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Badlands Butterflies

August 12 2018
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Adventure Scientists has put out a call for people doing back country expeditions to collect citizen science data on butterflies and butterfly habitat for their pollinators campaign. I will be making observations in the Sage Creek Wilderness area of the Badlands National Park

August 12 2018

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Mission Underway

I don't just monitor butterflies when I go to the Badlands. I do other stuff too. On my most recent trip I arranged a time to look for fossils with my friend Ed who is park staff and a paleontologist by training. You've probably seen a photo of Ed. Many articles about the rogue tweeter of 2017 used a photo which featured Ed.


He doesn't like to talk about it.

What he does like to talk about is fossils. A lot. Not being a paleontologist I find his conversation fascinating if a occasionally arcane. He will sometimes bust out the technical language but mostly he will remember to use early rhino rather than Subhyracodon with me. I learn a lot just from listening to him talk.

For example, the fossils from the Badlands are not dinosaur fossils. Dinosaurs come from the Mesozoic era which covers of the Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic periods. This time frame mostly predates anything seen at the Badlands. The Badlands geology does have a little of the late Cretaceous but most of the park's geology is from the Cenozoic era which we are in now. Cenozoic means new animal in Greek to describe that this is the time of that newfangled animal the mammal. The fossils found in the Badlands are mammalian, mostly from extinct creatures.

But I digress. Ed and I set out midmorning on a sunny day that was shaping up to be hot towards a formation that Ed told me would have the best chance of yielding a primate. A primate! True, a primate fossil has yet to be found in the Badlands but the timing and the conditions of this particular formation were right for one. He was hopeful and I was hopeful for him. Secretly, I wanted to be part of a Major Find just so I could have bragging rights.

While Major Finds are not common, finding an actual fossil in the Badlands is. The Badlands are rich in fossils. I literally sat on one when I plopped down to ease over a three foot drop. The Badlands are also rich in rock that looks like bone. Ed taught me one of the ways you can tell them apart it so set the find on your tongue. If it sticks, it's bone. If it doesn't, it's rock. I licked a lot of geology that day.

We found a lot of bone and quite a few fossilized teeth. I appreciated in a deeper way how paleontology requires a good background knowledge of osteology. Ed could look at a shard of bone and say something like "Hunh. Looks like part of a rib." Yes, Ed. Yes it does.

None of the bone we found was from a primate but Ed found the jaw of an early dog that he said made the trip worth it. We also found a nice tortoise shell.

Our search brought us to the top of the formation so I got an expansive view of the Badlands from on high. We also enjoyed the breeze which was blocked where we worked below, scrabbling over the rock fall and boulders.

Of course we did not take any fossils even though Ed is park staff. Anything found we left in place, Ed taking the lat/long with a GPS. The park has a process for dealing with finds and those of us who are not park staff should take pictures, note the lat/long and make a report at the visitor's center.

Eventually, the heat of the day prevailed and we hiked back to our cars. Ed had day off business to do and I needed to get on the road, back to home.

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I did a second round of butterfly monitoring in Badlands National Park the weekend of August 25. I chose to hike out Deer Haven in the Conata Basin Wilderness just to see what I would see butterfly wise.


I have hiked out to Deer Haven before. It's a popular hike evidenced by the wear on the trails. Most trails in the park are formed by game or humans, usually some combination of both. Badlands is a free hike park meaning you can go wherever you want. The landscape is so erodible that any degradation is removed with the next few precipitation events and indeed there were places on Deer Haven that the trail just disappeared. The park does have a few established trails and even these are marked by posts rather than ground markers.

And if you were the person on the fat tire bike (I saw the tracks) please check the rules the next time. Free hiking is allowed. Free bicycling is not.

Finding a monitoring site was not as fraught as last time. Having prior experience both with the monitoring and the area made it more relaxed. I knew I would again be looking for a flower patch but beyond that I would go with whatever presented itself. And what presented itself was rabbit brush/sage patch.

Late August is slim pickings when it comes to flowers in the Badlands. It's hot, it's windy, there's not a lot of rain that time of year. Any plants that are blooming are particularly hardy. I saw rabbit brush which I did not see in the Sage Creek area the week before. I also saw sunflowers, snow-on-the-mountain, curly cup gumweed, alfalfa, and flea bane, The butterflies loved the rabbit brush, enjoyed the sunflowers, visited the alfalfa and ignored the rest.

This limited selection made photographing the butterflies easier for me. I will not say it made photographing easy because the butterflies are still very fluttery, especially the #$&*^ sulfers which I will discuss in a moment.

Further complicating the photography, I was working late morning in full sun which meant I could not see the screen of my digital phone camera so I had no idea if the photos were focused or if the butterfly was in the frame. Knowing this I took a lot of photos of every butterfly. Even so I got a lot of duds where the flower is in crisp focus but the butterfly is blurry. Despite 15 photos of the gray hair streak I did not get one good enough to use for identification. Maddening.

