After our return from Iceland, and after realizing I had missed 2 of the best wild flower weeks of the year I was very anxious to get out and see some flowers. I was not disappointed. In fact it was one of my most amazing natural history jaunts ever! In one day, I saw 2 of Canada’s most rare species—one a flower and one a butterfly!
First I drove to the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve, one of my favorite places. I immediately walked towards the site where the Western Prairie Fringed-orchid (Platanthera praeclara) appear every summer. I was not disappointed. This is the best place in the world to see this orchid. These orchids used to be fairly common on the prairies but have disappeared with the disappearance of their habitat. I had a little more trouble than normal finding the flowers. That was a bit disconcerting. Where were they I wondered? I soon realized that there were many flowering plants, but all of them without exception were small and short. No huge plants jutted out to the sky as they typically do. I inferred that this was a result of very dry conditions this spring and summer. The prairie was dry and I concluded the flowers were keeping a low profile in order to conserve their energy and water. I just had to look a little harder to find them, but they were there.
I quickly set about trying to photograph them. Conditions were tricky. The sun was harsh creating deep shadows. Added to that problem, it was very windy. Trying to photograph these flowers was indeed challenging. I think I did a reasonable job under these difficult circumstances.
When I was done I also noticed a young lady in the field. I had been too absorbed to notice her. Too absorbed in the flowers to notice a young woman. Imagine that. So I sauntered over (OK I meandered over) to talk to her. What was she looking for? I presumed the Western Prairie fringed too, but I was wrong. She was looking for a butterfly. A very rare butterfly.
She explained that she was employed by the Nature Conservancy of Canada and she was doing a survey of a very rare butterfly called Poweshiek Skipperling (Oarisma poweshiek) (Parker, 1870). She informed me that this butterfly could be found in only 1 place in Canada and this was it. Just like the Western Prairie Fringed-orchid that is found no where else in Canada. What a double header! I was very fortunate.
Were it not for the woman who worked with the Nature Conservancy there is no doubt I would not have found this butterfly. I had never heard of it before. I actually got only a fleeting look at it as it flew past a larger Fritillary butterfly. She said the skipperling loved Brown-eyed Susans and there were many of these wild flowers here, as I knew.
This skipper is very dark brown, with an orange suffusion along the costa. Below, the hind wings are dark greyish, with white-lined veins. The wingspan is only 24 to 30 mm. According to The Butterflies of Canada by Ross A. Layberry, Peter W. Hall, and J. Donald Lafontaine. University of Toronto Press; 1998 its range is in just a few states west and south of the Great Lakes as well as south-eastern Manitoba—i.e. here. There is only one generation of this butterfly each year and they have been found in Manitoba between June 23 and July 8. That is not a very large window of opportunity.
It was discovered here in July of 1985, at about the same time as the Western Prairie Fringed-orchid was discovered here. It is believed to becoming scarcer all the time. The problem of course is that its habitat is becoming scarcer. The woman was very pleased to see a specimen that was a pregnant female that appeared to be in very good shape. Hopefully it would produce offspring.
By another amazing coincidence later in the week I read an article on this butterfly that I have never heard of before, in the Winnipeg Free Press. The article reported that 6 more Poweshiek by the Assiniboine Park Conservatory this week. That sounds like a puny number, but scientists estimate there are only 100 of them left in North America! This may be the most rare species I have ever seen!
The Assiniboine Conservatory had bred the butterflies over the winter in captivity. Last summer the conservancy brought 2 wild female Poweshiek skipperlings to the Assiniboine Park Zoo for 3 days to lay eggs before releasing the 2 will females back into the wild.
Once the eggs hatched, specialists monitored the caterpillars in a climate-controlled incubator over the winter. In the lab they placed the skipperlings in a n incubator at a constant temperature of -4ºC to mimic conditions in the wild where normally they would spend the winter under the snow.
The program was very successful. “Every caterpillar survived the winter.”I was extremely lucky to have met this scientist and seen this rare butterfly. What an amazing day on the prairie!
I did not get a good look at the butterfly. It was very small and whizzed by me and I had no chance to photograph it. What a pity.
Other flowers I saw included the following: Western Wood Lily, Creamy Peavine, Common Milkweed, Swamp milkweed, Brown-eyed Susan, Heal-All, andPurple Prairie Clover.I was in heaven, but my luck had only begun.
Western Wood Lily or Prairie Lily
Purple Prairie Clover
What a great way to return to Manitoba. I am blessed.
Erik Pindera, “Endangered butterflies released into wild,” The Winnipeg Free Press, July 5, 2018 p. B3.