Sept. 3/13 - What's Argust? Many years ago we had friends from California who regularly visited in August. One of their favorite activities was clam digging despite the common wisdom that the clams were the best in months that had an "R" in them. Their response was always, "It's Argust isn't it?" It was hard to dispute because the fried clams and clam chowder were always great. So what's my point? Just that August can be anything you want it to be. For me it was more sunshine and butterflying weather. The result was a mixed bag. We had half a month of decent weather and a few good photo opportunities including three new species for my collection. On the negative side of the ledger, the trips to Bedwell Lake and Mt. Townsend were cancelled due to weather and other unforeseen circumstances. As well, I think there was a fire-season forest closure in the Cowichan District just as Derrick was taunting me with his Roadside Skippers in the Shawnigan Forest.
On July 31 I received an email from Peter Curtis of Port McNeil - ďThe fritillaries are flying at Fort Rupert.Ē It was the message I had been waiting anxiously for all month. I quickly logged into the weather channel and grabbed my calendar. I was free on Saturday, Aug. 3, and the forecast was for cloud and sun. My wife arrived home on Aug. 2 after a five day hiking trip in Manning Park. I announced that we were going to Fort Rupert tomorrow. As tired and exhausted as she was, she knew there was no point in arguing.
We left Nanoose Bay at 7:00 am under cloudy skies, and it was still overcast when we pulled into Fort Rupert at 11:30 am. I was disappointed but still hopeful that the clouds would clear. It was cool when we strolled around the ball field and school grounds - too cool for butterflies. But it was still early, and I was prepared to wait all day if I had to. We drove down to Storey and found a quiet spot for a picnic. The peanut butter and jam sandwiches hit the spot after 4.5 hours on the road. As we watched the parade of scoters offshore we were delighted to see the clouds thinning.By the time we got back to the field, rays of sunshine broke through the clouds and just like magic a butterfly appeared. It was the orange and black butterfly I was hoping for. As I was trying to get close another fluttered by. They both seemed to be interested in nectaring on the dandelions. I was sure they were the Fort Rupert fritillaries Ė the rare butterflies that I had driven 380 km to see and photograph.
A few minutes later the fritillary flew out to the road. I followed and was delighted to see more fritillaries across the road just as the last of the clouds disappeared. Under blue skies and surrounded by fritillaries, I was in buttefly heaven. For the next two and a half hours I was like a kid in a toy store enjoying the beauty of the rare fritillaries and trying to capture the perfect image. The opportunities were best beside Beaver Harbour Road where the fritillaries were nectaring on the tall dandelions. That allowed me to lie down to take pictures with a distant and blurred background. Iím sure more than a few people thought I was stoned or crazy.
By now you must be wondering whereís the treasure and whatís Mike smoking? Well, bear in mind that life isnít all about money. As the famous poet, Keats, wrote, ďA thing of beauty is a joy forever.Ē Beauty is timeless and one of precious intangibles that can bring joy to our lives many times after you experience it. I know I will always remember and enjoy reliving my visit with the fritillaries in Fort Rupert. As well, the Zerene Fritillary or more specifically, Speyeria zerene bremnerii, is not just beautiful, but it is also very rare and endangered. Did you know that it can only be seen in two locations in B.C.? Fort Rupert is one and and Mt. Tuam on Saltspring Island is the other. Being blessed with a rare butterfly wonít make anyone rich, but look at it this way. Fort Rupert and Mt. Tuam have something that money canít buy.
Unfortunately, with only two small populations in B.C. and a few down south, the Zerene is an endangered species, and its extinction is a very real possibility. Natural disasters like wildfires or disease could easily destroy the required habitats and there would be little we could do. But, what we can do is make sure that extinction doesnít occur because of manmade decisions and activities. Mt. Tuam is already a conservation area so it is protected. What about Fort Rupert? My guess is that nobody knows about them so nothing is being done.
