During couple of decades, butterfly watching has exploded in popularity. Several factors have contributed to this phenomenon, including modern field guides, close focus binoculars, digital cameras, and the fact that many birders, familiar with the tools and techniques of field identification, came to realize that butterflying was a logical extension of their original passion. Also, nature watching in all forms has become big business, and many groups, including publishers, optics companies, hotels, and restaurants, actively promote it; as do knowledgeable chambers of commerce and visitors bureaus across the country and around the world.

All well and good, you say, but why watch butterflies, especially in places such as the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas or (of all places) in New Jersey, with our seemingly endless suburban sprawl?

Well, butterflies are all around us, many are incredibly beautiful, they’re all fascinating, and they’re easy to attract.

Perhaps the best known butterfly in North America is the Monarch, most of which winter in the mountains north of Mexico City and breed as far away as southern Canada. During the Fall of 1999, workers at the Cape May Bird Observatory in southern New Jersey tagged over 7,500 migrating Monarchs. The following winter, seven of them were recovered in the Mexican wintering roost confirming the long held belief that this fragile creature could and did travel thousands of miles.

As amazing as this journey is, perhaps even more amazing is the fact that no individual makes the round trip. In late February, as the warming sun rouses the wintering Monarchs, they start north. Along the way, this generation lays its eggs and dies. The new group hatches, reaches adulthood, and continues north. This occurs up to 5 times, with only the last generation “returning” to Mexico.

Monarchs, along with two other “milkweed” butterflies, the Queen and Soldier lay their eggs on various milkweed plants, which their young voraciously eat thereby incorporating the plants’ poisons into their bodies. The bright markings that characterize this group are a warning to potential predators: “leave us alone!”

But poison is not the only defense used by butterflies. Many small and brownish ones are just plain hard to see, such as the wide spread Sachem. Others blend in with their surroundings, such as the Gray Cracker. Still others, such as the American Snout and Dingy Purplewing, are hard to see with their wings closed, yet are striking with their wings open. And others survive despite being showy and non-poisonous, including the Malachite, White Peacock, Large Orange and Cloudless Sulphur, Gulf Fritillary, Zebra and Julia Heliconians, and Florida White.

We still have much to learn about butterflies, including where and when they occur, and in what numbers. To help solve these mysteries, annual censuses are conducted in which we try to find, identify, and count, in one day, all the butterflies in a 15 mile in diameter circle. A number of these annual counts are held throughout the US, and in other countries such as Mexico.

Butterflies occur almost everywhere there is land, and are easy to attract. Many organizations, such as the North American Butterfly Association (www.naba.org), offer information about plantings that will bring butterflies to you. If you want to see what can be done, just visit a local butterfly garden. Many butterflies are also attractde to feeders using over-ripe bananas and other fruit mashed up with stale beer and brown sugar. The longer it matures, the better they like it!

Another reason butterflying has become so popular is the advent of moderately priced digital cameras. At one time if you could not identify a butterfly in the field, it just got away. But digital photography has changed all that. Today, many of us carry digitals to record what we see. When this includes species we do not know, or which are unusual in a given area, images can be emailed around the world to identify and confirm our sightings. This is especially useful in places such as the American tropics. In fact, when I butterfly in Mexico, I often don’t even try to identify the butterflies I do not recognize. I just photograph them for later identification. If I’m really in a hurry, I can down load the images onto my laptop, and email them from my hotel room!

The only regret I have about watching butterflies is that I did not start doing it in 1970 when I started watching birds. When I think of all the wondrous places I have visited watching birds, and all of the neat butterflies I could have seen had I but looked... . Well, all I can say is I guess I need to go back to see what I missed!

Mike Hannisian