Wild Ideas: Summer brings butterflies . . . and butterfly counts  

Summer is here, and annual butterfly counts across North America are looking for volunteers, including counts in Rappahannock and Fauquier counties and Shenandoah National Park. Monitoring butterfly populations is not only important in determining their health but is a great way to learn about these important pollinators.

In Rappahannock County and nearby, volunteers are getting ready to count local populations of butterflies, such as these great spangled fritillaries feeding on native butterfly milkweed. By Pam Owen

The three local counts mentioned here, all in July, share data with the North American Butterfly Association as part of the association’s annual “Fourth of July” count held throughout the United States. Using NABA’s protocols, the local counts each monitor areas within a 15-mile-diameter. Volunteer counters are organized into teams, usually led by experienced counters. The public is welcome to participate, with no experience and expertise required. Some counts offer training, and as someone who was not an expert when I first participated in our local count, I highly recommend taking it. Training not only helps improve the accuracy of the count but can make the whole experience a lot more rewarding for everyone involved.

NABA requires a fee of $3 per person to support aggregating the data, and local counts may charge more to cover other costs, such as reference materials and refreshments. The three counts listed here waive the fee for participating children; ages included vary by count.

While the Fourth of July counts are usually fun as well as educational, volunteers should prepare for conditions in the field this time of year, which is usually good for butterflies but can be uncomfortably hot for people counting them. Count circles are also likely to include varying terrain, from open fields to forest and wetland. With the weather and terrain in mind, count organizers suggest volunteers wear sturdy boots (preferably tall ones), long pants and a hat and bring water, sunscreen and insect repellent.

Close-up binoculars and a camera are also recommended in helping with spotting and identifying species. Although counts may provide identification guides to hand out or share, many volunteers bring their own field guide, such as Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America or Peterson’s A Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies.

While the counts all use NABA monitoring protocols, they may vary in other ways; check below for more details.

Rappahannock County

Old Rag Master Naturalists hosts the Little Washington-Rappahannock County Butterfly Count, listed by NABA as the “Washington, VA” count. ORMN offers a butterfly-identification workshop and a count for kids before the official count. All three activities require registration. For information or to register, email butterflycount2018@gmail.com. The ORMN website should also have more information about the count soon.

Kids Count Butterflies! (July 14, 10-11:30): This well-received, free addition to the official count is for kidssix and older accompanied by a parent or guardian. The kids learn how to identify butterflies as well as about biology and the important role butterflies play in our ecosystems. The kids then practice their newly learned skills under the guidance of their ORMN instructors, in the fields of Waterpenny Farm. Organizers say they also plan to repeat the popular hayride that has been part of the event in previous years. Participants should wear closed-toe shoes as well as long pants. It will be held at 53 Waterpenny Lane, Sperryville.

Butterfly ID Training (July 15, 1–2:30): Shenandoah National Park ranger Mara Meisel teaches butterfly identification at this free training session. No prior experience or participation in the butterfly count is required. At the Washington Fire Hall, 10 Firehouse Lane (off Warren Avenue), Washington, VA.

Little Washington-Rappahannock County Butterfly Count (July 21, 9): Listed by NABA as the “Washington, VA” count, this count centers on Jones Nature Preserve near the town of Washington. Adults pay $5.00; young people 8 and older must be accompanied by a registered adult. ORMN provides refreshments.

Shenandoah National Park

The Shenandoah National Park Butterfly Count, on July 6, centers on a spot near Luray and extends into the park and Page Valley. Adults pay $3. Children 10 and under must be accompanied by a registered adult. Volunteers should pack their own refreshments. For more information and to sign up, contact Mike Smith at foresmiths@comcast.net.

Fauquier County

The Clifton Institute, a nonprofit organization, hosts Fauquier County’s only annual butterfly count, now in its 23rd year. The count was formerly hosted by an arm of the institute, Environmental Studies of the Piedmont, which has recently been folded into the larger organization. Having started independent of NABA’s Fourth of July count, the local count has been collaborating with the NABA’s national count for 16 years.

The institute also is holding a butterfly-identification workshop before the count. Both activities start at Clifton Institute, 6712 Blantyre Road, Warrenton. For more information, contact executive director Bert Harris at 540-341-3651 or bharris@cliftoninstitute.org, or go to cliftoninstitute.org/events.

Butterfly ID Workshop (June 23, 9-12): Entomologist Nate Erwin, former manager of the Butterfly Pavilion at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History, teaches attendees about butterfly biology and identification, then helps them practice their new skills in the field. Attendees are encouraged to bring cameras and binoculars and are welcome to bring a brown bag lunch to enjoy on the Clifton Institute’s grounds after the program. To RSVP, which is “strongly suggested,” email Sue Garvin at sgarvin@cliftoninstitute.org or register on the website.

Airlie Center NABA Butterfly Count (July 28, 8-4): Listed by NABA as the “Airlie, VA” count, the count circle centers on the Peterson Butterfly Garden at Airlie. Harris adds that “beginners and photographers are most welcome.” Refreshments are provided when volunteers meet in the morning, and ice water is available all day. Adults pay $5; children 8 and older must be accompanied by a registered adult. Register on the website.

© 2018 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 344 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.”