Flitting around with nets


You can have great fun and make big bucks working on a scientific project Saturday — and you don’t have to be a scientist to do it.

Sound too good to be true?

Well, the part about the big bucks isn’t true at all. You get no money. But you get a light snack, bottled water and a few hours in the glorious outdoors, and you actually do help in some light scientific work. And it costs nothing.

The work could hardly be lighter — it’s counting butterflies at Cooper Mountain in Washington County and Clear Creek near the Clackamas River.

Project sponsors are Metro Regional Parks and Greenspaces and the Xerces Society, an organization working to preserve butterfly habitat and promote understanding of the attractive insects. The group is named for the Xerces Blue, lamentably famous for being the first butterfly observed and recorded to go extinct due to human-caused habitat destruction.

“It was in San Francisco in 1942,” said Mace Vaughan, staff entomologist (bug maven) for the Xerces Society. “The city kept growing and gradually overwhelmed the butterfly’s habitat.”

The project, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, uses volunteers who will be given charts of what to look for and nets to capture specimens, which are soon released.

“And they are never touched by human hands,” said Mary West, Metro Volunteer Service co-manager. “It’s important to see these beautiful creatures up close, and it’s just as important to do them no harm.”

Scores of butterfly species have probably disappeared locally before they could even be identified.

“Two hundred years ago there were accounts of swarms of butterflies, thousands of them,” Vaughan said. “Now you almost have to leave the city to find them.”

This summer only, of course, you can also visit the Oregon Zoo exhibit offering the chance to see butterflies you’ve never seen before, or probably even heard of.

Of course, that could also be true of the butterfly count.

“The laminated chart you get has about 36 species on it,” West said. “Volunteers will be broken into groups, each with a trained leader who knows a lot about butterflies and will show how to use the net. Last year’s counters saw seven species.”

You may see monarchs, one of the most easily identified of all butterflies, but also easily confused with two others, the Anise Swallowtail and the Tiger Swallowtail.

You may also see the Oregon Swallowtail, Papilio oregonius, the official state insect. Oregon is home to about 200 butterfly species and subspecies but many live in their own tiny regions. Many subsist on just one plant type.

“Monarchs specialize in milkweed, and you find almost none in cities or suburbs,” Vaughan said.

Team leaders can also tell you what to plant in your yard to attract butterflies. Most butterflies are narrowly specialized in the types of plants, flowers and nectar-producing blossoms they prefer. Some winter over, but many live only a few months.

Volunteers may also see some unfamiliar birds — those that live on butterflies and other insects. “It’s all part of nature,” Vaughan said.

West suggests bringing binoculars to help see both birds and butterflies. She also suggests sturdy shoes because some of the trails are uneven, and groups sometimes leave the trails. None of the sites are accessible by wheelchair.

The event is intended to be fun for the whole family, and the sightings are recorded and added to data being collected nationwide.

“It’s great to see how excited people get out there,” West said. “Last year, when people got a particularly interesting butterfly, they whooped and hollered like kids. There’s something very exciting about just being out there on a summer day.”