Walking with butterflies at the Metolius Preserve

Jul 22, 2014
Writer Katie Eberhart explores the Metolius Preserve on a Land Trust butterfly walk and shares her experience on our blog.

By Katie Eberhart

While waiting for everyone to arrive for the Land Trust’s butterfly hike, I found myself thinking about the magic of butterflies—the colors and patterns; the fluttering-flight like a lopsided folding and unfolding; the delicate wings that might inspire kite-makers but don’t suggest longevity in the wilds. During the quick introductions, nearly everyone mentioned an abiding interest in butterflies. One woman said that she hoped to find artistic inspiration and I was thinking about the metaphoric possibilities and how butterflies seem to be a species with superpowers—with adaptations for evading predators (like hungry birds), surviving bitter cold and deep snow of mountain winters, and even outwitting people with butterfly nets.

To get to the Metolius Preserve, I had driven an hour from Bend, west past Sisters and toward the mountains, each turn onto narrower and less traveled roads, until I was driving on gravel and then on a narrow dirt track winding between pines. The morning was cool and breezy and not the most favorable weather for butterflies.

While hoping the breeze would die down and the air warm up, Amanda Egertson, the Land Trust’s butterfly expert, brought out a glass-topped box containing specimens of butterflies that we might see in the Metolius Preserve: Papilionidae which includes Swallowtails; Pieridae (Orange Sulfur, Sara’s Orangetip, and Becker’s White); the Blue butterflies of the Lycaenidae family, and Nymphalidae, the family of brush-footed butterflies like Fritillary, Red Admiral, and Green Comma.

Amanda explained that, to tell the difference between the Blue butterflies, you have to look at the underside of the wings. Glancing upward at the tall pines as if willing the breeze to still, she removed the glass cover from the butterfly case and pulled out the long pin which fastened a Blue Copper butterfly to the foam backing. She turned the specimen over, so we could see the pattern of black spots on the underside of the wings, and repeated this with the Silvery Blue. Before plucking out the third Blue specimen, Amanda announced that this one, the Melissa Blue, was “the peacock of butterflies.” Indeed, besides a pattern of dark dots like the other Blue butterflies, the underside of the Melissa Blue’s wings also had a flamboyant orange strip and blue-ish spots resembling the “eyes” on a peacock’s tail.

Some years ago, while hiking on a dirt road down-slope from a hay field, I encountered Blue butterflies gathered—“puddling”—on a patch of ground dampened by irrigation runoff. Amazed, I snapped pictures of the flock, my telephoto lens angled down at the butterflies’ iridescent blue wings. I didn’t know, though, that the clues to identifying Blue butterflies were hidden under their wings. I think now that if I encounter such a grouping again, I will get down on the ground, lying flat with my camera at the level of the butterflies and wait until one folds up its wings.

As the morning warmed and the sun beat out the clouds, Amanda stowed her butterfly specimen box, and we headed off, following a flat trail through open forest until a tiny butterfly caught our attention. Amanda quickly unfolded the butterfly net that had been sticking out of her pack and swept the air above the butterfly which, probably startled by the motion, flew up and into the net. Using smooth-tipped tweezers, she gently extracted the butterfly and dropped it into a clear plastic jar. We passed the jar around, observing the spots on the underside of the butterfly’s wings. The last person opened the jar and, in a few moments, the butterfly flew off. (I thought, when the tweezers came out, that the butterfly was a goner.) The identity of that butterfly was more speculative than certain. Amanda said it might be a Greenish Blue but that its wings were too tattered to say for sure. We walked on, going single file where the trail narrowed, everyone peering between the pines and firs, hoping to spot a butterfly in flight.

A yellow butterfly, too small and brightly colored to be a Swallowtail, flitted at the far edge of a glade. “Probably a Clouded or Western Sulfur,” Amanda commented, but again there was no certainty because the butterfly didn’t alight and so wasn’t caught in the net or photographed, and the constant flight made a good look with binoculars impossible.

Farther along, Amanda netted another Blue butterfly she identified as a Boisduval’s Blue which we each examined through the plastic of the container. After the lesson with the Blue butterflies, I was beginning to appreciate the difficulty of identifying butterflies that look so similar—butterflies we casually call “blue” or  “yellow” but as a generality, like listening to music when you think the composer might be Mozart but aren’t sure of the name of the piece.

At a “T” in the trail, where the forest was more open, the butterfly that stopped us in our tracks was black with showy white spots and orange wing tips. “A Lorquin’s Admiral,” Amanda said. This “puddling” butterfly was poking its proboscis into the damp dirt to “drink” and did not seem at all bothered by us.

When hiking, you frequently encounter a certain amount of novelty and unpredictability. You may see things you didn’t expect—the weather may change for the better or worse; or the sensations of heat and cold, the aroma of pine, or the screech of a soaring red-tailed hawk may remind you of other times and places.

As we returned to the parking lot, everyone was pleased that the weather had warmed up and that we had seen so many butterflies, but sometimes what you don’t see is what you think about. I would have liked to have seen a Green Comma, a butterfly with a superhero’s name and the power of invisibility. The Green Comma’s sculpted wing-edges and darkly mottled coloration let it “disappear” when it alights on the jigsaw-grooved bark of a pine.

Of course, camouflage is defined as hiding in plain sight. Maybe we hiked past flocks of Green Commas, all perched on pine trees and invisible to us. Or maybe there were no Green Commas clinging to the pines that morning—which leads me the notion that I have just encountered a place where nature and poetry overlap—at the question of what we see and what we don’t.

Read more from Katie on her blog, Solstice Light.