Wake Audubon Blog

25th Annual Butterfly Count

i Sep 2nd No Comments by

Authored by John Connors

At 9 o’clock on Friday, August 16 a small group of butterfliers met in the parking lot of the NCSU Arboretum to begin the 25thAnnual Wake County Butterfly Count. Three other groups were also beginning their survey at parks across the northern half of the county…Umstead State Park, Durant Nature Preserve and Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve. The morning was warm but cloudy and since butterflies are creatures of the sun, the first hour was pleasant but rather fruitless in terms of butterflies.

For those who’ve participated in a Christmas Bird Count, a Butterfly Count will sound familiar. There is a 15-mile diameter circle and groups fan out at the most likely hot spots within that circle and count every butterfly they see. There are differences though. You don’t need to get up at the crack of dawn for butterflies nor do you keep going after sunset; they don’t make a sound to give you a clue to their presence or identity; and they are often more closely tied to one or a few sets of plants than birds ever would be. 

Around 10 am the first rays of sun broke through the clouds and the flurry of butterfly activity increased. Tiger Swallowtails, Pipevine Swallowtails and Monarchs arrived to nectar on the abundant flowers at the Arboretum. Further on there were Cloudless Sulphurs, Painted Ladies, Silver-spotted Skippers and more. If sparrows are the difficult to identify “little brown jobbies” of the birder’s world, the skippers fill that niche in the butterflier’s world. Clouded, Fiery, Sachem and Ocola Skippers were zipping here and there among the flowers. On beyond the gardens, in the weedy grass and trial beds, we sought and found Common Checkered Skipper and Common Sootywing. 

Male Monarch on Coreopsis at Prairie Ridge Ecostation, Raleigh. Photo by John Gerwin
Male Monarch on Coreopsis at Prairie Ridge Ecostation, Raleigh. Photo by John Gerwin
cloudedskipper_sideview John Gerwin
cloudedskipper_sideview John Gerwin

Meantime, our colleagues were hiking the powerline near Big Lake at Umstead in search of native grassland specialties like Swarthy, Tawny-edged and Crossline Skippers, and the large peek-a-boo presence of the Common Wood Nymph. They tallied the skippers but alas, the Wood Nymph is not Common in Wake County anymore and on this count at least, it failed to show up. At Durant additional woodland skippers were found: Little Glassywing, Dun, Zabulon and Least. Horseshoe Farm produced butterflies of the switchcane lowlands- the Southern Pearly-Eye and Creole Pearly-eye- along with the beautiful Dion Skipper which colonizes sedgy wetlands along river floodplains. Gulf Fritillary showed up at Prairie Ridge.

zabulonskipper-female_wingsopen Allie Stewart
zabulonskipper-female_wingsopen Allie Stewart

In the afternoon, visits to the Buckeye Trail along Crabtree Creek yielded Viceroy among the willow and Hackberry Emperor on their namesake, and then Anderson Point Park where a patch of nut sedge hosts a colony of Appalachian Brown. Often you just have to know your plants, habitats, and think like a butterfly to do well on a butterfly count.

By 3:30 pm an approaching thunderstorm chased all of us from the field. Despite the shortened outing we tallied 52 species of butterflies with a total count of 1274 individuals. 

The Annual Butterfly Count is designed to monitor trends in butterfly populations so any given year doesn’t tell us much. Our peak count was 59 species in 2012. We feel it is important to track these changes in the rapidly urbanizing Wake. This year we recorded the third highest total of Tiger Swallowtails (173), and the second highest number of Monarchs (41) (last year, 49). But at least one species, the Checkered White, seems to have disappeared altogether. 

Mostly it is a fun time in the field tallying butterflies with friends.

Special thanks to site leaders: Harry LeGrand, Tom Howard, Chris Moorman, Brian Bockhahn, John Gerwin and Chris Goforth.