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The World on the Wing of a Butterfly

October 31, 2021  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  14 comments  | 

The elfins and green hairstreaks in the genus Callophrys might be perfect butterflies. Not only because they inhabit wild places — from arctic spruce bogs to southwestern deserts. And not because some have odd and specialized diets. No, among their most endearing qualities is that Callophrys butterflies are exhibitionists: they like to pose in plain sight.

If you are a wildlife photographer in any capacity, especially a butterfly photographer like me, few subjects make your heart flutter and your shutter fire like an animal posing so that you might sit beside it for a long time or take as many photos of it as you please (and then maybe sit with it some more).

Eastern Pine Elfin (Callophrys niphon) / Wisconsin / 13 Jun 2014.

My affinity for this genus, perhaps exceeding my devotion to any other group of butterflies, even the metalmarks or morphos, might appear odd because many Callophrys are … well, to be honest: little brown butterflies lacking ornamentation.

Callophrys nonetheless make me realize that heaven or nirvana or paradise — whatever transcendence you may seek — is not “up there” or “out there” or in the terra incognita of the mind. It is here.

Once you recognize its intimacy and shared evolution with plants, its bravado in the cold or durability in the heat, even its subtle or ornate markings, only then might you discover that a butterfly the size or your thumbnail is no mere insect but rather, in posing for you, a expression of time and place. Bog Elfin you will find only in the vicinity of bogs with black spruce — and nowhere else in the world. Hessell’s Hairstreak you will find only in the company of Atlantic white cedar — and nowhere else in the world. Yes, a tiny butterfly can embody a forest of conifers, a vast desert, or even big ideas. If that is not sublime I do not know what is.

And now that the butterfly season is winding down here in New England, I offer you the montage below. Fifteen years in the making, it features every regular member of the genus Callophrys in the eastern United States, a feat I completed with an image of the imperiled Frosted Elfin (Callophrys irus) on May 13 of this year in New York State. Along the way, I dwelled with Callophrys from the oil refineries of Texas to the cave country of Kentucky to remote bogs in northern Maine — each encounter memorable, each a tiny, posing manifestation of the divine.

Lotus Hairstreak (Callophrys dumetorum) / California / 12 Mar 2018

But these explorations of the world on the wing of a butterfly are far from complete. After all, the Callophrys species of the western United States beckon. From there, maybe the Callophrys of Europe and Asia — at least 30 species worldwide. I’m off to a decent start with this Lotus Hairstreak (Callophrys dumetorum) from California — some green for you on this rainy day during “Stick Season” here in Vermont.

The montage below will display well if you click, fill your screen and even zoom. By the way, that banner image above features a Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus), which was nectaring on a Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) in San Marcos, Texas, on 1 Mar 2020.

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  1. Diane Tetrault says:

    Bryan, thank you being so determine and devoted. Bringing images of these extraordinary beauties to our attention just might be contributing to the transformation of consciousness we so need right now….tears of awe and wonder are good medicine.

  2. Richard O. Prum says:

    Didn’t Emily Dickinson write that poem,
    “Hope is a Hessel’s Hairstreak..” ?

    • Anthony Zemba says:

      Ha! Dr. Prum: I am reading a collection of her works right now, coincidentally. I have just reached the section of the works that includes her nature poems. Haven’t come across any mention of Hessel’s Hairstreaks yet, but hope I do. It may be one that I actually understand!

    • Ha! If she didn’t, she should have. Would have been better poetry.

  3. Calvin Kunin says:

    Calvin Kunin says: Much appreciation for your snow goose and butterfly series. They are magnificent!

  4. Brian Hicks says:

    We only have the one, C rubi, which is our only green butterfly (and one of my favourites)
    Lovely to see all your varieties Bryan.

  5. Ernest Williams says:

    Wonderful set of photos, Bryan. The name of frosted elfins makes it seem as though they’ve just emerged from Middle Earth! I agree that the patterning of elfins and their behavior – especially males defending a territory – makes them a really interesting group to observe.

  6. Gloria Boyer says:

    Bryan, thank you for this! Wonderful photos. I wanted to let you know that the montage only shows one image. It never advances to any other photo. This might be some issue with my particular browser, but I thought I’d mention it in case.

  7. Anthony Zemba says:

    So there IS hope for me to find the Hessel’s Hairstreak yet!
    Love this post!

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