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In a year with few buttefly sightings, a visit by the rare giant swallowtail is a welcome treat in the heat of summer. / Rob Zimmer/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com

In constant motion, a spectacular butterfly with wings spanning over 6 inches across fluttered among a vast garden of blooming wild black-eyed Susan and phlox.

With its huge wingspan and distinctive color pattern, the giant swallowtail is one of the rarest butterflies found in our part of Wisconsin. Found normally across the southern United States and South America, this butterfly occasionally ranges north into southern Wisconsin along the Illinois border during the heat of August, but very seldom north of Madison.

In a summer known for its mysterious, and disappointing, lack of butterfly visitors, spotting this huge, winged beauty was a treat indeed.

As the giant swallowtail peaks in number continent-wide during mid-August, summer winds may carry these huge insects into new areas. As strong south winds ushered in hot humid air during the past week, several giant swallowtails were reported here in Northeast Wisconsin, including one spotted at the Wild Ones WILD Center, located in Neenah.

These striking butterflies are colored rich, dark, chocolate brown with thick, golden-yellow stripes across the wing. The undersides of the wings are bright yellow. The long “tails”, from which the butterfly gets its name, descend from the lower portion of the bottom wings.

As these insects feed, like all swallowtails, the giant swallowtail is in perpetual motion, its wings constantly fluttering and vibrating as it travels from flower to flower to feed. The butterfly didn’t seem to mind me at all, as I was able to observe and film with a cell phone camera from just inches away as it fed.

Attracted to large stands of blooming wildflowers and gardens, giant swallowtails feed upon the nectar of such plants as black-eyed Susan, bee balm, meadow blazing star, spike blazing star, phlox, sedum and others.

As I photographed and filmed this spectacular butterfly feeding among a large patch of phlox and black-eyed Susan, I was amazed when another soon appeared. A tiger swallowtail, the large yellow swallowtail commonly seen in our area, also joined them feeding among the flowers.

To see these three huge butterflies feeding together within mere feet of one another was an outdoor lover’s dream. Among these huge butterflies, several hummingbird clearwing moths also enjoyed the sweet nectar.

The hummingbird clearwing moth is an unusual moth that feeds by hovering, just like a hummingbird, beside the flowers it feeds upon. This unusual insect is often mistaken for a small hummingbird or a large bee.

The giant swallowtail uses citrus trees, such as lemon and orange, as host plants for its caterpillars, as well as prickly ash and hop tree. The herb common rue is also used as a host plant by this species.

With its massive chocolatey wings striped in rich buttery yellow, the giant swallowtail is truly a spectacular butterfly. I watched them feed for over an hour as they fluttered back and forth among the many flowers blooming in this special garden.

Spotting these rare beauties makes me miss the regal Monarch even more. I'm hoping the fall Monarch migration brings more sightings of these butterflies across our area, setting the stage for their return next spring and summer.

— Rob Zimmer: 920-993-1000, ext. 7154, rzimmer@postcrescent.com

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