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NatureSpeak Articles

Walk softly and carry a big net

You can’t beat a butterfly scientist’s working conditions. Official surveys kick off at a leisurely 10 a.m. Even then, you really only need go outside if it’s warm and sunny enough for the butterflies to fly. The only potential downside is the risk of heckling.

With this knowledge in hand, I was lucky enough to accompany butterfly expert James Miskelly for four sunny day. During that time we (well, actually, he) identified 21 species of butterflies and species of dragonflies. A fantastic week except for the heckling while walking downhill under Blackcomb’s chairlifts. For some reason, seeing two grown men scamper through the flowers with large butterfly nets is cause for a bit of hilarity from the chairlift sitters. I blame it on too many Gary Larson cartoons.

The reasons for braving the sun and wildflowers with James were twofold. We wanted to expand our knowledge of species native to Whistler, and we wanted to explore whether two at-risk species Dun Skipper and Black Pedaltail occur here. Our surveys again failed to find either of these species but were very successful with others.

In his short stay, James boosted the number of butterfly species documented through the Whistler Biodiversity Project to 29 (of 56 expected species), and we’ve now also confirmed 20 species of dragonflies (of 31 expected species). These impressive totals are at least partly due to Whistler’s transitional location between coast and Interior B.C. Although most species are typically coastal, species more common in the Interior also add to the diversity.

James’s visit greatly improved our knowledge of local butterflies. He confirmed many species he expected to find, plus had some surprises. Most of these surprises were range extensions, that is, first records of species in this area. Another brought home the connection between non-native plants and butterflies.

Our first butterfly of the survey was a European Skipper near the base of Blackcomb. This non-native butterfly is relatively new in B.C. but is expanding its range so rapidly the 2001 range map is already obsolete. Its host plants, Reed Canary Grass and Timothy, are both non-native grasses widely seeded in B.C. So maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise to find more European Skippers near timberline on the ski runs covered in Canary Grass and Timothy. Nonetheless, those skippers were higher than any recorded so far in B.C. (by quite a lot) and proof we can expect it to keep expanding its range. Efforts to collect and spread native seeds on the ski runs this fall will hopefully slow this trend.

Meanwhile I’ll be studying my books in the hope of becoming a butterfly expert. Add a net, a couple of hecklers, and maybe I too can emerge at 10 a.m. (only on sunny days) to peruse the fritillaries and swallowtails.

Upcoming Events:

BioBlitz August 9-10, noon to noon at Lost Lake. For more details see

Written by: Bob Brett


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