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

Swarm Sunday – 8/12/2012 – 8/18/2012

Dragonfly Swarm Project logo

I don’t know about you all, but I’m getting excited about the dragonfly migration!  It’s only a couple of weeks away now and I’m fully prepared to drive out to the coast at a moment’s notice to see it firsthand this year.  I expect it to be a life changing experience!  Meanwhile, swarms occurred in the following locations over the past week:


Redding, CA
San Diego, CA
Clinton, CT
North Stonington, CT
West Suffield, CT
Wellington, FL
Troy, ID
Willbrook, IL
Ponchatoula, LA
Adams, MA
Burlington, MA
Halifax, MA
Medford, MA
Montgomery, MA
Palmer, MA
Peabody, MA
Saugus, MA
Denmark, ME
Houlton, ME
Raymond, ME
Cornlea, NE
Barrington, NH
Concord, NH
Deering, NH
Hollis, NH (2 reports)
Hopkinton, NH
Keene, NH
Louden, NH
Northwood, NH
Nottingham, NH
Rochester, NH
Strafford, NH
Thornton, NH
Wolfeboro, NH
Long Beach Island, NJ
Breesport, NY
Corning, NY
Eaton, NY
Freeport, NY
Ozone Park, NY
Jacksonville, NC
Hamilton, OH
Charlestown, RI
Westerly, RI
Copperas Cove, TX
Houston, TX
West Lake Hills, TX
Magna, UT



The big excitement of the week: I get to add England to my list of countries where swarms have been reported!  Of course, this means that my poster that I prepared for the Public Participation in Scientific Research conference is already out of date only two weeks later, but that’s one of the great things about citizen science – it’s incredibly dynamic.  New discoveries can happen at any time, and I am always thrilled to add a new country to the list!

Otherwise, things have continued in New England as they have the last few weeks.  New Hampshire comes out as the state with the most swarms reported this week with 15 swarms, with Maine, New York, and Connecticut all putting in a good showing.  This isn’t the major swarming event I’ve come to expect at this time of year, so it will be interesting to see what happens in the next few weeks as the migration starts up.

Next week’s Swarm Sunday might be a little late as I’m going to BugShot again this year and will be traveling back home on Sunday.  I’ll do my best to get it up on time, but we’ll see how it goes.  If it’s anything like last year, I don’t really expect to sleep at BugShot and will be returning home in a nearly comatose state.  I’d also like to mention that if you happen to be in the Raleigh, NC area and are free Wednesday at 12:15 PM, I’m giving a talk about dragonfly migration in the Nature Research Center’s Daily Planet Theater at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.  My talk will be a part of a series of talks about migration in animals that will run Tuesday – Friday.  Should be fun!


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


Have you seen a dragonfly swarm? I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior.  If you see one, I’d love to hear from you!  Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form.  It only takes a few minutes! Thanks!


Want more information? Visit my dragonfly swarm information page for my entire collection of posts about dragonfly swarms!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright ©

Friday 5: A Trip to the Museum of Life and Science

A few weeks ago, my coworkers and I made a trip to the Museum of Life and Sciences in Durham, NC.  The grounds are really quite remarkable, with several designated children’s play areas and several highly entertaining and interactive educational exhibits.  I particularly liked the “gopher holes” made of culvert piping in a play area featuring mist, a display where you could make little metal fish attached to wires swim in a pool of water (surprisingly life-like!), and an exhibit demonstrating how insect wings work by swinging these enormous 6 foot wings around like a giant rowing machine.  Super cool!

My very favorite part, though, was the insect building.  (Bet you didn’t see that coming, did you?)  It was quite warm that day, so it was lovely to duck inside the insect building for a bit to cool down and explore.  The building is divided into three main exhibits.  Off to the left is the Insectarium, a sort of insect zoo that housed quite a few different species of insects and other arthropods.  They included this crayfish:



Not sure if it was native or not, but I must admit that I’m enjoying living in a place that actually HAS native crayfish.  There were no native crayfish at all in Arizona, so every single crayfish in the state was an invasive species.  In contrast, there are 43 species of native crayfishes in North Carolina, but there are also three invasives.  Of course the invasives are doing what invasives do and are pushing the natives out, but there’s a lot of research being done on crayfish in the Carolinas and I’m hoping someone will figure out a way to control the “bad guys” and protect the “good guys.”  Someone should really look into the ethics of shipping live crayfish as food at some point too.  The practice is supposed to be partly responsible for the spread of invasive crayfish and it really should stop.

