Ten people showed up for Saturday morning’s Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy bird walk at the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship in the northwestern corner of Loudoun County. While there may have been fewer species of butterflies (17) than there were birds (33), there more a lot more butterfly individuals. During the very humid walk with temps rising from a low of 67 to a high of 82, we visited portions of the Sweet Run Loop and Butterfly Alley on the south side of the center where there was a wide variety of native wildflowers in bloom with lots of butterflies nectaring on them.
The well-seen bird highlights were two White-eyed Vireos, two fledgling Chipping Sparrows, a male American Goldfinch feeding a recently fledged goldfinch, and while not uncommon, a beautiful Great Crested Flycatcher that posed for us in the open. Another poser was a Northern Rough-winged Swallow on a line over the Visitor Center parking lot. We were especially pleased to see a dozen Monarchs as well as two Monarch caterpillars (one a late instar and the other an early instar) on Common Milkweed, which was plentiful in all the different meadows, as well as about the same number of Great Spangled Fritillaries, which were highly fond of the various thistle plants. We also saw two Cicada Killers, one of which was holding a large moth as it flew in front of us.
Butterflies seen included 2 Black Swallowtails, 75 Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, 10 Spicebush Swallowtails, 2 Clouded Sulphur, 2 Orange Sulphur, 12 Eastern Tailed-Blues, 12 Great Spangled Fritillaries, 3 Pearl Crescents, 1 Mourning Cloak, 4 Red-spotted Purple, 2 Hackberry Emperors (both of which were attracted to the salt on various participants), 1 Northern Pearly-eye, 12 Monarchs (& 2 cats), 1 Silver-spotted Skipper, 1 Least Skipper, and a dozen Dun Skippers (10 of which were on one thistle plant).
American Goldfinches feeding! Photo by Diane Nastase
For a complete list of the birds see the eBird list below.
As we headed into the 20th year of our butterfly count on August 6th, many of us wondered what our tally would be. Springtime had been out of whack again. Rains that we should have had in March and April came in May. It was warm then cool; the plants seem to be a little behind the clock too. We wondered about those species of butterfly that overwintered as caterpillars or eggs – would they have food in time to develop or would we miss a brood this year?
American Lady butterfly
Well, as we headed out on August 6th, the weather was great for butterflying so if they were there we would have found them. Seven teams of over 60 people met up in their sectors at 9 a.m. and started spotting, counting and identifying butterflies. Across the teams, however, our team leads reported fairly slow going.
All in all, we recorded just 2,118 individual butterflies but on a day with similar weather conditions we typically would count 3,500-4,500. Our species count was just slightly down. We had encountered 41 species for the day compared an average of about 45. Some species, like the Red Spotted Purple were absent from the count altogether. Just 29 Monarchs were seen, compared to 51 last year. Sulphur numbers were significantly lower. There were other surprise misses too. We invite you to take a look at our 20 years of butterfly count data here to look more closely and numbers that were on par versus down. It’s quite interesting.
As you look at it, think about the host plants that these different species need to survive. It’s all connected.
Heading into our butterfly count this year, many people were asking, “Where are all the butterflies?” Across our area, other butterfly counts had already taken place and numbers were very low. Why? Well, remember that polar vortex and those extreme cold temperatures that we had last winter? And remember that cooler wet spring that we had?Those environmental factors really took a toll on our butterflies and other insects.
Most of our butterflies overwinter as chrysalides or caterpillars. Some overwinter in the egg stage and a few, like the Question Mark and Comma, overwinter as adults. The harsh temperatures may have just been a bit too much for many of them and the cooler spring delayed some of our plants. The earlier butterfly counts revealed the impact of these conditions.
But what about our Central Loudoun Count? Eighteen years ago, Bob Lyon tracked butterfly populations in Loudoun and determined that the first week of August is the peak for us in terms of butterfly diversity and numbers, and so we hold our count on the first Saturday in August each year. This year that decision was particularly pleasing because while the year started out slow, when it came time for our butterfly count, we had a good showing that, while lower than some years, was still decent.
So what happened on August 2nd, 2014? For starters, we had really nice weather. Temperature were high 70s to low 80s and it was sunny. We had 8 teams manned by 76 people covering our count circle and by the time the day was done, we had spotted, identified and tallied 3,063 butterflies across 55 different species!
