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Mark Olivier, the butterfly man, and his beautiful obsession (19 photos)

Rediscover the excitement and beauty of mother nature's silent fliers with colourful wings through the efforts of an industrious local man

In just over five years, Mark Olivier has documented 6,521 of the 9,140 total butterfly sightings in the Algoma District.

Butterflies were not his first obsession, though.

After Olivier - a self-described naturalist who enjoys nature of all kinds - became disabled and unable to work in the retail and wholesale industry he began looking for new interests for therapy.

While living in Belleville some of those first interests took him to a presentation by Mike Burrell - a leading authority on eBird.org which is a citizen science project aimed at documenting and observing birds for science, where he began documenting birds. 

After living in St. Thomas, ON and spending time in Hawk Cliff those interests narrowed to specialize in the study of Birds of Prey.

Olivier was involved with birds for a number of years and later began reviewing photos from his time in the Yukon Territory. He realized while reviewing those photos that he had photographed some frames of butterflies during the years around 2006-2007.

In 2014 he came across the research site - Butterflies and Moths of North America, where he posted his butterfly photos from the Yukon and later some from the Bruce Mines area from 2008.

One of the posted photos, a West Virginia White caught the attention of  Ross A. Layberry - a retired technician from the Physiology Department in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa, as well as a lifelong documenter of butterfly observations.

"It so happened that a species I photographed north of Bruce Mines was a species of special concern and Ross Layberry wanted verification of my sighting. This happened in 2014 and since then I have developed a relationship with him. In my mind, he is a mentor. So in 2015, I began my journey into the world of butterflies in Algoma," explained Olivier.

Of the 96 species of butterflies recorded in the Algoma District, a point of note is that most overwinter here. 

Monarchs - the most well known of the butterflies, fly to Mexico for the winter and are among the six or so species that fly south to avoid overwintering here.

"More than 85 species of butterfly spend the winter in Algoma including at least 7 species which overwinter as adults.  A butterfly is a butterfly regardless of what life stage it is at - egg, larva. pupa or adult.  So, when is best to seek them out depends on what you seek.  Each species has a restricted timeline as an adult. June and July in Algoma provide the best chances of finding the most species of adults in flight but many others appear earlier or later than that," said Olivier.

The order of Lepidoptera includes both butterflies and moths. There are scientific details separating the two groups.  Olivier indicates in Ontario there have only ever been 169 species of butterflies observed and iNaturalist.ca (or inaturalist.org) indicates some 2,600 species of moths that have been documented and there are still many more to be found. 

When setting out to look for butterflies one should study up on the habitat and host plants to give you an added advantage in finding them.

"Butterflies are found in a wide variety of habitats. The host plant for the caterpillar is a major factor for where to find them. For example, Monarch lays eggs on Milkweed plants, so there is a great place to look for them," says Olivier. 

If you are seriously looking at taking up the hobby Olivier recommends a few pieces of equipment and things to keep in mind.

"A digital camera is a must. The quality of the frame produced by these cameras makes the probability of identifying it to species level far greater than any other method. An insect net is helpful when viewing a species which can be easily confused with another," he says. "Capture, place them in a jar and look for field markings. Binoculars with a short focus range, say under 10 feet so observations can be made without disturbing the insects." 

"But curiosity is the most important tool, a need to learn and see detail is by far the most important aspect to butterfly observations."

"The best starter book is without a doubt The ROM Field Guide To Butterflies Of Ontario." Olivier has made several donations of field guides and books to the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library in memory of his mother - Wanda (Lee) Olivier, his previous adventure partner who has since passed on.

Although Olivier does very little collecting for himself he does add his observations to collections for scientific purposes. He generally backs his observations up with photographs and GPS coordinates.

Olivier is obsessed with documenting his butterfly observations. He submits to eButterfly.org first and from there, his observations are used by the Toronto Entomologists Association (TEA) who produce the Ontario Butterfly Atlas.

If you are a beginner Olivier recommends Butterflies Of Ontario as a good starting point. This useful resource was created by an avid butterfly specialist who was not an entomologist but had a passion for butterflies. 

His favourite documenting resource is the Ontario Butterfly Atlas. It takes a lot more time to learn how to use properly but it is an excellent resource for those who want to learn. The site gives details on species and the locations in which they have been reported.

"For Algoma, there are 9,140 records of butterfly sightings and of those 6,521 were contributed by me and that includes 81 species, some of which I recorded the first record for Algoma," reported Olivier at the time of interview.

For simple joy Olivier has learned a lot in the few years he has documented butterflies. The journey first began with the interest of Ross Layberrys' species of special concern - the West Virginia White,  During that time there was little known about the population in and around the Sault.

"The adults-only fly for no more than 4 weeks in late May and part of June. I have since spent a portion of my early fieldwork attempting to understand just how widespread this species is in Algoma."

"I have learned so much about so many species.  From the border with Sudbury District in the east to the tip of St Joseph Island in the south and White River in the north and lots of Algoma still north of there.  It is the journey and adventure that is most exciting for me."

"I have reported 82 different species for Algoma, at least five of which, had never been reported in Algoma prior to my find."

"The short season is even shorter when it rains or is less than 10C because the adults do not fly in those conditions. But I have recorded viewings for all four life stages - eggs, larva, pupa and adult, with the vast majority being adults.  The time needed to check plants for the three earlier stages has restricted how much I have done it.  That has been a real learning experience."

"The latest species which caused me a great deal of excitement was the Gray Hairstreak.  I just happened upon it as I was photographing other species. The location was quite a distance from other areas of Ontario where it had been documented previously.  It is very beautiful, and I was able to get great frames of it on its host plant - where the females lay eggs and caterpillars feed.  Many butterflies are ugly cousins and have very earthy colouring which some people find less exciting, but I love them all."

Olivier's relationship with TEA and ultimately the Ontario Butterfly Atlas has become very close, encouraging him to further his knowledge and even going so far as to write a wonderful article on him and how his passion evolved.

One takeaway from this interview and research through The Ontario Butterfly Atlas is that there is a noted shortage of skilled observers in the Algoma District with most researchers spread out in areas further south which means Algoma is under-covered.

This type of observing could possibly be a great learning activity for school-age children or anyone who may be interested in citizen science for that matter.  In times like we are presently encountering it gives us one more useful way to enjoy outdoor activity.

If you are interested in learning more about getting involved, reach out to one of the above-mentioned projects. You can view more of Olivier's meticulous observations by visiting his Flickr page and, if you have questions for him at butterfliesalgoma@yahoo.com.