See the World from a Butterfly’s Point of View

(You can also read this blog, with different butterfly photos, at the Oregon Natural Desert Association’s website.)

Western Tiger Swallowtail on milkweed. Photo: Kim Elton

Western Tiger Swallowtail on milkweed. Photo: Kim Elton

I wonder if butterflies might get annoyed with all the poetic language they attract. They’re “tiny rainbows,” “flying flowers,” and “ephemeral angels.” We use them as metaphors for transformation and symbols of beauty, joy, and immortality.

But what are they really?

My fear is that with all the chatter about beautiful butterflies reflecting the sky or brightening our summer days, we might overlook the astonishing truth of what they’re actually doing out there in the wild and in our backyards.

On your next hike or camping trip in Central or Eastern Oregon, when you see some of the butterflies shown here, consider the remarkable ways in which they, like us, are sensing the world.

Here’s looking at you, Cabbage White. Photo: Sue Anderson

Here’s looking at you, Cabbage White. Photo: Sue Anderson

Sight

Look at the head of a butterfly to see the two tiny compound eyes that give them a wide field of vision (yes, they see you too). They can look up, down, to the side, forward, and backward at the same time, and they can detect colors into the ultraviolet range that confounds us.

Their eyes have tens of thousands of individual light receptors—picture a honeycomb—each with its own microscopic lens. When the amount of light hitting the receptors changes, as when a predator or a net approaches, butterflies can detect the movement and take evasive action.

Juba Skippers might hear you coming. Photo: Sue Anderson

Juba Skippers might hear you coming. Photo: Sue Anderson

Sound

Butterfly hearing hasn’t been studied for long—there is so much about even the most common of animals that we’re still learning. But we do know that some butterflies can hear using a membrane located on their wings (or other body parts) that vibrates in response to sounds.

Some moths have ears tuned to the high-frequency echolocation calls of bats; when they hear those calls, they either take evasive action or drop to the ground as if dead. Butterfly hearing is thought to be similar, only theirs is tuned to different frequencies—like the low-frequency sound of a bird’s wings flapping as it swoops in for a meal.

This Lorquin’s Admiral smells using the tips of its antennae. Photo: Dave Rein

This Lorquin’s Admiral smells using the tips of its antennae. Photo: Dave Rein

Smell

Butterflies have chemoreceptors similar to the ones in our noses, but theirs are located on their feet and antennae. The club-like tips of butterfly antennae are especially dense with chemoreceptors, which can sense the honey-like odor of nectar or the smell of pheromones emitted by males of some species.

Mud provides valuable minerals to these California Tortoiseshells. Photo: Sue Anderson

Mud provides valuable minerals to these California Tortoiseshells. Photo: Sue Anderson

Touch

Butterflies touch and feel leaves, flowers, and other objects with their feet, antennae, proboscis, and tiny hairs all over their bodies.

Taste

Butterflies eat leaves and other food when they’re larvae (caterpillars), building up strength to eventually transform into adults. During their usually brief adult lives, they don’t eat anything. Instead, they drink nectar and other substances using the straw-like proboscis at the front of their heads.

They also taste leaves using chemoreceptors on their forelegs, which is especially important for female butterflies when they’re trying to find the right place to lay their eggs. Each butterfly species can only lay eggs successfully on certain host plants that provide the right nutrients—most famously, Monarchs need to lay their eggs on milkweeds.

Watch closely, and sometime you might see a butterfly drumming her legs—sometimes all six legs—on a leaf to draw out juices for the chemoreceptors on her legs to test. Only if the taste is right, indicating that the leaf is indeed that of a host plant, will she deposit one or more of her eggs.

Get out there

The next time your friend remarks on a butterfly’s beauty while walking quickly past, you might stop and say, “You know, they’re more than just beautiful …” Then stay for a while. Pull out your binoculars and your field guide, so you can both identify the species and appreciate how that one individual is experiencing the world.

