Summer birding can be somewhat unproductive, but that doesn’t mean you should stay home in front of the air conditioning. So what if the birds are busy nesting and raising young? Birds aren’t the only attraction in the great outdoors.
I recently took part in a field trip led by several naturalists. Among them, they had combined expertise in birds, butterflies, and blooms. What a great combination. When the birds were busy, we turned our binoculars on the colorful butterflies fluttering around us. When the butterflies were scarce, we focused on the drifts of wildflowers along the trail. With so many fascinating subjects to examine, there wasn’t a dull moment to be had.
While I’m not an expert birder (I’m horrible at birding by ear, for example, and I can look straight at a bird that everyone else sees, and totally miss it), I am familiar with most of the birds I’m likely to see on my home turf. Since learning new species is a big part of the fun, I was eager to add some butterflies and wildflowers to my list of acquaintances.
Colorado Blue Columbine (above left), Shooting Stars (left), Indian Paintbrush (above right), and wild roses were already familiar plants. I quickly learned to recognize Bedstraw (Galium), Waxflower (Jamesia) (below right), and an assortment of Penstemons. This was easy—why hadn’t I learned these before? For a brief moment, I had dreams of adding “native plant expert” to my name. Perhaps I was feeling a bit too cocky. Well, the next five species cured me of any delusions of grandeur—they were all yellow daisies. Our experts were soon examining the sepals under the petals, counting rays, and feeling to see if the leaves were sticky or not. My eyes started to glaze over. I thought identifying flycatchers was difficult, but plants with daisy-like yellow flowers made flycatchers look like kindergarten work.
Then I discovered that any names I did manage to memorize were more than likely to be different the next time I went hiking. It seems that the whole science of botanic taxonomy is in an upheaval. After a bit of soul searching, I decided that I didn’t really need to know the species of every plant I found. Perhaps remembering the genera would be good enough.
Identifying wildflowers is quite a challenge, but what about butterflies? They were everywhere, flitting through the air, landing on the blossoms to sip the nectar, or “puddling” on the damp earth in search of water and mineral salts. It would have been nice if they would hold still for a moment while I thumbed my field guide—they reminded me of hyperactive warblers—but surely those brightly colored wings should be easy to recognize.
Hah. It seems that the only way to identify some butterflies is to pin their dead bodies to a board and grab a magnifying glass to count the spots under their wings. Since we had no intention of collecting any of them, we’d have to make do with binoculars and maybe a few photos taken in haste and inspected at leisure.
Still, I made some progress. I know can identify (at least to some degree) most of the plants along my favorite trails. And I know the difference between a blue, a sulphur, and a swallowtail butterfly. Perhaps I’ll eventually be as well-informed as our trip leaders. In the meantime, I got to hike all day among some inspiring scenery, photograph some gorgeous flowers, and get to know some very nice people. And yes, we saw some excellent birds as well.
Butterflies (from top to bottom): Painted Lady, Clouded Sulphur.