Yes to Both Questions . . .

Tawny Hackberry butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park, PA
We see fewer and fewer Tawny Emperor (also known as Tawny Hackberry) butterflies at Raccoon Creek State Park. A recent email from someone who monitors the insects of Pennsylvlania included the Tawny amongst the rare and uncommon butterflies. I hope this is not the future for this brown masterpiece. Most encouraging is the abundance of its hostplant, Hackberries, tree and bushes.

I’ve shared this image with many groups of adults and children. Question #1 usually is, “Is this a moth?” No, it is a butterfly. Prominent head, relatively slender body and antennae (the plural) consisting of a pair of long stems with a club at its end.

Question #2 often expresses curiosity about those antennae. We have 2 eyes, 2 ears, 2 nostrils. Our Tawny has those 2 antennae. What do they do? Robert Michael Pyle’s National Audubon Society Field Guide to Butterflies ( Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) writes that “Antennae are probably used for smelling as well as for touching and orientation.” The antennae seen here are quite long, each with a whitish club. Looking at these antennae, see how their length enables them be aware of what is going on around them.

So ‘Yes’ to both questions. If you have an additional question, “A female or a male?” The answer to that one is . . . it is difficult to tell the sex of a Tawny, unless of course you are another Tawny.


Tawny Hackberry & the Nixon White House Photographers

Tawny hackberry butterfly photographed at Raccoon Creek State Park, PA

Hannah and David gave me Dennis Brack’s Presidential Picture Stories – Behind the Cameras at the White House (2013)David Kleber was an NBC White House Photographer, and had alot to do with the book design and production of this fascinating book. One of those hard to put down reads. Inside recollections of their work and terrific anecdotes with so many U.S. Presidents of the 20th century.

So I get to page 98 … and there it is. Acknowledgment of a dilemma that I have experienced so many times in the field. The same tense drama that accompanied the taking of this photo of Asterocampa clyton. Sitting there having dinner, page 98 was the first time that I had ever seen anyone else moan about this game changer of a moment.

Brack writes of the day that Richard Nixon relinquished his job as President, his final day in the job…”…Nixon walked up the ramp to the helicopter and turned to face the crowd on the lawn. First, there was a wave, almost a salute-better get that, it might be all there is. Then he continued with his right arm, bringing it across his face and holding his hand high above-certainly want that. The photographers’ prayers started: “Lord, please let me be on frame thirty-one and not frame thirty-five.” Finally, the classic Nixon Double Whammy, his arms straight out and both hands making the “V” sign….Some photographers got the picture and were happy, some did not and were not so happy.”

Yes, I still shoot film (Fuji slide). I happened upon this Tawny Emperor (its other name) in the most unlikely place, and I had just done a no-no. I had left the roll from the day before, with more than ⅔ of the 36 exposures used,  in the camera. This butterfly was spectacular and in a priceless pose, on the horizontal member of a wooden trail sign at the trailhead of the Wetland trail in Raccoon Creek State Park, in southwestern Pennsylvania.

When I am impressed by a butterfly, very impressed, I like to shoot 40 to 50 exposures of it, hoping that 1 or 2 will be winners. The risk? The risk is that after 2  0r 3 camera clicks, the butterfly is goooooone! Now how could I do that with less than 10 unexposed shots in the camera? Like the White House cameramen (all men back then), I asked G-d’s help, shot the roll…held my breath while I removed the roll and reloaded a roll of ASA 100, and … it was still there, still posing. Was it injured, sick? I shot out the entire new roll, and again reloaded. At about the 5th or 6th shot of this 3rd roll, our Tawny Hackberry disappeared like a rocket, straight out of sight.

Here’s the best of those exposures. Thanks to Dennis Brack, David Kleber and Hannah Kleber.


Hackberry Emperor (In the Delta)

Hackberry emperor butterfly photographed by Jeffrey Zablow at Mississippi

We drove nearly 900 miles from Pittsburgh, down to Greenville, Mississippi. It helped that my grade school teachers made the spelling of this beautiful state an absolute must. You had to be able to spell M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. Greenville was a bustling cotton town, cotton brought to the docks was loaded on ships and sent to all corners of the globe. Although Greenville no longer thrives, the wildlife in the Mississippi delta region was all new to me.

Well, almost all new. Asterocampa celtis is also found in Pennsylvania. We have posted several images of our northern hackberrys. The Hackberry emperors and Tawny emperors (Asterocampa clyton) flying in western Mississippi were impressively rich in color. Their appealing coloration often led to confusion, i.e., was this one here a Hackberry or a Tawny? Leroy Percy State Park offered both hackberrys. Ours here is a Hackberry emperor.

A trip back to Mississippi included several mornings at Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately, the Rangers there declined my request to show me the most promising trails….? Of course that little damped my enthusiasm to find and photograph new butterflies. Find them I did. Several species I had never seen before. After once seeing (I have not doubt about that) a Goatweed Leafwing (Anaea andria) in Raccoon Creek Sate Park in southwestern Pennsylvania (no photo…I was not expecting to encounter it, and it certainly was startled by me…and zoomed away), early in the morning at Yazoo, I had one of those, Am I seeing what I am seeing? experiences. There was a Goatweed leafwing perched on a tree trunk, in the shade of the morning. I regained my head, looked, looked, looked and when I remembered, Duh! You are a photographer, I began to raise my Canon…Whist! it disappeared into the forest. Mississipi. Mosquitoes, moderate. Chiggers, Uh oh!



Hackberry Emperor Butterfly

Hackberry emperor butterfly photographed by Jeffrey Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park, PA

You don’t forget this. When you have just begun your serious goal to photograph butterflies, and begun your nearly daily fieldwork, the trails you travel can be thankfully free of other people, and sometimes, a bit too lonely and deserted. Both thoughts alternate, at times. There are several butterflies that break those moods, and provide a smile at the corners of your lips, and a bit of reassurance that you are not wholly alone in your quest for dropdead striking images of Leps.

Asterocampa celtis is an excellent example of a butterfly that will meet you on your trail, sometimes guide you along for a bit, and fly back to await the next hiker or whatever. Once in a while your hackberry host will fly onto your sleeve or hat or backpack…resting there a bit, as if to coach, “Keep going, I’ll go with you for a little bit.” You know that this is a smige of fancy, but, while you’re in their company, it ain’t that bad…. Others will fly up from the trail, into a nearby tree, never more than say 10 feet up from the trail. Should you return in 5 minutes, that same fella will be right back at the same spot on the trail.

Our instant Hackberry emperor is a handsome gent, resting in the morning sun, and showing off his white dots, eyespots, chevrons and browns associated with the finest of shoe leathers. Madison Avenue in New York had the most amazing shoe stores. His assortment of browns reminds me of the shmeksy choices offered on those $$$ shoe racks, of the extraordinary perfume of the leathers therein.

Very territorial, these male butterflies stake out their territory along trails, for hours on end. Females are more difficult to spot. When you find these butterflies, you can be certain that their hostplants, hackberry (Celtis) trees and shrubs are nearby. So in Raccoon Creek State Park, in Pennsylvania, where we met this hackberry.

They are also often seen on scat. Whether in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia or Mississippi, if there is fresh scat left by a carnivore, expect to see a collection of Hackberry emperor males and the closely related Tawny emperor males. Remember, males fly alot, resulting in much protein wear and tear. The proteins available in the scat of meat eaters, and the minerals therein, enable their bodies to synthesize replacement protein, to remain buff, and to give them the vah-vah-vah-voom to attract suitable mates.