December 20, 2007

Dear Friends,

Welcome to my journey. This may be the only report all year that I actually type, as I have not yet departed and still have access to e-mail. Throughout 2008, I will be off-line and dispatching reports by hand, from various rural mailboxes around the land.

I see the plan of my year, such as it is, as being something like half of a daisy. The disk flowers are centered on Gray’s River, Washington, near the mouth of the Columbia River, where I live. (This is the area I wrote about in my recent book, Sky Time in Gray’s River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.) The ray flowers represent my excursions out and back, of which there will be several during the year. I will travel primarily by automobile–my 1982 Honda Civic (Powdermilk), starting out with 354,000 miles on the odometer. At this point, the only flights I intend to take will be to Alaska in midsummer and Hawaii at the end of the year, to wrap things up with the few (2) but beautiful Hawaiian endemics. Somewhere in the middle, I anticipate a long figure eight of an Amtrak trip.

My objective, as you know, is to encounter as many of the 800 species of North American butterflies north of Mexico (based on the new Pelham Catalog) as I possibly can in the year 2008. I don’t intend to merely tick them off, but to indulge in deep and revealing encounters with the butterflies, their habitats, and the landscapes and people and stories that make up their whole continental context. Of course I’ll be looking at the state of habitats and how traditional ranges are responding to climate change. It is these stories and perceptions and findings that will make up the pith of Swallowtail Seasons.

Many have asked if I will be taking pictures. I will not. Butterfly photography has come a vast distance since my Watching Washington Butterflies (1974), in which color photos of wild butterflies were first used in a field guide. But I have not come along with it! I will be working in word-pictures, which are my stock-in-trade. In this way, and insofar as it will be a Big Road Trip and a heck of a field outing, Swallowtail Seasons will resemble Chasing Monarchs (2000). But whereas that foray involved seeking one species in one general direction over three months, this one will address hundreds of species, every which way, for an entire year. I can’t yet quite comprehend, much less express, what an immense privilege this opportunity represents. And what a challenge.

Spontaneity will be the watch-word, as I’ll need to adapt to weather, fickle flight periods, information flashes, and many other variables. Thus I will make very few dates, commitments, or engagements, though I look forward to visiting and going afield with many old and new friends during the year. So be forewarned–you might get a call when I’m in your neighborhood! The same goes for my own “flight plans.” While I will have an extremely general outline of movements, I’ll need to be able to divert, detour, and digress, to shuck and jive, to pull a U-ey or hang a left at the flash of a wing or the rise of a cloud. Therefore, any prediction of when I will be where will be unreliable by definition. In rough terms, however, I will be orienting my travels around a number of “grail butterflies”–a dozen or maybe a score of species that I have always wanted to see, but which have so far eluded me–such as the short-tailed swallowtail of the Maritimes, the yellow Eversmann’s parnassian of the Far North, the Atala of southern Florida, or Behr’s sulphur of the High Sierra. The localities and flight periods of these will dictate many of my movements, and I will hope to pick up many of the other species along the way as I seek these special endemics.

So to start I shall head south down the Pacific Coast into the New Year. I intend to begin with the overwintering monarchs of the central California coast. A few other species fly year-round or at least very early in the year from the Bay Area southward. I will be looking out for West Coast ladies, gulf fritillaries, buckeyes, and cabbage whites in the early days, as well as some of the first spring emergents such as margined whites, echo azures, and western pine elfins. The farther south I get, the more species should be peeking out, including some early orange-tips and sulphurs. Spring rains and wildflowers in the desert will dictate many of my initial results. Before I return north from the first outing, I hope to find the precocious advance-guard of arguably one of the most beautiful of North American butterflies, the sonora blue. It shimmers with a truly empyrean blue, both the fore- and hindwings splashed with fire-engine orange. I have seen it only once, on a Super Bowl Sunday in San Jose.

Until the next word then, from the field,

Bob

The Washington Butterfly Association buys Bob Pyle a symbolic first tank of gas for the grand adventure at Bob’s local shop, the Rosburg Store, in Gray’s River Valley. From left to right: Butterfly Association members Al Wagar, David Droppers and Bob Pyle.


