I hate to bug you, but it’s that time of year when I turn my attention to some of our less appreciated winged neighbors. As with birds, this group includes beautifully colored, long-distance migrants and hard to identify little brown jobs that live their whole life in your neighborhood. Some are rare, others ubiquitous. All are interesting in their own way when you get to know them. These are the butterflies, and other bugs, of the Cape and Islands.
You’ve probably been seeing Monarchs lately, everyone’s touchstone butterfly species. Their popularity stems, in part, from a life history that is jaw-droppingly strange. Their long-distance migration strategy takes several generations to complete – we are currently seeing the great and great great grandchildren of the Monarchs that migrated to Mexico last fall. And it’s easy for amateurs to get their head around their habitat needs, since they require one genus of plants, the milkweeds, to complete their life cycle, and we can grow these in our gardens.
But I encourage people to think outside the chrysalis – there is more to the insect world than Monarchs and milkweeds. Dozens of other, equally fascinating butterfly species haunt our neighborhoods and fields, from the striking and massive Tiger Swallowtails that first appear when lilacs are blooming to the tiny, handsome hairstreaks that sit quietly on flower heads, politely sipping nectar while you snap photos. The fast flying, red and black Red Admiral migrates north along the coast in spring, stopping to lays its eggs on Stinging Nettle plants – look for them zipping by next time you are sitting on the beach.
The North American Butterfly Association runs a continent wide series of butterfly counts in July each year. Like the Christmas Bird Counts of winter, the counts attempt to cover a 15 mile circle over one day. Unlike the bird counts, relatively few people are into butterflies, so participation is lower - I’m lucky to get 4 or 5 people to help with my Truro count each year. If you’d like to help out, there are a coup[le of counts still to come - the Falmouth Count meets at Crane Wildlife Management Area on the 20th, and Brewster count begins at the Museum of Natural History on the 27th. Both start at the leisurely hour of 9AM. Check the Mass Butterfly Club website for details and let the leader know you’re coming. A set of binoculars with decent close focus capabilities and a camera is helpful.
If you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of getting into bugs and plants, help has arrived in the form of the website iNaturalist and especially the companion app, which can automatically identify most plants and animals from a photo. I use it constantly to help me figure out bees, wasps, and plants I’m not familiar with, and I’ve been blown away by its accuracy. A so-so photo of a tiny insect on a leaf was correctly identified by the app as a Dark-winged Fungus Gnat, something I had never heard of. While the automatic identification is impressive, for the record to be considered “research grade”, another user needs to agree with the identification. One of the best reasons to use iNaturalist is that your sightings can contribute to larger biological inventory projects created by organizations and individuals, like the ones that exist for all Mass Audubon sanctuaries.
Some purists may find computers and phones antithetical to the enjoyment of nature, but in reality, the internet age has been good to those of us who engage in the nerdery of identifying birds, plants, and bugs, allowing us not just to identify more critters, but to find each other and more easily share the joy of our discoveries. So don’t just “get out there”, as I always, say, but get out there, and then share!