Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Low: 58°
High: 76°
Conditions: Sunny and crisp.
Ari really loves watching butterflies, which is what she’s doing in the above photo. In fact, given a choice there’s few other ways she’d like to spend a warm summer afternoon like this one. I’m always perfectly content joining her in this pursuit, but lately it’s occurred to me that I have no idea what I’m really watching. Sure, I know what a butterfly looks like. But how many kinds are there? And how are they different?

The caninaturalist may not care much about such things, but I do. So I recently enrolled in butterfly school, sponsored by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. This seminar is training for citizen scientists interested and willing to participate in the state’s butterfly count, which is currently underway.

I reported for the start of my training on Saturday morning and was soon immersed in a lecture that rivaled any I remember from college. As the scholars conducting the training took us through the basics of butterfly anatomy, metamorphosis, appendage evolution, and dietary exclusivity, I took page after page of notes and wondered how I had managed to forget every shred of basic biology gleaned during my formal education.

After lunch, training switched to the more pragmatic considerations of how to catch, identify, and preserve a butterfly for census information. With every butterfly encountered, we volunteers were instructed that we would either need to kill and dry the butterfly before sending it to a lab in Canada or, if we preferred, to take a picture of the butterfly with wings both extended and clasped above its body. We were issued standard butterfly swag, including a conspicuous-looking net, a menacing sounding “kill jar” and more forms and envelopes than is required for even the most elaborate tax form. The day ended with an optional butterfly netting practice session, which I summarily skipped, thinking myself too learned to require such remedial training (remember this detail for later).

And so, as the day drew to a close, Ari and I were cleared for duty, which namely consisted of proving we had seen the butterflies we thought we had seen.

I’ve done other animal counts ranging from peepers to owls and back again, so I didn’t understand the formality of this collection process. Didn’t they trust us?

I got my answer as soon as I returned home and discovered this guy, a victim of a hit-and-run accident on my road.

Aha, I thought. My first specimen! Identifying him shouldn’t be a problem at all. That is, until I pulled out my Kaufman Focus Guide to Butterflies of North America and found this page, the first of about five, all featuring nearly identical butterflies. After an hour of counting spots and lines, I felt fairly certain I had found an Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon), but who could really tell for sure?
No wonder they ask us to pack up these guys in envelopes and ship them to the lab. In my mind, this lab is filled with a little colony of gnomes working tireless to make positive IDs (this, in turn, is probably why scientists don't often ask writers to help with research).

Because Ari and I aren't too keen on killing the butterflies, that means we need to send our imaginary gnomes photos instead of carcasses. We went out for our inaugural butterfly-camera-safari this afternoon.
Here’s a monarch we found lurking in the milkweed across our road:
A pretty good ID, I think. But what in the world do you make of this photo?
Is it even a butterfly? I doubt anyone could tell for sure. I'm not certain, and I'm the one who took the lousy picture. From a long way away. With a mediocre point-and-shoot camera.

That’s where the net comes in handy. Not to mention the practice. By catching a butterfly and temporarily transferring it to a clear container, I could get the photo op I needed for my ID. At least, that's what my very encouraging instructors at Butterfly School told me. But here's the thing. For every 10 times a swung my net, I caught a butterfly about once (and managed to terrify my dog about 8 or 9 times in the process). When I’d finally get a butterfly in my net, I had this terrible tendency to open it up to see if the insect really made it inside. Big surprise: he’d take that opportunity to fly right out again.
After another dozen or so tries, I was hot. And tired. And maybe even a little frustrated.

I’m not going to mince words here: the caninaturalist was no help at all. Once she got over her terror of the lunatic swinging the net (aren’t butterfly nets supposed to be swung at lunatics, rather than the other way around?), she became more interested in pouncing on grass than helping me. When that grew tiresome, she decided she’d rather roll on warm moss (where, I might add, there were clearly no butterflies):
And when we came upon these two clowns, you can forget about our new career as lepidopterists, not when good caninology is at least as good (and probably ultimately more rewarding).

We were flummoxed.

So we did what any frustrated caninaturalist would do: we called in reinforcements.

Greg has a lot more coordination and patience than I do, so Ari and I both agreed he was the solution to our heretofore unsuccessful study. And we were right.

Here’s a picture of Greg seamlessly weaving the net through the air as if it and he were one. No surprise, there was a rowdy little butterfly still inside the net when he was done.

Between the three of us (and many, many painstaking tries), we coaxed the butterfly to the edge of the net, then eventually transferred him to a Ziploc bag where, presumably, we could get a clear enough shot to send to the lab. At least that’s what they told me at butterfly school.

