Guess Who Showed Up?

May 20th was a good day at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge (Rock Hall, Maryland…On the Delmarva peninsula). The morning sky was mostly clear, with passing clouds here and there. I tried to disregard the fantastic airshow above and around me…Osprey, Bald eagles, Turkey Vultures, Indigo buntings, Ruby throated hummingbirds, Great blue herons, Mockingbirds, Cardinals…. Butterflies were why I came to this Refuge, surrounded by Chesapeake Bay.

The Butterfly Garden, planted next to the house that the Ranger lives in, was planted with nectaring plants, but they were not in flower as of yet. The trails were fun, but didn’t yield too much butterfly action. There were a pair of 50 foot trees near the Rangers’ house, in full, and I mean full bloom! Perhaps hundred of thousands of white blossoms, each producing a faint aroma, not unlike vanilla. The leaves were Holly leaves. Bees of many species were flying around and around the larger tree, oddly not landing, but flying. Protecting their claimed sector of treescape?

I photographed the tree and its blooms. And I wondered. If most of the native plants are not yet in bloom, and most of the nearby garden is still developing its blooms, will butterflies be drawn to these katrillion flowers on what I think is an American Holly tree (Ilex opaca Ait.).

I waited. Waited. Then there one was. It was a good sized butterfly. A brushfoot. Which one? Then it came closer. A red-spotted purple butterfly. Characterized as a generalist, a species that seeks sustenance from a large variety of flowering species. It never came close enough for a solid macro- photograph.

The table was set, the settings were overflowing…and Red-spotted purple butterfly dropped by to enjoy some of the hundred of gallons of sweet that our tree was pumping.


Note: This is not an image of this butterfly on American holly.

Which are the Southerners? The Northerners?

Red-Spotted Purple butterflies photographed by Jeff Zablow

Two of what you see were photographed in Raccoon Creek State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania. Two were taken in Leroy Percy State Park in Hollandale, Mississippi. 980 miles separate these 2 parks.

Ok. Try this. Which images are the Southern (Mississippi) butterflies? Which are the Northern (Pennsylvania butterflies)?

Red-Spotted Purple butterflies (Basilarchia astyanax) are familiar to us through most of the United States, generally from the Rocky Mountains east to the Atlantic Ocean. A huge expanse of territory.

Millions of square miles apart from one another. Surely that much separation produces lots of difference.

The National Audubon Society Field Guide to Butterflies (North America) (Knopf, 2012) advises that “Eastern populations have some red in FW [forewing] tips above. Butterflies of the East Coast by Cech and Tudor (Princeton University Press, 2005) notes that a “series off red-orange marks near the FW [forewing] apex is more prominent in the female.” Is that helpful?

Answer: The top 2 images are Pennsylvania red-spotteds . . . the bottom 2 images are Mississippi fliers.


Diversity in Red-Spotted Purple Butteflies

Red-Spotted Purple butterflies photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek Park, PA, 7/15/07 and 8/24/07

We encounter many people during the course of a day, usually noting the unique features of each one of them. Some of us are better at that than others. Many of us, as is true of many police officers, are especially skilled at noting specific features of people they interact with.

Do we demonstrate that same skill when we see butterflies? My experience in the field, and  when I deliver a Powerpoint presentation, is that few people notice differences among butterflies of the same species. Here we view 2 Red-spotted purple butterflies, both seen at Raccoon Creek State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania. This species is well-known for having much variation from one butterfly to the next.

  1. Which has suffered the greatest loss of wing scales?
  2. Which has a pair of white marks at the very top of the head?
  3. Distinct white marking at the front ends of each forewing?
  4. Wider and more starkly black streaks along the outer margins of the hindwings?
  5. A single red streak near the front-middle edge of each forewing?
  6. White spots on the dorsal surface of its abdomen?
  7. Darker forewings?
  8. More sharply defined blue areas in the hindwings?


Red-Spotted Purple . . . Seeking R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Red-Spotted Purple butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek Park, PA, 7/26/07

Don’t know why it is so difficult, although on the other hand, approaching Limenitis arthemis astyanax usually is fruitless, as they flee, just as you’ve gotten into position to click your shutter button. In this instance, our Red-spotted purple feels assured that it is 100% hidden from me, enabling me to set myself and shoot away.

Here at Raccoon Creek State Park, 35 minutes west of Pittsburgh (once the steel capitol of the world), they usually are first seen in June. They are not familiar to most people who encounter them. They almost never are seen nectaring on flowers. The females try to stay away from biggies like humans, and the males are most often seen taking moisture on trails. Watching hikers and strollers approaching these butterflies on a trail is fascinating. As they approach the Red-spotted purple, Average Hiker/Naturalist’s LOUD footsteps (vibrating through the substrate) trigger quick flight, and the butterfly usually flies low along the ground, some 20 feet or so uptrail. AH/Naturalist barely takes note of what has happened, and almost never follows the butterfly’s actions.

I used to marvel over the Why? of this. Why don’t most people lock in on such a butterfly, and track its behavior? By now I’ve read many books written by a variety of butterfly enthusiasts, and I now am resigned to . . . that’s just the way it is. Most people don’t center their attention upon our winged beauties.

For the record, a fresh, color resplendent Limenitis a. a. is among the most beautiful of all butterflies. This one here begins to support that thought. Wonderfully showing both upper and lower wing surfaces, its reds, oranges, whites, blacks and bluish/purples are spectacular. Years have gone by, and I’ve tried to score that argument with a drop-dead gorgeous image…. This one will suffice for the moment, it begins to transmit that message. Shot with Fuji film, not photo shopped…the colors are, how do say, Laurence? Paula? Revital?

Ah, how few notice the sheer beauty of this local, one of the most attractive in a region full of lovely butterflies. Puzzle over how little recognition, respect our homegrown butterfly enjoys?

NB, How does this butterfly get through this savage winter? As caterpillars, hidden away in the leaf litter covering the forest floor. Gives you a shiver, eh?


Red-Spotted Purple . . . in Mississippi

Red-Spotted Purple butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Leroy Percy Park, Hollandale, MS, 9/08/09

My first trip to Mississippi. We visited family in Greenville and bivouacked in Leroy Percy State Park, in nearby Hollandale. This was 2011, many years since I met a fellow soldier, Gywnn, who spoke fondly of Mississippi, as we killed time in our bunks at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. But Gwynn was correct, Mississippi was a whole lot different from Brooklyn, New York, and from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Flat for as far as you could see, alligators in the park’s lake, and chiggers! I sought butterflies throughout Leroy Percy Park, and on returning to our log cabin, itching, a sudden onslaught of itching, not just here, or there, but just about everywhere? I did see mosquitoes. Mississippi does not lack mosquitoes. This itching came from  places that mosquitoes couldn’t have gotten to. And . . . I sprayed myself before I left, with Off! Back home, Off! is very effective. The Park Office hadn’t closed for the day, so I walked over there and asked the man and woman there about this almost unbearable itching (I’m starting to . . . itch). Immediate explanation. Chiggers! Tiny insects that get onto you in the high grasses. Our tough Pennsylvania winters make us chigger proof! Yay! for that.

Limenitis arthemis astyanax here in central western Mississippi is remarkably similar to those that we have posted here, from Pennsylvania. Though more than 900 miles apart, they sure look  like one another. Can you imagine that? Mississippi and Pennsylvania are so, so different. Their Red-spotted Purples are so, so similar.

Cech and Tudor (Princeton University Press, 2005) notes that the red marks near the forewing apex are more visible in  the females. Is our example here a male?