Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

What the mockingbird knew

with 37 comments

Tawny Emperor Butterfly Faded and Ailing 1598

At one point when I was walking near Shoal Creek in central Austin on August 20th I noticed a mockingbird on the ground that kept coming toward me. It got closer than I expected it to and I wondered why, when suddenly I saw it peck at what looked like a little dry leaf on the ground not too far away from me. Then I saw the “leaf” make a slight fluttering movement, so I walked forward to investigate and the mockingbird finally retreated. What it had seen and pursued but I had not was a tattered, faded, and ailing tawny emperor butterfly, Asterocampa clyton, that was near the end of its days. Whether that chomp out of the deposed emperor’s wing had been taken by the mockingbird, it knew but I didn’t, nor do I know whether it came back after I took my photographs and left, leaving the butterfly on the ground and to its fate.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 23, 2015 at 5:36 AM

37 Responses

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  1. oh how sad. what a beautiful butterfly. the cycles of nature


    August 23, 2015 at 5:50 AM

  2. If your mockingbird had babies, I’d put good money on it being back, in a flash. There’s nothing hungrier or more demanding than young mockingbirds, and finding an easy tidbit like that butterfly would make any parent bird happy.

    It’s a happier accident that the leaf and the background blend so beautifully with the butterfly. Or, perhaps it’s not accidental at all. The tawny emperor may have been seeking to fade into invisibility.


    August 23, 2015 at 6:43 AM

    • I did see one other mockingbird nearby, so perhaps you’re right. I can’t say I’d ever thought about what mockingbirds eat, but at


      I just found this:

      “Northern Mockingbirds eat mainly insects in summer but switch to eating mostly fruit in fall and winter. Among their animal prey are beetles, earthworms, moths, butterflies, ants, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, and sometimes small lizards.”

      All the leaves in the immediate vicinity of where I found the butterfly were some shade of tan or brown, but I don’t know if that was by happenstance or design.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 23, 2015 at 8:38 AM

      • I have one pair of mockingbirds and their new fledgling coming to my feeder now. While blueberries were in season, I put those out for them, but now I’ve switched to raisins. They can find their own ants, earthworms and butterflies.


        August 23, 2015 at 8:47 AM

  3. …it is really so beautiful, and the story makes it all the more so, Steve, thank you.


    August 23, 2015 at 6:55 AM

  4. The color palette is good. Everything seems to coordinate well.

    Your paragraph structure seems unusual for you.

    Jim in IA

    August 23, 2015 at 7:23 AM

    • There’s definitely a limited color palette in this view.

      What did you find unusual about the paragraph structure this time?

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 23, 2015 at 8:54 AM

      • Upper and lower case letters appeared in unusual spots. Commas are where periods might be. The grammar didn’t sound like you. Sentence structure was off. I thought you were drunk.

        I just went back to read it again. This time none of those things are present. Either I was mentally in a fog before coffee took effect, or the WordPress engine had scrambled it as Reader delivered it to me the first time. I’ve never seen that before. Pretty funny. 🙂

        Jim in IA

        August 23, 2015 at 10:13 AM

        • Wow, what a strange occurrence. It sounds like either you or WordPress (or both) hadn’t had enough caffeine at the time when WP Reader first presented the post to you.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 23, 2015 at 10:23 AM

          • I wish I had taken a screenshot at the time.

            Jim in IA

            August 23, 2015 at 1:36 PM

            • Too bad you didn’t. From your description, we would’ve had some fun looking at the screenshot.

              Steve Schwartzman

              August 23, 2015 at 4:58 PM

              • It was amusing. I hesitated to say anything lest I show my ignorance about some artsy-fartsy way of composition. I’m relieved to know it wasn’t me.

                Jim in IA

                August 23, 2015 at 5:03 PM

  5. Beautiful shot!


    August 23, 2015 at 9:31 AM

  6. I like the monochromatic approach, here. I saw one of these many years ago around here but not recently.


    August 23, 2015 at 9:53 AM

    • Ah, a painter’s view. Normally the tawny emperor is more colorful, but this one’s faded condition made it harmonize with the similarly toned dry leaves, so the overall effect leaned toward monochrome.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 23, 2015 at 9:58 AM

      • I’m glad you were alerted to the little fellow by the mockingbird. He got his moment in the limelight before finishing his destiny, feeding a bird.