A Painted Lady dips her proboscis into a flower. Photo: Sue Anderson

A Painted Lady dips her proboscis into a flower. Photo: Sue Anderson

About the author

LeeAnn Kriegh is the author of The Nature of Bend. Her second book, The Nature of Portland, will be on bookshelves in spring 2020.

Don't Miss the Central Oregon Superbloom

Every summer brings pretty wildflowers to arid regions east of Bend, but this year is special. Like Southern California this spring, we’re witnessing a superbloom due to high snowfall and greater-than-average rainfall.

A friend who lives in Alfalfa, about 15 miles east of Bend, said, “I have never seen such a phenomenal wildflower season in 30 years, and it may be another 30 years before it happens again.”

You don't want to miss it. Head out this week to the Oregon Badlands Wilderness or other rocky, sandy areas east or north of Bend. Go early or go late to avoid high temperatures. But go.

On BLM land yesterday, about 20 minutes east of Bend, the ground was carpeted in more threadleaf phacelia (Phacelia linearis) than I’ve ever seen before.

Threadleaf phacelia

Threadleaf phacelia

Tucked under all those elegant purple flowers you’ll spot mound after mount of pink—those are cheerful dwarf monkeyflowers (Diplacus nanus).

Dwarf monkeyflower

Also look for pom-poms of very happy buckwheats (Eriogonum spp.), which as deeply drought-tolerant species, are probably getting more water than they know what to do with.

Sulphur-flower buckwheat. Photo: M.A. Willson

Sulphur-flower buckwheat. Photo: M.A. Willson

If you can’t get out to explore the high desert in the next week or so, keep trying. Yellow western groundsel (Senecio integerrimus) and Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum) will be out in force, along with everyone’s favorite, green-banded mariposa lilies (Calochortus macrocarpus). If you go in the evening, also keep an eye out for night-blooming granite gilia (Linanthus pungens).

Green-banded mariposa lily. Photo: Ron Halvorson

Green-banded mariposa lily. Photo: Ron Halvorson

Remembering M.A.

M.A. Willson in her natural element.

M.A. Willson in her natural element.

Before I get all sentimental, here’s a tip: Go to mawillson.com for the best, most detailed information about where to hike, and when, to see wildflowers in Central Oregon.

You’ll learn that you’re running out of time to hit Alder Springs, and that the last week in June is usually the best time to go to Coffin Mountain. She also details "the premier hikes in Central Oregon" that you should explore in August.

In all, M.A. Willson’s site features a dozen hikes near Bend, with ideas for the Columbia River Gorge and the Arctic too. Each destination includes more than a dozen photos of wildflowers you’ll see along the way, plus directions and tips for your trip.

That website—which she created simply as a gift to her fellow nature lovers—is how I met M.A. Willson six years ago. I ran across her site while researching The Nature of Bend, and asked M.A. if she might have wildflower photos she’d be willing to share. I thought maybe she’d donate a few, but she ended up providing more than 60, including many of the most spectacular photos in the book, and she lent her considerable expertise too.

Bitterroot, one of M.A.’s favorites.

Bitterroot, one of M.A.’s favorites.

More importantly, M.A. became a friend.

I should point out that she created that website when she was in her 70s, and she was well into her 80s before I met her. So, if you didn’t know her, maybe it won’t be a surprise to tell you that M.A. passed away last June, at the age of 87.

But if you did know her, maybe like me you can’t help but think she should still be heliskiing in Canada or rafting the Owyhee or gardening better than the rest of us.

On the last active day of her life, M.A. gave a talk about wildflowers to a packed house at Broken Top Bottle Shop. I remember how light on her feet she was that night, how on point and comfortable, and how she looked forward to her post-talk beer.

It was clear to the room full of friends, family, and strangers that she’d been everywhere, knew what you’d find on every trail, and had pretty photos of all the plants you might want to know.

At the end of her talk, she handed out laminated bookmarks of photos she'd taken over the years. Then she had that beer, and a good dinner too, before walking out of the restaurant and suffering a heart attack.

