Piddling and puddling in the swamp

Published 9:38 pm Tuesday, December 2, 2014

By Susan and Biff Andrews

There is no better way to spend a day than piddling — driving around to new places and investigating what they have to offer. Planned or unplanned, such trips provide true insight into an area and its sights, sounds, tastes and culture.

One such trip into the Great Dismal Swamp this year yielded just such a rich, new sight: swallowtail butterflies puddling. There they were — 30 or 40 large specimens, including tigers (the large yellow and black ones), zebras (the smaller black and white ones with the longer tails), and the Palamedes (the larger brown species), gathered in an area two feet by two feet.

Email newsletter signup

They were so intent on their drinking that we could reach out and touch them. They might flutter up a foot or two, but they came straight back down to continue feasting.

Go and visit when you might expect wet spots in the dirt roads. A recent heavy rain followed by clearing and cooler conditions makes a perfect time for this activity.

You need puddles for puddling.

When puddling, butterflies gather in wet areas where there may be urine, salt deposits, dung, or minerals that they need for procreation. It’s always about sex. The puddling insects, which are usually males, need the minerals to make their sperm more viable and produce better offspring. The females get their minerals directly from the males.

Fifty-seven species of butterflies and 49 species of skippers have been recorded in the Dismal Swamp. They represent two thirds of all species found in Virginia and North Carolina.

Some of these species may soon be limited to the Swamp alone, as their food sources, such as switchcane and Atlantic White Cedar, grow increasingly rare elsewhere. There are one or two species that are found almost exclusively in this area.

So next summer day when it’s sunny after an overnight rain, visit the Great Dismal Swamp headquarters and visitor center at 3100 Desert Road in Suffolk. They’ll introduce you to the 113,000 acres, 150 miles of ditches, and one of only two natural lakes in the state of Virginia — a lake of water made brown by tannic acid.

Then follow Whitemarsh Road to the Jericho Ditch, the George Washington Ditch, or the Railroad Ditch near the Visitor Center. Hike along and look for groupings. Watching butterflies puddling is one of the finest forms of piddling.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at