Pining for the Pine White Butterfly – Annie Pang
“Look who has come now, all trimmed in black lace,
riding down on a breeze right up to my face!
A slow drifting snowflake in late summer’s light,
floating down from the firs is the dancing Pine White…”
How I wait for and welcome this beautiful and once plentiful butterfly that appears sometime between mid-July to early August, depending on the weather. This year, it has been a bit later as most other species have been, if seen at all but now has finally come out, along with the Woodland Skipper. The European Skipper is gone and so are the swallows where these little butterflies were. It was hard to see the swallows vanish from areas where they were once so abundant. Something is very, very wrong and even laypeople are seeing it…..well the ones I talk to anyhow. There aren’t enough insects to support our swallows and other insect-eating migratory and resident birds.
Getting back to the Pine White butterfly, it is easily one of the prettiest butterflies we get locally, and not only to my eye. Maybe it is because I have to work so hard to find them where shots can be taken at fairly close range with my camera, for they often will not come down from their lofty homes, especially the females, or if/when they do I’m not there when it happens!
The first day this year that I did manage to photograph a Pine White was up on Observatory Hill, but before this I must rewind to July 30th, the day before, when we went to Beaver Lake Ponds as this was where I got my first clues for this year that the Pine Whites were out. It is also one place I feel well worth mentioning on its own.
Earlier in the spring, I’d been to the Ponds a few times, but the place had been so badly flooded from all the rain we’d had that access to the area where I’d hoped to find the Four-spotted Skimmer was cut off. This time, however, after months without much rain I was certain I could get through the narrowed path enclosed by a zigzag wooden fence, probably put there to keep out motorcycles and bikes. I could see the lovely man-made ponds that were running wild with water lilies and were now habitat for a number of indigenous creatures. This place had always been, for me, a place of solace and refuge.
But access to the ponds as I’d known them in previous years was still flooded and I had to walk around the long way, where horses, cyclists, joggers and folks walking their dogs had a proper trail adjacent to private properties. I was surprised and disappointed until something white came zipping up from the trail suddenly flying out and up, right into my face and then … it disappeared. We looked up and searched the trees and we saw them. Like bits of floating tissue amongst the firs, there was no comparing them to the skittish flight pattern of the Cabbage Whites. Seeing Pine Whites in flight was, to my eye, more poetic and reflective of the lazy summer days.
The Pine White butterfly spends most of its life cycle high up in the world of hemlock (where hemlock can be found these days?), pines and Douglas firs. Overwintering as an egg the caterpillars feed in spring on the new growth of needles. The adult emerges from its chrysalis later in the summer to mate and females lay their eggs up in the treetops, with both sexes only coming down to nectar on flowers. But aside from the one that I startled on some nearby Oceanspray that looked a bit past its “Best Before” date, they would not come down that day where I was as there were no other flowers along the trail in the sun to tempt them.
While we were there however, I decided to check out the ponds from this side. We turned off the main trail onto a path leading towards the ponds and it was here I spotted a few different dragonflies that posed beautifully for some decent shots which I simply couldn’t pass up. I managed to get both a male and a female 8-spotted Skimmer, the male being immature, as a mature male develops a powdery white coating (known as “Pruinescence”) that covers the abdomen and this one had not as yet. But it did have the claspers of a male plus the white patches and black “spots” on its wings. The female’s wings were typical of the species; clear other than the 8 “spots” of black on the wings.
The next dragonflies we encountered were a few Paddletail Darners but I did not manage any shots of them as I find I’m just not quick enough or patient enough these days with time so constrained and my reflexes a bit too slow. As well, the area we’d normally spent time trying to get them in flight even on this side was still flooded by….. maybe a beaver, and access to the narrowed pathway with the wooden fenceway was still flooded on this far side as well, although I could see the path itself, mucky and a bit forlorn-looking, being cut off by water.
But I did luck out in finding a Striped Meadowhawk. I really enjoy the Meadowhawks as they are “perchers” and easy to get decent pictures of but I’ve never managed to get one in flight as Terry managed to do with his Blue Dasher and Four-spotted Skimmer, all of them being “perchers” rather than “cruisers” like the Darners.
Although the dragonflies were a balm to my growing frustration with this elusive butterfly, I wasn’t ready to give up on the Pine White and this is what found us driving up “Little Saanich Mountain”, also known as “Observatory Hill” (this is where the Observatories are), the next day. A friend of mine had found and photographed a male Pine White here last year some days after I’d found my first one in a different locale, so I was optimistically reserved.
