By Robert Krier
A mourning cloak changed my life. That and a pandemic.
One day early this summer, I was puttering around the yard, something I’ve done a lot in this strange year when COVID-19, a quarantine and the beginning of retirement converged. I had all the time in the world, and not always much to do with it.
The fluttering of small, black wings caught my eye that late afternoon. I followed them. They landed on a patio chair.
I got out my iPhone, hoping for a pic before the butterfly quickly flitted off to a flower.
It sat there for a good three minutes, letting me get ever closer. Soon I was within a few inches. It opened its wings wide and showed off an amazingly intricate pattern.
The inside of the wings was mainly black, but there were two small patches of white on each side near the top. The bottom was edged in creamy white, with a few flecks of black mixed in. And above that line were delicate dabs of blue, looking like they’d been applied with a paintbrush.
Then it closed its wings and willingly held that pose for another minute. It was less flamboyant on the outside, but it still had a dark, stark beauty. It was exquisite.
I later compared my iPhone images with butterfly guides I found online, and mourning cloak was a perfect match, both in appearance and name.
Those few minutes were both an awakening and an embarrassment. I’m sure I’d seen these black beauties before, but I’d never bothered to look at them closely. Have mini masterpieces of nature been floating in front of me my entire life? And if so, why have I been ignoring them?
Soon every flash and flutter and shadow had me straining my neck and reaching for my iPhone. The limitations imposed by the pandemic had opened up a new world.
Unfortunately, not many winged models are nearly as acquiescent and patient as that posing mourning cloak. It hasn’t been for lack of searching.
I’ve become a tiny-game hunter. I’ve discovered that little roving Rembrandts, momentary Monets, passing Picassos and rapidly vanishing van Goghs are all over the place, and it doesn’t take too much effort to get a good look at ’em.
A week or so after the mourning cloak modeled for me, I looked out the stairway window and saw sunlight catching the wings of a swarm of tiny, dime-sized butterflies darting around a fairy duster bush in our backyard. These little critters, light blue on the inside, would not sit still for long, but I did manage to catch a couple of them as they settled on the red, brushlike blossoms.
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The pattern on the outside of the wings was more intricate than the mourning cloak, although not as colorful. These little guys had alternating, wavy, gray and white stripes, with a couple of black dots near the bottom of the wings. When the sun caught them just right, the outside edges of the wings had a white, almost eerie, glow.
It took awhile, but I found them in the butterfly guides. Nailing down the name was almost as fun as finding the butterfly. At first I thought they were white-spotted hairstreaks, which look very similar. But it turns out they were actually marine blues.
My entomological education and leap into lepidopterology had begun.
After that, I was hooked. Every stroll down to the garden, every trip to the trash cans was diverted by flutters. In one 90-minute span, I saw eight kinds of butterflies, just in one small area of the yard. All of them, on close inspection later, were marvels.
There were common buckeyes, with their eight, uncommon, beautiful spots that look like eyes. There were giant swallowtails, the biggest butterflies in North America, with equally amazing but different patterns and colors on the inside and outside of the wings.
There were cabbage whites, white-checkered whites, pale swallowtails, sulphurs, skippers and painted ladies. Each one, when I got a close-up, looked like it belonged in a museum.
Many of the beauties I spotted and looked up had captivating names, like the funereal duskywing, Lorquin’s admiral and gulf fritillary.
Within a few weeks, on hikes or just walking around the neighborhood, I had identified and photographed (all with my phone) 17 species of butterflies and had seen six or seven more I got only a brief glimpse of.
Just scratching surface
David Faulkner has been identifying butterflies since the year before I was born. His first was a red admiral, which he collected in Long Beach in 1955 when he was 5 years old.
“My mom made a net out of pantyhose for me, and I caught it,” he said.
Two years later, at age 7, Faulkner met two men who set him on his life path: John Comstock and Charles Harbison, renowned entomologists who worked at the Los Angeles and San Diego Natural History museums, respectively. Faulkner caught the bug of catching bugs from them. Soon he was displaying his insect collections at the San Diego County Fair.
As he grew, so did his fascination with bugs. He majored in biology at UC Santa Barbara, then earned a master’s degree in taxonomy, or the classification of insects, from Cal State Long Beach. By 1975, he had followed in the footsteps of mentor Harbison and became chairman of the San Diego museum’s entomology department.
Faulkner is well known among lepidopterists (people who study or collect butterflies or moths). He has discovered 10 species of butterflies, co-written a book about the butterflies of Baja California and contributed to many other books and research papers.
He is better known for his decades of work with a much smaller group of bug specialists: forensic entomologists, people who examine the insects found on dead bodies to help determine the time and place of death. He’s handled nearly 500 death cases, some overseas, many of them high-profile. He’s also worked to help set the standards for the science.
But Faulkner, still a research associate in the San Diego museum’s entomology department, probably knows the bugs and butterflies of San Diego County — where his family moved when he was 5 — as well as anyone. He lives in Encinitas and has been in the county almost all of his post-college life.
The 20-some species I’ve seen this summer? They’re barely a drop in the bucket.