How does this compare to the past 5-6 years? Well, with the exception of last year during which we experienced a downpour, our count has averaged about 3500 butterflies. So we are a little below that. In terms of species diversity, however, our average is about 50 and this is only the second time that we have ever reached 55 species!
What were the standouts this year? There was a Giant Swallowtail at the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship that got everyone’s attention! We spotted a total of 63 Monarchs, giving us an indicator that Monarchs may see a modest recovery this year.
Silver-spotted Skippers and Eastern-tailed Blues were out in force and our teams found 424 and 487 respectively! We also had the highest number of Zebra Swallowtails (58) ever spotted on our count but other swallowtail numbers were down.
We also saw very few hairstreaks although we did have 5 Juniper Hairstreaks at one location. Fritillaries were also lower.
We want to give a big thank you to all our team leads for scouting their sectors, coordinating their people, gathering the data, and teaching new people about butterflies: Larry Meade, Sheryl Pollock, Dirck Harris, Jon Little, Phil Daley, Tom Ramsay, Bob Blakney and Nicole Hamilton.
We also want to thank all the people who joined us for the count – spotting and identifying and having a great time: Bob Ryan, Jo-Anne Burlew, Caroline Kuhfahl, Bob and Tamie DeWitt & Tom Gray, Bill Cour, Norma Wilson, Jane Yocom, John Magee, Gary Myers, Laurie Proulx, David Pollock, Mildred Porter, Barb Good, Kim Norgaard, Albert Ho, Irene Ho and Angela Ho, Donna Quinn, Carol & Chris White, Thomas Dombrowski, Heather Olson, Amy Ritter, Donna Travostino, Fred Gillis, Carol DiGiorgio, Monica Neff, Gail Gillis, Nancy Goetzinger, Tess McAllister, Pidge Troha, Jennifer Lieberman, Tony Murdock, Sarah, Jeff, Carter & Sam Steadman, Michael Seymour and family, Mary Price, Laura and Liam McGranaghan, Marcia Weidner, Janet Locklear, Paula & Chuck Myers, Ashley & Michael Brody +2 children, Jill Miller, Teresa Barth, Candi and Casey Crichton, Teresa Davenport, Donna MacNeil.
And a big thank you to all the people that not only keep terrific butterfly habitat but also allow us to visit year after year (VanHuyck, Kurtz, Wilson, MacDowell, Taylor, Gregory, Lohman, Hamilton, Cochran, Dawson) and all the managers of the public properties, parks and businesses we visited too!
What a great day it was!
Keep Calm and Butterfly On!
[photos: Team action shots by David Pollock, Peck's Skippers by Nicole Hamilton]
This Saturday is our 17th Annual Loudoun County Butterfly count where we form into 8 teams, each led by an experienced butterflier (that’s a new area of expertise if you weren’t sure), as we identify and count as many butterflies as we can inside our count circle and along designated routes within it.
We currently have 90 people signed up for the count and a glorious Saturday with a forecasted temperature of 81 degrees. It couldn’t get any better as that temperature is just right for the butterflies to be flying and the counters to be counting.
But what will we find? We’re hearing about (and seeing in our gardens) incredible numbers of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and Silvery Checkerspots so we’ll see if we break any records with their numbers, but what about Monarchs? We’ve been keeping tabs on the listservs all spring and summer as butterfly counts took place through the Midwest, the Adirondacks, and into Canada and reports throughout those areas were grim…..1 or 2 or 5 Monarchs (or no Monarchs at all) where in previous years there would be 70-100.
Since a monarch’s life span is only about two to four weeks – one migration can comprise several generations of the butterflies – an entire generation is missing in Ontario. “What that means is that each generation is not producing very many monarchs,” Ms. Howard says. “The significant thing beyond that is that fall migration starts in August. So, we’re looking at the breeding season ending before the numbers really build.” Ms. Howard says the monarchs need warmer temperatures to make up their numbers. “This year is an extreme. Nobody knows if they can recover from these levels. They may bounce back, but it doesn’t look very good.”
Here in Loudoun we have seen an uptick in at least being able to find eggs and first instar caterpillars and every few days or so I’ll get an email from someone saying “I saw a Monarch!” They’re out there but in slim numbers.
