On May 19, just as he had on most sunny spring days for the past 21 years, Bryan Pfeiffer went on a quest. As always, he aimed his truck toward one of the remote bogs that populate northern Vermont, where he has been searching, and searching, and searching for a tiny brown butterfly, no larger than a penny, called a bog elfin.
The bog elfin had never been confirmed in Vermont, but Pfeiffer’s gut told him it was there. So the entomologist logged countless miles through isolated terrain swarming with mosquitos and black flies, armed with binoculars and a butterfly net and a determination his friends and colleagues marveled at. He was 44 when his search began; a heart attack and a knee replacement later, he found himself at age 65, wondering the sort of things people wonder as the years race by. “Every year I felt like my window was closing,” he said.
But the quest wasn’t just a challenge; it was about a legacy, not for him but for the butterfly. If he could prove the rare insect was in Vermont — he had initially begun his search as part of a team compiling the first-ever Vermont Butterfly Atlas — then it would be recorded forever as something Vermont must preserve. These things matter to Pfeiffer, who decades ago left a career in journalism to “go outside,” as he says.
For the last several years, Pfeiffer’s search had focused on a single bog with plentiful black spruce trees, where bog elfin are known to lay their eggs. But on this fateful day, he decided to explore a new bog. There were two potentials he’d identified but never been to, and something told him to choose one over the other. He made the drive, and after he parked on a country road and started to suit up for the bushwhacking it would take to get to the bog, a bobcat sauntered past. “That had certainly never happened before,” he said.
Bog elfin are notoriously tricky to find because they spend most of their life high in the canopy of the black spruce, but after walking around the bog for an hour or so, Pfeiffer noticed a tiny brown butterfly descending from above. There are several small brown butterflies that live in the bogs of New England, including one that looks very similar called a pine elfin, and Pfeiffer says his heart has raced many times over the years with false alarms. But this one flew slightly different, and when it alighted on a waist-high black spruce 20 feet away, Pfeiffer raised his binoculars.
Pfeiffer wants it known that he is not the sort of person who talks to butterflies, but as he focused in on the tiny insect he found himself whispering 10 words: “I’ve been looking for you for a very long time.”
Before he could raise his camera, the butterfly flew up into the canopy, and his rush of elation quickly turned to panic. He scoured the bog, looked and looked and looked, and when he finally saw another small brown butterfly alighting, he did not wait for it to land, and instead swung his butterfly net, gently placed the tiny insect into a vial, and the quest was officially over. Inside was a bog elfin. He took a few quick photos, then released it to fly back to the canopy above.
“I was overjoyed when he called me because this was exactly how it should have been,” said Josh Lincoln, a retired veterinarian and amateur naturalist who has logged many miles with Pfeiffer searching for the bog elfin. “Whenever I’d search on my own, I’d secretly hope I didn’t find it, because the only fitting ending was for Bryan to find it.”
The two returned to the bog the next day — they’re keeping the location secret, to discourage traffic — and got some better photos, which will be the featured stars of the second edition of Vermont Butterfly Atlas, which is just now being compiled, according to Kent McFarland, who is leading the five-year project for the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.
“It’s hard to frame just how difficult this challenge was, and how perfect Bryan Pfeiffer was for it,” McFarland said. “He’s the bog man. He’s at home in a bog, even though most people are quickly driven insane by the ridiculous quantities of black flies and mosquitos. And he’s out there looking for something the size of a penny, and it’s brown, and he’s in a bog where everything is green and brown, and the vegetation is so thick you can’t see two feet in front of you. It’s a frustratingly secretive insect in a frustratingly difficult habitat.”
Pfeiffer says he is not the least bit sad the quest is over. No, what makes him sad is the fear that people won’t care. It’s something he’s wrestled with in his popular Substack newsletter, Chasing Nature.
“In our safeguarding little brown butterflies, like protecting speech, we show reverence not only for the popular and charismatic and profitable, but for the obscure and the vulnerable as well,” he wrote. “Vermont is now a better place for having bog elfins — up there in the spruce where they belong, overseeing the orchids and songbirds and blackflies, even aging biologists like me. Protecting little brown butterflies is good for the integrity of nature — as it is for integrity of humans.”
And though the case of the bog elfin has been solved, that does not mean Pfeiffer will ever stop exploring. “I’ve always been, and I still feel like, an exuberant kid with a butterfly net,” he said. “And when I arrive at a bog, everything seems right.”
Plus, he said, who knows what else is out there. The only way to find out is to keep looking.