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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Photographer searches for rare state butterfly in Concord

On a recent damp, dark June day, Kathie Fife was searching through thick layers of green to find tiny spots of blue.

The Canterbury naturalist and photographer was walking along a well-trodden path in a unique part of Concord, a sprawling collection of oak, pitch pine, wild blueberries and patches of wild lupine looking for Karner blue butterflies, a rare species that is the state butterfly. ...

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On a recent damp, dark June day, Kathie Fife was searching through thick layers of green to find tiny spots of blue.

The Canterbury naturalist and photographer was walking along a well-trodden path in a unique part of Concord, a sprawling collection of oak, pitch pine, wild blueberries and patches of wild lupine looking for Karner blue butterflies, a rare species that is the state butterfly.

The tiny blue butterfly was once thought to be gone from the state. New Hampshire Fish and Game teamed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to bring them back in the early 2000s.

Adults, raised from eggs collected from wild stock in New York, were released. Subsequent partnerships with the Roger Williams Zoo in Rhode Island helped the process.

Land management efforts have been developed in Concord to replicate naturally occurring processes, including controlled burns, to encourage habitat growth while ensuring nearby human development is protected.

“This particular spot in Concord, we look around us, we can hear commercial buildings, air vents, traffic going by,” said Fife, who has been documenting the species, among others, in the state.

“But at one time, this was all one huge pine barren – thousands and thousands of acres. Now we’re just in this 200-acre little preservation. This is all the Karner blue and wild lupine have left to survive.

“It’s an important part of New Hampshire, an important part of our ecology, it’s important to us. It’s part of who we are.”

Fife recently went into the Concord pine barrens, a recreational area near the airport, searching for evidence of the butterflies. She said they’re more prevalent on hot, dry days, and the afternoon’s rain and cool air didn’t help.

There were plenty of birds – Eastern towhee and prairie warblers provided a soundtrack, and there were scores of mosquitoes and ticks, but no butterflies. However, she has a collection of photographs captured on previous visits to the area.

“Photography was a creative outlet for me,” said Fife, who lost job during the economic downturn. “I was earning a good living.”

Afterward, she put her full efforts to photography, making a significant investment for an equipment upgrade. Her business grew into greeting cards and documentary work with the butterflies and their fragile ecosystem.

“I love taking pictures of rare and endangered species,” Fife said.

The Karner blue favor wild lupine. The caterpillars feed only on the lupine’s leaves. They have two hatches a year. Adults can be seen in June and again in July. They have a wingspan of about an inch.

Males differ a bit from females, but the constant is a soft blue color with black and orange accents.

Wild lupine needs sandy soil to grow. Development hinders the natural cycle of its habitat, and natural events, such as wildfires, prevent undergrowth from being removed and lupine seeds from germinating and growing again.

“Without the effort of Fish and Game and the U.S. Wildlife Service, this wouldn’t even be here,” Fife said. “We’d be looking at roads and shopping malls.”

Fife said having access to the area “is a wonderful thing.”

“If people can’t walk through it and experience it, feel it and smell it and sense it, then they don’t understand why we need to preserve it, because this is who we are,” she said.

“I grew up in the country. My parents were very outdoorsy. On weekends, we had the traditional Sunday dinner, and after, we’d walk in woods. I was always in nature.

“It’s part of who I am. When I grew older, I decided to study nature. I earned a degree in environmental conservation from the University of New Hampshire and a minor in wildlife. I also have a degree in horticulture.”

Fife spent almost 15 years with the state’s Department of Environmental Services. She was also the executive director of a conservation effort and a forest service botanist for two years.

Fife said that experience was “the best job I ever had,” as she hiked the White Mountain National Forest documenting rare and endangered plant species. She said she ran into plenty of wildlife – including bears and moose. But because it was a temporary position, she lost the job when new staff came in.

Fife reflected on her walk past low-bush blueberries, pitch pine and small patches of charred vegetation, rising only a few inches over the damp soil, where the state had set a controlled burn before local schoolchildren could plant young wild lupine.

“I’m looking at the whole system and how it works together,” she said. “I’m thinking about all this and what’s happening. I’m looking at habitat and its reflection on our life.

“Each species requires other species to survive. It’s how our life is. I come out here and I learn lessons about my own life and relationships with people. It’s very spiritual, and I feel very calm when I leave.”

Fife’s work will move forward with more greeting cards combining environmental education and photography. She said she’s also working on creating a book. It, too, will have an educational aspect.

“It’ll be something you’re able to flip through and say, ‘Wow, what a pretty picture,’ ” she said, “but you can also learn more about the plant and its relationship to the environment and what we need to do to tread a little lighter and think about how we consume things and how that affects everything around us.”

Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590 or dhimsel@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Himsel on Twitter (@Telegraph_DonH).