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Painted Ladies! (Or, The Phenomenon of Phenomena)

 

The butterfly lay on the parking lot pavement, its red–orange hues aglow in the rising sun. It was beautiful but not worth salvaging, I judged, and I hastened to my appointment. An hour later, the creature was still there, still lovely, still glistening like a jewel. Ordinarily, it would have been stepped on and driven over, all morning long, but not this time, not this butterfly. Pedestrians and motorists were deliberately and respectfully avoiding contact with the corpse, going out of their way not to disturb it, as though the dead butterfly were a holy object in a shrine or chapel. The Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, is that beautiful.

Another lady, this one fully alive, fluttered by. On the drive down the street, I crossed paths with another. And on the drive across town, at least a dozen more. Something was going down.

I checked the internet—I’d actually been blessedly off the grid for a little while—and confirmed it: All across the Front Range metro region of Colorado, people were noticing Painted Ladies. Some of the reports were unreal: single locations with 10,000+, larger landscapes with 100,000+. Call it a phenomenon.

 

It’s been a week since I saw all those butterflies, and the phenomenon is still in progress. Across much of North America, meadows and pastures and backyards are awash in Painted Ladies. Go outside, right now, and see for yourself. In so doing, you will witness a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. And there’s something else: In so doing, you’ll find yourself an active participant in another sort of phenomenon.

I’d better explain that.

 

If we’re honest with ourselves, we birders will surely admit that not all sightings are created equal. Certain sightings stir us in ways that, truth be told, most others do not. Here in Colorado, where I live, the fall overflight of Sandhill Cranes, typically lasting just a day or so, is an event, a happening. Across the eastern Great Lakes region, the spring overflight of Tundra Swans is the same basic idea. Everybody has to see it. State and provincial listservs light up with sightings: “Sandhill Cranes on the move!” “Tunda Swan migration right now!” And not just the birding listservs. These events, these happenings, are widely noted and broadly enjoyed by all. Neighbors and even perfect strangers gather together to marvel at the high-flying flocks of cranes and skeins of swans.

There is something powerful, something that unites us, about these phenomena. They are sublime—in the old, literary sense of that word. We are drawn toward them, all of us, and we are, in a very real sense, become a phenomenon ourselves.

 

No question about it, the ongoing flight of Painted Ladies is a full-on, full-fledged phenomenon. That’s stirring. But what stirs me even more deeply is our communal response. For starters, the state birding listserv has been hijacked of late by eager butterfly discoverers. That’s cool, but Painted Lady awareness goes well beyond those of us who are already nature lovers: We’re noticing it and talking about it at bus stops, playgrounds, and schoolyards. Together we’re reveling in our shared sense of wonder at the natural world.

I can’t imagine a more gratifying phenomenon.

 

Painted Ladies! And everybody’s talking about them.

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
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