Counting Butterflies

I had to work all weekend, so I was thrilled that Wake County Audubon did their annual butterfly count at Prairie Ridge on Saturday.  When working on a weekend, roaming around the grounds with a bunch of people who are really excited about butterflies, helping them identify the species they see, is a whole lot more exciting than working on the computer!  Prairie Ridge was their second stop of the day, so I donned my field clothes, slung my camera around my neck, and joined the little group of birders when they arrived.

Let me just admit up front that I know next to nothing about butterflies.  I was completely worthless as a butterfly identifier during the butterfly count, but I was still happy to tag along and finally learn a few things about them.

Prairie Ridge has an awesome native plant garden, so we started counting there.  The garden has some plants that pollinators, including butterflies, simply love.  As always, there were several butterfly species there, including monarchs, American ladies, several skippers, and tiger, black, and pipevine swallowtails.  The garden has pipevine and fennel, among other tasty caterpillar food plants, so it’s common to find the bulk of the swallowtails in that area, including this black swallowtail caterpillar:

Black swallowtail caterpillar

Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) caterpillar

After a thorough investigation of the garden, we headed down the hill toward the creek and the arboretum in the floodplain.  We stopped at the devil’s walkstick because the butterfly counters had found red banded hairstreaks in that tree in past years.  This butterfly is apparently rather uncommonly found during the count, so they were delighted to see the tree in bloom with dozens of hairstreaks amongst the flowers:

Red banded hairstreaks in tree

Red banded hairstreaks (Calycopis cecrops) on devil’s walking stick blooms

The tree was horribly backlit so I never did get a very good shot, but all those little gray triangles are hairstreaks.  The counters were yelling out the number they could count at one time through their binoculars and were clearly very excited to see so many in one place.  Their enthusiasm was infectious, and I was thrilled when one landed on a lower leaf so I could get a better shot:

Red banded hairstreak

Red banded hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops)

We eventually moved on down the hill and into the arboretum.  My companions would periodically shout out the name of some new find.  “Red-spotted purple!”  “Clouded sulphur!”  “Agh!  I think I just saw a comma, but I didn’t get a good look at it!”  I just soaked up all the butterfly information I could and snapped photos as we walked.  This I took my favorite photo of the day as we walked into the arboretum area:

Eastern tiger swallowtail

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Who can resist a gigantic, colorful swallowtail?  They’re stunning!

I was the only person who had a camera, so once we left the arboretum and headed back up the hill into the prairie, I finally found something I could do to contribute to the group.  Any time there was a question about a species, I would snap a few photos so that they could be identified later.  At one point there was a heated debate about whether a skipper was a swarthy skipper or not and bets were placed.  The zabulon skippers, however, were much easier to identify due to their distinctive wing patterns:

Zabulon skipper male on buttonbush

Zabulon skipper (Poanes zabulon) male on buttonbush

I couldn’t help but photograph a few other insects along the way too because there were so many great things out!  The leaf footed bugs were particularly abundant.  Apparently it was mating season because those little guys were going at it on nearly every thistle I saw!  There were battles between individuals and males were chasing females around the flowers.  The prairie was one big leaf footed bug orgie!  They made for some great photographic subjects when they stood still for half a second:

Leaf footed bug

Leaf footed bug (Leptoglossus phyllopus) on thistle

We made our way back up the hill and about two hours after we started we ended up back in the garden.  One of the group members was lamenting the fact that we hadn’t seen a single gray hairstreak as we walked.  Moments later, he nearly walked right into one!  There was much fist pumping at the sight of this beauty:

Gray hairstreak

Gray hairstreak (Strymon melinus)

And just like that, the butterfly count was over!  We totaled up our finds and chatted about butterflies for a bit, and then everyone went their separate ways, some to the next butterfly count site, some to other obligations, and me back to the trailer to my office.  What a great experience!

Even though I am not a butterfly person and have never had much of an interest in them, I really enjoyed this experience.  I learned a lot about the local butterflies and got some nice photos.  I got to spend part of a beautiful day outside playing with bugs with other insect enthusiasts rather than spending the whole day on my computer.  And now I can’t wait to do it again!  Maybe next year I’ll be able to get really excited about a bunch of butterflies in a tree the way my companions did and contribute more toward the identifications.  There are legions of butterfly people!  Maybe it’s time that I join them.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth