Longwing Butterflies

Tiger longwing Heliconius hecale South America
Tiger longwing
Heliconius hecale South America
Zebra longwing Heliconius charithonia Southern USA, Central and South America
Zebra longwing
Heliconius charithonia Southern USA, Central and South America

Here we have the Tiger longwing (Heliconius hecale) native to South America, and the Zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia) native to the Southern USA, Central and South America

These are in the Butterfly House at Whipsnade Zoo, and I photographed them with my little Ricoh GR III yesterday.

Was there ever a name that is both more straightforward and completely self-explanatory as ‘longwing’?

According to Wikipeda, most longwings are found in the Tropics, particularly in South America. I was in South America in 1990 and I remember sitting on little buses making there way along muddy tracks. Every so often there would be a puddle and big yellow butterflies – with a wing span of maybe three of four inches – would rise up to get out of the way of the approaching bus. The buses had wire grills over the windscreens and they would be plastered with butterflies of all kinds that had not got out of the way in time. I wondered at the time how many butterflies there would be if one counted up all the ones on all the buses on all the days.

Monarch Butterflies

I saw a lot of butterflies in South America. On this particular day I took a ride in a big dugout canoe up a broad river. It was a bright, sunny day as they mostly always were. I am pretty sure I was in Ecuador, although I don’t recall the name of the river or the exact area of the country.

We passed an Indian village, and being in a dugout we were low near the surface of the water as the boatsman spoke to the people on the river bank. He spoke in a normal conversational tone, no louder than if he had been addressing me in the canoe.

I can’t say how far it was to the bank, but much further than one would expect his voice to reach – maybe a hundred yards. And the voices of the villagers carried to us clear as day. I remember thinking it was a wonderful thing how sound travels so far across the surface of water.

When I landed a little further up the river, I was the only person there. I must have intended that as my destination, I didn’t just land without knowing that I had somewhere to sleep. But I don’t recall why I aimed for that particular place. So there I was.

I made a fire and cooked porridge. Then I went out and sat on the hillside eating and looking down at the sweep of the river.

Butterflies started to come up the hill, over my head. They weren’t just milling around. They were heading somewhere and they kept on coming.

At some point I went back to the pan on the fire to put more porridge on my plate. Then I wandered back and sat on the hill. And the butterflies kept on coming.

There are a lot of butterflies in South America. So perhaps I was a little bit immune to seeing them. But the sheer number of butterflies coming up the hill finally finally got through to my consciousness. So I made a rough calculation as I sat there of how many butterflies I could see at one time as they came over And then I estimated how long I had been there, including when I went to get more porridge and multiplied it up and – bottom line, that would be more than ten thousand butterflies that flew over my head.

Back in England I was watching a TV programme about butterfly migration in the USA, and it described migration by Monarch butterflies, and that is what I am going to go with. I think that is what they were.

1 Comment

  1. Tamara says:

    Yes, they were beautiful! I was amazed at how huge that other one was. I don’t have its name here as I write this.

    Wonderful recollection about the thousands of butterflies at one time that you saw in South America. What a jaw-dropping, glorious sight that must have been! Interesting too about how far the voices sailed across the waters. Lovely recollections here.

    Liked by 1 person

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