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Papilioninae come gliding by
Many smaller butterflies excite me: Falcate Orangetips with their white wings with black marbling (especially the males with screaming orange on forward wing tips); Eastern Tailed Blues looking so mundane and dull gray until - SURPRISE! - open wings reveal a male's lovely blue wing tops; and, let me never tire of them, the common Gray Hairstreaks that will for eternity jiggle and rub their wings together just to call attention to the fake "eye" at the lower, rear corner of their folded wings. These and other little lepidopterae have their various charms - aesthetic, unusual, or just downright funky. But let that larger, dark form come gliding by and I instantly fall for the lovely grace of a Swallowtail.
Somehow that flight epitomizes a butterfly for me. Oh, I know, Skippers skip and flip and stop and start; Sulphurs zoom and dive and go all out; but Swallowtails fly so easily and with such seeming calm that, should the myth be true that as a butterfly our souls take form, I think I'd like to know their grace, their ease, their apparently effortless flight.
Not that they spend all their time in such flight. I've thought how a male Tiger can resemble an F-16 as it shoots by or rapidly climbs, rolling and twisting as, jockeying for a dominant position, it chases another male from its territory. And have you watched a Swallowtail dine lately? How often do they light and calmly sip nectar from their chosen plant? Well, yes, sometimes on a large spike of a butterfly bush or those of penta, both of which demand their leisured full attention. But watch them nectar on old-fashioned garden phlox: hovering like a helicopter or hummingbird, wings beating a buzillion beats per second, they extend their proboscises, slurp up the goods, and hover over to the next bloom. Females employ that same rapid and continuous wing beat to oviposit or lay an egg, hovering with abdomen tip extended. But when it's time to explore a new area for food or mates, they emulate the glider and in so doing assuredly save energy and fuel.
Swallowtails are often referred to as "the true swallowtails" (subfamily Papilioninae) and, along with Parnassians (light or pale colored species seen in the northern and western United States and Canada), form the North American branch of the family Papilionidae. Except for the tailless Polydamas Swallowtail, which normally flies only as far north as the Rio Grande Valley, all true North American Swallowtails do indeed have tails. And the Zebra Swallowtail, which flies mainly east of here, has the longest tail that, in its summer form, exceeds 1 inch in length. In our area we most commonly see the Black, the Tiger, the Pipevine, and the Giant Swallowtail (you may see descriptions and some characteristics below in "Butterfly List"). They're the largest of our North American butterflies, having wingspans from over 2 to more than 5 ½ inches. With the wider wingspan, it's inevitable that this species glides and takes advantage of its greater aerodynamics. Actually, possibly the largest butterfly in the world, the Australasian Birdwing, is a member of the family Papilionidae, and its wingspan may reach 12 inches. But the largest in North America, our Giant Swallowtail, superbly displays its family's grace at a mere 5 inches or so.
My back yard has lately become a haven for Giant Swallowtails, especially females, who go berserk choosing between three clusters of rue, a 4-feet tall wafer ash or hop tree, and a very small Hercules club that Molly generously gave me this spring. Perhaps my favorite Giant Swallowtail was the female who appeared one afternoon last week. The lower part of her left hind wing was tattered as if she had been attacked by a predator and willingly sacrificed one of her tails as the price for freedom. My tattered female excitedly flew from one host plant to another, pausing at each long enough to oviposit. Every so often she would linger to refresh herself on lavender lantana, spring phlox, or scabiosa blooms. Then off she would go again to lay eggs at the next host plant. Some butterflies like the Zebra Longwing or Heliconian are known to trapline, that is, to fly a specific route each day, stopping to nectar at the same places. Well, predictable as clockwork, this female showed up mid-afternoon for three successive days and engaged in the same routine, laying eggs for a while, nectaring for a while, and intermittently gliding from one area to the next. A female Giant can lay up to four or five hundred eggs in her lifetime. God only knows how many this female laid in the garden, but by the end of the third day I counted over fifteen eggs on the few leaves of the baby Hercules club. She didn't appear on the fourth or any subsequent days, but I'll remember how, though tattered and somewhat worn, she displayed all the beauty and grace of the Swallowtails I love.
P.S. You may recall my unsuccessful chase of a Falcate Orangetip recently at the Nature Center as I sought to photograph it. I've seen the Falcate only once each of the last two years. Well, the first week of April I led members of the Tarrant County Butterfly Society on a field trip to the LBJ Grasslands. While having lunch beneath the trees, we suddenly noticed an apparently white butterfly drifting around. Soon there were several. Then there were five or six. I yelled at Joann and we both grabbed our macros only to discover that we could leisurely photograph Falcate Orangetips as they calmly nectared on numerous blooms of Crow Poison.
Here are the most useful guides I know of to help you plan and develop your own butterfly garden or meadow or to learn more about our butterflies. Remember that both the Tarrant County Butterfly Society (see "More Info") and the Dallas County Lepidopterists' Society (see link below) meet monthly and often have field trips in which you are quite welcome to participate.
Butterfly Gardening for the South by Geyata Ajilvsgi. 1990. Taylor Publishing Company.
Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas by John and Gloria Tveten. 1996. University of Texas Press.
Butterflies through Binoculars: The West by Jeffrey Glassberg. 2001. Oxford University Press.
Four Wings and a Prayer by Sue Halpern. 2001. Random House.
Native Texas Plants by Sally Wasowski and Andy Wasowski. 1997. Gulf Publishing Company.
Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife by Noreen Dalmude and Kelly Conrad Bender. 1999. Texas Parks and Wildlife Press.
http://www.dallasbutterflies.com/ -- excellent site of Dale Clark, local lepidopterist.
http://www.monarchwatch.org/ -- have a question about monarchs?
http://www.learner.org/jnorth/ -- answers to a trillion questions about monarchs. Most important, each spring they compile an updated map based on current sightings so that you can follow the migration of the monarchs north. They also map the journey south.
http://www.naba.org/ -- the North American Butterfly Association; much info.
http://forums.gardenweb.com/forums/butterfly/ -- some practical help on butterflies and gardening to attract them.
http://www.txcn.com/sharedcontent/features/texasgardener/BI_BUTTERFLY.6a12d05e.html -- garden guidelines by Charlene Rowell of Heard Museum and Tina Dombrowski of Texas Discovery Gardens.
http://www.texasdiscoverygardens.org/TopTenButterflyPlantlist.htm -- list of some useful host and nectar plants.
For more information, you may contact:
Tarrant County Butterfly Society (817) 923-8474
Joann Karges or (817) 923-8474
Henry Turner or (817) 922-9484