MIA?

If you're wondering what happened to me, the answer is nothing. I have been preoccupied with other commitments and activities for the month of May. However, I do have several articles that I can share. Some of you know I have been fortunate that the editor of the NORTH ISLANDER (Campbell River and Comox Valley) shares my interest in nature and has carried my articles on a bi-weekly basis for the past 6 or so years. Although it is difficult to know if the articles are being read or appreciated, over the years I've received many complimentary remarks from those who have read my articles. Many have mentioned that the articles have helped them identify birds and butterflies they've seen, while others have simply enjoyed learning about some of the interesting birds and butterflies that are part of Vancouver Island's natural environment. I'm not fishing for accolades, but I'm pleased to know that the articles have been read; have some educational merit; and even provided a bit of entertainment; otherwise, it would be an exercise in futility.

We all know the newspaper industry has been undergoing enormous pressures to survive from our transformation to an internet society. Many newspapers have gone out of business, and many are wallowing in a sea of red ink. Although I hope that never happens to the North Islander, the reality is that it can happen, and my demise as a newspaper columist can occur at any time. Before that ever happens I would like to THANK my EDITOR and READERS for their interest and support. I've had a good run, and I hope it continues because having the ability to share my discoveries and photos is an integral part of my motivation to photograph and learn more about nature.

CONFUSING COMMAS

There is a group of four butterflies listed for Vancouver Island that are anglewings or commas depending on which reference you are looking at. Both names can be justified because they all have angular wings, and they all have a white mark that looks like a comma on the bottom or ventral side of their wings. Personally, I donít care which name is used, but I wish the scientists or whoever does the naming would agree on one name. Meanwhile, Iíll just have to carry on knowing they are the same butterflies. For now I will continue to use the more traditional names in Butterflies of B.C. which most people consider the bible for B.C. Butterflies.

So far this spring I've seen three out of our four comma species - Zephyr, Green, and Satyr. The fourth species is the Oreas which hasn't been reported on VI for about a decade. That doesn't mean it hasn't been seen. It may have been seen but not reported in any public forum that I am aware of.

The Zephyr Anglewing was one of the species on Mt. Washington last fall that really got me enthused about butterflies. I can still fondly remember the warm September day when I encountered about five or six Zephyrs nectaring on a lush bed of alpine asters. I think I spent about two hours photographing and enjoying the natural beauty of the spectacle. Although they are more commonly seen at higher elevations, I saw and photographed one a few weeks ago on the road to Bonnell Falls in Nanoose Bay. I mistakenly called it a Green Comma, but Jeremy G. on the VNHS Invert/alert caught my faux-pas and forwarded the photo to Cris Guppy who confirmed it was a Zephyr.

Unknowingly, I also photographed a Green Comma at Paradise Meadows, but at that time they all looked like Zephyrs to me. However, now that Iím a little more involved I can actually see the distinctive difference in the Green Comma. In the past few weeks I have seen several more in Nanoose Bay, Cathedral Grove, and Koksilah Park. In fact, two weeks ago a first-ever comma showed up in my yard. It hung around a large cedar tree where I was able to get the record shot but also enjoyed seeing it close up when it landed on my sleeve. There was no doubt that it was a Green Comma from the wide dark border on the outer edge of the dorsal wings and the geen spots on the ventral wings. I was mystified at its unusual presence until the light bulb went on. The comma wasn't interested in the cedar tree. It was attracted by the large willow beside the cedar. Willows are the main host plants for for the Green Comma.

My third species was the Satyr Anglewing which is quite common. I was recently able to photograph my first one at Cowichan Station on March 30, and I have since seen them in many places including Port Alberni and Nanoose Bay.

The fourth member of this group is the Oreas Anglewing which seems to be a mystery to everyone Iíve asked. The distribution maps in Butterflies of B.C. show multiple records along southeast Vancouver Island from Victoria to Courtenay, but those records are all over a decade old. I wouldnít be surprised if this is another species that has been extirpated from Vancouver Island. However, the lack of reports could simply be a product of the overall lack of interest and continuing study of butterflies.

Now that Iíve thoroughly confused you about the names, be prepared to be even more confused when you start seeing them in the field. All four hibernate as adults. They emerge as adults in the spring and seek their mates to produce a new generation of adults in the summer. Their appearance is very similar. The dorsal or topside of their wings is orange with black and yellow markings, and they are all close to the same wingspan from about 4.6 to 5.2 cm or about two inches. They all have a black outer margin, but only the Green Comma has the obvious wide black margin. On the others It is thinner and distinct on the forewing but can fade out on the hind wing. The bottom or ventral side is not quite as confusing, but the trained eye can detect the differences. They all have the distinct white comma in the middle of the hindwing but the rest of the wings are fairly indistinct with a mix of grey, black and brown. However, greenish gray markings on the outer third of the ventral wings is diagnostic for the Green Comma and yellowish circles with black centres is diagnostic for the Zephyr Anglewing. The Satyrís underwing is an indistinct mixture of grey and brown while the Oreas is almost black on the inner half and gray on the outer half. When in doubt help is available at invertalert@naturevictoia.ca or http://ca.groups.yahoo.com/group/BCbutterflies/

