“Swoosh!” My net lay still, a colorful quarry perhaps captured after a brief sprint along the trail. Admittedly I’m more excited than you would think. It’s not every day that you catch something new. I don’t think people know that most butterflies get away. The large and sun-warmed individuals are highly motivated and will easy outpace you even into a headwind. I have carried a net for miles and caught nothing but mosquitos. But this time it’s a lustrous copper (Lycaena cupreus) that sports bright orange wings covered in dark black spots. Best of all, I have never caught one before.
This is the part of the story where you think I would wax poetic about chasing butterflies as a kid, but the truth is my professional and personal interest in butterflies didn’t start until my colleagues at the Washington Fish and Wildlife Office introduced me.
Butterfly catching is for everyone. It turns every hike or picnic into a scavenger hunt. In an alpine meadow or even a brushy field on the eastern slope of the Cascades you never know what you might find. Visit the same place four months later and you might find an entirely different crew of butterflies. Some fly in spring and some fly in late summer. Some could be “on the wing” all year round because they spend the winter as adults resting in the crevices of trees and houses! Wherever you decide to go looking, bring a lunch. Butterflies may be small game but are decidedly not delicious.
Butterfly catching is a cheap sport, and you can take it as seriously as you want (or not). A net and a field guide can be purchased for less than 50 bucks. Butterfly nets come in different shapes and sizes and none cost a pretty penny. I use a collapsible net that is easier to backpack with. Unless you have the reflexes of Jackie Chan, a long handle is a good idea, too.
There are two endangered butterflies in Washington State, and we like to talk about them a lot (See our web pages on Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly and island marble butterfly). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Washington Fish and Wildlife Office has been involved in butterfly conservation for a few decades. But most people don’t know that 202 butterfly species can be found in Washington and Oregon. Little ones, big ones, spanning just about every color you can think of. Butterflies in Washington and Oregon are sorted in six families, and many of them don’t take any special skills to identify. For example, this is a “mud puddle club” of pale tiger swallowtails and western tiger swallowtails.
The pale wings, large size and striped wings are unmistakable for anything else. You don’t even have to chase it with net! The western tiger swallowtail (the yellow butterflies in the picture) has a few look-alikes, but only in some portions of the range. If you are butterfly catching in Olympia when you see this one, you know it is very unlikely to be a two-tailed tiger swallowtail or an Oregon swallowtail. Trust me, this isn’t as hard as you think. Lorquin’s admiral is another great example of an easy-to-identify butterfly.
Wherever you’re going, make sure you know which butterflies you should probably let be. A good guidebook will let you know what’s rare and what’s common. This mug shot might look like the federally endangered Taylor’s checkerspot, but it is actually a closely related subspecies (E. e. colonia) that is common in the Cascades.
Butterfly photography is great, but some people want to take their small game home. I don’t collect the butterflies I catch. Butterfly collecting, though, can contribute greatly to our understanding of these species, and collectors have no chance of impacting the abundance of common species.
If you are nervous to get started on your own, find a local butterfly group that leads occasional field trips. Experts can help you discover where to looks and tricks for telling some groups of butterflies apart. This wild-looking pink-edged sulpher you might assume is unique, but in reality is difficult to pick out of a lineup of other sulphers.
There are only a few more things to know before you start. First, catching butterflies is not allowed in national parks. Not even catch and release. You can sign up for the National Park Service’s Cascade Butterfly Project citizen science program to monitor butterflies in the parks. Second, butterflies should not be moved from where you caught them, and definitely not released outside of their natural range. Butterflies carry diseases and may inappropriately hybridize or compete with closely related species.
The first step in conserving butterflies is to notice them. Where they are, where they aren’t and what they’re doing. Scientists and enthusiasts can contribute to butterfly conservation by recording what they see and pointing it out to those around them. So grab a net and notebook, and happy hunting.