Butterfly Big Year AAR

The butterfly big year is over. Here is my After Action Report. This is what I did, what went right, what went wrong, and what I would do different if I wanted to do it again.

My goal was to photograph as many species of wild butterflies as I could within Iowa or any of the states immediately surrounding it. It was sort of an excuse to have a big adventure. One other adventure I had was to attend a close-up photography workshop in Montana, called Bugshot Montana. The two kind of blurred together as I took a lot of butterfly photos at the workshop and on the trip as well.

This sachem was at Slip Bluff County Park in Iowa

Over the summer, in trips associated with either the big year or the workshop, I drove 8,141 miles. For the big year portion, I photographed 68 species of butterflies. I got photos of another 14 species while in the workshop. Six of the big year butterflies were “lifers” as were 13 of the workshop butterflies.

That’s me chasing butterflies mudding along a small stream. This was at Bugshot Montana.

Typically the plan was to do two nights in a hotel in the surrounding state, which would give me a full day in the field. All of the locations could be reached in a day’s drive from home. I picked sites based on screening with iNaturalist. I could find target butterflies and see when and where they were likely to be. Then I would pick two or three locations for possible visits.

In practice this did not always work very well. I sometimes found myself in areas that did not seem very promising. The weather did not always cooperate either. A few times I drove around more within a particular state than I had planned. Part of the problem might have been seasonal, also. I took only one trip to Wisconsin, and that was in early May. My goal was to find the Olympic marble, which I did, but early May was not so good for other species.

I got this thicket hairstreak in Montana.

One big issue I had, and which affected the whole experience is that I am old and getting older. I had a back surgery about a year and a half ago, and I have some arthritis in my neck. Plus, I have not been getting the amount of exercise I should. To paraphrase the great Warren Zevon the stuff that used to work, well it won’t work now. So I can still get out and walk the trails, but not as quickly or as surely as I used to be able to. I have more troubles crossing ditches or creeks. I can still bend down or crawl to get close to the butterflies, but I am noticeably slower than I was just a few years ago. That does take a little bit of the fun from the experience.

I don’t intend to stop chasing butterflies anytime soon (even though I have to wait for the season to start again). I do have pay more attention to getting exercise prior to any butterfly chases, and I will have to live with the limits that age gives me. But I don’t plan to stop.

Gray comma photographed at Swede Point Park, Boone County Iowa.
Male Zabulon skipper at the Saylorville butterfly garden

I got some good butterfly photos in every state except Nebraska. I planned half a day in the field at the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, but it was on the return trip from Bugshot Montana and I was too tired from that to give it the proper amount of attention. I did get a couple of quick snapshots of butterflies in Nebraska, but they were to blurry and out of focus to identify. The area was pretty neat and I would like to go back, however.

Painted lady at Swede Point Park
Monarch at Swede Point Park

It was a fun exercise. I am not sure I will do it again, but I do plan on visiting some of the natural areas again. Runge in Jefferson City, MO, and the Spring Green State Natural Area in Wisconsin are high on the list. So is Spearfish Canyon in South Dakota.

Swamp metalmark photographed at Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City MO

Posted in butterflies, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

Chasing the Elusive Red Admiral–Big Year Update #16

With summer ending I wanted to make one last trip. This time, rather than visiting some new location I thought I would visit a couple of sites I had been to before. I planned to visit the Barkhausen-Cache River Wetlands Center in southern Illinois, and the Runge Conservation Nature Center in Jefferson City, MO.

In Iowa I have been seeing about a dozen species or so every time I go out, but I have missed out on some butterflies that should still be possible–question mark, black swallowtail, giant swallowtail, and red admiral to name a few. I had seen a red admiral on one or two occasions, but I had failed to get an identifiable photo each time.

Red admirals are backyard butterflies. Most summers I see them almost every night. They land on the deck and the house shortly before twilight, and fly out to chase anything that flies past them. I am not sure why I haven’t seen them this year–others are posting photos of them to citizen science and social media sites.

The weather forecast was a little worrisome. Wednesday, the travel day, would have highs in the 90s. Thursday and Friday had forecast highs that were lower–in the 60 to 70 degree range. I thought that there was a chance that the days I hoped to find butterflies might be too cool or cloudy for them to fly. I got to the Barkhausen-Cache River Wetlands Center at about 9:00 and my dashboard thermometer said 58 degrees. There were thin clouds in the sky. So I wandered around the site for a while. Butterflies did not start flying until around 10:30 but it wasn’t long before they started to show up in numbers.