But here’s what they didn’t tell me: if you’ve spent an hour wrestling a caninaturalist, straining your shoulder muscles, and cajoling your husband to leave the European Soccer semi-finals long enough for another hairbrained mission, all with a thin plastic baggy in your pocket, said baggy becomes far more translucent than transparent. And, should that be the case, any photo you take will look a whole lot like this:

What is it? I have absolutely no idea. I doubt the scientists will either. As for the caninaturalist, she’s too busy burying my net in some hidden location in the backyard to care.


Dmitri said...

Great sport. It's not just for loonies anymore. Were those nets big enough to catch people with? Or was it just something to do so they could "keep the loonies on the path" (to quote Roger Waters)?

Khyra The Siberian Husky said...


Time for me to nap after reading all THAT!!

Anytime Unity Khollege wants to ofFUR a khourse in Khyraese, I'd be glad to be a guest lekhturer - but only if Storm khan khome along too -

AND my mom - khan we go to Khamden fur her?????


Kess & Her Mama said...

Wow. We need a dictionary to look up some of the words! At least now we know what a lepidopterist is (we think...) It's fun learning new words from you. The clear butterfly pics are beautiful. The one in the ziploc bag,...hmm...
PS. We added you to our blog list.

Rhea said...

Your caninaturalist is hilarious. I love the picture of her rolling around on the moss.

I want to believe there are gnomes working away in the labs. I really do. :o)

John Theberge said...

It's great that your post is about butterflies, butterflies are my favorite thing to photograph. Just this morning I photographed a skipper that spent the night on one of my columbine blossoms. I'll be posting it on the blog when my roadside flower series is over with.

Eve said...

That was great Kathryn...but now I need a nap!!!!!!

PS I'm involved with a dragon and damselfly count in our neck of the woods....I know exactly what you are going through!!!

The Army of Four said...

Wowzers! What a great post. Stormy enjoyed learning more about Lepidopterists, Dave thought Ari looked really cool rolling around on the moss, and I would have loved to meet those other puppies! And Ammy... she didn't know Labs were so good at identifying butterflies. She said something about "fetching balls and Frisbees, sure - but who knew they could ID butterflies!?!?" Ha roo roo roo! See what we have to put up with around here?
Play bows,

Sandpiper (Lin) said...

I love the picture of your helper rolling around in the grass. LOL I'm not good at identifying butterflies. I have a book, but I still get stumped sometimes. Looking at the patterns can be like putting together a difficult puzzle.

Steve, Kat, & Wilbur said...

In high school, my mom had to make a butterfly collection. She wasn't very good at remembering the different types of butterflies though. I like to chase bugs when they come in the house.


Tracey and Huffle said...

Oh, I would LOVE to chase butterflies with you! I can catch flies so I'm sure I could catch butterflies as well. I have quick paws, you know!

Huffle Mawson, Honorary Husky and Explorer Cat

Me & my puppies said...

Yes, I too, managed to forget even some of the simplest biology, I learned. Cram for the exam, than push out the old information and make room for all the new and more important “stuff” the professor was teaching. I guess the only true way of retaining all the knowledge is to be thinking about the Messenger RNA, the sequence of DNA, and how the cow produced the ATP needed to keep the DNA replicating, in the T-bone which I’m grilling on the barbeque.

Your day sounds much like the class I took in animal behavior. I was thinking great, Animal Behavior, we’ll learn all about dogs and how they evolved in the man’s best friend. But no, like you, on the hottest of days, our professor had us outside by the lake trying to spray dragonflies with paint which was being shot through a water pistol! Our goal was to capture the sprayed dragonfly in a “butterfly” net, to study. My experience went much like yours. I still laugh when thinking about that class. What some people will do in the name of science!

Kodak the Eskie said...

We love butterflies! What a fun job to count butterflies. Your first one is very beautiful!

Hugs, Kodak

Twinville said...

I can't even pronounce lepidopterists and I had to copy and paste to make sure it was spelled right! haha

Sounds like a fascinating, challenging and frustrating journey, but filled with many learning opportunities, too.

My hubby says it looks like yours is trying to play lacrosse with that net. hehe
I think Ari rolled in the moss and got fed up with trying to teach you that sometimes you've just got to enjoy nature for what it is.......just like a canine naturalist does.

The Daily Echo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Daily Echo said...

I didn't realize flutterbys could be so complicated! I once caught a beewootiful black and royal blue one. You can call the ones you can't identify "UFO's".

Farmgirl_dk: said...

Wow - what a day you had. I think it's cool you went to butterfly school - that will look awesome on your resume! And probably make you really popular at parties. :-)
Ari...just love her...she, like Roxy, constantly reminds us about the important things, doesn't she? Like never missing an opportunity to roll in some warm moss.

Kathiesbirds said...

You know, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that you dug the hole for her! What an adventure! How are you going to solve the problem of photographing instead of killing these things?