Why Do Spring Azures Do This?

Spring Azure Butterflys at Raccoon Creek State Park

Some of us have come upon butterflies, like these, and watched them do this. Once it became clear that these Spring Azure butterflies were drinking up bird ‘poop,’ our respect for such butterflies usually plummeted. If this sight made you want to know why? Why are they doing this, who is there to ask? Your friends know nothing of this, and zero of them have 1/100 of a second’s interest in it. Your friends with advanced degrees in Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Study and even your friend with a degree in Moth behavior either cannot be reached that day, or are unable to help you.

These decades of mine, pursuing butterflies, have taught me of the dearth of information out there for these good questions. In the past I’ve sought feedback from the handful of butterfly experts whose name are known, and always, yes always came up empty, none of them ever responding, not the same day nor a month later. Having been raised on the streets of a very huge eastern US city, this lack of respect, under the guise of we are too busy doing worthwhile more important works, did/does truly not sit well with me.

These Spring Azure butterflies are probably all males. They are sucking up the liquid, white nitric acid released by a bird, released along with its darker colored solid feces. Why are they doing that?

Male butterflies often fly for hours, almost without stop, seeking females. They are driven by the strong internal message: mate. This extensive, very exhausting flying wears out muscle protein. They must insure that their production of muscle protein continues, without stop, for they must constantly replenish muscle protein . . . to continue to fly and fly and fly.

Why the white, liquidy nitric acid? It is rich in the mineral Nitrogen, and nitrogen is needed to synthesize (build) new amino acid molecules, so that those same amino acid molecules can be joined together to form new butterfly muscle molecules.

I used to LOVE teaching high school Biology. I loved it.

Raccoon Creek State Park, Hookstown, Pennsylvania, west of Pittsburgh (40 minutes west of the Steel City)


Pragmatic Spring Azure Butterfly

Spring Azure butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Nichol Road, Raccoon Creek State Park, PA
Can’t tell if this Celastrina ladon is a male or a female. That determination awaits a peek at the upper surface of it wings, and this one was not interested in showing me its dorsal surface. We met on June 1, 2014. Just this morning, August 27, 2014, I was on the very same Nichol road trail at Raccoon Creek State Park, near my Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania home. Tinier than your thumbnail (take a moment to gauge that), I met 6 or 7 Spring azures during my field exploration. I decided to photograph some 3 of them, and all would having nothing to do with that, flying fast to the high grass nearby. Males all, they had no time to spare, as they searched tirelessly for new mates.

Once and a while I puzzle over why we strive to save much larger butterflies whose numbers decrease steadily, pay little notice to Azure species, and our Azures endure just fine, each year greeting you on the trails, and escorting you to the next Azure down the trail. Today their escort work was less obvious, perhaps because in the waning  days of August, procreation has become a driving instinct.

Our Azure shown here is most definitely a male, and he is ‘Pragmatic’ because all that flying, almost non-stop for hours, causes him to have to replenish those proteins that he burns out in his wing muscles. To do that, he needs certain raw materials, especially certain minerals. He’s standing on a cache of those precious minerals, and the ‘Pragmatic’ part is because . . . those minerals are abundant in that dark pile of scat (feces or ‘poop’). Yes, butterflies can be very practical.


Summer Azure

Summer Azure Butterfly photographed by Jeffrey Zablow in Phipps Conservatory Outdoor Gardens, PA

I try to be at the Outdoor Gardens of the Phipps Conservatory as early as 8:30 AM. When I succeed at doing that (its 2.3 miles from home), I park, prepare my camera, and ready myself. Film loaded (Fuji slide), blousing garters on (a precaution – the same ones issued to me by Uncle Sam = they are among the best made things ever), 5-6 rolls of slide film at the ready, I enter the gardens area.

All that done, off I go. Who are among the first greeters waiting for me? Celastrina Neglecta. These pookies, as Michal would call them, are like the sirens that drew sailors to the rocks, only to be crushed. Why? We already have lots of images of Spring Azures (Celastrina Laden) and Celastrina Neglecta, but I want even better ones. So, for 0.05 seconds I debate the use of precious film to seek 10 to 20 shots of this darling. You see the result.

August 21st and here’s the best of that lot. Wingspan of 1″. Wherever I happen to photograph, there are never other people. When others do happen to come along, wherever I may be, Phipps, National Wildlife Refuges, Toronto, wherever, I watch to see if they have a look at the butterflies that flee from their path. They almost never do. Almost all people neglect to stop and examine these tiny Azures, so dainty and so finely marked. Nor do I see curiosity about the commas, red-spotted purples and other butterflies that also avoid giant soles of shoes as they come crashing down on trail. I am amazed to this day that more folks don’t want to savor the beauty that is within reach.

Like the elderly street-minders in Chinese cities, the Azures insure that you pass their stretch of trail safely, and then pass you off to the next trail monitor. You’re not alone on the trail from as early as March, through September.



Spring Azure Butterflies

Spring Azure Butterflys at Raccoon Creek State Park

May 17th on Raccoon Creek State Park’s Lake trail. A departure from almost all of our other posts, some will recognize what they see here and it will take a moment more for the majority of you?

Celastrina ladon is a tiny butterfly that flies early in the Spring (so its name) and is one of several Azure species found in the eastern tier of U.S. states.

On the trails that they prefer, it is easy to overlook them, as the fly away ahead of your approach. You will also encounter them as they fly over cut meadows, searching for clover and other small flowering plants. Overlook them and you are missing an intriguing butterfly, whose caterpillars, for example, are ant-tended. “Ant-tended?” Yep, their caterpillars are watched over by ants. Now why would ants do that? Azure caterpillars exude a sugary material and the ants value this unique source of nutrition, and so guard the caterpillars from harm’s way. And just how and when did that relationship get started?

That white material that these 3 are taking in through their proboscises? The uric acid in the waste dropped by a large bird. Huh? These butterflies that we see here are more than likely 3 males. Male Spring Azures spend most of their time flying. This extreme activity burns a great quantity of energy and causes much wear and tear of the proteins in their flight muscles. To replenish that energy and to replace those spend proteins…such butterflies need ready sources of the elements nitrogen, sulfur, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus,etc. So now you complete the puzzle. Why are these butterflies so focused on consuming the uric acid left by a bird? Neat huh?

In May and June Spring Azures begin to disappear from their habitat and the closely related Summer Azures take flight. Year after year after year.

So much to be learned about such a tiny, tiny winged beauty!