My Favorite Butterfly

Mark Walker MWalker at
Fri Jul 23 04:54:30 EDT 1999

I've been uncharacteristically quiet, lately.  Well, at least in ether land.
In God's analog world, I'm just as loud as ever.
I never thought that I'd ever stay on Tejon Pass long enough to consider it
home, but now going on three weeks (and at least one visit to every single
restaurant in the area), and I'm starting to look at gravesites.  There are
worse places to be buried - this is one that would at least be long on
Actually, I'm slated for burial at sea.  It's a Navy thing.
So I'm on my daily lunch time butterflying excursion.  In the National
Forest above Hungry Valley (appropriate for lunch hour) Recreational Vehicle
Park.  Lots of butterflies, as there have been for the past three weeks.
I'm literally surrounded by Satyrium.  S. saepium.  S. sylvinus.  S.
californica.  S. tetra.  S. auretorum.  It's a hairstreak heaven, and I'm in
the middle of it.  Yeah, it's a little warm outside, but up here at 4000
ft., it's 15 degrees F. cooler than down below.  In the dead heat of noon,
the butterflies tend to perch more than nectar.  The Quercus dominate, along
with the wild buckwheat.  A quick rap on a Scrub Oak, and out fly the
Coppers.  There's only three flying today - Lycaena gorgon, L. arota, and L.
heteronea.  The Gorgon's are worn, but are of a consistently orange color.
Plenty of Blues, too, including Marine, Square-spotted, Western Tailed,
Melissa, and Acmon.  The only checkered brush foot to be seen are an
occasional Phyciodes mylitta.  There were also a pair of Monarchs.
Cercyonis sthenele is still the most common butterfly, flopping erratically
about from buckwheat blossoms to the shady tree and shrub bottoms.
Meanwhile, the California Sisters are freshly emerged, and flying from leaf
to leaf - mostly favoring the Valley Oaks.  I saw one having quite a
difficult time with a dominating cousin, Limenitus lorquini - smaller, but
quite aggressive and territorial.  Another common Nymphalid - and still
flying strong, though mostly tattered, are the Speyeria callippe macaria.  A
few Pierids can be seen - the most common being the Harford's Sulpher - a
stunningly yellow butterfly with lightly colored marginal bands.  These can
be seen cruising up and down the canyons, but are best viewed while resting
at the weedy bottom, where the dry creek bed spreads out over the motorcycle
trails.  A few males are freshly bright yellow.  I also enjoyed a singleton
Zerene eurydice (California Dogface), but he was in a big hurry - stopping
only briefly below a large oak.  Long enough to flash his purplish-pink
iridescence at me.  An occasional P. rapae and Pontia protodice (Checkered
The Swallowtails are less common than a few weeks ago.  No Two-Tailed today,
but an occasional Tiger and Pale would surprise me as I hiked around a
corner - they have a way of bopping you in the nose, gently.  The net is
rarely ready, and they know it.
 O.K., so after a wonderful hour of walking and watching and swinging and
sweating, I strolled on over to one of the particularly scrubby Scrub Oaks.
This one was literally covered with mistletoe.  I had been thinking about it
the whole time, as I usually do when I see the mistletoe.  It's become an
automatic reaction for me, you see, since the parasite's pest has
unquestionably become my favorite butterfly.  I've been perhaps unusually
lucky, in a sort of ironic way, to have been able to see so many of them
over the years - but recognize that "so many" is still but a rare few.
About 1 and 1/2 per year, to be exact - except for when I can get to Florida
(where I've found it quite common).
You don't usually see it flying, for it likes to perch quickly.  When it
perches, it almost disappears - with it's gray-black scaling on the
underwings.  If you're lucky enough to see it perch within reach, you are
stunned at the metallic gold, yellow, and green scaling near the tails.  You
also notice the characteristic red markings on the thorax and abdomen.  And
then, if you're lucky, you'll see it fly - flashing it's stunningly metallic
blue upperside as if to hint of it's tropical roots.  It's unlike anything
else that we have in this part of the world - a royal beauty to be sure, and
I always consider myself fortunate to see one.  It's a blessing, and I know
it as soon as it happens - it's always the same.  The butterfly is always
within two feet, and it always gives me good show.  They're always nettable,
but for some reason they can't be captured.  There's a moment of
frustration, and then a sense of peace - as I realize that this is precisely
why I'm enduring the sun, the bugs, the twisted ankles.  For just a brief
but vivid moment, I get an intimate look at the handiwork of God's creation
- just enough to convince me that I'm right where I'm supposed to be - that
I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.  And it's as if it were being
presented to me personally - the grandest of guided tours.  And then the
Great Purple Hairstreak is gone - not on display for anyone else, just a
vivid memory for me to file away - perhaps to retrieve and review when the
things of life begin to pile up.
On this day, I walked to the bush and looked down on the mistletoe (the oaks
are stunted).  As my eyes began to focus on the thick, dense Phoradendron,
it took awhile for the pattern recognition to kick in.  And there it was.
Inches from my face.  A large, fresh female Atlides ovipositing on the
mistletoe.  My jaw dropped, my heart pounded, and for a moment I could only
watch.  When I started to consider how I might capture this bug, I realized
that there was no way it was going to happen - it was down an inch in the
matted mistletoe, and there was no swinging a net in this stuff.  Without
thinking, I lightly tapped the branch - and watched the lady slowly fly
upwards and perch on the oak, about 10 feet high.  I reached my net up, so
that the rim was but a few inches from the branch she was perching on.  I
knew I couldn't swing strong enough - I had only two inches of net handle in
my swinging hand.  I looked up at her, and once again acknowledged my
blessed predicament.  As I nodded upward, the blue beauty took off towards
another tree and disappeared in the canopy.  I chuckled, and then I sighed.
An electric chill ran up my spine.  Another perfect day.
Mark Walker
Still Best Resting in Frazier Park.

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