The first to show up were pipevine swallowtails, drinking nectar from thistle flowers. Gradually others appeared. There were pretty good numbers of eastern tailed-blues (top photo) along the closely mowed grass paths between the prairie area and the woods. I already have both of those species on my list.

Cloudless sulfurs are large butterflies–not quite as large as monarchs, but pretty close. Several showed up and flew around. I took a bunch of photos but they were all blurry and out of focus. In order to get a good photo, I need them to settle down somewhere, and then I need to get within a few feet of them without them getting spooked. I followed them around for probably an hour and a half before I finally found a one drinking nectar on a thistle flower and got a photo. I had seen cloudless sulfurs at other times this summer, but never got an identifiable photo until now.

So the list now has 66 species….

I found a couple of gray hairstreaks. This one is waving its little tails and flaring its wings outward. This is commonly described as a decoy to distract potential predators–birds, lizards, and jumping spiders. I am not so sure I buy that explanation, but it is fun to watch.

Fiery skippers are widespread and common, but I still find them quite beautiful to look at.

By the afternoon I was hot and tired. I took a little break, had some lunch and re-hydrated. There is a path along the edge of the wetlands center with a mowed trail. It did not look too promising, but I walked it anyway.

There I found this clouded skipper. 67 species…

I think I was on about the forth “this is my last trip then I will go” walk, when I finally saw it. A red admiral flew out into the prairie, about 30 feet away from me.

I did not get a great photo, but it is easy to recognize. 68 species…

On the trip down I found myself obsessing a little about red admirals. On at least two occasions I was pretty sure I saw red admirals flying across my field of view. They look black when on the wing–you do not see the red band from most angles. Although getting a poor photo of a red admiral seems only a small victory, not getting one would have seemed like a big defeat.

My plans to spend about four hours chasing butterflies at Runge Conservation Nature Center were foiled by the weather. I was able to walk around in the cool mist, and spent some time in the nature center building itself, but I saw no butterflies.

Just this guy.

Summer is over. Chances of adding to my big year list are pretty slim. Time for long pants.

Posted in butterflies, common buckeye, eastern tailed-blue, gray hairstreak, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Big Year Update #15: Two Safeties and a Field Goal

My butterfly big year is not over yet, but it will be sometime soon. I may or may not do another trip–I haven’t decided yet. My big year is starting to feel in some ways like Saturday’s football game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, at least from the perspective of an Iowa fan. Scoring two safeties in a game is really unusual and special. But they flailed around on offense and did so poorly that the fans booed them even though they won the game.

I have had some success so far–I got nice photos of butterflies out of state, including Olympia marble and swamp metalmark. I also found some butterflies in state that are rare for Iowa: Henry’s elfin, southern dogface, marine blue, Melissa blue, and two-spotted skipper. My list has 65 species so far-respectable, but lower than I thought I would have by now.

Where I have failed is with some of the normally easy, slam-dunk species. I have yet to document red admiral, black swallowtail, giant swallowtail, dainty sulfur, and question mark butterflies. Those should all be fairly easy. Maybe I will get them yet this year, I don’t know. I have seen several of them but failed to get recognizable photos. Success mixed with failure.

Yesterday I went to Marietta Sand Prairie State Preserve in Marshall County. I was hoping to find American Copper, which I have seen there in the past. I thought it was possible but not likely. I did not find it.

It was cool and cloudy when I got there, but warmed up enough for butterflies like this orange sulfur.

This eastern-tailed blue is hanging on, but has seen better days.

This bottle gentian was hiding below the rest of the prairie vegetation.

Wind turbines have become a part of Iowa’s landscape.

Posted in butterflies, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

A Little Butterfly for the Big Year–Update #14

I decided to take another trip to Missouri for a very special butterfly. When I started the butterfly big year in April, I went to Cassville, MO and Roaring River State Park where I photographed my first butterflies of the year. On the way home, I stopped at Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City, MO. It was cold and rainy that day, and I knew the butterfly I was interested in would not be out yet. But I met Austin Lambert, a naturalist there who gave me some information about the presence of the butterfly at Runge and offered to help me find it when I came back.

