Why participate in a butterfly count? Well for one thing, you’ll be contributing to a citizen science project that gathers data to help assess how well butterfly species are doing over time. Are numbers for each species in a given area declining, increasing, staying the same? Are new species appearing in a location, are any disappearing?
Citizen science is my excuse, but it’s not my reason. I do it because it’s fun.
In mid-July, I participated in a count at Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol, Pennsylvania. There were six of us. We started looking for butterflies even before we entered the natural areas, searching carefully while walking across a lawn. We were rewarded with sightings of Sachem, Peck’s Skippers, Eastern-tailed Blues, Common Buckeyes, Wild-Indigo Duskywings and Horace’s Duskywings.
Are you wondering what attracted butterflies to the lawn, and why we even thought to look for them there?
It’s not every lawn that would be so productive. We were able to find butterflies in this lawn because it isn’t treated with pesticides or herbicides. Most of the butterflies we saw were basking on blades of grass or drinking nectar from White Clover (Trifolium repens), a Pea (Fabaceae) family member. If herbicides were used, the clover wouldn’t be there to feed butterflies, bees and other pollinators. No crab grass would be available for Sachem and some other butterfly species to use as food for their caterpillars. Pesticides would kill the butterflies directly. Another bonus from having White Clover in the lawn is that it acts as a natural fertilizer, releasing nitrogen into the soil in a manner and quantity that can be used effectively by the other plants living there. It actually helps the grass to be healthier. Even better, there is no excess chemical fertilizer to run off into streams, rivers and other waterways. Years ago, white clover was included in grass seed mixes for this very purpose, until fashions changed, calling for a monoculture lawn with no clover, dandelions or violets. Maintaining this uniform green carpet requires regular applications of herbicides to kill everything but grass, and synthetic fertilizer, to keep the grass growing. The result is an expensive and toxic lawn maintenance regimen, devoid of butterflies, but welcoming to Japanese Beetles. As the fashion trend turns back, lawns become a safer, less toxic place to play for pets, children and even adults.
We worked our way across the lawn to the powerline cut through Delhass Woods. A male Widow Skimmer dragonfly stood guard in the grasses as we approached the entrance.
This is a much ricer habitat for butterflies, a sunny area filled with diverse plants that provide food for butterflies in the form of nectar, and food for their caterpillars in the form of the leaves of plants on which they specialize. Plants in the Pea family, including Red Clover (Trifolium pretense), Crown Vetch (Securigera varia), and Wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), were a big draw for butterflies.
Not only do the flowers offer nectar, but Wild Indigo Duskywings, Wood Nymphs, Clouded Sulphurs, Orange Sulphurs and other butterflies use these plants as food for their caterpillars. All of these species were present in good numbers, along with Common Buckeyes, Peck’s Skippers, and Sachem.
We saw Wood Nymphs and Spicebush Swallowtails, but they didn’t pose for me this year. Last year they were pre-occupied enough with other activities to be more cooperative.
Surrounded by such a varied and rich habitat, an open area with woods on either side and a pond nearby, we couldn’t help but occasionally be distracted by birds and other critters, and some plants I don’t often see.
A Halloween Pennant dragonfly monitored our progress as we finished up our search of the powerline cut.
After a break, we moved on to the woods, marshes, and gardens. Cabbage Whites were everywhere. Cabbage Whites aren’t native to North America, and can be a problem for farmers. Their caterpillars feed on some plants in the mustard or cabbage (Brassicaceae) family. If you have ever found a small green caterpillar in your broccoli or kale (I have), it was probably a Cabbage White. They have done so well in North America that they are often the species with the highest numbers for a count, as they were this day. They ignored us while they mated in the woods.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Silver-spotter Skippers, Red Admirals and Sachem all enjoyed the nectar Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) provided in the marshy areas. Sachem also enjoyed the garden.
A week later I did another butterfly count at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve near New Hope, Pennsylvania. We had our best year since 2013, seeing twice as many butterflies as we did in 2014-2016.
Some highlights were Juniper Hairstreaks, a small but beautiful butterfly that is considered ‘locally common’ because it is usually only found near its caterpillar food plant, Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana).
We saw our highest number of Monarchs in the 6 years we have participated in the count.
It was really exciting for me to see so many Sleepy Oranges, a southern species that returned to this Pennsylvania location after a nearly four-year absence.
So why do a butterfly count? You’ll get to see beautiful butterflies and other critters interacting with gorgeous plants, and you’ll share the day with people who are enjoying themselves as much as you are, all while contributing to a citizen science effort that monitors the health of butterflies. And you’ll have fun.
To find a butterfly count near you, check with the North American Butterfly Association.