Three Swallowtails: Big, Bold, Beautiful

During these dog days of summer, the fields of Eliza Howell Park are alive with flowers and butterflies. Swallowtails are the largest butterflies in North America and three different swallowtail species are now flying in these fields and feeding on the flowers. They are big and hard to miss when one is walking among the flowers.

And they almost beg to have their picture taken.

Two swallowtail species are often found in the park during the summer – Black Swallowtail and Tiger Swallowtail. The third, Giant Swallowtail, is a more southern species that appears only occasionally. I didn’t see it until August 4 this year, when this picture was taken.

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As the name suggests, Giant Swallowtail is the largest of the three (with a wingspan of about 5 inches).

Swallowtails use their long proboscis for taking nectar and the best chance for someone to get close to view and/or photograph is when they are feeding. The “swallowtail” name comes from the “tail” extending in back from each hindwing, giving the appearance of a forked tail similar to that of some swallows (such as the Barn Swallow).

At first glance, Black Swallowtail and Giant Swallowtail look somewhat alike, especially when both are in the spread wing position. This picture is of a male Black Swallowtail.

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In addition to the fact that the Black Swallowtail is smaller (wingspan of about 4 inches), the yellow lines are in different locations on the wings.

The Tiger Swallowtail is also yellow and black, in fact it gets its name from the black and yellow striped look. It is easily distinguished, however, as it is more a yellow butterfly than a black one.

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While there is some variation among individuals in size, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (to give its full name) is usually larger than Black Swallowtails but smaller than Giant Swallowtails.

Butterflies often look different when their wings are folded or partially folded. It is interesting to compare the next two pictures. First a Giant Swallowtail.

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Then a Tiger Swallowtail.

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Of the three, the only one in which the difference between the male and female is major is the Black Swallowtail. Here is a picture of a female, followed by one of a male.

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Butterfly watching is usually enhanced by being able to recognize differences among species. But that ability can come gradually.

My main reason for writing about these three swallowtails is simply to highlight what is happening now in Eliza Howell Park. The season is short (especially for the Giant Swallowtail), but it is a special time of the year when one can watch all three of these big, bold, and beautiful butterflies on the same day.

 

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2018 Butterflies: A Top 10 List

2018 has been a very good year for butterflies in Eliza Howell Park. Recently I saw the 30th different species of the year (30 species that I was able to identify; there are some small brown skippers that I do not know well enough).

It was also a good butterfly year in that I was more successful in photographing them, learning to get close enough to capture them with a phone camera. The pictures here were all taken in the park this year.

This list could have been considerably longer, but these ten are the ones that I’d like to call to the reader’s attention at this time.

Common Buckeye (first seen September 11; photo September 11)

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Though called “common,” I don’t see many Common Buckeyes in Eliza Howell. When I do see one, it is usually late in the season. They are a more southern species, at least for much of the season. In Michigan in football season it may be appropriate to point out that the “Buckeye” name has nothing to do with Ohio. 

Black Swallowtail (first seen May 29; photo September 7)

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Male and female Black Swallowtails look a little different; this is a female. Black Swallowtails are common and are often found in gardens. Parsley family plants serve as food plants for the caterpillars.

Viceroy (first seen August 4; photo August 10)

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Viceroy butterflies look like Monarch butterflies and benefit from the Monarch’s reputation among birds for being toxic. Ordinarily, Viceroys have a clear black band across the hindwings (a line which Monarchs do not have), but that line is extremely faint in this one.

Monarch (first seen May 24; photo August 6)

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Monarchs are the most famous butterfly in country, known for their annual migration, their dependence on milkweed plants, and their recent decline in numbers. I don’t know the long-term implications, but there were a great number of Monarchs in southeast Michigan this year – and in Eliza Howell Park.

Tiger Swallowtail (first seen May 31; photo August 2)

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Tiger Swallowtails were also common this year, showing up frequently throughout the summer.

Silver-spotted Skipper (first seen June 24; photo July 26)

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Roughly one third of all butterfly species in North America are skippers and, as a rule, they are very difficult to identify. The Silver-spotted Skipper is the most easily recognized of the skippers, perhaps reason enough to like it.

Common Checkered-Skipper (first seen June 29; photo July 24)

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The Common Checkered-Skipper, considered the most common and widespread skipper in North America, is also relatively easy to recognize. The males sometimes appear a little blue.

Giant Swallowtail (first seen July 17; photo July 17)

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The Giant Swallowtail is fairly common in more southerly regions of the country, but not here. I feel fortunate any year that it shows up in Eliza Howell. Compared with many butterflies, it is indeed a giant.

American Lady (first seen May 31; photo July 14)

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American Lady and Painted Lady are both found here; this year I saw American Lady a little more frequently. The Ladies, especially Painted Lady, migrate seasonally as Monarchs do.

Hackberry Emperor (first seen June 11; photo June 11)

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I don’t know why a small family of butterflies is called “Emperor,” but the “Hackberry” name comes from the fact that the hackberry tree is the larval food plant. They are not common in Eliza Howell.

In the middle of September, butterfly activity is slowing down and the Monarch migration to Mexico is well started. But there are still some butterflies around and it is not too late for a butterfly walk.  

 

 

 

Giant Swallowtail and Hummingbird Moth – and Bergamot

Giant Swallowtail and Hummingbird Moth have at least two things in common: they have both been seen in Eliza Howell Park during the past week and they are both partial to the blossoms and nectar of Wild Bergamot.

Giant Swallowtail is the largest butterfly in North America, with a wingspan of about 5 inches.

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Southern Michigan is the northern edge of its normal geographical range and some years I do not see them at all in the park. Since July 15 this year, one and sometimes two have been flittering among the large wildflowers in the field outside the road loop. They stop their flight, when they do, on a Wild Bergamot flower.

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It is, I think, a combination of their size and the fact that they are not common in Detroit that always make it exciting to see one.

The Snowberry Clearwing Moth is commonly called the Hummingbird Moth (a name I like) because it looks and acts a lot like a hummingbird. It flies from flower to flower, never landing, using its proboscis to sip nectar while it hovers in the air.

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It is a daytime-active moth that shows up every year in Eliza Howell. Its wingspan is about 1 and 1/2 inches. Active among bumblebees, it somewhat resembles them, though it does not crawl over the flower as bumblebees do.

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Wild Bergamot is one of the wildflowers, like Purple Coneflower, that is a magnet for butterflies, bees, and other insects. Bergamot is a type of Monarda, as is Bee Balm, a flower that many gardeners grow precisely because they want to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

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The Wild Bergamot in Eliza Howell is nearing the end of its blooming season, but it retains its power to attract.

Each of the butterflies in the next picture was photographed while visiting Bergamot. Starting top left and going clockwise: Black Swallowtail, Silver-spotted Skipper, American Lady, and E. Tiger Swallowtail.

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Giant Swallowtail and Hummingbird Moth have one other thing in common. They are both species that almost always elicit verbal responses and comments when seen: “look at that” or “what’s that” or “wow.”

They are currently entertaining in Eliza Howell Park, hosted by Wild Bergamot.