Butterflies and moths are indicators of habitat health within the region's redwood parks

The redwood forest is known for big things. Even the understory grows large.

Ten-foot-high rhododendron, azalea, huckleberry and salmonberry bushes are common, sword ferns can grow as tall as a person, 200-foot hemlock trees sprout from fallen redwood logs, skunk cabbage plants have leaves as long as your arm, fungus bigger than dinner plates emerge with the first winter rains in November when 80-foot big-leaved maple trees turn stream banks into a burst of fall color.

No wonder the smaller things are easily overlooked.

I have worked as a park ranger at Redwood National and State Parks for 11 years, moving here from the high desert on the east side of the California coastal range where I spent countless hours exploring the volcanic landscape of Lava Beds National Monument and the marshlands surrounding the headwaters of the Klamath River.

There, the open views provided ample opportunities for watching wildlife, including hundreds of species of birds, bats, and butterflies.

Accustomed to the vast vistas of the high desert, the lush closeness of the redwood forest was a new world for me. It was surprising that one of the most commonly asked questions from visitors here, after "where can I find the tallest tree," is "where is all the wildlife?"

The park is famous for providing a protected habitat for black bears, mountain lions, and Roosevelt elk, yet these are rarely seen during a walk on popular park trails. Even the birds are hard to observe, hidden in the dense layers of forest understory of wildflowers, ferns, berry bushes, and broadleaf trees.

Although Redwood National Park was established in 1968 and expanded in 1978 in order to protect much of the remaining old-growth redwood forest, it includes a rich diversity of surrounding habitats, including 35 miles of coastline, rivers, streams, freshwater marshes, oak woodlands and open prairies. Here is where the adventure begins for me and where I have learned to walk slowly or sit quietly waiting for wildlife to reveal itself.

Most of my observations have been made with the aid of my digital camera and close-focusing binoculars. I have grown to appreciate that some of the most remarkable animals to be found are those that are smaller than the palm of my hand; some are the size of a dime.

You may have guessed that I am talking about the world of insects, particularly the world of moths and butterflies.

These scaled-winged insects decorate the air with splashes of color as they fly around the park feeding on liquids from flower nectar, tree sap, or animal waste, almost daring you to follow them to take a closer look. Never mind catching them sitting long enough in order to be able to take a close-up photograph.

The scientific name for this group is Lepidoptera: Greek for scaled-winged. This is the second-largest order of insects (the first is beetles) with over 11,000 species in the United States. Moths and butterflies are similar in that they have two pairs of large membranous wings, two pair of legs, and a body - all covered with overlapping scales. The scales, which are modified hairs, give the wings their color and texture. The forewings are usually larger than the hindwings.

Butterflies are easier to observe as they fly only during the day. Most species of moths fly during the night and are dull-colored. Both start their lives as caterpillars, which pupate into a smooth chrysalis (butterfly) or silken cocoon (moth). Many have larvae that are covered with hairs, which can be irritating if swallowed by birds, their primary predator. Some are even toxic. One of the most recognizable larvae is the woolly bear caterpillar, which will metamorphose into a tiger moth.

Butterflies and moths are effective pollinators as they are particularly attracted to brightly colored flowers. When a butterfly or moth visits a flower to eat nectar, tiny scales covering their bodies brush against the anthers, and pollen sticks to the scales. When the butterfly or moth visits the next flower, the pollen stuck to its scales brushes onto that flower's stigma.

One of the most familiar butterfly pollinators is the monarch, which feeds on the flower of the milkweed plant. The pollen grains of milkweed form an adhesive disk that sticks to the butterfly's tongue and legs. Monarch caterpillars feed on the plant and the adults need milkweed to lay their eggs. Monarchs are so dependent upon milkweed that they cannot survive without it.

Most butterflies depend on two types of plants to survive, its host plant where it lays eggs and provides the food source for the larvae, and nectar plants for the butterfly stage. For example, the painted lady, a common butterfly, lays eggs on thistle and mallows, while the thistle's flowers, along with buckwheat and plants in the sunflower family provide important nectar sources.

Butterflies and moths are often used to indicate community or habitat health. The No. 1 cause for butterfly decline is habitat degradation and destruction. Butterflies often have species specific requirements and without the proper food source or shelter, they are doomed. Other causes of butterfly decline include the use of pesticides, over-collecting and pollution.

Fortunately, Redwood National and State Parks contains over 125,000 acres of protected habitat, providing a home for 71 confirmed species of butterflies, with another 23 possible.

If you are interested in helping to preserve butterfly populations there is much that you can do in your backyard by creating a garden with native plants. Your experience will be greatly enhanced with a few simple tools, such as a butterfly guide and binoculars. High-quality, close-focusing binoculars can be purchased for less than $100. Even a small plot can provide hours of enjoyment.

One of my favorite summer pastimes is to sit by the Smith River in a comfortable beach chair, with my binoculars, camera, and field guide close by. I am likely to view a California sister or one of several species of Hairstreaks nectaring on the willows along the bank.

I am also drawn to the Bald Hills Road in the southern end of the park where I can travel up to 3,000 feet above the ocean, enjoying the sunshine on the edge of the open prairies. I remember fondly an afternoon I spent on the Lyons Ranch trail, crawling through a mud puddle to photograph a silvery blue butterfly, eye to eye. The adult is one of the first blues to appear in the spring.

So I guess "wildlife" is how you define it. It could be described as any life that is "wild." There is certainly plenty of that at Redwood National and State Parks, if only you take the time to slow down, sit quietly, and wait.