The 26th Annual Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge/
Rum Creek Wildlife Management Area Summer Butterfly Count was staged Friday, June 21. When the count began, hopes were running high the state record for the most butterfly species seen on a Georgia Count set by the 2018 count team would be broken. Unfortunately, when all of the field data sheets were tabulated at the end of the day, such was not the case.
This year fewer species and individual butterflies were seen than in 2018. Some 1,707 individuals representing 59 species were tallied. These data represent a 13.2 percent decline in the number of species found as well as 11.2 percent fewer individuals seen compared to 2018.
Winging its way to the top of the list of the butterflies most often seen this year was the pearl crescent (535). This makes the second time in the past three years this small orange and black butterfly has earned the title. Last year it finished second to the Carolina satyr. Rounding out the list of 10 species most often recorded this year were the common buckeye (144), Carolina satyr (144), sleepy orange (95), fiery skipper (93), eastern tailed-blue (77), pipevine swallowtail (61), barred yellow (58), red-banded hairstreak (49), and the red-spotted purple (38).
I frequently hear folks say they don’t participate in butterfly counts because they are unable to identify many butterflies. This year, if you could identify these 10 species, you would have been able to recognize 75.9 percent of all of the butterflies seen!
Annually our local count is one of more than 300 similar counts staged across both Canada and the United States under the auspices of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). As was the case last year, the Piedmont NWR/Rum Creek WMA count was sponsored by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section (popularly known as the Nongame Program) and The Environmental Resources Network (TERN).
Each count takes place during a single calendar day within a count circle measuring 15 miles in diameter. The Piedmont NWR/Rum Creek WMA count circle blankets the entire Piedmont NWR and Rum Creek WMA as well as much of eastern Monroe County, western Jones County and a sliver of Jasper County.
The data collected on the NABA counts provides wildlife biologists and land managers invaluable information regarding the distribution and abundance of butterflies, as well the impacts of land use and weather on these beautiful and fragile insects.
The results came as no surprise to the members of the 2019 count team. Butterflies proved extremely difficult to find throughout the day. Here in Monroe County, by far, the majority of the butterflies found feeding were visiting the tiny blossoms of an exotic plant--Brazilian verbena. Few butterflies were found on buttonbush. This was surprising as buttonbush is a native shrub that is usually a standout food source for butterflies and other pollinators. Surprisingly the Rum Creek WMA count team found few butterflies nectaring on the round, white blossoms of the shrub.
“There was a definite shortage of flowering (nectar) plants, compared to previous summer counts,” said Count Coordinator Dr. Jerry Payne for the teams that canvassed the Piedmont NWR. “Principal nectar plants were tall verbena, buttonbush, coreopsis, low-growing legumes, and a few scattered prunella.”
Dr. Payne went on to say, “Due to recent rains (5-7 inches within two weeks of the count) there was tall grass and lespedeza covering low growing flowering plants.”
The count was also plagued with high humidity and heat. Here in the Monroe County portion of the count circle the heat index reached 110˚F.
In spite of the trying weather conditions and a smattering of stinging and biting insects, all of the 19 volunteers that participated in the 2019 count agreed the count was a success and they are looking forward to the 2020 count.
I sincerely hope you will consider joining the count team next June. Keep in mind you don’t have to be able to identify all of the butterflies you might encounter on the count. Simply learn to identify as many as you can, and the count veterans will help you learn to recognize any you might not happen to know.
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.