Global Big Day 2017

Yesterday, May 13th, was Global Big Day. Global Big Day is an annual event sponsored by a whole host of birding groups across the globe with the intent to get as much data as possible into eBird. This was my first year participating (and frankly, my first year aware of its existence) and I had a blast! Along with 14,000 people I’ve never met as far as I know, I helped gather and report sightings of thousands of birds. Data is still coming in but as of this writing 5,884 total bird species have been logged. I was able to nab 61 myself, which in comparison is not very many but is a huge day for me. Among those 61 species were 11 more for my year list, of which 8 were new additions to my life list. I began the day with a goal of 50 species and hopefully three or four new ones, so I am overall quite pleased with the day. Yet there are groups who managed to log nearly twice as many birds as I have on my life list in a single day… perspective.

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Canada geese may be among the most boring and irritating birds, but their young sure are adorable.

It was raining pretty steadily when I woke up, but I had steeled myself for this eventuality during the preceding week and was not about to let that stop me. So, at 6:15 AM I tromped off into Wheaton Regional Park. I focused my first efforts of the day in the area around Pine Lake and the miniature train. It began humbly enough, as most birding checklists seem to, with robins, cardinals, and mourning doves. It wasn’t long, though, before I had added several of the most common May birds I was missing for the year: first a common yellowthroat, then a pair of enthusiastically singing red-eyed vireos. Three yellow warblers and a pair of northern parulas soon followed. There are some large pines near the train station that always seem to have some kind of interesting bird activity. I paused there for a long time, straining for a good look at several warblers that were darting about. I wasn’t able to ID any of them – the flashes of black, white, and yellow I saw weren’t nearly enough nor did I recognize their songs. Before moving on, however, I did pick up a surprising veery. That was a new one for me, and it took me a lot of staring and phone-pokery, and then finding someone else’s corroborating report, for me to accept my conclusion.

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A red-winged blackbird sat still just barely long enough for a quick phone snap

My next checklist began still within Wheaton Regional Park, but this time focusing on Brookside Gardens and the Nature Center. I didn’t add any new life or year-list birds here, but I did add several of the more common birds I didn’t find around Pine Lake, including the first pileated woodpecker of the day. I also spent some time watching and listening to some Baltimore orioles and following the graceful dives and turns of several barn swallows. For boring semantic reasons I started a separate checklist when leaving the park around 10 AM to return home. Here again I mostly fleshed out the everyday birds I was almost certain to see at some point, with one notable exception. I spied what I assumed was a wood thrush, but something just didn’t seem quite right. It sang and then I knew it was a different bird, but what kind? I turned to the Merlin bird ID tool and found the most likely culprits, noting the key features. I tracked the bird back down (it fortunately had not moved far) and centered it in my binoculars. Between the smudgy white eyering and chest pattern I had it – a Swainson’s thrush, and another first for me.

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I told you goslings were cute.

I returned home for lunch and to plan out my next trip, which turned out to include the highlight of the day. It certainly helped that it had stopped raining by then and I had thrown on some fresh clothes. At about 1:15 I arrived at my next spot: Meadowside Nature Center in Rock Creek Regional Park. In general this was a surprising gem with a lot to offer – I will need to return for more than just a birding trip to explore further. I arrived to find another pileated woodpecker on the ground poking at a stump not ten feet from where I’d parked and immediately knew I had chosen well. I paused to check out their raptor cages: a red-shouldered hawk, barred owl, and bald eagle (no, I didn’t count those). I meandered through some short trails at first, where I happened upon a small group of American redstarts emphatically either welcoming me or telling me to go away. After a while of wandering I came to the Study Pond, and here was a bird-nerd’s delight. I first noticed a number of swallows (tree and bank) zipping above the surface. Then I found that what I thought were more swallows executing acrobatic U-turns were in fact cedar waxwings – fifteen or more of them. When I passed around to the far bank for a closer look, a flash of blue caught my eye. It turned out to be a blue grosbeak – another first for me. I was rewarded with two great views of this stunning and unmistakable bird. I stayed to observe all this activity through my scope for half an hour or so.

