An Online Course in Identification and Ecology
Starting in June 2020 (or Whenever You Might Like)
Discover, study, and enjoy butterflies during their peak flight season here in Vermont and beyond. Designed for beginning or advancing lepidopterists anywhere, the course will cover butterfly taxonomy, behavior, field techniques (including netting and photography) and classic identification challenges. It also includes joy — lots of it.
The Instructor: Bryan Pfeiffer
A field entomologist, writer and boy explorer, Bryan is perhaps more than anything a teacher. Over the course of three decades, he has guided thousands of people to the discovery of birds and insects. Bryan was a co-founder of the Vermont Butterfly Survey and its principle field lepidopterist. He has collected, watched, and photographed butterflies from the tropics of Central America to above the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia. He now consults with the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist Program and is at work on two books.
General Course Organization
Four, two-week study units drive this course. Starting on Monday, June 1, Bryan will deliver the first of four bundles of online learning lectures, readings, and field assignments. Each bundle will include:
A Pre-recorded Lecture — About an hour long, these will be online for viewing whenever it is convenient for each student. Every lecture will cover a particular aspect of butterfly taxonomy, identification or ecology, as well as relevant instruction and advice for students as they head out for field adventures with butterflies.
Online Classroom Meets — One week after each lecture, we’ll convene online to discuss the particular unit’s topics and field challenges. If you’re unable to join the meeting, each will be recorded and posted so that you can at least view it afterwards.
Readings — Each bi-weekly bundle will include relevant readings, handouts, and online resources.
Independent Field Outings — These will be your opportunity to put the online learning into practice. You’ll be directed toward field sites where butterflies should be exhibiting what we’re learning at the moment. Students will also have opportunities to pursue their own aspirations with these insects (photography or collecting, for example, or work with a particular taxon).
General Curriculum and Topics
Unit 1: Being There — Find, Observe, Learn, Enjoy
When the course begins, members of five butterfly families will be on the wing in Vermont and across New England (as well as the sixth family for many students farther afield). Your objective will be to find them. Our lecture will include a general introduction to butterfly evolution, taxonomy, and family characteristics. But our major objective will be to get you outside and comfortable around these insects. We’ll focus on where, when, and how to find butterfly generalists (easy) and specialists (tougher). We’ll cover your tools as well, including binoculars, cameras, field guides, and net technique and extraction. And we’ll learn “how to look” at a butterfly in order to determine its identity — and appreciate its rewards.
Unit 2: Being a Butterfly
You cannot know these insects until you know their life cycles and behaviors, which we will cover in two short lectures. Our emphasis will be butterfly energy budgeting — basically a day in the life of a male and a female, from emergence to mating to death. Your field explorations during this unit will expand to observe butterfly behaviors, particularly host plant association and mating behaviors. You may even find yourself watching a butterfly lay eggs. An extra video in this unit will feature butterfly capture, extraction from the net, and release.
Unit 3: Classic Identification Challenges and Finding Rarities
As you gain experience and confidence in the field, you’ll make progress on locating scarce or rare species and conquering some of the classic identification challenges. Skipper identification will constitute a signification portion of this unit, including the challenges in duskywings (Erynnis) and the gray-brown skippers sometimes knows as “witches” (among them members of the genus Euphyes).
Unit 4: Wrapping Up
Your primary objective will be to conclude the course ready to continue learning on your own. Photographers, for example, will gain additional skills during this unit. Interested students can learn to prepare a butterfly specimen. And we’ll cover the resources (mostly online) you’ll use to continue your discovery and enjoyment of these spectacular insects. Students who so desire will have the option to present to the class on their independent studies — either live after our online meeting or in a pre-recorded video.