Bay Nature magazineApril-June 2005

Art and Design

Art on the Wing

April 1, 2005

In 1996, Liam O’Brien, a Bay Area-based professional actor, was dabbling in butterfly watching when he joined a butterfly count up at Sonora Pass in the Sierra. There, he had an epiphany: “I decided that I wanted to see as many butterflies as I could in all the counties in California.”

Since then, O’Brien has gotten deeper and deeper into butterflies, skippers, and moths. The Bay Area has proven to be fertile ground, home to nearly 150 species of butterflies and skippers, and to plenty of butterfly lovers as well. The region has more active butterfly counts than any other comparable area in the country.

O’Brien’s field journals are an unusual mix of painting, photography, collage, and writing. Some pages are full of great natural history details from places like the golden hillsides near Mount Diablo. Others have a more overt political bent, like one showing a new subdivision, on the side of San Bruno Mountain, that replaced open-space butterfly habitat with streets named for the endangered butterflies.

O’Brien is most interested in the places where “people and butterflies converge.” San Francisco is “as intriguing for what’s not on the wing there as for what is,” he says. The city was once home to the xerces blue, the first butterfly whose extinction was demonstrably caused by humans. Seven other local butterfly species are either threatened or endangered.

Luckily, there are many more left to see—and protect. To find out more, contact the Lepidopterists’ Society and the Bay Area chapter of the North American Butterfly Association (, 408-410-7567).

About the Author

Liam O'Brien is a San Francisco-based lepidopterist. He writes and illustrates the monthly Flying Pansy column for