Wing and a Prayer

The El Segundo blue butterfly’s outlook improves,
thanks to dedicated people restoring its natural habitat.

  • Category
    People
  • Written by
    Clay Jackson

Daily, thousands of passengers on hundreds of westbound planes pass over a fenced-in area of beach dunes directly west of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), adjacent to Dockweiler Beach. These air travelers, in addition to office workers in high-rise buildings along the 105 and Sepulveda Boulevard corridors and the 17,000+ residents of artsy, business-friendly El Segundo, are for the most part oblivious to the insect celebrity in their midst—the El Segundo blue butterfly—despite the fact that it appears on local murals, in at least one logo and is the namesake for a local coffee shop.

The El Segundo blue is found in a special butterfly preserve in the dunes bordering LAX and at a few other patches of restored habitat south and north of the airport … but nowhere else. Because of the insect’s limited range and its specialist ways, relying exclusively on seacliff buckwheat for egg-laying and food, it was among the first insects to be listed on the Endangered Species Act—a dubious distinction it has held since 1976. 

Travis Longcore, PhD, science director of a Los Angeles conservation organization Urban Wildlands, has been studying and working to save the El Segundo blue for the better part of two decades. “How many are there?” is a question he gets a lot. He says the numbers at LAX are in the order of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

“The important thing is we have all these little sites that have butterflies at them, that are spreading the risk out,” Travis explains. “There was always, historically, occupation at the El Segundo refinery, there was occupation … in the backyards of some folks at RAT (Right After Torrance) Beach and leading up to Malaga Cove, and we know now that there are some on the cliffs of Palos Verdes.”

Travis is optimistic about the blue’s long-term prospects citing ongoing coastal restoration programs as well as “the airport taking an active stewardship role” on its LAX Dunes property. “The airport has really taken over and run with it the last 10 years or so,” he says. 

Travis continues: “One of the reasons I am optimistic is because it is one that is pretty easy to help out if you give it the right plants … it responds really well. I don’t think with any natural area in an urban environment that you can put a fence around it, walk away from it and expect the biodiversity to be maintained. You do need stewardship. There are restorations up and down the coast that each have their group, organizations, people, etc., that are associated with them. In general, as long as we don’t drop the ball, we should be good on this one.”  

BLUES TRAVELER

DESCRIPTION:

These thumb-sized beauties are blue dorsally, with grey undersides sporting black squares and an orange swatch toward the rear of each wing.

WHEN:

The El Segundo blue butterfly becomes active in July and August, with the peak day being July 15.

WHERE:

Good areas to see blues include some restored dunes north of Miramar Park on The Esplanade in Redondo Beach; in season at Dockweiler Beach at the north end of the parking area between the lot and the road in some areas replanted with seacliff buckwheat; the Chevron Refinery visitor parking area on the north side of the refinery, where you can walk right up to the fence and see butterflies right along it; and an area at the Snack Shack in Torrance between two ramps that is restored seacliff buckwheat habitat. According to Travis, “You can open your car door and have butterflies fly past you at the park at the top there.”