YEAR OF THE BUTTERFLY

As a citizen-science project Iím declaring 2014 THE YEAR OF THE BUTTERFLY. Why? First, I donít think anyone else is going to do it. Second, I think it needs to be done. Most people associate the term ďendangeredĒ to iconic species like rare tigers, pandas, and whales, but the majority of endangered species are actually insects. Insects might be too small to be noticed by most people but their significance is immense. They are an integral part of the complex web of nature and one of the foundations of life on earth. They are responsible for critical functions such as pollination, and soil creation, and they are also a part of the food chain that is essential for the survival of many birds and insect-eating vertebrates. As pollinators alone they are responsible for a significant portion of the worldís food resources, and there is no better bio-indicator for the health of our ecosystems.

It is in our best interest to learn all we can about the insects in our environment, and there is no better place to start than butterflies. Butterflies are the most beautiful, fascinating, and charismatic of all the insects and the perfect poster child for the insect world. Not only are they attractive and fascinating, but like many other insects their lives are also in jeopardy. In fact, 18 out of the 69 wild butterflies recorded Vancouver Island are either provincially red or blue-listed which means they are species of concern or endangered. As well, many other populations are in serious decline. Studying butterflies is interesting and enjoyable in its own right, but it is also a great introduction to learning about nature, ecosystems, and the importance of insects.

As a photographer I make no claims about knowing anything about butterflies, but I can observe and record my sightings to provide baseline data for any scientist that might be interested. I can also share what I learn with others and encourage them to observe, learn, and record to establish baseline data for scientific study in their own neighbourhoods and regions. Unfortunately, scientists have also become an endangered species. According to a recent Fifth Estate documentary, our federal government has canned over 2,000 scientists who were involved in environmental studies that might provide information to stymie mega projects like pipelines and Arctic oil exploration. Similarly, environmental scientists at the provincial level are a scarce commodity. Essentially, the protection of the environment has been left up to non-profit organizations like the Nature Trust and concerned citizen groups.

I will be spending as much time as I can photographing, learning, and writing about butterflies and encouraging others to do the same. For starters Iíve designed a butterfly poster featuring 46 Vancouver Island species, and Iíll be happy to lend the file to anyone who wants to print their own copy. As well, I have prepared a checklist of all Vancouver Island butterflies and that will also be available for the asking. Please email me if interested in either or both.

April and May are the best months on Vancouver Island to start studying butterflies. Many spring butterflies like the Mourning Cloak, Saraís Orangetip, Satyr Comma, and Western Elfin have already been reported. The beauty about studying butterflies is that you can only do it when the weather is at its best. That means simply getting out to observe and enjoy nature when the sun is shining because thatís when the butterflies will be flying. While youíre at it keep a record of what, where, and when, and if possible, take some photos of the butterflies and the local habitat. The data you collect will be useful for your own general knowledge as well as any scientific studies in your region. Some local governments like the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) are very concerned about sensitive ecosystems and conservation in their region, and your records will be useful for them in identifying sensitive areas.

For now I don't have any grandiose schemes for the YEAR OF THE BUTTERFLY. As a novice I am just learning, and I'm inviting you to learn with me. I think that's a good first step.

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Nanoose Bay Butterflies

Nanoose Bay doesn't have any unique butterflies, but it is geographically north of Victoria and illustrates the significance of the relative micro-climates for butterfly activity. I would say we average at least one degree cooler in temperature. Moss's Elfins, Mourning Cloaks, Satyr Commas, Sara's orangetips, Spring Azures, and Green Commas were reported by the 3rd week of March at Camas Hills in Metchosin. I didn't see a Mourning Cloak in Nanoose Bay until early April and as of May 3 I still haven't seen a Satyr Comma.

Besides the geographic variations in climate there is also the annual variations. Although I don't have the records some of you may remember the fantastic two or three week stretch of weather in March of 2013. This had a significant effect on plant growth and roadside lupines were in bloom by mid-April. It's may 3 today and the lupines still aren't in bloom. It's been a relatively cool spring this year and that probably explains the later of appearance of some species. I saw my first Milbert's Tortoiseshell on April 24 last year as well as Western-tailed and Silvery Blues on April 30. I'm still waiting for these species to show up this year.

Since April 1 I have checked for butterflies whenever it was sunny. The results have been generally disappointing, but like I said, I think it's all related to our cool spring. I didn't take my first butterfly photo until April 9 when I found a Green Comma on Bonnell Falls Road. I only saw one Mourning Cloak and one comma that day.

The first Green Comma photo illustrates the typical wide black margin at the outer edge of the wings. The second photo shows the teal green spotting typical of the male Green Comma. The green spotting is very indistinct on a female.

