Tiger Swallowtail butterflies “puddling” for minerals


And so the procreative year has begun; and even though humans reading the morning news may decide “why bother” making more of us, the creatures of Goose Creek have most decidedly not gotten that message.

Yesterday was the first day in the ontogeny of being for many of our local citizens who will later share the summer with us — some for mere days; others for weeks or months, only to set off south and leave us here to endure the bleak leafless cold.

Tanagers. Scarlet tanagers. I so look forward to their arrival every year — but only since I learned their call. Before that, they were only splashes of red and black in a book, their voices anonymous phrases in the cacophony of spring.

I look forward to hearing them. Then very soon I have had enough of their shrill robin-like warble, but they pay no attention to my outbursts hurled into the treetops where they taunt me, unseen.

Yesterday there were two males, doing battle of the bands. A practiced second or third year male sang his complex song complete each time, with minor variations to show off his virtuosity. The second, in probably his first attempt at gaining a certain female’s favor, sang from nearby — a less complex and often incomplete song, sometimes over the top of Top Bird.

I don’t know how that worked out finally, only that today only one elder tanager sings from above the garden (though there are a few along the perimeter of the pasture.) And I can only guess that, now Top Bird’s turf is secured, She cannot resist his penthouse pad overlooking the quaint barn and the burbling creek. He has done well.

Yesterday was a cool, “hot fudge sundae” day — cool in the shade even at noon, and warm but not scorching in the full sun of a cloudless day. I stood on the porch, still protected from direct sun, and watched blurred motions in a dozen places in the maples — not quite fully leafed. Visually, I could not make out anything certain but titmice and phoebes in the mix of activity.

So I “pished” a few times — a birder mouth trick that sometimes succeeds in “alarming” perching birds just enough that they will come in closer to see what the sirens are all about. When it “works” I acknowledge that more often than not, the target bird’s advance in my direction is probably co-incidental, but I take the credit anyway.

Pish…pish…(pause) and a chipping sparrow falls like a rock from the maple branches thirty feet above and lands in the lilac not ten feet away. Pish….pish and a second sparrow follows the exact same trajectory, lands behind — no wait — on the first bird, flaps flaps, flies off and smokes a cigarette.

What have I just witnessed here? Two tiny birds just started a family, right before my eyes. Please, you two — get a room. I don’t know if they even knew each other’s names, not so much as a please and thank you and she’s about to have eggs, be responsible for tending a nest, and poke insects into whining, gaping mouths that only a mother could love, while he flies off for another quickie. Such is bird life.

Then suddenly in the early afternoon, I looked up from my desk and was shocked by the yellow and blackness of more than a dozen Tiger Swallowtails over the branch, coursing in and out of the light in the dappled shade of the maples. Had they just hatched? We’ve seen a few, but nothing like this flashmob of wings.

Their flight at first seemed random, but I got up and went outside for a closer view. There was a pattern, after all, and the seemingly joyful celebration of a dry, warm day turns out to have been an opportunity to drive away competitors and/or seduce a mate.

There were most definitely pairings of attraction or repulsion — I could not say, although a male could certainly tell — even on the wing — that another yellow and black flitting shape had that certain something (more blue at the cleavage of the wing) than another male.

But why wouldn’t a male just take the easy score and wait for one of the conspicuously not-a-guy dark female variants and be sure? Why waste all that energy trying to get a license plate from another vague male? There are some things I will never know.

Finally, at the end of a long long committee meeting, I pulled into the driveway at 9:30 and struggled to fetch my gear from the car with the last ergs of energy I could muster. But my eye was drawn to the field, flooded in moonlight. Out of a thin hovering faint sheet of fog rose hundreds of fireflies — the first of the year. Males. Who do the hard work at that certain signal moment, rising into the lower stratum of air to perform their dance just above the pasture grasses.

There they blink their characteristic come-hither light language. The guys of each of several different species express their urge to merge in a characteristic staccato of yellow to yellow-green while the females still on their bar stools in the grass see only their own kind’s amorous invitation. And they will or they won’t.

Some species prefer deep woods; some pasture margins; and others, the middle of open spaces to do their pulsing pleas to please. And it works out, just so, and even as I watched — though I could not make it out — they made out. And another generation of fireflies, and flies and birds — each in its own way, each from its own special place in the world, will return next year for another light and music show.

If we only take the time to open our eyes and ears and watch and listen to life grow anew each year in the few we are given.