Although identifying commas is confusing, itís all part of the fun and challenge. Unlike the hunter who must make sure before he shoots, the photographer can shoot and find out afterwards. As well, there is absolutely nothing wrong with making an incorrect identification. It happens all the time, and believe me, Iíve made a few classic mistakes in my day. By the same token, Iíve also made a few good discoveries and, hopefully my sightings will contribute to the database and scientific knowledge of our natural world.

photo: The Green Comma is one of the four anglewing or comma butterflies found on Vancouver Island. The thick black margin on the outer edge of it wings is a distinctive identifying field mark. This was photographed at Paradise Meadows last fall when the butterfly landed on my wifeís sweater.

The greenish-gray areas near the edges of the ventral wings are reliable field marks for the Green Comma.

The commonest of the commas on VI is the Satyr. The black outer border of the wings is fairly narrow on the forewing and often fades out on the hindwing. (photo at Cowichan Station)

The ventral or undersides of the Satyr is also distinctive with a dark median stripe flanked by light brown areas towards the base and outer edge of the wings.

THE BIG BOPPER'S BACK!

On April 21, 2013, Courtenay resident, Heather Fleming, spotted a big, bold sparrow-like bird foraging in her backyard garden with the usual flock of Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows. It looked like a sparrow on steroids with a distinctive black and white head. As an amateur photographer Heatherís first instinct was to get some photos just in case the bird didnít stay around. After thoroughly documenting the bird she scoured the internet and finally identified it as a Harrisís Sparrow. Meanwhile, I eventually received her photos and posted them to the BCVIBIRDS group, and the identification was subsequently confirmed by biologist and former Cumberland resident, Nathan Hentz.

The Harrisís Sparrow is no stranger to the Comox Valley, but it certainly is an infrequent visitor. Records kept by the Comox Valley Naturalists show that it seems to appear about every six to eight years and the last sighting was in 2005. Of course, bird record keeping is not an exact science. The records only show when a bird was reported. Who knows how many birds were around but not sighted; how many birds were sighted but not reported; and how many birds were reported but incorrectly identified.

Heatherís sighting was unusual from the perspective that it was an adult seen in the spring whereas most vagrant birds tend to be juveniles seen in the fall like the recent history-making Citrine Wagtail. Although most juvenile birds born in northern regions like the Boreal Forest or Arctic successfully migrate south to their winter habitats, one can speculate that if any birds were to get lost or wander off course, it would be the juveniles. Juveniles lack the experience of previous migrations, and like brash teenagers they might be more inclined to be adventuresome and get lost more often. On the other hand, adult birds have previous migratory experience and should have the migration routes established in their GPS.

In the vernacular of birders the Citrine Wagtail is considered a rarity. It was totally out of its expected Asian range. In fact, it was a mega-rarity being the first official record for Canada and only the second for North America. The Harrisís Sparrow is considered an uncommon bird for the west coast. It is a North American species that winters in south-central states like Texas and Alabama and migrates in the spring through the central or prairie fly-way to its Boreal Forest and Arctic nesting grounds. As the records show, it is not unusual for some of the sparrows to drift west to the Pacific fly-way or east to the Atlantic fly-way.

Although Heatherís Harrisís Sparrow wasnít a mega-rarity, I had never seen an adult before, and it was a bird that I wanted to see and photograph. Fortunately, Heather was the gracious hostess and welcomed all birders and photographers in her living room to view the infrequent visitor. I arrived at 9 a.m., and within 15 minutes the perky Harrisís bopped into the garden and started foraging. Art Martell, Dave Robinson, Marg Fowler, and Terry Thormin from the Comox Valley Naturalist club were already on hand to authenticate the sighting for their records and personal lists.

An Opportunity Lost?

No offense to the previously named, but conspicuous by their absence was any of the younger generations. The Harris's Sparrow may not have been the biggest bird attraction in the past few months, but it was impressive in its own right. On the other hand, the Citrine Wagtail was a major attraction worthy of inernational attention and significant press coverage. In my five trips to see the Citrine Wagtail I saw well over a hundred birders - many were Americans who had travelled thousands of miles from as far as Florida, Texas, and North Carolina to enjoy the rare visitor. Most of the birders and naturalists were of the almost over-the-hill variety while teenagers and youngsters were as rare as the wagtail itself. Rare and uncommon birds like the Citrine and Harrisís are superstars of the bird world and present an excellent opportunity to get the younger generations excited about nature. Hundreds of birders travelled thousands of kilometers to the Comox Valley to experience the Citrine Wagtail. I wonder how many students and youngsters in the Comox Valley travelled a few kilometers to see the rare visitor.

