The towering great Angelica plants seesaw back and forth in the assaulting wind. “It’s too windy,” I think, “not a great day to observe butterfly flight behavior.” I’m standing on soft soil in a “restored” sedge meadow in a place I’ve visited every June for the past four years. It’s not marked on my calendar, but instead driven from an internal calling. I wait motionless, allowing the passage of time to erase the disturbance of my arrival.
The color orange flashes by. My eyes race to catch up as the butterfly, propelled by the wind, flies erratically just over the top of the sedges' leaves. Suddenly, another butterfly darts forward and joins the first. The two butterflies tumble around each other as they gain elevation. Yet another butterfly joins the pair. The trio ascends skyward, forms a loose rotating ball pattern before the wind overtakes them, sending them off in different directions as they dive down to the ground vegetation.
Excited, I raise my binoculars and scan across the top of the vegetation. To my elation, I discover approximately three dozen Baltimore checkerspot butterflies resting on the foliage. Dumbfounded, I lower my binoculars and shake my head. “I can’t believe it worked; it’s a story of long shots!”
The origin of this story stretches back five years to the discovery of turtlehead plants in a nearby tiny remnant wetland, followed by the discovery of several Baltimore checkerspot butterflies. (See blog post “Operation Checkerspot” for more background.)
The Baltimore checkerspot butterfly is rare across its range due to the loss of wetland habitat. In Southern Wisconsin, most of the butterfly’s habitat has been converted to agriculture. To make matters worse, the butterfly is a specialist, laying its eggs only on the turtlehead plant. Many of the wetlands escaping agricultural conversion are now severely degraded by invasive species and unsuitable habitat for turtlehead plants.
Based on this limited knowledge, we planted turtlehead plants in two small “restored” sedge meadows on our property. It was a long shot to find a nearby remnant wetland with turtlehead plants and Baltimore checkerspot butterflies present. Now, we’re hoping for another long shot – not only keep the checkerspots in the nearby wetland, but allow time for our turtlehead plants to prosper and the butterflies to find their way to our land.
With the discovery of Baltimore checkerspots this past June, I was able to follow the progression of the butterfly larvae throughout their growing season. As expected, webbing first appeared on turtlehead plants (both large and small). The larvae produce the webbing as a defense against predators as they safely feed on the part of the plant enclosed in the web. In a few cases where the larvae appeared to have consumed a small turtlehead plant, I found webbing and leaf consumption on neighboring marsh betony (swamp lousewort) plants. It’s my understanding that as the larvae mature, they consume a few other plant species. Marsh betony is high on the list. I have yet to find turtlehead plants in dense concentrations, so it makes sense that larvae have evolved to utilize additional plant species associated with turtlehead habitat.
Eventually, the larvae webbing made its way down to the base of the plant, which is where they are hibernating over the winter. Next spring, they should metamorphose into butterflies. I marked these locations in the sedge meadow scheduled to be burned next spring. I plan to burn around these flagged locations to help expand the checkerspot population. Fire could potentially kill the hibernating larvae enclosed in the webbing, especially a “hot” fire during times of low humidity and a low groundwater table.
I hope both turtlehead and checkerspot populations expand, and periodic burning will maintain their habitat and populations without resorting to burning around individual larvae hibernation locations. I may need to throttle the checkerspot population growth if turtlehead plants can’t keep up. I’ve seen this happen with other rare plant species. Insects catch up with them, and their seed production falls off drastically.
It’s another reminder of my ignorance in my chosen field of study. Nearly three decades as an engineer with access to vast knowledge resources, I devoted my life to developing mathematical expressions that predict electron behavior. Now, as a restoration ecologist, I struggle with scant nuggets of information, loosely webbed together with a few observations and many hunches, hoping for a favorable outcome.
I find humility in the immenseness of nature, but I also find acceptance. Acceptance of my belonging, and acceptance that I will never know most of its secrets.
For four years, a piece of me, planted among the turtlehead plants, has called me back each June to observe and hope. Finally, on the fourth June, another long shot occurred. Baltimore checkerspots once again fly over these wetlands. How and why it happened, I can only speculate.
Even now, buoyed by a positive outcome, I know little more than when the story began. I only know that I was part of it, and I know where I will be next June.