To be a butterfly……

26 Jan

I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man? – Zhuangzi

Over the last four years while volunteering at the national wildlife refuges around the country, the two animals that have captured me, and for which I have devoted most of my time, are birds and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). They chose and adopted me, not I them. And we have developed an interesting relationship.

My academic career before retiring was focused on plants, their ecology and pathology, and later, pathopysiology and molecular cell biology. My last ten years was spent in a university academic ‘high tower’ in Dallas, Texas. The typical routine of 14-16 hours of my day in labs and offices, trains and traffic, slowly sucked the life out of me.

I missed the field, the dirt, sweat, the odors of wet soil and plants, and the sounds of all creatures other than Homo sapiens. They were part of my spirit and soul and I was tired of doing time in “the machines”. So I left it all behind.

My contribution to the refuges has involved assisting with the biology programs: bird surveys, banding birds, developing and implementing habitat surveys and management programs, training interns, assisting with outreach education programs, and other tasks that help fill in gaps in each refuge’s biology needs.

During one of my early commitments at a refuge, a butterfly flew by me one late morning. Large red and black wings flapped three times and then glided to alight on my arm. While looking at it, a smile formed on my face, and the butterfly stayed on my arm, slowly folding and unfolding its wings. Although possibly only 30 seconds, it seemed much longer as we both had a conversation inside and between our realities. That was my first intimate monarch butterfly encounter.

Several people have participated in forming my relationship with these animals. Especially a contract lepidopterist that conducts butterfly and moth surveys all over the Pacific Northwest. I still remember well our too-short and too-few excursions in the field sharing our observations and stories of butterflies, and life in general.

Another individual that also contributed at the beginning was a refuge anthropologist. Her excitement over my discovery of a relatively large population of breeding monarchs on the refuge initiated a survey documenting not only presence but also at least two generations of breeding monarchs on the refuge. After the initial disbelief by other staff that monarchs actually ooccupied and used the breeding resources (also said to be of rare presence) on the refuge, she and I provided documentation of presence, resource use and habitat value. That database was circulated to regional resources for future use.

Since then, my commitment at every refuge I have worked at has involved butterflies, especially monarchs. Last summer that expanded to a two-month moth survey in collaboration with lepidopterists at Oregon State University, and the friend and colleague mentioned previously.

Recruiting other volunteers to assist in sorting and identification of the moths was a greater success than I ever anticipated. The weekly sessions, sometimes lasting three to four hours, were eagerly attended. They regretted that the survey ended in late September. The moth samples are now in the hands (literally) of the expert lepidopterists in Oregon for authoritative identifucation and documentation.

Now at a refuge in Texas, I am netting butterflies again.

Several refuge staff, volunteers, and acquaintances have over the past years urged me to write posts about working with birds and butterflies. I shrugged that off because of the plethora of  websites about both on the Internet. Two monarch researchers that I collaborated with also suggested writing and posting observations on monarch natural history, ecology, and critiques of published literature.

A friend and professional writer finally pushed me to follow that through. And this is the first post in that series.

Stay tuned for additional posts.



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