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A tree swallow with the study pond in the background

I concluded the day’s birding by making a circuit of the nearby Lake Bernard Frank. Most of the birds here were repeat sightings, and none were brand new to me, but I did manage to add a few good ones to the day’s list, notably some double-crested cormorants and a bald eagle. There were a few moments where I was nearly certain I had heard a red-headed woodpecker’s distinctive screaming “Tchurr” call but I was unable to confirm it. The eagle would be the last species tallied for the day, which was somehow fitting.

 

Favorite Bird of the Day: Blue Grosbeak
Most Surprising Bird of the Day: Veery
Most Disappointing Miss: Scarlet Tanager
Most Surprising Miss: Chimney Swift
Most Abundant Bird: American Robin
Birds Appearing on All Five Lists: Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, Chipping Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Baltimore Oriole

Final Tally

Canada Goose (35)
Wood Duck (5)
Mallard (3)
Double-Crested Cormorant (8)
Great Blue Heron (3)
Green Heron (2)
Black Vulture (1)
Turkey Vulture (1)
Osprey (4)
Bald Eagle (1)
Solitary Sandpiper (1)
Mourning Dove (32)
Red-Bellied Woodpecker (23)
Downy Woodpecker (6)
Hairy Woodpecker (2)
Northern Flicker (5)
Pileated Woodpecker (3)
Eastern Phoebe (1)
Great Crested Flycatcher (2)
Eastern Kingbird (3)
Red-Eyed Vireo (2)
Blue Jay (13)
American Crow (17)
Fish Crow (7)
Northern Rough-Winged Swallow (7)
Tree Swallow (4)
Bank Swallow (3)
Barn Swallow (4)
Carolina Chickadee (21)
Tufted Titmouse (5)
White-Breasted Nuthatch (9)
House Wren (1)
Carolina Wren (8)
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (18)
Eastern Bluebird (6)
Veery (1)
Swainson’s Thrush (1)
Wood Thrush (16)
American Robin (58)
Gray Catbird (13)
Northern Mockingbird (2)
European Starling (7)
Cedar Waxwing (15)
Ovenbird (6)
Common Yellowthroat (1)
American Redstart (4)
Northern Parula (2)
Yellow Warbler (3)
Yellow-Rumped Warbler (3)
Chipping Sparrow (21)
White-Throated Sparrow (1)
Eastern Towhee (8)
Northern Cardinal (55)
Blue Grosbeak (1)
Red-Winged Blackbird (19)
Common Grackle (17)
Brown-Headed Cowbird (2)
Baltimore Oriole (9)
House Finch (3)
American Goldfinch (17)
House Sparrow (27)

Total Identified Birds – 561

One Hundred Birds!

That is, one hundred species of birds. That’s right, last week in Shenandoah National Park, in addition to spotting all those lovely wildflowers, I reached 100 species in my 2017 bird blitz. Now that it’s been a few days I am actually sitting at 104, but who’s counting? (Me.) Eleven more of those birds are new to my life list, bringing that total to twenty-one – which means there are 20 birds on my pre-existing life list I can miss and still reach my goal (exceed in 2017 the number of birds on my pre-2017 life list). There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 that I don’t stand a great chance of seeing this year, so that target is getting tantalizingly close.

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A double-crested cormorant in the Everglades

Those new-to-me birds finally started branching out from the waterfowl. I’m starting to round out my sparrows (fox, American tree, and swamp) and entering the manic, zippy world of warblers (pine, yellow-rumped, and palm). The black-crowned night heron has been a conspicuous blank spot for me for years, so that was a welcome find.

