Butterflies

 

(This column was first published in the June 30, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)

 

Too late to make my summer reading list came a delightful little book entitled An Obsession with Butterflies by Sharman Apt Russell (Perseus). Ms. Russell's writing I find extraordinary.

 

Here is just one passage: "The appearance of caterpillars varies enormously. It's Halloween night, and a costume ball. In different species, the skin that encloses the stomach may be smooth or bumpy, covered with hairs or spines, erupting in filaments or horns.... A few seem to be preparing for Mardi Gras with an array of appendages like a headdress of balloons.

 

"The design can be as gaudy as a finger painting or as sophisticated as an Escher print.

 

"The Cabbage White is a minimalist, bluish green with a simple yellow line. A Buckeye is bristly and black with two rows of orange spots and two of creamy yellow; the back spines have blue bases; the side spines have orange. The American Painted Lady has been described as a 'truly beautiful caterpillar' with yellow-green stripes and red and white spots on black bands. Decorating a daisy, the Lady retreats into her nest of silk like a starlet firmly shutting the door."

 

The book arrived at a good time because this Saturday, July 5, is the date of the eleventh annual Western Niagara County Butterfly Count. On that day nine teams of local observers will take the field to participate with thousands of similar teams in the North American Butterfly Association annual survey of these delicate fliers.

 

Despite that competition, the local count occasionally leads the continent in numbers for a few species.

 

I reviewed the records for the first decade to see which were most common of the over 55 species seen. Here are the top ten with their average annual count numbers: cabbage butterfly 1416, common wood nymph 1068, European skipper 944, pearl crescent 609, clouded sulphur 279, little wood satyr 57, alfalfa butterfly 54, monarch 35, black swallowtail 30, and Eastern tailed blue 26.

 

In one way that list is misleading because it represents only early July. Species mature at different times. For example, mourning cloaks and tiger swallowtails might even have topped that list earlier in the year. Still the massed data gives us information about annual changes.

 

And changes there are. Nationally some grassland butterflies are threatened by loss of habitat as our countryside is increasingly converted to home and playground lawns.

 

As one response to this problem, David Cooper, the leader of this butterfly count, has worked with colleagues to set aside the Lewiston Plateau Grassland, which may be visited from the end of Portage Road next to the upper ArtPark entrance. Formerly a pile of tailings from construction of the Niagara Power Project, it is now being developed into a wildland with native plants restored.

 

Restoration is not without its problems, however. One of them is competition with that misleadingly attractive alien, purple loosestrife. David and his crew are fighting back. I joined them and biologist Denise Appleby at Iroquois National Wildlife Reserve collecting golden loosestrife beetles to be released on the Lewiston sanctuary. We did this by sucking the little insects into glass tubes called aspirators, using care to prevent those already captured from finding their way into our mouths and adding their protein to our diet. Those insects have been released in the Lewiston Grassland where they are now patiently gobbling up loosestrife leaves to restore the natural balance between this plant and its environment.

 

Anyone interested in joining Saturday's butterfly count, which will welcome children as well as adults, should contact Dr. Cooper at 284-4118.-- Gerry Rising