Jewels of Summer -July 2008

by: E. Vernon Laux

photography by: E. Vernon Laux

The best time of the year, in terms of butterfly diversity, with the greatest number of species, is upon us. July arrives and with it comes a complete and remarkable transformation in butterfly activity. There is an absolute explosion of emergent butterflies in the span of a few days. For butterfly enthusiasts, it changes from bust to boom in the course of a couple of weeks. What a welcome change!

Butterflies are the most civilized creatures that a naturalist can study. While insects generally and butterflies specifically are not what one conjures an image of when thinking of civilized, the pursuit and observation of these delightful insects most certainly is. Butterflies do not like and are not active in bad weather. They do not get up early or stay up late. They do not bite, suck blood, annoy or act like most pesky insects. They hang out in beautiful locations and have a fondness for fresh flowers. I rest my case.

Watching butterflies is not nearly as “wacky” a pastime as one would imagine. Unlike birding or fishing, which requires devotees to get up at all kinds of ridiculous hours and venture out in less than ideal weather, the butterfly-watcher is much more civilized. Butterflies only do their thing, which is fly around, look gorgeous, sip nectar and find another of its kind of the opposite sex, when the weather is essentially perfect. Call them insect supermodels that have figured out how to enjoy the finer things in the bug world.Unlike many forms of wildlife, butterflies, by virtue of their habits and nature, veritably beg to be watched and studied. The observation of these winged jewels does not have to be and is better enjoyed if it is not practiced exclusively. In fact, many gardeners and wildflower enthusiasts turn out to make the best butterfly-watchers because they are already tuned in to butterflies, although they have been looking at the other invitee to the party.

Butterflies are a great introduction to the wonders of the great outdoors. They can act as a catalyst, a stepping stone, to the incredibly-diverse natural world. They can be seen flying by while stuck in traffic, while walking on an uncrowded beach or coursing over open fields. They are everywhere and are found in urban and rural settings. As short-term indicators of environmental health, they are without compare.

Another benefit to butterfly-watching is that it can be done anywhere, even in the gardens and streets of the biggest cities. Unlike the mega fauna – large vertebrate animals like bears, wolves, mountain lions, polar bears, etc. – butterfly populations are capable of exploding given optimum conditions. They are cyclic and prone to large population swings.

Populations of butterflies reflect the cyclical nature of the natural world perhaps better than any other group of animals. Active only in good weather and finding energy obtained from frequently-cultivated flowers and ornamentals, butterflies are noticeable and easy to see.

Every year is really different for the butterflies, their populations and those observing them. Population extremes from boom to bust are far more extreme than in vertebrate animals. Insects are really at the mercy of the elements to a much greater extent than animals that are warm-blooded. A cold wet season with little sun can hammer their numbers.

This makes them even more exciting to observe. No two years are the same and butterflies that are abundant one year may be scarce to absent the next.The beauty of butterflies, aside from their physical beauty and intrinsically-remarkable form, is that their populations vary so greatly from one year to the next. The opportunities to study them and attempt to figure out what factors are vital at each stage of their life cycle is a challenging and worthwhile endeavor. The more one knows, the less one knows rings true with our understanding of butterfly population dynamics.

All of the above is meant to instill in anyone reading this far the desire to identify the very manageable numbers of butterflies one is likely to encounter on Nantucket or anywhere in North America.

An active observer who gets out and looks for butterflies on the island would be fortunate to see 70 species in a season. This would mean visiting all habitat types and getting out at least bi-weekly from April through early October. The accuracy and confidence in one’s identification skills will grow quickly, and virtually all butterflies, with the exception of a few skippers or extremely-worn individuals, can be confidently named.

Anyone can enjoy butterflies. In fact gardeners, flower-growers, people who spend a lot of time working on or in their yards and beach-goers all have time and opportunity to see these apparently fragile yet remarkably strong flying wanderers. With a small amount of effort, close-focusing binoculars and the aid of a butterfly guide, it is fairly straightforward to be able to identify nearly every butterfly that one encounters.

The learning curve is rapid and once one becomes familiar with one species, the others begin to sort themselves out rapidly. If the butterfly is well-seen, the only real identification problems are the small, similarly marked, mostly drably-colored, fast-flying group known as skippers. Not all of these can be dealt with all the time, but just knowing that the butterfly in question is a small non-descript skipper should give most a sense of accomplishment.

Most but not all individual butterflies are identifiable. Their wings are covered by small fine scales, like little overlapping shingles that wear away and fall off during the course of its short active flight period and end of its life. As these wear off, the patterns and marks used to figure out their specific identities start to disappear. In fact, occasionally one will see a butterfly so worn, tattered and in disrepair that all one can do is throw one’s hands up in defeat.

Several species of hairstreaks have started to emerge. These intricately-marked small butterflies are amazingly marked and perhaps the most beautiful of all our butterflies. There are several species that can be common to scarce depending on the year.

Hairstreaks are tiny, sprightly little butterflies that indeed could seem mythical, until one is familiar with them. Their name comes from the many lines or streaks that tend to appear on the hind wing below or from the usual presence of fine, hair-like “tails.”

Hairstreaks are exquisitely marked. Their antennas are striped black and white like a zebra and their faces and eyes distinctly marked. The subtle yet intricately-patterned detailing on the underside of the wings is breathtaking. Most have silvery frosting on the wings and with close views they are nothing short of stunningly understated.

They can be found from early to late July on the many conservation properties located island-wide. Favorite plants for nectaring include a wide variety of milkweeds and a wide variety of plants that flower during July. Different habitats will often feature different species with three or four hairstreak species possible on a sunny day in July.

There are only around 35 to 40 different species of butterflies that one might encounter on Nantucket in July. This is a very manageable number and all are fairly straightforward to identify with the exception of some confusing skippers. These small, fast-flying butterflies, the shape of a miniature F-15 fighter jet, challenge one’s ability to identify them. With practice and experience, however, most are safely identifiable.

One of the nicest things about looking for butterflies is that it immediately immerses one in a world of flowers. The sights and smells of so many incredible growing plants is reward enough. The views of satiny, gem-like, impossibly-marked, eye-popping, stunning butterflies are the added bonus, the icing on the cake, so to speak. It makes one wonder why absolutely everyone is not a butterfly enthusiast because it is such a pleasant and fun thing to do.

Aside from all the pleasure derived from watching butterflies, there are also useful and important things that can be learned. An interest in these fascinating insects can be a starting point for an interest in many other aspects of the natural world. The part they play in the ecosystem, the cycles of boom and bust in nature, the incredible metamorphic processes of insects, and the impact of chemical use on private gardens, and on and on. There is no end to the list of questions that an interest in butterflies may provoke.

At any rate, it is hoped that after reading this (if the sun is shining) one will go out and notice the butterflies that are coursing over the fields (cabbages and sulphurs), the large and colorful eastern tiger swallowtail that cruises in and out of wooded edges, or the American lady flitting from flower to flower in your garden. Revel in the sights and olfactory delights of the summer garden while remembering to keep your eyes open for butterflies. Butterflies are everywhere if you will notice them!

E. Vernon Laux is the resident naturalist and property manager for the Linda Loring Foundation. He has observed nature on all seven continents.

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