For decades, birders have grabbed their binoculars at Christmastime and joined in the National Au dubon Society's annual Christmas bird count.
This is the 20th anniversary of another census of beautiful flyers--the annual Fourth of July butterfly count.
Sponsored this year by the recently formed North American Butterfly Assn., based in Morristown, N.J., the census will tally both the species and individuals found at each of more than 200 sites across the country. Modeled on the venerable bird count, participants will take note of every butterfly within a designated area 15 miles in diameter.
The counts, which numbered 211 last year in 40 states, four Canadian provinces and a site in Mexico, will be held during 24-hour periods between June 11 and July 24.
Local residents who want to test their skill at spotting swallowtails and painted ladies can participate in any of several upcoming tallies. A group will meet Saturday in the Mount Baden-Powell area in the San Gabriel Mountains (the mountain is the tallest in Los Angeles County). The closest count for most San Fernando Valley residents will be July 9 in the Santa Ynez Canyon area of the Santa Monica Mountains. And there also will be a census July 23 on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, home of the recently rediscovered Palos Verdes blue butterfly.
According to Paul Opler, Colorado-based coordinator of this year's Fourth of July tally, interest in butterflies is booming. Last year more than 1,650 people turned out for the national survey, and the number of individual counts is increasing 10% to 20% a year. Moreover, the program is attracting a whole new breed of butterfly enthusiast. Unlike the lepidopterists of yore, who went into the field with a net and a jar of formaldehyde, today's butterfly fanciers like to study their subjects through close-focus binoculars and capture the creatures, if at all, on film before they flutter away.
The change is much like the one that transformed the study of birds almost 60 years ago, from a pure science based largely on the study of dead animals to a popular pastime involving the observation of live animals in the wild. Opler reports: "Roger Tory Petersen, who's the guru of bird-watching, told me butterfly watching is at the stage bird-watching was when his first field guide was published in the 1930s."
Birders are among the most gung ho of the new butterfly people. Kimball Garrett is collections manager in the ornithology department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. A distinguished bird guy, Garrett is in the habit of observing butterflies about 10 in the morning, when the birds that are his first love tend to seek shade and a low profile. Garrett, a tactful bird enthusiast, doesn't want lepidopterists to think he is observing butterflies simply because birds are nowhere to be found in the hottest part of the day. "I wouldn't say it's a conversion, so much as an expansion," he says of his born-again interest in butterflies.
There are reasons why bird people are becoming butterfly people. As Julian Donahue, the emeritus curator of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) at the Museum of Natural History explains, summer is the slack time for local bird-watchers. The major migrants have moved on, and the birders are left behind with their skills and their often-pricey equipment. Most birders have honed their ability to identify creatures in the wild by field marks--coloration, behavior, calls and other clues that living animals provide.
Longtime birder Fred Heath, who will lead the Mount Baden-Powell group Saturday, says butterflies are a natural extension of his interest in birds. "It's something to do when the birds become quiet and it's a related skill," he says. One of the things that drew him to butterflies is that they tend to stay in the area where they are born. "You become aware of the relationship with the habitat," he says. Good butterfly observers learn such things as the plants that particular butterfly larvae need to survive. The larvae of the endangered Palos Verdes blue butterfly, for instance, feed on rattle weed--if the plant disappears, so do the butterflies.
According to Jess Morton, coordinator of the Palos Verdes Peninsula count, education is the primary goal. As Morton points out, there are typically more human participants in the peninsula census than there are butterfly species. That's great, as far as Morton is concerned. The count, which has taken place on the peninsula since 1981, has dramatically increased scientific knowledge about the behavior and other relevant information about local butterflies, he says. "As a friend of mine says, we know more about what's on the surface of the moon than what's in an empty lot next door."
Walter Takai, a professor of biology at Santa Monica College who will lead the Santa Ynez Canyon foray, doesn't want to overstate the interest in butterflies. "It's never been like the Christmas bird count," he says. Last year, six mavens grabbed their binoculars. "This year, we might reach double digits." Maybe.
WHERE TO GO
What: Annual butterfly count.
Location: Mount Baden-Powell area in the San Gabriel Mountains, Saturday; Santa Ynez Canyon area of Santa Monica Mountains, July 9; and Palos Verdes Peninsula, July 23.
Call: Fred Heath (310) 826-0083 for Mount Baden-Powell; Walter Sakai, (310) 450-5150, Ext. 9702, Santa Ynez Canyon; or Jess Morton (310) 832-5601, Palos Verdes Peninsula.