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

26 thoughts on “Counting Butterflies

    • Agreed! It’s funny – I’ve been out doing more bug things with more bug people here in North Carolina than I did in a whole department of entomologists in Arizona. I think it’s great!

  1. Glad to read this and live the clear, colorful Pix. Would have skipped it, but a dragonfly , obviously awakened too early, buzzed me this morning in pre-dawn light as I walked out the front door. Oh! The affrontery!

    • The Audubon people were SO excited about the hairstreaks in the tree. It’s always fun to see adults get so excited they sort of start bouncing up and down and jumping from one foot to the other as they excitedly exclaim about their finds. And if you want hairstreaks, go visit your folks when the desert broom is in bloom in the late summer and early fall. You’ll see hundreds! They love that stuff.

    • I used to raise black tailed swallowtail caterpillars as a kid, so I’ve always had a soft place in my heart for them. They’re so beautiful! And, when you touch them they evert their osmeteria and start waving their heads around trying to smear stinky fluids on you. Nature is so amazing!

  2. Do not walk. RUN away as fast as you can. You do NOT want to get involved with butterflies. A couple of springs ago, while sitting in the yard, quaffing a cold adult beverage, waiting for the first odes of the year, I realized how EASY it is to catch butterflies. AND, they are SO easy much easier than dragonflies to identify. I soon found myself catching the %#$&* things until the odes made their appearance. GET AWAY NOW!! If I’m too late, check out the Butterflies and Moths of North America site at

      • Ah, but that challenge is part of why dragonflies are so fun! They’re hard to catch and overall harder to work with than many other insects, so the feeling you get when you acheive success is so much better than anything you’ll get from a butterfly. At least I think so! I do enjoy butterflies and I think they’re beautiful, but behaviorally I find them less interesting than a lot of other insects. That’s a big part of why I haven’t ever taken the time to get to know them. But, now I’m working at a field station where we give tours and I’m surrounded by naturalists. I kinda need to learn some of them – and I think I’m going to enjoy it in spite of myself. :)

    • You know, I haven’t ever gotten into butterflies for the sole reason that they are too easy to catch and identify. Plus, WAY too many people love butterflies when there are so many other insects that deserve some attention. Don’t worry. I’m unlikely to become a butterfly person any time soon. They just don’t hold my interest as much as dragonflies and other aquatics. Besides, and I know this is a horrible attitude to take toward any insect, but I think they’re kinda wimpy. When you’re dealing with dragonflies that are capable of capturing and eating hummingbords or giant water bugs that can eat things like snakes, turtles, and woodpeckers, it’s hard to get excited about a delicate little nectar sucker. :)

  3. Oh no, Dragonfly Woman has gone over to the dark side!

    More seriously, I just read Mariposa Road, so butterfly faunistics are on my mind. I’ll probably never get really into identification (since it’s such a saturated field in terms of both experts and hobbyists; I enjoy the difficulty of Odonate identitication), but I enjoy that there is a whole community of very enthusiastic butterfly workers out there.

    • I wholeheartedly agree with you about the saturated field with leps. That’s part of why I started working with dragonflies in the first place! When I was a kid doing my 4-H entomology projects, I noticed that no one else caught dragonflies for their collections. I decided I was going to include a lot of dragonflies in my collection, so I started collecting them. I soon realized that people didn’t collect them because they are hard to collect, but that challenge only made me more determined. I like dragonflies because they are hard to catch and identify. Catching them successfully means observing their behaviors closely and figuring them out a bit, knowing which ones will perch and which ones you’ll have to catch as they fly. You can’t help but learn a lot about dragonflies if you catch them! Butterflies… Well, they flit from flower to flower. You know they’re going to land, and once they do they’re pretty easy to catch. The challenge just isn’t there. They’re beautiful, but behaviorally I find them far less interesting – and that’s the whole reason I haven’t ever taken the time to learn them.

      I have Mariposa Road, though I haven’t read it yet. It is currently hidden in a box somewhere as we just moved a second time in two months, but I’m really looking forward to reading it! Have you read The Dangerous World of Butterflies? I thought it was fantastic! And it brings attention to several issues dealing with butterflies that people don’t normally think about. I absolutely loved it!

  4. There’s no point in being only one kind of person. Life is full of amazing things. I’m a odonate person, a butterfly lover, a spider fanatic, and an admirer of snakes. I love walking sticks and harvestmen. I’ve never met a preying mantis without being amazed.

    I may not be a normal case, though. I have field guides for animals I’ve never even seen, much less needed to identify. And I’ve read them!

    Love life.

    • I tend to take your approach for most things, though I have a few groups of animals I’ve just never bothered to identify because SO many people study/watch them: butterflies and birds. There is almost always someone in every group that can tell you something about the bird you’re looking at or a butterfly that lands on a flower next to you. There are far fewer people who can tell you anything about the insect that is swimming around in a pool of water or the walking stick hidden out in the grass. I have always tried to focus my energy on the things that are less well known, though I have rather broad tastes. And, even if I don’t know my butterfly or bird species, that doesn’t make them any less interesting to me! I do love life! Any kind of life, from the little slug I found on my bed one night that my dog tracked into the house to the enormous poison ivy vine that’s choking the life out of one of the trees I can see from my window at work. I might not know every detail about everything I see, but wow is the natural world amazing!

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