Faulkner said an estimated 123 resident species exist in the county, with an additional 30 that are rare or strays. Even in urban areas of the county, a casual butterfly hunter could potentially see around 34 species over the course of a year, he said.
Spotting the specimens
When and where to find those dozens of species? In general, the best hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Many will come to any yard with flowers, but the odds of seeing some varieties, called “hilltoppers,” are better if you seek out a local high point.
It helps to know a little bit about what plants are in your area. Most species have specific vegetation they feed on and lay their eggs on, and they never stray from them. Some are pickier than others.
The very common gray hairstreak has a huge advantage, because it feeds on more than 200 species of plants. The giant swallowtail seems to prefer citrus for laying its eggs. And the caterpillars of the endangered Laguna Mountain skipper, seen just on Palomar Mountain, feed only on a plant called Cleveland’s horkelia, in mountain meadows roughly 4,000 to 6,000 feet high.
Also important is knowing when the butterflies are likely to have broods. Some species have multiple broods a year, some just two, and some only one. If you want to observe the Indra pergamus swallowtail, your only chance will be in May and June, and only in the Laguna Mountains. The dwindling and endangered Quino checkerspot, found in the coastal sage scrub, can also only be seen in the spring.
The butterfly world is not static. Some years are better for some species than others, depending on rainfall and weather patterns. Millions of painted ladies drifted through San Diego in 2019, thanks to well-timed and copious rain in the desert, where they hatch.
The long-term picture is changing, too.
“We’re getting new species established in California that weren’t considered residents 40 or 50 years ago,” Faulkner said. The yellow sulphur, which is hard to photograph because it rarely seems to land, is probably tropical in origin. It used to be rare in the county, but now it is everywhere.
Conversely, there are species Faulkner saw frequently as a kid in North County that are extremely rare now.
“You used to be able to catch a thing called the long-tailed skipper. It was a great find,” Faulkner said. The skippers liked the lima bean fields that German farmers tended in the Olivenhain area. When the farms disappeared, so did the long-tailed skippers.
“The last 20 years of being out in the field, I hadn’t seen one,” he said. “This year I was doing some survey work on Palomar Mountain, and I found one. It was pretty exciting to me.”
Urban residents don’t have to head to the mountains. With a little effort and expense, it’s possible to draw winged wonders to you. It’s a matter of finding and planting the right host vegetation.
Normandie Wilson, who lives with her husband, David, in University City, is committed to creating a welcoming environment for butterflies, especially monarchs. Much of her third-of-an-acre yard is devoted to flowers and bushes that entice butterflies.
“When you have these plants in your yard, you can see we’re not just living in a city — we’re living in an ecosystem,” she said. “I feel we have to do whatever we can.”
Wilson — who has recently started a cut-flower business but has worked as a musician, private chef, baker and caterer — has established a sort of “caterpillar foster program.” People from around her neighborhood bring her caterpillars, and she gives them a home, sometimes in butterfly cages that prevent parasitic flies from laying eggs on them.
She plants narrow-leaf milkweed, not the non-native, tropical milkweeds common in many home-improvement stores. Monarchs love the tropical variety but it can also promote another parasite that can be deadly to monarchs.
Her monarch obsession began in childhood in West Virginia.
“My mom would take us out looking for caterpillars,” she said. “One time we found a monarch butterfly caterpillar. Only one time.”
They took the caterpillar home, and her mom built a cage out of a milk carton. They watched the chrysalis for weeks. When it turned clear, signaling the monarch would soon emerge, the family was about to go on a trip to Indiana.
“We took the milk jug with us,” she said, “The butterfly hatched in the car. I remember releasing it in some town. It was a huge moment in my childhood.”
Years later, after settling in San Diego, she saw many monarch caterpillars in Balboa Park. Shortly after that, her love for monarchs and other butterflies merged with her passion for promoting urban agriculture.
“I always looked at flowers as a waste of space. But I had an awakening,” Wilson, 38, said. “Now I see flowers as part of this ecosystem. We can learn a lot from what’s happening in the yard.”
It’s not just the native milkweed for the monarchs, which she encourages neighbors to grow. It’s the fennel that attracts the anise swallowtail, the passion vines favored by the gulf fritillaries.
And it’s the willows, Chinese elms, cottonwoods and mulberries that draw the egg-laying mourning cloak, the beautiful, black butterfly that paused and posed in my yard and launched an obsession.
Bonus: Fanatics fly here
Entomologist David Faulkner recommends two books to anyone hoping to learn about local butterflies:
- “Butterflies of San Diego County” by Kojiro Shiraiwa. Faulkner calls this the “New Testament” of butterfly books, with excellent photos for identification.
- “Butterflies of Southern California: A Guide to Common Notable Species” by Jim Brock is full of details about butterflies.
There are many butterfly identification apps. I have used “Leps” by Fieldguide, and that has worked well. Audubon also has a butterfly app.
People who really want to dive in deep can join the Lepidopterist Society. The society unites amateurs and professionals interested in butterflies.
Robert Krier, formerly weather writer and editor for The San Diego Union-Tribune, now tweets about local weather at @eyesonSDskies.