Butterflies—Wild In Nature
A journey into wild nature enriches us. Butterflies, birds, wildflowers, forests, fishing,
and hunting all provide great paths beyond civilization. The study of butterflies does have
• They’re attractive and people love them.
• Butterflies are quite approachable and their study is accessible.
• They’re good indicators of wild habitat. Take good care of habitat for butterflies, and we have provided for many other animals and plants too.
• They’re good indicators of weather and climate changes.
• Butterfly and moth scientists welcome and support the work of amateurs, who make many important contributions.
• With 800 species in the U.S.A. and Canada, several times that many subspecies, many of which are variable in appearance, often very particular about where they live and when they appear, all changing with the climate, we’re not going to run out of interesting questions and discoveries.
Why isn't this about the Tropics?
Upon learning that I’m a butterfly photographer, people often suggest that I go to the tropics. I love the tropical butterflies as much as anyone. They’re spectacular and get well-deserved media attention. I hope that’s a useful start towards preservation of butterflies. The role I have chosen is to work with the temperate zone butterflies of my own home territory. I want to help us be fascinated by the life here in our own surroundings, our backyards, the hills we hike, and the lands we consider for our city and industrial developments, agricultural, forestry, and mining. Be Here Now.
Why do I write of fascination more than of love? To imply obsessive knowledge and dedicated work, not just a warm fuzzy gooey feeling. Clear-sighted affection is a good thing, just not enough.
For us, what’s at stake is whether we us this grand, wild resource to enrich our lives, and whether we hand it on to forthcoming generations for their enrichment.
Wild butterflies are seen their own chosen surroundings, conducting their lives, unmanipulated and uncaught. Often I give a “butterfly’s eye” view, seeing them eye-to-eye, in their own scale. Only natural light is used: I love light and shadow effects, and rim lighting and backlighting– especially “stained glass window” lighting with the sun coming right through the wings, even when dorsal and ventral markings are thus confounded or partly concealed.
I do also value the field guide views which clearly display identification markings, and make them when I can. These concentrate just on the butterfly, not the plants and other surroundings. What about flash photography? It records fine details of a butterfly even when it is posing at an inconvenient angle to the sun, or in light too dim. I leave such efforts to others.
Other approaches are valuable: Netting, inspecting, and releasing butterflies is an invaluable teaching tool, and sometimes useful for checking for marks on a wing portion which a butterfly did not choose to reveal to the photographer. Netting and collecting specimens is essential to almost everything which lepidopterists know about the taxonomy and ecolgy of butterflies. New knowledge comes mainly from such efforts. I net occasionally, and fully support others who collect regularly. Sightings are a valuable adjunct to collecting, but no replacement.
This is a work in progress. I have several hundred species and over a thousand worthy photos, only a small portion of which have been prepared for presentation. I keep working. If you have a need, please ask, I may be able to meet it.
Butterfly names are not standardized. Publishers and authors of field guides have their own preferences and many disagreements about common names. The biological, latin names are revised as taxonomists learn new facts and reconsider old ones. I've had to make choices, to keep my work organized: Pelham 2008, Pyle 2002, and Brock & Kaufman 2003. These and other excellent sources are listed in Resources for Butterflies. Where I've used recently revised names or especially disputed ones, I often include alternatives.
I'm glad to discuss identifications with you. Sometimes you'll suspect that I can't make a reliable identification from the photographic view shown—then I observed the butterfly beyond the photo, or often I have additional photos of an individual, showing more features. Some I have not solved, and I've probably made some mistakes. I depend on helpful, knowledgeable people for much of my information.
People often remember seeing more butterflies when they were younger than they do now. Is this because as children our eyes were closer to the flowers? and we spent more time out of doors? and used to let our attention explore more? Yes, and there really are fewer butterflies. Each kind of butterfly depends on a certain few plants for its caterpillars to live on and eat. Without host plants there would be no caterpillars, no butterflies. Most butterflies depend on inconspicuous native plants. Such plants are finding fewer and fewer places to live as human activities expand across the landscape. We use land for homes, for business and industry, for agriculture and commercial forestry. We bring in plants from other regions, sometimes because they are extra tough and vigorous—and then they spread widely, squeezing out other plants. Scotch broom takes over whole hillsides, shading out small native herbs which certain butterflies depend upon. Vigorous new grasses crowd out natives which many skipper butterfly caterpillars eat. Every time we divert water from a stream, every time we lower an aquifer by pumping, some of the previously moist low spots and stream banks dry up and no longer support the accustomed plants and caterpillars.
The good nectar plants often recommended for butterfly gardening are great for bringing butterflies into our daily view. It is a joy to see them. Nectar flowers help us see what’s present in theneighborhood. And in our gardens, it’s easier to photograph butterflies, identify them, and share awareness of them with our friends. Though valuable, garden flowers are not enough for butterfly conservation. The real key is the mix of native nectar sources and caterpillar food plants in the countryside.
Maintaining the full richness of butterfly species into the future will depend on maintaining their habitats—especially the wild, native host plants for caterpillars. Many of these are not often noticed or valued by people —they tend to be inconspicuous, or “brushy”or “weedy.” Either we will learn to value them and provide a permanent place for them in the landscape, or future generations will see many fewer butterflies.
New season and weather patterns are beginning to affect butterfly and moth populations in the Pacific Northwest. Shifts in the timing of precipitation and temperature affect which species can live where, and when. Some species are shifting northward or earlier, making new appearance records. Others will find their survival here challenged by changes in temperature, vegetation, competitors, and predators. Abundant records of butterfly and moth sightings will help document this event, and increase our understanding of it.