Postscript to the Butterfly Big Year Blogs: Not Far Tortuga, But Close

Dear Folks,

The trip is finished, and so are the blogs, but I wanted to provide a brief coda to bring it all back home. As you know, the Orion and Xerces blogs have carried different, complementary content all along, But for this little epilog, I’ve decided to send a single note to both sources, and to do it with electrons via Thea’s computer. Forgive me for not mailing any doodads or tree trunks or trash bits from the road this time. I came home to our biggest snow in thirty years, which melted and rained and blew into one of our biggest floods within just 48 hours, and the road to the post office has been blocked by deep, rushing water. So here, in conventional fashion, is a wrap-up to the whole deal:

The Christmas blizzard in Portland barely let me out of town, and Chicago was worse, with hundreds of stranded holiday evacuees still stashed and crashed around O’Hare wherever they could find prone space. Yet I made it to Fort Lauderdale only a day late, where the incomparable Alana Edwards picked me up. Alana and her mother Lana, bright lights in the Atala Chapter of NABA, made my valedictory trip to Florida possible. Alana had arranged permits and transportation, including the rangers’ boat to stilll-wild Lignum Vitae Key. For the next few days, we prowled hammocks and mangroves in the Glades and the Keys in search of butterflies I’d not yet encountered.

I had hoped to venture out to Dry Tortuga National Park, to see out the year in the most distal point of the U.S. However, time, expense, and the paucity of butterflies there all militated against a Tortugan finish. The next farthest place I could go, where I’d never been before and where exotic (=outlandish) species of butterflies drifted or blown in from Cuba or elsewhere in the Antilles are always possible, was Key West. Alana kindly and heroically fought the holiday traffic (early mornings helped) to get me there, with interim outings on several of the Keys. Well acquainted with the butterflies, the plants, and the places, and extraordinarily observant, Alana was the best of guides. Among other naturalists we met, resident butterflier, gardener, artist, and devoted conservationist Paula Cannon joined us, and led us to remnant habitats she’s worked hard to save. At her tranquil home on a quay in the Keys, Paula prepared and served us elegant, slender silver fish that she and her husband Gary had caught in local waters, with the wonderful name of look-down fish.

While only a few of the possible new species deigned to show up, they were very special ones: the brilliant Florida purplewing shining in dappled sunlight on Lignum Vitae; the endangered Miami blue, just one among hundreds of Cassius blues, on little Bahia Honda; and the bright, long-tailed Bartram’s hairstreak, which I’d been seeking off and on since early spring, right where we hoped it would be on Big Pine Key. We toasted them all with Florida ale (some the year’s last) at the notorious No Name Pub on tiny No Name Key. These rare butterflies have survived, maybe just, in spite of the over-zealous burning of pine rockland, mosquito spraying, and overall development of these overloved and undervalued islets. Horny hordes of Jurassic-looking iguanas throng the Keys, released and escaped and now all but in charge, skinning nickerbean and other butterfly host-plants from the thin coral soil. Hurricanes, too, have wiped habitats free of structure and diversity. But perversely, sea heliotrope has proliferated along the beach of Big Pine since Hurricane Wilma, attracting a spectacular showing of big, bright hammock and mangrove skippers, tropic queens, and Martial’s hairstreaks. We reveled in the waning year’s last butterfly throes. For me, anyway. Down here, they never stop.

Of course, I could have seen more novel species had I just remained in Texas: my friends in the Lower Rio Grande Valley spotted more than a dozen that would have been new for me within days of my departure. But then I would have missed Hawaii with Thea, Arctic Portland with our family, and this splendid immersion among these shimmering denizens of Old Florida, and those who love, study, and care for them and their besieged habitats. And has anyone else ever had the astonishing good fortune to seek butterflies on both Kaua’i and the Keys in the same week?

Masses of butterflies accompanied me down to Key West and all around it, and I enjoyed them fully, knowing they’d be the last, and have to last me, for a long time. Even greater masses of human beings filled the final Key for its noted New Year’s blast. I mostly managed to escape them, finding tucked-away habitats among the city’s nature reserves, ancient salt flats and the remoter fringes of Civil War-era Fort Zachary Taylor, where mangrove buckeyes flickered and hundreds of various yellows mocked the winter. But the most exciting butterfly–what a finish if it had lingered, instead of sailing away far over a condo!–appeared at a patch of Spanish needles in a vacant lot by a busy intersection: a mystery beauty that to my eyes most resembled a Hypanartia, or mapwing: a tropical genus recorded no nearer than Cuba or Veracruz.

Just east of the spot billed “as the southernmost point in the U.S.” lies South Beach — some ways southward of the one where diet came from. There, my feet in the sea, my butt on an algal-green coral slab, I watched the sun set on the year and the venture. When the last gulf fritillary, cloudless sulphur, and fiery skipper went to roost, I’d tallied 488 species, unofficially — 489, if you count the mystery nymphalid that came and went over the Caribbean. The last sun of 2008 disappeared into a diffuse pink contrail from Havana, and that was that.

Of course I couldn’t quite escape the New Year’s craziness of Key West, from the drag diva named Sushi (another species of tropic queen) who descends in a big red high-heeled shoe at midnight, to the lightly clad legions promenading Duval Street in a viscous flow of sweat, skin, drink, and cigar smoke, all but impenetrable for an outlander with backpack and a butterfly net, complete with aluminum extendable handle. Pity I’d shed the tiki torch in Portland: it would have fit right in. I took refuge on the sofa of an Irish pub called Bogart’s until four A.M., when the bars closed, the human cacophony subsided, and the many feral roosters (just as in Hawai’i: here was the real link between Kaua’i and the Keys) began to crow. I recall a moment in there when an inebriated and pretty young blonde launched herself onto my lap with vigor, and another when a fellow leaned in from the street to insist that I was Ernest Hemingway resurrected. Those were the high points of an evening that suffered, on the whole, in contrast with that charmed week’s final field trips.

I found a tree in a secluded part of the fort with spreading roots that welcomed me for a couple of hours of sleep. And in the morning, after I’d mollified both the Navy folks and the State Park ranger who challenged my presence there, I discovered an isolated cove where I bathed, swam, and watched a great southern white fly off across the Straits of Florida. Then I greeted the New Year among a school of beautiful pipefish, their long, thin bills and tails the same color as the sea that stretched away toward far Tortuga.


I want to thank Hal Clifford and Scott Walker at Orion Magazine, and Sean Tenney and Sarina Jepsen at the Xerces Society, for their heroic stewardship of my motley materials to produce these weblogs of the first Butterfly Big Year; and for their generosity in sharing interlinks and this final entry between them. Especially, I am thankful to those of you who have read and followed along with me on this long strange trip in the charmed company of butterflies, or not. I hope what has come through more than anything is the sense of extreme privilege I have felt in spending a year of my life this way. I am deeply grateful to Orion and Xerces for allowing me to share it with you in this medium. There is much, much more to tell–but for that, you’ll just have to read the book. Happy New Year, and keep an eye out for butterflies in aught-nine,



Photo below by Paula Cannon: Pair of iguanas, male above, on Big Pine Key

Photo below by Paula Cannon: Sponge Bob

Photo below by Paula Cannon: Male Martial’s hairstreak, whose larvae feed on bay cedar in southern Florida

Photo below by Paula Cannon: A pair of gulf fritillaries, male above, in courtship display