And the sulfurs! OMG, the sulfurs. Beyond maddening. I don't whether it was the plant or the time of year or what but they were so much more fluttery on rabbit brush than they were on thistle. On thistle they landed and nectared. On rabbit brush they landed, I lifted my phone, they were gone. I was determined to get up close since I saw both clouded and orange sulfurs, the orange being a lovely creamsicle blush, and wanted an identifying close up of each.

I know by now that the best way to get photos is to pick a plant and wait. But it's still a temptation to go over to that other plant that has more butterflies flitting around, and probably new species or so I was secretly if somewhat irrationally convinced. I gave in to temptation a few times and changed plants which scattered the butterflies, sometimes back to the plant where I was just staked out.

I made a little video about the experience. Production note: I look down a lot. This is because the sun was overhead and it was a bright, sunshiney day. My apologies for the production values.

Even though Deer Haven is a popular destination I was the only person in the vicinity during the hour and a half. I met a returning overnight backpacker on my way out and outgoing backpacker on my way back but other than a flock of big horn sheep I was the only megafauna on scene.

I hiked back to the Deer Haven parking lot without issue. I drove on to the Sage Creek campground area to spend the night. I had arranged to look for fossils the next day with a friend.

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I will update you on my most recent butterfly monitoring expedition in a bit.


However, I need to get this off my chest.

Those who know me are not surprised to learn I love the prairie. I love its open expanses, its extreme seasons, its wildlife.I was raised in the rolling hills of the temperate hardwood forest which I still enjoy visiting in October but I can stay about a week and before I need to see the distant, muted horizon to breathe easily.

My second-or perhaps I should say additional because how do you rank these things?-love is the ocean particularly the Arctic ocean. The ocean like the prairie is filled with the endless expanse of skies. Unlike the prairie the ocean has sea ice punctuated by icebergs that glow an impossible blue that no paint chip can capture because it is a blue of light, not pigment. It is easy for me to figuratively breathe on the ocean.

I live about as far from the ocean as you can get in North America, regardless of direction. And yet, with every other literal breath I know that I am dependent upon the ocean in a manner that transcends platitudes. The ocean produces most of the air we breathe which makes the ocean critical to us, even those of us in the middle of the continent.

When I tromp around the prairie, the Arctic ocean is never far from my thoughts. I think about how the ocean is being impacted by climate change and what can we do right here, right now. Land can sequester carbon if we treat it right. It’s not too late. The Arctic and the coral reefs (the other canary in the climate change mine) are not beyond climate remediation. Yet. It will be long past my lifetime till we can restore them to what they were. But we can still make a difference.

I know good people-and I mean that sincerely-who struggle to get beyond the politics of climate change. I do my best to encourage them on.

I hope it’s enough.

The prairies need the ocean. The ocean needs the prairies.

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Him: How was your trip to the Badlands?


Me: Good. Hot. Sage Creek campground is different; more organized. The campground now has about 30 (ish) sites marked by posts with numbers and picnic tables. The dirtbag vibe is still maintained by having an open area in one section but by bringing some organization to the facilities it’s more campground and less, as one friend called it, Woodstock.

I was able to get out pretty early on Saturday morning. Even at that hour I could tell it was going to be a hot day. I had a site in mind that I thought was a mile away per the requirements of Adventure Scientists. I found out later that it was a mile and a half. Hiking in the Badlands is slow business. Between the grass hiding the uneven footing and the up and down of hills and the ever constant vigilance for rattlesnakes I don’t make great time. In fact I don’t even make good time. It doesn’t help that I stop frequently to look at things like dung beetles or bumblebees.

As I walked I kept an eye out for butterflies, doing pre-monitoring scouting. I was curios. What was there? What kinds of plants were they using? And most important, how easy were they to photograph?

The most common butterfly I saw was an Orange Sulfur. They frequently fluttered by in their loop de loopy way, never alighting for very long. Since I was hiking mostly through grass with the occasional prickly pear cactus (another reason to look at your feet regularly) and not much in the way of flowering plants I can see why they never settled for long. My guess is that when they did they were just taking a tiny rest break.

I tried to take a few practice photos and even with the coaching from Adventure Scientists about start taking photos as soon as you see a butterfly and continue as you moved closer I could not get anything that resembled an identifiable photo.

I passed through a draw or a valley between two hills filled with thistle. Draws are micro-ecosystems with different plants communities than what you find elsewhere because the draws collect the water from the surrounding uplands. Bison had thoughtfully made a path through this draw so I was able to walk through the thistle without too many scratches.

As an aside I always--and by always I mean always--hike in long pants, closed toes shoes and starting recently long sleeve shirts. Sun and bugs and scratchy plants make this a necessity.

Anyway, I was happy to see numerous butterflies on the thistle. Some plants had gone to seed but there were still many plants with flowers. The butterflies alighted and nectared long enough for me to observe and take photos. All I had to do was find a similar patch near the spot I had in mind.

