Sunday, July 26, 2015

North American Butterfly Count

The Crozet Team on the hunt
Yesterday thirty nature lovers broke into 3 teams to participate in the annual North American Butterfly Count for Albemarle County. Taking 4 hours in temps reaching 90 degrees each team covered a different area of the county to record each species of butterfly spotted. I was on the Crozet area team with 12 others.

This spider web was hanging over a creek.
Most of those participating are Virginia Master Naturalists (I sadly am not one) so going out into nature with such a broad knowledge base is quite fun. Plants, birds, and insects can readily be identified. You can't help but encounter other interesting things along the way.

Orange Sulphur Butterfly in purple Knapweed.
Several weeks ago the Ivy Creek Nature Center Education Room was packed with enthused nature lovers to be trained in butterfly identification. The program was prepared by Nancy Weiss and Terri Keffert of the Rivanna Master Naturalists. This was the first part of preparation to participate in today's count.

A Viceroy, sadly not a Monarch, but still exciting to see
The final numbers have yet to be tallied but hundreds of butterflies were spotted. It sounds like an easy task to identify a particular butterfly but many butterflies mimic each other to resemble bad tasting species. It takes a trained eye often looking through a good set of binoculars in order to accurately id. The topside and underside of one butterfly can be very different which also makes things complicated. Sometimes it comes down to just how the butterfly flies or what is referred to the flight pattern. There are around 20,000 butterfly species on our planet but luckily in Albemarle County Virginia there are "only" about 70.

Spicebush Swallowtail
You may wonder why the count is necessary, other than it's just plain interesting and fun to do... it can be a barometer of the health of the area. There is a lot of talk of the decline of bees but we need to remember that many other insects pollinate such as butterflies and moths. Butterflies are also a major part of the food chain being a main food for birds when in the caterpillar stage. Habitat loss, pesticide usage, and climate change can impact butterfly numbers killing off species. Twenty are on the current endangered list.

Deep in the wildflowers in Old Trail
The count was great fun and I was so fortunate to be able to participate. Several area residents came over to ask what in the world we were doing poking around in the brush as if we were trying to find something elusive. Fortunately this year there was plenty of action but sadly, we never saw a Monarch.

Mushrooms growing near a creek
You can help by not using toxic chemicals and by growing native plants which often provide food for caterpillars and attract adult butterflies. Each year I add more and more native plants (in part thanks to the Native Plant Society annual plant sale) and my yard has been a butterfly bonanza this year!

Lovely wildflowers and pond in Crozet
Often we do not understand the relationship between one species and another until we study it. We see a plant that has chewed leaves and think our plant is doomed when often it's just part of the normal course of things. The worm eats the leaves but turns into a beautiful butterfly that turns around and pollinates the plant it chewed.


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