelter in the interpretive booth, where Emily displayed her prowess with coprolite artifacts (more about those in a moment) and took this picture (she declined to be photographed herself).

Besides the coprolite fossils, which I’m so bravely gripping here, the booth held a delicate glazed ostrich egg about the same size as a dinosaur egg. As kids approached the booth, I devised my second-favorite interpretive question: “Is this a huge egg or a tiny egg?” Coming from a dinosaur, of course, it’s tiny; a proportionately sized egg would have a shell too thick for the dino-baby to shatter from within. My favorite question, though, applied to the coprolites: “What do you think these are?” Emily taught me not to answer this until the children had already touched the fossils. She also showed me the immensely charming companion book stashed in the booth.

The disclosure “It’s poop!” leads to giggles, recoiling or blank stares, depending on the toucher. “Jurassic Poop” further explains that before droppings can spend thousands of years hardening into rock, they first must drop in a cool, dry environment that fosters fossilization. Emily, a new summer “green-shirt” volunteer who plans to go through more intensive training and become a permanent “blue-shirt,” understood the full benefit of the ask-touch-tell sequence: Sure, you can walk around with a coprolite in your hand and ask, “Would you like to touch this poop?” I’d seen volunteers doing that before, and it works just fine: A certain type of kid-guest will always leap at the chance. But forcing a guest to think harder and work for the answer gives the brain a better workout, lures in the potentially squeamish and often gets a more dramatic response.

Despite my mild-at-best interest in dinosaurs, I also have a new favorite to go along with my other two: this guy, Parasaurolophus, who’s hanging out here in Dino Village. Emily and I wondered where he’ll go when this exhibit packs up and moves on in a week, since this statue isn’t part of the traveling animatronic herd: I’ll say something here when I know. My favorite thing about Para, obviously, is his head-crest, whose multiple uses included mating calls. But child-visitors to the booth all told Emily, when she asked, that their favorite was T-rex. One little boy explained his preference: “He’s even bigger than my dad!”

Our butterfly garden is the other summertime exhibit that’s technically winding down, but nobody has informed its winged inhabitants: When I stopped by last week, they were fluttering everywhere, in greater numbers than I’d ever seen. Their favorite plant seemed to be the Joe-Pye weed, a late-blooming perennial I’ve heard of but never knowingly seen. (Thanks to ever-helpful zoo staffer Cale for letting me know.) It can grow up to 9 feet tall, but there’s a “Little Joe” dwarf variety that stops at 4 feet, and I’m pretty sure that’s what was growing here. It’s a cold-tolerant herb, also known as snakeroot and Queen of the Meadow, and a magnet for monarchs as well as the zebra longwings seen above. I plan to add it to my own garden soon, before the local butterflies (and dinosaurs) move on.

Between seasons

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the zoo’s two summer-specific attractions, the butterfly garden and the Wells Fargo Family Farm. My mind tends to link them with heat and crowds. But now, in this back-to-school interlude of sudden quiet, nothing hides the charm of either place. Two weeks ago, before the garden’s annual Labor Day closure, I ducked in to bid the butterflies farewell. Then last week, while looping the Northern Trail, I finally veered off into farmland.

In its final week of the year, the butterfly garden was mostly about the greenery, with just a few fluttering inhabitants left — including the “queen” hiding amid the wildflowers above, orange and black but smaller than a monarch, with white polka dots sprinkled across her wings. No insect perched on the dishes of fruit set out to attract the butterflies. And it was raining, ever so lightly: a mere mist evaporating on my forearms. This pleased me as much as any so-called perfect summer day, and the smattering of zoo guests strolling the walkways seemed equally contented.

A week later, the garden had closed but the same caressing mist-rain fell gently on the farm — including Prince and Duke, the rare American Cream draft horses who’ve been here since the farm opened ten years ago. The farm has a longer season (April-October) than the butterfly garden, and that season tapers off more more gradually: spring and fall weekdays have no demos, petting or other “events,” but you can wander around unobstructed, collecting a leisurely eyeful of buildings and animals. The sheep and goats, in particular, will look back at you, extra-alert to humans in this calmer, cooler space and time.