Butterflies: neither butter nor fly, but still welcome

Spring’s advent is announced any number of ways, depending on what part of the world one inhabits. In the Deep South, wisteria vines taking bloom in otherwise drab, lifeless trees are often the first sign that seasons are changing.

This year, I came across a new harbinger: a brood of recently hatched Eastern tiger swallowtails.

During a weekend drive through the country 10 days ago, I stopped at a small creek to peer at the water coursing below. Being shallow, the creek was more sand than stream. In one of the many islands were eight Eastern tiger swallowtails, a common butterfly noted for its yellow body and black stripes, congregating together.

After snapping a few photos from the bridge, I made my way down to stream level. With each couple of steps, I’d snap photos, not knowing when the insects would take flight.

After a short time I was upon them, and it was only when I touched a couple with my finger did some make a lazy effort at flight. Others simply walked a few inches away.

It was apparent that this group had just hatched and were sunning themselves, letting their wings dry before setting off in search of food.

The Eastern tiger swallowtail is among butterflies that spends winter in a chrysalis, emerging when the weather warms. This made sense as it seemed difficult to fathom caterpillars finding enough greenery to fatten up in winter, never mind surviving occasional below-freezing conditions.

Eastern tiger swallowtails are abundant, being found across much of eastern North America, from Ontario south to the Gulf Coast and into northern Mexico.

Typically, Eastern tiger swallowtails avoid company, except, apparently, just after hatching and, of course, when mating.

Besides birds, swallowtails have a variety of predators, including hornets, praying mantises, squirrels, possums and raccoons.

With bright colors and a wingspan of up to 5.5 inches, one could see how they’d make a tempting target for the butterfly-hungry.

However, within a short time, my kaleidoscope of swallowtails had gained enough strength to safely take flight and make their way into the world.

(Top: Eastern tiger swallowtail resting after being disturbed by nosy blogger.)

Nothing marks spring’s arrival like … snakes

Black rat snake 4 20 2014 059

Different folks have different ways of ushering in spring. For some, the simple arrival of the vernal equinox, marking the point on the calendar when days and nights are of the same approximate length, (March 20 this year) is good enough. For others, it’s tied to specific events such as Easter, the start of the Major League Baseball season or spring break for high schools and colleges.

I measure spring’s return slightly differently. In my eyes, spring begins gradually, with the arrival of wisteria in the trees and shrubs here in central South Carolina, which usually occurs in mid-March, followed by other flora and fauna, such swallowtail butterflies, red-tailed hawks and white-tailed deer.

But the one event that signifies unequivocally, at least in my world, that the seasons have changed is represented by the capture of the first snake of the year. For me, at least, spring came yesterday.

I’d had a near-brush a couple of weeks back when I took my girls to Woods Bay State Park, near Olanta, SC, where we saw a Northern water snake just inches from our path, but while I was able to get a hand on it, it proved too quick and slipped into the underbrush.

Yesterday, with a bit of free time in the afternoon, I drove up the road about 15 miles to an old railroad bed that had been converted into a walking trail within the past few years. It rarely gets much use, so I figured that my chances for seeing some wildlife were decent.

Right off the bat I managed to catch a five-lined skink. About six inches long, this creature resembled a large, fat, short-legged lizard. Judging from its reaction – repeatedly biting me – it appeared unhappy with being disturbed. After snapping a few pictures of Plestiodon fasciatus I set the ingrate free and continued down the path.

After about a quarter mile I came across an old railroad bridge that crossed Crim’s Creek, located in Newberry County, SC. It’s a short bridge, about 30 feet in length; its rails were pulled up many years ago and wooden planking laid down to facilitate foot and bike traffic.

As I walked across watching the water flow along I caught sight of a black rat snake. It was curled around one of the bridge edgings that jutted out two feet or so over a dry part of the creek bed. I snapped a couple of pictures without startling the snake, which was about five feet in length, then walked past to find a stick.

(Having been bitten by several rat snakes, I know better than to simply try to grab at one when it’s facing me. I’m quick that way.)

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