Iím certainly no expert on butterflies or anything else for that matter, but I do know that the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) mandates all levels of governments to provide an action plan to prevent the extinction of rare species in Canada. That means the provincial government should be concerned about the Fort Rupert fritillaries and have provided the required studies, management strategies and support. If they havenít, they need to be contacted. Meanwhile, please donít use pesticides and donít cut the dandelions and clover around the ball fields, school yard, and roadways until the fritillaries stop flying and nectaring which should be around late August. As well, if there are any biologists, foresters, or naturalists in the area, perhaps they can try to discover where the butterflies lay their eggs and hibernate for the winter, and make sure the areas are protected. Finally, if you live in the area, enjoy them, learn about them, and take an interest in saving them for generations to come. Donít let it become another case of, ďYou donít know what youíve got until itís gone.Ē
Most of the Fort Rupert fritillaries were in mint condition typical of the early part of their season. However, a few worn individuals suggested that some had been in flight for at least two weeks.
Dandelions were a favorite nectar source probably because there was no other choice.
It was a challenge to get a good shot of the undersides of the wings. The best I could get was backlit shot which makes the brown base colour difficult to interpret.
Every time I gaze at Mt. Arrowsmith and Cokely, I have visions of Melissa Arctics fluttering on and off the rocky peaks. The Melissas is a high altitude butterfly that is represented by a lonely single record on some mountain peak in Strathcona Park. So, the question is, "Is it a breeding species on VI, or was it simply a wayward vagrant? One might have to visit every rocky peak to find out, but the only peak accessible to me is Mt. Arrowsmith or Cokely. On my first trip to Cokely I only found Hydaspe fritillaries. That was a good sign. There were butterflies up there. Aug. 5 was another beautiful sunny day - another opportunity to visit Cokely. Perhaps this would be a Melissa day.
The hike up the ski hill was easier this time - proof that my fitness had improved. In fact, it was the best it's been for many a year. If nothing else, the hike would be a great fitness exercise which was just as important as finding butterflies. Last time I only checked the northern peak. This time I would check the southern peak which was just a little higher.
The ascent of Cokely is a two part affair with the first leg up the old ski hill. The second leg is a little steeper but easily negotiated up a smooth trail on the rocky mountainside. The patches of pink and white heather that were in full bloom two weeks earlier were now dried and withered. Butterflies were scarce with only the occasional Hydaspe and Anna's Blue to momentarily distract me. The only incident of note was the curious fluttering of three Hydaspes in close company. When I finally got close enough I could see that two butterflies were mating and the third one was trying to get into the action. Unfortunately for the third one, it was no go. The mating pair was locked in their butterfly embrace until conception did them part.
From a distance the ascent to Cokely's peaks seems fairly difficult, but the trail up the smooth rock face is not technical and quite easy.
As usual, Emerald Lake looked as splendid as ever.
The view from the top of Cokely was also splendid, and there was the flutter of butterflies. I saw about a half dozen, but they were all orange and black. There was no sign of the black or gray Melissa Arctic. I wasn't alone on the peak. A mountain hiker named Paul was also up there. I explained that I was photographing butterflies, and he planted the expansive wildflower meadows of King's Peak in my mind. Maybe I'll have to hire a helicopter next year ...
Just below the peak where I was having lunch there were several apollo butterflies swirling around. Could they be Rocky Mountain Apollos? That was another species on my wish list. Finally one landed on the trail. A few quick record shots confirmed at least one was a Clodius.
On the way up we passed a patch of alpine asters that looked like a prime nectaring site for butterflies. In fact, we did see a couple of Hydaspes and an unidentified skipper. On the way down we saw several Hydaspes enjoying the nectar patch. I settled down to take some photos of a Hydaspe but it flew and was replaced by a Mariposa Copper.
The Mariposa was a cooperative subject as it relished its afternoon treat.
Remember the threesome of Hydaspes I mentioned on the way up. Here's a photo in case you thought I was kidding.
Back at the aster patch, the Hydaspes were also busy with the nectar. I saw the backside of one on a flower and waited. 30 seconds later it worked its way around the flower until it was facing me. That was the pose I was looking for - click!
