My guest today is Paul Johnson. Paul is a Wildlife Biologist at Pinnacles National Park, and a long time lepidopterist, or one who studies butterflies and moths. Paul also leads several North American Butterfly Association (NABA) butterfly counts in California, which is how I got connected with Paul in the first place, and a primary focus of this episode.
Today, we discuss Paul’s path to wildlife biology and butterflies in particular. Being a wildlife biologist at a National Park sounds like a dream job to me, so I also probed a bit about what that is like, and what makes Pinnacles National Park such a unique place. As a hint, Pinnacles is named for geologically unique spires of volcanic origin.
We then turn our attention to butterflies and butterfly counts – in particular the North American Butterfly Association, or NABA, Fourth of July counts. Despite the name, these counts are held over the months of June and July.
We discuss the structure and goals of the counts and how to participate. With 450 counts across North America, and most skill levels needed, there might be an opportunity for you!
Paul also discusses butterfly behavior, which aside from being fascinating, is also helpful for finding them. This includes behaviors such as hilltopping, mudpuddling, larval food plant associations, and more.
You can find Paul on iNaturalist as euproserpinus (you-pro-serpinus). And if you are interested in participating in a NABA butterfly count, check out naba.org for the count circles and count leaders (or this link for additional details for Northern California counts).
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Links To Topics Discussed
People and Organizations
Art Shapiro – professor of Evolution and Ecology at the University of California, Davis, Dr. Shapiro has been tracking butterflies for 45+ years
Jerry Powell – UC Berkeley entomologist
Xerces Society – nonprofit focused on conservation of invertebrates and their habitats
Books and Other Things
Handbook for Butterfly Watchers – by Robert Michael Pyle
The Butterflies of North America – A Natural History and Field Guide – by James Scott
Other Butterfly-centric Nature’s Archive Episodes
Note: links to books are affiliate links
Opening – Fearless First by Kevin MacLoed
Closing – Beauty Flow by Kevin MacLoed
Both can be obtained from https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/
Transcripts are automatically created, and are about 95% accurate. Apologies for any errors.
[00:00:00] Michael Hawk: Paul, thank you so much for joining me today.
[00:00:02] Paul Johnson: Oh, thanks for having me. I listened to your podcast And I love it. So I’m really fortunate to be here today.
[00:00:07] Michael Hawk: So as I often like to ask my guests who are so interested in nature and have been able to accomplish so much, where did you grow up and how did you get interested in nature in the first.
[00:00:16] Paul Johnson: I was born in Southern California, but I spent my toddler years in the Caribbean. When my father was over in Vietnam. My mother and I lived on Naval base on the small island of Antigua. And I was too young to remember much of anything then, but my mother tells me I would come into the house with my pockets, filled with grasshoppers, and there were always toads in the yard for me to play with.
[00:00:40] They would eat the cat food out of the cat’s food dish and that sort of thing. So I know I had a lot of intimate contact with nature back then, even if I don’t. Remember it, but at that time, my passion was with dinosaurs. I knew more about dinosaurs back then than I do now, which I think is pretty common with a lot of young kids.
[00:01:00] And then we moved back to Southern California. Into the suburbs of Los Angeles. And I remember I could always find critters in the neighborhood like alligator lizards and Western toads, but That’s when I really fell in love with butterflies or at least that’s when I remember it. So that was the butterfly phase of my life.
[00:01:19] I didn’t have a butterfly net, but I remember going out and catching butterflies by slowly sneaking up behind them and catching them with my fingers. And I lived in the suburbs, so the butterflies were probably cabbage whites, Buckeyes, fiery skippers, that sort of thing, nothing too exotic.
[00:01:38] And unfortunately my parents were well-meaning but they gave me the Peterson field guide to butterflies of the Eastern United States. But probably most of the butterflies in the suburbs were in that book. Anyway, since they’re pretty widespread sort of weedy butterfly species, In elementary school.
[00:01:55] I remember I, I would finish my assignments pretty quickly and I think I was probably a distraction to the class. So my teachers would, we’re always looking for something to keep me busy. One time in, in first grade I saw a butterfly fly past the classroom window and I got up and looked out the window.
[00:02:11] And then I went and asked my teacher if I could go out to look at it, cause I didn’t know what kind it was. And she, let me go look at it. And of course from then on, she was my favorite teacher ever. I don’t know your listeners recall the discovery of the monarchs over wintering in Mexico, that was back in 1976 and it made the cover of national geographic.
[00:02:31] That teacher gave me a copy of that magazine and I still have it in my library.
[00:02:35] Michael Hawk: That’s sorry to interrupt. I’m just trying to envision my kids, teachers letting them get up and go outside to look at a butterfly. And I don’t see that happening. So.
[00:02:45] Paul Johnson: Yeah.
[00:02:45] Michael Hawk: It’s a wonderful little acknowledgement that teacher made to you to acknowledge your passion in that way.
[00:02:51] Paul Johnson: Yeah, I think it probably was. It might’ve been desperation just to get me out of the classroom, but yeah. Yes I really looking back, I really appreciate that. So around that same time in my life, another memory I have was I was climbing on a wall at the edge of our apartment complex, and I found these black spiny Caterpillar’s with red orange spots.
[00:03:11] And I had no idea what they were, but I brought them back into my room and they quickly turned into chrysalises. And before long I had morning cloak butterflies flying around my room, which, I was just in heaven. And I had never seen that butterfly in my neighborhood and quickly became my favorite butterfly in the world.