Photo: The Harrisís is the largest of the sparrow family and an uncommon visitor to the Comox Valley. It winters in south-central United States and nests in the Arctic and Boreal Forest in northern Canada.

PINING FOR AN ELFIN?

In a previous journal I posted a photo of the Moss's Elfin. It is one of the three elfin species on Vancouver Island and the most difficult to find. I had to make three trips to Metchosin and impose on Moralea's hospitality before seeing and photographing my first Moss's on March 30. That's 1,000 km of driving. In other words, they are fairly scarce and are only found near diminishing stonecrop cliffside habitats. Besides the loss of habitat from human development, deer also love to graze on stonecrop so the only remaining habitats are on inaccessible cliffs.

If you havenít been able to find a Mossís Elfin, you might have better luck with the Western Pine Elfin. It is the second of the three elfins found on Vancouver Island, and like the Mossís it is also a species of concern because of its declining population and disappearing habitat. However, it should be easier to find because its forest habitat is much more accessible than the sedum cliff slopes favored by the Mossís Elfin. The third elfin on the island is the Western Elfin, and it is currently fairly abundant and not a species of concern.

As the name suggests, the Western Pine Elfin is a western species found in proximity to pine forests or mixed forests that include pine trees. You have to look carefully when youíre looking for the elfins. They are all quite small. The Western Pine Elfin is the largest of the three, but when itís in the closed wing position, itís about the size of a dime. You wonít be disappointed if you find one because it is one of Mother Natureís micro-masterpieces. The wings feature a bold pattern of dark to light magenta chevrons trimmed with a black inner edge and a scalloped outer border of white, orange, and black.

I found my first Western Pine Elfin this year on April 10 at Nanoose Bay in the remnants of a scrub forest adjacent to a clearcut that included very few pine trees. In fact, I had to look hard to find any pine trees among the skinny firs. However, all the Western Pine Elfin needs is a few pine trees for host plants and successful reproduction. By the way, if youíre looking for butterflies, donít bother unless it is warm and sunny Ė at least double digit temperatures. The butterflies need warm weather to get the circulation going in their wings before they can fly. When itís too cold they just hunker down in some crevice or protected space. That happened when I was I was looking for the elfins. When I first walked by the location it was sunny but still only about 8 or 9 degrees, and there were no butterflies or moths in sight. An hour later when I returned, I had to take off my sweater, and the elfins were out sunning on the alder leaves. My timing was perfect. The elfins were basking on about a meter off the ground. Thatís the best times to photograph them before they get warmed up. Once they warm up they are generally too active and skittish to approach.

According to Butterflies of B.C. most adults take flight from early May to early June. After the females mate they lay their little green eggs at the base of new growth pine needles. When the eggs hatch the larvae feed on the pine needles. The larvae undergo four developmental stages or instars before pupae are formed. The pupae are not firmly attached to the branches and are easily dislodged which suggests that most of the pupae end up on the forest floor. It is the pupae that overwinte. If they survive the elements and predators the miracle of metamorphosis takes place the following spring to produce another generation.

There are two subspecies defined for the Western Pine Elfin, and the one found on Vancouver Island the western edge of Washington is sheltonensis. Sheltonensis has a very limited distribution and is the subspecies of concern. The other subspecies eryphon is common over much of B.C. and Washington and is not a species of concern. The distribution maps for Vancouver Island are outdated and only show reports for sheltonensis as far north as the Comox Valley. It will be interesting to see if the populations of the Western Pine Elfin extend north of the Comox Valley so keep your eyes open. Maybe we can help to update the database.

photo: The Western Pine Elfin is the largest and most attractive of the three elfin species on Vancouver Island. It is generally found in close proximity to pine or mixed fine and pine coniferous forests. Like the Moss's it is also a species of concern because of the diminishing pine forest habitat on Vancouver Island.

The survival of the Moss's Elfin depends on availability of stonecrop for a hostplant. With the destruction of habitat by human development and activities as well as deer grazing, the survival of the Moss's is definitely of concern.

The Western Elfin seems to be relatively abundant and is currently not considered as a species of concern.

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A Change of Focus

As mentioned in my last journal, my plans for 2013 include a book on butterflies. Since then I have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and support offered by all the major experts in the butterfly community. Cris Guppy replied immediately to offer his enthusiatic support and since then, Norbert Kondra and Jon Shepard have also offered to help any way they can. The big news is that that our own island expert entomologist, James Miskelly, is joing me as a co-author and will be constructing distribution maps, assisting with the photography, and vetting the write-ups.

On the technical side of the production, I have my new ISBN number and a quote for the printing cost. Tentatively, I'm aiming for October printing and November release. My decision to only publish a 1,000 copies hasn't changed so it's essential for anyone who wants a copy to pre-order by emailing me. I'm hoping to sell all books directly which means they might not be available in the stores. So far I have orders from as far as Minnesota.

lepbk2p3b.jpg

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Bird Poster

My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)


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