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From the August 2011 Conservationist

A giant swallowtail butterfly in some pink flowers

Photo: Peggy Hanna

Swallowtail Surprise

Birds, a butterfly and a boy's memories

By Terry Mosher

The phone call came from my friend Ted Taft, butterfly guru of our western New York county. Rarely does Ted allow himself an "ooh" or an "ah," but on this August evening, his voice was charged with excitement. "Five giants in the sanctuary," he reported. I whooped for joy.

Aficionados speak partly in code, and Ted made his cryptic announcement in lepidopterese: butterfly talk. Translated, his message was this: In the Canadaway Creek Nature Sanctuary, a wildlife preserve that borders the creek over the last few hundred yards of its flow across the Lake Erie plain and into the lake, he'd found five giant swallowtail butterflies. Three were females laying eggs on a hoptree shrub near the creek mouth. One of the commonest food sources for giant swallowtail caterpillars, this aromatic plant had been growing there for at least a quarter century. But if the butterflies had found it, they'd kept a low profile until now. For this largest and loveliest of all North American swallowtails, Ted's observation was the first recorded occurrence in the sanctuary and one of just a handful of Chautauqua County records. For those of us smitten by butterflies, this was a banner day.

The next afternoon, I picked my way along the eroded, overgrown path between U.S. Route 5 and the mouth of the Canadaway, hunting for the swallowtails. Eventually I found one, the first I'd ever seen-in the parlance of butterfly listers, a "lifer." But I remember this visit as much for things I wasn't stalking as I do for the butterfly itself. In lives attentive to wild creatures, the most predictable thing is surprise.

A least sandpiper stands in very shallow water looking at its reflection
Least sandpiper

Several fallen willows blocked the trail. Climbing over their massive trunks, I stopped to scan the wildflowers across the creek for giant swallowtails. No luck. But then came the afternoon's first surprise. A narrow margin of mud had formed along the eastern edge of the creek, near the mouth. Breaking the age-old flight of their tribe from the high Canadian arctic to wintering grounds far south of where I stood, a dozen shorebirds hustled up and down this little mud flat, chasing and calling and probing the mud with dark bills.

Through binoculars, I could pick out the reddish backs of two least sandpipers, tiny as mid-sized sparrows, their yellow legs giving them away. There were three semipalmated plovers, chunky but dapper, looking like undersized killdeer who'd lost one of the two black circles ringing their necks. One large and handsome sanderling dwarfed the other members of the flock, its rusty breeding dress fading fast into silvery winter plumage. And rounding out the group were a half dozen semipalmated sandpipers: grayer, black-legged versions of their cousins the leasts, with bodies and bills a bit more robust. The birds dashed here and there, tanking up for flights that would carry some of them to Carolina beaches, others as far as Brazil or Argentina. Forgetting butterflies completely, I settled down to watch these little travelers from the tundra.

Motoring up and down the muddy margin of the creek, the tiny least sandpipers were the group's retiring members. Although scarcely larger, the feisty semipalmateds were the bullies. Like song sparrows clearing out the competition under a feeder, the semis moved from "freeze frame" to "fast forward" in a stop-and-go pattern: Charge a least sandpiper. Halt! Charge each other. Freeze! Check for predators. Feed! Run upstream. Whoa! Sidestep the sanderling. Freeze! Repeat.

At each rush from a semipalmated sandpiper, a least would bounce straight up as if on springs, then twist away with a high, faint "Kreet!" "Okay, okay," the bird seemed to say. "Keep your feathers on. I'm out of here." Chase and feed, feed and chase. Keep the flock together, but mind the pecking order. For ten or fifteen minutes I watched this age-old pattern play itself out, reminded of the swirling chases of gray squirrels up and around and down the spruce trunks in our side yard. Who could watch such a scene without a smile?

Purple and white flowers and flower buds of great lobelia
great lobelia

Recalling at last what I'd come for, I looked downstream for some sign of Ted's giant swallowtails to no avail. Reluctantly, I started back toward Route 5 and the car. But what was this? A few rays of late-afternoon sunlight, fingering their way through the willow leaves, had found one of my favorite wildflowers. Here was surprise number two: a little patch of great lobelia lifting spikes of deep blue blossoms in a stand of chalky-white boneset and lemon-yellow goldenrods. Sunlit in one of the sanctuary's darkest nooks, the lobelia blossoms looked like slender vases turned on their sides, ruffled at the rim, and lit from within. Like the shorebirds, these azure wildflowers alone were worth the afternoon's trip.

