It’s Easier, Cheaper & More Fun: Why Butterflying is the New Birding 

Advances in Digital Photography Have Lured Burnt-Out Birders to Leisurely Lepidoptery

Karl Barry isn’t part of the growing trend of birders-turned-butterflyers, a modest but growing segment in nature tourism.

Barry likes birds just fine. He just doesn’t want to get up before the sun does when he’s on vacation.

Happily, watching butterflies doesn’t require an alarm clock. Cold-blooded, solar-powered creatures, they don’t really get out and hit the flowers till mid-morning, after the sun’s rays have warmed the air. You can also leave your rain jacket at home for a butterfly tour, since they quickly flit away whenever the weather turns cloudy or cool.

“The older I get, the more I appreciate butterflies,” said Linda Cooper, 81, of Haines City, FL. “Head out mid-morning, go home if it’s rainy or cloudy, and usually be home in time to have a nap.”

Linda Cooper, of Haines City, FL guides during the annual North American Butterfly Association festival and also in Florida.

Like the vast majority of butterflyers, Cooper IS a former birder. She and late husband Buck turned to butterflies after they hit their 700th bird species, and he suggested they turn their attention to something new.

The same thing happened to Susan Brown. After thirty years of birding in and around Ontario, she was restless for novelty and tired of having to book plane tickets to see something different. She had an Eureka moment while birding a park near her home, when she happened across a cloud of cavorting yellow and white butterflies.

“There are a lot of birders who reach the pinnacle of birding, they see all of the birds, and a lot of them transition right into butterflies,” said butterfly guide Robert Gilson, of North Carolina-based Fauna Ventures.

Former birders make up most of the membership in the now-30-year-old North American Butterfly Association, which holds annual counts and does conservation work around butterflies like the National Audubon Society does for birds.

Birding and butterflying are compatible hobbies…birds are up early, butterflies don’t start to move until it’s warmer.

Monarch butterflies are the most well-known and loved of North American species, and tourists have long made pilgrimages to their overwintering grounds in Mexico and Southern California. But butterfly tourism now seems poised for further flight, with the emergence of new butterfly festivals, butterfly parks and guided group tours around the world.

Fauna Ventures brought Cooper, Brown, and a dozen other international guests to Lake Yojoa, Honduras in January for the Emerald Valley Butterfly Festival, now in its fourth year. Nestled in a steep valley of primary rainforest and cloud forest, the gardens of the Emerald Valley International Butterfly Center were frantically aflutter whenever there was sun.

The mistflower gardens were alive at the Emerald Valley international butterfly festival.

“I’ve got a new metalmark,” someone would call out, naming one of the six butterfly families, and a swarm of people would encircle the insect, snapping photos as it sat there, cooperative and unperturbed. 

That scene, repeated countless times throughout the day and week illustrates two other ways butterflying is different from (some would say better than) birding. Butterflies will let you get a lot closer to them than most birds will, which means you don’t need a pricey camera to get in on the fun.

“Anybody can take pictures of butterflies,” said Robert Gallardo, a longtime birding guide turned butterfly guide who founded the Honduran butterfly center and festival with partner Olivia Diax in 2018. “Even with cellphones and little cheap cameras, you can get a bunch of people around a butterfly to take a picture. With birds you can’t.”

Butterflies will let people walk up to them, unlike most birds, so great photos can be taken with cellphones.

Though “lepidopterology” has a history just as long as birdwatching, the invention of digital cameras has breathed new life into the hobby, said David Gaele, whose Mariposa Butterfly Tours leads tours to several countries in South America.

That’s because identifying butterflies used to require collecting (i.e. killing) butterflies to get a close look at them. And a close look is required, because these elaborately patterned and colored creatures often look very similar, especially when they ‘mimic’ one another to appear less delicious to predators.

From Robert Gallardo’s Emerald Valley collection, a scientific endeavor…he recently published a paper about the valley’s species.

These days, killing jars and even butterfly nets are frowned on for non-scientists, especially as butterfly populations dramatically decline. Now Flickr feeds of butterfly photos have replaced pinned and framed specimens as the new “collections.”

“For a lot of people, the photo is what they are after,” Gaele said, when it comes to butterfly tourists. And they can get them far more easily than birders, who frequently find themselves taking quick turns peering through spotting scopes pointed at the treetops.