Unlike last April, butterflies have been scarce on Bonnell Falls Road. (It probably didn't help to have the roadside vegetation sprayed with herbicide last fall.) In particular, commas have been scarce, but I did find one surprise. On April 30 as I hobbled along the dusty road I was discouraged not to see any butterflies in flight, but I was determined to do my usual survey. Half way into my walk I noticed a black leaf in the middle of the road. I carefully edged around so the sun was at my back. The leaf was a comma - the blackest comma I had ever seen. I carefully took a couple of distant record shots then closed in. The comma was very cooperative as it exposed its dark ventral side to the sun. I knew immediately that it was an Oreas Comma. Because the comma seemed fairly lethargic I thought it was just coming out of hibernation, but closer inspection showed that it seemed to be feeding on minerals from the road. Regardless of why it was cooperative it certainly worked in my favour as I was able to take as many pictures as I wanted.

The Oreas Comma has been one of my most desired targets for over a year. I couldn't believe my good fortune to find just one comma and have it turn out to be an Oreas. Although I considered myself lucky for finding the Oreas, it was also a product of consistent effort. I had a hunch that if I checked Bonnell as often as I could that I would finally find an Oreas, and my efforts were rewarded. I think it was my 8th trip to Bonnell in April despite many disappointments.

Acording to Cris Guppy the last documented sighting of an Oreas was at Mt. Sicker in 1995 by Jon Shepard. Last year two were reported in the Highlands (Victoria), but neither were documented with a photo or specimen. Fortuitously, a day later on May 1 I discovered another Oreas on Cross Road which is about 6 kilometers from Bonnell. In 2 days I photographed 3 commas and 2 turned out to be Oreas. What's the odds of that happening? Could it be that the Oreas is more common on VI than we think? I was hoping to look for more commas on May 2, but it rained, and as I am writing right now I don't expect any sun until May 7.

The Oreas on Cross Road was continually harassed by several Mourning Cloaks, but after each skirmish it would land in the middle of the road with its wings folded and back to the sun. As well, it was late afternoon, and since it wasn't in a basking position, was it watching for a mate?

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It is easy to take some butterflies for granted especially if they are fairly common. Such is the situation for the Western Spring Azure. I was going to leave this photo out, but I would be guilty of discrimination. It is our most common spring butterfly, and it has been fairly common on Bonnell. In fact, their numbers have exploded with the warm weather in the past week, and I saw at least forty on my last trip.

A Micro-Micro Climate

Nanoose Bay may be a micro-climate for VI, but there are also micro climates within Nanoose Bay. Bonnell Falls Road is a higher elevation open forest environment (105 m), while the Notch is a a seaside, southern exposed habitat with a Mediterranean climate rising from sea level to about 50 m. Just how mild is the micro-climate? Suffice to say that the prickly pear cactus is fairly common there. I didn't get around to checking it until April 22, and wasn't disappointed. Just as I stepped out of the car a Sara's Orangetip flew by and a few steps later a Propertius Duskywing landed on a blackberry vine to bask. Within a half hour I saw 8 species. With its Garry oak meadows, the Notch is fairly reliable for the Propertius Duskywing.

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The Waste Land

The clearcut at the end of Cross Road is a desecrated dry area with scrubby salal underbrush and a remnant forest of toothpick trees. Surprisingly, it has been a decent habitat for certain butterflies. So far I've seen Mourning Cloaks, Western Pine Elfins, Mylitta Crescents, Spring Azures, Western Elfins and the single Oreas Comma mentioned previously. Western-tailed Blue and Gray Hairstreak should be appearing soon. It is my go-to location for the Western Pine Elfin often found on the alders at the roadside.

Western Pine Elfin

Western Elfin

Western Elfin

Mylitta Crescent

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A Special Place

On April 25 I did a bird presentation for the Metchosin Talk and Walk Group which gave me the opportunity to visit Moralea and Camas Hill. Camas Hill is a special place with a mountainside habitat of moss and grassy meadow that is the sensitive ecosystem for endangered creatures such as the sharp-tailed snake and Moss' Elfin butterfly. Fortunately, Moralea has placed most of the property into a covenant with a conservation group to be protected forever. As usual, Moralea was the perfect hostess and quickly pointed out several butterflies close to her home. She offered me a tour to the top of her property, but with my sore knee I was quite happy just to see the Moss' Elfin, Two-banded Checker, Western Elfin, and Spring Azure.

Two-banded Checkered Skipper

Western Spring Azure

Western Elfin

Moss' Elfin

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My Schooner Cove Buddy

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2013 SHORTFALL ...

My plans for 2013 were to photograph as many butterflies as possible from the Vancouver Island list and then produce and publish VANCOUVER ISLAND BUTTERFLIES. Unfortunately, I only managed to find 50 out of the 69 species, and not all of them were suitably photographed. Consequently, I have decided to delay the publication until the fall of 2014. That has also worked out well for James Miskelly who was very busy with other commitments. James is still onboard as my co-editor and will provide as much updated information as possible. My apologies to all those who were waiting anxiously for the book launch, but theoretically, with more time we should be able to produce a higher quality publication.

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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