Giant Swallowtail

Giant Swallowtail

Dan really outdid himself with the gift he brought me this afternoon. He walked into my study holding a large black-and-yellow butterfly and asked, “Is this a Giant Swallowtail?”

It was indeed. He’d caught it while it fluttered lazily at the phlox in our garden. What makes this noteworthy is this:

Giant Swallowtail range from Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies (highly recommended!)

From Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies, definitely my favourite butterfly guide.

We’re at the tip of the red arrow, roughly.

The one and only time I’ve ever seen this species was a number of years ago, perhaps 2005. It was visiting my mom’s garden at my parents’ old house in the Greater Toronto Area. The species is very rare in Ontario; it occurs regularly in small numbers in southwestern Ontario, but the farther east you go the rarer it seems to become. Of course, it doesn’t breed out this way, so all occurrences of the butterfly here are immigrants that either traveled here under their own steam or were blown here in a weather system. The Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility has a species page for Giant Swallowtail, on which they note, “In 1992, a stray was recorded in the Ottawa area for the first time following high winds resulting from a hurricane in the southern U.S.” Could today’s visitor have ridden up ahead of Irene?

Giant Swallowtail

These are beautiful big butterflies. They fly as if their oversized wings are too big to flap properly, like floppy clowns’ shoes. They float lazily in the air, never traveling very high, cruising from one spot to another with what appears to be hardly any effort at all. Dan said when he first saw it above the garden he initially thought it was a falling leaf.

They also have the distinct habit of fluttering while they visit flowers. I took a couple of photos of it in Dan’s hand then had him release it. It stuck around the garden and I followed it about, camera in hand, trying to get a good photo as it resumed feeding on the phlox, but it wouldn’t stop fluttering. In fact, it seemed to use its wings to push its head deep into the throat of the flower. Judging by the blurred wings I see in many of the photos on Google Image search, this wasn’t unique to our butterfly.

Down south, in its breeding range, this species is considered a pest of citrus orchards, especially oranges which has earned its caterpillars the name of “Orange Dogs”. It’ll also feed on Hop Tree (Ptelea trifoliata) and Prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) where citrus trees aren’t common, such as up here (though both species actually in the same family as oranges and other citrus). I don’t think we’ve got Hop Trees here, but we certainly have lots of Prickly-ash about. I wonder if their range might expand, or if it’s not the availability of food plants that limits its northern distribution, but rather something like average winter temperatures or snowfall affecting overwintering survival.

My camera’s battery died after I’d run off a dozen shots, and since it seemed to be hanging about the garden and not going anywhere I hurried in to grab my spare. But when I returned, it’d disappeared, presumably off into the meadow somewhere. Safe travels, buddy, and thanks for visiting!

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10 responses to “Giant Swallowtail

  1. I’ve been seeing them a lot this summer as well – and also last summer. There was an article in the Toronto Star a few days ago on how they’ve now expanded their range to eastern Ontario due to climate change (http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1042003–species-migrating-north-at-two-and-three-times-faster-than-reported).

    • That’s pretty interesting, thanks for sharing that link. I bet we’ll be seeing a lot of that over the next decade. It’ll perhaps make for some interesting mothing!

  2. Nice! I remember seeing the occassional one in Acton but have yet to see one this far away from their ground zero.

    • I guess if they breed in southwestern Ontario then the GTA wouldn’t be too much of a stretch if they caught a good wind. It does seem it’d be some distance to fly for them to make it all the way up here.

  3. Saw one 2 weeks ago at Tower Hill Botanical Garden in Central Ma. It was fluttering around their collection of citrus trees, temporarily placed outside on one of the terrace gardens.

  4. I know they are somewhat regular here in Hamilton. I planted a Hop Tree in my backyard hoping they might stop by!

  5. they are fairly common along lake erie near toledo in summer, i think because one their host plants- hoptree / wafer ash, is more common.

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