Rock Mountain High

When I first got interested in butterflies I had no idea that the bare alpine peaks were good habitats for some species. I knew the lush subalpine meadows like those on Mt. Washington and Green Mt. were great habitats, but what butterflies would prefer the bleak mountain peaks? I soon found out that there were more than a few species that enjoyed the rarified air at the top. Possibilities from the Vancouver Island list included the Western White, Melissa Arctic, Chryxus Arctic, Mormon Fritillary, Arctic Blue, and Rocky Mountain Apollo. However, since the first four hadn’t been seen in many decades, I focussed my attention on the last two.

Faced with the challenge of finding a mountain peak that my gimpy knees could handle, I was pleased to discover that I could drive up to the old ski hill on Mt. Cokely which was part of the Mt. Arrowsmith Massif Regional Park. It was only 77 km from my house, and the peak was a manageable non-technical 400 m elevation gain from the parking area. Going up would be easy, but coming down wouldn’t kind to the knees.

My first effort came on July 20, 2013. After a leisurely ascent the only cooperative butterflies were the colourful Hydaspe Fritillaries. I did see a couple of white-coloured butterflies and a few little blue ones, but they never stopped flying so I couldn’t even identify them. My second try was on August 5, 2013. It was one of the hottest days of the year with not even the whisper of a breeze. Needless to say the climb up wasn’t as pleasant the first trip, but my butterfly luck was a little better. While I was having lunch at the top one of the white butterflies landed close to me. I was able to get a couple of quick record shots to confirm that it was a Rocky Mountain Apollo. However, the shots weren’t up to standard for publication. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time or opportunity to for another try in 2013.

A new year brought new hope, and I was again anxious to check out the high elevation butterflies. Arthritis in the knees had slowed me down another notch, but on I July 12, 2014 I was optimistically back at the old ski hill. It was another scorching day, and I saw a few whites and blues, but none were interested in stopping to nectar or bask. It didn’t help to have a dozen hikers from Parksville clambering around the small peak to add to the distractions. Disappointed, I faced the unpleasant challenge of going down. It took me twice as long as going up. When I finally hobbled back to the car with my aching knees, I swore it was my last trip.

Fortunately or unfortunately, my daughter came home three weeks later for the BC Day long weekend. She reminded me that I had promised to take her to Mt. Cokely someday. My knees said, “No,” but my visions of butterflies said,” Yes.”

On August 2, 2014 I was again on the dusty logging road up Mt. Cokely. Of course, we had to stop whenever we saw a butterfly or some good butterfly habitat. A patch of thistles that were still in bloom caught my eye and had to be checked. Right away a dark brown butterfly caught my attention. I did my best to make it into a Dreamy Duskywing, but the faded white spots near the apex of the forewings said Persius.

August is Mariposa month on the mountains, and it was a common species today. I prefer Mariposa to Reakirt's because it sounds much better.

There's always a surprise on Cokely. This time it was my first Woodland Skipper. I've seen many at lower elevations, but never in the subalpine until today. After the skipper we had to get moving. We even by-passed the Saddle trailhead which is usually one of my favorite spots. 5 km further and we were at the bottom of the old ski hill.

Last year I discovered the Common Branded Skippers at the old ski hill parking area on Aug. 5. I was sure I would find them today. A good sign was the clover in full bloom. The skippers teased me for about 20 minutes before a couple finally showed up in the clover exactly where I found them last year. The Common Branded is a high elevation species.

While I was photographing the skippers a Clodius Apollo joined the pink clover party.

Another party crasher was a clearwing moth. I would learn later from Libby that it was a Fireweed Borer.

From the parking area it is a gentle 400 m altitude gain to the peak of Cokely. Going up didn't bother my knees, but it was still a good test to make it up especially if you're out of shape. An hour later we were sitting on top of Mt. Cokely enjoying the blue skies, a pleasant breeze, great views, and fluttering butterflies. It was a perfect day. Best of all we had the peak all to ourselves.

Once again the butterflies showed no signs of stopping except for a Great Arctic that had seen better days. Its right forewing was bent exposing a part of the left dorsal forewing. It only flew a few meters when I approached. After a few shots I turned my attention to the Rocky Mountain Apollos and possible Arctic Blues.

I knew the larger white butterflies were Rocky Mountains from past experience, but I had never seen an Arctic Blue. There were several small bluish-gray butterflies zipping about. I suspected they might be Arctic Blues, but they never stopped. I decided to stake out a patch of stonecrop, and after an hour a small blue butterfly landed in front of me.

The fused white spots on the gray underwings said Arctic Blue! The sun wasn't right for a good photo so I had to settle for the record shots. Hoping my luck would continue I waited another half hour for a Rocky Mountain Apollo. Several flew by, but none were interested in posing for a photo. However, the cup was half full. I had finally seen and photographed an Arctic Blue.

On the way down we were crossing a rocky plateau when my daughter spotted a butterfly in a patch of stonecrop. A closer look revealed red spots on the forewing. It was a Rocky Mountain Apollo - a female looking for a place to lay her eggs. I managed one very decent shot and got my Rocky Mountain high!