[00:03:32] It’s for those who don’t know, it’s a large butterfly, its wings are mostly deep reddish brown in color, and it has an antique looking cream colored border, and also a row of bright blue metallic dots. It’s really striking. It’s found in north America and Eurasia for listeners in the UK. It’s I think it’s called the Camberwell. And incidentally later in life, when I started actually learning about butterflies in California and what they, their caterpillars eat. I figured out that at least in a lot of places, they willows and cottonwoods, and I thought back there were no willows and cottonwoods in that neighborhood. But then I figured out in the suburbs where there are a lot of Chinese Elms planted, they can use that plant to.
[00:04:16] And so they’re actually quite common in neighborhoods where a Chinese Elm is planted. And actually, I just learned another name for the caterpillar is the spiny Elm caterpillar. So that makes a lot of sense. So that was elementary school by middle school. I forgot about the butterflies and I moved on to reptiles and amphibians.
[00:04:35] So those were where I was really excited about. And I carried on that way through college, even when I took entomology classes in college I didn’t give butterflies any special attention, although I will say, I think I didn’t collect them because I liked them too much and I didn’t want to kill them. And ironically, my major advisor was part Shapiro. Who’s one of the great experts on California, butterflies, and I never once talked to him about butterflies. I think I was too intimidated because I knew he knew so much.
[00:05:04] Michael Hawk: And art, I think is still monitoring some of the same transects. If I’m not mistaken.
[00:05:09] Paul Johnson: Yes. That’s I think the longest running butterfly study anywhere on the planet. Yeah. Once I became a wildlife biologist for the national park service, and I learned that there was such a thing about as monitoring species to keep an eye on, are they changing? Are populations declining? Are they, is there a geographic range moving around?
[00:05:32] And then I also heard about, there was such a thing as butterfly counts. I thought, wow, I want to start a butterfly count at pinnacles. And I tried contacting people. I found some names online but no one responded to me. And so I just kept that with me for a couple years, wanting to do it, but not really knowing how to get started. And then I saw an announcement that Jerry Powell from UC Berkeley was going to give a talk for the local chapter of the California native plant society in Monterey county. He would be talking about butterflies and moths of Monterey county. And I thought I have to attend this and really had two reasons.
[00:06:09] Of course, I wanted to learn more about local butterflies. And also if I wasn’t too intimidated, actually talked to him about butterflies, but also I had met him several years before a friend of mine at UC Santa Cruz was Doing her senior thesis on insects of the Redwood understory. And she had some MOTS she needed identified and no one could identify them.
[00:06:33] And she knew that if anyone could, Jerry Powell could. So I went along with her to his office and I have to say he was the graphist old man I had ever met. He was just grumpy. It was clear that we were just wasting his time and I thought, wow, this guy is going to be giving a public presentation, like to the general public who don’t know anything about butterflies and moths.
[00:06:55] I got to see this is a train wreck. I won’t be able to look away from. So I figured , I had probably learned something from it and it would be entertaining. totally wrong about Jerry, even though he had been that way in the office, when he was giving his presentation, he was friendly.
[00:07:10] He was gracious. His talk was perfectly aimed for the knowledge level of the audience. And at the end, he shared a signup list for anyone who wanted to help him out with butterfly counts in Monterey county. Perfect. So later I found out That’s actually the main reason he wanted to give that talk as a way of recruiting help for those butterfly counts and what better help them.
[00:07:33] People who know plants, right? The California native plant society. They actually make very, good, a butterfly counters and we’ll get into some of that later. Anyway, I signed up for my first two butterfly counts on that signup sheet. They were at university of California reserves at big Creek and Hastings, and he teamed me up with an avid and enthusiastic butterfly counter Liam.
[00:07:56] O’Brien some of your listeners I’m sure. Heard of lien. He does great butterfly conservation work in the San Francisco bay area. He’s a butterfly artist. He’s working on a book about the butterflies of the San Francisco bay area. And I’m really looking forward to that book.
[00:08:11] And so here I was really a butterfly. And Liam was very patient with me. I’ll never forget standing in a flowery meadow and catching every blue butterfly I could find and bringing them to them. And they all look the same, but different. And that was hopeful that they’d be something different.
[00:08:27] And my brain just hadn’t learned yet how to process those spot patterns on the underside to tell the differences. And he just patiently told me one after the other. Oh, that’s an echo Azure. That’s another echo Azure. Yes. Paul, that’s another echo Azure. I think I finally did catch an ECMO and blue or something that was different, but yeah, I realized, yeah, I had some work to do so anyway, on that day I told Liam that I wanted to start account at pinnacles, but I knew that I needed a few more years to really get better at identifying butterflies and they needed a time to recruit people for the butterfly count so I could do it right. And he actually advised me exactly the opposite. He said, you’ll never be perfect at butterfly ID and you’ll never recruit all the help you need. What you need to do is just start the count and the rest will happen. So I did, and he was right the first year, there were just two of us. We only saw 24 species, about 1300 individuals, which is quite a lot for just two people to see in a day.
[00:09:29] But now 22 years later, the pinnacles butterfly count has grown to 15 to 20 people each year. We ever around 40 species and over 2000 individuals. So now I also run a couple other butterfly counts and I participate in probably 10 to 15 counts each year in Northern California. And I have Gerry Powell and Liam O’Brien to thank for getting me started.
[00:09:54] Michael Hawk: That’s a very interesting story and sequence of events. And I actually just , had the pleasure of meeting Liam O’Brien for the first time. Just earlier this spring, searching for the Sonora. Here in the bay area. There’s a couple of spots where they’re pretty reliable and just so happened that that he was there along with some mutual friends and yeah very interesting.
