Butterflies and the excitement of discovery

  • Photo by Francie Von Mertens—

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Rain. Real rain, the kind that seeps into soil. Good news for gardens, for field and forest, for aquifers that ran low last summer.

Buckets lined up under our eaves are overflowing. I lug the buckets to water the gardens, mindful of people without clean, abundant water who have to spend all day carrying bigger, heavier containers longer distances.

It’s important to pay attention to water.

But this is about sun lovers. Butterflies. When sun and warmth return, they’ll take wing again.

At one the many nature workshops the Harris Centers offers year-round, Kent McFarland gave a talk and walk on butterflies a week back.

I’ve since learned he is THE Kent McFarland. I’ve seen his name everywhere now that I know it. Important bird research. Dragonflies. Bumblebees. Butterflies. Co-founder of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

He’s one of those people you think might not need sleep. “Obsessed” was a recurring word he used when talking about butterflies. His enthusiasm inspires.

Since his talk, I’ve been wondering what a butterfly life list might look like. How many species sighted and ID’d? The excitement of discovery.

Kent headed up Vermont Butterfly Survey, a six-year statewide census that followed a set protocol to ensure solid data. People often confuse Vermont and New Hampshire, so why not figure the two states have similar butterfly populations?

The survey found 103 butterfly species. About one-third fall in the skipper category, butterflies named for their quick movements. Typically smaller than “true” butterflies and a lot less colorful, they’re tough to ID. Another third are rare, with few sightings.

The survey summary cited 15 commoners, which leaves another 15 that aren’t rare, findable with some effort. As added challenge, species have different flight periods, and adults of most live a couple weeks up to a month—not like chickadees that you see 12 months of the year.

Also, we think about butterflies flitting about gardens and meadows, but some forest species don’t give their presence away so readily.

Conclusion: 30 butterflies would be a respectable life list for anyone not truly “obsessed.” I emailed Steve Mirick, a birder, dragonflyer and butterflyer with great energy and enthusiasm. He sent me his list: 64 butterflies.

That inspired me to make a list: 33 species. As Steve wrote, photographing helps the ID process. And when he can’t figure out a skipper, he has a “go to” butterfly pro who can. (I emailed Steve a photo of a butterfly I can’t ID.)

Steve has a lot more skippers on his list than my measly three. People struggling to learn sparrows call them LBJ’s for Little Brown Jobs. Skippers fill that category in the butterfly world.

Kent McFarland encouraged the workshop attendees to enter sightings online with eButterfly, an internet survey that aims to learn more about butterfly populations.

Other than monarch butterflies, not much is known about trends and distribution.

So out I went to our back fields—meadows filled with wildflowers.

An orange butterfly circled the field, too rapid to ID. I assumed it was a great-spangled fritillary, common most years but not so far this year. Their caterpillars feed only on violet leaves. We let some lawn go and it’s mostly violets.

Another orange butterfly slowly, gracefully lingered here and there. Yes. A monarch, so well named.

It flew near and I clicked away. Who, camera at hand, can resist photographing a monarch butterfly?

It landed on a nearby milkweed, two times and quickly, then moved on.

My attention moved on, too, to the orange butterfly circling the field. It was a male monarch cruising for a female.

I returned to the milkweed later and, kneeling, found two tiny pearl-like eggs where the female had touched down.

Two days later, downtown by the Peterborough Town Library, a monarch butterfly landed one, two, three times on milkweed growing among day lilies.

Yes, three little pearls.

I asked a man passing by if he wanted to see something really cool. We took a look. Like the milkweed in our meadow, it was a young plant not yet in bloom. Smart monarch knew it would be a good, fresh source of food for the emerging caterpillars.

Man and I smiled at our shared discovery.

He said, “Monarchs are really important.” We all know monarch numbers have plummeted. They might soon be on the endangered species list.

This appears to be a good year for monarchs compared to two years ago when there were close to none.

May you be graced by a monarch dancing over and then on a milkweed. It’s how obsessions are born.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.