Butterflies: catch them before the season flits by
By: John D. Carr, Oregon Live September 3, 2011
“Beautiful and graceful, varied and enchanting, small but approachable, butterflies lead you to the sunny side of life. And everyone deserves a little sunshine.”
I was thinking about this quote from Jeffrey Glassberg, author of several butterfly field guides, as the warm afternoon sun bathed the large lupine-filled meadow on Yocum Ridge. The sturdy trunk of a mountain hemlock tree formed a comfortable backrest as, to my enchantment, colorful butterflies fluttered from blossom to blossom like flowers in motion.
Discovering butterflies does not require a nine-mile climb to a little-visited alpine meadow on Mount Hood. Almost anywhere with access to sunshine, warmth and flowers will attract them.
With our rainy, cloudy weather much of the year, and the large percentage of land converted to agricultural use, the Willamette Valley and areas west do not attract the species diversity of warm, dry climates. As a general rule, the farther east you travel up the Columbia River Gorge, the more species and individual butterflies you can see.
Don’t be discouraged, though. Butterflies are often spotted in Portland and will be evident through early fall.
“Whether you are young or old, butterfly-watching can provide hours of entertainment,” said Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “With a good butterfly book in hand and a little practice, anyone can learn how to do basic identification.”
In town, yards with blooming flowers are a prime location. Otherwise, white oak tree environments are a good bet, including Oak Island on Sauvie Island or the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.
Visiting Sisters or Bend in the summer, one might be lucky enough to spot migrating monarchs. However, because they live only three to four weeks, most butterflies do not migrate. They use their short adult life to eat, pollinate flowering plants, fend off predators and reproduce. Songbirds, game birds, mice and other insects all eat butterflies, considered an indicator species.
If a butterfly species declines, it’s a good sign there are problems in their environment. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of butterfly species are at risk, mostly specialized species. Monarchs are an example of a species declining rather dramatically over the last 10 years.
And woolly bears? Those pretty caterpillars spotted in the fall do not develop into a butterfly in their adult form. Instead, they become rather delicately marked and subtly colored moths.
Quick guide to butterflies
Common butterflies in the metro area: Swallowtails, blues, skippers and the non-native cabbage white.
Common in the Columbia River Gorge: Checkerspots, blues and painted ladies.
A hot spot farther afield: The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument southeast of Ashland, where more than 80 species of butterflies have been seen.
A butterfly’s life cycle: Typically one year of egg, birth, caterpillar, chrysalis, adult, reproduction and death.
Puddling: Every once in a while a group of a dozen or more male butterflies can be seen gathered near a lake or stream. This behavior is called puddling. Sometimes there will be multiple species together. Scientists think the male butterflies are obtaining sodium and other nutrients necessary for mating.
Advice on identification: Some butterflies are difficult to identify precisely — it is often hard to see their “characters” (for example, unique spots on the underside of the wings). A good photograph or a net can help in identification. Butterflies can be safely captured in a net, inspected and safely released unharmed. (To buy a net, check out www.bioquip.com.)
Good guidebook: “Butterflies of Cascadia: A Field Guide to All the Species of Washington, Oregon, and Surrounding Territories” by Robert Michael Pyle
Good read: “Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year,” also by Robert Michael Pyle. A travelogue of a one-year butterfly hunting trek around North America.
The Xerces Society: An international nonprofit (named after an extinct California butterfly) based in Portland that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. The staff is knowledgeable and helpful about butterflies. www.xerces.org
Websites: www.thebutterflysite.com, www.butterfliesandmoths.org
App: The Audubon Butterflies — A Field Guide to North American Butterflies is a mobile field guide to more than 600 butterflies.