Miami Blue: Rarest of the rare

Local photographer finds colonies of endangered butterflies

Keys Sunday contributorMay 11, 2012 

If you were to go on a search to find hidden treasure, the first place you might look would be on a remote island. With visions of a treasure chest full of glittering gold, you may very likely walk right over a beach full of pearls and not even notice.

After living and exploring in the Florida Keys for over 21 years, I’ve learned that some of the most exciting discoveries present themselves when expectation is left behind. On my latest voyage I found that beach of pearls.

In late November I received a generous offer to go out to Boca Grande, located about 12 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, with my good friends Katie Lyons and Tom Wilmers, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologist. This island is one I have wanted to explore for many years.

Most of the offshore islands off the main Keys are mangrove islands with no visible land above sea level making Boca Grande an uncommon oasis among this chain of islands.

As we ventured down the blinding, white shoreline, camera and binoculars in hand, we immediately started to see the life on this island that makes it so special. There are osprey and bald eagles nesting within a stones throw of each other, unheard of elsewhere. Many shorebirds and raptors are all over the island as well as sea turtles that come ashore to nest in the summer. The dunes are covered with grasses and many flowering plants for butterflies and that is the direction to which I was drawn.

I walked up the sandy berm through the grasses and straight in toward the highest part of the island, noticing the flush of growth on a common blackbead (Pithecellobium guadalupense syn. keyense). It was just starting to develop leaves and very fresh flower buds a year after lying dormant.

While examining the buds a sudden flutter of blue caught my attention. I tried to capture a glimpse with my binoculars and when it finally landed I thought it might be a nickerbean blue butterfly, which have not been seen since hurricane Wilma. All I had with me was a huge telephoto lens for birds, so I had to stand 10 feet away and try to find this fingernail size speck in my viewfinder the very few times that it landed. I managed to get a quick shot. I looked at the digital picture and nearly dropped my camera.

I yelled IT’S A …….. MIAMI BLUE!!!

This is an extremely rare butterfly that was thought to be extinct at one time. The story of the Miami blue is fascinating. This once abundant butterfly has been on a steady decline on the mainland and the Florida Keys. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992 the only known Miami blue colony was destroyed on Key Biscayne and the butterfly was thought to be extinct. In 1999 the Miami blue was rediscovered in Bahia Honda State Park.

With numbers just around 40 they became the subject of an extensive captive breeding program conducted by the University of Florida, over the past six years. U.S. Fish & Wildlife and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provided money to the University of Florida to find other colonies on other islands and raise captive specimens for release.

Miami blues have been released into areas they formerly inhabited but they are not thriving. It is still unknown why populations have declined from the mainland and the Keys.

This Miami blue landed on the end of a branch where fresh buds were forming and deposited the tiniest blue egg. This was on blackbead not the usual nickerbean. I was able to get a shot of her depositing the egg and later confirmed I had indeed discovered a new colony of Miami blues. I left Boca Grande with the feeling I had found hidden treasure! One can only speculate whether this colony was there all along or if Hurricane Wilma ironically had something to do with their arrival.

In December, my search continued. We decided to head further out to sea this time, approximately 25 miles west of Key West, to the chain of islands known as the Marquesas. Tom was very familiar with these islands from the many sea turtle studies he and Katie conducted over the years. Satellite images clearly showed us where to begin our search.

The water in the Marquesas is extremely shallow and navigating the very narrow channels can be treacherous even for a seasoned boater. We finally made our way closer to shore and landed the boat on the very white sandy beach. We were not on the first island more then 10 minutes when I sighted my first Miami blue. I yelled to my friends; they came running over and couldn’t believe it. Approximately 15 miles away from Boca Grande and about 65 miles away from the original Bahia Honda colony were more Miami blues.

The protected Marquesas islands are part of the National Wildlife Refuge and run in somewhat of a circular configuration. This makes the landscape of each island unique with winds and tides occurring on different sides of each. Even the beach on each island is different, some having hermit crabs running about, others were covered in sea grasses, while still others are covered in clean white sand looking very much like fresh snow. Not one foot print in sight, you really feel like you are on the truly untouched islands.

These islands were powerfully transformed by hurricane Wilma with many of the trees knocked down along the beach. Gnarly roots everywhere reach up to the sky as if in agony. Yet, emerging from the unsightly rubble a tiny green shoot rises up to reclaim the stronghold of its once great stature. At every turn I am left breathless from the beauty of this place despite the changes from Wilma. These islands are a treasure chest of life and biodiversity beyond imagination and are fortunately under the protection of our refuge.

We continued on to several other islands and we found even more Miami blues at each stop. The Miami blue was abundant on several islands and clearly the most dominant butterfly species on the Marquesas islands — an extremely exciting discovery. The Miami blues were both ovipositing (depositing eggs) and nectering on beautiful pink or white flowers of the Pithecellobium Guadalupense.

It was a difficult trip home with high seas and heavy rain but it was still worth it for the treasure we found. With all the clearing, building, burning and insecticide spraying going on it is not really surprising that this species has moved as far offshore as possible. Sometimes just leaving something alone is the best form of refuge.

The Miami blue butterfly is the perfect example of that.

Editor's Note: 4-6-12

The tiny Miami blue butterfly, believed to be reduced to a few hundred survivors on islands off Key West, was formally declared a federally endangered species on Friday, April 6, 2012.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which last year evoked rarely used emergency rules to temporarily extend endangered protections for the butterfly, announced that the listing would become permanent.

"The Miami blue butterfly is on the very brink of extinction, and this finalized protection gives it a real shot at survival and recovery," said Tierra Curry, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity in California

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