Butterfly Season

When planning the garden, I deliberately chose plants that attracted bees and butterflies. I had no idea which butterflies to expect, but whatever showed up was welcome. Over the last eight seasons (has it really been eight!?), six kinds of butterflies have been regulars–Black Swallowtails, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (yellow), Silver-spotted Skippers, Gulf Fritillaries, bright yellow Cloudless Sulphurs, and Cabbage Whites. Moths are common as well, but besides Hummingbird and Luna moths, I don’t know the specific names.

Like clockwork, butterfly season starts in May with the cabbage butterflies, which according to their name, are pests in places growing cabbage, broccoli, and such. Here, there is nothing for them to disturb, so they are welcome. Next, in June, usually, the yellow sulphurs show up along with the Silver-spotted Skippers, and this year has been a banner year for the skippers. They are everywhere, far more than any previous year. Fritillaries and swallowtails tend to appear in late summer. The swallowtails are my favorite. Behavior-wise, they are what I would call “friendly.” They don’t spook easily and occasionally will land close by (once on me).

Silver-Spotted Skipper, Maxxum 7D
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail., Maxxum 7D

Once I learned to map out butterfly season, I began making plans to capture some on film. The main planning challenge is not knowing exactly when they will show up. Often, I would forget to have a camera loaded. After having missed so many opportunities, I started leaving a camera near the front door. In past years, I would sit peeking out the window waiting for a visit. This strategy never worked—I know they are not avoiding me on purpose, but each time I’ve waited, camera in hand, not a single butterfly had the decency to show up. So I scrapped that approach, and eventually gave up, which means that nearly all images I have of butterflies are iPhone shots.

Last year, I happened to be in the garden with an SR-2 loaded with film (unfortunately, B&W), and I tried my best to get a shot. Each time, the swallowtail moved just as I snapped. I was using 100 ISO film, so all I have are butterfly blurs.

This year has been unusual in that the swallowtails and fritillaries are particularly scarce. Although my wife reported a fritillary sighting, I have seen just a few yellow swallowtails and no fritillaries. When a yellow swallowtail finally appeared, I had no camera loaded, so I grabbed the Maxxum 7D (digital) and managed to get a few shots. As I said earlier, the skippers have been plentiful, so much so that I almost had to ask them to get out of the way so I could get a clean snap of the swallowtail. The nice thing about the 7D is I can bump up the ISO and shoot at a faster shutter speed, so I finally managed to a good swallowtail image with no blur.

Two skippers and a swallowtail, on garden phlox.  At times as many as five butterflies were on the same phlox tuft.  Maxxum 7D

While those shots are wonderful, I am concerned that I have still not seen a single black swallowtail nor fritillary. Whether it is this year’s weather, climate change in general, or my garden becoming less attractive, I miss seeing these butterflies. It is getting cooler, and I’m beginning to wonder if butterfly season has passed. I am grateful for the swallowtail and others that did visit. I am especially appreciative of the swallowtail because one of its wings was missing the tailfin part. I watched it for a while to see how it managed, and it seemed to have met its challenge in stride.

Butterflies, like blossoms, are part of the garden cycle; when they go missing, I become concerned. I’ll keep looking, and maybe if I load some film and wait by the door, a Black Swallowtail or Gulf Fritillary will show.  If not, I am thankful for those who did, especially the one with the damaged wing. That image might be my favorite butterfly portrait.

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