I contacted Austin before I went back. He was going to be gone on the day of my visit, but he set me up with a volunteer, Paul Winn, who did butterfly work, to help me out.

This is the butterfly I was after, the very small but magnificently colored swamp metalmark. It is very rare most places but there is a large population of them at Runge.

It was very helpful to have Paul there. Finding the butterfly involved leaving the trails. They weren’t hard to find once you knew where to look for them. More importantly, since Paul had a shirt with the Missouri Department of Conservation logo on it the trail etiquette protocol was met.

I had spent most of the morning at the conservation area with very little luck–I photographed a northern pearly-eye and watched several pipevine swallowtails fly by at too far of a distance to get photos. I was almost ready to call it a day when Paul contacted me. I was hot and I was tired. But I went and got some lunch, then met Paul in the early afternoon.

This red-banded hairstreak showed up right away. Shortly after that we found the metalmarks. By the time the afternoon was over I had seen a gray hairstreak, many eastern tailed-blues, little yellows, orange sulfurs, cloudless sulfurs (that flew around and never sat down), common buckeyes, a couple of common wood nymphs. After sitting on a bench in the shade of an oak tree for a while I finally saw a pipevine swallowtail visiting a thistle flower.

The swamp metalmark was a lifer butterfly for me. I had seen both the pipevine swallowtail and the red-banded hairstreak on one occasion each, and have awful photographs to show for it. I was happy with my second chance photos though.

Although the morning was not too productive for butterflies, I did see some other wildlife:

I did enjoy a short session with this box turtle.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Hiding in Plain Sight–Big Year Update 13

One of the things I have found surprising about my butterfly big year is the difficulty I have had finding and photographing some normally common species. I got quick glimpses of a red admiral on a couple of occasions, but I haven’t seen one up close yet this year. This is normally a common butterfly and one that is easy to find. I haven’t got my question mark yet, after mistaking one for an eastern comma early in the big year, and throwing that sighting out. I am trying to get a photo that is clearly a clouded sulfur and not an orange sulfur, but that task is more about getting one with the wings open at the right time than it is about how rare they are. I have not seen a giant swallowtail yet.

I have yet to photograph a black swallowtail, or to see one close when I have my camera ready. However, I am about 98% sure that one hit my windshield as I was driving home from getting groceries today, and he left a little smudge mark.

I got a photo of this gray comma the other day in Swede Point Park near Madrid. I had bypassed it earlier, thinking it to be an eastern comma. But it sat still for photos and turned out to be a new species for the list.

At the Big Creek Lake canoe access I found this fiery skipper. It was mudding and visiting the fogfruit. This was an addition to the list.

I also found this Delaware skipper. This was already on the list but I liked the photo.

This one surprised me, and I did not identify it until I got home and downloaded the photos. This is a southern dogface. It is only rarely seen in Iowa. I have photographed the species before, but not in Iowa.

I have some things I should be doing instead of chasing butterflies, but I would rather chase butterflies…

Posted in butterflies, insects, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Chasing Butterflies at Home–Big Year Update 12

I have been trying to add to my butterfly list by visiting places near home, and it has been a little frustrating. I did get a Peck’ skipper:

This was in the soft mud along the Des Moines River, north of the High Trestle Bridge. The mud was a little too soft, and I could not walk along the river like I had hoped without sinking in.

I spent some time at the canoe access on the north west edge of Big Creek lake. This site is pretty good normally, and is highly attractive to mudding butterflies. The only new one I photographed well enough to add to my list was a gray hairstreak.

My list is now at 56 species. I feel like I should be doing much better. Easy butterflies like red admirals, painted ladies, and black swallowtails I should have by now. I have seen a couple of red admirals but only briefly, and I did not get photos. The other two I have not seen yet.

The Big Creek canoe access site is somewhat degraded from what it has been like in previous years. Specifically, what was a good stand of swamp milkweed has been degraded so that it is only a few blooms.

While hanging out in this area I think I have seen cloudless sulfurs a couple of times. They have not landed and allowed me to get a closer look. That behavior by itself makes me think that is what they are. I watched a single individual examine a small bush then fly off into the trees. Later I saw another or maybe the same individual fly a similar route, covering a great distance without landing. I have not been able to get a photo even from a distance yet.