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A yellow-crowned night heron in Sligo Creek Park last month

So, let’s pause the self-congratulations and talk about the other side. What have I missed? ebird.com has a handy tool called “target species.” If I set it to April and Montgomery County it will spit out a list of birds, in order of abundance (represented by % of checklists containing that bird). This tells me what birds in my area I’ve probably walked right by the most. Here are my top ten whiffs: northern parula (14.2%), common yellowthroat (11.3%), field sparrow (11.3%), green heron (9.1%), Louisiana waterthrush (9.1%), chimney swift (8.6%), white-eyed vireo (6.4%), great crested flycatcher (5.9%), prothonotary warbler (5.7%), and Bonaparte’s gull. Like last time, feel free to troll me with all your beautiful photos of those birds.

Speaking of photos… I don’t exactly have a ton of good ones of this new group of 32 birds. I have pulled some from my archives which are at least the same species. It turns out that birds – especially small ones like warblers and sparrows – are not the easiest things to photograph with an iPhone and/or a mid-range point-and-shoot. I did buy a decent spotter’s scope a month or so ago, and it’s been a great tool, but I haven’t quite mastered the skill of aiming the thing while lining up my camera lens with the eyepiece. I’ll get there.

Lucky bird #100 was a barn swallow in a tree near the back of Big Meadows (and soon after I spotted another in flight nearby). Barn swallows are a common sight in the spring and summer months around here; in my neighborhood they like to nest under the structures in Brookside Gardens which sit out over the ponds. If I had to hazard a guess, bird 105 will be a green heron – they too like to hang out in the park near my home and they’re conspicuous. You never know, though – that great egret was picked up entirely by accident while driving on the highway for a work trip.

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Some barn swallows in Wheaton Regional Park last year

List of birds since the last check-in (new to life list in bold):

73. double-crested cormorant
74. red-tailed hawk
75. fox sparrow
76. eastern phoebe
77. tundra swan
78. American tree sparrow
79. gadwall
80. golden eagle
81. yellow-crowned night heron
82. greater scaup
83. tree swallow
84. black-crowned night heron
85. swamp sparrow
86. blue-winged teal
87. brown-headed cowbird
88. pine warbler
89. golden-crowned kinglet
90. brown creeper
91. chipping sparrow
92. gray catbird
93. ruby-crowned kinglet
94. yellow-rumped warbler
95. Northern rough-winged swallow
96. blue-gray gnatcatcher
97. palm warbler
98. common raven
99. brown thrasher
100. barn swallow
101. house wren
102. osprey
103. Canvasback
104. great egret

New Year, (Mostly) Old Birds

As I enter my age-33 naturalism season,* I find myself seeking new challenges to keep me on my toes. One of those is to continue the improvement and expansion of my butterfly garden. Another is to keep the momentum going on this blog. Most of the rest are general, like “continue to learn about nature” and “ride my bike more.” So far there is only one challenge for the coming year that I’ve put a number on, and that is birding.

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A northern cardinal at my in-laws’ feeder

I was at my in-laws’ home to celebrate the New Year, and I couldn’t help but sit and watch their feeders for big chunks of each day. The common feeder birds there aren’t all that different from those here, but they had this chair in the window and I didn’t have any pressing tasks to accomplish, so I indulged. I was also able to work in some nature walks and talk the family into joining me for some of them. I suppose in winter on Cape Cod it is all about the birds. In addition to the backyard birds I saw an abundance of interesting waterfowl at the Cape Cod Canal. The abundance and diversity inspired me to formulate a personal challenge; in 2017 I want to document more species of birds than I have confirmed in my life prior to 2017.

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An enormous flock of common eiders at one end of the Cape Cod Canal. This was the largest of four or five flocks we saw.

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Even Franklin and Oscar were in on the birding.

That probably sounds like a lofty goal, but it’s no Big Year. I am still learning to distinguish many types of birds, so it’s certain that I don’t have confirmed sightings of many of the birds I have actually seen. As of 12/31/16 my lifetime list stood at 160 species, setting my challenge bar at 161. By contrast, North American birders’ Big Years go well over 500 species (and the top ten are all over 700). So my goal is a Modest Year by expert standards which just happens to be a big one for me.

I think the target is attainable. I reached 33 species over the first five days of the year, and I really only had free daylight hours in which to look on two of those days. More significantly, three of those species were new to my lifetime list. The real challenge is going to be finding enough new-to-me species to make up for those I’ve recorded before but have virtually no chance of finding this year. There are another 30-50 no-doubters which I will see just by virtue of spending time outside in Eastern North America, and frankly the vast majority of the 160 pre-2017 species are relatively common birds. After logging only duplicates yesterday, this morning before even leaving my home I saw 18 total species, checking off 5 more for the year. A short walk in late afternoon added 4 more for the day, two of which were new for the year. That puts me at 25% of my goal with 2% of time expended. The redhead I saw in Wheaton Regional Park’s Pine Lake was another addition to my lifetime list.

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An eastern towhee, mourning dove, and a pair of white-throated sparrows beneath one of my feeders this morning.
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The best shot I could get of the redhead, spotted keeping to the outskirts of a small flock of Canada geese.

Me from a few years ago would find it odd that birding is such a focus for me in 2017; as recently as 2011 or so I’d say that birds (especially the everyday birds of suburbia) were of little interest to me in comparison to other wildlife. That’s not to say I didn’t like birds, but they were a lower priority to me for some reason. I think it was partly a surrender after struggling to ID them in the field. Then I got the Sibley Guide to Birds, discovered the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website (and later, their app) and got a good pair of binoculars. Trips to the Everglades and Costa Rica didn’t hurt, either.

Now that I’ve spent a few years studying the birds I see with a careful eye (and ear) some things which seemed hopelessly murky are much clearer to me. Small, drab birds used to all look alike to me, but now it only takes a couple of seconds to pick out a house sparrow, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, dark-eyed junco, house finch, or winter-plumage American goldfinch. Birdsong also once sounded to me like a complicated mishmash of high-pitched squeals, but I can reliably identify many common species by ear these days.

I’ll wrap this up with my 2017 list so far (in order of first sighting).First-time sightings in bold.

  1. white-breasted nuthatch
  2. black-capped chickadee
  3. northern cardinal
  4. house sparrow
  5. dark-eyed junco
  6. tufted titmouse
  7. American goldfinch
  8. downy woodpecker
  9. white-throated sparrow
  10. song sparrow
  11. red-bellied woodpecker
  12. Carolina wren
  13. American crow
  14. mallard
  15. Canada goose
  16. hooded merganser
  17. hairy woodpecker
  18. common eider
  19. ring-billed gull
  20. bufflehead
  21. red-breasted merganser
  22. lesser black-backed gull
  23. American black duck
  24. great black-backed gull
  25. common loon
  26. surf scoter
  27. white-winged scoter
  28. mute swan
  29. American wigeon
  30. Carolina chickadee
  31. European starling
  32. rock dove
  33. American robin
  34. mourning dove
  35. Eastern towhee
  36. northern flicker
  37. blue jay
  38. northern mockingbird
  39. redhead
  40. house finch
*shout-out to all my sports nerd readers who get that joke, by which I am pretty sure I mean one dude.

Year-End Recap (Obligatory)

I don’t really like those year-end recaps that everyone does. I am doing one of those year-end recaps that everyone does. Enjoy my year-end recap that everyone does.

2016 sucked, right? That seems to be a pretty widely-held opinion. I don’t disagree, but this trend didn’t really apply to me in direct and personal ways, for which I am grateful. I hope that 2017 is friendlier to a lot more people the world over, but for now I’m going to focus on the good in my own life in 2016 by sharing some nature stories and photos.

I’ll begin, appropriately enough, in January. We in the DC area had quite the snowstorm early this year. We’ve been seeing more of these in recent years to a degree that the area’s snow removal infrastructure is simply not prepared for. Of course it would be fallacious to attribute any one storm to climate change (that’s weather), but the increase in frequency and severity is exactly what the models project.

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Wheaton under a couple feet of snow

My nature story of the year is definitely the progress of my butterfly garden, including the bench I built in February. I was able to use natural wood and just one long 2 x 6 board. We’d been forced to cut down a dead maple in our backyard in November, so I had an ample supply of logs.

March was a time for more garden prep, but it also yielded my first photos of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), found on the Rachel Carson Trail amid the vernal pools and wood frog eggs. I was also pleased to find some beautiful narrowleaf blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) in Wheaton Regional Park.

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Skunk cabbage is a very cool – if a little bit gross – flower, and one of the area’s earliest bloomers.
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Some of that blue-eyed grass I mentioned, found near the parking lot for the Brookside Nature Center.

The early planting, weeding, and digging continued into April and May, interspersed with short hikes around the neighborhood and to other local destinations. One pleasant walk in late April brought me sightings of much of the common local fauna and flora at its springtime finest.

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A cheeky little eastern chipmunk
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some lovely azaleas

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A family of Canada geese
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A redback salamander
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A red-eared slider

The late spring and early summer was mostly marked by studying visitors to my butterfly garden, most of which were not yet butterflies or moths.

 

Above are a handful of the flowers these bugs were visiting; below is a surprise garter snake (not found in my butterfly garden).

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An eastern garter snake seen on a branch of the Rock Creek Trail in Rockville

I think my favorite new-to-me species in 2016 was the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). I saw several of these on a few different trips to Brookside Gardens and they really were spectacular. They look like hummingbirds, sound like bees, and dazzle like orchids but they’re really large moths.

Narrowing down which landscapes and wildlife photos to share from our August trip to Vermont’s Green Mountains was a real challenge. I’m not confident that I’ve picked the best or the most interesting, so maybe I’ll come back to it in a later post. It really was a fantastic trip.

The rest of the summer and into the fall, I began to really see the payoff of my butterfly garden. Butterflies and moths, birds and squirrels, some surprise visitors, and the flowers themselves were all quite rewarding sights.

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Caterpillars! These are more or less the point of all the work. (These in particular are monarchs.)

 

I’ve hardly included everything that I could have (I’m saving a few things from this winter for a future post or two, for example). We took a late fall trip to Shenandoah National Park and I generally try not to let my interest in nature take a total nosedive through the winter. Regardless, I hope you enjoyed my year-end recap that everyone does.

More Year-End Recaps That Everyone Does

Happy Holidays!

That’s not a political statement… it’s Christmas Eve, so Merry Christmas as well. It just happens that this post deserves the more generic title because there’s nothing exceptionally Christmas-themed about it. In the spirit of the season I am sharing some winter-themed photos and links.

As always, click an image below for an expanded view.

Birds sure have a way of making themselves seem holiday-appropriate in the winter. These blue jays provided a nice show during last January’s heavy snowfall.

And this cardinal in Wheaton Regional Park made a spectacle of himself for me, too.

And finally, I loved getting the chance to view this red-shouldered hawk (quite common in our neighborhood) on a snowy day.

There’s more to winter than just birds in the snow, though! For one thing, there are seemingly pointless hikes (which therefore telegraph their purpose) taken in February for the sole purpose of proposing.

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Winter hikes are great! Apparently I didn’t stress this enough to be convincing.
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But one gets some nice views, beautiful in a different way from other times of year.
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And there is always some surprise greenness somewhere.
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Not to mention much more obvious tracks!

So, I like going out in the winter, but what about my companions?

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What about them, indeed?
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Oh, they’re OK with it.
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Especially this one.

That’s a lot of white up there. Like, really a lot of white. So I guess I’ll add one last thing, overtly Christmasy after all.

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Enjoy the season, and these fun holiday wildlife links!

