A Margined Sails on Cowichan Rails – Annie Pang

Quite a while back, Terry sent me a beautiful photograph of one of the few butterflies he’d seen up his way in the Comox Valley area and, at first, I thought I’d had an “ah ha!” moment, for this butterfly, called the Margined White, looked quite different from the butterflies I’d been told were either Mustard White or Margined Whites, but it was always up for debate between me and another past associate.  According to a very old pamplet put out by a number of entomologists, our local butterflies included the Mustard White here in the Georgia Strait, but it was an outdated pamphlet and now there “appeared”, at least to me, to be two different species.  And yet the pure white butterflies I’d been photographing bore little resemblance to the Margined Whites I’d seen in John Acorn’s “Butterflies of British Columbia” and that Terry had photographed, so I sent him a picture of mine as proof of my amateur theory of there being two different species here.

But I was wrong.  Terry was the first person to actually explain to me that these Margined Whites appeared different in the spring than in the summer, when they were pure white and totally lacking in the dark “margins” that looked a bit like dark, smudged crayon lines.  This made sense to me as I’d always been “directed” to go to a certain area north of Victoria to photograph these butterflies in the first or second week of July and had found them nectaring in the exact same spot each year on “herb-Robert”, a low pink flower with lacey leaves that tended to turn reddish (the leaves, that is).  In July, the Margined Whites were in their summer’s pure white and quite lovely in their own right and I’d enjoyed getting some very artistic shots of them in 2010 and 2011.

So now, weeks later than May 18th when Terry had gotten his lovely photograph, I figured I’d waited too long and missed the boat on trying to get up to Cowichan to the only place I thought I’d have a chance of finding these butterflies in their early spring attire.  It was on June 9th, last Saturday, when much to my surprise my reticent husband ushered me out the door with all my “gear” for a trip that was doomed to fail.  I whined and complained and when that didn’t work, I simply broke down and cried.  The truth was that I was afraid to go so far from home on a fool’s errand, and I told him so through a pathetic puddle of tears.

Strange as it may sound, I really WAS scared to go.  My sense of adventure had totally abandoned me in light of the drastic lack of butterflies and all the cool temperatures we’d had, as well as the very windy day we WERE having.  But he’d made up his mind and John can be/IS very stubborn.  For some reason, after making it clear he wasn’t all that interested in butterflies in the past few weeks, he suddenly wanted me to go with him to try to find these differently appearing Margined Whites.  I’m at a loss to explain it, but somehow he managed to convince me and I found myself in the van with him heading towards Cowichan, listening to “Bittersweet Symphony” (one of my favourite songs) and lap-spinning wool…in my lap, of course, and singing along happily….and even in tune!

Being out amongst all those firs, feeling the grandiose, larger than life green of everything, listening to music, being on the move again and heading north filled me with a sense of freedom I rarely feel these days.  It was exhilarating – until I started to see clouds in the direction we were heading.  The wind was still blowing quite strongly when we stopped at the Country Grocer in Cowichan to pick up a sandwich, ice tea and use the “facilities” before heading in towards our destination.  I joked with the young cashier about this “Junuary” weather we were having.  She grimaced in agreement as we both looked out at the gloomy overcast sky that had, a short time before, been a promising, pristine blue.

Well, I’d come this far so there was only one choice for me and that was to see it through.  We got back in the van and headed for Cowichan Station.  It didn’t take long to get there, and upon arriving at the tiny deserted building, we parked and ate before heading north on foot along the overgrown railroad tracks.  There was the hint of sun here and there, but it didn’t look too promising and not a butterfly had been seen since we left Victoria.

Along the tracks, still no butterflies were in evidence, and I saw no dragonflies either – so different from the summer experiences I’d had.  We walked around the bend and the vegetation began to change.  There was a lot of Horsetail, big-leaf Maples and Thimbleberry, as well as the large Hogweed in flower…..and herb-Robert in bloom, with the leaves greener than I’d ever seen them, with their small pink blooms.  But no butterflies.

I was glad to be back no matter what.  I had a feeling that if the sun came out, all would be well inside of me.  There was no wind here either.  It was a magical place…..out of time and space, away from all things hurtful.  I felt peaceful inside.  Then the sun came out.

My arms just spread wide and I laughed and shook my hair.  I closed my eyes and drank in the warmth on my face.  For this moment, all was well.  In my mind I twirled around and I danced with the butterflies, the butterflies I couldn’t see, the butterflies yet to be, I danced with them all……and then John yelled out, “Hey, there’s a Cabbage White.  Look!  It’s coming right towards you!”

