The Second Flight of the Margined White – Annie Pang
“I don’t think we should go” I muttered over and over, but John was indifferent to the potential waste of time and precious little energy I had as well as the depression that had come with my ongoing disappointments. He silently kept packing the few supplies we would need and so did I as I paced back and forth putting stuff by the door. On this day, I felt like a piece of walking bad luck. The butterfly season had been alarming in so many ways. It wasn’t just the lack of butterfly numbers in Victoria, but my entire world, it seemed, had gone missing and in its place had come only chaos and bewilderment.
If you recall, the last time we had been to Cowichan Station I had spotted a single Margined White butterfly during the last of its spring flight and I couldn’t see, with butterfly numbers so low this year, how I had possibly let myself miss my records of previous years’ dates, when I had done my trips in July for the summer flight of this species. I was late, but then everything was late this year, so why was I so resistant to going? The butterfly was calling to me again, but I was only hearing the fear inside. Time had passed quickly this last month and now John insisted we go even if I was feeling agoraphobic.
Once again I found myself traversing the Island Highway, John driving as I spun wool in my lap almost mechanically until I realized I was missing the beautiful vista of the scenery driving over the Malahat. I wish I had taken a picture or maybe several, but I don’t think anything could have done it justice. Gone was my tiny little world of troubles, opened up by the vast expanse of forest, sky, mountainside and waters, far below us, as we climbed higher and higher away from the city.
But the day was hot, too hot for me and I remained overly worried that the butterflies would not be there. It was a forty minute drive to Cowichan Station, maybe longer, and by the time we arrived there the heat had become suffocating. No butterfly would be landing to sun in this. I hadn’t wanted to make this trip just to see them because that was never enough. My camera was hungry.
Things seemed different from the previous month as we parked by the old building. The angle of the sun had changed a great deal. Vegetation had grown dense and tall, was bearing fruit or flower. There were lots of daisies in bloom as well as yellow, dandelion-like flowers. The hogweed had finished flowering and was going to seed making it seem later than last year, maybe too late. We walked along the rails anyhow as we had come all this way and had nothing to lose. There was no sign of life that belonged to any butterfly though plenty of honey bee-laden thistles so we kept trekking along the tracks and I took pictures of one thing or another out of frustration, while the sun pounded down on me.
While I passed a few patches of Herb-Robert I still saw no butterflies. Time passed – we took solace in the cooling shade of trees and ferny areas and finally came around a curve, into a sunny glen beyond a tunnel of Big-Leaf Maples…..and there they were, like summer snowflakes flying up and down, back and forth – at least 10 or more just in that sun-bathed spot, sometimes landing on Herb-Robert to nectar but not very often and certainly not long enough for me! I could tell this wasn’t going to be an easy time with the temperatures so warm.
Obsessed with getting any pictures at all, I moved in as one butterfly landed beneath some vegetation and took a number of very poor shots that were out of focus and in poor light. I gave up and let them have their summery flights of fancy, which were more likely for territory and mating rituals. We decided to walk further and return later because this was their turf and they weren’t going anywhere else.
Up ahead, in another sunlight clearing we spotted a second horde of Margined Whites, and as we slowly crept up I found one that was hungry and wanted to land, and then another and another! Engrossed, I got one in the sun, its wings an opaque-white with an almost greenish tinge as it nectared on Herb-Robert. Then it was off, but I’d gotten my first decent shots and was feeling better, much better.
Suddenly there was a flurry of activity in front of me. A female had landed on a long, wide blade of vegetation and there was a very persistent male butterfly wanting to mate with her. What luck for me! They might mate or she might choose another but either way, at least for the moment, she didn’t seem to want to budge. I saw her raise her abdomen, her way of rejecting his advances, yet as he persisted I had the opportunity to get fairly close and take a number of shots of her in the oh-too-bright sun.
Happy me! But eventually, another male approached and then another and suddenly they were all spiraling in a furious, white flurry …
Up, up, to the brilliant sky.
“Bye, bye, butterfly…”
I was pooped. We had walked a long way and I was all for heading back.
