The folks at Maydale Nature Center in Silver Spring organized a morning's expedition late last month to search for monarchs, the "king" of butterflies. The royal guest of honor failed to show, but a dozen or so local children did, eager nonetheless to practice some netting techniques in pursuit of more garden-variety specimens.
At times, the amateur lepidopterists' maneuvers to bag a butterfly resembled karate chops, a bit unorthodox, but effective.
"I've got one, I've got one!" exclaimed 6-year-old Michael Schmidt, slamming his net into a clump of purple-blue mist flowers where a rich crop of the elusive creatures fluttered.
The prize was a greenish-yellow cabbage butterfly, likely a female, naturalist Rob Gibbs explained, pointing out the two darkish spots on the moth-like wings. Like a willing player in a scripted science lesson, the captured insect surrendered to the gaze of 12 small pairs of eyes and made no attempt to flee when Gibbs mounted it atop the nose of 8-year-old Danielle Hersey for all to examine. "It tickles," was the verdict of Danielle's 7-year-old brother, Peter, when the balancing act was repeated on his nose, before the patient insect flew off into the freedom of the sultry summer air.
A few minutes into the trek around the nature center grounds, the group also sighted several skippers -- "Is there a captain?" one of the children quipped -- and an Eastern tailed blue ("He has tiny little tails on the back wings to help him fly off," Gibbs pointed out).
"I want to catch a butterfly . . . . Where is butter?" chanted 4-year-old Jessica Helene, blond and clad in pink, dreamily bringing up the rear with her babysitter, Shannon Bognovitz.
"Why do you call them that?" insisted one of the boys as he scampered by with a cumbersome canvas net.
"Because Bambi does," the little girl replied, trailing the group down a path that circled a drained pond where two brown ducks wallowed in the brackish bottom.
Alas, by journey's end, no splendid monarchs.
"We usually have a good supply here but they just weren't there this year," Gibbs said later. "It's been a slow year for monarchs in general. They arrived late -- it was a wet spring -- and we just haven't seen the numbers we have in past years."
So why bill the program as a hunt for monarchs?
"Because they're beautiful and special," said Gibbs, 35, a Washington area native who studied wildlife management at the University of Maryland and has been a naturalist for Montgomery County parks for 10 years.
In a 20-minute lecture before the butterfly hunt, Gibbs described the anatomy and life cycle of the monarch and detailed the traits that make it so esteemed among nature lovers.
Monarchs are members of a species (Danaidae) of brightly colored butterflies that, as caterpillars, feed only on poisonous milkweed plants, thus making them unappetizing to potential predators.
The butterflies' vivid color serves as a visible warning of their inedibility; a tough body makes them even more invincible.
Among this family, the American monarch -- usually black and burnt orange -- stands out for its large size and its impressive annual migrations in North America. In the fall, hundreds of thousands congregate and fly south, traveling 1,800 miles or more to their wintering sites. There, they attach themselves to trees in protected mountain forests and coastal groves, then become inactive to conserve food reserves for the long flight home. Spectacular "butterfly trees" in central and southern California have been known for more than a century, and as recently as 1976 entomologists discovered nearly a dozen monarch wintering places in Mexico.
In the spring, the surviving butterflies return en masse, flying as far north as Canada. Along the way, they deposit their eggs, then die, and the new generation continues the migration, al-ways following certain routes as though genetically programmed, a migration pattern unique among insects.
Powerful fliers, monarchs have been observed even in locations across the ocean, with settlements as far afield as the Azores, the Canary Islands, Indonesia, New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand.
"A monarch may travel 2,000 to 3,000 miles in its lifetime, through storms and wind, as high up in the air as an airplane flies," Gibbs said.
"It's pretty incredible, isn't it, for an insect to be able to do that?" he asked the children.
Gibbs's admiration is widely shared. Eleven science and wildlife groups are sponsoring a drive to have the monarch named the nation's official insect (there currently is no national insect, although the monarch is the official insect of Illinois and the state butterfly of Vermont).
According to Gibbs, monarchs are not as common as they used to be. "People are cutting down milkweed plants," he noted. "Also, in some places in Mexico, they are cutting down the trees where the monarchs go."
Efforts are underway to reverse the decline. In 1983, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources designated monarch wintering sites a "threatened phenomenon." The Xerces Society, named for an extinct West Coast butterfly and based in Portland, Ore., is working to protect monarch habitats in California and is coordinating similar efforts among concerned scientists in Mexico.
Meanwhile, Gibbs and his colleagues continue to promote the monarchs' special charms during regularly scheduled butterfly walks.
"It was really interesting," said Sharon Chenevert, of Silver Spring, who, video camera in hand, attended the recent program with her son Robert, 6.
"This is the third time we've been here this week," Chenevert said, adding that since she moved here with her husband and son in July, they have signed up for several events offered at Maydale and four other nature centers in Montgomery County sponsored by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
"We studied patterns in nature by making ink prints of plants. We learned about grasshoppers, snakes and how to fish, and one weekend we cleaned a stream, along with other families."
Chenevert said that in California, where she lived previously, "there isn't anything like this there anywhere."
For a calendar of events for adults and children at Maydale and other Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission nature centers, call 384-9447.