Net Free

A whimsical journey on the wings of a butterfly

By Susan Eastman

The couple had done similar surveys in the James A. Van Fleet State Trail in Polk County, the Withlacoochee State Trail near Ocala, the Disney Wilderness Preserve near Orlando, and Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. By documenting all the butterflies they see in one day each month for a year, the Coopers provide a snapshot of the species in the area as well as seasonal fluctuations. At the Disney Wilderness Preserve, the Coopers documented a small colony of ruddy daggerwings well north of their breeding range. On the Van Fleet Trail, they also photographed a funereal duskywing, a butterfly found in the Western United States that probably had strayed to Florida.

The Coopers seem well suited to this enterprise. Until retiring in 1998, they were the resident naturalists at the Street Audubon Nature Center near Winter Haven. To butterfly watching, the couple brings birders' eyes for detail. The marks differentiating butterflies can be very subtle -- a small streak of orange on a brown wing distinguishes the tawny-edged from other skippers. Additionally, the coloring of butterflies fades as they age; males and females have different markings, and the insects often have strikingly different coloring on the undersides and tops of their wings.

The Coopers go into the field armed with binoculars and a camera that focuses at close range. They observe flight patterns, habitats, and other markers to distinguish one species from another.

Clockwise from top left are four butterflies found in South Florida: the atala hairstreak, the little metalmark, the zebra heliconian 
(the state butterfly), and the black swallowtail
Alana Edwards
Clockwise from top left are four butterflies found in South Florida: the atala hairstreak, the little metalmark, the zebra heliconian (the state butterfly), and the black swallowtail
On his six-thousand-and-first hour as a volunteer at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, 79-year-old Hal Weidemann (top photo, second from right) shares his knowledge of butterflies, wildflowers, and other bugs
Colby Katz
On his six-thousand-and-first hour as a volunteer at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, 79-year-old Hal Weidemann (top photo, second from right) shares his knowledge of butterflies, wildflowers, and other bugs

With their binoculars, the Coopers identify themselves as part of a vanguard of enthusiasts advocating the observation of butterflies in the wild rather than pinned to a board. "Netless butterflying" as a hobby was first advocated by naturalists Robert Michael Pyle, author of the book The Butterfly Watcher's Handbook,and Jeffrey Glassberg, a conservationist and birder who founded the North American Butterfly Association (www.naba.org) ten years ago. Glassberg published a field guide to butterflies of the Boston-New York-Washington region in 1993 and since has produced guides titled Butterflies Through Binoculars for the Eastern and Western United States as well as Florida.

Jane Scott, secretary/treasurer and a founding member of NABA, compares the change in emphasis from nets to binoculars to the transformation in birding. For many years, scientists and amateur birders shot and bagged birds to study them. Then in the 1930s, hobbyists began using binoculars and field guides to view birds. "Today, if you shot a bird because you wanted to see what it was, people would think you were crazy," Scott says.

When the Coopers are in the field, they take scrupulous notes detailing the condition of the butterflies, the nectar plants they are feeding upon, flight patterns, and other behavior. By doing so, they hope to contribute to the science of lepidoptery. Vladimir Nabokov, most famous as the author of Lolita and sublime Russian poetry, was a highly regarded lepidopterist who found new species and oversaw the butterfly collection at Harvard University.

For many hobbyists today, acute observation has replaced dissection of the sort practiced by Nabokov and thousands of others, Linda Cooper explains. "You can identify some species simply by their flight," she says. "You can also watch males patrol their territory, watch females search for host plants to lay their eggs on, and watch the search for nectar sources. Watching the behavior adds to the enjoyment so much more than looking at a drawer full of dead butterflies."

Buck, who is 72 years of age, and Linda, who is 61, have observed all 161 of the butterfly species commonly found in Florida. They are on the lookout for an additional nine species that are very rare or thought to be extinct in the state. The Coopers exchange information about their finds and post photographs on a listserve called LEPSrUS (http://groups.msn.-com/LEPSrUS). They think nothing of hopping into their SUV to see butterflies, just as they might to spy a rare bird. Recently, they trekked to the Keys, twice, to catch a glimpse of a greenish-white lyside sulfur, which is rarely seen in the state.

On this squelching hot mid-July day, Paul Miller, a wildlife biologist studying the prairie's endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow population, is ferrying the couple into the Kissimmee preserve down a dirt road still flooded after a week of heavy rains. Lyn Atherton, a naturalist from St. Petersburg, sits in the passenger seat. The view on both sides of the road is monotonous, a patch of wiregrass here, an occasional cabbage palm jutting into the air there, and acre upon acre of saw palmetto, a bushy, tight-fisted, and sharp-edged palm that grows in clumps about four feet tall. Saw palmetto is a favored hideout for rattlesnakes, and Buck mentions he saw one as fat as his arm a few months back on this very roadway.

Florida's dry prairie once stretched from Okeechobee County to the Gulf Coast. These 54,000 acres were left undeveloped because the Latt Maxcy Corp. of Frostproof used the land to graze cattle. The company set fires periodically to keep pine and oak scrub from taking root; the wildflowers that sprouted in the newly burned fields made good fodder for the cattle and attracted a plethora of butterflies.

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