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Yellow wings eclipse the sun

The Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly is a sight for autumn eyes on the Mississippi Coast.
The Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly is a sight for autumn eyes on the Mississippi Coast. Special to the Sun Herald

Once upon a time, about a century ago, the Mississippi Coast’s yearly September spectacle of the yellow sulphur butterfly migration eclipsed the eclipse.

Read for yourself, from a Sept. 11, 1923, account reported in this newspaper:

“Many local observers of yesterday’s eclipse of the sun, gathering at corners and on the curbstones with smoked glasses and camera films for a look or two at the shadow biting in the center of the solar system, were pleasurably excited by a vision of stars shooting upward from the sun, plunging downward into its flames, passing over it and darting about in spectacular fashion, noticeable with the naked eye when the top of a tall building would cut off the direct light of the sun.

“Of course,the phenomenon was blamed on the eclipse. Investigation this morning...shows the same spectacle, which field-glasses resolved into the annual eastward migration of the yellow sulphur butterflies, now in full swing in the middle Gulf states.”

When the U.S. was high on eclipse fever a few weeks ago, I searched old newspaper editions to learn how past generations reacted to this phenomenon. That’s when I found this butterfly eclipse gem.

Interestingly, Eclipse Day 1923 was also a Monday. California blacked out but the Coast was still excited about its partial that began at 2:32 p.m. and ended at 4:49 with 76 percent coverage at 3:44.

The first thing I wondered after reading the next-day account was whether a generation of eclipse watchers showed eye damage from using smoked glasses and camera film, warned against today.

A new yellow season arrives

It’s now September and the Coast should again be in the midst of a yellow sulphur migration. I’ve sadly noticed the butterfly numbers lessen each year. Scientists blame weather, pesticides, disappearing habitat and the hazards of competing for clear, low flight paths in a car-crazed America.

For the latter, a few years ago I drove across the Biloxi Bay Bridge during the height of the sulphur and monarch migrations. I cringed the entire distance as my killer car claimed dozens of butterflies, impossible to avoid with so many using the bridge as their personal roadway.

During this murder spree, I recalled a late-1800s article that described the yellow sulphurs using the railroad tracks before there were automobiles but a lot fewer train engines.

With modern digital search technologies I attempted to relocate that article. Instead I found this from 1927: “The flight of these butterflies usually commences the latter part of August and continues through the fall months.”

And another gem from Aug. 28, 1929:

“The yellow sulphur butterflies have begun their annual migration ... to the cooler and damper regions of the east Gulf Coast and Florida...

“The millions of dainty fliers now passing along the Coast will not return, as they die in the early weeks of winter [and] many fall victims to fast-moving automobiles.”

Just a one-way trip

More is known today about the eastward yellow migration but mysteries remain. Scientists spend more time studying the more popular orange monarchs, which unlike the sulphurs can make a second migratory journey.

For the yellows, however, it is often a one-way trip in search of warmer winter climates in Florida. That’s why they always head east. These yellow, mid-sized beauties are most often called Cloudless Sulphurs or Cloudless Giant Sulphurs, technically Phoebis sennae. Their favorite flying grounds are open spaces, gardens, glades, seashores and watercourses.

In the same long-ago year as the eclipsed yellow sulphurs, a tongue-in-cheek, rural Herald columnist called the Crab of Big Level, observed:

“We acknowledge the many advantages that Gulfport has over us, but when her people are forced to wait for an eclipse of the sun and resort to smoked glasses in order to see the myriads of yellow butterflies as they pass, we have them beaten to a frazzle.

“This is the season when these little harbingers of winter form themselves into a scattered army of flying squadrons of pathfinders...adding additional giddiness to childhood and reminding old age of the winter of their discontent. We can see them with the natural eye — millions of them if we look long enough.”

Consider taking the time to “look long enough” for this rare, colorful sign of autumn’s arrival on our Coast.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

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