A Beginner's Guide to Butterfly Watching

What to Do

Whelan has a few tips for folks just getting started in butterfly watching. First and foremost, keep your expectations in check. "People often go to a tropical rainforest, or someplace that just exemplifies wildlife, like in the movies, and they expect to see butterflies everywhere. But remember, butterflies don't really want to be seen. Many have camouflage, and come out at different times of day," Whelan says. "Don't expect to be swarmed. Just be happy with seeing that one rare species you've never seen before, or witnessing a new behavior, or even just enjoying your surroundings."

Also, study up. "If you really want to get into butterfly watching, learn as much as you can. Not only will it help you identify species, but you'll have more fun," he says. The easier it is for you to identify a species on the spot, the more likely you are to realize you're seeing an unusual behavior.

Why It Matters

Butterfly watching isn't just fun; it's an important aspect of conservation through "citizen science." "The more you know from reading field guides, joining organizations, taking classes or even just Internet searches, the more appreciation and understanding you'll have for what you're seeing," Whelan says.

Sara longwing butterfly
Thinkstock

Say, for example, you recognize the first Monarch of the season. You can then report that to an organization like the North American Butterfly Association, which can include your findings in their research, all of which helps with conserving biodiversity. "We're finding that 'citizen science' is almost more important than anything else," Whelan explains. In addition to assisting with Lepidoptera research, butterfly watching contributes to an overall conservation culture within the watcher's community. "We’re losing a lot of our species to extinction on a global scale," Whelan says. "Going out and looking at butterflies imparts a strong appreciation in the butterfly watcher and everyone in their life, because they’ll share stories and they’ll have an appreciation for the environment, which will be passed along to those close to them."

How to Get Involved

While you can gain a plethora of knowledge from a few basic Internet searches, Whelan suggests joining an organization like the North American Butterfly Association, the Association for Tropical Lepidoptera or the Lepidopterist Society. This will give you an automatic community that will not only share current findings and information with you, but might also be a great resource for planning a butterfly watching trip.

More and more ecotourism companies are offering these trips too, so it may be worth asking about the option when you're planning your next environmentally focused vacation.

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