Text and Photos by Doug Backlund
Nature and books belong to the eyes that see
It was late July, 2003 and the final moments of daylight were terminating a hot day searching for butterflies in the Grand River National Grasslands of northwest South Dakota. Gary Marrone and I were in his camper at Shadehill Reservoir in Perkins County, looking through his new book, The Butterflies of South Dakota. "I would give an autographed hard cover book to whoever could find this butterfly in South Dakota." he said. He was looking at the species account of the Mormon Metalmark, a butterfly I had never heard of before. Gary had not collected this species in South Dakota in his thirty years of butterfly collecting. The only South Dakota record was a vague one, giving a location as somewhere in Pennington County. I already had an autographed copy of the limited hard cover edition, but the idea of looking for this butterfly was appealing to me. The habitat description of badlands type county in western South Dakota described the kinds of places I like to frequent anyway. I enjoy searching for little known creatures like this.
Two weeks later I was out there. Friday August 8, I searched along the Albion Road in northern Butte County. No luck. Actually, I had little idea what I was looking for, only that the habitat is eroded land, that the larval food plant is various species of Eriogonum (buckwheats), and that the adults should be flying about the same time as the rubber rabbitbrush was blooming. Everything seemed to fall in place except that the Mormon Metalmarks werenít there. Saturday I drove down to the southern Black Hills region and got a little searching in before huge thunderstorms took over for the rest of the day. By now I was getting a little discouraged and almost decided to head back to Pierre. Then I called Scott Weins, a naturalist friend who lived in Spearfish. Scott and his friend Beth Krueger thought they knew a good place to try. I camped on the Bear Ridge Road that night and Sunday morning we were out there. In a habitat of heavily eroded clay soils with big sagebrush, rubber rabbitbrush, and a species of Eriogonum, we searched through the morning and into the afternoon. I returned to the trucks for what I thought must be the last time. Scott was already there and I figured he was about to call it quits too. I was more than a little surprised when he showed me a small butterfly in a glassine envelope. He didnít say a word, all I could say was "I think thatís it!" A quick look in Garyís butterfly book confirmed that it was. We went to the collection site and found several more. Now we knew what we were looking for, a plant called Eriogonum pauciflorum; the butterflies were nectaring and mostly concentrated at this probable larval food plant.
Mormon Metalmark perching on Big Sagebrush
Ten days later I was back out there, this time with Gary Marrone. We quickly found more Mormon Metalmarks. Gary caught a short-horned lizard, a rarity in most of western South Dakota. We drove south to the Mirror Lakes area in Lawrence County, where Gary found more Mormon Metalmarks. He had two new county records for his butterfly records and a good time was had by all. These are the kinds of days a naturalist never forgets. In a landscape considered wasteland by most, guided by a book written by a butterfly expert, we all learned a little bit more about nature.
Gary Marrone photographing a Mormom Metalmark.
Scott Weins found the first colony in habitat like this on Aug.
The location is west of Belle Fourche, South Dakota.
Ten years later, more to the story:
September 1, 2013
North Cave Hills, Harding County, South Dakota
Charlie and I were in the North Cave Hills hiking and birding. As we worked our way along a rocky ridge, I noticed the eroded hillsides with the plant that Mormon Metalmarks feed on, Eriogonum pauciflorum. I mentioned that we should be looking for Mormon Metalmarks, when to my amazement, we simultaneously spotted what appeared to be one, flying along the eroded slope. As I got in closer and shot some photos, I was sure it was a Mormon Metalmark, but since I had not seen one for ten years, I wasn't 100% positive about my ID. Later, back at the camper, I retrieved some Mormon Metalmark photos from my computer, and we compared them. Sure enough, that's what it was. A new county record for the species!
Mormon Metalmark in the North Cave Hills, Harding County, SD
September 1, 2013
The Butterflies of South Dakota can be purchased HERE.