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Brown Elfins (Callophrys augustinus) copulating by Bryan Pfeiffer

Little Brown Butterflies and the Pandemic

Photo: Brown Elfins (not Bog Elfins) copulating at a bog in northern Vermont

May 28, 2020  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  47 comments  | 

Although it is an undisputed prize among North American lepidopterists, let’s be honest: the Bog Elfin is not a particularly attractive butterfly. Brown with messy black and rusty markings, and no bigger than your thumbnail, the elfin displays none of the flash and glitter of fritillaries, for example, or even the emerald hues of its many elfin cousins.

And yet for two decades I have been searching for the Bog Elfin here in Vermont — and not finding it. During my most recent expedition last week, I devoted three days to not finding any Bog Elfins. And what you probably do not know is that unlike many butterfly outings, a Bog Elfin search is no walk in the park or jaunt among the wildflowers.

In order to find a Bog Elfin you must first get yourself to a bog in late May, which usually requires bushwhacking with a map and compass or GPS — all the while with a cloud of black flies attacking your head and neck. Your 62-year-old, arthritic right knee does not help — it is in fact worse than black flies on these bushwhacks. That is until you reach the bog, which is open, wet and squishy, and therefore better than ibuprofen. Bogs temporarily cure old knees.

A Bog Elfin in Maine (not on a bog in Vermont).

And although you will find plenty of lovely pink, purple and white flowers on the bog, you will not find nectaring among them any Bog Elfins (Callophrys lanoraieensis). You might, however, find their close cousins, Brown Elfins (Callophrys augustinus). That’s a mating pair of Brown Elfins in the banner image above. And the only reason I can bring you this photograph is because of the stedfast reluctance of Bog Elfins to show themselves, and the particular antics you must employ to find Bog Elfins (even when they are nowhere to be found at a bog).

Rather than prance about sipping nectar, Bog Elfins spend a good part of their lives sitting around on Black Spruce (Picea mariana) trees that grow from the bog mat. From those stunted-yet-lofty perches, Bog Elfins have no interest whatsoever in visiting with the likes of anyone or their bad knees and black flies. We are beneath them. Although I am somewhat reluctant to make the comparison, it’s as if a Bog Elfin were up there dispatching its battalions of biting insects to attack even the most earnest lepidopterist, like the Wicked Witch of the West deploying her flying monkeys at Dorothy.

So, in order to dislodge one from its perch, you must thwack Black Spruce trees with your insect net and watch for a Bog Elfin to dart away. And you cannot perform this exercise casually. Remember, these are among the smallest butterflies on the continent. When you thwack a Black Spruce, all sorts of stuff might come tumbling or flying off: bits of lichen or spruce cone scales, for example, or little brown moths (which, fortunately, are distinguishable because they fly with none of the dignity of a Bog Elfin).

Over the course of our three-day search, my partner on the expedition, Josh Lincoln, and I thwacked or tapped no fewer than 800 black spruce trees of all sizes on bogs across northeastern Vermont. Never did a Bog Elfin launch from any spruce (at least none that we could detect). In fact the only butterflies to launch were that mating pair (end-to-end) of Brown Elfins above, which landed on the leaf of a Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum) for the photo. Josh and I also noticed another female Brown Elfin laying one of her powder blue her eggs on a leaf of a Bog Laurel (Kalmia polifolia).

And through it all we did not notice any Bog Elfins. No matter. And no regrets. I have a policy about bogs: No complaining on a bog. Ever. And at this point in this essay I am committing an unmitigated nature-writing cliche by telling you that my failed Bog Elfin expedition was in any event about the journey. Yeah, we missed Bog Elfins. No surprise there. But on our first morning a bull Moose sauntered past us close enough to smell. A Canada Warbler, gunmetal-gray above and highway-paint-yellow below, with a jet-black necklace, posed full-frontal for us and sang his fidgety song. A Fisher emerged from the woods and practically bumped into Josh. And Lucia Azures (Celastrina lucia), another thumbnail butterfly, flashed like little blue flames at our feet across the bogs.

But beyond the cliche, our failed Bog Elfin expedition gave me something even greater than the journey: normalcy. As strange as it might seem for grown men to thrash around the woods and walk across bogs thwacking trees with butterfly nets, the Bog Elfin, mythical or not here in Vermont, rescued us for a three-day furlough from the pandemic. Once we cleared “civilization,” Josh and I saw not a soul on or around these bogs in northeastern Vermont. Nobody. For three days I could rub my eyes, pick my nose, not wash my hands, forget about the plague and simply chase butterflies with a dear friend.

Butterflies know nothing of the plague. They wear no protective masks. They dance on the winds carefree and sip nectar from shared meadow wildflowers and communal backyard gardens.

The coronavirus pandemic has broken so much of what it means to be human: to gather together with family and friends, to exchange love and ideas, experience and opportunity. Virtually every facet of our lives, every pillar of society and culture, has changed — perhaps for a long time. And yet nature remains among the few things in our world unchanged. Butterflies know nothing of the plague. They wear no protective masks. They dance on the winds carefree and sip nectar from shared meadow wildflowers and communal backyard gardens. Or just sit there atop Black Spruce trees in remote bogs.

