In mid-August an enormous butterfly, as big as my hand, visited our flower garden. It was immediately recognizable as a giant swallowtail by its chocolate-brown wings dappled with rows of yellow, oval-shaped dots.
Giant swallowtails are tropical butterflies native to Florida. Their caterpillars, called orange dogs, feed on the leaves of citrus trees. But every summer, a stray adult butterfly may appear in gardens as far north as New Jersey, as if on vacation. As I watched the bird-like butterfly through the camera of my cell phone, it seemed in no hurry to leave. It let me snap picture after picture while it sipped nectar from the colorful zinnias. Ten minutes later when I looked out the window at the garden, the big butterfly was still there.
Another uncommon visitor to the garden is the pipevine swallowtail. At first glance this butterfly looks jet black and rather plain, with just a small row of creamy dots along the edges of its wings. Then, when light strikes at the right angle, its hind wings glow metallic blue. This butterfly’s caterpillars feed only on the leaves of pipevine (or dutchman’s pipe), a vine native to West Virginia that’s identifiable by its big heart-shaped leaves and unique green flowers which curve in the shape of an old-fashioned smoking pipe.
On the same day as I saw the giant swallowtail, I was surprised to discover a dozen or so small caterpillars of the pipevine swallowtail on the pipevine that climbs the trellis of our side porch. We planted it hoping to attract this uncommon butterfly to our home. My happiness was bitter-sweet, seeing two uncommon butterflies on the same day. “Uncommon,” is a word used in nature books for a species seen less often than other species — not yet endangered, but “at risk.” During six-plus decades studying nature, I’ve witnessed too many once-abundant species of plants and animals become rare or disappear.
As a school kid I looked forward to attending a summer youth camp in the forested mountains of west-central Pennsylvania. There was a bath house where electric lights burned all night in the middle of the woods. Each morning and evening, countless insects covered the side of the building around the beam of the flood lights. Pulling a dog-eared Golden Nature Guide out of my shower kit, I excitedly learned to recognize the io, luna, polyphemus, leopard, tiger, and rosy-maple moths. When I returned to the same camp as a counselor in 1970, hoping to share my excitement with young campers, there were disappointingly few insects at the bath house. Today, although we live near a stream bordered by woods, we see less than half a dozen insects at our window screens at night.
Bird numbers have similarly decreased. When we lived in Virginia, Eastern meadowlarks regularly nested on the ground in the field next to us. American kestrels sometimes perched on the utility lines along the same field. We bought a kestrel house, having seen one nearby that sometimes hosted a family of the pretty little falcons. When we moved to West Virginia we couldn’t wait to set up the kestrel house in our own meadow, a natural grassland bird habitat. Five years later the house has hosted several families of bluebirds and tree swallows but no kestrels. Meadowlarks sometimes fly over in early spring, but they don’t stay. We’ve inherited a natural world where uncommon has become rare, and common is becoming uncommon. For us all, I hope it’s not too late.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer