Under the Open Sky Commentary: Butterflies, Bird Babies and Moths

By Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle

If you are a regular wild bird feeder then I’m willing to bet that your bird seed budget is about as blown as my own.

I have only one main seed feeder up and running at the moment and I have to keep an eye on it or else a wandering band of red-winged blackbirds will fly up from the Middle Marshes with their brand-new from the nest babies and clean it out, leaving nothing but the hulls for my littlest bird friends to gather from the ground.

The red-winged blackbirds are one of my all-time favorite birds, in spite of their hungry hordes, especially at this time of year when feeder activity and the frenzy over food is at its all-time high.

Blackbird males fly in boldly, announcing their arrival with a loud, one-note whistler, putting all other less dramatically plumed creatures on notice that the Prince of Blackbirds has, indeed, arrived.

At this time of year, the males often have their young’uns in tow, ready to show them the ropes of the feeding station and help them learn to mind their manners.

The European starlings have also fledged. Their fledglings are large, awkward and, yes, welcome visitors at my feeders. There’s lots of room in my backyard, plenty of nesting sites so that the more colorful and more popular songsters can easily share with the lesser-loved starlings.

I love to watch the starling adults bring their babies from the barn to my lawn and get them started feeding themselves. There is always a bold baby that will break off from the pack and make the jump to the porch feeders. It drives the starling parents crazy when their kids do that; they scold them noisily from below.

If the baby starlings had a voice I’m sure you’d hear them say, “Hey! What’s going on around here? What? Nuts? Seeds? Mom! Dad! What are you doing down there? Look here!”

I’m sure I saw a red-winged blackbird female purse her lips and scowl at a rude little starling the other day. The blackbird females are known for their courteous manners and regal bearing at the bird feeders; I’m sure they disapprove of the comically riotous starling kids.

Flutter Byes
Monday, I chased a western tiger swallowtail across the parking area at Carlisle Lake in Onalaska. I’ve never been very successful at finding butterflies in my backyard, much less getting them to hold still while I focus my camera lens.

I haven’t given up on butterflies, but I’m focusing my efforts this summer on the nighttime winged creatures, moths.

Last week I happened to spot a Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus), a giant silkmoth, on my backporch just before I was ready to turn out all the lights and hit the hay.

I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning studying the giant beauty — he had a 5 inch wingspan — and taking his picture from every angle I could think of.

I say “he” with certainty because you can distinguish the female from the male easily.

“Males will have a very bushy antennae while females will have a moderately less bushy antennae. The male’s bushy antennae is used to detect pheromones released by unmated females,” states the Butterflies and Moths of North America website.

And what a hairy looking beast. Simply magnificent.

He stayed on throughout the next day and into the evening. I brought my granddaughter home to see him, told her all I had learned from studying the Internet websites devoted to the love of the day-loving butterflies and night-flying moths.

I said, “He was born without a mouth and doesn’t have a way to feed himself. He only lives for four days. We are so lucky to be able to see him.”

As soon as those words were out of my mouth I regretted them. Our eyes met over the top of the beautiful beast and we exchanged a look of sad realization.

In the few moments of silence that followed, the words I had spoken out loud hung in the air above us.

I know that what I said will forever change the way she looks at a moth, as it has changed mine.

To have had the privilege of meeting and appreciating a moth of such rare beauty — well, it leaves me without words.

What we focus our attention on changes us and it changes how we relate to our world. I know my world has been changed by my short-lived friend.
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Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer who enjoys watching and photographing the wildlife in her own backyard in Cinebar. Contact her via email at kz@tds.net.

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