Some winter wildlife webcams

Christmas Bird Count

Wild Reindeer

Mistletoe and Birds

Featured Species #3: Northern Water Snake

The title of Douglas Adams’s Mostly Harmless could have easily been referring to the northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon). Spoiler alert: it isn’t. It’s about people. We’re way less harmless. since we’re mammals and wired with an instinctual mistrust for reptiles – snakes in particular – it’s understandable that many of us nonetheless have a visceral and negative reaction to the sight of them. I get it, and I feel it too. I promise if you encounter one it won’t end too badly. Sure, it’ll have a mouth, so it could bite you. But that’s extremely unlikely (unless you grab or otherwise harass the thing, in which case maybe you deserve it), and if it did you’d be faced with some mild pain and heavy bleeding while it slithered away. That’s not a license to go poking the creatures – they should remain as undisturbed as possible. I merely suggest that rather than screaming and/or running away the proper response to a sighting is to observe briefly and then move on.

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The northern water snake is often mistaken for a copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) or water moccasin (aka cottonmouth, A. piscivorus), due to its brown, patterned body and similar overall shape. One way to clear up the confusion is to look for an “arrowhead” shaped head. However, the northern water snake may appear to have this head shape when in a defensive posture, so that can complicate things a bit. If you’re in Maryland, DC, or northern Virginia, you can be confident you’re not seeing a water moccasin because those don’t naturally occur here. However, the copperhead is fairly common throughout the mid-Atlantic and in my opinion looks a lot closer, too. It’s a good idea to be careful, especially if you can’t see the snake’s head.

I will admit that for most of my life northern water snakes hardly seemed worth my attention, with their dull, brown color and general snakeliness. When I’moved back to this area after college and started seeing them more regularly, I realized I’d been missing a treat. They’re one of the more easily found snakes and can often be seen basking near bodies of water, and their harmlessness makes them ideal candidates to study in the wild. I’ve come to see the beauty in their patterns of brown scales.

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This one thought it was being sneaky.
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Can you spot it in this photo?

In this area I see them with some frequency around the ponds in Wheaton Regional Park and in various sections of Rock Creek Park. I believe, though, that they can be found near most natural bodies of water throughout the region. Like most snakes, they are accomplished at hiding, so investigating behind logs and in rocky crevices can be rewarding – but exercise caution when moving rocks, logs, stumps, etc. and always replace them as you found them.

Northern Water Snake Links

Featured Species #2: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

The eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is quite common in our region. It’s no less beautiful for its abundance. These beauties can be seen in virtually any meadow, stream bed, or other open area from Spring through early Fall. They are one of the more photogenic butterflies because of their size, coloration, and relatively relaxed movement. Along with the cabbage white, they are some of the most frequent visitors to my butterfly garden.

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An eastern tiger swallowtail visiting a butterfly bush in Wheaton Regional Park

I recall referring to them decades ago as “yellow swallowtails” as distinguished from “black swallowtails.” I’m not sure if this was a regional colloquialism or my own failing; either way it’s confusing. The eastern tiger swallowtail has both a yellow and a black morph, and several local species of swallowtail are predominantly black. Black swallowtail is actually the common name of one of them. In parts of the Mid-Atlantic, it overlaps with the similar Appalachian tiger swallowtail (Papilio appalachiensis) and the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). The latter is fairly easy to identify by multiple characteristics, including its giantry. The former is a bit tricky and requires close observation of the trailing edge of the ventral forewing. The row of yellow dots found on the eastern is more of a continuous bar on the Appalachian.

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A pair of eastern tiger swallowtails feeding on buttonbush
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And another, feeding on bee balm

Host plants include a variety of trees and bushes: tulip poplar, common lilac, black cherry, and species of ash and willow, for example. Many of these are common in the mid-Atlantic both as naturally occurring plants and as native ornamentals.

The adults will feed on just about any plant for nectar. I frequently find them on my butterfly bushes (my one non-native concession inside the butterfly garden) and they seem to love buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) as well. I’ve also seen them feeding from coneflowers, bee balm, thistles, Queen Anne’s Lace, and more. They seem willing to give a chance to any flower large enough to support them while they feed.

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This one is “puddling” on the muddy bank of a creek.

Eastern tiger swallowtail links