My main target of the day was a Common Branded Skipper. James Miskelly mentioned that Cris had found one along the roadside on the way up many years ago. Timing is everything, and I had a feeling that this was the right time. You might be thinking "What about Mike's hunch about the Melissa?" That was different. It wasn't a hunch. It was just wishful thinking. Despite expert advice, I don't really believe that the Melissa is breeding species on VI. I think it's a vagrant, but would love to be proven wrong. On the other hand, I knew the skipper was a real native species. All I had to do was be there at the right time. Close to where I parked I saw a skipper, but it quickly skipped out. I also saw one on the way down at the aster patch, but it also disappeared before I could identify it. Back to the parking spot I decided to scour the area for the first skipper. I finally found it in a patch of clover. A distant record shot confirmed my suspicions - COMMON BRANDED SKIPPER! I held my excitement in check until I got some decent photos. I was happy to discover that there were several skippers in the area. After an hour of careful stalking and shooting, I finally had a few good shots, and I could finally exhale.
The distinctive white diamonds on the ventral hindwing and the short black line on the dorsal forewing are distinctive features of the Common Branded Skipper.
On Aug. 14 the forecast was for sun and cloud at Whistler. I flipped a coin, and it said, "heads" - go for it. Unfortunately, the forecast was only 50% correct. There were clouds - lots of clouds and no sun. Three hours of searching turned up one Anna's Blue. The best find was a pair of juvenile Horned Larks. My original plan was to find the Melissa Arctics for some better pictures. Unfortunately, Murphy was in a foul mood. I didn't have a chance. Maybe next year.
Murphy may have foiled my Whistler excursion, but I was lucky he was on vacation when I headed for Manning Park on Aug. 24. I was acting on a tip from my wife who was there two weeks ago with her hiking group. She mentioned marvellous wildflower meadows covering the mountainside. That meant butterflies. Although I knew the peak of the wildflowers was over I was hoping that the Mormon Fritillaries were still flying. The other possible target was the Chalcedon Checkerspot, but since I saw them in May at Reecer Creek and the ones at Whistler a month ago were at the end of their lifespan, I was pretty sure they wouldn't be present.
In case you're wondering why I was chasing the Mormons at Manning, the reason was the same as for species like the Johnson's Hairstreak and Chalcedon Checkerspot. I was sure they no longer existed on VI. In fact, I place the Mormon on the vagrant list which means the one historical sighting was just a freak occurrence. I had actually seen Mormon Fritillaries at Whistler a month ago but only managed a few record shots. With the tip from my wife, a forecast for sun, a half-price sale at Manning Park Lodge, a couple of free days in my schedule, and Murphy being on vacation, it was my cue to head for Manning.
Despite knowing that the wildflower time had passed, I was still disappointed to see the expansive mountain meadows devoid of colour. However, I decided to make the best of the situation and just enjoy photographing the local wildlife and scenery. Golden-mantled squirrels were everywhere. At the lodge they were quite accustomed to human presence, but on the mountain they were a little more wary. However, they were also curious and often reappeared after disappearing in their tunnels.
The mountain meadow habitat was ideal for Dusky Grouse and I managed to find two. hey were both extremely cooperative to permit close up shots with my macro lens. This female kindly climbed onto the roadside and posed for about a minute.
A nearby male was just as cooperative as it foraged for cotton candy in the meadow. I don't know what the real name is, but cotton candy is the plant with the fuzzy, cotton-like seed head.
If there's any bird that is the mascot of Manning, it is the Clark's Nutcracker. It is always lurking about looking for scraps dropped by human visitors.
Down by Lightning Lake I found another grouse. In fact it was a hen with three teenaged offspring. She also very cooperative keeping an eye on her offspring and ready to sound the alarm if danger was imminent. Unlike many birds, she didn't consider cameras to be lethal weapons.
Pika pleasure - One of the cutest mammals was a pika, a tailless mouse-like mammal. Like the squirrels and chipmunks they also enjoyed the rocky habitat.
Yes, there were many chipmunks. They seemed to be in every crevice on the rocky roadside.
Ironically, the only flowers on the meadows were on disturbed ground. The first patch of disturbed ground was at the microwave station and that's where I found my first Mormons. They seemed to enjoy nectaring on a dandelion-like flower.
