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,


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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A Ghost in the Making: Photographing the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee

By International League of Conservation Photographers, National Geographic Voices

Over the past two years I have become increasingly fascinated, okay obsessed, with North America’s native bees. Although I initially began photographing them in my backyard in between assignments it didn’t take long for me to become mesmerized by the lives of these remarkable, often minute creatures. North America has about 4,000 species of native bees. Yet despite all the press about the decline of the honey bee (Apis mellifera) – an exotic species introduced to North America from Europe – none of our native bees are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Earlier this year, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I saw my first Rusty-patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis). It should have been a thrill – affinis is one of the rarest bees in North America. But this particular bee was impaled on a pin, neatly labeled, and stored in a drawer. In an adjacent case was a perfectly preserved Passenger Pigeon. Like the pigeon, the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee once thrived in the Park, but it has gone locally extinct. Unlike the pigeon, there are still some Rusty-patched Bumble Bees left; small populations persist in the Upper Midwest, hundreds of miles to the north. The Rusty-patched Bumble Bee is a beautiful, fat, fuzzy bee that was once widespread in the eastern United States. But in the last 15 years its range has shrunk by 87% and it has become rare in the few areas where it is still found. The bee has already been listed as endangered in Canada, but not in the U.S., where it was once so abundant.


Rare insect imperiled by retreating ice in Glacier National Park

By Louis Sahagun, The LA Times

Shrinking glaciers and rising stream temperatures in Montana’s Glacier National Park are prompting concerns about the impacts on surrounding ecological systems after perennial streams of melted ice disappear.

Of particular concern is the fate of a rare aquatic insect, the western glacier stonefly, which is only found in the park and was first identified in streams there in 1963. Only 25 specimens exist in museum collections around the world.

The ice masses in Glacier National Park are expected to disappear by 2030, leaving the insect scientists know as Zapada glacier without the creature comforts it needs to avoid extinction: very cold alpine streams flowing out of patches of ice.

Recent surveys and genetic analysis show that the 1/2-inch-long insect is now only found in one of six streams it inhabited prior to 2011, according to a new study published online last week in the scientific journal Freshwater Science.


Pollinator Recommendations Deliver A Sting

By Geoffrey Riley & Charlotte Duren, Jefferson Public Radio

The thousands of bees that died in Oregon a couple of summers ago did not die in vain.

The die-off, a result of pesticide use, increased awareness of both the value of bees (and other pollinators) and the perils of ignorance in chemical use.

The Xerces Society and other groups that want more protections for pollinators hailed the formation of a task force to make recommendations to the legislature.


Oyster growers asking for permission to use new type of pesticide

By Jake Schild, The Daily World

State regulators are considering a proposal from the Willapa Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association to use the pesticide imidacloprid to eliminate the problem of burrowing shrimp. The growers association believes the pesticide is a safer alternative to carbaryl, which was previously used to take care of the problem, but environmentalists are concerned about the chemical’s possible effect on invertebrates.

A draft permit for the proposed use of the pesticide has been produced by the State Department of Ecology, as well as a draft environmental impact statement. A fact sheet regarding using imidacloprid has been completed, as well. The pesticide would not be used until the Spring of 2015 if the permit is approved. Public comments on the issue are being taken by the Department of Ecology until Dec. 8.

Willapa Bay produces around 65 percent of the oysters and 13 percent of clams harvested in Washington state. The combined oyster harvest from Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor makes up about 25 percent of the total oyster landings in the United States. Nine thousand acres of oyster grounds are currently farmed in Willapa Bay, while about 900 are farmed for commercial production oysters and clams in Grays Harbor.


My View: Making space for bees in our crowded landscapes can help solve food production woes

By Matthew Shepherd and Eric Lee-Mader, Portland Tribune

There are photos and videos circulating on the Web of a crop duster seed-bombing wildflowers to create a meadow for bees that challenges our expectations. What’s a plane usually used for killing insects doing trying to save them? In grabbing our attention, it shines a spotlight onto an important issue: the lack of clean, safe habitat for bees in our landscapes.

Bees and other pollinators touch our lives every day, from the foods and drinks we consume to the fabrics we wear or sleep on. And the service they provide to our environment helps define our seasons: springtime wildflowers, summer berry picking, pumpkins at Halloween.

The threats facing bees include: diseases, parasites, pesticides, habitat loss. It doesn’t matter whether they are domesticated honeybees or native bumblebees; all bees are facing the same conditions wherever they live. Too often, these kinds of problems seem overwhelming, too vast to fully comprehend, let alone turn around.