Text and Photo by Peter Vankevich
I spent some time again hanging out on the dunes in early October (2013) waiting for Peregrine Falcons and other raptors to pass by on their way to their wintering grounds. My favorite location is what my friends Lee Kimball and Tucker Scully have dubbed the “North Pony parking lot,” the nameless little asphalt patch on the ocean side just about a half mile from the pony pasture towards the Hatteras ferry dock. It was there that I noticed many bright orange butterflies flying by in a quick and somewhat erratic pattern. What was interesting is that all of them were heading in the direction of Hatteras Island. I remember this phenomenon happened around the same time last fall. They all appeared to be the same species and I suspected that they were one of the fritillary butterflies. I took a walk with my camera and came across one that was resting on what appears to be a Maryland Golden Aster. It was a Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) also known as the passion butterfly. They have a wingspan that can be nearly 4 inches and the upper surface of the wings is bright orange with distinctive black markings; upper ones have white centers. The undersides of the wings are brown with elongated silvery-white spots. Females are generally larger than males and are somewhat darker and more extensively marked.
The Gulf Fritillary distribution range is throughout the southern United States southward through Mexico, Central America and the West Indies to South America. They have expanded farther west into California in large part due to the popularity of the passion plants. Our region is at their northern range and they are most likely to be seen on Ocracoke from mid to late summer into the early fall. Its other name, the passion butterfly derives from the fact that the passion flower is its host plant. I do not know why these butterflies were all flying northeast at this time of year. If anyone knows, I’d like to hear from you.
Speaking of butterflies, I have not noticed many Monarchs on the island this fall. I wonder if there is a delayed migration.
I mentioned migrating raptors. Last fall, the big star was the Peregrine Falcon when 42 were observed flying over Ocracoke on October 3, 2012 in a period of four hours. So far this year, the “yellow jersey” is worn by the Sharp-shinned Hawk. On October 17 Gil and Jann Randell counted a stunning and exponential number of 475 individuals passing through in just four hours. Several sharp-shins will spend much of the winter on Ocracoke. Comments and ideas for a future column: firstname.lastname@example.org.