As we passed the large leaves of Thimbleberry bushes, a flash of swirling orange flew up to the side. I swear it was the same area as in previous years where I’d seen at least one Satyr Comma and this was no exception except that there were two of them. Only one landed but in the heat, there were only side shots to be had for the butterflies had no need to sun with opened wings. I took the best ones I could although the angles were awkward. And then, I saw a lovely little dragonfly and at first thought it was another female damselfly, but it wasn’t. It was some sort of spreadwing. I took the best shots I could, but the lighting for this camera was either too harshly overexposed or too dim and it simply did not want to focus on the spreadwing very well. This was my very first sighting of one and so, once again I became very frustrated. But the shots were good enough for a small peek at what I saw; a young female Emerald Spreadwing! My thanks to Terry and Rob Cannings for helping to identify it. I have only given you a small glimpse below with the following picture of the Satyr Comma. When it is older it will look more like Terry’s most excellent picture of a mature female Emerald Spreadwing which he most generously offered to let me use.
I also spotted a number of European Skippers that had not been in evidence only an hour earlier. I had never seen them in this area before, but as Cowichan Valley was covered in rural farmland and these skippers seemed to travel with the transport or presence of Timothy hay, I’ve since learned, it wasn’t all that surprising to see them here.
The day grew older.
Back at the initial clearing where we’d seen the first cluster of Whites, I spotted one that was flying low as if looking for a place to land, always a promising sign for getting pictures. It finally did alight in a shady spot by the rails to nectar on yet more Herb-Robert, which seems to be the Margined White’s favorite flavor of flower that I’ve noticed here. I pretty much had to lie down on the tracks but I got my shots and it was fascinating to me how the light played with the images of this creature, now making it translucent. I could see its body and spirit through its wings in these shots, both magical and nymph-like. At the end of my tale I will leave you with a double sonnet and the best image I was able to get lying there in the peace and heat of the abandoned rails.
I can’t explain to you why these butterflies are more beautiful to my eye than the Cabbage White. Is it because they are less plentiful in general and not found at all down in Victoria? Is it because I must come this far to find them? Perhaps so, or perhaps it is because they are a butterfly of this land, because they belong here and they have their territories that I know about. Perhaps it is because they give me hope by their reliable continuance….at least for now. This place has not been altered or disturbed recently and there is no development going on. The tracks have been deserted for years, although when the train came along in previous years, it never bothered these Margined Whites though we’d had to scramble up the side of a slight rising next to the tracks as the train came whistling around the corner to whoosh by, only a few meters from our noses. I looked over my shoulder at the sad and ghostly image of the overgrown railroad as we went back to the van, and a part of me hoped that the train would someday return so that others might once again travel through this lovely place, this lovely land where snowflakes fly in summer, and once again they could marvel at all this beauty. Maybe it would help us stop to look at what we all have to lose if we keep disturbing the habitat of our lovely bit of nature that is left.
And I don’t think the butterflies would mind the odd passing of an old friend, be it a train or someone seeking hope…with a camera…
Return of the Margined White
I promised you, remember? They’d return
and bathe their wings in Summer’s golden light,
but you must walk the rails amidst the fern
while watching for my children’s drifting flight.
Like purest snowflakes, floating ‘round the bend,
you’ll see them settle on a bloom to feed
and what a dance amongst them you will spend,
and how much patience you, my dear, will need.
For they care not how far you came to see them,
their lives too short for them to want to waste.
You’d know things wiser if you tried to be them
and then, perhaps, more wisdom would you taste.
You’ll hear their call and, if you’re quiet and still,
they’ll let you and your camera drink your fill…
You see, my dear, behold the summer flight
returning as I told you that we would,
our wings still margined but of lovely white
and I would be there like this if I could.
We butterflies are only here so long
before our time is over and we’re gone
so heed our calling, listen to our song
that you have always so depended on.
Then we will land because we see you here
and we will tease you – lead you here and there
until you’ve lost your worries and your fear,
until you left behind your every care.
And landing on a tiny bloom to feed,
we let you seize this time with us you need…
© Annie Pang July 2012