Butterfly Diary 2016, Week 3

Four longwing butterflies in a feeding dish
It’s butterfly Twister! A fifth one was in the same feeder just before I shot this (of course); three of these are small postman butterflies

We had a tough combination at Dow Gardens’ Butterflies in Bloom on Tuesday: lots of small children and lots of butterflies that wanted to hang out on the floor. Besides the obvious traffic hazard, the floor was a little chilly so I moved any butterflies that seemed inclined to linger there.

A green and brown butterfly hanging upside down
Not on the floor but near, upside down on the storage cabinet beneath the emergence case

One advantage of having lots of small children visit is that they are quite concerned about the welfare of the butterflies. Several of them called me over to look at an emerald swalllowtail that was motionless on a leaf. It was battered but not quite dead, so I gently scooped it up and promised to put it in a protected area (which I did), and reminded them that the butterflies don’t live a long time, so this one might just have been 85 in butterfly years.

Emerald swallowtail
This emerald swalllowtail likely did not live much longer; the varieties we bring in have life spans of only a few weeks

Just after this, a boy about first grade came up, softly took me by the hand and led me to the object of his concern, a black crumpled object in a puddle below a misting fan.

“That’s a dead leaf. It’s OK,” I told him.

“I thought it was a butterfly.”

“No, it’s a leaf, but thank you. That was important for you to tell me. Good job.”

A butterfly (sorry, ID is tough sometimes)
A clipper near the frog pond … but not too near

We also had a few butterflies that hadn’t developed properly, but were strong enough to fly around and find food. One orange Julia in particular was a bit wrinkled and a little slower than it should have been, so when I found one child preparing to hand it off to another, I pointed out how its wings were not quite as flat as they should have been and asked them to be extra careful.

The giant owl below was a worse off example, and it kept falling to the floor. I ended up moving it to our orchid room, where at least if it fell again it would land on dirt, not concrete.

Giant owl butterfly

Identifying butterflies as opposed to other creatures is especially interesting because they can offer two very different views, depending on whether you see the top or underside of their wings. One of the most striking examples we have is the blue morpho, which is brown with an outer row of spots on the underside, but a brilliant blue on the top.

(The most thorough ID site I have seen is at Discover Life, www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q.)

In the two photos below, you can see the underside, then the top side of the same zebra mosaic butterfly’s wings.

The very striped and patterned underside of a butterfly's wings

The top side of the same butterfly's wings, black except for a white nearly vertical stripe

We get visitors who are quite serious about photography, with equipment to match. I often ask them if there is any particular variety they are seeking, and usually they’re just looking for whatever is new.

One gentleman, though, was focused on finding a clearwing. I had seen one in the emergence case and when I was letting out numerous other small butterflies, I called him over and pointed it out on the underside of a shelf.

“Do you want to shoot it here before I let it out, so you can be sure you have it?” He shook his head and I realized he needed it in a natural environment, so I released it and we watched together to see where it landed.

(Just after that a 9ish boy on the opposite side of the case tapped the glass and asked me if I would get out the red and black swallowtail that was shivering there. “Sorry, that one’s not ready.” Case relocked.)

The clearwing conveniently landed on a plant just below shoulder height, and soon there were several photographers gathered, politely taking their turns at the angles they wanted. After a few minutes, the gentleman showed me one of the many photos he had taken of the clearwing and explained that he and another gentleman he had met about 20 years ago had started shooting butterflies at the annual exhibit at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, but then had started traveling to Midland as well.

“Mine’s better,” he said of his photo.

“Oh, so you compete to see who can get the best shot of each variety,” I said, smiling and nodding.

He wouldn’t confirm it aloud, but his sly smile spoke for him.

Four different varieties of butterflies share a feeding dish
Butterflies of different types often feed together, but this is the first time I’ve seen such a variety share a food dish.
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