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

Program Looks to Give Bees a Leg (or Six) Up

By John Schwartz, The New York Times

Helping America’s beleaguered bees could start with something as humble as planting a shrub.

Here in California’s Central Valley, researchers are trying to find assortments of bee-friendly plants that local farmers and ranchers can easily grow, whether in unusable corners and borders of their land or on acreage set aside with government support.

Read the full article at NYTimes.com


Limits sought on weed killer glyphosate to help monarch butterflies

By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

With monarch butterfly populations rapidly dwindling, a conservation organization on Monday asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to implement tougher rules for the weed killer glyphosate — first marketed under the brand name Roundup — to save America’s most beloved insect from further decline.

In a petition, the Natural Resources Defense Council argued that current uses of glyphosate are wiping out milkweed, the only plant upon which monarch caterpillars feed. The loss of milkweed is having a devastating effect on the life cycles of the large, fragile orange-and-black butterflies, which migrate through the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Read the full article LATimes.com


Monarchs, milkweed and the spirit of Rachel Carson

By Gary Paul Nabhan, Los Angeles Times

After news broke recently that the number of migratory monarch butterflies that had arrived to winter in Mexico was the lowest since reliable records began, I went on the road on behalf of the Make Way for Monarchs initiative. This solutions-oriented collaboration is working to place millions of additional milkweeds in toxin-free habitats this next year. Why? Monarchs cannot live without milkweeds, and milkweeds are disappearing.

In Pittsburgh, after the crowd listened to me outline the problem and the solution (restoring milkweeds and other wildflowers in healthy farm-scapes), a quiet man approached me with a smile. He wished to remind me that today’s struggle to help monarchs has deep precedents.

To read the full article, visit LATimes.com.


Local group says feds failing to protect endangered bumble bee species

By Steve Law, The Portland Tribune

The Portland-based Xerces Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a notice of intent Thursday to sue the U.S. secretary of the interior for failure to respond to a petition to list the rusty patched bumble bee under the Endangered Species Act.

The Xerces Society, which specializes in invertebrate species, filed a petition to protect the rusty patched bumble bee under the Endangered Species Act more than a year ago. The group charges that the interior secretary failed to meet a statutory requirement to respond to that earlier petition within 90 days, as well as a subsequent deadline to decide within a year whether or not the species should be protected.

Read more about the Portland Tribune


Growing Insects: Farmers Can Help to Bring Back Pollinators

By Richard Conniff, Yale Environment 360

With a sharp decline in pollinating insects, farmers are being encouraged to grow flowering plants that can support these important insects. It’s a fledgling movement that could help restore the pollinators that are essential for world food production.

For the last few years, Richard Rant has agreed to let researchers introduce strips of wildflowers among the blueberry plants on his family’s farm in West Olive, Michigan. It’s part of an experiment to see if the wildflowers can encourage pollinating insects and, in a small way, begin to reverse the worldwide decline in beneficial insects. It’s also a pioneering effort in the nascent movement to persuade farmers to grow insects almost as if they were a crop.

Read the full article at Yale Environment 360