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Float Like a Butterfly

It's the season to count Checkerspots, Buckeyes and Swallowtails



For 28 years, my wife Sue, our family, and her team of volunteer helpers, have been counting butterflies in Central Oregon for the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). The season begins with the Ochoco Count in late June, when the team conducts a day-long search in a 15-mile circle that includes Big Summit Prairie, east of Prineville, and then in July comes the Metolius Count.

The June Count meets at 9 am at the old Ochoco Ranger Station site, splits into two teams, one covering the northern part of the count circle and the other doing the southern end. At the end of the day everyone meets in a restaurant in Prineville to do the compilation, have supper, and discuss the biology and ecology of butterflies and the variety of reasons they may have missed familiar butterflies from a year before, and new ones that appeared.

Three of the main goals of NABA's Butterfly Count Program are to: (1) gather data that will monitor butterfly populations, (2) give butterfliers a chance to socialize and have fun, and, (3) raise public awareness by hosting events that increase general interest in butterflies.

Just about every one of the young people who take part in the Ochoco Count have fond memories of those times. Our daughter Miriam, who came with us every year—from cradle to college—remarked the other day, "I can't remember the names of the places we stopped, but they all had wonderful butterflies, birds, snakes, and insects."

That's goal number two of counting butterflies: providing the opportunity for everyone on the count to get together for a fun time in the forests and meadows, and enjoy interacting with the bountiful treasures on this wonderful old Planet Earth.

Last Friday—the day before the Sisters Quilt Show—a group of 23 people, made up of knowledgeable butterfly watchers, beginner Citizen Scientists and a bunch of enthusiastic home-schoolers, met in the Sisters Ranger District parking lot at 9 am to go out and count butterflies.

This exercise is known as the Metolius Count: it covers the usual 15-mile circle that includes both sides of the Metolius River, Green Ridge and Prairie Farm. The team of butterfly watchers from the Eugene NABA Chapter took the western part, while Sue and her group of parents, grandparents, children (most home-schoolers) went out Road 11 to work their way up to various springs counting butterflies, and eventually to Prairie Farm for a lunch stop (and for me to take a nap).

Before lunch, a stop was made at Six-Creek Springs (once made into a horrifying mess by "mud-boggers"—but now healed over and again a colorful and especially fruitful butterflying spot). After lunch, the crew spent another couple of hours in the Prairie Farm area (while I was taking my nap), then traveled down the switchback road to Bridge 99, and eventually to the ODFW fish hatchery, where the compilation was undertaken, along with a picnic supper.

(It was at the muddy remains of the pond at Prairie Farm that 15-year-old Joshua Newton, of Sisters, discovered several long-toed salamander larvae gasping their last breath in a soggy elk track. He carefully placed them in a plastic bowl of fresh water, and transferred them to a bigger pond so they could live out their lives. He also found a young Northwest Garter Snake he showed to everyone before releasing it—but not before it wrapped itself around his wrist and dosed him with it's defensive musk—that left him with a stink that would gag-a-maggot.)

This year's Metolious Count yielded 49 species, with two unusual butterflies, a Common Buckeye observed by Bela Chaldek, and a Large Wood Nymph spotted by Joshua Newton.

As the group was returning from a small pond where the large and beautiful Pale Tiger Swallowtails can be found in grand profusion, 11-year-old Julia Chadwick caught one carefully so she could take a closer look.

"I know a lot about butterflies," she quipped as she carefully held its wings between thumb and forefinger, "but I've never seen a Pale Tiger up close." As she looked the butterfly over closely, she looked up—and with a smile-you-could-see-a-mile-away, she said, "I love doing this," then lifted the butterfly high above her head, released it, and watched it flutter off into the sky.

Now you're asking, "Why count butterflies?"

Well, the paragraph above answers one part of that question: so young people who have a great drive to know more about the world in which they live can learn and enjoy it even more.

I had one of the most wonderful events take place a few years back when one of the participants, Jannelle Orsillo of Tumalo, asked if she could use my camera to learn how to take photos of insects. As we were getting close to the end of the count in late afternoon she wandered off with some other young people and I heard one say, "Hey, look at that tiny hummingbird!"

There are no "tiny hummingbirds" in the Ochocos, but there are hummingbird moths. I looked over to where the kids were milling about and saw the most beautiful hummingbird moth I have ever seen, and Jannelle was sneaking up on it. I whispered to myself, "Get it, Jannelle, get it..." And she triumphantly came back to show me a barn-burner photo of a thumb-sized hummingbird moth with transparent wings. To this day, I call it, "Jannelle's hummingbird moth."

Another reason to count butterflies is that they react very quickly to changes in their environment, which makes them excellent biodiversity indicators. Butterfly declines are an early warning for the potential of other wildlife losses. That's why counting butterflies can be described as, "Taking the pulse of nature."

The count will also assist a variety of environmental scientists in identifying trends in species that will help others to plan how to protect butterflies from extinction, as well as understand the effect of climate change and other factors that impact wildlife and their associated habitat.

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