A Big Year for Butterflies

Relying mostly on maps and hunches, noted butterfly expert Robert Michael Pyle spent 12 months traveling the country, trying to see as many species as possible

02-01-2009 // Eric Wagner

LAST SPRING, author and noted North American butterfly expert Robert Michael Pyle was driving across some of the driest of dry Texas country in Powdermilk, his 1982 Honda Civic. Somewhere west of the Brazos and east of Lubbock, he came upon what looked like an especially tantalizing road and decided to take it, even though he had no idea where it would lead him. “You know how some roads are,” Pyle would say later. “They call you.”

After a few miles, he came upon another road that beckoned him with its own ineluctable charms and turned onto it. Before long, he approached an old cemetery. As hundreds of butterflies flitted around the gravestones, Pyle got out of Powdermilk and grabbed Marsha, the trusted butterfly net he has used for more than 30 years. By the time he left the location a few hours later, he had seen 26 species, including several rare Olympia marbles.

“That graveyard must have been the only place with moisture for miles,” he says. “It ended up being one of my more productive stops.”

The remote cemetery was among the many out-of-the-way places Pyle visited during a unique quest last year that no one had ever undertaken before: From January 1, when he found a California tortoiseshell overwintering in a woodshed in his backyard, until December 31, he tried to see as many of the 800 species of butterflies that occur north of the Rio Grande as he could.

Starting at his home in Gray’s River, Washington, Pyle drove south to California in search of wintering monarchs. Later, on one of his extended side trips, he visited Mt. Driskill, the highest point in Louisiana, where from the great height of 535 feet he found his first hoary edge skipper and watched two red-spotted purples chase off a giant swallowtail. From there, his travels took him to Florida, where he spent several productive days in some of the nation’s most butterfly-fertile regions, including one area between Gainesville and Cedar Key where he saw 50 species in a single day—the most he saw in one locale during his journey.

As part of Pyle’s so-called “butterfly-a-thon,” people pledged funds for every species he saw. The money will be used entirely for habitat conservation projects of the nonprofit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which he founded in 1971. A narrative of his adventures will become his 15th book, Swallowtail Seasons, due to be published in 2010.

Butterflies have had a particular hold on Pyle since he first started watching them during his childhood in Colorado. (They were a substitute, he says, for one of his earlier passions, collecting seashells, which, given his location, wasn’t a very practical hobby.) Until he began his quest, a so-called “Big Year” had been solely a birding enterprise, in which bird-watchers try to see as many feathered species as possible in 12 months.

Still, whether pursuing birds or butterflies, seeing as many species as possible is no simple task. For one thing, Pyle was committed to carrying out his quest in what he calls “the old style,” which meant no fancy gadgets such as GPS. It would mostly just be him and Marsha and Powdermilk, which had an odometer reading of roughly 352,000 miles when Pyle began his trip.

“I wanted to rely on maps and hunches,” he says, “and take what I knew about the species and the plants that they need, and go from there.”

Pyle also had to sync his schedule with the subtly calibrated habits of butterflies in their various locales. The insects are finicky, as befits such delicate creatures, and knowledge of where they should be, in theory, confers no guarantee that they actually will show themselves. Their flight periods may vary by weeks, depending on the weather.

“The amount of thought Bob had to put into finding these species—to being in the right place at the right time—it’s amazing,” says Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society. Black spent three days with Pyle in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado last May. The two were looking for, among other things, the critically endangered Uncompahgre fritillary, which lives only at altitudes above 13,000 feet in habitats that are steadily shrinking due to global warming. The two men came across a few individuals in the snow willows of the high alpine meadows—one of Pyle’s many rare finds during the year.

By December 31, Pyle had logged more than 33,000 miles on his faithful Powdermilk, plus thousands more in frequent-flier flights and car rentals for excursions to far-flung places such as Alaska and Hawaii. He had found and positively identified some 500 species—an impressive total for a first attempt, but far from comprehensive.

“If someone wanted to best my numbers,” he says in retrospect, “they’ll have to work pretty hard and fly more, but it can be done.” But that’s fine with him, because the total wasn’t his only objective.

“I’m a lucky guy,” he adds. “I got to spend a year pursuing a bunch of butterflies that I’ve wanted to view all my life.” To see Pyle’s final tally of species and read more about his year-long adventure, visit www.xerces.org.

Writer Eric Wagner is based in Seattle, where he has, until now, spent more time watching birds than butterflies.

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