At Banshee Reeks, I saw at least 10 nectaring on Thistle and the milkweed there is robust to say the least. So if you want to see Monarchs, I recommend a stroll through the trails along the fields.
So what will our butterfly count show? Well, last year we counted 57 Monarchs. Our high in 2009 was 193. I’ll do a posting early next week with a quick summary of our count, including our Monarch numbers – maybe Virginia is their northern range this year?
You can help the Monarch by going out into your local milkweed patch, looking for caterpillars and bringing them in to raise. In the wild, only 1-2 out of 100 survive to adulthood but we can do better than that by raising them inside, protected from predators. If you want to participate in that and in helping reach our goal of raising & releasing 2,013 Monarch in Loudoun between now and early October, Contact Usand we’ll help you get started. All you need is a good milkweed patch where you can look for caterpillars (and eggs) and a rearing house.
You can also help by planting a Monarch waystation – a stopover place where there are native nectar plants (please plant Goldenrods, Asters, Joe Pye Weed, New York Ironweed) that help them build up fat reserves in order to make it to Mexico; and milkweed – the only plant they lay their eggs on and that they eat as caterpillars. Abernethy & Spencer and WildWood Landscape both are selling the plants you need. Give them a quick google to get their location and hours. Plant your waystation and register it with Monarch Watch - ever bit helps.
Giant Swallowtails almost sound like some mythical insect but in fact they are real and now and then they flutter through and even breed in Loudoun. With a wingspan that can reach 7 inches, this is an impressive butterfly that certainly gets noticed flying through a garden.
If you lived in Florida, seeing Giant Swallowtail butterflies would not be a big deal as they are abundant there. In fact, to some trying to grow orange trees, they can be seen as pests because they host on citrus trees and eat the leaves. Mature citrus trees don’t make a flinch at having these Giant cats feed on them but a small plant could quickly be gobbled up.
Here in Virginia, these butterflies are not as prevalent and some of us get rather excited when we see a little caterpillar disguising itself as a bird dropping resting on the leaf of one of our hoptrees (Ptelea trifoliata). Here are some photos of one that I raised – the photos show the caterpillar and the chrysalis:
The Common Hoptree, also known as Wafer Ash, is a small shrub or tree that is native to the eastern US and is fairly easy to grow. In certain states, it is a threatened or endangered species. Here in Virginia, it does not carry any of those designations but it also is not that widespread and occurs in only part of the State. Loudoun is one of the areas it’s found in however and if you want to attract this butterfly, planting Hoptrees is the best way to do it.
If you want to plant Hoptrees, ask our local native plant nurseries like Nature By Design and Hill House Farm & Nursery if they can get some for you. Or, check online growers selling Ptelea trifoliata, but before you buy, ask any grower if pesticides were used on the plant. Pesticides kill caterpillars after all.
Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch tells the story of the Monarch Butterfly. Grab a comfortable seat and a friend and watch his whole talk – It’s about an hour – and absolutely fantastic!!!
Seven of us are heading the Mexico to visit the Monarch sanctuaries and (fingers crossed that wireless works) — we’ll be blogging from the field to share our photos, videos and stories with you. So be sure to tune in here to the blog starting Feb 23rd.
The status of the Monarch Butterfly population is not looking good. Drought in the Midwest, habitat loss at home, use of “Round-up Ready” seed crops, and deforestation in Mexico are taking their toll on Monarch butterflies. The population reaching Mexico this year is estimated to be the lowest ever recorded in their continued downward spiral. But we can help them! (We need to help them!)
Hope lies in the future generations: in the fact that each female can lay over 200 eggs and that everything changes, so at some point the drought through the midwest will end. Whatever population makes it through this difficult period – however many years it takes – will be the ones to rebuild the population to its once great numbers. But there must be milkweed and fall nectar plants (and good forest habitat in Mexico) to support them! Here in Loudoun (and other parts less effected by drought) we can play a big role in this relay of life that the Monarchs go through.
Our job is to make sure that healthy habitat exists so that the future generations have the best chance possible to bring back the magic.
In 2013 (just a few short weeks away!), Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy is kicking off a Monarch Butterfly campaign that will crisscross the County with educational programs, habitat restoration activities, native plant sales, artistic endeavors, blogging from the Monarch Sanctuaries in Mexico, and setting a challenge to raise and release more than 2,013 Monarch Butterflies in Loudoun this summer!
