Arkansas Butterflies and Moths
Ozark Society Foundation, paperback, $27.95
Lori A. Spencer’s “Arkansas Butterflies and Moths” is one of those finally-it’s-here books. Not only is it a field guide to creatures you might actually see, being limited to Arkansas, but it’s an important list of species that Spencer has worked for many years to compile. As Carl Hunter is to Arkansas wildflowers, Spencer is to Arkansas’s Lepidoptera, and then some.
Spencer’s writing is conversational; you will probably read it cover to cover before taking it into the field. She packs quite a lot of information into the book’s introductory pages, defining butterflies and moths and talking about their habits and habitats, and into each species introduction as well. Spencer notes that the book is the natural result of a fifth-grade homework assignment she had to bring an insect to class. She found a caterpillar in an empty lot next to her house, put it in an empty pickle jar and the rest is history. She watched the caterpillar become a chrysalis and the chrysalis a black swallowtail and was hooked forever.
Spencer’s book is distinguished by several praiseworthy strategies: With some species, she’s included photographs of their caterpillar and chrysalis stages on the same page, so you don’t have to flip back and forth in the book to find these amazing stages of life. This system means, we think, that you’ll more readily be able to identify what these forms will turn into. She’s also included moths, a tremendous plus. There are so many moth species that butterfly books seldom include them, but moths rival butterflies in appearance and outdo them in diversity of form (what is more breathtakingly beautiful than a luna moth or weirder than a hag moth larva?). Many are large and still, a happy distinction from the butterflies.
Spencer has also included a section on gardening for butterflies and moths and “hot spots” for seeing them in Arkansas. At the end of each section, she includes a quote about knowing nature — i.e., “What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” (Sir John Lubbock.)
Spencer is helpful in other ways: When she writes about skippers — of which there are many, and usually indistinguishable from their fellows — she notes that other field guides have more comprehensive information about skippers and lists those books. There’s something about the way she presents the skippers — choosing some of the most identifiable and enlarging their photographs — that is more satisfactory than other references we’ve seen. That may be because we know we’ll never in this lifetime be able to tell the duskywings apart in the field, but we like seeing their pictures nevertheless.
Which brings us to the one thing about Spencer’s book that purists will complain about, and that is that she uses photographs. Fine photographs they are, taken by her husband, Don R. Simons. (The couple lives on Mount Magazine, where Simons is the state park ranger and Spencer coordinates the annual Butterfly Festival). Drawings, which don’t rely on light and moving targets, provide better field marks for identification purposes. In a couple of cases — the reflection on the back of the pipevine swallowtail photo that erases its iridescent blue color and the too-small shot of our favorite, the American snout — the reader would like a better picture.
But Spencer makes up for the photographs’ shortcomings with her careful species description, which not only includes distinguishing features but flight patterns, what months they’re out and where to look for them in Arkansas. She rivals guides like “Butterflies Through Binoculars,” and if you’re in Arkansas, bests them.