Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Broken and tattered, but still beautiful...

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails at Fort Ancient
Yesterday I slipped out of work early and headed up to Fort Ancient. I was hoping to find a small flock of American Goldfinches as they worked the thistle-laced meadows looking for silky thistledown to take back to their nests, and I wasn't disappointed. As I walked toward the meadow next to the museum I could hear them, happy and chatty in their flight, but butterflies were everywhere, and their soft and gentle movements soon stole my attention away. From a distance, the butterflies looked fresh and new, but behind the camera lens I could see their wings were weathered, tattered and torn. (Click here for photos of goldfinches tugging out thistledown last September at Fort Ancient.)

The thin membrane of a butterfly's wings is covered in tiny scales arranged like shingles on a roof. Not built for long life, butterflies lose scales every day as their wings touch leaves, flower petals and other butterflies. Their color fades as the powdery scales drop away.

Even though the darks are a bit faded and chunks have been torn from its wings, this swallowtail's iridescent blue scales are still vibrant and beautiful. Two types of color show in a butterfly's scales--pigments, such as melanin, create black and other deep shades, while a microscopic open lattice structure creates reflective surfaces that form the iridescent blues and greens (similar to the structural color and pigment in hummingbird feathers).

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail looks like it's been through a scrape or two. I wonder how many birds have nipped at its wings or how many buffeting winds it's dodged. Butterflies can fly with as much as 70% of their wings missing!

...since butterflies have no means of self-repair, they can become ragged within a few weeks and many species die within a month. (There are exceptions, some species overwinter in a dormant state and can live up to a year, and, of course, those amazing migrating Monarchs can live about eight months).

Every day of living shows in a butterfly's wings.

Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtails also come in a dimorphic dark form (shown in the upper right). Dark form females mimic Pipevine Swallowtails. While caterpillars, Pipevine Swallowtails munch on pipevine leaves, which are toxic. The result is a foul-tasting butterfly that birds avoid. (Click here for the Pipevine's story...)

A fresh Tiger Swallowtail (left) shares a thistle plant with two other swallowtails of varying ages. There were easily 30 or 40 Eastern Tiger Swallowtails in this little meadow, all nectaring on the thistle blossoms while goldfinches joined them here and there, plucking thistle down from spent flowers...

...and taking it back to their nests.

35 comments:

Kathy A. Johnson said...

How beautiful they are, even in their tattered state. Interesting post, Kelly. I also liked the shot with the bird flying away.

Out on the prairie said...

Great post Kelly. More than one time I have taken a photo and not seen the missing piece until I am home, or shoot others to replace a tattered speciman.We start tagging monarchs this weekend as part of a migration study performed by the U of KS. Many other species migrate, flying for better weather, but only a few survive and build back the species.

Montanagirl said...

They sure are pretty, even tattered and torn! Your photos are just superb, Kelly.

Elaine said...

Spectacular photos, Kelly, both in this post and the last one. You taught me a few things about butterflies too. I am always amazed that I miss the tattered wings of the butterflies until I load the photos on the computer.

Luuuuuua said...

superbe fotografii,felicitari

holdingmoments said...

They really are beautiful butterflies Kelly; even when their wings are worn.

Warren Baker said...

You're right Kelly. They are still beautiful creatures. Are the Goldfinch's still nesting then ?

Kelly said...

...Warren...yes, they are! It's so cool. Since Goldfinches are vegetarians, they time their nesting with the ripening of their favorite seeds. September nests are a second brood, so I also see parents feeding babies a lot at this time too. I love those little birds!!

Roy said...

Nice shots, Kelly! Yeah, this time of year they get to looking pretty raggedy.

Wanda..... said...

I especially liked the photo of the 3 butterflies, containing the dimorphic dark form of a female.
All were great, Kelly!

Abraham Lincoln said...

I am always pleased to see these thistles. I know when they are out and in bloom that most insects will get a bite to eat.

Hilke Breder said...

Interesting post - I learned a lot that was new to me - and gorgeous colors in this and your previous post! Beauty in these butterflies - and flowers - is to fleeting, so transient, and therefore also so bitter-sweet and sad...

dAwN said...

Wonderful,informative post! Great photos!

grammie g said...

Hi Kelley...the Swallowtail is one of the prettiest butterflies to me !!
I haven seen very few this summer!!
Thanks for you post the photos are beautiful

Laure Ferlita said...

Such incredible beauty! Tattered and worn? They're so beautiful, it's rather difficult to see all the missing pieces and faded color.

I don't think I would have been able to tear myself away and leave.

Jeni said...

Great pictures again Kelly. Love the bird in flight and the butterfly looks like its seen a while ride but is still very beautiful!

Dave said...

So, is losing my hair like being an aging butterfly?
I feel better now, thanks!

Chris Petrak said...

I am always fascinated by the butterflies that are so tattered. I don't know whether to respond with a no wonder - or to be amazed that creatures seemly so delicate manage their life as well as they do.

forestal said...

lovely images, nice post

dan

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Beautiful, Kelly.... I love seeing all of the different butterflies. They love those thistles don't they????

Thanks for sharing such beauty..
Hugs,
Betsy

Jayne said...

It always hurts my heart to see them so beaten up by the end of the season. But as you said, they are still beautiful.

laubaine said...

magnifique

Andy Wilson said...

Great photos with intriguing facts.

Lúcia said...

Great shots Kelly!
It was nice to learn more about butterflies, thanks!
Namaste

Roy said...

Yes, sure is Kelly.

Susan W. said...

Breathtaking photos!

E said...

Beautiful, Kelly, great pics, congrats, the guys look very handsome. Hugs.

E said...

Beautiful, Kelly, great pics, congrats, the guys look very handsome. Hugs.

Carol Mattingly said...

Matters not how tattered but that they lived. Carol

Adrienne in Ohio said...

This is like candy for the eyes! How wonderful to see so many at once. And as always, you fill your gorgeous posts with plenty of great background info. Thanks for sharing!

Allison said...

The third to the last photo looks like it should be in a calendar for the Audubon Society!!!

ShySongbird said...

They are really beautiful, Kelly. I love butterflies and always feel sad when they start to look tattered. I particularly liked the third photo from the bottom :)

Angela said...

Your photos are stunning, your words as well. What a breath of fresh air is visiting your blog.

Kitty said...

To me they are still stunning creatures! Especially when there is more than one of them - lovely, lovely things.

Mary said...

I'm always amazed at how torn the wings can be and they can still fly! What a hard life it must be out there in the wild when you are so delicate in form.