Welcome to my zone 9a habitat garden near Houston, Texas.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Palamedes surprise

I've been surprised and delighted to find a new butterfly in my garden this year. At least it is one that I had never seen here before. It could have been here in the past and I just didn't see it or didn't recognize it. It is, after all, a black butterfly in the swallowtail clan and there are several others that look very similar to it, so it might be easily mistaken for one of them. But once I identified it earlier this summer, I've been on the lookout for it and I have not been disappointed.

It is the Palamedes Swallowtail and I think you will agree with me that it is quite a beauty. Moreover, it is a big butterfly, easy to view. At a maximum of 5 1/2 inches wingspread, it is almost as big as its cousin, the 6 inch Giant Swallowtail.

This butterfly's favored habitat is wooded southeastern swamps. I think it has probably shown up in my yard because of our proximity to Spring Creek and its backwaters. Also, my small fish pond coupled with the rainier summer we've had this year may have helped to draw it in. For whatever reason, butterflies of this persuasion have been present here throughout the summer.

According to my John and Gloria Tveten butterfly guide, Butterflies of Houston & Southeast Texas, the butterfly's range extends along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts all the way from southern New Jersey to Texas and even into Mexico. It is a strong flier and also wanders inland from the coast which is how it came to be in my yard. It nectars on a wide variety of flowers. In my yard, I've seen it on petunias, as in the picture above, and also on azaleas, Hamelias, cestrum, buddleia, flame acanthus, cannas, day lilies, sunflowers, hibiscus, and cypress vine. Obviously, it isn't a picky eater.

Unless you can catch it sitting still to sip nectar, it is not that easy to photograph. As noted, it is a strong flier and it zips around quickly and often erratically, as many butterflies do to confuse their predators.

 Here, you can see a bit of a dorsal view of the wings and the yellow band and spots that mark those wings.

The Palamedes in flight, with a ventral view of the wings, where you can see the distinctive double row of big orange spots on the hindwings as well as the pale yellow dots on the leading edge of the forewings. This particular butterfly seems to have lost its "swallowtails" as well as having a bit of damage to the wings. Most butterflies that have been flying for a least a day or two will have some damage.

According to Tveten, Palamedes are present here from April to December and may have two or three broods during that time. The larva are green with large eyespots and have a band of red along the bottom of the critters. They feed on red bay, sassafras, sweet bay and avocado among other plants. I need to plant one or more of those in my yard.

This has been an especially good year for butterflies of all kinds in my garden and now we are coming up to the busiest butterfly weeks of the year - autumn. It's just one of the reasons why that may be my favorite season. And this late summer and autumn, I'm especially happy to have the wonderful Palamedes Swallowtail butterfly as one of my beautiful visitors.

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