Fourth time was lucky, and somehow I didn’t even notice the sore knees on the rest of the way down.

Mt. Cain Visit

Many of the butterflies on VI have only been mapped as far north as Campbell River. This probably just because of the lack of butterfly observers and/or researchers. I was sure that there was a lot of good butterfly habitat north of Campbell River which should translate to a reasonable number of species. Mt. Cain is about an hour north and a 16 km logging road west of Highway 19. If you reach Woss Lake you've passed the turnoff. In case you didn't know, Mt. Cain is a the site of a community owned ski hill. I was curious to see what species were common on Mt. Cain, and my chance came on August 4 when the weather forecast improved enough to make the trip worthwhile. We didn't have time to climb to the peak, but we did make it half way, and we did find a three species to extend their previously documented range. Pearly everlasting, alpine asters, and alpine buttercups were common on the ski slope.

The Mariposa was an expected species. In fact, it is interesting because it is one of the two species with more than one recognized subspecies on VI. The Mt. Cain Mariposa is L. m. charlottensis while those further south are L. m. mariposa.

My next butterfly was the Zephyr Comma. The old records in Butterflies of BC only went as far as Mt. Washington.

The Western Meadow Fritillary had also only been mapped as far as Mt. Washington.

The Hydaspe Fritillary was another expected species. It has been mapped as far north as Port Hardy.

My final species expansion was the Purplish Copper. I had expected to find it on Mt. Cain; however, I was surprised not to find an blue species. The only species seen but not photographed was probably the Clodius Apollo.


All good things must come to an end, and so has my butterfly season. After 13 years of neglecting household maintenance and repairs while I produced five books, it's time to hang up the camera for awhile. Of course, the occasional outing will be permitted, but a steady diet won't be tolerated.

My last few shots of the season were in the garden and for a couple of common visitors, one last sortie to Victoria in hopes of the Red Admiral and the Western Branded Skipper, and a brief season closer on Mt. Cokely. Starting with the garden, handsome Pine Whites were visiting regularly, and it was too tempting not to take out the camera. The first photo was a male. The second photo with the heavy black vein lines is the female.

I wasn't going to bother with the two species, but after Mike M. posted a photo of the Western Branded I felt it was an omen that I should go. it was also a good excuse to touch bases with James M. who agreed to accompany me to the spit. The location of the skipper is fairly well known on Cordova Spit but access via the First Nations community was uncertain. Just to be sure we stopped at the band office and requested permission which was kindly granted with notice to stay on the trails.

I was happy to have James along because he is a butterfly whisperer. On my only other trip with him last year to Mt. Cokely he called for a Persius Duskywing and Western Sulphur. The Persius was the first butterfly we found. We didn't find the Western Sulpur, but 50% is good enough in this league. Anyway, getting to the point, James found three while I found a maybe.

My next stop was Island View Beach where I enjoyed about a dozen Common Ringlets. Most were in very good shape and products of the second brood which is expected in August and early September. As usual, many were skittish when they were on the grass, but more approachable when nectaring on Yarrow or Gumweed.

I made a half-hearted stop just after lunch at Mt. Tolmie for the Red Admiral, but I knew it was too early in the day. I didn't stick around to avoid the Mackenzie Crawl, and was home by dinner time. However, had I been on the ball I would have followed up on Mike M.'s report of a possible sulphur on Martindale. Gerry and Wendy A. were on the ball and scored with great photos of two Orange Sulphurs - two extremely rare migrants to the island.

Cokely Climax

August 23 was my last butterfly trip of the season. My goal was simply to enjoy a relaxing day photographing butterflies at various roadside locations up to the bottom of the ski hill on Mt. Cokely. I had no expectations as most species were in the twilight of their existence. Not surprisingly, the first species I encountered was the Hydaspe Fritillary. They were at lower elevations than usual nectaring on Canada thistles. I saw several in varying conditions from excellent to abused.

My first surprise was a dark butterfly along the roadside in the subalpine. From a distance I though it was a late Great Arctic, but when I got closer I could see that it was all brown with an eyespot near the apex of the ventral forewing - it was a Common Woodnymph. I had no idea they would be found in the subalpine. Was it normal or an anomaly? You tell me.

Another perplexing species was a fresh-looking Boisduval's Blue. They're usually gone by late July. Was this a late first generation or a partial second? Perhaps the early spring and great summer triggered a second brood. (You're probably wondering what I'm smoking.)

Okay, let's finish with something expected. Yes, it was time to see some fresh Zephyr Commas, and I did see at least a half dozen or more. Most were mudding in the wet ditch near a subalpine bog, and two were nectaring on Pearly everlasting.

In all I saw eleven species. the other eight in no particular order were Woodland Skippers, Pine Whites, Clodius Apollos, Mariposa Coppers, Purplish Coppers, Anna's Blues, and a worn Common Branded Skipper (next photo).

September can still be a wonderful time to chase butterflies especially at higher elevations. Yes, I can be tempted, but for now, it's time to take a break. I wonder for how long?


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.



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.)
























Port Hardy - MUSEUM


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