Beargrass is another of her favorite blooms.

Beargrass is another of her favorite blooms.

Being M.A., she insisted on driving herself to the emergency room, where she spent the next week or so saying her goodbyes and making to-do lists for her daughter. She also told her book club which book they should read next.

Somehow or other, it’s June again, meaning a year has passed without M.A. in it. I can’t tell you how sad that makes me, but you know how it goes: There’s no stopping change, no slowing down time, no life without death. You can’t have the good side of nature, with all its beauty, and not have the rest of it.

To celebrate her life with me, please use her wonderfully generous website to explore Central Oregon’s best hikes. And in life, if not out on the trail, go ahead and leave a trace. Share what you find beautiful. Make friends every year of your life. Laugh so hard your body shakes and your eyes earn their wrinkles. Be a force of nature, like M.A.

A Funny Little Owl

Pronghorn are perhaps the most graceful animal native to the high desert country of Central and Eastern Oregon. Golden Eagles are the most majestic, Greater Sage-Grouse the most emblematic.

And Burrowing Owls? They’re the funniest.

Five Burrowing Owls, Floridana, Florida. by Travelwayoflife,  CC BY-SA 2.0

Five Burrowing Owls, Floridana, Florida. by Travelwayoflife, CC BY-SA 2.0

Let us never overlook the fact that we’re talking about owls who live in dark underground burrows. Not for them the trees that most other birds prefer. No, they move into holes in the ground excavated by prairie dogs, ground squirrels, skunks, and in our area, badgers.

The owls dig with their beaks and make dirt fly with their feet, reshaping the old burrows to their liking and decorating them with cow manure, feathers, grass, and whatever else strikes their fancy (the manure is thought to attract insects for eating and might mask the owls' scent from predators).

The oddest of owls

Burrowing Owls’ predilection for the subterranean is not their only oddity. They also fly during the day as well as at night. And they don’t hoot; they coo (and warble, cluck, and scream). When threatened, they mimic the threatening hiss of a rattlesnake.

More unusual still are their legs. Imagine yourself as the designer of Burrowing Owls, holding a clump of brown clay in your hands. First, you shape the body to be about the size of a bulky American Robin—which is to say a quite small owl. But then you find yourself with lots of excess clay. What to do? And so you roll the clay into two cigars, each maybe four inches long, and attach them as legs—very, very long and very, very not-owl-like legs. Add some bloomer-like white feathers at the tops of the legs, and you’ve got yourself a Burrowing Owl.

Those long legs are a smart adaptation that allows Burrowing Owls to stand tall like curious meerkats, peering this way and that across the broad expanses of grasslands and sagebrush country where they live. They also use their feathered stilts to speed across the ground chasing prey, their bodies thrust forward like a tourist on a Segway.

It’s actually not their long legs that make Burrowing Owls such a social media darling, subject of hundreds of memes and videos—or at least it's not solely their legs. It’s also their white unibrow, which, when lowered, makes them look comically offended and, when raised, suggests the wide-eyed curiosity of a puppy.

Add to their expressive unibrow their body bobs, 180-degree head tilts to the left and right, and communal nature (so you can see groups of them bobbing and tilting at once), and you start to understand why just about everyone loves a Burrowing Owl.

Adoration isn’t enough

Unfortunately, despite our affection for them, we’re not doing a great job of protecting these owls. It used to be you could get your truck’s grill cleaned by nesting Burrowing Owls while you used the facilities at the Brothers Oasis (the rest area in the tiny town of Brothers, Ore.).

But those owls, and countless others across the country, have been killed by people who were trying to kill something else—ground squirrels, in the case of the mating pair in Brothers. The sad irony is that Burrowing Owls are on the same side as landowners, regularly eating their fill of ground squirrels, pocket gophers, and other rodents.

