"It's a wood nymph." Doug Taron's voice sounds tight, urgent. "Gary, can you catch it?"
We're standing in the hot sun at Braidwood Dunes and Savanna, a nature preserve in south Will County. Sweat creeps down my back. I keep mistaking the sweat beads for ticks, so periodically I jump and swat at my own perspiration like a crazy person.
"Can someone help Gary get the wood nymph?" Taron says. The rest of us are all closer than he is.
But Gary doesn't need us. "Got it!" he hollers. We run toward him. I'm a novice here, but even I know that Gary's hostage won't turn out to be a nubile Lolita. We gather close to examine his catch through the web of the butterfly net. The wood nymph's wings have the brown color and dusty texture of a dirt road, yet it has the elegance all butterflies seem to possess. Taron explains to us that the darkness of its wings distinguishes it from the wood satyr; the nymph appears almost black in flight. The field guides we check indicate an orange spot on its upper wing, but Taron says the species rarely displays such a patch in Illinois.
I'm doing my best to absorb all this because I want to become a butterfly monitor. Seven years ago the Nature Conservancy started a program to train volunteers to monitor populations of butterflies on Illinois nature preserves; about 45 sites in Illinois, 35 of them in the Chicago area, now have monitors. Some of the volunteers here today simply want more training in the fine points of identification, but I need more help than that.
I know my local wildflowers, grasses, trees, birds, mammals, and some insects reasonably well, but I don't know butterflies at all. Butterflies are harder to learn than birds or plants. They rarely sit still long enough to be identified, and their key features are impossible to see as they flutter in the distance. People do come to know them well enough to identify them on the fly, but the only way to reach that point is to capture them, hold them for a while, and examine them carefully many times.
Until now I've resisted getting serious about butterflies for a couple of reasons. One is that my inner hippie resists capturing things in nature, bringing them to me; I prefer to leave things where I find them and look as best I can.
The other reason is harder for me to say. But I strive for truth in this column, so here it is: I'm embarrassed to be seen running around with a butterfly net. While I guess being interested in botany is just as geeky, it's much less obvious. No one really knows what I'm doing when I stoop down to look at a sedge; maybe I'm just resting or maybe I dropped some money. But chasing an insect with a net shaped like a Santa Claus hat on the end of a broomstick--now that's goofy. In his Handbook for Butterfly Watchers, Robert Michael Pyle attempts to address this serious issue for would-be lepidopterists, but what he has to say isn't altogether reassuring. "Going about with a butterfly net arouses attention, sometimes derogatory or derisive in nature....Carrying an insect net is no way to remain inconspicuous." No kidding.
But in the end, what difference does it make? Lord knows I'm not competing to be the coolest person to walk the streets of Wicker Park, so a month ago I sent off for the kind of catcher Taron recommends, a white 15-inch aerial net from BioQuip in California.
During the week Taron designs DNA-based cancer diagnostics for a biotechnology company. On the weekends he studies butterflies and coordinates the butterfly monitoring program as a volunteer for the Nature Conservancy. The invitation he sent out for the workshop says that if the weather's good, the regal fritillary might be flying at Braidwood.
A rare and spectacular-looking butterfly, the regal fritillary lives only on thin-soil grasslands where birdfoot violet grows. This is the plant its caterpillars eat. As an adult the regal fritillary's large tangerine forewings are decorated ornately with black, and its dark-colored hind wings are spotted with white. My Peterson field guide describes its precarious state of survival with the ominous words "rapidly disappearing or declining over most of its range." I've seen it only in slide shows and am enthusiastic about the prospect of seeing a real one floating under blue skies over yellow sunflowers.
We have special permits from the Will County Forest Preserve District to catch and release butterflies here for today's training course. Braidwood is a state nature preserve, where these sorts of things are normally prohibited. Taron tells us that though we have permission to leave the trail, we need to be sure not to walk single file. Otherwise we might leave a beaten-down path that looks like a trail other visitors would begin to use.
It feels like a privilege to roam freely here, stalking dazzling animals in fields of cordgrass up to our chests. Here we are, 11 grown-ups chasing around with butterfly nets, having a great time. We get lost. We laugh. We sweat. People say things that sound bizarre out of context. "I don't have much cloudy-wing experience myself," Taron says once when he's unsure about the identity of a skipper.
Near the end of the day, since we really are quite lost, we head for the power lines, the one landscape feature we can be sure about. High-tension wires coming from the Braidwood nuclear reactor are plainly visible above the branches of the black oaks. When we emerge from the preserve, we find ourselves on private land used for a horse stable.
Though we discovered around 20 different species, including great spangled fritillaries and lesser fritillaries, the regal fritillaries were conspicuously absent.
We collapse exhausted by the road. I lean against a stone fence post. Taron is talking with Don Stilwaugh, coleader for the trip, and Gary Horn, who's doing a monitoring route at Braidwood for the first time this year.
Taron brings up the disappointing lack of regal fritillaries. "When I was here in 1986, I saw dozens. And I saw at least two mating pairs."
"I did the census route in 1989 and didn't see them," Stilwaugh says.
"I haven't seen them this year either," Horn adds.
"The only place I remember them being is where the stable is now," says Taron.
No one knows when the stable went in, so we can't be sure about the correlation. A few days later I call Marcy DeMauro at the Will County Forest Preserve District, the agency that owns Braidwood Dunes and Savanna. A brilliant field biologist, Marcy has been kicked upstairs and now is responsible for the district's land planning and acquisition. She tells me that the week before, she spent her vacation visiting Will County preserves that she never gets to now that she's office-bound. I tell her we didn't find any regal fritillaries at Braidwood and ask how the stable came to be there.
She groans. "Seeing it go in just about killed us. It was built five, maybe six years ago, before our bond issue was passed. We didn't have any money to pursue acquisition. There was nothing we could do. We tried to get other agencies like the state to buy it, but no one could act fast enough. I was out there when they took out the trees. It made me sick."
I commiserate for a minute, and she says, "I can't even watch Channel 11 anymore--I can't stand to see another film about the last 12 rhinoceroses. It's too depressing. I see too much every day, and there's only so much you can take. It breaks my heart every time I go by that stable."
I call Doug Taron to ask how likely it is that the regal fritillaries were killed off when the stable went in. "I can't conclude anything from a rigorous scientific standpoint from our one-day snapshot," he says. "But I looked at my notes and found that when I went to Braidwood and saw all the regal fritillaries in '86 I was there on July 13. Our workshop was the 16th. We were definitely in the window of when the regal fritillaries should have been flying."
I say something about how if someone had been monitoring the site regularly over the years maybe we'd know for sure whether they were really gone.
Taron says emphatically, "If someone had been monitoring the site then we might have had the data to say that where the stables were proposed was the one site where the regal fritillaries were. We could have raised a stink about it then and stopped it."
I visited Braidwood Dunes and Savanna once before, in 1985. I was looking at plants. The partridge pea and the prickly pears were in bloom at the time, just as they were on this visit. So I must have been there in mid-July. If I'd known something about butterflies ten years ago perhaps I could have seen a regal fritillary alive at Braidwood. And if I or someone else had been paying careful attention through concentrated monitoring, maybe the species would still be there.