At first, as we arrived, we found a few drifting from treetop to treetop but nothing to see at ground level. We had parked in the same area I’d come out and photographed the Pine White the year before after my friend had told me about it, at the base of the top clearing, where the first buildings are. Discouraged again that there was nothing at ground level, I told John to drive the van slowly up further as I kept walking and searching. A few minutes later, John pulled up by me and, in an excited voice, told me that one had come down to nectar. We drove back down and I saw nothing at first, and then – there he was!
I say “he” because the males and females differ quite a bit in appearance. This male gave me a generous amount of time before leaving. When I looked at the pictures later, I saw he was damaged but I was happy enough to find one, even if the birds may have gotten to him first.
But I was determined to continue my search. The following day, we set out to cover three different locations. The first was Esquimalt Gorge Park where I knew for certain that there was Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) coming into bloom, but despite this I found no sign of Pine Whites in the decreasing number of firs in the park. Once these lands were filled with old growth forests, but with clearing the land of more and more trees, the Pine Whites had less and less habitat in this area and with less habitat, any woodpeckers and Pine White populations weakened second and third growth firs so that winter and spring windstorms easily brought down yet more treetops or entire trees.
Our next stop was “The Garden Path”, a private garden owned by Carolyn Herriot and Guy Dauncey, both conservationalists. There we saw a few Pine Whites up in fir treetops again, and again, not coming down. With a sigh I figured it was time to check out Glendale Gardens before giving up.
We arrived in short time and this time I struck gold…….or Goldenrod in full bloom in the garden entrance. And there were Pine Whites in Douglas firs across the street!! One was flying lower and lower and…..it finally alighted on the Goldenrod to feast…..right smack on the fence side where I could not possibly get to it without creeping like some sort of criminal through the neatly mulched flower garden. But such was my growing frustration that I decided desperate times called for desperate measures. I told John to watch for anyone looking, and I gingerly stepped in behind and out of sight snapping longshots of the nectaring butterfly as I crept closer and closer. What madness to be sneaking about like this to get shots of a solitary butterfly where there used to be so many!! Did I feel guilty? Not a bit! It was another male and though he jumped about a bit, he kept returning and I was allowed to get so close at times, I had to pull my zoom lens in. People walked by but didn’t seem to notice or care, including some staff. I was not a new sight to them there. This butterfly was in pristine shape and I wanted as many good shots as I could get!
And so, third time lucky, though hot, sweaty and tired, we checked in with the office so I could make my “confession” while showing the pictures I’d gotten. All I got were smiles, a few “oo’s and ahh’s”, a very good thing, and then we were off home. But this year I have seen no females at ground level and although I have photographed males every year since I began photography, I’ve only managed to find a female twice in all this time.
According to butterfly expert, Cris Guppy, whom I’ve had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with, I quote from a recent email exchange with his permission regarding this butterfly we both seem to be quite fond of:
“There are records from the early 1900s of huge outbreaks of Pine Whites that resulted in drifts of them washing up along the top of beaches. The last outbreak in BC that I know of was in Cathedral Grove west of Parksville in the early 1960s, which the Forest Service sprayed insecticide on. I was a kid with my family driving through there, with “snowdrifts” of bodies along the side of the highway. I suspect that they require large areas of old growth hemlock and Douglas fir forest to build up huge populations, and logging put an end to both the old forests and the huge populations of Pine Whites.” – Cris Guppy
With the major upheaval that occurred at Esquimalt Gorge Park while putting in the new Japanese Garden, this is the first year I have found no Pine Whites in their main garden area nearby. I count this now as two butterfly populations eradicated in this park due to habitat disruption or destruction.
Before closing with this sonnet and a file picture of a female Pine White, I’d like to wager that as soon as this blog is posted, I may well find and photograph a female. If that does happen, I’ll post it with a very brief (I promise) poem and comment!
Song to a Pine White Butterfly
Dear butterfly, so beautiful and fair,
what have we done to make you hard to find?
Cut down so many trees without a care
and poisoned you for living! Oh how blind
and greedy has the human race become.
So now I struggle just to find a few
and if I search enough I may find some.
How lucky I feel now that I found you.
But where is your sweet lady? Does she fly
high up beyond my reach where I can’t see?
High up, too high up for this sorrowed eye,
it makes me ponder how this came to be.
Some day I hope that we will meet again,
beyond this place where greed brings only pain…
© Annie Pang August 7, 2012.