The Annual Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge/Rum Creek Wildlife Management Area 4th of July Butterfly Count was held Friday, June 25. This year marked the 27th anniversary of the survey.
Prior to this year’s survey the question on the minds of the 13 men and women who participated in this year’s count was, “Are butterfly populations down this year?”
The reason for this concern is most folks that enjoy watching butterflies in this neck of the woods are reporting they are seeing fewer butterflies than they have in recent years.
Our local count is but one of more than 300 counts staged each year in Canada and the United States under the auspices of the North American Butterfly Association. The Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Environmental Resources Network (TERN) sponsored the 2021 count.
Each count is held during a single calendar day within a count circle measuring 15 miles in diameter. The Piedmont NWR, Rum Creek WMA count circle encompasses the Piedmont NWR and Rum Creek WMA as well as much of eastern Monroe County, western Jones County and a small slice of Jasper County.
The data collected on the counts provide wildlife biologists and land managers with invaluable data regarding the distribution and abundance of butterflies, as well as the impacts of land use and weather on these insects.
This year 1,817 individual butterflies representing 56 species were tallied. Due to Covid-19 concerns, no count was held in 2020. Consequently, in an effort to determine whether not butterfly numbers are lower, the 2021 data must be compared with the results of the 2019 count.
This year 5 percent fewer species were seen than were sighted in 2019 when 59 species were tabulated. However, the number of individual butterflies seen jumped from 1,709 in 2019 to 1,817 this year. This represents a 6 percent increase.
At first glance it would seem there was little changed in butterfly diversity and abundance when compared to the results of the 2019 count. However, if you dig a little deeper into the data it becomes obvious that this may not be the case.
For example, it should be noted that this year two species, the pearl crescent and Carolina satyr, accounted for 49 percent of all of the individual butterflies seen on the count. In addition, four species (pearl crescent, Carolina satyr, sleepy orange, and eastern tailed-blue) represented for two-thirds (65.6 percent) of all butterflies seen.
In 2019, the common buckeye was the most frequently seen butterfly. This year the title went to the pearl crescent. This marks the third time during the last four counts the pearl crescent has claimed the title.
Here is a list of the 10 species most often tallied this year. pearl crescent (555), Carolina satyr (339), sleepy orange (156), eastern tailed-blue (142), silvery checkerspot (85), barred yellow (81), pipevine swallowtail (46), common buckeye (30), red-spotted purple (30), and Zarucco duskywing (26).
The weather during the count could not have been better. The skies were mostly clear, a light wind blew throughout the day, and the temperature peaked out at a mild 82˚F. In fact, conditions were so favorable, many volunteers commented that they were ideal for counting butterflies. Consequently, weather conditions during the count should not have had an adverse effect on the results of the survey. However, at the end of the day, the count teams were left wondering why butterflies proved to be so difficult to find. The team that surveyed the Monroe County portion of the count circle is convinced butterflies were never so difficult to locate as they were this year.
The data indicate that populations of at least four species (pearl crescent, Carolina Satyr, sleepy orange and eastern tailed-blue) appear to be doing well. However, the fact that the other 52 species of butterflies tallied this year made up such a small percentage of the total individuals seen seems to suggest that, just as many butterflies enthusiasts feared, overall butterfly numbers are indeed down in this part of the world.
Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.