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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

Painted Lady!

My first observation was totally unexpected: Relaxing poolside, lazily watching the children, when the first wave swept through, and then the second, and then another, and… “That’s right!” I thought to myself, “It was a very wet spring this year!” I recall prior years with similar conditions, with similar results. At least I had a couple of days at home to experience this remarkable ‘mariposa’ migration.

I know it was going to be a captivating day the moment I stepped out onto my balcony. Looking out towards the mountains, the wind strengthening, I noticed leaves cruising 'against' the wind – not possible, right? Ah yes, Vanessa cardui, the Painted Lady butterfly,

is on the move! Their migration from Mexico and as far as northern Canada began in earnest with the spring blooms. Some areas of southern California and northern Mexico received a year’s worth of rain in one day producing a profusion of plant growth and the insect population followed suit.

Over several days millions of these delicate (in appearance) creatures swept across the landscape. My location did not have staggering numbers but for every 90 seconds an average of 100 streaks of orange-and-black zipped past my scope of vision. Refueling is key to aid in a daily excursion that may cover up to 100 miles. Slowing their progress: mountains, as well as buildings, and as was the case for these couple of days, strong winds. Robust and resilient defines this creature. However, weather conditions can be precarious, if not fatal, as are native predators. Sadly, flying through the gauntlet of roadways to avoid the stiff breeze, is the most disastrous, evidenced by yellow patches splattered across windshields, a.k.a., the butterflies’ fat reserves utilized for carrying it to its breeding grounds up north.

Painted lady’s flight pattern has an erratic quality, especially when in pursuit of another winged companion. Rather than dozens randomly fighting the elements, as I have heard and seen on video, I experienced more solo aerialists. Groupings of two or three were more common than 4-6 individuals, and these always seemed to be involved in a game of tag. Even with a strong headwind, flight seemed effortless and focused, e.g., flying over my 2-story home rather than attempt to skirt around the obstacle. I decided to attempt to take inflight photographs of these little bundles of energy.

The ability to fly up to 25mph with a wingspan of only two inches, I know my results would be hopeful at best – plus autofocus was not an option. Favorable conditions were that the aerial onslaught on my house continued unabated, and the open space between me and my neighbor opted for good light in the afternoon. The neighbor’s banister gave me a pre-focused point to determine when I should press the shutter. “O.K, bring it on!” I learned I had to scan ahead for their approach, but I could not predict if one would fly over or under the railing.

It was a good thing that I was pretty much isolated in this location. I can only imagine what my neighbors would think with my tripod mount, bobbing up and down like one of our local fence lizards! (Probably nothing, as I am considered the “odd one” on the block anyway.) My time was limited, as I had a work trip in a couple of days. That one ‘shot’ did not materialize, but it really did not matter – it was such a joy to join in this extraordinary movement of lepidoptera.

A movement of such a distance, over such diverse terrain with natural and manmade obstacles, one must wonder how this species continues to thrive. The voyage by their cousins on the other side of the globe covers nearly twice the distance - from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle! Once again, praise must go out to the unfaltering tenacity and ability of our native wildlife to survive - enduring as it has for eons.

Websites: For a basic understanding of the Painted Lady check out these sites.

Date: March 31, 2019

Location: Orange County, California U.S.A.

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