On a happier note, these bugs were in the Insectarium:



Adorable, no?  These were a little less adorable, but still really cool:



Emperor scorpions are amazing!  If you haven’t seen the video of one of these animals eating that I posted over a year ago, I really encourage you to do so.  They’ve got some wild mouthparts and it’s absolutely fascinating to watch!

One of the things I loved best about the Insectarium was the number of insects there from Arizona.  It was like walking back out into the desert!  My favorite aquatic beetles, the sunburst beetles, were there in a tank with some water scorpions (didn’t get close enough to see if they were one of the local species or Ranatra quadridentata from Arizona).  There were several other Arizona natives there.  I have a feeling this is because the Invertebrates in Education and Conservation Conference (often called Insects in Captivity conference) is held in southern Arizona each year and the people running the Insectarium almost surely attend that meeting and bring stuff back.  Still, it was really nice to see some old insect friends again!

The Insectarium was only a rather small part of the building though.  Off to the right was the butterfly exhibit.  Like so many others, I’m a total sucker for the big, bright tropical butterflies and they were in abundance in the Magic Wings Butterfly House.  I especially liked seeing the newly emerged adults in the chrysalis viewing area, including this paper white butterfly:


Paper white butterfly

This is the best butterfly photo I got in the tropical exhibit because I had the entirely wrong camera with me and couldn’t get close enough to most of the butterflies to get any good photos.  Oh well.  This little guy (or gal) was absolutely perfect and perfectly beautiful.

The butterfly exhibit at the Museum of Life and Sciences was better than any of the other butterfly exhibits I’ve seen, and there was one reason for this.  If you pass all the way through the tropical butterfly house and go through the door at the back, you leave the tropical butterfly area and head into an outdoor (though enclosed) native butterfly exhibit.  Now I’ll admit that it’s a tiny bit of a letdown to see paper whites and postmen and owl butterflies and then wander out into the heat to see the same stuff I can see in the garden at work, but I was still impressed.  I’ve never been to a butterfly exhibit that included both a tropical area and a native area!  Super cool.  My favorite find in the native butterfly enclosure wasn’t a butterfly at all, but a Cecropia moth caterpillar:

Cecropia caterpillar

Cecropia caterpillar

Look how wild that is!  They’re big gaudy caterpillars that turn into big gaudy moths.  Fabulous critters!

Overall, I was quite thrilled with my experience at the Museum of Life and Science.  The outdoor exhibits were really fun and I got to see lots of bugs.  Any day that involves those two things is a-ok in my book!


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

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Monitoring for Monarchs

At work we participate in the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, a great citizen science project that aims to track monarch reproduction and populations through space and time.  We have a great group of volunteers that help us monitor, so each Wednesday we make a quick trip through the milkweed patch to look for monarch eggs, larvae, and adults.  Look at them go!

Monitoring for monarchs

Monitoring for monarchs

If you happen to be in the Raleigh, NC area and are interested in learning how to participate in MLMP, one of my coworkers and I will be hosting an MLMP training workshop at Prairie Ridge this Friday from 8am-noon.  We’d love to have you!


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

At the Hatchery

widow skimmer

Widow skimmer, Libellula luctuosa

Last week I had a very excellent opportunity to go on a day trip out of town for work.  I case you didn’t read my post yesterday, let me tell you a little about it!  The outreach department at my museum runs educational trips called Teacher Treks that take groups of teachers out of the city to get hands-on experience in the field so that they can incorporate what they learn into their classrooms.  Last week’s trip was focused on dragonflies and damselflies (aka, the odonates) and the lead instructor asked if I would help out.  I jumped at the chance and I’m so glad I did.  I don’t feel like I contributed a whole lot other than creating a long handout about dragonfly behavior and making myself available to answer questions, but I had a blast!

We spent a couple of hours in the classroom covering some odonate basics in the morning, such as the differences between dragonflies and damselflies, how to identify odonates using a field guide, and some information about the behaviors teachers and their students are likely to observe in the field. Then we quickly ate our lunches and headed out for the best part of the day: odonate observation in the field!