I have allowed myself the time to admire common butterflies that I have already added to my list. I spent some time crawling in the fogfruit to take some photos of least skippers.

It’s not just about butterflies. I saw this eastern forktail in the same patch of fogfruit.

Today I conducted a survey for the Iowa Butterfly Survey Network at Swede Point Park near Madrid. Here are a couple of photos from there:

This is a golden-legged mydas fly, Mydas tibialis.

And of course, a monarch on a blazing star.

It is probably about time to plan my next trip…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Nebraska–It’s Not For Everyone. Big Year Update 11

On the trip home from Bugshot Montana I wanted to spend some time in Nebraska looking for butterflies. I picked an area called Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and planned to stay in a hotel that was about 25 miles south of the area, in Oshkosh Nebraska. Sunday night I stayed in Douglas, Wyoming. Oshkosh was about a three and a half hour drive. However, I looked at Google maps and thought I could save a little time by coming in to the wildlife refuge from the north rather than the south. With any luck I could get to the refuge visitor center by noon, get some additional information there, spend about four hours or so chasing butterflies, then head down to the hotel.

There were a few flaws in my planning. I knew the road from the south was an unpaved but passable road. I have driven gravel roads in Iowa, so that did not seem too intimidating. From the north, I got on some named roads that were asphalt, but they quickly narrowed down to a single lane. I followed the road past entrances to different ranches and across several livestock crossings–the metal bars that cover a trench, intended to keep cattle in and allow wheeled vehicles to cross. Google maps kept telling me I was getting closer as I drove past the entrances to more ranches.

As I continued to drive around ranches I suddenly found myself driving through a ranch. There was a house on one side of the road and ranch buildings on the other side. There were goats in the road–four of them free, and another one tied to a fence post. I continued on the Google maps path, and the road got bumpier and knocked my cell phone from its holder. I was able to pick it up off the floor, and it was still working.

At some point I saw a sign telling me I was entering the refuge. As I continued to drive I saw a sign saying I was leaving the refuge. The road alternated between public and private property. At some point I passed a group of about a dozen people who I took to be students on the refuge. They waved, but none seemed intent on talking. I continued on driving, knowing I was only a few minutes from the welcome center.

I did get to the refuge headquarters, only there was no welcome center. It was a large metal building and it was locked. There was a sign on the door saying they were sorry they missed any visitors, but the refuge had a small staff and they were usually out on the refuge doing refuge work.

There was a small lake and some mowed paths near the headquarters so I walked around on the paths. A steady breeze was blowing, enough to keep most butterflies down in the vegetation. There were clumps of showy milkweed, and I inspected them for butterflies. Milkweeds often attract lots of butterflies but there were none on this day.

I did see a few butterflies but I could not get close to them. I got terrible photos of some kind of crescent or checkerspot, and maybe a common wood nymph, but the photos were not good enough to identify anything.

I did get close to this Halloween pennant, however.

This was the end of a long week, and the conditions did not seem conducive to finding butterflies. I quit after about an hour, and decided head to the hotel. Google maps failed me then, and could not find Oshkosh. But there was a sign and an arrow–I followed the sign. It was pretty much straight south for 25 miles, so I got there with no problems. The gravel road to the south was much wider than the one to the north–it could handle two lanes easily. I had no problem finding the town or my hotel. I did have a few ticks crawling on me on the way to the hotel, but the numbers went way down after I took a shower.

This is a unique habitat and well worth exploring further. I would like to go back sometime when I am a little more rested and can spend some time. There are shallow lakes and sandhills and lots of wildlife yet to be discovered.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Bugshot Montana

Montana is outside of the range for my butterfly big year, so any butterflies I found at Bugshot Montana don’t count. Bugshot workshops are conducted at different venues–they have one or two domestic and one international workshop per year. There is a pool of highly qualified and internationally known macro and close-up nature photographers and they teach and mentor the participants in the many techniques used to take photos of tiny creatures. This was the second time I went to a Bugshot workshop, and many of the other participants have attended multiple times.

The venue was the Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association, which was constructed in the 1930s and has a series of log cabin bunkhouses. The restrooms are separate from the bunkhouses, and were about 150-200 feet horizontally and maybe 40 feet vertically from each other. The fields where we did our workshops were full of mountain wildflowers that were quite spectacular, but the fields were also steeply sloped. The event was physically challenging, but it was still fun.

