I’ve always been interested in wildlife of the “far north.” Whether Musk Ox, Narwhal, or the butterflies of the tundra, I have always hoped to pay them a visit someday. However, getting to the far north is expensive, and while working on my book I was only focusing on those species found in Indiana, even when travelling to other states such as Wisconsin and Minnesota. After my book was finally published, something I hoped to do was to observe and photograph species that I had not needed to find for my book, including some found in the far north. Sulphurs and satyrs are two groups of butterflies well represented in the north. A satyr would become the object of my first quest.
The arctics are a group of satyrs found in the far north or at high elevations, and most have heavily mottled wings to help them blend into their habitat. The Chryxus Arctic (Oeneis chryxus) is the most widespread of the group, occurring across Canada and south into the United States in the Rocky Mountains and northern Wisconsin and Michigan. In Wisconsin and Michigan it is found in dry, grassy habitats such as openings in Jack Pine barrens. It is a medium-sized butterfly, with a wingspan of about two inches, heavily mottled gray, cream, and brown on the underside of the wings and dull orange on the upperside, with eyespots on the forewings.
Last spring I was reading about this species and was intrigued by the habitat description—Jack Pine barrens. Probably the most famous inhabitant of Jack Pine barrens is the Kirtland’s Warbler, a federally endangered bird that I had not seen for many years and Sandy had never seen. It occurred to me that a fun trip would be to drive up to the Grayling, Michigan, area and see the warbler and hopefully find the butterfly. The Chryxus Arctic flies for only a short period in mid to late May, and the Kirtland’s Warbler returns from its wintering grounds in the Bahamas in mid-May, so it should be possible to see both in the same trip. The Michigan Audubon Society conducts tours to see the warbler in the Grayling area, so the probability of seeing the warbler is very high. Seeing the butterfly would probably be more difficult. I contacted a friend in Ohio who contacted some friends in Michigan who contacted someone else in Michigan and through this network of friends and sources within a week I had a potential spot to visit. The person in Michigan who provided the site information was Ranger Steve Mueller, a life-long naturalist and lepidopterist whose name I had often heard but with whom I had never corresponded. He told me that he had been attending the Tawas Point Birding Festival for a number of years and usually visited a reliable spot for Chryxus Arctic on his way to the festival in Tawas City. When I put out my query last year he had just returned from the festival, and he had seen the arctics on the way. Unfortunately, by the time another sunny day occurred when Sandy and I were able to go, it had already been two weeks since Steve had seen them flying. Arctics have a notoriously brief flight period of only about two weeks. Sure enough, when Sandy and I visited the spot we could not find any Chryxus Arctics (although we did see Kirtland’s Warblers nearby!).
This year I was determined to see a Chryxus Arctic. A few weeks ago I contacted Ranger Steve again and he was indeed planning to visit the site on May 18th on his way to the festival. I couldn’t meet him that day because I was scheduled to give a program in Terre Haute that evening, but the forecast for the day after looked decent—although quite cool—so I asked Steve to call me to let me know if the arctics were flying. If they were, I would leave for Michigan immediately after my program. On my way to the program, Steve called me to report that despite the poor weather (just a few peeks of sunshine amidst clouds and rain), he had seen a few arctics. So I gave my program, and then off I went, to the north.
On Friday, May 19th, at 10am, I drove by the turn-off for the site about 20 miles south of Grayling. It was totally overcast and 38 degrees. Not good. I continued on into Grayling to ponder my options. Just south of Grayling I reached the northern edge of the bank of clouds that had been over me during the entire drive up from southern Michigan where I had spent the night. If the clouds moved just a bit to the south, and it warmed up a little, I might have a chance. I called Sandy at home and she texted a map to me of the area we had seen Kirtland’s Warblers last year. I thought I would drive over to the area and try to see them again—birds don’t mind cool weather and some clouds. I spent about half an hour at the Kirtland’s site but didn’t see any, although I heard at least one male singing in the distance. The Kirtland’s site was east of Grayling and a little south, and it was sunny the entire time I was there. The clouds seemed to have drifted southward, and it had warmed a little—it was now in the mid-40s—so I was hopeful. I decided to drive over to the Chryxus Arctic site and give it a shot, regardless of the temperature.
I got there about noon. The clouds had drifted just to the south, so the edge of the clouds seemed to be only a few miles south of the site. It was hazy, but sunny. Temperature was 49 degrees, with a 10-15 mph wind. To be active, most butterflies need the air temperature to be around 55 degrees, but with direct sun to warm their wing muscles, I have seen some butterflies basking and able to fly if I flush them when the temperature is only 50. I got my camera gear together and walked off into the open grassy area of the site. Almost immediately I flushed a Cobweb Skipper (Hesperia metea), an early spring species that is, like the Chryxus Arctic, limited to barrens habitat and grassy areas (but which occurs much farther south, including in Indiana). About 15 minutes later, a dull orange butterfly flew past me. I knew it could only be a Chryxus Arctic! I chased after it and it soon landed, totally disappearing into some clumps of grass. I crept up to the spot, and it was indeed sitting there, virtually invisible. As I tried to photograph it I recalled that it had flown past me—I had not flushed it—so this particular individual was already active and flying, with the temperature at a balmy 49 degrees!
As the day progressed, the sun remained visible as the clouds continued to hover in the sky just to the south, and the temperature warmed to 57 degrees. I eventually saw about 20 Chryxus Arctics, a few of which allowed me to photograph them. It was quite difficult, because most had a bad habit of landing in a spot where they would be partially obscured by grass blades. Despite the difficulties, it was a pleasure to spend time with a truly northern butterfly!