First the disclaimer. I am not a scientist or a lepidopterologist. That’s a person who studies butterflies and moths for a living. (Yes, I had to look it up.)
Now for the background on my Photo of the Week, “When One Became Two.” A couple of decades ago, scientists noticed irregularities in Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies, especially those flitting around the Appalachian Mountains. Their investigations showed that some of the swallowtails were bigger than others. Those that were larger were also paler in yellow pigment than the smaller ones. Enough evidence was presented that it was decided that the giant-sized swallowtail was actually a new species. Thus, the Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail was born. And yes, I realized I am oversimplifying the process and intense research.
I was ignorant of all of this information until I came upon the two different swallowtails side by side, feasting on the same thistle blooms. My wife and I were showing friends from Ontario, Canada, around Rockingham County, Virginia, recently when we saw the two butterflies. Even from our vehicle 30 feet away, we could distinguish that there was a significant size difference between the two tiger swallowtails. We also noticed that the larger one was not as yellow as the smaller one.
The journalist in me went to work after we bid our friends farewell. I was fortunate enough to capture the two butterflies in the same digital frame, which made it easier to compare their sizes and colors. As you can see, the Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail is indeed larger and paler than the more common Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. A check of multiple sources verified my conclusions based on these two main distinctions. Also, the only alteration that I made to the photo was to add my watermark.
So a few years ago the Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail butterfly was designated as a different species than the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. My Photo of the Week, “When One Becomes Two,” shows why.
I just happened to see this Black Swallowtail butterfly flying in our backyard. It was the first of the spring, and I raced for my camera. Fortunately, it was still there when I returned, flitting from one dandelion to the other. When it finally landed on this one, I started snapping away from the patio 15 ft. from the butterfly.
You can judge the diminutive size of this beauty by comparing it to the dandelion blossom on which it chose to roost.
My wife and I visited the Key West Butterfly Conservatory and Museum in Key West, FL. It’s a magical place, full of colorful butterflies and plants and flowers on which they thrive. We arrived right after the business opened, which turned out well for both the butterflies and us.
The staff had just set out plates of over-ripe fruit sprinkled with various nutrients the butterflies needed. Whether intended or accidental, the breakfast offerings for the lovely creatures were themselves works of art.
My wife and I have enjoyed observing the various migrating butterflies that frequent the flowering butterfly bushes in our backyard. We had the three shrubs planted this spring. The fragrant, white blossoms have attracted several varieties of butterflies.
I especially enjoyed watching this Common Buckeye flit from flower to flower. I liked how the sun cast a shadow of the flower onto the Buckeye as it enjoyed the sweetness of the blossom.
From little on up, everything about butterflies intrigued me. The sizes, shapes, colors, flight patterns, unpredictable behavior around flowers, they all got my attention. They still do.
In August, when late-summer wildflowers are in full bloom and butterflies are migrating south, I am awestruck each and every time I see one of these flying beauties.
Even though I know certain species of butterflies frequent woodland habitats, I am always amazed when I see them flitting among stands of mixed hardwood forests. Butterflies seem to be able to find blooms that we humans ignore. Perhaps that’s a lesson for us. Slow down. Take notice of your surroundings. Enjoy what you discover. Sometimes it takes a butterfly to guide you to the flowers.
That was not the case, however, when this beautiful female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly lighted on this Joe Pye weed blossom. Joe Pye weeds grow to be six-feet tall, and their multi-headed flowers are lovely, fragrant, and serve as butterfly magnets. Other pollinators love them, too.
I used my telephoto lens to capture this shot recently in southeast Ohio. “Butterfly Season” is my Photo of the Week.
Butterflies and flowers are made for one another. On a recent hike in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, many wildflowers were in full bloom, and from their joyous, creative aerial dances the butterflies couldn’t have been happier.
Little skipper butterflies were most abundant. I found this one, which I believe to be a Confused Cloudywing, flitting from bloom to bloom on this patch of Golden Ragwort, a daisy-like flower.
The afternoon sun nicely illuminated this invigorating scene. “Brown on Yellow and Green” is my Photo of the Week.
Have you seen them? Fall’s murmurations are everywhere, or at least they were. They can be as fickle as fall weather. In fact, it’s autumn’s cooler temperatures and shorter daylight hours that often spur them on.
European starlings create the defining form of murmurations that are often caught on video. Massive, migrating flocks of starlings whirl, dance, gyrate, and swirl, darting high and low, turning seemingly indiscriminately in the sky. One minute they mimic a ballet dancer, the next a fearsome Halloween monster. Sometimes they perform over land, other times they maneuver above great bodies of water. Either way, their machinations mesmerize human observers.
These starling murmurations, so prevalent in the fall, appear cloud-like, pulsating as if scripted to a choreographed symphony. They change direction and tempo, moving from Beethoven’s measure to Springsteen’s beat. I once saw a murmuration where thousands of starlings turned and twisted like a tornado, so much so that other drivers also pulled over to watch the show.
As magical as they are, the starlings cannot claim a patent on this fascinating phenomenon. Though not as showy or perhaps even as noticeable, other creatures great and small participate in their own migratory matinees.
A recent Sunday afternoon sabbatical on a hilltop brought me to that conclusion. October’s bright afternoon sun bathed the land in warmth and beauty. I couldn’t have been happier.
To my west, the Allegheny Mountains stood eternal, the hazy blue boundary line between Virginia and West Virginia. To the east, the Massanutten Mountain held watch over the city of Harrisonburg, which hummed with its usual busyness.
As pleasant as that was, the setting became secondary to the murmuration activity in the lovely hillside meadow before me. In its last days of seasonal, colorful productivity, hundreds of butterflies flitted everywhere. Multiple species competed for the blooms they far outnumbered. Thousands of honeybees, bumble bees, and beetles also joined in the frenzy for the limited floral offerings.
Though they weren’t captivating clouds of whirling birds, each insect species had its own style. Butterflies chased butterflies. Bees buzzed butterflies, usually unsuccessfully. It wasn’t uncommon for a ladybug, honeybee, a Monarch, and a Painted Lady butterfly to all inhabit the same blooming wildflower plant, appropriating whatever they could for their journey or hibernation ahead.
Overhead, turkey vultures sailed on rising convection thermals, additional byproducts of the generous sunshine heating the cooler landscape. Beyond the urban trees and down the hill, a red-shouldered hawk shrieked its call in an attempt to flush songbirds from their protective cover.
American robins appeared with only abbreviated chirpings. Silent and absent since their last summer nestings, robin congregations bobbed on yards and scavenged crabapple trees for any morsel of energy to wing their way to milder winter climes.
An eastern phoebe launched from a solitary dogwood tree loaded with bright red berries. The bird had no interest in them, however. Instead, it captured an unsuspecting damselfly, and returned to the same perch in the same tree, wagged its tail one more time and disappeared.
On the way home, a rather lopsided V winged across the last of the sunset’s orangey glow. Even with car windows closed, I could distinctly hear the geese honking as the darkening sky absorbed them. At day’s end, I was elated to have observed a few of the other forms of nature’s murmurations, each with their own flair, their own personal signature.
What murmurations of fall have you seen? Look sharp. They’ll soon be gone, replaced by the coming season’s institution of slumbering stillness.