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In This Place

Butterflies and Butterfliers

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Mark Faherty
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Juniper Hairstreak

If you love nature and things that fly, but hate getting up in the morning, I’ve got just the pastime for you. You can stumble out of bed at 8:30AM and not be late. Binoculars and cameras are still helpful, but the subjects are often just a few feet away and, compared to birds, fairly cooperative, at least once they land. This means you don’t need a $3000 camera rig to get great photos, and can even do pretty well with your phone. These flying beauties might even land on you. I’m talking butterflies, of course, and this is the peak time to see them.

Those of us who fancy butterflies have never found a suitable name for ourselves equivalent to “birders." Since butterflies are in the order Lepidoptera, some have suggested calling ourselves “leppers," but that has obvious drawbacks. There’s “Lepidopterist," but that’s more for academic types, plus it sounds like an obscure medical specialist you’d need a referral for, as in “I had to go see the lepidopterist to have this growth removed." So I think we’re left with the inelegant “butterfliers” – and these days most of us are interested in seeing and photographing them rather than collecting them.

Whatever we’re called, lots of us are out in the field most weekends in July conducting the annual “Fourth of July Butterfly Counts” sponsored by the North American Butterfly Association, or NABA as I’m sure you know it. These are like warm season equivalents to the Christmas Bird Counts, with a similar purpose - annual counts of specific areas to track trends over time across the continent. In this neck of the woods we have the Falmouth Count, the Brewster Count, and the Truro Count, all of which have come and gone.

As with birding, to find butterflies, it helps to know the relationships between the different species and their habitat. However, butterflies are even more intimately linked with plant communities, and often one specific genus of plant is all they will lay their eggs on. Everyone knows Monarchs need milkweeds, but how about the tiny, subtly beautiful Edward’s Hairstreak, who needs scrub oaks to feed caterpillars? It’s not enough to have scrub oaks, they also need a certain species of ant to live under that scrub oak. The caterpillars secrete a honeydew the ants love, so they tend and protect the caterpillars like dairy cows. The “cats," as we butterfliers call them, even spend the day within the ant colony, coming out at night to feed. The insect world is full of these mind-blowing relationships between host plants and other insects.

Like bees, most butterflies prefer sunny, open areas like grasslands and shrublands, the bigger the better. Places like Crane Wildlife Management Area, Camp Edwards, and Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture and Wellfleet Bay sanctuaries, where biologists use prescribed fire and clearing to create much needed habitat for grassland-dependent plants and animals, are far and away the best places for bee and butterfly diversity, but you can sometimes do pretty well in an abandoned, weedy lot or your own backyard.

Well over 100 species of butterflies have been recorded in Massachusetts, and around 50 are possible on the Cape this time of year, with maybe 20 of those being pretty common and expected. Compare this with the 150 species of birds reported on the Cape in just the last week, and I think you’ll find butterflies a manageable subject for the curious newbie naturalist.

Start with the big, beautiful and obvious – Monarchs and Swallowtails – then start to notice the smaller, but still intensely lovely species like American Ladies, Pearl Crescents, and American Coppers. Next, you’ll discover the joys of searching milkweed flowers for nectaring hairstreaks. If you find yourself fretting over the little brown skippers, you’re hooked – you, my friend, are a lepper! Sorry, I mean butterflier.