About twenty years ago, new digital camera in hand, I started to take frequent walks at lunchtime. The convenient open space was a powerline easement adjacent to my workplace. At first, I was interested in finding and photographing flowers. As I browsed around, I found a milkweed patch and a striking orange butterfly, a Great Spangled Fritillary:

Great Spangled Fritillary (2003)

Then I was hooked: Wood Nymph, American Copper (link), Eastern Tailed Blue, Cabbage White, Little Wood Satyr, Buckeye, Monarch, Orange Sulphur, Clouded Sulphur. I started posting to an email list for butterfly watchers and reporting what I saw, and traveling to other butterfly sites that had other species. But I kept up my visits to the powerline, going back to the milkweed to try to get a better image of Great Spangled Fritillary – I never succeeded.

Powerlines are a productive place for butterfly watchers because they are cleared regularly for powerline maintenance and preserved in a state of early succession. The food plants for the butterflies are abundant, shrubs and trees aren’t allowed to grow and shade the flowery annuals. At the same time, it wasn’t a very natural place to encounter nature. Kids zipped by on ATVs, scattering dust. And as I looked up, there were the buzzing powerlines, poles, steel, and wire.

At first, the powerline visits were a summer thing. As my interest in nature and photography grew, I went out in all seasons, and learned the succession of butterfly species. The powerline was a good location for a tiny spring butterfly, Brown Elfin, and I also found Henry’s Elfin (link).

The powerline I visited went on for miles. Some parts I could walk to, and other sections were a drive away. In one section, a stream crossed the powerline. It was a good spot for damselflies, including Ebony Jewelwing (link). There were willows by the stream, and every year in late May I’d see Viceroys, sometimes three or four at a time perching by the stream in different places.

Viceroy (2006)

As I explored the powerline more, I found another Elfin species in spring, Frosted Elfin – an exciting find, because they are somewhat rare, and known in a limited number of areas in Massachusetts. I proudly filed a rare species report form with the state. A Frosted Elfin from the powerline:

Frosted Elfin (2007)

The Frosted Elfin is perching on the seed pod of their foodplant, Wild Indigo (Baptistia tinctoria).

I wrote a description of the powerline in a guidebook to butterfly sites that my butterfly watchers group published. And then, a decade ago, the company I worked for sold the business, and I got another job. I went back to the powerline, but less and less over time.

Then a few weeks ago, I got an email from a biologist who was starting a rare species survey in the town where the powerline was, asking for reports of butterfly species I’d seen, including Frosted Elfin. An old friend from the butterfly group referred him to me. I had the pleasure of sending him the section from the butterfly guide with a butterfly species list, as well as information on the spot where I found Frosted Elfin.

The British Soldier lichen (link) and the Little Bluestem image (link) were taken a few feet apart at a powerline near where I live – a nice spot, but not as productive as that first one. It’s almost the season for Frosted Elfin. Time for me to go back to the powerline!

21 thoughts on “Powerlines

  1. When I saw the post’s title in my e-mail I expected something like the second picture, so when I came to the website and saw the first picture it took me by surprise. These butterfly photographs are so clear, more than I’d have thought from an early digital camera.

    For years I’ve gone photographing in several places on the right-of-way beneath the power lines that cross the southern part of my neighborhood. The good thing is that people are unlikely to build there or are prevented from doing so altogether, and so nature thrives.

    • The title is misleading- the subject is what I found at a powerline, but also powerlines as a habitat. Of course, I found more than butterflies. I got rid of the digicam quickly and got a digital SLR. These were taken with an SLR and good lenses.

  2. I’m really impressed by your photos. I know from experience, it is difficult to capture fritillaries and viceroys~they are really zippy! I have to chuckle at the first one. I’ve found that if I paint a butterfly upside down, it upsets people. At a show, every single person will pause, and them tell me I’ve painted it upside down and that butterflies “don’t do that.” I won’t even show them that way anymore, because if I do I’ll never sell the painting. I’m also very impressed by your power line. Holy cow, that is quite a collection of butterflies you found along there!

    • Thanks! That was a partial list. I learned about butterflies there, and those were the some of the species I saw there for the first time. Fritillaries are fast and flighty, but Viceroys will perch for you. And they tend to fly off and return to the same perch, so you can wait for them.

  3. Hi, Tom. I am trying to remember if we went to this spot when I visited with you a few years ago. The post is a nice history of your interest in butterflies and some nice image examples. I visit a power-line cut annually for fringed gentian and a couple of others. They are much easier to photograph.

  4. When I read ‘Powerlines,’ my first thought was that you’d been out to California again, where Powerlines Productions capture the surfing action at Mavericks. The spot’s near Half Moon Bay. If you’re ever in the area when the surf’s up, it would be worth some time. It’s northern California’s answer to the action down south.

    My first forays into nature involved a small local nature area that happens to be near a utility easement. As I poked around, I discovered that the utility easement actually had a greater variety of plants than the nature center. I didn’t know what most of them were, and my photographic skills were rudimentary, but it was great fun to poke around. They’ve just paved all the paths in the nature center, and cut back everything within three feet of them to make it more “convenient” for dog walkers and parents with strollers, but I’m hoping that the easement’s still accessible.

    I especially like your photo of the frosted elfin. Butterfly names delight me, and that one seems especially apt.

    • For simplicity, l left plants out of this tale, though they were always part of what I saw and phtographed: dogbane, milkweed, salsify, wood anemone, birdfoot violet, invasive species such as knapweed and swallow wort. But they didn’t fit in well with the email towards the end.
      The frosted elfin image was a discovery, a view I overlooked when I took it more than a decade ago. Probably I didn’t like the perch back then, or I didn’t recognize it as wild indigo. Glad you liked it!

  5. This was a delightful read – the glory of power lines! 🙂 The Viceroy on that curved stamen (?) is stunning, and the little Elfin looks at home on the seedpod that matches its’ coloration. I really like the photo of the pole with all the wires and the moon, too.

    • It is a great place for a walk – I went back a couple of weeks back hoping for viceroys, but I didn’t see any. The viceroy in the post is perched on a grass seed head (foxtail).

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