Black and white photo of the author, mother and brother
The author with his mother and brother.

I was about to move on, but the lobelia had other ideas, and a third surprise stopped me cold. This one was a memory, more than half a lifetime old, but as tangible and clear as anything I saw that afternoon. The flowers took me back to central New York and an unpaved country road between Cortland and Ithaca­-a beloved old spot that I first walked with my mother and brother around 1949 or 1950, when I was four or five. There, on a rusty bridge that thundered gloriously as cars crossed it, we used to stare down between the wooden planks at Fall Creek, flowing through the hamlet of McLean toward Freeville, Ithaca and Cayuga Lake. Just upstream from the bridge, the creek turned the massive stone wheel of a cider mill. In those post-war years, my grandmother still lived in a green-shuttered, white farmhouse above the mill, the same house to which my parents would retire about twenty years later. Great lobelia grew in abundance along a low, wet section of that country road. On August visits, my wife and I often saw it in full flower. But my father died many years ago. Reluctantly, in the year after his death, my mother had sold the house in McLean and closed a long chapter in our family's life. I stood on the path beside Canadaway Creek, staring at the lobelia, but only half seeing it, full of sweet-sad recollections.

A black and white photo of an old farm house
The wildflowers I saw that afternoon
took me back to post-war years, where
I walked an unpaved, country road with
my mother and brother, and where we
visited my grandmother in her green-
shuttered, white farmhouse. (Photo:
Terry Mosher)

The Into my reverie broke the afternoon's final surprise: the butterfly I'd nearly given up on. Even at a distance of fifty yards, its sheer size gave it away. First sightings of anything beautiful render me rather witless, and I stood there staring wide-eyed through the binoculars, whispering, "My gosh, it's big!"

The giant swallowtail drifted downstream, flapping and sailing, pausing to feed on the nectar of joe-pye weed and purple loosestrife across the creek. Broad, crossing bands of gold flashed on the dark upper surfaces of its slowly beating wings. On its underside, a band of light blue chevrons curved across a creamy yellow hindwing. Kinglet-like, the wings fluttered and flicked as the swallowtail sipped nectar in the afternoon sun. I caught my breath. For me, the moment had the Creator's fingerprints all over it.

Within a minute or two, the butterfly made its deliberate way past the patch of great lobelia, past the flock of chasing shorebirds, around a bend, and out of sight along the lake shore east of the creek mouth. Already a sighting had become a memory, ready to be triggered by butterfly books and butterfly conversations and, I hoped, by future encounters with giant swallowtails.

A giant swallowtail butterfly perched on a pink flower
Sometimes people mistake giant swallow-
tails for a different butterfly because the
insect's backside is drastically different
from its underside. A giant swallowtail's
back is dark brown, almost black, with
bands of gold across the wings; its
underside is a creamy yellow with some
small blue bands. (Photo: Peggy Hanna)

Clambering back over the willow trunks and up the bank to the car, I pondered what had happened during that hour in the sanctuary. On one level, it was August business as usual. As their ancestors had done for millennia, a handful of shorebirds had paused on their long-distance migration to feed and fuss on a mudflat. Hundreds of late-summer wildflowers had tipped their silent blossoms to the sun. A creek, nearing the end of its long descent from the Arkwright Hills, had poured who knows how many gallons of water into Lake Erie. And one big butterfly had flown downstream to the creek mouth, feeding as it went. On this afternoon, though, the story had a subplot. In one man's mind, a golden butterfly had been linked to a wildflower as blue as a bluebird's back. Insect and flower had been tied to a flock of southbound shorebirds feeding along a creek. And this scene had been joined to another, in which two small boys walked with their young mother along a dusty summer road more than two hundred miles and fifty years away.

Leaving the sanctuary, I was triply blessed: in the successful hunt for a giant swallowtail, in the flower and the shorebirds I'd never thought of seeing, and in the rich texture of memories into which they'd all been woven. Happily, I relearned an old lesson: From encounters with nature, expect much better things than you could plan.

Terry Mosher teaches environmental literature and other English courses at SUNY-Fredonia. In his spare time, he gardens, watches birds and butterflies, and rides his quarter horse.