[00:10:17] I’m looking forward to his book as well. So you mentioned you are a wildlife biologist at pinnacles national park, and I’m just curious what your day job looks like.
[00:10:25] Paul Johnson: Yeah, I’ve been a biologist at pinnacles national park for nearly 25 years. I’ve also volunteered for NABA, which is the north American butterfly association has the Northern California regional editor for their annual butterfly count report. But today I’m not representing either of those organizations.
[00:10:43] I’m just me, a guy who likes to do butterfly counts. So you asked what is my job look like? At pinnacles? It’s probably not what you’d expect. I certainly had different visions of what a wildlife biologist would be. I’m not complaining a bit. But it’s not what I thought it would be.
[00:10:59] I actually do very little hands-on work with wildlife and very little field work. National parks are great places. They protect so many species, so many habitats, all these natural processes. If you think about it, the park service will never have enough staff to take care of, to go out and actively study and manage all of that.
[00:11:19] So instead we have to prioritize our effort, right? What are the, most critical things that we need to go out and protect need to study so that we can take care what we. So a lot of effort ends up being focused on a few vulnerable species and habitats and a few major threats to park ecosystems.
[00:11:38] But really a lot of what we do is also planning for future actions, by putting careful thought into how the park is going to move forward with new development, with repairs, to what we’ve the buildings and the trails that we have, with allowing different visitor activities and that sort of thing.
[00:11:57] We can go a long way to protect resources just by letting species and natural processes continue the way they have been doing for millennia without us interfering. So in most cases, nature will take care of itself if we just stay out of its way. And so most of my work is just trying to let that happen.
[00:12:16] Michael Hawk: Right. Basically across the U S the popularity of parks continues to increase. And your park in particular was elevated to national park status. I don’t recall exactly when that was, so it gets a lot more attention, so I’m sure there’s constantly pressure to support more people and have more infrastructure.
[00:12:34] So for listeners, maybe that aren’t familiar with pinnacles, can you give a little description of what the attraction of pinnacles is or are, and maybe some of the species of special interests that you plan for in planning?
[00:12:50] Paul Johnson: Sure. Geographically pinnacles is located a couple hours south of the San Francisco bay area, and about an hour inland from the Monterey bay, the Pacific ocean. And it really was first recognized for the volcanic rock formations. There’s fantastic spires and rock fingers and huge cliffs and their trails that go right through all of that.
[00:13:15] And so over a hundred years ago, it was set aside to protect that. And over the years, people started to realize that, oh, there are other features that should be protected too. Like the wildlife, the plants. And there’s some interesting human history there too. Native American history, as well as settled early settlers to California and that sort of thing.
[00:13:37] All of that sort of elevated it to, to becoming a national park, as opposed to originally it was a national monument. So the national park status happened back in 2013. So almost 10 years ago. So some of the highlights species, a lot of people may have heard of the California Condors were part of the California Condor re-introduction effort.
[00:13:58] I don’t work directly with that, but a lot of the work I do supports that effort. I work more with amphibians reptiles bats. And when I can get away with it, I work with insects. There’s not a lot of priority , to really put our effort towards insects. Cause they, they do pretty well at taking care of themselves.
[00:14:18] But still it’s good to pay attention to them. They’re very important. So I do what I can with them. I also have staff who take care of the Raptors that nest and the cliffs exotic wildlife, like feral pigs. We have a pig proof fence around the park to keep out the pigs, because they do terrible damage to the environment. We have nuisance wildlife. We have to deal with like raccoons in the campground that get food from campers, and then they become aggressive and we have to deal with them. And then we also do some public outreach about non-lead ammunition that helps protect California Condors, but also other wildlife that might feed on carcasses that have been shot and have may have lead in them.
[00:14:59] We do outreach about that to,
[00:15:01] Michael Hawk: Yeah. If I recall correctly, I think lead poisoning is the primary risk encountered by California Condors.
[00:15:09] Paul Johnson: yes.
[00:15:10] Michael Hawk: So I was connected to you actually through an acquaintance, talking about that butterfly count that you mentioned before the pinnacles butterfly count. And somehow all these NAB accounts had flown under my radar.
[00:15:23] Despite having been a long and active participant in other counting efforts, such as the Christmas bird counts and so forth. They recommended, I reach out to you and the rest is history. Here we are today talking more generally about it. So I’d like to learn a little bit more about what these counts are more I guess both more generally and more specifically.
[00:15:44] First let’s talk about the goals of the counts. What what are you looking to accomplish with these.
[00:15:48] Paul Johnson: Let me back up just a little bit, because when I think butterfly counts, I think of a particular type of butterfly count the Napa 4th of July butterfly count, but just to be fair to other organizations and other folks who count butterflies, I want to make sure that we get the information out there, that there are other types of butterfly counts.
[00:16:07] So for example, Xerces society, which is an insect conservation organization. They run the Western Monarch Thanksgiving count. They’re just looking at monarchs and of course it’s timed at the peak of the monarchs over wintering in coastal California. So that’s around Thanksgiving. There are all sorts of butterfly monitoring efforts that use trained.
[00:16:28] Biologists to conduct standardized butterfly surveys. You earlier, you mentioned art. Shapiro’s long running studies. That’s a great example of that, but there are all sorts of different ways of doing those, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about here, or the , 4th of July butterfly counts administered by Napa the north American butterfly association.
[00:16:49] . They were actually started by the Xerces society. 2022 will be the 48th year for the three oldest counts in the program. And one of those is the Berkeley count in the east bay in the San Francisco bay area. So Xerces started them, but at one point decided that they weren’t going to adjust to butterflies.
[00:17:09] They were going to do all insects. And a group of members who just wanted to do butterflies for Nava and they took over the butterfly counts. So they oversee the counts. They publish an annual butterfly count report. And very importantly, they set up the rules for how the butterfly counts will be run because the strength of these counts is that everybody’s doing them the same way.
[00:17:33] And so they set that up so that in the end we can compare the data from all these different counts, all across the continent. So the goals of the counts and I actually, I looked this up cause I have my own goals, but I wanted to see what does Napa say are the goals. And they actually line up really well with my own, they list three goals.
[00:17:53] One is to raise public awareness and public knowledge about butterflies. Another is to bring people together socially around their common love of butterflies. And then the third is to actually collect the scientific data that we can analyze and we can see how butterflies are doing over the longterm.
[00:18:12] So originally I thought it was just the third one, right? I’m a biologist, I’m a scientist. I want that data. But the more I do this, the more I realize the first two are important too. We want to spread the word about butterflies and it’s great to get together with other folks who enjoy butterflies and socialize with them.
[00:18:30] So all of these.
[00:18:31] are equally important.
[00:18:32] Michael Hawk: Yeah, that makes sense. And when I think about the distinctions you made between study such as art Shapiro’s which is a more scientifically oriented approach. And then what you just described here for the NAB accounts then this sounds more like a community science effort, but I know that there are still some standards , around it and maybe each count has a little bit different.
[00:18:52] So can you tell me about what those approaches are? What the methodologies are? Just give me a sense for what it looks like from counter.
[00:18:59] Paul Johnson: Yeah, I sure can. Yeah. So like you said, it, it’d be great if we could just, if we had the money to hire all the biologists, we wanted to go out and do rigorous scientific butterfly counts following the exact same monitoring protocols. That’s just not an option. So instead we use eager volunteers, some of them know their butterflies really well.
[00:19:20] Some of them don’t, but they’re willing to come out and help. And the strength of this approach is that. There are so many counts. They’re about 450 counts across north America and they’re all spread out. And so even though there might be small issues with the data quality here and there, it all comes out in the wash.
[00:19:40] When you look at the big picture of all these counts and their data combined. So what is it, what does it look like? What is the actual account methodology? They’re modeled after the Christmas bird count. So folks may know that with a Christmas bird count or a butterfly count, you have a single calendar day and the data collection happens within a predetermined 15 mile diameter circle. And in the case of the 4th of July butterfly counts, they happen in June or July. And that’s simply in order to focus on the same. Group of butterflies across the continent so that you can compare data. If someone did it in March, you’d have a lot of different species that you’re not going to see in June or July.
[00:20:24] And so it’d be harder to compare data. So for each count, there’s one person, the count leader who oversees the count each year, they divide the participants up into groups. They assign them routes and then they send them out on the. Once a party is out on the route. They look for every butterfly that can find, they record every butterfly.
[00:20:43] They try to record them to species, but sometimes we’re not able to do that. And importantly, some butterfly monitoring has you walked the same path every time and only count butterflies within a certain distance from that path. But that’s not the case with these butterfly counts. The goal of these butterfly counts is to cover that 15 mile diameter circle.
[00:21:05] So if you’re walking down a trail and you see a California Buckeye tree in bloom and the butterflies really like those flowers, you wander over and you count the butterflies on that tree. Or if you see a stream that might have a muddy bank where butterflies might be mud puddling, you’ll go check that out.
[00:21:23] So you really are. Trying to find all the butterflies you can’t, rather than just sticking to a particular path, but you do stick to your assigned route. Otherwise you’re just going to be wasting your time counting where some other group has already counted. so as far as what do we count?
[00:21:39] We’re counting adult butterflies, we’re recording everyone. We see, we also record the immature stages. So the eggs, the Caterpillar’s, the chrysalises. And if we find them on a certain plant, we record that too, that doesn’t go into the primary account data, but it’s very valuable to also know maybe we didn’t see an adult of a certain species, but the Caterpillar’s were there.
[00:22:02] So we know it’s present. It was just the wrong time of year. Maybe for that species.
[00:22:05] Michael Hawk: So it’s opportunistic in that case, you could take forever investigating a host plant for eggs. So yeah, I could see where that could be a big time sink. If that was a primary.
[00:22:16] Paul Johnson: Yeah. Often what we do with that is if on a route we know there’s a certain plant that usually has Caterpillar’s on it, or crystal says, we’ll spend time on that. But otherwise it’s more just, oh, I just happened to notice this, but yeah, we’re not generally focusing time on that.
[00:22:32] And then one common question I get from a lot of people when they find out I’m counting, butterflies is how do you avoid counting the same butterfly twice? So that’s a really great question because that’s something we really want to avoid. We don’t want to inflate our numbers artificially by, by double counting or triple counting butterflies.
[00:22:50] So one thing we do is we just keep moving. A lot of butterflies have their spot where they are. And so if we keep moving through we don’t have to worry about counting those butterflies again, but some butterflies do move around a lot, like swallowtails monarchs. And so we pay attention to those.
[00:23:07] And if we see a butterfly fly over us from behind, did we just discount a butterfly like that right back there. Okay. We’re not going to count that again. And . we get ahead there, if we find something like that, butterfly, we may not count it there too. So yeah, there’s some errors in there.
[00:23:22] It’s impossible to get that. Perfect. But like I said, the strength of this program is that it all comes out in the wash with 450 counts spread all across the continent.
