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Butterflies of the Butterfly Count (What Time is it in Nature)

August 15, 2015

Earlier this week, a few staff participated in the annual butterfly count in Wake County.  The count is a valuable undertaking each year, bringing butterfly enthusiasts together to document, count, and monitor the butterfly populations in our area.  The group started their yearly rounds at Raulston Arboretum and eventually moved on to Umstead State Park, but they always make a stop at Prairie Ridge.  Let’s explore some of the finds from this year’s count!

We found a lot of orange and black butterflies this year, though that’s normal.  The Variegated Fritillaries have been out and about in large numbers, nectaring at plants in the Nature Neighborhood Garden and other flowers on the grounds:

Variegated fritillary

Variegated Fritillary. Photo by Chris Goforth.

This species is commonly spotted in prairies, such as Prairie Ridge’s namesake habitat, and you’ll see the adults flying over the grasses or sitting on the ground along the edges.

The Monarch is probably the best recognized butterfly in the US, and we’ve had them on the grounds all summer:


Monarch. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Monarchs feed on milkweeds as caterpillars and store the toxins the plants produce within their bodies as they transform from caterpillars into butterflies.  The bright orange and black pattern of Monarchs let birds and other potential predators know that they taste bad and have nasty chemicals inside.  Viceroys have similar coloration for similar reasons:


Viceroy. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Monarchs and Viceroys are commonly cited as examples of Müllerian mimicry, a form of mimicry in which two toxic species take on shared characteristics (in this case, the black and orange pattern of the wings) to the benefit of both species.  The idea is that if a bird foolishly decides to feed on either a Monarch or a Viceroy and becomes violently ill because of it, it will avoid individuals of both species in the future.  You can easily tell the two species apart, however.  Viceroys are a little smaller than Monarchs and have a diagonal line that divides their hind wings into two sections.  The Monarchs do not have this line.

Common Buckeyes are, as the name suggests, quite common in our area, but they are quite beautiful as well:


Common Buckeye. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Buckeyes visit a wide variety of flowers, but you will often find them sitting on the ground.  Ground sitters are typically males looking out for females.  They will fly off to court a female if one comes near or will chase away other males.

Red-spotted Purples are spectacular butterflies:

Red spotted purple

Red-spotted Purple. Photo by Chris Goforth.

They look a lot like the many black swallowtail species we have at first glance, but a closer look will reveal a lack of the tails that characterize swallowtails.  The upper surface is iridescent blue and the species gets its common name from the series of red spots that line the outer edges of the wings and those at the bases of the wings.

Another “spotted” butterfly we documented is the Silver-spotted Skipper:

Silver-spotted Skipper.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

Silver-spotted Skipper. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Skippers are a family of butterflies that are a little different from the stereotypical butterfly form.  They have thick, heavy bodies and relatively short wings.  Their antennae are also generally tipped with hooks instead of the clubs sported by most non-skipper butterflies.  Silver-spotted Skippers are large as skipper species go and feature a bright silver band on their hind wing that gives them their name.

Other species recorded included several skippers (Zabulon, Sachem, and Fiery, among others), Red-banded Hairstreaks, Gray Hairstreaks, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Summer Azures, American Ladies, Pearl Crescents, and Pipevine Swallowtails.  Though we didn’t see any during the official count, there have also been some Gulf Fritillaries spotted recently, large bright orange butterflies with metallic silver spots on the undersides of their wings.

Now is a great time to see butterflies at Prairie Ridge!  A visit to the Nature Neighborhood Garden is a must for any butterfly enthusiast, but you’ll find other species lurking in the Jesse Perry Arboretum and near the pond.  Come on out and see how many species of butterflies YOU can find!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge EcostationFind out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.

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