On May 19, biologist Bryan Pfeiffer visited an undisclosed bog in northern Vermont with the same goal he’d had for the last 21 years: to confirm that the state is home to the elusive bog elfin, a butterfly the size of a penny.
After meandering for an hour, he saw a little brown creature flutter down to the boughs of a waist-high black spruce, the tree the bog elfin depends on for its survival. He lifted his binoculars to confirm his discovery.
“I’m not inclined to talk to butterflies in bogs,” Pfeiffer said with a laugh. “But I said, ‘I’ve been looking for you for a very long time.’”
Then, the butterfly took off. Pfeiffer spent two more hours tracking down others, and returned to the bog on other days, photographing them so that his colleagues, state scientists and the public would have incontrovertible proof.
Pfeiffer is aware that, to the untrained eye, the creature doesn’t appear as special or beautiful as, say, a monarch butterfly, one of the world’s most studied insects.
“Let’s be honest,” he said. “To most people, this is by no means a butterfly with charisma. It’s a little brown butterfly. And so, why should anyone care about a little brown butterfly?”
For Pfeiffer, his decades-long odyssey to find the creature has led him to reckon with his own life — the process of aging, the beauty and value of moving slowly. He said the insect makes his “heart pound” and his “knees weakened.”
For one thing, it’s extremely hard to find, even for Pfeiffer, a consulting biologist who Gov. Phil Scott appointed to the Vermont Endangered Species Committee, who government officials in Maine recruited to photograph rare butterflies and who lectures graduate students in the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist Program.
Bog elfins are among the smallest butterflies on the continent, and only take flight from mid-May until early June, vastly narrowing the window of time they can be found. Mostly, they sit in the branches of black spruce trees, descending from time to time to take nectar from the flowers of the season.
Adding to the challenge is the remoteness of bogs, which can be unappealing landscapes even for nature enthusiasts.
“You can’t usually drive to a bog, and so you have to bushwhack to most bogs in Vermont. Getting there is tough, and then depending on the bog and the time of year, black flies and mosquitoes can be big obstacles,” he said. “This butterfly often flies around at the peak of biting insect season.”
But the challenges of the bog were no object for Pfeiffer. He found himself feeling at home there, and was content to spend weeks of spring for the last two decades wandering through the stands of black spruce.
He knew of bog elfin populations in a few of the surrounding states and Canadian provinces, and knew that Vermont has enough black spruce trees to support them, so he decided to “find this butterfly in Vermont or die trying.”
The search taught him about the creature’s habitat, how it carries itself in flight and how it differs from other small brown butterflies and moths. An advantage he attributes to “being a 65-year-old field biologist” is slowing down — learning to be more aware and present.
“I like to think that skill and experience, and age and 21 years of searching and learning, count for something,” he said.
For onlooking scientists and conservationists, the discovery means something else.
“Discovering the bog elfin in Vermont is a testament to our ongoing commitment to land conservation and biodiversity,” Vermont Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore said in a statement. “When we protect and restore a diversity of habitats, we ensure a thriving future for Vermont wildlife — both familiar and elusive.”
Though Pfeiffer declined to name the location of the bog where he found the bog elfin, he said it was on protected, state-owned land.
This last year, Moore said, has seen multiple discoveries of species with conservation interests “on land conserved and managed by the Agency of Natural Resources, including lands prioritized by the agency’s planning tool, Vermont Conservation Design.”
“When we protect the most important natural features across our landscape, we’re protecting all the pieces that make an ecosystem whole,” Moore said, “from the smallest butterfly to the largest ranging mammals, from common trees to rare plants and everything in between.”
Scientists are not the only nature-curious people who can contribute to the knowledge and discovery of species in Vermont. Pfeiffer began looking for the bog elfin in 2002, during the first phase of the Vermont Butterfly Atlas. The second phase is going on now, from 2023 until 2027, and the Vermont Center for Ecostudies invites Vermonters to get involved — volunteers need only a camera and the nearest section of green space.
“When it comes to discovering biodiversity, many of us think of far-off exotic places,” said Kent McFarland, who directs the butterfly atlas for the center. “But there’s plenty to find here in our own backyards.”
The butterfly atlas is part of a larger project, called the Vermont Atlas of Life, intended to document biodiversity in Vermont.
“Now that I’ve found this butterfly in Vermont, we Vermonters join a handful of states and provinces with the responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t go extinct,” Pfeiffer said. “That’s a solemn task, even for a little brown butterfly that no one will see.”