Orange, Black And Rare All Over

Melanie Choukas-Bradley helped organize the recent search at a farm near Damascus.
Melanie Choukas-Bradley helped organize the recent search at a farm near Damascus. (Ricky Carioti - Twp)
By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Acting on a tip from a credible source, Pat Durkin led a search party through a northwestern Montgomery County farm one afternoon last week, traversing poison ivy, deer manure and mud in hopes of spotting a creature no bigger than the size of her hand.

Looking like an environmentally conscious Sherlock Holmes, Durkin clutched a net and peered through binoculars to find any clues that would lead her to the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, which was once visible enough to become Maryland's official insect but is now hard to find.

In 20 years, the number of known checkerspot colonies in Maryland decreased from 30 to nine. Experts attribute the decline to hungry deer -- which munch on its host plant, the white turtlehead -- and encroaching development. No new colonies were found for years until last summer, landing the black, orange and white butterfly named for Maryland colonizer George Calvert, aka the first Lord Baltimore, on the state's watch list of rare species.

A group of environmentalists studying plants stumbled upon a 10th colony last summer on a Clarksburg farm. Buoyed by that find, Durkin organized a search for more colonies in Montgomery's agricultural reserve, where wetlands attract butterflies. The reserve is a protected area that covers a third of the county, mostly in the northwest. The effort began the first week of June and will continue until mid-July.

On Friday, Durkin scored an early victory. After an hour of trudging through waist-high grass at the Red Wiggler Community Farm near Damascus, she spotted a checkerspot, which she said is a good indication that there are many more on the property. She called the find "hugely important."

"My contribution to life on the planet is to try to save them," Durkin, 64, said.

Many residents don't know that the Baltimore checkerspot is the state insect, or that there even is a state insect.

With the state busy trying to save more endangered species, Durkin has taken on the role of steward of the checkerspot. Once Durkin and her army of butterfly enthusiasts find more checkerspot colonies, they will do what they can to protect the species from the deer and development that they believe have ravaged the wetlands. One way to do that, she said, is to build fences around any colonies.

"Some people don't think it's important," said Anne Sturm, who owns a farm in northwestern Montgomery. "I don't think there's anything more important."

Sturm has seen eastern tiger swallowtails and silver-spotted skippers on her 35-acre parcel near Barnesville. A Baltimore checkerspot would be a score. "How many beautiful surprises do we get in our life?" she said Saturday afternoon as she, Durkin and another friend hiked her land, once a horse farm. "Birds and butterflies are a little piece of wild surprises."

State officials rely on people such as Durkin and projects such as one to breed the insect at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

Durkin takes her role seriously. She took a reporter to the Clarksburg farm that houses the 10th colony but asked that its location not be revealed. "People will come to take them," she said of the caterpillars that will become butterflies.

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