On June 19, 2015, five intrepid lepidopterists – Jacques Larivée, Chris Schmidt, Rick Cavasin, Peter Hall and Max Larrivée – set out to explore the east side of James Bay in Quebec. headed north from Ottawa, we travelled up the James Bay Highway, the northernmost paved road in eastern North America culminating at nearly 54 degrees of latitude. The aim of the trip was to take advantage of this south to north road to establish a long term latitudinal transect to search and monitor butterfly and moth distributional changes over ten days in the varied habitats – mixed forest, boreal forest, bog and coastal tundra – as we traveled north. Climate in this region has warmed by nearly 2.5C over the last 25 years and many butterfly and moth species were documented much further north than previously known during our expedition.
An expedition of this nature required considerable lepidoptera equipment (nets, traps and UV lights for moths and not to forget rubber boots for bog bashing), food and personal luggage (including many field guides, as well as botanical and lepidoptera literature). The five of us and all this baggage were somehow squeezed into one large SUV. Accommodations had been arranged in local motels in First Nations reserves going to and from Radisson, Que., the northern end of the James Bay Highway. In Radisson we were put up at the Ecological Research Station run by the Center for Nordic Studies out of Laval University in Quebec City.
Every day along the way, many stops were made and considerable time was spent traversing through boreal Black Spruce bogs and rocky outcrop Jack Pine forests where many of our target butterfly species lived. Special species found and photographed included Taiga Alpine, Greenish Blue, Jutta and Chryxus Arctics, Hoary and Satyr Commas and five of the lesser fritillaries (Bog, Silver-bordered, Meadow, Freija and Frigga). We even managed to find one wet meadow/bog transition that contained all five of these Boloria species flying within about 100 square meters. The Taiga Alpine and Frigga Fritillary were particular prizes as many of us had never before seen them.
Several trips were made on side roads out to the rocky James Bay coastline, especially to the very end of roads going north out to Longue Point, where the special butterfly was the easternmost population of Old World Swallowtail. A number were encountered and even posed for photographs while laying eggs on cow parsnip, until now an undocumented host plant. Several colonies of Arctic Blues were also discovered on rocky outcrops. Unfortunately, we were slightly early to find some of the northern Colias species, including the recently discovered Quebec population of Giant Sulphurs and also Pelidne Sulphurs. Nevertheless, we did record a significant northern range extension in the east for the Clouded Sulphur collected along the Longue Pointe road near latitude 54.
The results of the expedition were more than 5,000 kilometres on the road, thousands of butterfly and moth photographs, more than 300 eButterfly observations of 40 different species from nearly 70 checklists, the discovery of several new populations of Frigga Fritillary and other northern species, numerous lepidoptera specimens for the collections at the Canadian National Collection of Insects in Ottawa and the Montreal Insectarium, and the probability of a new species of Noctuid moth to science! Oh, and mustn’t forget the many tumbles into frigid bog waters, the endless horse fly, deer fly, black fly and mosquito bites, and laughs well into the evenings over late night beers and the moth sheet and, lastly, this lingering feeling of endless wilderness, space and awaiting discovery.
Any eButterflyer interested in going on a similar James Bay expedition is encouraged to revisit these locations, easily found in eButterfly. We hope to continue this long-term butterfly distribution monitoring effort in the future.