A zigzagging hunt nets a measure of nature’s health

The Oregonian

CARVER — Molly Price, 8, and her sister, Natalie, 4, were on the prowl. Stalking through grass so tall that only their blue hats peeked out, the girls were nearly eye-level with their prey.

Molly struck first. Her fluorescent-orange net swooped down and smashed the blades with a crunch. She squealed.

“I got one. I got one!”

The tiny brown butterfly was among the first of the day’s plentiful catch.

About 35 people joined eight volunteers and a duo of experts Saturday to traipse through prairie lands at Clear Creek Canyon in Clackamas County, catching and releasing butterflies. The event was the third annual butterfly count co-sponsored by the Xerces Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to invertebrate conservation, and Metro Regional Parks and Greenspaces.

Mace Vaughan, staff entomologist with the society, said there are two reasons for the count: Butterflies are a window to the health of prairie ecosystems, and they’re fun and educational.

Counts began at 11 a.m. at Clear Creek Canyon near Carver and at Cooper Mountain in Washington County. The counts had been postponed from last weekend, when the weather was too cool for butterflies to be out.

Vaughan taught net technique before two groups took off into the prairie at Clear Creek.

First the crouch. Then the swing. And then a flip of the net.

“The little flip at the end is key,” he explained, “so that you can trap it.”

Participants used nets on 3-foot sticks. A wide mouth and 2 feet of net left plenty of room to trap the fluttering creatures and inspect them.

Lori and Brad Price of Portland brought their daughters because they wanted to encourage the girls’ love of the outdoors. Lori confided that there was something in it for her, too.

When she was a little older than her girls, she was president of the local bug club. She once raised moths for a year. Teaching her daughters about insects, she said, is as fun for her as for them.

At the day’s beginning, Molly couldn’t remember the name of her brown butterfly, an Ochre Ringlet.

“It starts with an ‘o,’ I think,” she said.

By midday, Molly was calling them “ogre ringlets,” and by 2 p.m., she’d caught so many that the difficult pronunciation rolled off her tongue.

Vaughan estimated the groups at Clear Creek and Cooper Mountain saw 13 species. Ringlets, Lorquin’s Admirals and Chalcedona Checkerspots were the most common catches. But a few sulfurs, Cabbage Whites and a wood nymph also turned up.

He said the numbers were typical of a healthy ecosystem. Butterflies tell a lot about the land’s health, because many lay their eggs on specific plants and require certain flowers for food.

This is the first year the Xerces Society and Metro are conducting private, monthly counts to get a more accurate picture of the butterfly population. Volunteers, called butterfly stewards, do those counts at six Metro open spaces.

Many of the stewards also helped with Saturday’s event. The group at Carver suffered temperatures of 90-plus degrees to make their finds.

But the heat didn’t deter the excitement of a discovery.

“Mommy, I’m done drinking water, I want my butterfly net,” Natalie said, as she ran into the grass and disappeared.