Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.
Such was the case today with the Mournful or Sad Dusky-Wing, Erynnis tristis (Hesperiidae).
UC Davis butterfly expert Arthur Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, describes it as "Common below 2000, including the Sacramento Valley; the only Erynnis routinely found in cities. A strong flier but not a very dedicated puddler, it is multiple-brooded, from March to October. This is the only common Dusky-Wing with a white fringe (compare E. funeralis)."
Shapiro says the Mournful Dusky-Wing visits tall blue verbena, yerba santa, California buckeye and a variety of garden flowers, including the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii).
Today it was visiting lavender, both purple and white lavender. It lingered long enough to be admired.
But they are fleeting butterflies.
For the past 35 years, noted butterfly expert Arthur Shapiro (top right), UC Davis professor of evolution and ecology, has documented the prevalence--or absence--of 159 species twice a month at 10 sites from the Suisun Marsh to the Sierras. His massive database, unprecedented among lepitopterists, is part of his popular butterfly Web site.
Last week his database and the plight of the butterflies received international attention via a paper published by lead author Matt Forister in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The study showed that climate change and land development are taking their toll on butterflies.Forister (lower right) who studied with Shapiro at UC Davis and received his doctorate in ecology from UC Davis in 2004, is now an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Reno, Nev. (You can watch his Webcast on butterflies given last November at a noonhour seminar in the UC Davis Department of Entomology.)
In many respects, butterflies are to the environment what canaries are to coal mines.
Titled "Compounded Effects of Climate Change and Habitat Alteration Shift Patterns of Butterfly Diversity" and the work of eight authors, the research paper documents the disastrous effects of habitat loss and climate changes.
Shapiro, author of the book, Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions, says what shocks him is the decline of once common species in the flatlands.
Indeed, prospects for some alpine butterflies, including the Small Wood Nympth and Nevada Skipper, he says, look bleak, too. As he told Contra Costa Times reporter Suzanne Bohan, in her Jan. 19th news article:
"There is nowhere to go except heaven."
Summer is fading and the temperatures are dropping, too.
You're more likely to see Vanessa.
That would be Vanessa annabella, one of the Painted Lady butterflies.
The West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella), is seen more often in cool seasons, says UC Davis butterfly expert, Arthur Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolution.
The West Coast Lady is a member of the Brush-Footed Butterflies (Nymphalidae) and the subfamily, True Brushfoots.
On a recent trip to Tomales, we spotted the West Coast Lady and a honey bee sharing the same plant, a Salvia uliginosa (a tall sage that can reach six to seven feet).
The wings of the orange-brown butterfly and the transparent wings of the honey bee glowed in the sunlight as the insects nectared the sky-blue blossoms. The two have at least one thing in common: they love a good sage.
Shapiro, a lepidopterist extraordinaire, covers more than 130 species in his colorful book, Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions, published by the University of California Press. The guide also offers tips on gardening and photography.
Look for the fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) in your garden. It's likely sharing your catmint, lavender and sage with honey bees and other pollinators.
It's the only one holding a "fighter-jet" position.
Says UC Davis butterfly expert Arthur Shapiro: "The folded-wing skippers have a characteristic posture when they land: the forewings are held at a 45-degree angle to the rest of the body while the hindwing is held open and flat. This gives them a 'fighter-jet' like appearance."
These skippers are largely orange and tawny, he says, "and many have whitish chevrons on the ventral hindwing, although some genera are dark brown."
Skippers are a worldwide family of about 3500 species that appear to be "sister" to the rest of the "true butterflies," Shapiro says. The clubs on the tips of the antennae are usually hooked. In California, skippers fall into two or three subfamilies: the spread-wing skippers (Pyrginae), the folded-wing skippers (Hesperiinae), and the Heteropterinae.
His excellent Web site offers more information on fiery skippers and other butterflies.
Seen any cabbage whites lately?
If you capture one before UC Davis professor Arthur Shapiro does, he'll trade you a beer for your butterfly. Actually, a pitcher of beer or its cash equivalent.
Yes, it's time for Shapiro's 38th annual Butterfly-for-Beer contest. The "state-of-the-Art" rules are easy: the first person to find and capture a live cabbage white butterfly outdoors in California's Central Valley (Sacramento, Solano or Yolo counties) after the first of the year, will win a pitcher of beer. You get the beer, he gets the butterfly. He gets the data, you get the recognition.
Shapiro, a noted lepidopterest equally renowned for his heavily accessed UC Davis butterfly site and field guide about butterflies in the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley regions, almost always finds the first cabbage white of the year. It's tough to beat him because he knows where to look. Most likely the cabbage white will be in a vacant lot or by a roadside where wild mustards grow. It probably won't be in your backyard garden or neighborhood park.
The cabbage white is the Pieris rapae, a white or buff-colored butterfly about 1-1/4 inches long. It sports a black spot or spots near its wing base. The underside of its hindwing is yellow with a grayish cast.
The cabbage white is emerging about a week earlier than it did 30 years ago, Shapiro says. When was the first specimen found in 2008? Jan. 19.
Entries should be delivered to the receptionist in the Evolution and Ecology office, 2320 Storer Hall. Be sure to include when (time and date) you found it and where you found it. If it's on the weekend, when the UC Davis office is closed, store it live for a few days in your refrigerator.
Here's a photo I captured of two cabbage whites in Vacaville, Solano County on Sept. 7, 2008--about eight months too late for Shapiro's competition.
And no beer.