On the wing: Keeping up with island butterflies

Last Saturday, with its afternoon sunny skies and 70-degree temperatures, was a good day for counting butterflies.

In fact, about 20 islanders spent a portion of the day meandering through Vashon and Maury islands’ woods and meadows looking for the telltale flutter of colorful wings, counting and keeping track of the butterflies they spotted. The day-long event was the annual Vashon Butterfly Count, which has convened for 22 years. The day was organized by Rayna Holtz, known in some circles as the island’s “resident butterfly authority.” She has been leading the annual count since 1996, always near the Fourth of July.

“It is a very good time of year to see generally what is on the wing in your part of the country,” she said last week.

It turns out, there was a lot on the wing on Saturday.

The official count from last week, from the roving team of people, plus three more counting in their yards, was 140 individual butterflies from nine species, Holtz said.

Butterfly aficionados will likely recognize them, while those new to Lepidoptera might simply enjoy the sound of their names.

Echo azures accounted for 68 of the individuals spotted, western tiger swallowtails for 40, Lorquin’s admirals for 14, satyr anglewings and cabbage whites for five each, pale tiger swallowtails for four, orange sulphurs for two, California tortoiseshell for one and clodius Parnassian for one.

This year’s count also included big butterfly news: It was the best year in 22 years of counts for the California tortoiseshell, Holtz said, and the first year any were seen on a count day or in a count week. In fact, 32 California tortoiseshells were seen in two sites just two days before the count, and three in three sites just one day before the count.

Adding to the excitement of the day was when a small group spotted clodius Parnassian. Holtz said this white butterfly with gray veins and red spots prefers higher elevations than Vashon offers; she suspects it may have hitched a ride onto the island from a truck bringing hay from the east side of the mountains.

“Every year we hope there are going to be surprises. To have two surprises this year — my cup overfloweth,” she said, following the hunt.

Holtz is a former reference librarian and a meticulous record keeper. She worked at the Vashon Library for 22 years and retired in 2011 in part to spend more time focusing on environmental causes. Now, at her fingertips, she has records about sea stars and birds and blossoms — and the island’s butterflies. Her charts tell stories of their own.

2005 was a banner year for the Butterfly Count with 204 individual butterflies counted from nine species. On average six or seven species are spotted on the annual count, Holtz said, but in 2003, participants spotted the all-time high of 10 species during more than 11 hours of searching. The smallest number of butterflies counted, 31, was in 1999, and the lowest number of species was four. That was in 2008, on a day with overcast skies and temperatures that did not rise above 69 degrees.

Vashon and Maury Islands do not have as many types of butterflies as several other places.

“We do not have enough heat and habitat to attract many species,” Holtz said, adding later, “Cold and wet is the enemy of Lepidoptera.”

While fluctuating numbers of species spotted in some biological counts sometimes signal changes related to climate change, Holtz said she has not seen that with butterflies. Instead, the counts can vary greatly from year to year because of a range of factors, including winter, spring and summer temperatures and precipitation, previous year’s species success and host plant supply.

Variables on the day of the count make a difference as well: the temperature of the day — it needs to be at least 70 degrees — number of count hours and the number of participants, among other factors.

Last Saturday started out in mist at the Maury Island Marine Park, where most of the group did not see a single butterfly. From there, they headed to the retention pond on the school district property, then on to an open meadow near Roseballen and an entrance to Island Center Forest. There, butterfly watchers included Joy Nelsen, who for years led Audubon’s birding field trips.

“I am all about the critters,” she said, accompanied by her dog Sophie.

Part of the pleasure of walking through the woods looking for butterflies is noticing all sorts of other parts of nature, as well.

Nelson noted a bird song, saying it belonged to the Swainson’s thrush. The bird is from Central America, she said, and does not sing there, but does so here in its nesting territory. Its song is considered especially melodious.

“Of all the bird songs, that is the one most people want to know,” she said, adding the bird is found among trees. “You definitely need to have the woods around to enjoy this song.”

Kelly Keenan, who is a staff member with the Vashon Nature Center, was along for the day as well.

Calling Holtz her “butterfly mentor,” she said the two are working together to make a butterfly field guide for Vashon. She, like others, had her camera along, hoping to catch some of the more rare butterflies on Vashon, including a gray hairstreak or the elusive purplish copper.

Butterflies have their own territories, Holtz said, so she did not worry about counting butterflies twice. The group counted as they walked in one direction only, and then admired the butterflies and took photos on the walk back.

The final stop of the day was at Mukai Pond. A small group of people was already there, sitting among the grasses, binoculars ready. Among them was Alan Warneke, an expert in dragonflies and damselflies. Two of the women, Joanne Jewell and Stephanie Etley, work for the Vashon Wilderness Program and will soon be leading a camp at the pond. They had joined the day to brush up on the dragonflies and damselflies. They had spotted 10 species in all — and three raccoons. Etley is a relatively new islander and moved here from Shoreline.

“I have never lived anywhere people care more about the land,” she said at the pond’s edge.

Holtz did not stay there long, as temperatures started to dip as the clouds came back, and the official hunt ended in late afternoon — far short of the 11 hours she put in that record-setting year.

Each year the National Butterfly Association hosts counts across the country. Vashon used to participate in those, but various problems arose, including onerous requirements and fees to participate, leading the Washington Butterfly Association — and Vashon’s count — to part ways with the national group.

“I am very much more interested in teaching people about butterflies than in keeping official records,” Holtz said. “We continue to have just as much fun without the official group.”

While the count is over, Holtz encourages people to pay attention to the natural world — and its butterflies — throughout the year. This summer, islanders are still likely to see several species, some that only live in certain parts of Vashon-Maury Islands. People might spot echo azures, small blue butterflies that like “to puddle” — rest on damp earth and sip its nutrients. The Lorquin’s admirals will still be around for the next few weeks, and the colorfully painted ladies might still arrive from California. In fact, Holtz said that when there is a lot of rain in the desert in California in the spring or summer, there will be an “irruption” of the painted ladies. They hatch out and migrate north — with reports of them being so dense that driving is dangerous.

While nothing that dramatic is likely to happen with Vashon’s butterflies, there is plenty to learn.

“One question leads to another. One discovery leads to another,” Holtz said.

A different idea of community then takes shape as knowledge deepens of the natural world.

“Everyone who gets absorbed into watching species starts to recognize species as parts of home,” she said. “It has enriched me immeasurably. I think it is a great gift to share.”

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