Today, Burrowing Owls are considered “birds of conservation concern” both federally and in Oregon and seven other Western states. It’s not only poisoning and pesticides that’s causing their declining populations but also (and perhaps mostly) habitat loss. They need flat, open territories—shrub-steppe and grasslands, ideally, or agricultural fields and pastures. In Oregon, they also need badgers around to build burrows.

Which brings us to public lands, which provide the natural habitat that Burrowing Owls and just about every other bird needs. Deepening protections of the wild lands of southeast Oregon, for instance, would help these owls and hundreds of other species. So would installation of artificial nest burrows and the addition of more habitat protection programs throughout Central and Eastern Oregon.

There’s nothing funny about the dangers facing Burrowing Owls, but the good news is that through the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) and other like-minded organizations, we can take action to ensure these odd little owls are still out there for a long time to come, cooing and hissing, bobbing and head-tilting, burrowing and bringing us joy.

Species Spotlight: Curlleaf Mountain-Mahogany

Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany seeds and tails.

Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany seeds and tails.

I wrote this blog about one of my favorite trees for the Oregon Natural Desert Association. ONDA is a local nonprofit that's absolutely tireless in their efforts to protect and defend the high desert of Central and Eastern Oregon.

You can view the story on ONDA's site—here. It's the first of a five-part series spotlighting species that depend on the habitats ONDA works to protect.

And here's the blog, in case you'd rather not make that extra click.

Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany Trees live their lives on a different timescale than ours, so it helps to slow ourselves down to fully appreciate them. Certainly a shrubby little tree like curlleaf mountain-mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) isn't going to catch our eye if we're racing past along the trail. But take time for a closer look, and you'll probably be adding this one to your list of favorite trees in Central Oregon.

On the topic of timescales, consider that few of us will celebrate our 100th birthday, while at that age the slow-growing mountain-mahogany has barely begun. The tree doesn't reach its full height until about the century mark, and from there it can go on living for at least another 1,200 years. Such a long lifespan is especially remarkable given that the tree grows in some of our most inhospitable conditions: at elevation, often in drought conditions, and on highly exposed rocky ridges and buttes.

One key to the mountain-mahogany's long life is that it's a nitrogen fixer like peas and alders, which means that at least some individuals have bacteria-filled nodules on their roots that convert nitrogen into a usable, water-soluble form-basically, they manufacture their own fertilizer. That can help the trees survive harsh growing conditions, and it's also been shown to support the growth and vitality of the grasses and wildflowers that grow near them.

But let's get back to us out on the trail, slowing down to appreciate mountain-mahogany. If it's spring, stop first and listen for the hum of activity. Although the tree is mostly pollinated by the wind, it's also popular with a host of buzzing pollinators, including lots of native bees.

Step even closer to smell the tiny whitish-yellow trumpet flowers-they offer up one of the sweetest aromas you'll find on any of our native trees or shrubs. You can also see the stamens (male reproductive parts) sticking out well past the petals, like tiny arms with fistfuls of pollen that they're offering to the wind.

On warm summer days, scoop up and crush a handful of the inches-deep drifts of orange and rust-colored leaves that have fallen under the trees, and inhale deeply. Sometimes the leaves are too old or dried out and you won't smell much, but oh, when you get it just right-it's such a joy to discover a new scent (rather like a sweet tobacco) in an unexpected place, from a tree that few people even notice.

Late summer is the best time for simply looking at mountain-mahoganies because they'll be covered in seeds with one- to three-inch curly white tails trailing behind (the genus name, Cercocarpus, means "tailed fruit"). When the wind blows a seed from the tree, the feathery streamer helps it fly a little farther. Eventually the seed settles on the ground, with the streamer still attached and spiraled like a pig's tail. When it rains or gets humid enough, the spiral unwinds, effectively drilling the seed into the ground so it can germinate in the spring.

You can test this amazing process for yourself: Wet one of the wispy streamers and place it in your palm, then watch as it slowly straightens before your eyes.

To see (and smell and touch and listen to) curlleaf mountain-mahogany, head to Pine Mountain, the Dry River Canyon, or lots of other public lands that ONDA is working to protect.