The habitat was different from what I am used to. Not as weedy as prairies, and I did not end up with ticks or chiggers, but there was the issue of horseflies.

Most of my butterfly chasing has been solitary. It was so much fun to be able to interact with other people who were doing similar things. Some were quite knowledgeable on butterflies as well. It was also cool to see a snakefly, then by the end of the day see a photo of a snakefly in flight, taken by one of the participants.

Hayden’s ringlets were fairly common there.

This white butterfly is more closely related to swallowtails than it is to the whites and sulfurs that it resembles. This is the Rocky Mountain parnassius.

This is a thicket hairstreak.

I took this photo of the lichens growing on the roof of my bunkhouse cabin.

I am not sure that I have everything identified correctly, but I ended up with 14 species, all first of the year sightings. Twelve of those species were lifers–the first time I have photographed them.

I post my photos on iNaturalist under the username oarisma. Search that name, and you should be able to find them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana–Big Year Update 10

I signed up for an event/workshop called Bugshot Montana, which was held from July 7 to July 10. Bugshot workshops are close-up photography workshops where participants learn all kinds of techniques for taking pictures of tiny critters. I will post about it in depth later, but this post is about the first part of the trip.

I drove to the workshop, and allowed myself a day specifically to chase butterflies in South Dakota, in an area called Spearfish Canyon. I also planned to spend an afternoon–four hours if I was lucky–in Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge in western Nebraska on the return trip.

I had allowed myself a full day to chase butterflies but it rained in the morning. So I spent an hour or so eating breakfast, then drove around a little bit. After the rain stopped some butterflies came out, especially in the gravel parking lots and trails. I spent a lot of time chasing tiger swallowtails. Eastern tiger swallowtails, Canadian tiger swallowtails, two-tailed tiger swallowtails, and western tiger swallowtails all seemed to be possible within this range. Western tiger swallowtails have a yellow dot on the leading edge of the upper side of the hind wing. Eastern and Canadian swallowtails have an orange dot. I got one photo with the yellow dot, but mostly the small dot is not visible. I think that all that I saw were of the western variety, but I really can’t say for sure.

One of these butterflies was mudding by himself on the large parking lot when the other one showed up and pushed himself up against him. Was that some kind of aggressive activity? It did not seem to be but I find the behavior sort of curious.

Weidemeyer’s admiral is large and showy and is similar to the white admiral.

Although I have previously photographed the summer azure, I thought the ones that I saw on this trip were especially colorful.

I added three butterflies to the year’s list from North Dakota–the western tiger swallowtail, Weidemeyer’s admiral, and the dreamy duskywing. All three were lifers for me. I also photographed northern crescents and silver-spotted skippers. I saw what I think was a pale swallowtail but I did not get a photograph. The list now contains 53 species.

So it was on to Bugshot Montana…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Minnesota Butterflies–Butterfly Big Year Update #9

Sax-Zim Bog looked like a promising butterfly area when I was surfing through the web for a good place to go in Minnesota. (Slap). Did I mention that there are mosquitos in Minnesota (Slap)? When you get in the shade you can be covered with mosquitos. Move into the sun, and most go away, but the horseflies find you. But there are some cool butterflies.

This was the one “lifer” I got from the trip–a Canadian tiger swallowtail. It looks pretty much like our Eastern tiger swallowtail, except for the white margin on the edge of the wing.

There was an area that had a boardwalk deep into the bog. The boardwalk lead to an area that had the blue flag iris, being visited by this Hobomok skipper. The orchids pictured in the top photo were all around the boardwalk.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a silver-bordered fritillary in Illinois. They are just as beautiful in Minnesota. This one fluttered around weakly under the level of the boardwalk. It was difficult to get a photo without mosses and grasses in the way. Plus, there was the issue of the horsefly that landed on my hand while I was trying to get the picture. I was able to concentrate for a few photos before I brushed it away.

We have a beautiful butterfly in Iowa which has historically been called the red-spotted purple. Now its official common name is red-spotted admiral. It is a subspecies, along with this white admiral. As spectacular as the red-spotted purple is, the white admiral is even more so. It takes your breath away.

Even the interstate rest area yielded some butterflies. This is an arctic skipper.

I need a week or so to recover before my next big trip.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment