Adventures in Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Surveys

Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly. Photo: Elise Younie

The Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly is listed as endangered in Canada, and considered a keystone species. An environmental indicator for the health of the entire ecosystem, this special butterfly was once widespread in the San Juan Islands, southern Vancouver Island and the surrounding islands of British Columbia. It was believed to have disappeared from Canada until 2005, when 15 checkerspots were observed on Denman Island in B.C.’s Gulf Islands. Since then, WPC has been working to support the checkerspot by building the wild population in B.C. through conservation breeding and helping partner efforts that restore and maintain habitat for the species.⁠

April to June is the season for Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies and their emerging larvae. Finding these little guys can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack, but quickly you get used to seeing the flash of orange, black, and white and starting your chase after them. Some days, you will hardly see any butterflies, and some days there will be so many they will be landing on your net before you have the chance to take a photo of the first one.

Taylor’s checkerspots require open grasslands with wet areas that support the plants necessary for their larvae. They rely on marsh speedwell, thyme-leaf speedwell, and non-native Plantago species. Their habitat needs, have allowed Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies to be supported by areas cleared by humans, which is where our surveys brought us on Vancouver Island and the nearby Gulf Islands. Surveying involved walking through suitable habitats and conducting wandering transect surveys. Although to passerby’s we probably just looked like crazy people running around with butterfly nets. Along the way, the surveys were an adventure. Each day brought new terrain and wildlife encounters. Some days brought bushwhacking to find the ideal survey spot and most days involved walking through slash that left you uncertain how far down the earth lay below your feet.

Jag bushwhacking to the survey site. Photo: Elise Younie

We saw deer and their impossibly tiny fawns, black bears, turkey vultures and eagles competing for their finds, in many instances elk tracks, and finally the elk themselves. We were charged by a mother grouse (twice!) who was protecting her young, which was a surprisingly terrifying occurrence. There were mink, lizards, and snakes. We caught countless species of butterflies which have forever changed the way I see them. Now when I cross paths with a butterfly, I race to identify it.

Black bear tracks while surveying. Photo: Elise Younie

Whatever the day brought, nothing beat the moment you finally found a Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly or the larvae. It’s a “Jackpot!” moment. The flash of familiar colour or the glimpse of a web-covered speedwell plant. Success!

Elise Younie, Taylor’s Checkerspot Field Technician

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