We Brake for Butterflies

Puddling Tiger Swallowtails Tanking up on Goose Creek Mud

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many congregations of swallowtails on our road at one time. The image above shows only part of one patch, and there were watering holes all up and down the lane from barn to bend, each with 20 to more than 50 * yellow male tiger swallowtails exclusively (a yellow phase female might have slipped in while the guys were tanking up). So I figured maybe there was a sports-bar atmosphere going on here.

But there has also been smaller numbers of smaller dark-coppery butterflies I haven’t stopped in the sprinkles to identify, also puddling–crescents, admirals–I’ll pay more attention today.

The camera can’t capture the image–much less the feeling–when they flush from their places on the road to swirl like so much living confetti in a whirlwind of wings, from shade to sun, haphazard, loopy circles to soon return to the same or a nearby spot where some essential, or delicious substance exudes from the ordinary looking seeps and puddles on our road.

We consider the daily butterfly celebration just one of our amenities, but we don’t take it for granted. Not everybody is so honored to have aerial decorations so many summer days.

For the longest time, I thought the blue-black ones were spicebush swallowtails. There is such a thing and it looks similar to both the (do-not-eat poisonous) PIPEVINE swallowtail AND to the dark phase female TIGER swallowtails. I pulled images of all of them together, and even though it got reduced for the Posterous page, you can take a look, then pay more attention next time you see a dark swallowtail, realizing it could be one of a number of dark species or sexual forms.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. On several occasions while in the wilderness of Quebec I have seen hundreds of swallow-tail butterflies congregate together, usually at the shore line on sandy beaches. One gets the impression there is some sort of social logic when they gather, but who knows?

    I have noticed that they are difficult to disturb. They don’t even want to move when you gently interrupt them with a gentle finger.