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Taking wing: The making of an Alaska 'butterflier'

  • Author: Rick Sinnott
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 3, 2016

Last November, our friend Debbie brought a bottle of wine over to celebrate her decision to retire. Discussing the impending occasion, we noticed a large moth fluttering around the kitchen light. I ducked into the garage to grab my butterfly net.

While my wife explained what I was up to, they watched me scoop the moth out of the air and dash into another room for a camera. Turning to Lisa, Debbie mused, "So this is what retirement is like," in a manner that suggested she might not submit her letter of resignation after all.

Naming butterflies and moths

Most of my career as a wildlife biologist was devoted to chasing much larger animals, such as moose and bears. It's why I enrolled at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the early 1970s. However, not many weeks into my first semester I took up birding. Birds are much more visible and colorful than your run-of-the-mill, frequently nocturnal mammal. But I never deigned to study insects until I retired.

With more free time, I've found the universe encompasses more than moose, bears and the people who complain about them. Since retiring, I'd photographed a few butterflies and moths but couldn't figure out how to identify most of them until I stumbled on a fantastic website last summer.

The Butterflies and Moths of North America project encourages amateur butterfly enthusiasts to photograph lepidopterans and submit their photos with dates and locations. Collaborating experts identify the creatures and maintain a database of verified sightings. The BAMONA website includes photos of many North American species, along with their life histories.

I submitted my first photo last July. Since then I've sent them six butterflies and four moths. According to the project's specimen maps, some of the species I've found are common in Alaska, some less so. I'm not going to bore you by describing all the species on my list, but a few merit mentioning.

My ‘short’ list

I've learned to anticipate the first Mourning Cloaks in spring as eagerly as the swarms of returning ducks, geese and swans. Mourning Cloaks — one of only six Alaska butterfly species that overwinter as adults — usually come out of hibernation in late March or early April. In early spring, I see individuals hugging sunny hillsides and bare areas, often with snow still lingering in shadows. I saw the first Mourning Cloaks on March 12 this year, about a month earlier than usual.

The Mourning Cloak is a large butterfly with predominantly russet wings. The hem of its velvety "cloak" is black with blue spots but, as we used to whisper to girls in the 1950s, its slip is showing. Below the dark cloak, the trailing edges of their wings show pale yellow or ivory. An earlier common name was White Petticoat. But the German name Trauermantel, which evokes the image of a traditional cloak worn during mourning, was the one that stuck.

Two swallowtails — the Canadian Tiger and the Old World swallowtail — are found throughout much of Alaska. Both sport the yellow, black, red and blue hues of a stained-glass window.

Perhaps the most exquisite butterfly I've seen in Alaska is the Phoebus Parnassian. The Parnassus is a mountain range in Greece, an arcane reference to the alpine habitats of most parnassians, and Phoebus was the Greek sun god better known as Apollo. This scientific name might have been a bit pretentious for a lowly insect, but the Phoebus Parnassian can hold its antennae high.

After emergence from its chrysalis, its wings are pure white with symmetrical black and gray spots and chevrons — and preternaturally bright red spots ringed in black. My sighting was late in the season. By then most of the background white and the gray insignia had rubbed off its wings, leaving the eye-popping red spots with just enough white to highlight the black markings. Between veins, the remainder of the wings was translucent — a ghost butterfly.

Most moths can't compete with the full-spectrum extravagance of butterflies. After all, moths tend to be night creatures. Moths' wintry colors require the use of often-subtle patterns on wings to identify species. A line-by-line description of a moth's wing pattern can read a lot like a book of knitting patterns.

Field guide for Alaska butterflies

There's no hope for identifying Alaska moths short of sending photos to the experts at BAMONA, but my fluttering interest in butterflies is about to be borne aloft by a new book. "Butterflies of Alaska: A Field Guide" by Kenelm Philip and Clifford Ferris was published late last year.

Ken Philip, the guide's primary author, died in 2014. The field guide is the culmination of his life's work on Alaska's butterflies. Although Philip was a researcher with the UAF Geophysical Institute and a professor of radio astronomy and astrophysics, his lepidopteran avocation metamorphosed into a full-blown profession. To facilitate collecting Alaska butterflies, he provided collecting kits to university graduate students and others whose fieldwork took them to the far corners of the state.