The field session was led by one of the State Parks guys from Weymouth Woods, a man with a lot of experience with odonates, and he took us all to a nearby fish hatchery.  I hadn’t expected it to be that great.  I mean, what do you really expect to see at artificial ponds full of hungry fish?  Happily, I was pleasantly surprised and it was fantastic!  I mentioned the dragonfly swarm we saw moments after driving into the place in my post yesterday, and that was enough to totally make my day.  However, there were lots of other great things to see, most of which was new to me. I finally got a photo of one of the beautiful slaty skimmers:

Slaty skimmer

Slaty skimmer, Libellula incesta

They’re quite common in my area of North Carolina but boy are they pretty! I just love that deep blue-black color. The pennants in the genus Celithemis are also quite common in the east, but didn’t really make it to the areas of Arizona or Colorado where I’ve always lived.  I was so happy to see several species of them in one day! The Halloween pennant is superb:

Halloween pennant

Halloween pennant, Celithemis eponina

I’ve only seen one of these in my life, and didn’t get a good photo of it when I did.  We also saw calico pennants, a new species for me:

Calico Pennant

Calico pennant, Celithemis elisa

… and band winged pennants.  Pennants are kinda small as far as dragonflies go, but they make up for their diminutive size with their bright colors and fancy wing patterns.  Another gorgeous odonate we saw was also very small, the variable dancer damselfly:

Variable dancer

Variable dancer, Argia fumipennis

I love the jet black wings on this species next to the violet body.  Stunning!  The golden-winged skimmers were yet another new species for me:

Golden winged skimmer

Golden winged skimmer, Libellula auripennis

We were out in the field only a few hours, but I learned a lot during that time.  Working with the dragonfly expert from State Parks was great because I could take advantage of his superior knowledge of the local odonates and learn how to identify some of the unfamiliar species.  I also haven’t had much time to get out and explore the dragonfly diversity of North Carolina, so going to a new place and seeing a bunch of new species was absolutely wonderful!  And working with a group of enthusiastic museum personnel, State Parks people, and K-12 teachers made the whole experience even better.  With one exception, everyone there was very excited to learn more about dragonflies, including the instructors!  For me, there are few things better than getting out into the field to watch and photograph dragonflies while sharing what you know with a captive audience like that.  What a great day!


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

Swarm Sunday – 8/5/2012 – 8/11/2012

Dragonfly Swarm Project logoLooks like we might be hitting a bit of a lull before the explosion of activity during the migration when it starts in a few weeks.  Not quite as many swarms this week:


Grove Hill, AL
Young, AZ
Arkadelphia, AR
Norwich, CT
Tolland, CT
Naples, ID
Evanston, IL
Orland Park, IL
Richmond, IN
Farmington, ME
Gooserocks Beach, ME (2 reports)
Skowhegan, ME
South Bristol ME
Silver Spring, MD
Westminster, MA
Villa Ridge, MO (2 reports)
Hollis, NH
Lebanon, NH
Londonderry, NH
Tilton, NH
Glen Falls, NY
Saratoga Springs, NY
Tulsa, OK (2 reports)
Westerly, RI
Franklin, TN
Coventry, VT
Hartland, VT
Alexandria, VA
Seattle, WA

There’s still a fair amount of activity in New England, especially in the northern part of the region, but the swarms are spread over a pretty large area this week.   Interesting!  I love watching how these swarms move from place to place from week to week and they definitely seem to be going strong in the northern part of the country at the moment.

I got to see another swarm this week too!  I helped out with a dragonfly and damselfly workshop for teachers offered by the outreach people at my museum (an awesome group of enthusiastic educators, so I was thrilled to be even a limited part of it!) at Weymouth Woods-Sandhill Nature Preserve.  Half of the day was spent indoors learning about dragonflies and damselflies and then the afternoon was spent at a nearby fish hatchery observing dragonflies in the field.  I was asked to talk about my swarm project briefly and had told everyone that it was uncommon to see them and that they shouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t ever see one.  Imagine my delight when we came around the corner at the fish hatchery and saw a swarm right there over the grass!  It was lovely, and very exciting.  I tried to take some photos and reinforced for myself just how hard it is to photograph these things:

Dragonfly swarm

Dragonfly swarm – 5 individuals pictured

Yikes!  I couldn’t get more than a few dragonflies in the frame at one time and this was the best I could do.  Someday I’m going to get a really good shot of this behavior.  Someday…

And finally, the Your Wild Life blog included my project in a blog post about the Public Participation in Scientific Research conference last weekend.  Thank you to Holly Menninger for the support!  And if you all haven’t seen their blog, you should head over there now.  Rob Dunn’s lab is doing some great citizen science and they’re learning some very interesting things about the critters that live on and near us.  They highlight their upcoming and ongoing projects as well as their findings online, so they’re great about sharing their results with their participants.  Great stuff!