I didn’t miss a beat, but turned on the camera, spotted the white butterfly coming towards me and….froze.  In my mind’s eye I became a bush, a weed, nothing to be noticed or concerned with.  The butterfly landed on a Thimbleberry leaf, not too far from me.  My first shot was still a relatively distant one, just in case it was my only chance.  I took a few more and then I knew I had to get closer.  The sun was in and out and it seemed that this white butterfly wasn’t moving.  It needed to rest and to warm up, I imagine.  I looked at all the “stuff” I would have to wade through and, taking a breath, I started inching closer through Hogweed, Horsetail and…..uuuuck!  My foot sunk down, down and down into a squishy mess.  A muck-filled ditch!

The butterfly didn’t move.  I got my sunken foot out and took a few more shots, closer, much closer. Of course, as I suspected, this was no Cabbage White.  It was an old Margined White; the only one here, perhaps the only one left from the spring generation, I hoped fervently….  A female?  I got closer and it still didn’t move, looking as white as I expected, until I decided I needed to look at the underwings.  This wasn’t easy since the wings were open for sunning, but as I leaned over in the most awkward positions, the butterfly accommodated me by closing her wings enough for me to get the upper and lower angles in both sunlight and cloud.  What little angel had come into my life today, slightly tattered as she was, to show me my first spring generation of a Margined White?  Faded as she was, the darker outer margins were, to me, a new and exciting live experience.  A photograph can never take the place of that.  And she was the only one.  I say “she” because, with many butterfly species, the males emerge first to fight for territory, as in the case of the Azures, and the females emerge later, so it stands to reason that they would also die off later.  I had talked to Terry about this and he felt this theory had some logical merit.

When I got a fair number of shots, she flew off and went about her business. Skipping across the ditch, my ruddy, muddy runner seemingly not as messy as I’d feared, I ran into the shade to play back my photos, hoping that at least a few were in focus. The shots seemed okay!  We walked on, hoping there might be more.  John was even awake!

The sky had cleared and everything looked lovely, but the only other butterfly I saw was a female Echo Blue, the most recent common name for “Western Spring Azure”.  As we headed back, we spotted my white-winged friend once again, but she was happily nectaring on herb-Robert and had no further interest in me and my camera.  I let her be as she had posed long enough for this human today.

In the windless warmth of the now clear and sunny afternoon, we came across a damselfly that Terry later identified as a Western Forktail, as well as a female darner that could only be identified as either a California of Blue-eyed Darner.  I took shots of them all as I was just so happy that I had not lost out on this experience, in the utter peace and quiet devoid of any other human contact. Having said this, from now on I will be very alert when John yells out, “Hey, there’s a Cabbage White!”  At least he got the “White” right!  He does have a good eye for spotting a butterfly I miss, even if he has no idea what it might be a lot of the time.

Later this summer, I vow to return to watch the next generation sail by the rails north of Cowichan Station, in their lovely, white glory……without the black crayon markings that showed me a new side to an old friend.  When I do, you’ll be the first to know, and hopefully, with luck again, see any photographs I manage to have gotten to show.

As I wrote this recounting of June 9th a poem came to me.  I’d like to share it with you:

Let them be…


Let them be

these lovely creatures

that grace our lives

and colour our world.

Don’t look away

at the TV or DVD!

Come out into Nature’s Love

and feel what it means

to fly free…

Some have wings,

as white as snow,

but all these beauties


and then go.

Another blessing,

so innocent and pure,

is the sudden appearance

of a lovely Azure.

How on earth can I survive

without knowing

they’re alive?

that they will thrive?

Each one is my favourite,

each one that I lose

can’t be filled

by another one’s shoes.

Let them be.

Let them fly free

for if we don’t take care

they won’t always be there

and then our lives

will hang –

by a hair,

pulled on

too long

then left bare…

© Annie Pang. June 14, 2012.



About annieandterry

This is a blog shared by two friends who have never met in person, Annie Pang and Terry Thormin. We both live on Vancouver Island, Annie in Victoria and Terry in Comox. All communication to date has been either by email or telephone. We are both passionate about nature and conservation and we are both nature photographers. Annie is also a very fine poet and was a concert violinist, while Terry worked as an entomologist for the Royal Alberta Museum until he retired in 2005. We hope you enjoy this joint effort to share our nature musings with anyone who is interested.

Posted on June 16, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Another great story Annie. Thanks for being so open and communicative in your writings. It is a rare thing to find somebody who expresses themselves so completely and graciously.

  2. Wonderful story and poem. Thank you.

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