Group pegs butterflies as cream of the state’s wildlife crop

A male Blue Copper butterfly, seen at Turnbull Wildlife Refuge.  Copyright John Baumann
 (John Baumann)
A male Blue Copper butterfly, seen at Turnbull Wildlife Refuge. Copyright John Baumann (John Baumann)

Swallowtails, fritillaries and checkerspots aren’t just a passing fancy to members of the Washington Butterfly Association.

Cheerfully describing themselves as “birders gone bad,” they plan forays to spot species and grow their life lists.

About 700-some butterfly species have been identified in North America. The group encourages people to provide butterfly habitat in their yards.

“It relates a lot to conservation,” said John Baumann, a WBA member in Spokane. “Butterfly species in a lot of areas are in decline. Not much attention is paid to it in our niche of the state.”

Up to 91 species have been documented in Spokane County and 158 in Washington, with a few fading away while a few new species appear to be moving in from southern ranges, he said.

The lifespan of some butterflies can be as short as two weeks. A few species, such as the mourning cloak, might survive up to 10 months by hibernating through winter and re-emerging in the spring. A sort of antifreeze keeps their body fluids thawed.

However, most butterflies are in the egg, larvae or pupae stages this time of year.

Although the recent cool weather has delayed butterfly watching, Baumann and his wife, Brenda McCracken, spotted a pair of tortoiseshell butterflies – their first of the year – in February south of Cheney.

“Many butterfly species overwinter as adults in nooks of tree bark, in the cracks of rocks or maybe in your garage,” he said. “We found these on a rocky cliff warmed by the sun. We aren’t likely to see many more until temperatures get above 60 degrees.”

  Baumann and McCracken, a biology teacher, have undertaken butterfly projects that have loosed them in the non-public areas of Turnbull Wildlife Refuge to survey species and track evidence of local monarch butterflies on the milkweeds.

People who don’t want to actively seek butterflies can lure them into their yards.

“Gardening for butterflies is something positive that virtually anybody can do,” Baumann said, noting there are many pleasant side effects.

“The flowers are beautiful,” he said. “And we’ve found that larkspurs and their relative flowers are good at drawing both swallowtail butterflies and hummingbirds.”

Major issues facing these delightful splashes of color are habitat loss and climate change, said Baumann, who’s working with others to drum up a local Washington Butterfly Association chapter.

He and Washington State University Extension staffers are planning several educational activities, such as:

• Slide program about the butterfly life cycle and gardening for butterflies, April 14 at the Spokane County Extension office. Program features Idie Ulsh, a nature photographer and WBA founder.

• Butterfly field trip in May.

• Washington Butterfly Association annual conference, July 15-17, based out of Newport.

“Washington is a bit of a hot spot for butterfly information,” Baumann said. “The association includes more than its share of experts, including published authors and scholars in entomology, like Robert Michael Pyle, and a whole lot of naturalist types.

“The conference, which is held in a different area of the state each year, is a great opportunity to tap their expertise and join in field trips.” 

More info: Washington Butterfly Association, naba.org/chapters/nabaws/.

Contact: John Baumann about a local field trip, (509) 868-1608, email baumann.jp56@gmail.com.

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