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Butterfly Safari

The hunt is great sport for kids of all ages

By Brian M. Collins
Published: April 1, 2005
Photo by Brian M. Collins
“I don’t know what it was, but it was really cool!” The neighbor kids were often excited to see me out with my cameras, but this time they were even more hyped. They had found an incredible butterfly.
“What did it look like?” I asked.
They answered together with a baffling description: “Black and orange and blue and yellow and spotted and big and dotted and black and yellow and striped…”
We went out to find the butterfly. They eagerly led me to the spot. It hadn’t moved from its restful roost, and I congratulated the youngsters as I photographed a magnificent black swallowtail.
As the summer went on, my young friends spent much time afield in search of new butterflies. They described skippers as looking like “rockets just ready to take off.” They pointed out buckeyes and pearl crescents. And they began to make connections about habitats and the importance of the wildflowers in our yards and fields. Those butterflies were starting to have a profound educational impact. Some of the kids even started teaching me how to find various kinds of butterflies!
The great spangled fritillary is one of the well-known, large and attractive butterflies often found in gardens.
Photo by Brian M. Collins
Why butterflies? Building an awareness of butterflies adds a new dimension to the familiar. Every blade of grass, every shrub and every path becomes a world of possibilities. As a family’s awareness of butterflies grows, new avenues are created in which to talk about life, consequences, beauty, ecology, whatever – and, of course, butterflies.
Like stamp collecting or model-building, butterfly watching is an activity a family can do together. A long walk through a favorite field or glade in search of butterflies also provides good exercise and family bonding time.  
Kids love to explore, and butterfly watching is great practice for using binoculars and learning how to observe things in the wild. Kids also enjoy facts. Learning butterfly taxonomy is akin to learning the names of dinosaurs, fighter jets or baseball lineups.

Spring azure. Common along mowed park trails, many people walk right past these butterflies without noticing. These very active butterflies rarely sit still but their vivid blue is stunning even when they are zipping around.
Photo by Brian M. Collins
Know where to look. For the more interested butterfly watchers, identifying trees, shrubs and wildflowers also becomes important. The winged beauties find nectar in the flowers of some plants and lay their eggs on the leaves of others. Believe it or not, many butterfly caterpillars can only survive on one specific type of plant.
The monarch is part of a family of butterflies called the “milkweed butterflies” because of the caterpillars’ reliance on milkweed leaves. Coincidentally, the milkweed flowers offer a luxurious nectar, and the plants attract both monarchs that are feeding and those laying eggs. Karner blue butterflies rely on lupines. Hackberry emperors rely on hackberry trees, and tiger swallowtails seem to like box elder trees.
While particular species of plants are favored for egg laying, adult butterflies are less picky when it comes to mealtime. Anything that is full of nectar will work, though flowers with big landing platforms and easy footing are preferred.
Sulphur butterflies. Two of the buttery yellow insects seem safe and snug in the grasses.
Photo by Brian M. Collins
… And don’t overlook these places. In addition to leafy greens and sweet flowers, butterflies seek other earthly morsels. The angle wing family of butterflies are forest inhabitants and don’t visit nectar. Instead, they take in nutrients from sap wells of honeysuckles, mineral deposits, mud puddles or decaying animals. Some butterflies you would find on carcasses before you would find them in a flower garden.  
Gravel roads with potholes are great places to find butterflies after a rain. There, many species will congregate in large groups, enjoying the wealth of mineral water.
I once found a diverse collection of butterflies on the discarded skin of a freshly filleted walleye. Butterflies also are frequently attracted to human sweat, even sweat left behind on my camera as it sits on a tripod.  

Seeing it for the first time. Once you get into butterfly watching, the yard takes on a new dimension. You never know what you might see or discover. The best butterfly watching is usually from mid-morning to an hour or two before sunset on warm, summer days. Wood lots, marshes, lakesides, pastures, disturbed grassy openings and, of course, gardens are great places to look for butterflies.
A butterfly garden can be a good family project. Many ornamental flowers, wildflowers, flowering vegetable garden plants, berry bushes and shrubs will attract these winged jewels. Purple coneflowers, butterfly milkweeds and butterfly bush are just a few perennials that work well to attract butterflies. But check the plant’s growing zone to ensure that a particular plant is suitable for your area.
Head outside and open your eyes to a world that is very large in small places. Gather the family around, and discover the beauty of butterflies.

Brian and his wife, Cindy, are introducing their 2-year-old son to the tiny beauties of the outdoors. See more of Brian’s nature photography at www.imagesinnaturallight.com.

The various species of comma butterflies are not flower lovers, so you're more likely to find them drinking sap from trees and shrubs, visiting water and mineral licks or darting about in a forest sunbeam.
Photo by Brian M. Collins

What to Bring

If you’re heading out on a butterfly safari, there are certain supplies that will come in handy. Here are a few suggestions. (But don’t feel like you need to bring everything on this list with you – just get outside!)

Binoculars. Pack a 7x35 binocular or 7x50 binocular that can focus up close! It’s fun to look at butterflies through binoculars to take in more of the details.

A good field guide. Peterson Field Guides, Golden Guides and Audubon Field Guides have useful guides for your region, complete with excellent paintings and photographs, range maps and descriptions. While these guides may be very technical, referring to various parts of the wing anatomy, they still work well for those who like to breeze through the pictures too.

A good camera. Butterfly-catching is a popular hobby in some circles, but nets are fast being replaced with cameras. Don’t try to photograph a flying butterfly, but practice a slow, steady stalk when butterflies are nectaring or spreading their wings on leaves and grasses.
An SLR camera or digital SLR with interchangeable lenses works very well for butterfly “collecting.” Though some people purchase expensive macro and telephoto lenses, I like to put a diopter on the end of an inexpensive kit lens such as a Canon 35-80. I use a Nikon 4-T diopter with my kit lenses, producing brilliant and sharp images.

Sunscreen, water and a hat. Sunscreen and a broad-brimmed hat are good precautions. Butterflies are out and about during the peak of sunshine, and following them means braving the ultraviolet. While roaming the open barrens in search of a coral hairstreak, you will probably get very thirsty. Don’t forget to bring water if you are roaming far from the cabin.
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