In American major league baseball, the group of players who have hit 600 or more career home runs is an elite and very small group. Just nine players have reached that mark in the history of the sport (or eight if you nix Barry Bonds for his use of performance drugs). If you are or have been a sports fan, you know that "stats" are a big thing in that world. This week, I too reached a career milestone of 600, in the arena of butterfly watching, a milestone that I would not have even noticed if I wasn't such geeky lover of stats and data.
Like a professional sports statistician, I log each and every butterfly site visit I make, with weather notes, site notes, species list, and in the past couple of years, the number of individuals of each species I see. It's a citizen-science style effort, and over the years I have shared my data with various government agencies, non-profits, and interested individuals. A few years ago, much to my surprise, the Forest Service thanked me on an interpretive sign at Box Canyon Meadows in Lane County, simply because I shared some of my data and observations from the meadows with them. A few years back, a friend of mine was hiking there on a summer day, and sent me a message on Facebook asking about the sign. I wrote back "what sign?" The following summer when I was in the area, I went to check out the sign. I'll admit that I was pleased that they spelled my name correctly (that's rare!) and thought it was awfully nice to give that recognition (lower right corner) to me and other contributors.
As a bonafide data geek, I find it fun to collect and tinker with information to see what I can learn from it, how I can use it to get better at what I like to do, and how to organize the data so I can efficiently share it with individuals and organizations that are engaged in education or conservation work based on site data. There have been other inspirations, too. Back in 2006, I had begun writing a book on the key butterfly habitats of Oregon with my friend and talented environmental journalist Meera Subramanian. We had a publisher on board, and had submitted several draft chapters. Unfortunately, just at that moment, the little publishing company we were working with got bought out by a large publishing house, and the new owners nixed the project. With or without the excuse of writing a book, I stayed the course, and steadily kept on collecting and organizing data on my observations, just because it is enjoyable to me.
As a result of my geeky data collection, I know that over the years I have:
Recorded 7, 537 Oregon butterfly sightings
Explored and documented 316 butterfly sites in 30 Oregon counties
Recorded sightings of 160 butterfly species in Oregon
Recorded 30 or more species on one day in one site 23 times
Recorded 6 Oregon county records
Recorded 40 or more species on one day in one site 1 time
And, as of this week, made 601 site visits.
Site visit #600 was a visit to Marys Peak in Benton County last week, where I stopped at Parker Creek Falls hoping to find and photograph an Oreas Comma (Polygonia oreas). Instead of Oreas, I found bright, fresh Satyr Commas by the waterfall. It was a good opportunity to experiment with using flash to enhance the sharpness and clarity of the images. The results made me want to continue to experiment with using flash:
Earlier that day, I had stopped at Plunkett Creek, on the Kings Valley Highway north of Wren, also in pursuit of Oreas Commas. There were very few butterflies flying there that morning, and no sign of any commas, so I only stayed about an hour, during which I saw a total of 17 butterflies altogether. A paltry number for late July!
After photographing commas at Parker Creek Falls, I had a hunch that I should go back to Plunkett Creek for the late afternoon light. Andy Warren had told me some years ago that Plunkett Creek was a good site for Oreas Comma in late July, and last year I took a trip up there to look. I spent several hours there on the shady trails along the creek, and in the mid-afternoon, an Oreas Comma finally showed up. It was in a little patch of sun poking through the forest canopy next to the creek, which is typically a good place to look for commas. I slowly walked over towards it. As I got near, it suddenly flew a fast circle around me, and promptly landed on my hand! Apparently I was sweaty enough to have an enticing odor and/or taste. It was a lovely, up-close and personal encounter with a brand-spanking fresh Oreas. The only problem for me was that it had landed on my right hand, which was holding my camera, so I couldn't easily attempt a photo. Not surprisingly, when I tried to encourage the little guy to move to my left hand for a photo, it flew off, not to be seen again. Doh!
The Oreas Comma found in this area is of the subspecies silenus, which can be a stunning almost jet-black underneath, and I have been keen on getting a photo of one! So when I returned to Plunkett Creek that afternoon last week, I was especially watching for commas flying in the sunny patches in the forest along the stream. Eventually I did see one--it was in a really tough place to reach, in a ravine below me, on the other side of a tangle of blackberry vines, and I quickly scared it off by trying to get down there. There is just no way to smoothly and gracefully move directly through a blackberry thicket!
Twenty minutes later, on the other side of the stream corridor, I saw two commas swirling in flight in a patch of bright sun, each trying to chase the other off. A couple minutes later, I saw one of them land--a Satyr Comma now perched on a Stinging Nettle plant just out of the sun. I took a so-so photo of it just to record it and to check my camera settings. Then I stood and hoped for the other one to return.
Yes! It was an Oreas, and it landed not far from me, near the edge of the clearing. The only trouble was that to get close to it, I would have to immerse myself up to my head in Stinging Nettles!
Which is exactly what I did! The adrenalin of seeing such a fresh P. o. silenus land near me helped me ignore the stinging on my hands, neck and face. I persisted with shot after shot until I was satisfied that I had some that were clear and sharp. Only when I finally backed out of that tangle did I really notice the sharp stinging of the nettles. It brought to memory a hike several years back with my friend Peg, during which we deliberately "shook hands" with some nettle leaves so we could time how long the stinging would last. As I recall, it lasted about 30 minutes, which my recent Oreas adventure confirmed. It is always fun to actually find and get decent photos of the butterfly I am after, and the nettles made this one memorable. A few days after I got home, a poison oak rash showed up on my forearm, so apparently it wasn't a pure stand of nettles!
The Oreas individual I photographed is somewhat atypical in that the flattened "v" on the underside of the hindwing is rounded at the bottom making it look a lot like a backwards Nike "swoosh," instead of the more typical pointed-bottom "gull in flight" mark.
As I reviewed my photos and sighting lists back home, and reflected on my 601 site visits, I wondered how many other butterfliers in Oregon have exceeded that number and what the number really means to me. I'm sure the great Oregon collectors and lepidopterists like Ernst Dornfeld, Harold Rice, Andy Warren, John Hinchliff, Dana Ross and others have made many hundreds of site visits. I concluded that mostly I am grateful that I've been able to make some modest contributions to educating folks about Oregon butterflies, some small contributions to our collective knowledge of Oregon butterflies, and that I've been able to enjoy this butterfly chasing game for more than 20 years. For me, that's a home run!
Plunkett Creek List:
Parker Creek Falls List: