What You’re Thinking When You . . . Rare Butterflies

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa - Visitors of all ages participated in a rare regal fritillary butterfly guided tour on Fort Indiantown Gap. (Department of Military and Veterans Affairs photo by Tom Cherry/Released)

Visitors of all ages participated in a rare regal fritillary butterfly guided tour on Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania (Department of Military and Veterans Affairs photo by Tom Cherry/Released)

Those ten or more years, wanting, but unable to see and photograph Regal Fritillary butterflies (Speyeria Idalia) ended here, in June 2015. I never knew that Ft. Indiantown Gap Military Reservation opened this expansive meadow to visitors, 2 Fridays and 2 Saturdays a year, in the first weeks of June. Surprise. There is not much sharing amongst those of us who seek butterflies, and why is that?

So I drove the 2.5 hours to Harrisburg, Pa.. on Thursday, stayed in a Hampton Inn, and Friday morning there I was . . . not one of 15 excited lovers of butterflies . . . I was amongst 130 guests. Each of those 4 days had something like that number of people, a whopping 520 or more had gone there to see the Regal Fritillarys. Kinda like those seeking audience with English royalty.

What was the Friday morning and early afternoon like, for me? I thought that it would be a disappointment, for how can I do what I do with 129 folks on my heels. No. It was much better than that. The Army post employs naturalists to husband their unique wildlife, and these folks were there to help, watch, caution, and inevitably work us into much smaller groups, working the huge reserve meadows. Soon it was Jeff, 2 fellow guests and a naturalist. That’s when it became Whoopee!

I was impressed with the seriousness of the hours before me. It was sunny, mild, minimal wind, the Regals were flying and their butterfly milkweed was mid-bloom and lush. Fine field conditions, and therefore fully the chance of a lifetime. Seen in singles and at most in 3’s, some Regals were worn, others were “fresh.” Decades of my life have been enjoyed, yet I’d never seen these before, and may never see them again. I live in the eastern U.S., and you cannot meet Regals in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, or Florida. Only in this military reserve in central Pennsylvania.

With each and every camera click counting, I had to be sure that I was shooting fresh fliers I had to do lots of moving around as a beauty of a male or female (more males than females on the wing) fled one milkweed and flew 70 feet to another. Often someone else was bearing down on a bloom or butterfly before I got there. I kept aware of the time, knowing that fritillary butterflies often nectar and fly intermittently, and that the morning experience would end when our hosts announced, “it’s time to take your last shots.”

I was pleased that I found a mating pair, and my best images of them together rate as “good.” That’s a coup of sorts. I saw other butterflies too, including Coral Hairstreaks and Monarchs.

Unlike y’all, I shoot film, and don’t know how my images fare until weeks later, when my slides return from Dwayne’s Photo Lab in Parsons, Kansas. Please resist advice on that, thank you.