[00:23:32] Michael Hawk: It’s it really depends on the goal. Like you said before, if you’re looking at distribution and trends, then that level of precision is not necessarily.
[00:23:41] Paul Johnson: Yeah, exactly.
[00:23:42] Michael Hawk: , you mentioned the dates June and July. Now, how are the locations actually decided, like in your case, you, it sounds like you just volunteered to add pinnacles to the map.
[00:23:54] Paul Johnson: Yeah. That’s right.
[00:23:55] Michael Hawk: Do you need special locations like that? Is there any other criteria?
[00:23:59] Paul Johnson: Nope. There are no criteria?
[00:24:00] So yeah, you don’t want to butterfly count circles to overlap because then the same butterflies would be counted twice we’d rather spread things out and count more territory.
[00:24:09] So that’s really the only rule. Of course you do want people to choose a circle that has butterflies, that you want to monitor. Maybe it’s a place with a lot of butterfly diversity and you want to capture that. Maybe it’s a place with some rare species and you want to make sure they’re included in the butterfly count program, or maybe it’s a protected area, like a national park or a preserve.
[00:24:33] And you want to monitor the species and the populations in , that protected area, and also be able to compare your data and contribute your data to the bigger efforts. So that. You’re putting your special protected area into perspective with the rest of the country.
[00:24:51] Michael Hawk: Makes sense. And for listeners who may be. Or a bit like myself and somehow this has flown under the radar, but now they’re excited to go do it. What sorts of skills are required to participate? Who can participate? Do you know, do you need to be a an ABA member for.
[00:25:07] Paul Johnson: Nope, you sure don’t need to be a NABA member. In fact, I run counts and I do 10 to 15 a year, but I’m not NABA member. I ended up volunteering a couple hundred hours every year and support a butterfly counts. NABA does ask for a $3 fee from each butterfly count participant. Although often the account leaders will waive that fee if that’s an impediment, because they really do want people to come out and enjoy the butterflies.
[00:25:34] And that feed just goes towards managing the data and publishing the report. I just learned from a butterfly counter who was out in California from Florida. And she told me that back in Florida, each local NABA chapter sponsors the count. So they actually raised money and pay for the county fees so that the counters can do the counts for free. That’s pretty different from California. There have been NABA chapters in California, but I don’t know of any currently. So I don’t know if that’s something we’d ever do out in California,
[00:26:07] Michael Hawk: Okay.
[00:26:08] Paul Johnson: but anyway yes, you definitely don’t need to be a NABA member Beginners are welcome. Of course, experts are very welcome. I have never seen, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a butterfly count that had enough experts to really do a good job covering the entire butterfly count circle.
[00:26:27] It’s always a matter of prioritizing the help you have and where you can best send it to get the most representative results. But beginners are welcome. People with intermediate skills are welcome. You remember, you know, we want to bring people together with common interests. We want people to have a good time together.
[00:26:46] I don’t care how much you know about butterflies. You can always learn something from other people and from going out on a butterfly count. So everybody’s learning while they’re out there. , the one thing I would say is it’s possible for a butterfly counts. Overwhelmed by too many beginners, if there’s a public news release or something that, brings in 20 people, who’ve never done a butterfly count before.
[00:27:10] That could be too much, but that’s pretty rare. If you are a beginner and you’re hesitant and you feel like you might not be welcomed, it’s very unlikely. I would contact the butterfly count leader and let them know your situation. And I’m sure they’d love to have you come out and help out. There are all kinds of roles for very various skill levels.
[00:27:29] Even if you can’t identify butterflies, you can help record data and you’ll get to learn some of the butterflies while you’re out there. You can help spot butterflies because people can only look in one direction at any given time. And if an expert is looking north and you see a butterfly to the south, you can point that out to them and they might’ve missed that otherwise.
[00:27:47] Michael Hawk: Yeah, more eyes are always helpful. Even if you’re both looking in the same direction, the ability to focus on something. It basically is at the detriment of seeing anything else at the same time. So I don’t know how many times like for example, birding, where I’ve been looking at one bird, someone else sees something other bird in the exact same direction.
[00:28:05] And we totally miss the fact that the. From birds exist .
[00:28:09] Paul Johnson: . Yeah. I wanted to also add that. Unfortunately, a lot of the butterfly experts they tend to be getting older and , we need new butterfly experience. , tomorrow’s butterfly experts are today’s beginners. And there’s no better way to learn butterflies than to go out in the field at the peak of butterfly season, which is when butterfly counts are timed with somebody who knows the butterflies, because you can look at a field guide and it’ll show you visually, look for this spot or look for this color or this wing shape, but it doesn’t explain the behavior.
[00:28:43] It doesn’t explain the flight pattern. And some of those things can be really important for butterfly identification. And when you’re out in the field with someone who can point and say, see how that white butterfly bobs up and down when it flies and that one has a real steady flight one is this.
[00:28:57] And when does that, then you’ve got it. And you can’t get that from a field guide.
[00:29:01] Michael Hawk: One of the reasons why I thought I might be able to lend a hand is because I have a camera with a long lens and it can close focus so I can get pictures. And and I think that, that’s also a really good way. At least it’s been a good way for me to learn about the butterflies in my area when I don’t know for sure what the species is.
[00:29:21] If I can get a few good photos, go back and put it into I naturalist, or just compare it to my field guide. It’s really been helpful for me. So I hope that has built up at least a base skill that I’ll be able to add some value on your.
[00:29:35] Paul Johnson: Absolutely. Yes, I, as account leader, I can never have too many people with good cameras that can do close focusing who know how to use their cameras and will send me their photos because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a data sheet that had just common species. And then a few days later they sent me their photos and, oh, we didn’t get that one.