I recall packing his kits when I was an undergraduate assisting graduate students studying musk oxen on Nunivak Island and wolves in Mount McKinley National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the early 1970s. I don't remember collecting any butterflies. Like I said, I foolishly assumed that butterflies weren't worth the effort.

Fortunately, at least 600 volunteers thought otherwise. With their help, and a great deal of his own fieldwork, Philip amassed the second-largest collection of Arctic butterflies in the world, approximately 83,000 specimens. His collection made the new field guide possible.

According to the field guide, Alaska has 84 species of butterflies. The authors doubted any new butterflies would be found; however, a new species, the Tanana Arctic, was recently identified. The BAMONA project lists 100 species of moths in Alaska, and the odds of finding additional moths are good.

‘Wildflowers with wings’

The author of "Handbook for Butterfly Watchers," Robert Michael Pyle, considered butterflies a "whimsical" mixture of birds and wildflowers. Butterflies, he noted, lack the bewildering variety of wildflowers, but are more abundant worldwide than birds. Butterflies can be as resplendent as wildflowers, but active, and as fascinating to watch as birds, but easier to approach and photograph. Pyle quoted Hazel Wolf, a member of the Seattle Audubon Society, who called butterflies "wildflowers with wings."

Bird-watchers call their sport birding, and a similar word describes the recreational pursuit of butterflies: butterflying. Like the birders' American Birding Association, butterfly-watchers have an organization — the North American Butterfly Association — that promotes butterflying, publishes a magazine and maintains a checklist of the 722 butterflies recorded in North America and Hawaii.

In 2007, association President Jeffrey Glassberg estimated there were about 20,000 "fairly serious" butterfly-watchers in America, up from a few dozen just 30 years earlier.

I wonder why more birders aren't also butterfly-watchers. The most famous bird-watcher, Roger Tory Peterson, believed that butterfly-watching can be "as addictive as bird-watching."

Peterson became the patron saint of birding by writing and illustrating one of the first practical field guides for the identification of wild birds, in 1934, having been influenced as a boy by an earlier bird guide by Frank Chapman and Chester Reed. Until these seminal field guides, the most common way to identify a bird was to shoot it and examine the limp creature at less than arm's length.

Times have changed. Today 5.8 million Americans call themselves bird-watchers. They employ binoculars, spotting scopes and bird feeders for close observation.

You don't notice what you can't name, and what you don't notice, you don't value. Bird identification guides were a driving force in recruiting bird-watchers, and birders have long been leading proponents of nature appreciation and environmental conservation.

As much as Peterson and Pyle expounded on the natural ties that bind birding and butterfly-watching, the relationship hasn't taken off. But there are signs of increasing interest. For example, some birding guides and destinations now advertise butterfly-watching opportunities.

Why are birders becoming butterfliers? One reason to include butterflies, according to Glassberg, is, "They only fly when it is sunny and warm. You don't have to deal with the snow and the ice and the rain."

Butterflying

Alaska is not a great environment for butterflies because it's too cold much of the time. That's why Alaska has fewer species than other states. However, the state is overrun with butterflies from a butterfly-watcher's perspective, with only two or three months to see most of the 84 Alaska species.

The flight period of most Alaska species is June and July. Some species like Mourning Cloaks, which overwinter as adults, are flying as early as March and their spring hatch flies into September. A warm spring, like this one, or a cold autumn can expand or shrink the flight periods dramatically.

Moths, on the other hand, can be seen in every season. I bring half a dozen fluttering moths into the house every time I fill up the wood box.

I asked several Alaska birders whether they were interested in butterflies.

Aaron Lang, who leads birding tours for Wilderness Birding Adventures, calls himself an "enthusiastic amateur" but hasn't started a butterfly "life list" yet. He says he has guided a few birders who keep lists of butterflies they have spotted.

James Levison is even more enthusiastic about butterflies. A longtime birder, he now keeps three life lists for butterflies — for North America, Alaska and his yard — just as many birders do for the birds they've seen.

My sense is that there is no "movement" to combine birding and butterflying, but that some birders are leaning in that direction.

There's every reason to believe that "Butterflies of Alaska" will jump-start butterfly-watching in Alaska just as Peterson's first "Guide to the Birds" and subsequent field guides galvanized the sport of bird-watching and nature appreciation in North America.

There is also every reason to believe that my skeptical friend Debbie will receive a butterfly field guide in the near future.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist and a freelance writer based in Anchorage.

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