“You don’t have to look up at butterflies,” Gilson said. “You’re mostly looking down. Butterflies are often quite close to you, and that makes it feel more leisurely.”

Looking down at butterflies on flowers is far easier than trying to scope a bird in a rain forest canopy!

Birders also have to contend with confusing changes in plumage, which may be different lengths or colors during breeding season, or mottled or incomplete when a bird is a “juvenile.”

Butterflies emerge in their final form from the cocoon, though many quickly develop battle scars from close calls with birds or other predators. The Honduras butterfly tour guests made reference to that as they called out specimen names. 

“That’s a fresh one,” one would exclaim, or, in apologetic tone (lest a photographer get too excited), “this one’s a little beat up.”

Though both birders and butterflyers often hope to see certain species in the field, all the guides interviewed for this story said birders tend to be a bit more high-strung and focused on crossing names off their checklists.

“Birding has gotten really competitive and I’m not a competitive person,” Cooper said. “I think butterfly people are a lot more laid back…a lot of people are listers but you’d never know it because they aren’t always putting it in your face all the time.”

Laid back butterflyer and birder Elise Barry

“Working as a bird guide is a more intense kind of experience,” Gallardo said. 

Some of that may just be the nature of the beast.

People who sign up for butterfly tours understand what they see is largely dependent on weather and factors beyond the guide’s control, said Gilson, who also spent many years as a bird guide.

“Generally if a bird is supposed to be in an area, you can find it. You play a call and it will come out. Butterflies not so much,” he said. “We hit certain habitats and expect certain species, but butterflies are a lot less predictable than birds.”

Rob & Rob from Fauna Ventures (foreground), and Robert Gallardo were all guides for the Emerald Valley Festival.

They can be lured, however, which is one reason backyard butterfly gardening, nurturing specific host plants like Milkweed, Coneflower, and Bee Balm has become increasingly popular. Gallardo and Diax have done that on a grand scale in Honduras at Emerald Valley, deploying the magic Blue Mistflower to spectacular effect. 

A gangly plant with small, hairy, pale blue blooms, mistflower is like catnip to butterflies. Nectar-rich and head-high here in the tropics, it’s one of the only plants that attracts members of all six butterfly families: the skippers, the hairstreaks, the metalmarks, the whites & sulphurs, the gossamer wings and the brushfoots.

Robert and Olivia have deployed the mistflower to spectacular effect in the gardens at Emerald Valley.

The festival is timed for the height of the six weeks it blooms here in Honduras, just as the Texas Butterfly Festival is timed for the mistflower blossom two months earlier, in November, in Corcan, TX.

Where some birds flock, many butterflies “puddle,” gathering together on moist or nutrient-rich soils to drink or gather minerals. That’s the inspiration behind other forms of butterfly bait, pastes or sprays containing rotting fruit, concrete powder, urine and other secret ingredients that vary from guide to guide, place to place, and which butterflies are being baited.

As for the hobby itself, attracting new butterflyers faces some challenges, most related to points of entry. Nearly everyone has a family member or friend who’s a birder, but finding a butterfly mentor can be a challenge. There are also far fewer guides and guidebooks.

Gallardo and Diax are in the process of publishing the first-ever field guide to the butterflies of Honduras, which will be unique in cataloging every known species from all six families of any Central American country. The best available guides for Costa Rica, an ecotourism powerhouse, omit entire families like the tricky hairstreaks and skippers that live in the harder-to-observe canopy.

Born in California, Gallardo came to Honduras with the Peace Corps 30 years ago, fell in love with the country and never left. Now he’s betting his retirement here on the nascent butterfly tourism trend, planning a handful of upscale cabins capable of supporting groups of a dozen guests at a time. 

Though butterflying still lags far behind birding, mere crumbs from its table would make for a mighty feast. An estimated 45 million birders in the U.S. spent $39 billion on travel and equipment aimed at observing birds, according to one study, and those figures are pre-pandemic, before lockdowns spurred interest in birding and every other iteration of nature tourism.

“There’s a little more interest each year,” Gallardo said. “There are more companies than there were before. We need more books, we need more guides and we need more experts.”

Robert Gallardo, putting out butterfly baits.

Gilson, of Fauna Ventures, said he is also cautiously optimistic about the trajectory of butterfly tourism.

“It’s hard to predict, but I’m seeing a lot more interest in what we’re doing, and with the increased availability of these kinds of events and tours I think it’s going to grow.” 

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