[00:30:00] That was misidentified. And it was actually a, an unusual Checkerspot or something like that happens over and over again. I even do it myself in the field. I see something quickly, I mark it down, but I know I’ve got that photo to look at carefully later. And when I look at it, I realize, oops, I miss identified that one. So yeah, photos, digital photos are wonderful for that.
[00:30:21] Michael Hawk: So we’ve been talking a bit about the mechanics of these counts and what they do and how they work and who’s participating. But why don’t we spend a few moments and talk about some tips for actually finding and observing butterflies? Where should people look?
[00:30:35] What approaches should they take?
[00:30:37] Paul Johnson: So I, the more that you can learn about the butterflies of your area before you go out, the better. I find it often works the other way around. I see a butterfly, I go home and I look it up And then I want to read about it and learn about it. That works too, because then the next time you go out you’ll know that much more about where to look for it.
[00:30:55] But the reason I say this is there are all sorts of particular things about species that you can use to go find them. So for example a lot of butterflies are very closely tied to one or a few plant species that their caterpillars will feed on. And if you know that, you can track down those plant species and possibly find The butterflies nearby.
[00:31:20] For example, I was on the Mount Diablo butterfly count and we were walking up the trail and I saw a patch of naked buckwheat, and I said, oh, we should look for Gorgon copper, butterflies here. And boom, there was a Gorgon copper. It flew right out at us and the guy goes, oh my gosh, how did you do that?
[00:31:38] And I said their caterpillar plant is right there and they usually stick nearby it. And he was just, oh my gosh, I can’t believe you. You do the plants and the butterflies. And my honest answer was, I can’t believe you do the butterflies and don’t do the plants because it’s just, it’s leaving out so much of, what’s going on to help you, really know where to look.
[00:32:00] And other things some butterflies fly to hilltops to find mates. So for example I’ve seen people in emails, comment about how rare certain butterflies are and how hard they are to find. I can tell you if you never go to a Hilltop to look for a great purple hairstreak, which is one of our most spectacular butterflies.
[00:32:19] Good luck seeing one. I’ve probably seen three great purple hairstreaks in my life that weren’t on a Hilltop. They were necked during, on a flower, but I’ve seen dozens on hilltops because that’s where they go to find mates.
[00:32:32] Michael Hawk: And can I ask you how do you define a Hilltop? But he’s like here in California, we have lots of hilly areas and you can go up to a Hilltop and look, and there’s a taller hill, just, a few hundred meters down the road. what would be the distinguishing factor for a butterfly to choose as a particular hill?
[00:32:50] Paul Johnson: So that’s a really great question. And I don’t mean to be flippant. My answer to that is ask the butterflies how they define a particular Hilltop. So go ahead and form your preconceptions about what a Hilltop is, but then go out and test your hypothesis, go to that Hilltop and see who’s there. And then go to the next Hilltop, if you can, and see who’s there and try to form an idea of what is a Hilltop to a particular species, and it’s going to be different for different species.
[00:33:20] And some species will want to be on the tree top on the Hilltop, and some species will want to be on the ground on the Hilltop. And some species like checker spot will want to be 50 to a hundred feet below the top of the Hilltop. I have no idea. But that’s the best place to find them. Great. Purple hairstreak will be on a tree or shrub near the top of it.
[00:33:45] Painted ladies they’ll often be on the ground on the Hilltop. I think sometimes if the Hilltop is really crowded, then butterflies might be competing for space up there and they’ll choose a lesser Hilltop. So lesser hilltops might be affected. Places to look for butterflies, if that’s going on.
[00:34:04] If it’s windy that changes everything because butterflies are mostly wings and they don’t do so well in the wind. So a species that would normally be on top, if it’s a windy day, it might be down on the Leeward side of the hill?
[00:34:18] Choosing similar habitat, but out of the wind. So you have to adjust basically think like a butterfly.
[00:34:24] That’s what I tried to do. And of course, when you’re a beginner, you don’t really know what that means. But like I said, ask the butterflies, try to, imagine. How are they seeing this landscape and then test your hypothesis learn from there. .
[00:34:38] And the, I guess the other answer is every time I think I understand it I get schooled by the butterflies, so which, which is great, I’m always learning more. And I will just say that’s one thing I learned, I started with the butterflies of pinnacles and I got to know them pretty well.
[00:34:55] And then I started doing butterfly counts at other places, and that only helped me get to know the pinnacles, butterflies, even better. For one thing, I got to see. Quote, my species at pinnacles do in other places. And it helped me understand their habitat, use patterns even better because I saw the broader context.
[00:35:14] But also there’s some species that are rare at Pinnacles that I only rarely got, just see about their common and other places. And so I got to know them better by seeing them in other places. So now when I see them once a year at pinnacles, I really know what they are and I know what they’re doing and I understand why they’re doing it.
[00:35:31] Yeah. Moving around, trying butterfly counts or just going on butterfly walks and other places, I highly recommend it. I mean, In addition to of course, getting to know your own place.
[00:35:40] Michael Hawk: And those were some excellent tips. You answered the question really well. It will help me. I know next time I’m on a Hilltop trying to figure out where to go and where to look. So hill topping is one behavior. You mentioned mud pooling earlier. Can you tell me about what’s going on?
[00:35:53] Paul Johnson: Yeah. So according to the books some species, the male butterflies needs salts in order to complete their reproductive. Development. So even though they’re adults, they still just need a little bit to get ready to mate and they need some salts and where water is coming up from the ground and evaporating it’s off and bringing salt with it.