 

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The Xerces Society » News

As Dwindling Monarch Butterflies Make Their Migration, Feds Try to Save Them

By Eve Conant, National Geographic

CAPE MAY POINT, New Jersey—Two years ago migrating monarch butterflies transformed the lush gardens of Cape May Point into a series of “giant orange snowglobes.” That’s how Mark Garland of the Monarch Monitoring Project describes the good monarch days, the kind of days when thousands fly overhead.

There’s been no such spectacle yet this year, but Garland and members of the project’s team, who take a census of the monarchs three times a day, are holding out hope. The popular orange-and-black insects will be drifting toward this peninsula for a few more weeks to fill up on nectar before riding the winds that will hoist them over the Delaware Bay and on toward Mexico.

Read more at NationalGeographic.com


Seeds for bees: Worries drive new plantings for pollinators

By Dan Gunderson, MPR News

Jim Johansen harvests native grass seeds that his company sells to farmers for conservation projects. But seed demand is shifting to native wildflowers.

Worry over the widespread deaths of honey bees has led the seed company Prairie Restoration to increase production of plants that provide habitat for pollinators, including bees and butterflies. It’s “definitely changing the way we look at things,” said Johansen, who manages native seed production on the farm near Moorhead.

For many years, native seed operations focused on grass-dominant mixes for farmland enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Now, there are fewer acres enrolled in CRP and a growing emphasis on habitat for pollinating species. That’s changing Minnesota’s plant seed industry in ways good for business and the bees, observers say.

Read more at MPRNews.org


José Andrés: Why We Need to Protect Monarch Butterflies

By José Andrés, The Plate – NationalGeographic.com

I have a special connection to monarch butterflies.

If you’ve been to my Mexican restaurant in Washington, DC, you may understand. You see, the beautiful mobiles of butterflies twirling from the ceiling represent this forest located in Central Mexico filled with Oyamel fir trees, which is also the name of my restaurant. Every year, several hundred million Monarch butterflies make a journey to this very unique place located high up in the mountains of Michoacán. The butterflies travel over 2500 miles from Canada to seek refuge within the waxy needles of those fir trees, making a quiet “shhh” sound as they flap their wings. It is truly an astonishing act of nature.

During my many visits to Mexico to learn more about its regions, its culture and cuisines in preparation for my restaurant, I heard tales of the this forest—this majestic place that’s blanketed in gold every October through March. During the summer of 2003, I finally got to go see it with my wife and my three daughters. While it wasn’t wintering season, I was captivated by it and fell in love with the story of the Monarch butterfly.

Read more at NationalGeographic.com


Researchers: Keep An Eye Out For Tagged Monarch Butterflies

By Monica Spain, KPLU 88.5

If you’re lucky enough to spot a lacy monarch butterfly as it heads south for winter, look closely. You might see something unusual on its wing.

In a town in northern California, a young girl noticed a white sticker with an email address on a butterfly’s wing when it landed on her garage door.

“She took note and emailed me, so it proved the system worked,” said Dr. David James, an entomologist at Washington State University.

James is a guy who is fascinated by bugs. He’s tracking western monarch butterflies. The sticker the girl saw on the butterfly had his email printed on it.

The monarch butterfly has been studied for decades east of the Rocky Mountains, but much less is known about western monarchs. Scott Black, executive director of the conservation group Xerces Society, says there has been a 90 percent decline of the monarch in North America, which is why tagging is important work.

Read more at KPLU.org


‘Canary in the cornfield': monarch butterfly may get threatened species status

By Morgan Erickson-Davis, mongabay.com

Monarch butterflies were once a common sight throughout the North American heartland. In Mexico, where they overwinter, single trees would often be covered in thousands. But declines in milkweed – their caterpillars’ only source of food – have led to a 90 percent decline in monarch numbers. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is reviewing a petition that would grant the iconic species protection through the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The monarch (Danaus plexippus) is one of the world’s greatest insect migrators, flying 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) over four generations from breeding grounds as far north as Nova Scotia to forests in Mexico where they overwinter. However, fewer and fewer have been congregating in Mexico. Surveys conducted by scientists have tracked an overall steep decline over the past two decades.

Read more at MongaBay.com