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‘Vashon’s Butterfly Lady’ leads insect safari

Moria Robinson on a butterfly hunt.  - Courtesy photo
Moria Robinson on a butterfly hunt.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Please promise us, August, a run of sunny days — days with heat soaking into dry meadows and butterflies browsing the shrubs and flowers despite the notoriously temperate, moist climate of Puget Sound.

To help others appreciate the beauty of local butterflies, Moria Robinson will be leading a “Walk on the Wild Side” butterfly excursion on Saturday, Aug. 16. A college student now, Moria developed her passionate interest in six-legged creatures about the same time she developed an interest in walking.

Her keen observations and her skill with a butterfly net and camera have earned her the title of “Vashon’s Butterfly Lady.”

With Moria’s expertise, there are bound to be numerous interesting finds, although we have had a relatively sparse butterfly population this summer. The problem started with our cold spring and continued with periodic intervals of cold in June and July.

Certainly this year’s annual butterfly count was low, due in part to clouds and low temperatures on count day, July 6. The temperature barely touched 70°F (the low threshold for most Lepidoptera) during the eight hours that a team roamed. Only four species and a total of 43 individuals were seen by the team and the garden watchers. And though there had been unusually high numbers of pale tiger swallowtails in May and June, only two were spotted on count day.

Three of the species seen on July 6 are likely to be around during the Wild Side Walk next Saturday: the big, showy yellow western tiger swallowtail, the medium Cabbage White that usually illuminates summer gardens and the colorful Lorquin’s admiral, with its black, white and red wings and bold behavior. Lorquins are known for pugnaciousness, sometimes defending their territory against both larger species of butterflies (tiger swallowtails) and birds.

In addition, the small blue spring azures have been active in the past several weeks, and red admirals, satyr anglewings and Milbert’s tortoiseshells may be out there, having thrived, as caterpillars, on the patches of nettles that grow so plentifully in Vashon woodlands. All three of these are bright and flashy, as if the sting of their host plant is converted by the chemistry of caterpillar tummies into vibrant colors.

August is favored by the svelte brown wood nymph butterflies whose bobbing flight over grassy expanses can be the only movement on a lazy afternoon. Grasses are the food plant for their caterpillars, so old fields and even lawns can be good places to watch for the adults, whose quiet shades of brown are set off by large pairs of black and yellow eyespots on their forewings.

The small active woodland skippers have orange and brown wings that fold up like tiny paper airplanes as they nectar on flowers. Mylitta crescents, which hardly appear at all most years but sometimes erupt in great numbers, have mosaic yellow and black wings. Mylittas like thistles, and a lucky person might spot their spiny black/maroon and orange caterpillars munching away on the prickly leaves. But if you see lilac and yellow caterpillars on thistles, they are painted ladies, another butterfly whose numbers fluctuate widely.

What’s wonderful about butterflying is that it’s an excuse to ramble around on a summer afternoon and enjoy everything from dragonflies to ripe thimbleberries.

When Moria was a child, she began sketching the butterflies and insects she found. This helped her remember how they looked so she could find them in field guides at the library. She still does this, but now she also photographs them. Either method gives a good reminder of the field marks as you learn new species.

When Moria discovered the first specimens of Silvery Blue butterflies on Maury Island, her photographs reliably documented their presence. So bring a field notebook and camera. Moria always finds insects with features remarkable and interesting, and it’s well worth joining her for a Vashon insect safari.

— Rayna Holtz, a librarian, is an avid naturalist.

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