What is it about butterflies? Even people who shudder at the sight of most other insects pause to admire the beauty of a butterfly. They may even extend a hand, in hopes that the fluttering creature will light there.
Butterflies, with their delicate, ephemeral beauty, can seem magical. They can also be rather infuriating to those of us who want to look more closely and learn something about them.
I long ago despaired of identifying butterflies by the same method I use for birds. First, there was the difficulty of trying to see – and then record or remember – all the intricate markings on an animal that would not hold still. Then, flipping through a field guide, I tried and usually failed to compare my foggy recollection with several nearly-identical species, including many that don’t even occur in my region. Ultimately I settled for an incomplete identification: “Some kind of fritillary,” or, “Some sort of satyr.”
Until this year. One morning, on an impulse, I took several quick photos of “some sort of satyr” as it lingered on a leaf beside the 400 Trail. When it fluttered past a few minutes later, I took some more. I knew the images would be lousy – the focus would be poor, the wings in motion – but maybe one or two would be good enough to show distinguishing traits.
At home, I opened the photos on my computer, chose the clearest ones, and zoomed in. Then I did an internet search on “Wisconsin butterflies” and found the aptly named website, wisconsinbutterflies.org, which features multiple images, range maps, and natural history for the 160-odd butterfly species found in Wisconsin (thus weeding out the dozen or so non-Wisconsin satyrs in my North American field guide).
With the images side by side on my computer, I matched my photo spot-for-spot with the Northern Pearly-Eye pictured on the website and felt like a real genius. I felt just slightly less brilliant when, upon looking at more of my photos, I realized the second batch were of a similar but different species, the Little Wood-Satyr. Without the help of my camera, I wouldn’t have known that I had seen not one species, but two.
I never knew crummy photos could be such fun. Since the satyr episode in late June, I’ve clumsily photographed every butterfly that I could, and will no longer have to settle for, “Some kind of comma.” Go ahead and take some bad pictures. Nobody has to see them…unless you post them on your website.