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Peninsula butterfly count ‘lets adults be kids again’

The butterfly, no larger than a fingernail, was easy to overlook as it flitted over a low clump of weeds along the path in Rancho Palos Verdes’ Barkentine Canyon.

But naturalist Jess Morton not only saw the tiny flier, he knew what it was even before he skillfully snared it with a flick of his butterfly net.

“It’s a pygmy blue, the smallest of all the North American butterflies,” said Morton, who is president of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Audubon Society.

He carefully removed the tiny insect from the folds of the net so that his hiking companions could look at its delicate bluish-gold wings.

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Morton fielded a flurry of questions: How long does it live, and what does it eat? The answers: It lives only a few days, and it feeds on small flowering plants.

On Saturday, Morton and other butterfly experts will be answering many more questions about a lot more butterflies as the conservation group conducts its annual South Bay butterfly count.

The idea is to spot and record as many different butterfly species as possible in parks, wetlands, hillsides and canyons. None are captured. Everyone--whether knowledgeable about butterflies or not--is welcome.

Walton Wright, the Torrance city naturalist who has been a group leader since the count started nine years ago, said volunteers tend to be novices who don’t know one butterfly from another when the day begins.

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“It lets adults be kids again,” he said. “When you’re an adult, people don’t expect you to walk around with a butterfly net in your hand and run over fields. This gives you a reason to do it.”

Said Shirley Borks, an Audubon Society member who has been on several counts: “You struggle around in the wilderness and have a fun time as well. When you finally do identify a butterfly, you’re excited.”

Participants Saturday will meet at Rolling Hills Estates City Hall, where they will be divided into groups to tramp through such areas as South Coast Botanic Garden on Crenshaw Boulevard, Malaga Cove and Bluff Cove in Palos Verdes Estates, rustic canyons in Rolling Hills and Rancho Palos Verdes, Madrona Marsh in Torrance and Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City.

Not everybody sticks it out all day, but for those who do, there will be a picnic and count tally at 5:30 p.m. at Hesse Park, 29301 Hawthorne Blvd., Rancho Palos Verdes.

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While there is a scientific purpose to the event--the count becomes part of a nationwide study of the abundance and diversity of butterflies by the conservationist Xerces Society--Morton and others say the main purpose is to educate people about the natural world around them.

“We point out what you would see in front of you if you knew what it was all along,” said Morton, who operates a tax service and became an avocational naturalist in the 1970s out of curiosity about the San Pedro canyon he lived in. “An expert is only someone with a developed eye.”

Wright said spotting a particular butterfly opens up an entire environment: “When you look at them, you also look at what food plants the animals live on, and the particular plant the adults lay their eggs on. As you look at butterflies, you note their activity. Essentially, we talk about the ecology of butterflies.”

According to Morton, the peninsula in particular is a rich area for butterflies because of its open, undeveloped areas. Last year, 30 different species were spotted there--ranging from several categories of the tiny blues to the spectacular gulf fritillary, which is orange with silver spots.

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People who go on the count should wear hiking shoes and hats for sun protection, and bring water and a snack. The groups caravan by car from one location to another, so there are opportunities to stop for lunch.

Morton is expecting clear weather Saturday, but the peninsula overcast has played havoc with past counts. Said Borks: “One year it was foggy, and butterflies don’t come out unless it’s sunny.”

But Morton said that even when butterflies are scarce, the count provides a good day in the outdoors: “There are bees, birds and plants, always something going on.”

-- Gerald Faris

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What: Palos Verdes Peninsula Audubon Society Butterfly Count.

When: Saturday, 8:30 a.m.

Where: Rolling Hills Estates City Hall parking lot, 4045 Palos Verdes Drive North at Crenshaw Boulevard, Rolling Hills Estates.

Admission: Free.

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Information: 833-4242.


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