However.

Micro-ecosystems are weird. They can vary from location to location. A little more sun here or a little less water there, some strange alchemy of soil and wind will cause small differences that you will not notice until you are depending on the thistle in a particular location to still have flowers and they don’t.

Such was the case for the thistle patch near my site. There may have been flowers still deep within the patch since I saw a few butterflies but mostly the flowers had gone to seed. I was not motivated enough to push my way in to inspect more closely. There was poison ivy wound through the edges of the patch. Even if I could pick my way past that thistles are well armored and I do not have the hide of a bison to break a path. And, these patches provide a lot of cover and food for little critters which in turn provides food for snakes. I had already seen one snake and felt that was just enough. I didn't need more.

I should know by now that anything you do in the outdoors requires you to be flexible with at least one contingency plan, preferably two. Three is actually not a bad idea. But I hadn’t anticipated that my preselected site wouldn’t be useful so I didn’t have a Plan B let alone Plan C and D.

I spent the next hour wandering around in the increasing heat, fixed on finding the perfect site. This fixation is actually a bad place to find yourself in when in the outdoors. You become inattentive to details, you may take risks that you shouldn’t. It’s easy to make a poor decision. The one good decision I did make was that I decided to head back towards the campground by a different route rather than press forward to new territory.

I considered and rejected several sites, trudging on until I pulled myself up short. I did some calculations. It was getting hotter. The monitoring itself took a half hour for plants and an hour for butterflies and there was the return walk on top of that. I checked my water. I had a good supply but it wouldn’t last all day. I had to get started. Good enough really is good enough, I told myself. I breached a hill and there it was, the good enough site that actually turned out to be pretty darn close to perfect. In the draw there were stands of different kinds of flowers including thistle and a scattering of other species on the hill. I saw butterflies. There was no poison ivy. This was it.

After half an hour of plant monitoring and half an hour of working the draw for butterflies I climbed the hill where I had seen a few gayfeathers with butterflies. I plopped down next to them, ready to sit for a while. My plan was to sit quietly and wait for the butterflies to come to me.

After about ten minutes of waiting with no butterflies I did what anyone with a camera phone and time on their hands does. I took a selfie, mentally captioning it “Oh nothing, just sitting here on the prairie waiting for butterflies. You?” Within a minute the first butterfly arrived. For the remaining 20 minutes I observed and took photos of butterflies including one gray one that I had not seen in the draw. When the alarm sounded indicating that my hour was up I felt the monitoring was successful. I documented six different species of flowering plant and three different kinds of butterflies, the Orange Sulfur and two others I still have to ID.

I had a return walk ahead of me so I shouldered my pack, set my hat and headed back to the campground. I arrived about an hour later red of face and perspiring but still with water in my bag which means I didn’t wait too long. If you come in dry that means you broke into your emergency supply.

I am pretty happy with my inaugural pollinator monitoring. Despite a mini #fieldworkfail of the thistles gone to seed at my designated monitoring site, I was able to make observations and any time you leave the field with data is a win.

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Expedition Background

Adventure Scientists is a nonprofit organization that recruits and trains volunteers from the outdoor adventure community in citizen science protocols. The volunteers collect data from the remote wilderness while they are on back country expeditions doing their adventure thing. The data, requested by a research or conservation organization, supports (not surprisingly) conservation research and outcomes. Recently, Adventure Scientists partnered with the University of Arizona on a project that seeks data on butterflies and their habitat in the back country to better understand pollinators in the wilderness.


I have been aware of Adventure Scientists for a while but have just signed up for my first project, the pollinator project. I am pleased to share that I applied and was accepted to collect data on butterflies and flowers in the wilderness areas of Badlands National Park. I have tentatively selected a site near the Middle Fork/Sage Creek confluence in the Sage Creek Wilderness area where I have seen butterflies before. Below is a photo taken in the vicinity of my site last September. I believe it is of a Variegated Fritillary on rabbitbrush. I am also looking at the Deer Haven area in the Conata Basin Wilderness for a suitable site. My goal is to visit at least three times between now and the beginning of October.

Adventure Scientists have a spiffy online training program to help prepare you for the field. Be aware. They have set high standards. You have to pass the online training quiz with 100% before you can collect the data. You can take the quiz multiples times and yes, that is what I had to do. Just remember what your 5th grade teacher told you about reading questions carefully. If you have done all the training thoroughly and not just skimmed the material you will have no problems.

The data that is being collected are not butterfly specimens but rather observations which are then uploaded to iNaturalist.. Volunteers also observe flowers. Each observation session lasts an hour and a half. I've been contributing to iNaturalist for about three years now and I'm excited to be contributing to body of knowledge about wild pollinators.

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Love Adventure Scientists! I’ve always thought OE could be a great way for them to document. Glad you’re doing it!!