        August 23, 2015 at 10:10 AM

        • That might have been the outcome, but I don’t know. I suppose I could go back to the spot (I know where it is) and look amid the leaves to see if I find a dead butterfly, but even if I didn’t find it I couldn’t conclude that the mockingbird had come back for it. Something else could have eaten it, a child could have found it and walked off with it, the wind could have blown it away, etc. Regardless of the outcome, I’m content to have witnessed and recorded a portion of the saga.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 23, 2015 at 10:18 AM

  7. I have seen so few butterflies this year, or moths for that matter, that I’d be delighted to have found this tattered one, accidentally or not. They have a tough life, as do most of nature’s beasties, and it’s unusual to find one that is more than a day or two old without some scales missing. Still a lovely image.

    Steve Gingold

    August 23, 2015 at 2:57 PM

    • Even though we’ve gone for two months here without rain (broken only briefly this past Thursday), I’m still seeing a fair number of butterflies, as I did in the spring (when we had tons of rain). I wonder why your quota is so low this year: do you have any idea?

      Yes, most of those little creatures have a difficult and short life, often ending up as food for some other creature—as this butterfly could easily have been food for the mockingbird.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 23, 2015 at 5:04 PM

      • Not really…well, I do have one. My neighbor uses a chemical treatment to assure his monoculture of a lawn and I think that might have something to do with it. But they also have a very successful garden, both vegetable and flower, so at least the pollinators are OK. I am suspicious because all my usual insect suspects are not showing up in the numbers I am used to.

        Steve Gingold

        August 23, 2015 at 6:14 PM

        • I’m sorry to hear about the decline for you of insects in general. Let’s see if (and hope that) next year is better.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 23, 2015 at 8:30 PM

  8. Very nice – I do love your colour palette with this image – it suits the butterfly at the end of its life.

    Raewyn's Photos

    August 23, 2015 at 3:37 PM

    • A reduced color palette has its appeal, especially as a brief break from brighter colors. In this case, as you point out, there’s also the symbolism of a life nearing its end.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 23, 2015 at 5:05 PM

  9. Fine image that tells a story about a butterfly’s life. I’ve read that the eyespots on the wing margin are supposed to distract birds, and make them peck that side, instead of the head. The “hairs” on hairstreaks are false antenna, according to this view. I’ve seen a lot of butterflies pecked on the hind wing margin, so perhaps it’s true.


    August 23, 2015 at 8:05 PM

    • I’ve read the same thing about eyespots, and also that the would-be eyes fool a potential predator into thinking that a larger animal is present. As for hairstreaks, they were among the first butterflies I got a little familiar with because they seem less inclined to fly away from me than other types. Many’s the time I’ve watched those false antennae move up and down:


      Steve Schwartzman

      August 23, 2015 at 8:35 PM

      • Lovely Gray hairstreak image. Hairstreaks do love to rub their wings together. They don’t hold still for me, though – they wander around the flower, making it hard for me to stay parallel.


        August 23, 2015 at 8:45 PM

        • I often have the same problem of parallelism with butterflies and other quick-moving insects—I expect we all do—but if one of those insects hangs around long enough there usually are brief spells when conditions are right and a high shutter speed can do the trick.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 23, 2015 at 10:59 PM

  10. One of the real treasures in our world; I love your photo, the details are amazing.

    Charlie@Seattle Trekker

    August 23, 2015 at 10:55 PM

    • I didn’t want to use flash, and in the available light I couldn’t get everything sharp, so I focused on the butterfly’s eye and the main portion of its body; that brought parts—but only parts—of the wings into focus as well.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 23, 2015 at 11:03 PM

  11. The butterfly looks as though it is being served on an elegant slim plate; a dish of delectable butterfly for the discerning mockingbird.


    August 24, 2015 at 9:01 AM

  12. SUPER!


    September 23, 2015 at 9:53 AM

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