Book review: “Mariposa Road,” by Robert Michael Pyle

Mariposa Road book

Mariposa Road by Robert Michael Pyle

Published April 4, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “A year in search of Butterflies: Butterfly “Big Year” captures the heart of one man’s passion.”

2014 Update: The Xerces Society is a good source of butterfly information,, as well as other invertebrates.

By Barb Gorges

Mariposa Road, The First Butterfly Big Year, by Robert Michael Pyle, c. 2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 558 pages, $27.

Competitive birders will attempt a Big Year, but in 2008, Bob Pyle was the first to see how many butterfly species can be counted by one person in one year in the U.S. and he reports his results in “Mariposa Road.”

Bob is a writer, naturalist and lepidopterist who has authored several butterfly field guides and who, since the 1960s, has cultivated a shrewd knowledge of butterflies, their favorite plants, and people who know where to find both, and when.

He traveled on a shoestring, often camping along the roadside in his 1982 Honda Civic hatchback, affectionately named Powdermilk.

Bob has affectionate names for his favorite butterfly nets, too, Marsha and Akito, and has an endless supply of affection for every butterfly and butterfly lover he’s ever met.

Every sentence sparkles with optimism like a Florida purplewing bouncing across a swampy hammock. Every foray into the field holds hope for rarities and beauty, even if experience would point out the chiggers and thorns. There is always a refreshing mug of beer on tap afterward, or dinner with friends.

Bob did make it to Wyoming for a couple pages, mostly reminiscing about Karolis Bagdonas and his Flying Circus, a band of students that “careened around the Rockies doing butterfly counts and sampling little-known habitats, subsisting on Hamm’s and trout….” I remember hearing about them over 30 years ago.

Bob’s goal was to see 500 of the 800 known species in the U.S., including Hawaii. He made it to 478 species certified by three experts. He found 30 of the 40 “holy grails,” hard to find species he’d hoped for. And almost as a footnote in his appendix, he mentions 600 donors to his Butterfly-a-thon raised $46,000 for the Xerces Society which protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat.

At over 500 pages, this could be heavy reading if you aren’t already a butterfly fan. But if you like a good road trip, and have a butterfly field guide handy to supplement the color photos on the end papers, I think you’ll enjoy the read.