Found: A Clay Pond ‘Flasher!’

Common Wood Nymph Butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow in Clay Pond, NY

There are things that fascinate us, and drive us to plumb their meaning. Some many years ago, in the meadow surrounding Raystown Lake in Pennsylvania, I saw Common Wood Nymphs with spectacular baby-blue eyespots on the forewings. After some minutes, this small pod of Wood Nymphs disappeared, and I could no longer shake them out of the meadow grasses.

I will never forget that morning. Those wing ‘eyes’ tore at my imagination. Why were they so different at this lakeside habitat? ‘Eyes’ so large, so comely blue?

Seems on an earlier trip to visit Israel, I brought with me my copy of Robert Michale Pyle’s book, The Thunder Tree – Lessons From An Urban Wildland (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993). Nearly three weeks ago, after finishing a couple of mystery novels that Rachel had on her Mishmarot bookshelf, I spotted The Thunder Tree, left there by . . . me. I picked it up, and began a re-read that continued on my April 25th El Al flight, and well today, bells and whistles started to go off. Pyle describes how, as a high schooler, he noted the variety of Wood Nymph eyespots along his beloved High Line Canal in what is now Aurora, Colorado. He shares:  “One day as I picked my way through the Sand Creek glade, watching out for the poison ivy whose leaves were as shiny as the cottonwoods,’ I spotted a pale female wood nymph and gave chase. She took cover in a clump of willow and disappeared on a trunk of her own color. Large and perfect, she was invisible with her wings tucked down. Then, disturbed by a fly, her forewings spread, revealing the big, cowlick eyespots that gave her subspecies the name bo-opis, or the ox-eyed wood nymph.” What does Pyle attribute this broad variety of eyespots to? “I concluded that all of these Peggies [Wood Nymphs] belonged to one big plastic species with a lot of latitude for expression, a theory later confirmed by better scientists than I . . . . I showed, to my satisfaction, that wood nymphs escape predation by flashing their big blue eyes . . . .”

Two years ago, Barbara Ann introduced me to Clay Pond in very western New York state. In the wet meadow that surrounded the protected pond, I flushed out this stunner of a Wood Nymph. Would you look at those forewing ‘eyes!’ Mind you not quite baby-blue, but huge, prominent and encircled by hot! yellowish rings! The very kinds of in-your-face butterfly beauty that Pyle and I both find, well startling, enchanting, extraordinary and a bunch more.

Once every so many years I meet such Wood Nymphs again, and it electrifies, Truth Be Told.


A “Not So Common” Wood Nymph

Common Wood Nymph Butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow in Clay Pond, NY

Years ago, at Raystown Lake in Central Pennsylvania, I saw Common Wood Nymph butterflies whose blue centered eye-spots dazzled me. I worked that habitat for a single day, and never forgot how those eye-spots evoked memories of fine gems, that I’d seen in Christies’, Sotheby’s and Dole’s magnificent jewelry auction galleries in New York.

Since then, I’ve sought to find comparable Common Wood Nymphs. Little success there.

This year I visited Clay Pond, a New York State conserved wetland. Not the New York metropolitan area that I came to have a love/hate relationship with, but Western New York, green and pristine. High grasses surrounded the Pond, and there were lots of butterflies. Seeing them was difficult, because their flights were short, quickly descending down into the tightly set grasses and sedges.

This one showed itself, then went into the above, fly up, descend to hide, flee my approach through the grass (which must have been easily detected). After repeated escapes from me, it descended, and stayed, hiding and resting.

As I closed in, Bazoom! It was gorgeous. Those eye-spots, baby blue, and circled by light orange rings, all against a background of Stetson hat chocolate brown. It shot, shot,shot. Waited for my slides to be returned from Dwayne’s Photo, and Yippee Eye Ay, Yippee Eye Oh!! A satyr image, Good enough to share.


Wood Nymph Butterfly

Wood Nymph Butterfly at Raccoon Creek State Park Enlarged

Ah the Wood Nymph butterfly. The rich chocolate color of fine leather or of a scrumptious Hershey bar. These medium sized butterflies capture the hiker’s imagination because from May to late September they are the trail markers that we encounter as we enjoy our way alongside forest edge, fields and most cut edges. Some zip away and out of sight, some fly ahead just 15 feet, while others hesitate and stand their ground.

Cercyonis pegala offers another benefit. They display fascinating diversity. While the markings of most other butterflies show hardly any variety, those of wood nymphs present a great deal of difference. Large eyes or smaller eyes, yellow, orange or   intermediate colors, blues, or whites or indeterminate pastels in the eyes. Rich browns to a host of brown variations in the wing. You notice these things when you pause to examine your trail sentries. It just makes for fascinating travel.

I have been straining my brain to remember having ever seen a wood nymph butterfly nectaring at a flower. If I have and can’t remember, then even so I’ve spotted hundreds over the years, and though I’ve seen them at scat, and attracted them to traps of banana/fruit, visits to flowers elude my memory.

Our instant individual was on Nichol Road trail in Raccoon Creek State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania. On my approach it quickly flew off, straight to a nearby tree. It perched on the opposite side of the trunk. I approached very slowly, saw it there…and it allowed my to shoot quite a few macro- images. Probably  a female, with larger eye spots and larger in size

I kept and now use this image because it effectively shares the real time look of wood nymphs and because of the nice interplay offered by bark and butterfly.


Wood Nymph Butterfly

Wood Nymph Butterfly at Raccoon Creek State Park

Here’s the view of the Wood Nymph Butterfly the first time that you ever see one. You’re probably on a trail that skirts the edge of a wooded habitat.

Two possibilities present themselves. Cercyonis pegala will 1) will flee, flying low and disappearing into dense tree undergrowth or into the field vegetation or 2) it will allow you to continue your approach and then flee.

We can presume that this one is a female. Females perch. Males patrol, searching for receptive females. When you first become fascinated with butterflies, the non-stop, seemingly senseless flight of male Wood Nymphs justifies your thinking that these butterflies are ‘crazy.’

So here again is a butterfly species that almost seems to be trailing/tracking you as you happily hike that trail along forest’s edge. This is the kind of escort that is appreciated as I spend hours working unspoiled habitat, on the hunt for butterflies to photograph. I see Wood Nymphs, but I don’t see humans for hours on end. I sometimes stop, look skyward and think.