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Aflutter Along the Wissahickon

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Aflutter Along the Wissahickon

08/14/2013 10:01

Eastern Tiger SwallowtailAlighting on a Swamp Milkweed, the Tiger Swallowtail was oblivious to our presence. Nectaring on the tiny pink blooms was its main objective. Soon another Tiger Swallowtail closed in and before you know it, both Tiger Swallowtails were ‘air’ wrestling in a flighty upward spiral over who was going to own that Swamp Milkweed.  During this tussle, a Silver Spotted Skipper occupied the unattended Swamp Milkweed; such is the life cycle of butterflies and the flowers that bloom in early August. Playing out nature’s cycle is the success story of the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association’s Crossways Preserve.  

The dog days of summer may drive us into air conditioned indoors, yet, nature marches on! The fields, forests and wetlands have all sorts of flowers and grasses that are fodder for butterflies. The fields of the Crossway’s Preserve attracts all sorts of butterflies. Tiger Swallowtail, Spicebush Swallowtail and Pipevine Swallowtail represent the regal butterflies that easily are the most striking and eye catching sights to the untrained enthusiast. The Giant Swallowtail should be searched for since they have been discovered in northern New Jersey and western Massachusetts in recent years.

In suburban Montgomery County where farmland, forests and fields are fast giving way to Silver Spotted Skipper​housing subdivisions and strip malls, native wildflowers and shrubs are often replaced by exotic plants that do not provide a food source for butterflies. The group of butterflies that suffer the most are skippers! They are the most inconspicuous of butterflies and weak flyers; often are seen gliding from grass blade to grass blade no more than a foot above the ground. But some species are surviving! Recently, the brilliant orange wings of the Least Skipper was seen at the Four Mills Barn Preserve near the only blooming Wild Bergamot in the woods!  

Meanwhile, at the Armentrout Preserve, I could not find single butterfly last week! Until, as I was getting into the car in disgust, a flash of white whizzed by my ankle.  I chased the rapidly moving butterfly amid one catnip to another.  Recognizing as a species of Azure, I knew that I had to photograph it.  With camera in hand I began a frenzied chase of the Azure that must have looked disturbing!  A woman walking her dog looked troubled at me! She asked me what I was looking for. When I told her I was chasing a butterfly, she broke into an uneasy smirk and shuffled away as quickly as she could!  Finally, I photographed the Azure with outstretched wings, where the deeply azure colored wings of an Eastern tailed Blue was evident!

Not all butterflies are so uncooperative but mostly they deserve some attention! Butterfly watching is attracting new outdoor enthusiasts! Places to search for butterfly begins in our preserves; Crossways Preserve at the corners of Morris Road and Cathcart Roads is a magnet today. The fields, hedgerows and forests of Willow Lake Preserve at the corners of Butler and Skippack Pikes is an interesting location to explore.  There, marauding Swallowtails of several species can easily been flying by you! Closer inspection of low growing plants can reveal all sorts of Skippers looking for food and mates! With so many trails there is so much opportunity to discover!

Interest in butterfly watching has led to Butterfly Counts, where armies of enthusiastic volunteer amateurs scour parks, wildlife sanctuaries and other wild places to count species of butterflies. Such interest can lead to unexpected discoveries! Several years ago, I discovered the Giant Swallowtail in Vernon, New Jersey! Previously, they were not supposed to occur north of the State of Delaware! To further pique your interest consider joining organizations that help support this growing hobby! The North American Butterfly Association (naba.org) and the Xerxes (http://www.xerces.org) are there for you! They have interactive listings of species and information on local chapters that you may join!

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