Join Rappahannock’s butterfly count July 23

By Jeff Smith
Old Rag Master Naturalist

Virginia's state butterfly, the female eastern tiger swallowtail, nectars on common milkweed.
Virginia’s state butterfly, the female eastern tiger swallowtail, nectars on common milkweed. Caroline Watts/ORMN

It’s time to register for the sixth annual Little Washington-Rappahannock County butterfly count, hosted by the Old Rag Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists (ORMN). The gathering starts at 9 a.m. Saturday, July 23, at the Rappahannock County Park on U.S. 211 across from Washington, and proceeds from there.

Undecided? Consider last year’s reviews: “fun!”; “gave me a fascinating new hobby”; “nice group of people”; “learned a lot”; “saw some great landscapes.”

Worried that you don’t know enough (or anything) about butterflies? Don’t be. There’s a highly recommended (but optional) butterfly identification training session at 1 p.m. Sunday, July 17 at the Washington fire hall, conducted by Shenandoah National Park Ranger Maura Meisel. Afterwards you will be able to discriminate easily among a Red Admiral and an American Lady and, well, a hole in the ground. Slow learner? Again, no problem. Each group on the count will be led by an expert in butterfly identification.

Count participants will go to private properties not generally open to the public. These locations cover a 15-mile diameter circle from Long Mountain Road and include 18 sites that 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.

Apart from the butterfly count, and new this year is a children’s event (ages 6 and older) on from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday, July 16 at Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville. Led by local Old Rag Master Naturalists Victoria Fortuna and Jane Smith, this “Kid’s Count” will include fun learning activities, a citizen scientist butterfly identification walk, as well as light snacks and (drum roll) stickers and prizes!

Participation in the Kid’s Count and identification training session is free. For the main butterfly count July 23 the fee is a measly $5. Register for each event in advance with Jane at and pay the count fee on count day.

Still undecided? Consider that in 2013 our little county of Rappahannock set a national record for eastern tiger swallowtails (2,375 individuals) and silvery checkerspots!

Butterfly counters Gail Swift and Don Hearl in 2015 at the Sullivan property in Little Washington.
Butterfly counters Gail Swift and Don Hearl in 2015 at the Sullivan property in Little Washington. Ken Cranston/ORMN

Local butterfly expert Robin Williams thinks we might break our own national record this year. “We still have a fair amount of healthy and somewhat wild habitat in the area, including some necessary native tree and shrub hosts,” Robin explained. “Of course increased use of pesticides, non-native plants and mono-cultures will diminish our results in the future.”

Now admit it. You’ve always fantasized about playing on a national championship team. Well, this might be your last, best chance!

In addition to presenting fun opportunities, the Little Washington-Rappahannock County 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 the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). Results from the citizen scientists are pored over by scientific researchers and professional lepidopterists.

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 worldwide 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 in that the caterpillars in the larval stage can eat only one kind of plant. If that one kind of plant — usually a native plant — isn’t there, neither is the butterfly. It’s also important to include nectar sources for the adult butterflies. Both the training session on July 17 and the count on July 23 will have information available on what different species need.

The NABA website,, is an excellent source for information on butterfly gardening and butterflies in general.

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