It seems like a greenhouse at first: Quiet, cool and still. They resemble orange leaves, hanging limp from the branches of a shady tree. Closer inspection reveals their spotted white grasshopper bodies and their delicate antennae.
Then, suddenly, something stirs them and the tree explodes in a silent orange cloud, to soft applause.
Butterflies are a joy to watch but are also discerning tourists, selecting the best weather, taking wing when it’s cool and a bit moist. And they find the most beautiful spots.
This weekend, two locations mark the closing weeks of butterfly prime time in the East Valley. They provide a great excuse to hit the trails, soak up the cool temperatures and rediscover the postcard scenery of these last October days. Let the butterflies guide you. They seem to know something.
Every year, monarch butterflies embark on a great migration. The ones east of the Continental Divide summer in Canada and head for Mexico in the winter. Western monarchs divide time between the Santa Barbara/Santa Cruz area and the Baja peninsula. But the monarchs who pass through Desert Botanical Garden get a sweet deal: Their Marshall Butterfly Pavilion is a giant black-mesh equivalent of a movie star’s trailer.
"We keep it between 70 and 90 degrees and provide a lot of shade," the garden’s Melanie Day says as we pass through a door bordered with plastic freezer strips into a slightly chilly Eden. "The monarchs enjoy a humid climate, so the misters keep it at about 70 percent humidity." The result is Mariposa Monarca, a monthlong butterflycountry safari where families can walk along manicured paths and watch 800 monarchs flutter, swirl and feed on the nectar of lush plants and trees.
"You really get to see them close up," Day says. Just how close that might be is up to the monarch. "Our rule is, ‘The butterflies can touch us, but don’t touch the butterflies,’ " she says. The orange denizens float quietly across paths, to the delight of families walking there. Signs in English and Spanish detail the monarch’s characteristics and migration range. Because these particular monarchs come from breeders, their migration is less typical.
"They come to us in an envelope," Day says. "The breeders FedEx them overnight, on dry ice." Department of Agriculture regulations require the butterflies to be released in less than 24 hours. "We open the envelopes, and off they go," Day says, although stragglers require a second or two on a warm hand before reviving.
In the end, the monarchs are released into the wild — but some leave with a Web site.
"We try to tag about 200 this year," Day explains. The tag, a fingertip-sized sticker, carries a Web address to track their migration. "Last year, someone from El Rosario (Mexico) found one of our tagged monarchs and contacted us. That was pretty amazing."
A brownish-orange butterfly lands on the path at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. It’s not a monarch. And it’s not happy.
"It’s an Empress Leilia," the arboretum’s Chris Kline explains. "They’re very territorial. She’s letting us know this is her neighborhood."
Some like a little more variety and challenge to their butterfly experience. For them, the arboretum’s 90-minute weekend walks, which end for the season this weekend, combine beauty and science in the shadow of the Superstition Mountains.
Kline, the arboretum’s resident butterfly expert, is one of the hosts. He’s a large, friendly fellow with a voluminous butterfly knowledge and a quick nylon net. "You always take the net," he says. "People can’t always spot a butterfly or see the markings. So you give them a look up close."
But the butterflies prove easily accessible across the banks of desert flowers blooming in the Demonstration Garden. "That’s a pipevine swallowtail," Kline says, pointing out a purple-black character with a teardrop bottom on his wings. "A couple cloudless sulphurs, and that one with the black edge on its wings? That’s a Southern dogface."
A butterfly walk is a laidback scavenger hunt through the East Valley’s best scenery. Big, colorful ones — like the pipevines or painted ladies — are readily visible. Kline has an eagle eye for smaller, shyer creatures, like a fiery skipper or an Arizona metalmark.
"One trick is to keep your eyes on the trail," he advises. "You can catch their
shadows when they move." Kline tracks the number and variety of each species as he answers questions on the tour.
"The best time to see butterflies here is usually during the monsoon," he says. "Local plants are doing well, and storms will actually blow uncommon butterflies into the area. So normally this time of year we see varieties of butterflies decline. But, for whatever reason, there’s still a lot of variety to be seen out here." The count proves him right: 27 separate species and 203 individual butterflies identified on a 90-minute butterfly hunt.
The term "hunt" is loosely applied. "You don’t have to chase them," Kline says. He stops, motionless, and with a quick flick of the wrist, he nets a passing specimen. "You learn early that, if you chase a butterfly, the butterfly wins."