Keep looking out for those swarms!


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


Have you seen a dragonfly swarm? I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior.  If you see one, I’d love to hear from you!  Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form.  It only takes a few minutes! Thanks!


Want more information? Visit my dragonfly swarm information page for my entire collection of posts about dragonfly swarms!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright ©

Friday 5: Things I Learned At the PPSR Conference

20120810-230808.jpgLast weekend I attended the Public Participation in Scientific Research Conference. It was the first conference of its kind and was billed as a workshop that was part of the Ecological Society of America rather than its own separate event, but it was fantastic! There were about 300 people there – not bad for a first attempt at a meeting like this. Those 300 people were the most open, social, wonderfully supportive people I’ve ever encountered at a conference too. They were genuinely interested in everything presented at the meeting, be it a talk or a poster. I came home feeling so good about what I’ve done and with a ton of new ideas for the future. That’s exactly how I want to feel when I leave a conference, but that doesn’t always end up being the case.

I learned a lot of great things while I was at PPSR. Here are 5 random facts I came home with:

Wisconsin has an extensive citizen-based environmental monitoring program.

If you’ve never done a citizen science project, you might not understand how it feels when someone tells you that your data isn’t reliable because it wasn’t collected by trained professionals. There is a fair amount of resistance to citizens performing real, rigorous scientific data collection among the scientific community. In my experience, this seems to be particularly strong amongst the state agencies that monitor land use, water quality, or air quality. Citizens are more than capable of collecting this sort of data with the proper training, but these agencies are often unwilling to train people because they don’t believe that citizens can contribute anything worthwhile. Learning that Wisconsin has a successful, HUGE citizen based monitoring program was fantastic! That’s a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned and I hope other states take notice. There are great things happening in Wisconsin!

One citizen science program collects stories from fishermen for use in phenology studies.

Phenology is the study of recurring plant and animal cycles and their relationship to climate and weather. Tracking the phenology of aquatic insect emergences can provide valuable information about the quality of a stream or changes in the climate. River’s Calendar is a citizen science project that takes advantage of a great group of people who are out in the field often and pay close attention to which insects are emerging from a stream at any given time: fishermen! Fishermen who participate in the project send in information about the aquatic insects they see in the areas where they fish and help track the phenology of several insect species over a large area. The project is just getting started as far as I can tell, but I think this is a brilliant idea. I hope the project is successful!

FoldIt users have solved protein folding problems that have stumped scientists for years.

FoldIt is a citizen science project disguised as a fun game! Players go through a series of tutorials and then dive right into the world of protein folding. They do a few things as they play – fold proteins based on genetic codes or code the genetics that create a particular protein shape. They’re solving real problems too! And, by crowd sourcing these tasks in the game, the project developers have accomplished some amazing things. The thing I was most impressed with: FoldIt players determined the structure of the protein that causes AIDS in rhesus monkeys, a problem that scientists spent years trying to work out, in something like three weeks. Amazing!

Native Americans are an excellent source of ecological and environmental information.

There were talks by both a Native American and a scientist who works with Native Americans at the meeting. It seems obvious now that I think about it, but both speakers promoted working with Native Americans to benefit from their long-term knowledge of the environment in the areas where they live. It makes total sense. Native Americans are attached to their environment in a way most other Americans will never be and have a history of storytelling that allows them to develop a great cultural memory. I might never have an opportunity to talk to a Native American while in the pursuit of science, but I hope that more of the partnerships between the tribes and scientists that the two speakers described will continue.

Smart phone apps are a fantastic tool for citizen science!

There still aren’t a ton of smart phone citizen science apps available (apparently a lack of scientist technical experience plagues many citizen science projects), but boy are they useful! There were a couple of people from OPAL in the UK at the meeting and showed me their iPhone app for their Bug Count. It was great! People can upload photos with GPS information attached the moment they see an insect – so easy! The possibilities for what can be done with smart phones are pretty impressive, and definitely something I want to look into getting involved in in the future.

One of the things that everyone discussed at the meeting was the possibility of making an official society for citizen science and having an annual meeting. After attending this meeting, I really hope it happens! The feeling of camaraderie among the attendees and the truly collaborative feel of it all were awesome to experience. I can’t wait to do it again!


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