Wild Ideas: Butterflies cooperate with local butterfly counts   

After a dearth of swallowtail butterflies where I live this year, more have shown up in the last couple of weeks, including a couple of common butterflies that brought surprises. The increasing numbers and relatively mild weather also helped make local butterfly counts a success.

Where I live is heavily forested, so typically I see lots of eastern tiger and spicebush swallowtails, whose host of trees and shrubs are nearby. Once the wild phlox in a tiny garden near my kitchen blooms, they usually mob the blossoms, seeking nectar. By mid-July, the numbers there had risen from only two or three at a time to close to a dozen. Most are spicebush swallowtails, with a couple of eastern tigers, and of course the ubiquitous silver-spotted skipper. I even had the great joy of seeing a monarch stop by briefly — the first one I’d seen since one migrated through last fall.

This monarch butterfly was spotted at the kids’ butterfly count among the flowers grown at Waterpenny Farm. By Bill Bynum

Among the butterflies that have shown up is an eastern tiger with unusual coloring, I also spotted a swallowtail feeding at the hummingbird feeder I had hung in the garden. Both hummers and butterflies feed on flower nectar, but I’ve never seen a butterfly at a hummer feeder, which is filled with a sugar-water substitute. I was watching from the kitchen window as the butterfly put its proboscis — a long, narrow tube that acts as a straw — into an embossed “flower” on the feeder. When the butterfly was disturbed by a hummer, it moved to another station on the feeder. Before I could get my binoculars to see which species it was, it flew off, and I haven’t seen it since.

The recent uptick in butterflies seems to have also boded well for the North American Butterfly Association butterfly count in Rappahannock County (officially the “Washington, VA” count). The local count, hosted by Old Rag Master Naturalists (ORMN), is now in its seventh year. It’s held in July, when temperatures can be brutal. This year, the count date was July 22, and the weather cooperated: hot, but not as hot as in some years, calm rather than windy, and dry — all conditions that tend to increase butterfly activity without the counters risking heatstroke.

Through an email exchange, ORMN count committee chair Jane Smith reported a good turnout of both butterflies and volunteer counters. Of the 52 counters, 35 were ORMN members. The numbers are still being crunched and species confirmed, so the “actual number of butterflies may not be more than other years,” Jane reported. (Look for a report in this column on the final results once they’re compiled.) She also noted some surprises: “many monarchs, zebra swallowtails at a few sites and wood nymphs.”

All in all, it was “a great count,” Jane concluded. “Folks had a good time and were very enthusiastic.” And the butterflies “cooperated”: “We were able to get good long looks at butterflies. We were surprised by some of the great butterflies we saw.”

The number of butterflies had already ticked up by the time ORMN held its associated but unofficial kids’ count on the previous Saturday (July 15). Now in its second year, the kids’ event was again held at Waterpenny Farm. When I stopped by the farm late that morning to pick up some vegetables, the kids and adult volunteers were just coming back from the fields. Although a bit hot and sweaty, they seemed in good spirits about the butterflies they’d seen.

I chatted with a few of the adult volunteers and listened while Jane Smith, the current chair of the count committee, talked with the kids about the butterflies they’d found and what they learned during the count. The kids excitedly responded, and all were rewarded with a folding fan and cookies, both shaped like butterflies, along with being able to take their tally sheets home with them.

In an exchange of emails later, Jane confirmed that the kids’ count was “a roaring success.” Twenty-three kids, ranging from three to 13 years old, attended, with 11 ORMN volunteers helping. The chapter’s count committee had set up five learning centers in the produce shed for the kids to go to as they arrived so they could start learning while they awaited the rest of the attendees and their families. Each of the centers offered a different way to learn about butterflies, Jane explained: looking at butterflies and their scales through magnifying glasses and at butterfly books; getting a (removable) butterfly tattoo; learning about local butterfly species through playing bingo; learning about the life cycle of a butterfly through various art activities; and making a butterfly magnet, which was “very popular with the little ones.”

Once everyone had arrived, the kids gathered in a group, and Jane talked with them about citizen science, pollinators, native plants, host plants and the life cycle of a butterfly. “A highlight for all was learning a rap song about the life cycle,” she wrote.

Jane then explained to the kids how to use the tally sheets they all were given. Next, Rachel Bynum, who co-owns Waterpenny (along with her husband, Erik Plaksin), talked about how the organic farm shares its vegetables and flowers with the butterflies. Another highlight of the count, as it was last year, was Rachel’s taking everyone out into the fields on a big farm wagon she pulled with a tractor.

The event was a success in another important way: “We saw lots of butterflies,” Jane wrote. Most common were cabbage whites — a nonnative whose host plants (in the cabbage family, also nonnative) are grown there without pesticides. But the kids were also “thrilled to see monarchs as well as eastern swallowtails, meadow and variegated fritillaries, orange and clouded sulphurs, silver-spotted skippers, eastern tailed-blues, pearl crescents — many more species than last year.”

The young citizen scientists apparently not only had a great time but were serious about their tallying: “The kids were totally focused and engaged the whole time,” Jane wrote. “They were so excited to see butterflies and add them to their tally sheets.”

“As a former teacher, it was a gratifying and inspiring day!” Jane concluded.

© 2017 Pam Owen

A strange tiger in the garden

Eastern tiger swallowtails are so common where I live that I hardly pay attention to them. But the female eastern tiger swallowtail I saw recently was neither of the usual color forms the females take — a first for me. Most eastern tiger swallowtails look like their name suggests: yellow with black stripes. They also have distinctive blue and orange accents, depending on the gender. But some females take on a dark form, which can make them hard to distinguish from other dark swallowtails, such as the spicebush swallowtail. One of the best ways to tell the dark-form eastern tiger from the others is by the lack of spots on her black body.

The anomalous female eastern tiger in my garden basically had the tiger coloring but also had a lot of dark scales mixed in, giving her a dusky look. While not common, such “intermediary” forms between the females’ two forms do occur.

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.”