To be sure, a bog in northern Vermont is the epitome of physical distancing. Yet perhaps you yourself, seeking refuge, need not bushwhack so far and search for a little brown butterfly. Maybe your respite is closer to home. After all, we humans have for centuries philosophized about the sublime and transcendence to be found in the natural world. In that sense, the human mind is indeed a potent force, maybe even stronger than a plague.

After all, to escape a virus I cannot see in my community, I found refuge in a little brown butterfly I never saw on a bog.

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  1. Farhat says:

    I love reading your blogs. My life couldn’t have been more different to yours. I spent 20 years in Emergency Medicine as a physician, and took a career break just before the pandemic, rediscovering my love of nature. There is nothing more healing than it!

    • Well, I spent many years in journalism and chemistry before a career change that sent me outdoors — best decision of my life (among many others). 🙂 A noble calling, emergency medicine!

  2. Susan Shea says:

    Nice essay, Bryan – very eloquent.

  3. Nothing like a bog as a place to find interesting denizens of the natural world. We have all too few down here in Pennsylvania, but I have enjoyed bogs in Vermont.

  4. Michael Levine says:

    Your dedication and pursuit of such a singular task is remarkable! Thanks for taking the time to share it.
    We saw a yearling moose below one of our beaver ponds earlier this week–the first sighting in many years. That was a thrill as well.
    BTW, you don’t need to go bog hopping to get devoured by black flies. They find me in the garden too.

  5. Connie Venn says:

    Thank you so much for transporting me to a bog in Vermont – from Australia. It’s a great day when an email from you arrives.

  6. Christina Hastings says:

    Thank you. I’ve always wanted to visit Vermont but have yet to make it there. You able to give me a a little vacation, imagining walking the wilderness to get to the bog.

  7. Robin Criscuolo says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Bryan!

    I am looking forward to our butterfly class!

    Robin in Charlottesville, VA

  8. Joyce Kahn says:

    What a wonderful blog on a bog, Bryan. It was a pleasure to vicariously accompany you on your squishy trek. Your masterful writing captivated me from beginning to end.

  9. Pam Kupiec says:

    Thank you, this is beautiful and I felt I was right there with you.
    My heart stopped at the bull moose.
    Enjoy, I love nature!

  10. mike rosenzweig says:

    Bless you, Bryan. Your words bring blessings to all of us. I am glad that bogwater soothed your arthritic knee. Have you tried Synvisc or like interventions? I had several years of better walking until the injections didn’t work anymore, and I surrendered to the knife. Which is also a good outcome. Thanks for this blog. Still hoping for Monhegan in September. We can wish, can’t we?

    • THanks, Mike! Nice to hear from you. Yeah, I’ve tried the various shots — none work. I’ll just live with the pain for a while. And the pain of not getting to Monhegan. 🙁 We can indeed wish! Hope to see you there!

  11. Mary Jane Krotzer says:

    Wonderful as always! Steve and I would love to get in the field with you sometime soon and NOT see some really good butterflies.

  12. Tracy Sherbrook says:

    Thank you for sharing your delightful adventures, Bryan. The attainment of a goal is not nearly as fun as the pursuing of the goal, yes? Although, it would have been nice if you saw at least one Bog Elfin as a reward for suffering the black flies. What’s weirder? Choosing to spend one’s days in a small, cramped cubicle staring at an unfeeling screen or whacking trees in a bog in a quest for an unfettered fairy-like creature? Hmm, let me think…

  13. Sue Elliott says:

    Boy, does this article appear at the right time – reading it is a cure for the pandemic blues (not the good butterfly kind of blues).

  14. Diana Van Buren says:

    Having tramped through a boggy area (not a true bog) with you and my Moth and Butterfly classmates last summer in a SUCCESSFUL search for Baltimore Checkerspot larvae, this story brought back some great memories. I know how persistent and completely focused you are in these situations, to which you devote a good part of your life, which I admire.

    Plus, you made me laugh today. Thank you, as always.

  15. Maeve Kim says:

    I loved this, Bryan! It made me a little weepy and a lot delighted. Thanks!

  16. Tom Jiamachello says:

    Masterfully written, Bryan. You successfully conveyed sense of place and your time in it. Kudos.

  17. Phyllis Tiffany says:


  18. Louanne says:

    As always, you give me joy and delight when you share the little things, which are truly the big things in life.

  19. Brian Hicks says:

    Brilliant post Bryan. So glad you ‘escaped’ to the wild (bit more difficult over here) and I think those Elfins are gorgeous, stunning shots!

  20. Nancy Mosher says:

    Wow! I’m so glad to be getting these. Thank you.

  21. Dale says:

    In my next life, I want to be you, sloshing around in bogs and appreciating the glory of nature. Thank you for bringing us along.

  22. Sue Wetmore says:

    Well chasing no show elfins is right there with trying to find a cerulean warbler. However no trees were assaulted in our fruitless search.
    Thanks for the bog journey !

  23. Jo Lafayette says:

    I love these pieces. I don’t have the words to tell you how much.
    Thank you Bryan

  24. Jeannie Elias says:

    This transported me…and I needed that. Lovely piece.
    Thank you.

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