Butterflies in the fields

Lepidopterist Victor DeMasi placed a butterfly on the nose of Claire DiChiaro, 8, of Rowayton, and it stayed there for several seconds before flying away. (Karen Kovacs Dydzuhn)

Lepidopterist Victor DeMasi placed a butterfly on the nose of Claire DiChiaro, 8, of Rowayton, and it stayed there for several seconds before flying away. (Karen Kovacs Dydzuhn)

An orange and black Viceroy butterfly rested for several seconds on the tip of seven-year old Claire DiChiaro’s nose before flying away.

It’s not uncommon for Viceroy butterflies to stay on someone for a long time. They’re drawn to human sweat, according to Victor DeMasi, a curatorial affiliate at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History and leader of a recent butterfly hike at Randall’s Farm Nature Preserve on Sport Hill Road.

Sporting wings covered in tiny scales, and knobs on their antennas, Viceroys mimic Monarch butterflies in appearance, with the exception of a radial line that extends half-way through its wing.

A butterfly is captured, and Victor DeMasi talks about butterflies before wading through the tall grasses to stir any flying insects lying dormant. (Karen Kovacs Dydzuhn Photo)

A butterfly is captured, and Victor DeMasi talks about butterflies before wading through the tall grasses to stir any flying insects lying dormant. (Karen Kovacs Dydzuhn Photo)

During the informative hike sponsored by the Aspetuck Land Trust, DeMasi shared interesting facts and trivia about butterflies found in this area with 25 adults and children. As he waded through knee-high patches of joe-pye weed, New York ironweed and milkweed, DeMasi’s net was poised, ready to capture a butterfly that had been stirred into flight. One of the butterflies he caught and showed to the group was a Viceroy. Claire DiChiaro, 8, of Rowayton, was able to feel its light touch on her nose. She attended the Easton walk with her parents and six-year old brother.

DeMasi had little overall success finding butterflies on the excursion, however. It’s all about timing, he said.

“If they’re out, they would be out now, in the morning,” he explained. “The meadow is a real treasure and bound to attract many butterflies in the future. We have had low numbers and diversity all summer. Probably not a long-term trend but just the nature of the season with a warm winter possibly contributing.”

Christine Cook, vice president of the Connecticut Butterfly Association, predicted more butterflies would flourish in mid-to-late August, when the goldenrod flowers blossomed.

“This meadow will be astonishing then,” Cook said. “Nature loves white, purple and yellow [plants].”

However, nature preserves such as Easton’s Randall’s Farm are a rarity in Connecticut these days. Homeowners today more commonly opt for well-manicured lawns and crisp landscape structures. They are reluctant to allow the kinds of lush shrubs, plants and flowers that attract butterflies to grow in abundance.

A longtime Easton resident and owner of an ecological landscape design company called “Mosaics,” Cook said she walks through Randall’s Farm Nature Preserve every few weeks “to keep an eye on things.” Last summer Cook took photos of 15 different species of butterflies flying around the pond at Helen Keller Middle School.

Along with Cloudless Sulfur and Cabbage White butterflies, DeMasi pointed out Monarch butterflies during the hike. As he held the flying insect carefully between two fingers, everyone was able to get an up-close look at its properties even feel the tickle of its antennas on their chin.

“There are a lot of Monarchs around this year,” DeMasi said.

Unlike other species that hibernate closer to home, Monarchs spend their winters at the same location in Mexico when the weather up north gets cold.

Jacquie Littlejohn, a volunteer on the Land Management Committee for the Aspetuck Land Trust, coordinates educational hikes and programs at nature preserves in the four communities (Easton, Weston, Westport and Fairfield) served by the organization.

“These events are not only fun, but they also teach the young to look at nature in a way they might not otherwise look,” she said.

At the hike’s conclusion, DeMasi shared a display of butterfly specimens. He recommended the following books to those who would like to learn more about Connecticut’s butterflies: The Connecticut Butterfly Atlas, which is available through the state’s Department of Environmental Protection Agency’s bookstore, and Butterflies Through Binoculars by Jeff Glassberg. The Connecticut Butterfly Association and North American Butterfly Association (publisher of American Butterflies) were additional sources.

The 34-acre Randall’s Farm Nature Preserve, on Sport Hill Road, is on the former site of Randall’s Dairy Farm. The property was given to the town by Mrs. Henry D. duPont III, the former Joan Wheeler, who grew up in Easton.

For more information about nature preserves in the area and upcoming hikes, visit aspetucklandtrust.org.

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