By Jeff Smith
Special to the Rappahannock News
Here’s a Rappahannock riddle: what fun local event closely follows our traditional Fourth of July celebration and is really three events in one?
You’re right! It’s the seventh annual Little Washington-Rappahannock County Butterfly Count.
The Old Rag Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists (ORMN) will host the Annual North American Butterfly Association (NABA) count on Saturday, July 22nd.
In connection with this official count, ORMN is also sponsoring a Butterfly Identification Workshop on Sunday, July 16th, 1 p.m., at the Washington Fire Hall, conducted by Shenandoah National Park Ranger Maura Meisel. This is a great opportunity to learn (or re-learn) the basics of indentifying butterflies in our area.
Thirdly, ORMN is holding a Kids Count Butterflies event on Saturday, July 15th, 10-11:30 a.m. at Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville. The event is for children 6 and up (and kids, please bring a parent or guardian). The Kids Count, which debuted last year, will include fun learning activities, a citizen scientist butterfly identification walk, light snacks, stickers and prizes.
Registration in advance is required for each of the three events. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org. There is no charge for the Identification Workshop or the Kids Count. The fee for the NABA count is a country-low $5, payable on the day of the count. That’s right, only $5!
For the main adult count on July 22nd, participants assemble at the Rappahannock County Park on Route 211 outside Washington at 9 a.m. They will be assigned to teams and travel to a private property not open to the public. These locations are within a 15-mile diameter circle of Washington and include 18 sites that varyingly encompass farmland, residential property, organically enhanced agricultural lands, and wooded areas.
No special equipment is needed, but sturdy footwear is a must. Bring sun and insect protection and water, and (if you have them) binoculars and perhaps a camera. Some sites are hilly, some are not.
Undecided? Consider last year’s reviews: “fun!,” “Gave me a fascinating new hobby,” “nice group of people,” “learned a lot,” “saw some great landscapes.”
In addition to the fun, the Butterfly Count has an important scientific purpose. For the past 40 years, volunteers — so-called citizen scientists — throughout the country have counted butterflies and contributed to a national database now maintained by NABA. There are currently over 400 sites in the U.S. that participate.
According to NABA, results from the counts provide “tremendous amount of information about the geographical distribution and relative population sizes of the species counted. Comparisons of the results across years are used to monitor changes in butterfly populations and study the effects of weather and habitat change on North American butterflies.”
Remarkably, in 2013, our Little Washington/Rappahannock Count set a national record for eastern tiger swallowtails (2375 individuals) and silvery checkerspots!
Our local organizers say the purposes of the count are fun, learning, citizen science, and camaraderie. And another record here is always possible since we still have a fair amount of healthy and somewhat wild habitat in the area, including necessary native tree and shrub hosts. But local butterfly experts caution that increased use of pesticides, non-native plants and mono-cultures will diminish our results in the future.
Butterflies are essential pollinators that react quickly to environmental changes. The data collected in these counts are not only essential for assessing the health of individual butterfly species like the monarch, but also indicate the health of ecosystems in which they (and we) live. Regrettably, habitat destruction, introduction of non-native species, some pesticide use and climate change are contributing to a world-wide decline of butterfly populations.
This decline is critical because life as we know it depends on pollinators like butterflies, along with moths, bees, birds, insects and bats. Ninety percent of the earth’s flowering plants require the services of pollinators. They are essential to maintaining our food supply and to protecting the environment as a whole.
A great way you can help butterflies is to put native plants in your yard. Many butterflies are specialists, as caterpillars in the larval stage can eat only one kind of plant. If that plant — usually a native — isn’t there, neither is the butterfly. It’s also important to include nectar sources for the adult butterflies.
The NABA website, www.naba.org, is an excellent source for more information on butterfly gardening and butterfly information in general.
The ORMN team hopes you join our butterfly rendezvous!