Urban nature: All things fluttering, bright and beautiful

By Maria Dolan
Special to The Seattle Time
July 8, 2004

Emilie Coulter and her son, Amos Wobber, spot a butterfly on a yarrow flower at the Woodland Park Zoo’s “Butterflies and Blooms” exhibit.

With a life that might only span a week or two, you’d think they’d rise a little earlier. But at 10:30 a.m. on a mild June morning, the Painted Ladies, Julias, and Zebra Swallowtails at the Woodland Park Zoo “Butterflies and Blooms” exhibit are only just starting their day.

“They’re still having their coffee,” drawls zoo attendant Sue Andersen, waving her hand toward a hemlock where a few colorful specimens have stretched out their wings. “And some of them are still in their pajamas.”

Lest they get a reputation for laziness, take note that these cold-blooded insects require sunlight and warmth for flying, which makes these warm summer months in the Northwest our “high season” for wild butterflies as well.

Butterflies collect light by “basking,” wings outstretched, or pumping up and down like a bellows. As far as we can tell, these creatures can’t appreciate the piped-in Mozart and Vivaldi at the zoo’s exhibit, but they do benefit from the greenhouse climate under their plastic dome, a world with mild temperatures and no rain.

And a visit from a chocolate and tangerine Common Buckeye can make even the humid confines of the greenhouse come to life.

Washington Butterfly Association founder Idie Ulsh is so enthralled she returns to her car to get her binoculars, which bring the Buckeye into close-up, Technicolor view. Comparing it to a nearby, faded orange Julia butterfly, she comments on its relative youth. “You can see this one is fresh — see how brown it is in the middle? The colors are richer, the scales are more reflective.” She also points out the Buckeye’s eponymous eyespots, irregular circles on the wings rimmed in black and yellow, splotched in the center with what looks like a drip of watercolor purple. Eyespots, she says, can fool bird predators into striking the wing instead of the butterfly body, an attack the insect may survive. They can also serve to scare off competing males of their own species.

The entire pattern is made up of thousands of tiny scales, in pigment colors such as yellow or red, or iridescent colors like blue, green and silver. The butterfly insect order, which includes moths, is Lepidoptera, meaning “scaly wings.” The underside, or ventral wing, is often more cryptic than the top, creating a camouflage pattern that helps the animal blend with lichens, bark or whatever surface on which it commonly rests, wings closed.

Butterflies vs. birds

Ulsh, a longtime birder and former Seattle Audubon president, says the two pursuits differ in some ways. “Much of the fun of butterflying is observing the behavior and the beauty of it close up. It happens in a smaller space than birding, and they are more available for you to watch them.”

This is especially so at the zoo exhibit, of course, but a visit to Seattle’s back yards can net wilder treasures. With warm, dry weather, and flowers blooming, July through September is wild-butterfly season in our region. For good viewing, pick a sunny day, and aim for the hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you don’t have a garden of your own, seek out unsprayed vacant lots, roadsides or parks that have blooming flowers (including weeds) and are open to the sun.

Urban observers are most likely to spot a big, bright yellow beauty with black tiger stripes. You’ll know you’ve seen it if you find yourself telling friends you might have spotted a Monarch on your lilac. You haven’t, but you can be forgiven for making this common mistake. The Western Tiger Swallowtail is about the same size as that more famous butterfly, with a 3.5-inch wingspan, but the Monarch’s bold black markings alternate with a rich orange rather than yellow.

Monarchs are uncommon in Washington state, and very rare in urban areas. They lay eggs exclusively on milkweed plants, which are largely absent here.

To attract the Western Tiger, try planting yarrow, sweet William, red columbine, phlox or lilacs, all favorite nectar plants.

Ulsh also recommends adjusting your expectations in order to find more butterflies. “If you think small, you see twice as many,” she says. As an example, she describes a visit to the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, where docents feared their butterfly garden wasn’t attracting enough non-human guests. “I went down for a visit and I found six small species there,” says Ulsh. “Sometimes you have to look closely. Some have a one- or two-inch wingspan and can be right in the flower.” One to look for is the tiny Mylitta Crescent, a bright orange and black insect that is common in our area in July and August.

Other butterflies in our urban area now include the Lorquin’s Admiral, a large, brown-black specimen banded in white; the petite, golden Woodland Skipper; and the two-inch Milbert’s Tortoiseshell, decked out in autumn colors of brown, orange and yellow.

Watch for movement over flowers, and try using binoculars that allow for close focusing — looking through a pair backwards often accomplishes this, too.

Besides nectaring from blooms, the insects, particularly males, might also be seen “puddling” — that is, gathering at damp soil, bark or sand, to replenish salts and minerals. They land on human skin for the same reason.

The human threat
Birds and spiders are butterfly predators, but the primary threat comes from humans, through destruction of habitat and overspraying of pesticides. In the Northwest, threatened species include the Oregon Silverspot, a coastal butterfly targeted for a recovery program by the Woodland Park Zoo and other groups, and the Mardon Skipper, a state endangered species.

Losing butterflies means more than losing the summer’s beauty queens. Butterflies serve a role as pollinators nearly as important as that of bees and wind.

Fortunately, an interest in these insects among the general public is on the rise. Locally, the Washington Butterfly Association, founded just six years ago, has more than 120 active members who meet monthly to learn about local species, and plan outings to favored butterfly sites in the wild.

Maria Dolan of Seattle is co-author of “Nature in the City: Seattle” (The Mountaineers Books, 2003) and author of “Outside Magazine’s Urban Adventure: Seattle” (W.W. Norton, 2004).

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company