Patuxent State Park--Wow!
Patuxent State Park runs alongside the Patuxent River. We discovered it some years ago, while living in Ellicott City. The hiking trails are unmaintained, so it tends to be fairly deserted. The first time we went was during a drought and, aside from a tiny stream running down the middle, the river was nothing but mudflats. Since then, whenever we've gone, there's been an actual river (and, after this past winter's snows, this time was obviously no exception), but it's just a really nice walk with lots to see and relatively easy. The hardest part is because the trails are unmaintained, so there tends to be a lot of brush to wade through, fallen trees, and the like.
The top of the trail is always pretty ordinary. The river is small there, so it's like any hiking trail through a forest beside a river except for all of the brush and fallen trees. Then the river widens drastically and the trail gets much easier, and there is much more to see. A little creek runs down to the river at this point, and as we walked down to find a place to cross, I looked down and noticed that there was a mass exodus of tiny little toads from the creek. (I think they were toads. Reptiles and amphibians have never been my forte as a naturalist.) Sure enough, the edge of the water was calm enough to be filled with tadpoles, which explained the flight of the toads. Later, we also sat on a log and watched little birds skimming the water for tadpoles, which was rather comic.
Here I am, holding a tiny toad:
The tiny toads kept us from crossing the creek long enough, and I am glad that they did because a butterfly I'd never seen before happened by at about that point. We scrambled for the camera again, but it went off back into the brush. Incidentally, there was a little trail leading back to where I could see it was resting on some plants that it appeared to like (at least, it spent an awful lot of time on them), so we went back, camera in hand, to try to get a picture.
At first, I thought it might be a Baltimore butterfly. (Which prompted Bobby to ask, "Does it have pictures of steamed crabs on its wings, hon? Does it drink Natty Boh?") I've since checked my field guide, and it is definitely not a Baltimore, and after a quick perusal of my field guide, I can't find anything that looks like it.
The area where it was resting was full of these butterflies. And they were very friendly! Twice, one landed on my leg, the first time on my shorts:
And then I felt something tickling my calf and assumed it was a fly and started stomping my foot to get rid of it, then happened to look down to find that another had landed on my bare calf.
There were also massive dragonflies. They were friendly too! One perched on my shoulder for a little while. Here is the species that landed on me, not on my shoulder this time, which I haven't had a chance to look up yet:
Right about this time, our camera batteries started to die. We would be able to coax some more juice out of them, and it was a good thing too, because our adventure had only just begun!
Here is the creek (I keep wanting to type "crick" because that's how I say it. Hee.) where we found all the friendly butterflies and dragonflies, with the Patuxent in the background.
Now we had to cross the creek. There were no stable logs or rocks, so we had to jump and make the best of it. My foot got stuck in the mud, and I landed up to the tops of my boots in water and splashed mud all up the backs of my legs. Yuck! But it was worth it.
On the other side of the creek, we saw three tiger swallowtails fluttering about, so we headed over to where they were. However, when we arrived, there were no tigers in sight. That was pretty disappointing, and I wondered where they went in the thirty seconds it had taken us to walk over. For those of you who aren't familiar with them, tiger swallowtails are big butterflies. It's hard to miss them disappearing.
I've always noticed, since I was a kid and wanted to be an entomologist and used to sign my school papers "Insect Felagund" (no lie), that swallowtails are attracted to bare earth. I would always see tiger swallowtails just sort of trundling across my parents' driveway and, when Bobby and I started hiking, we would always see them on riverbanks and sandbars. I have no idea why. I did a quick web search to see if I could find more information on that and didn't, so that's for more in-depth research later.
Anyway, the area where we were had clearly been underwater until recently. It was bare earth with only a few brave plants sprouting up out of the mud. We were getting ready to move on, so I gave one last glance about to see if I could figure out what happened to the three tigers, and I'm glad that I did because four of them were gathered on the ground at the base of a tree. They appeared to be feeding on the mud; at least, their probosces were extended down into the mud. That answered the question of where the three tigers had gone!
Apparently, communal feeding is fairly common among tiger swallowtails. Here is the Tiger Conclave:
We sat and watched them for a long time, and they seemed quite content there. When Bobby would approach to photograph them, they'd beat their wings once or twice (which I read that they do to remind birds that they taste bad) and then settle back into ... whatever they were doing. Eating mud? Maybe it was some kind of high-class spa for tiger swallowtails?
We continued on but didn't make it far because we encountered another unfamiliar butterfly. Spicebush swallowtails are quite common in our area; they are big, black, tailed butterflies with brilliant blue coloration on their hindwings. They mimic the pipevine swallowtail, which is similarly colored and toxic, so avoided by birds. (And, actually, some female tigers take on a dark form that mimics the spicebush swallowtail for the same reason.) At first, I thought the new butterfly was a spicebush, but I quickly realized that 1) it was smaller and faster, 2) it didn't have tails, and 3) it was much, much more brilliantly colored. It was also "feeding" on the mud at the edge of the river. Swallowtails are generally pretty tame; in fact, I used to tame swallowtail butterflies on my mom's lilies when I was a kid and, by the end of summer, they'd let me handle them. But this fellow was much spookier and didn't like us to get too close. Nonetheless, Bobby coaxed two more good pictures out of our ailing camera.
The closest match I can find in my field guide is the red-spotted purple swallowtail. The only misgiving that I have is that the underwings of our butterfly were not as boldly patterned as pictured in the field guide. Reading the description, though, it seems that these butterflies form hybrids with other species, so a good degree of variation is possible.
By this time, we'd probably spent close to an hour chasing butterflies and sitting on logs watching butterflies and birds catching tadpoles, so it was time to get back. Our red-spotted purple was still doing its thing in the mud, and the Tiger Conclave was just breaking up as we passed. Crossing the creek again, I ended up in mud up to my ankle ... but it was so worth it!
So, when all was said and done, we saw seven different species of butterflies our two-hour hike:
- fritillary (I haven't been able to identify the precise species yet because I need a picture of one)
- spicebush swallowtail
- tiger swallowtail
- unidentified orange and black butterfly that is not a Baltimore
- common blue
- cabbage white
- red-spotted purple swallowtail
Including two species I'd never seen before.
And, to cap off an awesome day, we are going to our favorite Mexican restaurant tonight for dinner. Today, life is good! :)