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

Monarch butterfly population makes a modest rebound

By Peter Fimrite, SF Gate

The troubled monarch butterfly, whose winter migration is one of the most remarkable of any species, rebounded this year, raising hopes for the brilliant orange and black insect, according to the yearly count.

Some 56.5 million monarchs are gathered in Mexico for the winter after their amazing trek across the United States, scientists with World Wildlife Fund Mexico estimate. That’s a good deal more butterflies than last winter, when 34 million were counted in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, the lowest number recorded since 1993 when entomologists began keeping records.

A much smaller population winters in California, which saw an estimated 235,000 monarchs, a 50 percent decline compared to the 18-year average, according to scientists.

Read more at SFGate.com


Monarch butterflies rebound slightly amid milkweed planting

By Bruce Finley, The Denver Post

The latest monarch butterfly count found that the population poised to migrate through the United States rebounded from last year’s record low — but still ranks second-lowest on record.

Monarch numbers increased to 56.5 million from 33.5 million, according to data collected by the World Wildlife Fund and announced Tuesday by Mexico’s government.

“When you consider that in the mid-1990s the population was 1 billion, this is still a pretty low number,” said Sarina Jepsen, endangered species program director for the Xerces Society, a conservation group leading rescue efforts. “Monarchs are really in trouble.”

Read more at DenverPost.com


Monarch butterfly count rises as conservationists warn of extinction

By Reuters

A tally of monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico rose to 56. 5 million this year from a record low of 34 million last year but conservationists said on Tuesday the increase was too slight to reduce the threat of extinction facing the insect.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said last month the popular orange-and-black butterfly may warrant federal Endangered Species Act protections tied to declines in cross-country migrations because of farm-related habitat loss.

Sarina Jepsen, endangered species director for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, said scientists had predicted that favorable weather in the butterfly’s breeding grounds in the U.S. Midwest and elsewhere would result in more monarchs migrating to Mexico this year than the 56.5 million estimated this week by the Mexican government and that country’s chapter of the World Wildlife Fund.

Read more at Reuters.com.


Protection sought for plummeting monarch butterfly population

By Jean Bartlett, San Jose Mercury News

Recently two Ocean Shore Elementary School teachers, second grade teacher Fran Quartini and third grade teacher Sheila Gamble-Dorn, took their respective students on a field trip to the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz. This is an annual classroom visit for both teachers and each marveled at the sight of the beautiful orange, black and white-winged creatures who settled by the thousands in the Preserve’s grove of eucalyptus trees — a safe place for the monarchs to roost until spring. Each teacher also expressed strong concern over the protection of North America’s most well-known butterfly. Their concerns are warranted.

On August 26, 2014, The Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety as co-lead petitioners joined by the Xerces Society (a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat), and renowned monarch scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower, filed a legal petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking Endangered Species Act protection for monarch butterflies. Their petition goes on to explain that the monarchs have declined by more than 90 percent in under 20 years. The petition additionally states that during that same 20 year period, these “once-common iconic orange and black butterflies may have lost more than 165 million acres of habitat.

Read more at MercuryNews.com


Gardening to Help Monarch Butterflies? Plant Natives.

By Chris Clarke, KCET

With the recent declines in numbers of monarch butterflies leading to the popular insect becoming a candidate for listing as an endangered species, more and more gardeners are thinking about growing milkweed. Milkweed, after all, if the only kind of plant monarch caterpillars can eat, and so growing milkweed in your garden means you’re providing monarchs with a nursery and larder for their young.

But there’s a problem: there are about 140 known species of milkweed, some of them potentially invasive in California wildlands. In fact, not all milkweeds are of equal benefit to monarch butterflies. There’s even some thought that one popular tropical milkweed may be harming North American monarchs by changing their migration habits.

Fortunately, there are fifteen species of California native milkweed that gardeners can choose from to give monarchs a helping hand. Not all of them are readily available in nurseries, but with a little searching you should be able to find at least one species appropriate for your part of the state.

Read more at KCET.org