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Bill May: The delight of butterflies in and around Carroll

Bill May: The delight of butterflies in and around Carroll
A beautiful butterfly in a beautiful setting at “Wings of Fancy.” (Bill May photo)

“Glory be to God for dappled things.” Gerald Manley Hopkins, Pied Beauty

Probably like most people, I took butterflies for granted, beautiful outdoor species like wild dogwood trees or day lilies, but not particularly significant. But a recent PBS program and visit to a butterfly garden have given me a whole new appreciation. I’ve also learned some Carroll County folks have been way ahead of me in this regard.

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Brookside Gardens, Wheaton

“Wings of Fancy” is the name of the live butterfly and caterpillar exhibit at Brookside Garden in Wheaton, Maryland. Colorful species from North America, Costa Rica, Africa and Asia fill the South Conservatory, flying throughout the heated enclosure, perching and feeding on flowers and fruit and seeking others of their kind.

From now through Sept. 22, the Conservatory provides the rare opportunity to see a multitude of species of butterflies and caterpillars in one place — and out of the rain. Two-hour classes on butterflies are also offered. As someone who has spent hours in the last week chasing over muddy hills and dales trying — in vain — to photograph Baltimore Orioles and Orchard Orioles in a place they have been seen and heard, I appreciate the indoor and leisurely opportunities for photographing the frequently perching butterflies.

(Almost any camera from cell phones, to point-and-shoots to DLSRs with medium range lenses will do.)

Wings of Fancy will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through June 20, and for shorter hours through Sept. 22. The admission fees are $8 for ages 13 and over, $5 for ages 3-12, and free for under age 3. Because of the popularity of “Wings of Fancy,” especially with school groups, weekday visits after 1 p.m. are advised for better viewing and parking.

Brookside Gardens is about 50 miles from Westminster. An Outdoor Butterfly Garden is one of 14 other gardens, trails and terraces in the 50-acre park. The park is open from sunrise to sunset, the visitors’ centers from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission is free.

Butterflies in Carroll County

Butterflies can be found throughout Carroll County among wildflowers and gardens, along streams, wherever flower grow. Carroll’s parks are major attractions especially Piney Run Park, Patapsco Valley State Park, Morgan Run Environmental Area, and Hashawha Environmental Center and Bear Branch Nature Center.

The Carroll County Master Gardeners teamed up with the Carroll County 4-H to give programs on local wildlife at the Carroll County Agricultural Center on May 4, and students will participate in creating pollinator landscaping for the new Ag Center sign at the Therapeutic Riding Area. In addition youth will make many wildlife enhancement items that they may use and enter in the Carroll County 4-H and Future Farmers of America Fair.

Butterflies in the wild at Piney Run Park.
Butterflies in the wild at Piney Run Park. (Bill May photo)

The Carroll County Master Gardeners have also teamed up with Carroll County schools. The Linton Springs Monarch Research Garden operates from May until mid-November. This garden was established for students to study/observe and conduct research on the life cycle of monarch butterflies. Weekly research during the butterfly’s life cycle is conducted and reported to several Citizens Science projects. This research also includes tagging and sampling the adult monarch butterfly. Participation could also include assisting teachers and students in the classroom.

Butterflies at Home

PBS in its “Nature” series recently broadcast the program “Sex, Lies and Butterflies,” and it can still be accessed by contributors. This 52-minute documentary features the kind of stunning video photography and detailed science expected of such programs. It also contains incredibly poetic narration: “If you have never seen a butterfly, you might not believe they are real.” “Squint into a mid-summer meadow in bloom: it’s as if the flowers can fly.”

On the science side, the program describes the complex life cycle of the butterfly from a pinhead-sized egg, to a caterpillar smaller than a grain of rice, metamorphosing through four more caterpillar body cycles (instars) to a chrysalis then finally to a butterfly. More poetic language: “Transformation. Metamorphosis. The ability to abandon an earth-bound existence and fly on gossamer wings. A ceaseless cycle of transformation.”

Butterflies in all their stages provide valuable food sources for birds and many other kinds of wildlife and are major pollinators and links in our food supply. They undergo heroic migrations: Painted Lady butterflies travel as far as 9,000 miles over four generations from southern Africa to Scandinavia. Monarch central route migrations from Canada to northern Mexico may cover 6,000 miles.

It is thought there are 2,000 species of butterflies, all evolved from a single species of brown moth 50 million years ago. (There are 10,000 known species of moths but there are believed to be possibly 50,000. The program didn’t explain how people figured out all of this).

Because butterflies are so colorful and full of movement they have developed a host of survival tactics including sonar jamming in some months, erratic flight patterns, chemical defenses in species like Monarchs where their diets of milkweed make the caterpillar and butterfly stages toxic, camouflage in the form of caterpillars and butterflies blending into their environments, and non-toxic butterflies mimicking the appearance of toxic species.

One wonders whether the Defense Department studies butterfly tactics.

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The program concludes with more poetry describing butterflies but could also be a good summation of the human condition: “ephemeral but eternal.”

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