Butterflies Made Me a Better Observer

A few years ago I decided to learn how to identify butterflies.  I didn’t really know how many species were out there, but I knew there were yellow ones, white ones, little orange and black ones.  Swallowtails I knew because they always visited our lilacs in the spring.   But what else?  I bought a field guide.  Opening it up, I was soon amazed by the diversity of butterfly species in my province.  They had names I had never heard before – fritillaries, metalmarks, coppers, checkerspots, orangetips, hairstreaks.  And more amazingly, before I even identified my first butterfly, I was seeing them everywhere.  They had always been there, of course, but I had never looked for them before, and so I had never truly seen them.  Simply by studying the field guide and making myself aware of what to look for, I became a better observer.

Crescent butterfly

I saw this elegantly patterned butterfly while at the lake where I stacked stones.  I’m fairly certain it’s a crescent (genus Phyciodes), but I can’t go further than that, because many species in this genus look very similar.  I’m leaning towards the Field Crescent (Phyciodes pulchella) because of the general darkness of the wings, yet it could easily be a different species.  John Acorn, author of my field guide to butterflies (Butterflies of British Columbia, published by Lone Pine) remarks that crescents are a difficult group and advises butterfly watchers to, “Take a deep breath, write ‘unidentified crescent’ in your notes, and live in harmony with the complexity of nature.”  This is often the state I am in with butterflies, and I am perfectly okay with that.

Clouded sulphur

I discovered this sulphur resting in our lawn a few weeks ago.  Usually these butterflies are difficult to photograph because they fly quickly and rarely alight for more than a second.  I thought that this one must be dying, so I moved it to another part of our yard so it wouldn’t get stepped on.  But then it flew back to its original spot!  What was it doing?  The caterpillars feed on clover, which we have a lot of in our lawn, so I thought it might have been looking for a place to lay its eggs.  To me it looks more like a male than a female, though, so I really don’t know.  I did, however, take some photos and observe it much more closely than I’m usually able to do with sulphurs.  I’m fairly sure that this butterfly is a Clouded Sulphur, Colias philodice.  The diagnostic features are those faint dark spots on the margin of the wing – only one other species in my area (the Orange Sulphur) has those markings.  Because the light is shining through the butterfly’s wings in the photo, you can also see the dark borders on the inside of the wings.  These butterflies rarely open their wings while they are perched, so it is usually difficult to see these markings.

Sphinx moth

This last one is not a butterfly at all, but a moth!  I discovered this moth on the rails of our fence early one morning.  Because moths tend to have thicker and furrier bodies and heads than butterflies do, I actually thought it was a bat when I first glimpsed it.  When I returned later, it was resting in the grass with wings and antennae spread out.  It’s much larger than either of the butterflies in this post; I would guess that its wingspan is probably at least twice as large.  It’s a sphinx moth (family Sphingidae), but I’m not yet familiar enough with moths to attempt to identify it to species.  Just when I begin to become more familiar with butterflies, then I am reminded that there are even more moths than butterflies out there, and that my journey has only just begun…

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6 Responses to Butterflies Made Me a Better Observer

  1. Fallingleaf says:

    What do moths and butterflies mean to you? The reason I ask is because after reading your post, you’ve gone through a lot of trouble to get to identify and get to know a group of beings – trouble I don’t think you would have gone through had they not meant something to you. To me, the butterflies and moths always remind me of the Butterfly Effect … essentially, they always remind me that even the smallest of actions can play large parts in the overall scheme of things :-)

    • Heather says:

      That’s an interesting question! I’m not sure that butterflies and moths have any meaning to me that is much different than what any other group of beings might mean to me – I could have a written a similar post about lichens or mosses or dragonflies or beetles, for example. I am, however, especially attracted to butterflies because they make great photographic subjects – more challenging to photograph than flowers, but not as difficult as birds, and they come in so many colours and patterns – and because, unlike some other groups of insects, they are relatively easy to identify and there are more resources available to help me do so. On a deeper level, I am often attracted to groups and species that most people overlook, because that is a way of reminding myself to pay attention to the small details and to be more mindful and aware.

  2. Millie says:

    Butterflies made me a better observer too. I reckon they’re a great way to get people interested in nature as the colours are pretty and you have to pay attention!

  3. Ravena Guron says:

    I’m terrified of moths… and butterflies to a certain extent. They freak me out. But I can appreciate them from a distance, and I do like seeing pretty pictures of them. That pretty much sums up my knowledge of them :D But perhaps I should start a lookout for them, although the only ones I ever see are the dirty brown moths and white butterflies which appear briefly in summer.

    • Heather says:

      Yes, try looking out for them, Ravena! I never saw many either until I started actively looking for them. And… you’re not alone with your fear of moths. I’ve known other people who’ve been afraid of them, and I must admit to a certain squeamishness around caterpillars – no matter how many times I remind myself that they’re just immature moths and butterflies.

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