Wild Ideas: Kids’ count sheds light despite heat   

When Old Rag Master Naturalists began preparing Rappahannock County’s annual butterfly count this year, they added a new event — a special kids’ count, held July 16.

Being driven around Waterpenny’s fields on a wagon pulled by a tractor driven by Rachel Bynum was a “huge hit” at the kids’ butterfly count, according to ORMN member Jane Smith.
Being driven around Waterpenny’s fields on a wagon pulled by a tractor driven by Rachel Bynum was a “huge hit” at the kids’ butterfly count, according to ORMN member Jane Smith. By Bill Williams

While kids accompanied by adults were always welcome at the official count, after five years, the ORMN butterfly count committee decided that the count was “too long, too hot and too boring for children,” according to committee member and Rappahannock resident Jane Smith. Instead, they came up with idea of the kids’ count (formally titled “Kids Count Butterflies”).

Jane and another Rappahannock committee member, Victoria Fortuna, developed the educational materials for it, with help from other committee members, who also helped the kids identify butterflies in the field portion of the event. The count, which was free, was held at Waterpenny Farm, in Sperryville. Waterpenny co-owner Rachel Bynum — whose two sons were among the participants — also helped. “Rachel and Waterpenny were a huge factor in making everything so successful,” Jane said. “She was very welcoming, [and] knowledgeable.”

Twenty-one boys and girls aged 6 to 11, accompanied by their parents, showed up for the event. The volunteers started the kids at the farm’s produce barn with “exploration activities” to introduce them to butterflies. The kids created landscapes on paper using butterfly and nature stickers and received temporary butterfly tattoos. They were also supplied with magnifying lenses, and a “discovery station” was set up where they could examine pieces of collected butterfly wings through an iPad with a microscope attachment.

Then Jane, who taught the deaf for many years, explained the various life stages of a butterfly (egg, caterpillar, pupa, adult), teaching the kids the American Sign Language (ASL) sign for each stage. She also talked about how butterflies get nectar, which native plants host butterfly caterpillars, the reason for holding butterfly counts and what citizen science is. To help with identification, the kids were shown photos of common butterflies and told which species they might see during the count.

Each child was then supplied with a checklist, on a clipboard, with photos of eight common butterflies, along with the more-extensive ID brochure used in the official count. They were also given a pencil to check off the species they saw and to write down ones that weren’t on the checklist. (To view or download the checklist and other butterfly references from the kids’ count, go to tinyurl.com/wi-butterflyrefs; for a slideshow of some of my photos of local butterflies and more references, go to tinyurl.com/wi-nc-butterflies.)

The kids, parents and volunteers then headed to the fields on a wagon pulled by a tractor driven by Rachel, one of the best parts of the event, according to some. The day was sunny and hot — a bit uncomfortable for the participants but perfect for butterflies.

Despite the heat, it seemed clear from those I talked with that the committee met its main goal for the count — “to get kids interested in butterflies and science in general,” as Jane put it. While butterfly numbers were up through the official count, held the next weekend (see sidebar on the preliminary results), “everyone was satisfied with what we saw,” Jane said.

Collecting data was not a goal of the count, but 13 species were tallied: question mark, eastern comma, pearl crescent, orange sulphur, cloudless sulphur, least skipper, eastern tailed-blue, cabbage white, great spangled fritillary, meadow fritillary, duskywing skipper, silver-spotted skipper and American snout. Cabbage whites and sulphurs were especially plentiful, according to Caroline. Those butterflies “must have thought we brought in a fan club just for them, their sightings created so much excitement,” she joked.

Back at the barn after the field work, the kids were asked questions about what they had learned and “did great” with their answers, Jane said. For their efforts, each received a butterfly-shaped fan, along with a decorated, butterfly-shaped sugar cookie. They also got to take their counting sheets home with them.

Eleven-year-old Woodville resident Roxie Beebe-Center examines an American snout butterfly that landed on her finger during the recent Rappahannock kids butterfly count. By Bill Williams

One highlight of the count was when an American snout landed on the finger of 11-year-old Roxie Beebe-Center, from Woodville. In a phone interview after the count, Roxie said that, although it tickled, the butterfly was “really cool” and “looked like an anteater because it has this long nose.”

While she is interested in nature generally, Roxie said, she didn’t know much about butterflies before the event but found the count “very interesting” and learned a lot from it. Along with how to ID butterflies, she really liked learning how to do the ASL signs. She also learned that a caterpillar sometimes eats the remains of its own egg after it hatches, she said, and about how to find butterflies by “what kind of plants they like.”

Roxie’s mom, Dee Dee Slewka, also had high praise for the kids’ count, which she said was a “really great” introduction to learning butterfly identification. She added that Jane was “really good” at explaining why the official count is important and that she was also “very diplomatic” in explaining various factors that might affect populations, such as climate change and agriculture, “imparting the big picture without preaching.” All the kids, even the little ones, “were really interested” in Jane’s talk, Dee Dee said.

Roxie and her mom both said that, after the count, they were seeing butterflies “everywhere,” where before they might have just noticed “something fluttering” and dismissed it, Dee Dee explained. When I talked with them, they were on vacation at a national park in Lake Superior. Roxie was looking for butterflies there and “noticing what they were doing, what they were eating,” her mom said.

Jane was also pleased with the results of the event, noting the kids’ “enthusiasm, noncompetitiveness and unity.” And while some of the kids did better than others in learning to identify butterfly species, “all were engaged in the activity,” another goal for the count. When I ran into Rachel at the barn the next week, she said she thought the kids had a great time and that the ORMN volunteers were “very well prepared.”

The best thing about the count, Jane concluded, was that “we introduced children to butterflies, native plants and citizen science, and it was so well received by both kids and parents.” She hoped ORMN would continue the kids’ count as an adjunct to the official count.

Roxie said she’d like to participate again, adding that “it was really fun.” She’d also like to join the official count at some point, once she knows her butterfly species better.

© 2016 Pam Owen

Results of the official butterfly count coming soon

An American snout, named for its long proboscis, was one of the more interesting butterfly sightings at the first Rappahannock kids butterfly count.
An American snout, named for its long proboscis, was one of the more interesting butterfly sightings at the first Rappahannock kids butterfly count. By Ospr3yy via Wikimedia

ORMN is still tallying the results of the official Rappahannock butterfly count, held July 23. Butterfly numbers overall were down, according to count committee chair Caroline Watts. She reported, after a preliminary look at the results, that 43 species were counted (close to last year’s number) and 1,668 individual butterflies were counted (down from 2,123 last year). Look for more on the results in an upcoming column.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 338 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”