But we need your help to pull this off!
If you would like to be a part of the organizing committee for this campaign and/or participate in these activities, please email Nicole Hamilton at email@example.com. We have two meeting dates set up [Jan 26 and Jan 31] to get things rolling – email Nicole for more information. Please help keep this magic alive!
At the Native Plant sale yesterday, a number of people asked where I got the Monarch Condo and unfortunately Monarch Watch is currently out of stock but Mona Miller emailed me and shared that you can get them at BioQuip. Other nice houses for rearing butterflies are the houses sold by eNasco.
If you want to raise Monarchs next year, definitely make sure you have your milkweed in the ground now so it’s nice and robust next June when the Monarchs return.
And for our Monarchs right now – you’re no doubt seeing them flying in a pretty deliberate manner. In fact, you could probably drive all the way to Mexico yourself just by following their course!
They have a long way to go and as one of the landscape designers said yesterday — “Forget planting Mums! Plant Asters and Goldenrods!” They’re what the Monarchs need so desperately right now for their 2000 mile journey south to Mexico – plus they’re native (“low maintenance”) and perennial (“saves you $$”)! not to mention being gorgeous!!
If you have all the right elements in your garden and yard, consider putting up a Monarch Waystation sign or getting your yard recognized as a Certified Wildlife Habitat. It helps spread the word about what healthy habitats looks like. (We have both up at our house…:) )
Seventy people came out for the count and were broken into 8 different teams that spanned out across our count circle in search of butterflies. Thank you to everyone who came out for this event and made it such a success! We had a tremendous time because of all the great spotting, identifying and photographing of these wonderful insects!
While it was a hot day, neither the butterflies nor our counters were deterred. Counting seemed low at times but in fact, we spotted a total of 51 species and counted 3477 individual butterflies, which is right on par both in diversity and in numbers with a good count year and in fact, an improvement over last year when we only had 43 species.
Counters started with their teams at 9:00 a.m. and some wrapped up a little past noon while others pushed on until almost 5:00 p.m. Count leaders then started tallying the data and sending it in to be compiled. As we looked at the data we saw some interesting things jump out:
- Monarch butterflies were fortunately on par with last year. We were curious as to how they would fare this year. Last fall, the migrating population had to travel through more than 1,000 miles of dry land through the Midwest and Texas, and nectar plants were scarce. The population of Monarchs that reached the mountains of Mexico was the smallest ever recorded and they were skinny – unable to put on the fat they typically would from nectaring along their migration.
As this small population headed back north this Spring, they pushed into the East and into Canada faster than normal due to higher winds, but we only started seeing them in Loudoun with any regularity in the last few weeks.
During the count, we tallied 57 individual Monarchs (compared to 52 last year). This is not great but not as bad as in 2002, following the storm that killed 95% of the population, when we only counted 9.
Now it is up to this generation and to find milkweed, lay eggs and for the young in coming weeks to find the nectar needed to make it back to Mexico. Let’s hope the drought through Texas and the Midwest breaks.
- Cloudless Sulphurs were on the rise with five out of eight teams reporting sighting. This is a species that we may see every few years and only by 1 or 2 teams so it was exciting for it to be more widespread this year.
- Lower numbers were seen for the Common Buckeye. This is a butterfly that in the last two years seemed to have a population explosion and we saw them everywhere. This year things had wound back down.
In addition to the tally sheets, counters shared their photos from the day through online photo sharing sites and wow, this is a case where the power of the web and the whole community came together to make an id that surprised us!
As we shared her album around through listservs like the Washington Area Butterfly Club and emails to address the skipper, a couple of people looked across her shots, beyond, and said, “Hey, that photo of a fritillary that you got is an Aphrodite!”
We had an old record for an Aphorodite Fritillary but having not seen one in Loudoun for the entire time that we’ve conducted the count, we thought that perhaps the species was no longer in our area. But there it was and with a photo to document it!
This just goes to show that the more we look, the more we find. By doing the count each year we get an invaluable glimpse into the health of our environment and the diversity of species that are all around us. As we do each year, we’re sending our data in to the North American Butterfly Association, so that our local data can be aggregated regionally and nationally and used by scientists, researchers and students across the Country. Thanks again to all our volunteers and the property owners who allowed us to explore the wild side of Loudoun!