Hey birders, we can watch butterflies too!
(published 6-17-04)

As I said before, “Kingbird Highway” by Kenn Kaufman is my all-time favorite book about birding. So when the author spoke at the Morton Arboretum recently I made a point to go listen. But Kaufman’s visit wasn’t just about birds; his main topic was butterflies.

Kaufman sees birds and butterflies as a natural fit. You can enjoy both at the same time, he says, and lot more birders these days are doing just that. A few even have the self-confidence to call themselves “butterflyers.”

I’m not in that category yet, but I’ll admit that butterflies are high on my list of favorite things. In fact it was butterflies, not birds, which fascinated me as a child. I collected them, and my hometown newspaper back in Ohio even did a story about me and my unusual hobby. The headline was “Butterflies Bug Him”—something my older brother never lets me forget.

Today, unless you are a lepidopterist, it’s generally not “PC” to capture and collect butterflies. Most people prefer to just watch them and try to identify them, just as we do with birds. That’s a lot easier than catching and mounting the little buggers anyway.

I don’t keep a “life list” of all the butterflies I’ve seen, but I have started keeping track of what I see in the yard. My list is short but growing. As with birds, the more I look the more I see—it’s amazing how many things are flying around if we take time to notice.

Most butterflies are very small, with wingspans less than an inch, so identification can be a big challenge. I purchased Kaufman’s new butterfly field guide to help me with that. The only other essential tool is a pair of binoculars with close-focus capability. Your birding optics are probably fine.

When he was working on his field guide Kaufman says a few hard-core birders accused him of being a traitor. They couldn’t believe he was turning his back on the birds. But of course that wasn’t true at all; Kaufman loves birds as much as ever. With butterflies he’s just branching out into a related field. He says he’s also motivated by the chance to call more attention to important conservation issues. Habitat loss—the decline in native vegetation such as tallgrass prairie—is a major threat to many butterfly species. The Regal Fritillary, for example, has virtually disappeared from its former range east of the Mississippi River, including Illinois.

Kaufman’s presentation really opened my eyes. Maybe I’ve been a little too one-dimensional. Birds are still No. 1, but now I’m looking at butterflies a lot more closely. They’re starting to bug me again.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

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