Watching Swallowtail Butterflies

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtails nectar on Joe-Pye Weed that can be found in woodlands or on edges. This is under a Tulip Popular that is a larva host plant.

The whimsical flutter of swallowtails over a field of flowers is magical and soothing.

During this pandemic summer, I am enjoying watching swallowtail butterflies. They provide me tranquility while I distance from people. While trying to photograph multiple butterflies together, I realized they too practice distancing from each other as they feed on large flower masses like Joe-Pye Weed and Mountain Mint. The moment one swallowtail moves close, they quickly spread out again.
Swallowtails are the large butterflies of summer no matter where you live in the US. They are particularly numerous during the hot, sunny weather of August on days when it isn’t too windy or rainy. Take a walk through the woods, and you might watch one floating among the trees. Go to a garden, and you might watch several nectaring on flowers. Or if you’re lucky like me and have a native plant meadow nearby with a continuous source of flower nectar and woodland edges with host plants, then you have days with dozens and dozens of swallowtails flying about.
Video: Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (with bees and smaller butterflies) feeding on Mountain Mint.
“Swallowtail” is a pretty straight-forward family name. These butterflies have tails, and those tails resemble those of the birds called swallows. The tails are a defense against birds to trick them into capturing the wrong end. If a bird catches it by the tail, it loses part of its wing but retains its life and ability to fly. I see lots of swallowtails surviving with one or both tails missing.
The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is my most abundant swallowtail species. It has an almost continuous presence with multiple broods that seem to overlap. This species is pretty laid back. It’s less shy about my presence and when it feeds it often holds its wings in a partly open position or tends toward a slower flutter when compared to our other swallowtails. That makes for easier photography! There is a dark-morph female of the Eastern Tiger. To identify her, look for the underside of the wings where you can usually see a hint of the tiger strip. Various species of Tiger Swallowtails are distributed across most of the US.
I’ll lump the dark swallowtails we have in our yard together – Black and Spicebush. They are faster flutterers and fliers. I find it much harder to get close to these swallowtails. When they feed, their wings are in more continuous motion. These butterflies, along with the dark-morph Eastern Tiger, are mimics of the Pipevine Swallowtail. Why? The Pipevine Swallowtail is distasteful or even poisonous to birds, so these mimics have evolved to trick birds into believing they are distasteful too. The similarity in their appearance also makes them more challenging for people to identify them to species. I’m hopeful a Pipevine will stray into our yard someday.
We also occasionally see the Giant Swallowtail, the largest of all the US swallowtails. This is a more southerly species. It is so spectacular that I can usually spot it out a window. Somehow, it finds our yard and also checks out the potted citrus on our patio. We have even found its caterpillars in our yard.
Video: Spicebush Swallowtail dusted with pollen feeding on Common Milkweed.

Watching Swallowtail butterflies is a relaxing way to spend a lovely summer day. Their whimsical flutter and flight provide natural tranquility. There are many species of swallowtail butterflies distributed widely across the US. It’s worth searching out a location no matter where you live.

Swallowtail Slideshow
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