[00:36:17] So the butterflies can go and get salts from muddy spots, especially if they’re spots where there’s water perpetually coming up and drying up and bringing up new salts. So this could be a stream bank. I it could be uh, rain puddle that’s drying up. It could be a spring.
[00:36:33] I’ve seen them on even on wet logs in marshy areas, where the sun is beating down on that log. And the log is waking water up from the marsh. It all depends. And again, I let the butterflies teach me what they like, but but yeah, keep an open mind about that and see what you find. Sometimes.
[00:36:51] scat, especially mammal scat is high it’s high in protein. And cause especially predators, I should have said not mammals, but carnivores. They eat a lot of meat and a lot of protein comes through them. And there are certain butterflies that need a little bit of protein in their diet. Like California tortilla shells, you’ll often find on a pile of coyote scat or something like that.
[00:37:12] . And then of course nectar, go to flowers if you want to find butterflies. And it’s certain kinds of flowers and I won’t get into the details of that, but I will say like with many other things, I’m often surprised. I think I understand what’s a good butterfly flower and then the butterflies teach me otherwise.
[00:37:31] So keep an open mind. If you see butterflies coming from somewhere and you start to see a pattern, like why are the butterflies up in the willows? There are no flowers on the willows. Maybe there’s a parasitic plant that’s in bloom that has flowers, that the butterflies are all over. That’s a real example that happened to me at pinnacles
[00:37:50] Michael Hawk: I had one anecdote. Back when maybe I was starting to learn a little bit about butterflies. I lived in Arizona, we planted a plant called a desert Hackberry. I don’t recall the Latin name. And I had spilled a little bit of water on the dirt next to the Hackberry. It was a gnarly thorny mature plant at that point.
[00:38:09] Very big. I was regretting planning it because it was just so thorny and vicious in its thorns. But when I spilled this water out from nowhere, came a couple of, I think there was American snout, butterflies, which I learned that they use that as a host plant. And the behavior was that, once the water spilled on the dirt, they were able to access those salts much easier.
[00:38:31] So I got to see both of those things that you talked about happen in one kind of a happenstance moment, which is pretty cool. to see it for yourself,
[00:38:39] Paul Johnson: Yeah. And that is a trick that some folks use, even on butterfly counts, sometime on the Yuba pass butterfly count, there’s a water pump in a campground. And whoever has that route is supposed to go pump some water onto the ground and then do the loop. And when they get back, look, check the butterflies on the mud there.
[00:38:57] Yeah. That’s part of that assignment.
[00:38:59] Michael Hawk: That’s a good idea. Paul, it’s been really fascinating to hear about the counts and how they work, and then some of this some of these tips for finding butterflies as well. And as you said you listened to some of the podcasts in the past. There’s a few standard questions I like to ask because , I often get very insightful responses.
[00:39:17] Thinking back, is there a, I guess he gave a few events when you were talking about how you got into nature in the first place, but are there any top of head events or wildlife encounters books or anything else that stand out as really escalating your interest in.
[00:39:30] Paul Johnson: How about, I’ll take that question in a slightly different direction and I’ll talk about something that sort of escalated. I think my ability to be a naturalist, I had always loved nature. And I love being out there and seeing the butterflies and I could identify some of them, but honestly, looking back, I really did not know butterflies.
[00:39:51] And so early on in my career at pinnacles as a biologist, I was supposed to be working on frogs, but my supervisor recognized how much I enjoyed butterflies. And I told her that I wanted to do an inventory of the butterflies of pinnacles. Think about it. Pinnacles had been around for 90 years and we didn’t even have a list of the butterflies found there.
[00:40:13] So she said, yeah, that’s a great idea. If you get all of your frog work done, you can do butterflies too. So that was very smart. Right. I got my frog work done for sure. So that I could go out and play with butterflies too. So I spent a few years going out trying to track down the butterflies, but what, how I started is the key here.
[00:40:32] I realized. That I needed a list and I needed some clues to guide me. And so I, I used a book it’s James Scott’s butterflies of north America. It was it’s a tome, it’s an amazing book. And I went through the whole book and I looked at the range maps and I created a spreadsheet with every species that might be.
[00:40:54] In the pinnacles region and I recorded the flight period, which months of the year does it fly the caterpillar food plants, the habitats, any peculiar things like do they go to hilltops or something like that? And I put all that in the spreadsheet. And then I took that spreadsheet and I brought it out in the field with me, along with the big book to help me identify these things.
[00:41:19] Cause at that time that was the best field guide I had field guides. I’ve gotten much better since then. Yeah, I’ll just say that really worked. Of course there were quite a few species on there that I never found. And now I know they’re not going to be at pinnacles for whatever reason. But it really helped guide me to have those notes in.
[00:41:36] my pocket.
[00:41:36] I can pull That out and say, oh this one’s supposed to be here and go and look. And lo and behold there it was. So yeah, once I started doing that, then I was really able to key in, on the habitat use of the butterflies. Just how are they really seeing the environment? And also it helped me really key on identifying all the species.
[00:41:57] Very careful. Because before that I, I couldn’t identify the whites and I couldn’t identify the blues, but once I oh this white butterfly is supposed to like this particular plant and look that one’s laying eggs on it. Oh yeah. It does match the picture. I used all those clues.
[00:42:10] And after that, it just really upped my game as far as being able to identify butterflies and understand how they use the landscape.
