Monday, July 26, 2010

If You Want To Know Who We Are

On an average day, we spot anywhere from five to ten different butterfly species in My Florida Backyard, and that's usually just as we're passing through or looking out the back window. There's always a gulf fritillary or six hanging around, monarchs laying on the milkweed, sulphurs attracted by the cassias, and tiny skippers galore. Some butterflies are easy to identify - nearly anyone can tell you what a monarch looks like - but others take a little more work, especially if you only see them flitting through the air rather than at rest.

One of our biggest challenges has been telling apart Eastern Black and Spicebush Swallowtails. Their shape, size, and markings are very similar. In fact, both are mimics of the foul-tasting female pipevine swallowtail, adding another butterfly species into the mix to confuse those trying to identify them. However, if you happen to see these butterflies at rest with their wings open, there is a pretty simple trick you can use to help you out. Kristen G, who runs the butterfly garden and historic tree grove at MOSI, explains:
"The best way to be sure is to follow the inside line of the hind wing to the bottom, near the tails. Spicebush Swallowtails may have a blush of orange marking but [Eastern] Black Swallowtails have an orange or yellow marking with a black eye-spot in the center."
So, let's compare. In first picture below, which we took last year and correctly identified as an Eastern Black Swallowtail, we can clearly see the eyespot Kristen describes.

In this next picture, taken this past weekend, the eyespot is absent. This picture shows a male Spicebush pursuing a female. The female's markings, shown clearly in the first picture of this post, are even more similar to the Eastern Black's.

Life would be easier here in My Florida Backyard if we didn't have inquiring minds that always want to know "What exactly is that?". We could just sit back and enjoy the spectacle, and we often do. But we're happiest when we know exactly what we're looking at, because then we can learn more about it, including how to make sure it visits My Florida Backyard again and again!


  1. I'm sure I have ID'd many a swallowtail incorrectly. Butterflies can look so different on the top wing from the bottom wing. It all gets confusing. But, I'm like you in that I really want to know what I'm viewing. Your pics are beautiful. Proof that your butterfly gardening is working well.

  2. Learning to differentiate the various Swallowtail species has been one of my projects this summer. I usually try to get a photo and then consult my butterfly field guide to see if I was able to correctly identify the species as it fluttered by.
    Your post is helpful by pointing out the eyespot, and you're correct that the male/female differences just add to the confusion!

  3. Thanks for the info. I like to be able to identify my butterflies and this little trick will be very helpful. You got some great photos of the butterflies.