In "On the Fly" (Sept-Oct 2010) Kenn Kaufman reviews esteemed nature writer Robert Michael Pyle's new book about a butterfly "big year."
Even people who claim to like butterflies may fail to understand much about them, regarding them as mere symbols or as scraps of flying color, not as living insects. Newspaper stories about monarch butterfly migration are replete with references to these “frail, delicate creatures,” ignoring the fact that monarchs are honking big butterflies, tough and adaptable, as proven by their long journeys.
But if butterflies fare poorly in the public eye, their fans get even less respect. In the media, lepidopterists are, at best, depicted as knobby-kneed kooks in pith helmets, leaping through fields, nets a-swinging. The late Rev. Ron Gatrelle, an avid lepidopterist in the Carolinas, once told me of the reactions of locals when he walked backroads with his net: “As far as they’re concerned, I might as well be wearing pink tights.”
Conservationist and writer Robert Michael Pyle is probably too independent to care about image, but he has put a lot of thought and energy into raising the profile of the butterflies themselves. As a young lepidopterist who fell in with the birders of the Seattle Audubon Society, he soon saw that his favorite insects could become more popular if people were encouraged to watch them rather than go through all the work of collecting them.
The task of popularizing butterfly watching has been largely taken up by organizations like the North American Butterfly Association. But Pyle has kept his lepidopterist instincts sharp, and periodically he returns to his roots. In 2008 he spent the entire year trying to see how many different species of butterflies he could find on this continent north of Mexico, as described in his epic new travelogue, Mariposa Road.
Well, why not? Birders have been doing “big years” for years—on a local level since the 1890s, on a continent-wide scale since the 1930s, tallying as many avian species as possible in 12 months. Butterfly watching followed the trajectory of birding at a remove of several decades, so it was inevitable that someone would finally give butterflies their due

Read the rest of Kaufman's review here.

Stay abreast of Audubon

Our email newsletter shares the latest programs and initiatives.