[00:42:18] Michael Hawk: That process speaks to me so much. I’ve done that myself for many different species over the years. I’m thinking about my little spreadsheet, crib sheet for identifying goals. The birds, the goals, they go through many different images in their life cycle and there are different things to look for in each case.
[00:42:36] So, Yeah, that’s a method that’s tried and true. I’ve used it myself.
[00:42:40] Paul Johnson: I’ll just say, and I actually created a cheat sheet for you all. If you want to come to pinnacles and and have a cheat sheet for the butterflies from all my observations, I created a checklist that has all that information for the butterflies found there. And I’ll give you a link to that for your listeners.
[00:42:56] Michael Hawk: That’s great. I’m going to use it myself. I’m certain. And this can sometimes be a really broad question we’ll see if it resonates with you, but what has nature taught you about living with.
[00:43:06] Paul Johnson: It’s taught me a lot and it’s saved me a lot of times, but I’ll share this one particular story. I think I was about nine years old. I was on the school playground being beaten up by hit another kid. He was sitting on top of me. I was on my back looking up at the sky and he was, pounding on me and I struggled and I couldn’t get free.
[00:43:24] He had my hands pinned down and then a butterfly flew. And I saw it go by and I realized, I didn’t know what kind of butterfly it was. And I think I even muttered something like that, butterfly, let me go. And of course he just kept pounding on me. So all of a sudden the next thing I knew, I threw him off of me.
[00:43:41] I gave him a good kick and I chased after the butterfly. I don’t think I ever found the butterfly, but I never forgot how that butterfly helped me find strength. I didn’t even know that I had, and I guess in a bigger sense, it was my first lesson on the power of nature to help us see past our everyday concerns.
[00:43:59] We might be thinking we’re having a bad day or whatever, but there’s this, if there’s this nature out there that can if we go out there and pay attention to it, it can really help center us and just help us get more in tune with.
[00:44:12] what’s real out there. One quote that I really like is from Henry David Thoreau.
[00:44:17] He said, read not the time. Read the eternities and I’ve found things like going out and studying butterflies and they’re in interrelationships with the natural world. That’s definitely the eternities. And it’s a great thing to go out and read.
[00:44:32] Michael Hawk: I have to say that’s, an amazing story and a great quote. And it’s probably really the perfect place to end. Technically before we end though, do you have any other upcoming projects or anything else that’s on your radar that you’d like to highlight to the listeners?
[00:44:47] Paul Johnson: Although I’ve been talking about butterflies , once I had the butterflies down at pinnacles I graduated to the moths and I’ve talked to a lots of lepidopteran and that’s often how it works. You start with the butterflies and then you move on to the moths. And so I spend a lot of time out in the springtime, looking for day flying moths and a surprising number of them.
[00:45:07] We don’t know. Their life history. So I tried to track down look for females, see what they’re laying eggs on and tried to track down their life histories. So that’s what keeps me out of trouble these days?
[00:45:20] Yeah. And you actually helped me identify an interesting day flying moth here not too long ago. I think it was oculars, Longhorn moth.
[00:45:28] Yeah, I’ve never seen that one.
[00:45:29] Michael Hawk: Yeah. And I found on bug guide that, there were quite a few observations, but I think on I naturalists maybe there had only been one or two. So first of all, thank you for that. Help identifying it. But the second part of that is there’s a lot to be discovered out there.
[00:45:44] Paul Johnson: Absolutely.
[00:45:45] Michael Hawk: Speaking of I naturalists where can people follow your work, follow you? I know you have a whole list of resources that you’re ready to give me two.
[00:45:53] Paul Johnson: Yeah, probably the best place to find me. I don’t have a webpage or anything like that. I don’t do Twitter or Instagram. But on I naturalist my username is euproserpinus, which is a genus of moths that I’ve probably spent more time working on than any other butterfly or moth. So you can see my observations there.
[00:46:13] And of course I like to get on there and I have certain groups of moths that I follow. And one of them is the Longhorn mosque, which you mentioned. So that’s why I saw your observation. I try to go through all the observations of those in California and help people identify. Yeah. And then of course, butterfly counts.
[00:46:31] I mentioned that I lead some counts and I do 10 to 15 of them. So I’ll give you some links that you can share with your listeners, where to get more information about butterfly counts and how they can join them. And then also some butterfly conservation organizations, the pinnacles butterfly checklist, and then one book I’d like to plug.
[00:46:50] If you’d like to learn more about watching butterflies and understanding them. I recommend the handbook for butterfly Watchers by Robert Pyle. So it’s an older book. But of course they were talking about the eternities here. So it’s still all rings.
[00:47:05] Michael Hawk: That’s great. I’ll check it out and include links to everything in the show notes. And since I, if I had to guess . A very high percentage of my listeners are active on I naturalists. So when you give out your username, there may be some people now plugging you in, asking for help on identifications.
[00:47:23] Is that okay with you? Are you open to helping out folks with IDs?
[00:47:27] Paul Johnson: Of course. Yeah. I mean, My time is limited. I may never get to it. So as long as your feelings, aren’t going to be hurt, I sure don’t mind you asking. You may alert me to observations that I find really interesting or that are really important scientifically. And yeah. I appreciate seeing things like that and definitely, yeah, go for it.
[00:47:44] Michael Hawk: So Paula, is there anything else that you’d like to say before we call it a day?
[00:47:48] Paul Johnson: This has been great. Like I said, I love your podcast and it’s been . Great to be a guest on here. So thanks so much.
[00:47:56] Michael Hawk: Oh, thank you. This was really a fun conversation and I appreciate you being flexible and making this happen today. And and for all the time that you spent in preparing and being here. So thanks again.