The best patch of flowers was on the moist roadside near the mountain peak where there was about 30 meters of alpine asters in prime condition. It was a no-brainer to stop and look for butterflies, and it didn't take long to find some Mormons.
Hydaspe Fritillaries were also present enjoying the asters.
There were also a few skippers in the patch. They weren't very cooperative, and I was only able to get a dorsal view.
I tried my best to ignore the local mammals, but it was impossible. They seemed to be doing their best to distract me. When I finally focussed on a chipmunk harassing on a pika they suddenly disappeared.
The occasional Milbert's Tortoiseshell was a surprise visitor to the aster patch.
There were a number of smaller butterflies fluttering about including a few Mariposa Coppers.
Just when I was ready to quit, I finally spotted a skipper that was absorbed with its nectaring. I had its wings folded to expose the ventral hindwing. The distinctive pattern of white diamonds suggested Common branded Skipper to me, but I'm not sure.
Groups shots of butterflies is difficult. First you have to find a group of butterflies then you have to find the midpoint for depth of field. This group of Mormons worked out quite well.
Aug. 21 - Manning was fun, and I was reluctant to leave while the weather was so fine, but it was time. It was travel tome. I thought there was no butterflying for the day, but a quick stop at Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver yielded a few Cabbages and worn-out Woodland Skippers.
Aug. 22 - As part of my butterfly study, I was committed to as many visits to Mt. Washington as possible. I haven't counted yet so I don't know how many times I've been there this year. The highlight so far has been the appearance of the Great Arctics. What would today bring?
A few Purplish Coppers were the first butterflies on the way up the ski hill. Most seemed to be fading away.
The only Blues left were the Anna's. The previously abundant Silvery Blues had disappeared.
A few Mariposa Coppers appeared now and then. They were still in pretty good condition.
The big news for the day was the new generation Zephyr Commas. Not surprisingly, they were nectaring in the aster patches on the hill near the peak. It was a pleasure to see fresh, bright colours of the new adults.
The timing of the new Zephyrs was about two weeks earlier than last year which reflected the earlier spring and summer on the mountains.
I had three wishes for my Victoria trip: Western Branded Skipper, Red Admiral, and California Tortoiseshell. I would like to tell you that all my wishes came true, but this is no time for fairy tales. In birding we call it a dip. In some sports we would say we were skunked. But, like the lottery, you can't win without a ticket. You can also lose with a ticket and that's exactly how my Victoria trip played out.
Failure is always part of the equation like my second Whistler trip. Even though I found none of my targets, it's always a joy to see old favorites again such as the VI Ringlet. I managed to find two at Island View, Aziza reported several a few days earlier at Pedder Bay. It was good news to know they are surving in different areas.
Woodland skippers were still the most abundant species. Wherever there was gumweed there were skippers. I did my best to find a Western Branded Skipper but gave up after about a 100 Woodland Skippers.
The only other butterflies along the beach were a few Purplish Coppers.
My last stop was Mt. Doug. I was determined to wait until sunset for one of my targets, but it was all in vain. However, I did have some company besides the hoards of tourists. A Gray Hairstreak was enjoying the last rays of the day while perched on a broom bush by the pedestral.
My other companion was a lady friend - a friendly Painted Lady. Despite being constantly flushed by tourists, it repeatedly returned to its favorite basking spot beside me.
As mentioned in my last journal, my plans for 2013 include a book on butterflies. Since then I have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and support offered by all the major experts in the butterfly community. Cris Guppy replied immediately to offer his enthusiatic support and since then, Norbert Kondra and Jon Shepard have also offered to help any way they can. The big news is that that our own island expert entomologist, James Miskelly, is joing me as a co-author and will be constructing distribution maps, assisting with the photography, and vetting the write-ups.
On the technical side of the production, I have my new ISBN number and a quote for the printing cost. Tentatively, I'm aiming for October printing and November release. My decision to only publish a 1,000 copies hasn't changed so it's essential for anyone who wants a copy to pre-order by emailing me. I'm hoping to sell all books directly which means they might not be available in the stores. So far I have orders from as far as Minnesota.
My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)