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The Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network: And the making of Doug Taron

Doug Taron talking about the grounds around the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Doug Taron began collecting butterflies at 7, but his breakthrough moment came in the college bookstore. He had been using the Golden Guide as a reference, then he found a Peterson Field Guide.

‘‘There were species in the Peterson that I had not heard of before,’’ Taron said. ‘‘One of them was the bog copper, found in abandoned cranberry bogs. My dad showed me [a bog], and I hit it right. First time I found a species specifically by looking at habitat.’’

Most of us who knock around the outdoors have such moments. Taron’s moment built into his life’s work. Taron, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Colby College in Maine and his Ph.D. from Northwestern, is the chief curator for the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Taron was one of the original monitors for the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network and took over running it in 1989. The network began in 1988.

The IBMN sprang from The Nature Conservancy noticing that prairie restorations were all about plants. But what about effects on animals, including insects?

A protocol had been developed in England for non-scientists to collect data and information. The IBMN model built from that. Other states followed in the years since.

‘‘We have seen species drop out,’’ Taron said.

One of those is the Karner blue, found at monitoring sites in northwest Indiana and some years at multiple sites. None have been seen the last five years.

Taron suspects it is related to the heat wave and drought of 2012, when ‘‘they seemed to desynchronize’’ in their relationship with wild lupine.

There are surprises.

‘‘Every so often, you will get something more southern in a huge population explosion,’’ Taron said.

One year it was the queen butterfly, a cousin of monarchs. Then there was the year when white-M hairstreaks showed at multiple sites.

‘‘It’s been quite a few years and they have not been seen since, so we got very lucky,’’ Taron said.

There have been changes on the human side, too.

When Taron started, TNC handed him a bunch of data forms to file. He was so avant garde that he decided to store data on the computer. He entered data by himself in the early years, which was fine when there were 17 or
18 monitors. Now the more than 100 monitors enter their own data (mostly).

Nearly all walking routes now are mapped electronically.

Taron next hopes that an app can be developed for smartphones.

‘‘Not just creating it but keeping up with managing the data,’’ he said.

A Baltimore checkerspot butterfly.
Credit: Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

The learning at the Notebaert keeps going, too. Taron is excited about the environmental chamber that Baltimore checkerspots were kept in during the winter. They should wake up in three weeks. That learning could help with Taron’s work with re-establishing regal fritillary butterflies.

Those interested in becoming monitors must commit to six times a year. Monitors are assigned a walking route (45 minutes to an hour) in which butterflies are counted and identified.

Before one can become a monitor, there is training on collecting data and basic butterfly identification skills. There are a few gatherings each year about building community and learning more. Sign up at bfly.org.

Follow me on Twitter @BowmanOutside.