Sunday, March 6, 2016

Trail offers chance to see rare blue butterfly

An adult Karner blue butterfly lands on a researcher's hand.
Photo courtesy of  http://www.mccoy.army.mil.
Trail map, courtesy Wisconsin DNR.
Day hikers stand a good chance of spotting the rare and beautiful Karner blue butterfly in Wisconsin’s South Fork Barrens State Natural Area.

The 1.4-mile round trip hike in Eau Claire County heads through a Jack pine-oak barrens. It’s the perfect habitat for the Karner, which is rapidly disappearing in the Untied States.

To reach the state natural area, from Stanley, drive south on County Road H. Turn right/west onto E. Channey Forest Road. In a half-mile, the road comes to the border of the state natural area. At the first jeep trail heading north, park on the road shoulder.

While there are a lot of spur trails running off of E. Channey Forest Road, most of them quickly enter public property. Instead, walk alongside the shoulder of the gravel forest road. While this can be dusty in summer, the flat road is little traveled and ensures you stay on public land.

On either side of the road, you’ll see a lot of Jack pine with bur oak, some Hill’s oak and red pine, and blueberry and American hazelnut in the understory. There’s also plenty of prairie grasses and forbs in the openings.

Among them is wild lupine, a favorite food plant of the Karner. Thanks to destruction of habitats where wild lupine thrives, the Karner’s range is shrinking. At one time, it could be found from Minnesota to Maine, but today it’s limited from Wisconsin to New York, and then in only very specific locales.

Extremely small – an adult Karner is only the width a nickel with an inch-long wingspan – the male’s top side is a striking deep blue. The female’s top side is a bit lighter blue with brown mixed in. Both genders’ undersides consist of a curve of orange crescents near the wing edges.

As the Karner’s pale green butterfly feeds on lupines, the state uses prescribed burns to prevent woody plants from encroaching on the small sandy barrens where the flower grows.

When the road begins heading straight north in about 0.7 miles from where you parked, turn back.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.