A hummingbird whirrs by, as a squirrel flicks its tail, flirting. A robin fluffs its feathers after bathing in the stream. Leopard lilies, columbines, even the cacti are in full summery bloom. But today, at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Tilden Park, we’re here for the butterflies.
Alan Kaplan, an entomologist, educator, and retired Tilden Park ranger, meets me at the garden’s gate, where, already, I have spotted maybe five different types of butterfly, from a teensy so-called “blue” to a glamorous pipevine swallowtail.
Still, there are rules for counting butterflies in nature. So Kaplan gives me the rundown of the day’s event — the Fourth of July Butterfly Count (currently run by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) — held for its fortieth continuous year in Berkeley.
“See there,” Kaplan says, pointing to two simple white butterflies, called cabbage whites, alighting on the flowers near our feet. “We count these butterflies as ‘two,’ because we’re observing them at the same time and in the same location.”
Farther down the path, we will probably see more cabbage whites. Kaplan says he could safely add those ones to his tally. But he wouldn’t count cabbage whites from this place, again, unless we see three or more. Two of them might be repeats.
The same methods hold for the other types of butterfly we see — the variable checkerspot, gray hairstreak, and several umber skippers — flitting about the same patch of flowers. Counting butterflies seems relatively straightforward until Kaplan walks to the next plant and carefully inspects its leaves, stems, and flowers.
“Whoa! Whoa!” he calls out. “We did it! We’ve got a monarch!”
I step in closer, thinking that Kaplan might show me a dazzling butterfly on the wing. Instead, he points to a showy black-, yellow-, and white-striped caterpillar. He also reveals holes in the milkweed flower buds — evidence that a caterpillar has been munching them.
“We’ve got a known larva on its known host plant,” Kaplan says. “So it’s confirmed: we’ve got at least one monarch.”
This caterpillar goes into a different data column than the adult butterflies do. And yet, seeing it makes my mind flutter, as I begin to realize the full scope of butterfly work. In entomology, beauty and fascination belong to the tiny butterfly eggs, larvae (caterpillars), and pupae (chrysalises), just as much as the delicate winged adults.
Indeed, searching for butterflies is a quest for shape-shifters.
And, half way through our search, I begin to recognize a few types of butterfly from earlier in the day: the Mylitta crescent, fiery skipper, buckeye. I call out these names as I see butterflies, and Kaplan gives verbal confirmation of my sightings. Then he jots them down.
In the end, we find and identify nine butterfly species here at the Botanic Garden — all in varying abundance.
But I’ve learned more than that. Following Kaplan’s lead, I stop along our walk to smell the creamy-sweet flowers of a buckeye tree, touch the velvety leaves of a thimbleberry, hear the fluting song of a black-headed grosbeak.
Butterflies, after all, are part of a vast and intricate network of life. And Kaplan really knows his stuff.
“It’s just like everything,” he explains. “If you’re going to be an entomologist, then you have to be a plant person, because that’s what your insects are eating, and you have to be a bird person, because that’s what’s eating your insects.”
Next, Kaplan will go count butterflies near the Tilden Nature Area. When we rendezvous this evening (over pizza and beer at La Val’s), we join the half-dozen other parties who counted butterflies in different pre-assigned spots in and near Berkeley. Dr. Jerry Powell, Director Emeritus of the UC Berkeley Essig Museum of Entomology, does the final tally.
Overall, he finds that 43 butterfly species were observed on the count today. This, Dr. Powell says, is up from the last few years in Berkeley.
He also says that numbers are not the whole story.
“We started the counts not so much to track abundance,” Dr. Powell says, “but to increase awareness for butterflies and natural history in the bigger picture, especially in places where many species are endangered by development and other massive effects on the environment.”
As I reflect on his words, my mind pictures all the butterflies I saw today as symbols for something greater, as the striped and checkered wings for acts of conservation.
My mind goes next to all the other people — both scientists and non-scientists — who admire butterflies and go venturing out to count them. Maybe they’re driven by curiosity, or intricacy, or beauty.
Whatever it is, I seem to have caught the bug.
For more on our local butterflies:
- Read the online brochure, co-written by Alan Kaplan, for the East Bay Regional Parks.
- Visit the inspiring “SFbutterfly” website of Liam O’Brien, artist and organizer of the popular San Francisco Butterfly Count.
- And, to participate in a butterfly count near you, visit the North American Butterfly Association (NABA).
- Berkeley’s historic Fortieth Annual Butterfly Count was held in memory of Robert “Bob” Langston, “King of the Blues ” (tiny blue butterflies).
Elaine Miller Bond is photographer of the upcoming book, “The Utah Prairie Dog: Life Among the Red Rocks” (University of Utah Press, 2014). She’s also the author of “Dream Affimals: Affirmations + Animals” (Sunstone Press, 2013) and “Affimals” (LIT Verlag, 2009) — uplifting books of environmental education.
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