Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Coupled Flight

On occasion I have seen two butterflies flying as one.  Hard frequent wing beats by the upper butterfly keeps the pair aloft.  Questions concerning the identity of these insects have crossed my mind.  A casual observer may miss salient details.   I could not be certain of any detail beyond orange color.  Today an opportunity for detailed observation presented itself.  I watched as a pair of coupled butterflies flew toward me then turned and flew away.  Positive identification that the pair were indeed Monarchs was made.

The pair landed in the top of a nearby milkweed plant.  A stealthy approach left me seated in the grass near the pair.  The upper butterfly had her wings closed above her body with the nearly invisible male held between her wings.  Abdomen tips seemed to be touching but I an uncertain about which way the male was facing.  Reason would suggest that their heads were also aligned.  Uncomfortable with my presence, the pair flew away.

The transition from perched to flight sent the male falling under the female where he hung motionless like the centerboard on a sailboat.  A rather long flight, in buffeting wind gusts, took the pair up to the top of a red maple tree away from prying eyes.   I did not see them again.

I have read that the actual passing of the seed packet requires several hours and happens on the ground.  Additionally, the male is described as sometimes capturing a female in flight with the coupled pair tumbling to the ground.  Today I saw two lengthy controlled flights of a joined pair.  I saw the perched pair take to the air.  I am having trouble squaring what I saw with what I have read.   Today the necessary hours may well have been passed in the top of a tree.

Becky sat in the grass in the middle of my controlled milkweed patch hoping for a Monarch picture.  I mow this area repeatedly until mid July, then the milkweed is allowed to grow.   It quickly flowers on short stalks and tender young leaves are available for the newly hatched eggs.  This caterpillar was caught feeding on the late unopened flower buds.

For the past two summers we have seen few Monarch butterflies here.  They occurred in numbers only during migration.  We are located near a wide bend in a south flowing river.   The straight line path down river passes directly over us providing excellent views of birds, airplanes and butterflies.  This year Monarchs here are numerous.   Winter in Mexico must have been mild.   For our part we have acres of milkweed.   This year the Monarchs came in numbers.

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