Monday, April 14, 2014

Protecting Our Butterflies with Liam O'Brien

Liam O'Brien
By Sandi Funke, Education Director

For some of us our personal story could be told as a travel log. For others, our life history would be best captured as a mystery or maybe a romance. For Liam O’Brien, a Bay Nature 2014 Local Hero Award Winner for Environmental Education, his story is best told through natural history - specifically through three very attractive butterflies: the Western Tiger Swallowtail, the Coastal Green Hairstreak and the Mission Blue.

Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus),
© Christopher L. Christie
Western Tiger Swallowtail
The Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) is a very common butterfly that can be found in woodlands, by creeks, and even in urban areas. For something so widespread it is anything but ordinary. This showy butterfly is quite large with sloped yellow and black wings tipped with small patches of red and blue. It’s this gorgeous insect that lured a successful professional actor off the stage. After a Western Tiger Swallowtail flew into Liam’s urban yard his life was changed forever. He left the stage and began searching for all of the remaining butterfly species left in his county. Little did he know, this was just the beginning of a twenty year love affair with butterflies!

Coastal Green Hairstreak
Coastal Green Hairstreak (Callophrys viridis), © Scott Cox
The story of the Coastal Green Hairstreak (Callophrys viridis) is a story of islands. Not islands surrounded by water, but instead islands surrounded by concrete. Coastal Green Hairstreaks are small iridescent green butterflies which mate in the spring. The females then disperse after mating looking for plants on which to lay their eggs, which in San Francisco are only Coast Buckwheat and Deer Weed. Sadly these small dune dwellers cannot fly but a few hundred feet. A city guy himself, Liam brought the idea of The Green Hairstreak Project to fruition. Through an organization called Nature in the City, The Green Hairstreak Project brought citizens and decision makers together to develop a corridor of linked habitats in San Francisco that provide food in terms of host plants for Coastal Green Hairstreak caterpillars. Since 2006, community members have planted thousands of these native host plants. Liam was instrumental in getting this amazing project initiated, creating acres of native butterfly habitat and beautifying San Francisco while helping to save this butterfly.

Mission Blue (Plebejus icariodes
missionensis), © Liam O'Brien
Mission Blue
Liam’s determination to ensure San Francisco is home to butterflies did not stop with the Coastal Green Hairstreak. He has also worked to help save the endangered Mission Blue (Plebejus icariodes missionensis). This small butterfly only occurs in Marin and southern San Francisco counties. It is small, grayish blue with spots on the outside of its wings and a pleasing amber hue on the inside.  Mission blue caterpillars rely entirely on lupines for food. Liam is working to survey this rare butterfly and relocate individual butterflies to more suitable habitat where the populations are threatened because of development.

Pepperwood is pleased to be hosting Liam O’Brien for a class on butterflies on Saturday, May 3, 2014. Click here to register or learn more. 

You can learn more about Liam’s work and projects at

Keywords: Butterflies, Coastal Green Hairstreak, Mission Blue, Western Tiger Swallowtail, Pepperwood, Liam O'Brian, Conservation

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