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Counting Butterflies for Science

August 25, 2016
Butterfly Counters. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Butterfly Counters. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Last week was the annual butterfly count in Raleigh and Prairie Ridge was once again one of the sites taking part in the event. Two Museum staffers and a few volunteers conducted this year’s count at Prairie Ridge and documented some great finds!

The most abundant butterfly for the 2016 count was the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail:

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Photo by Chris Goforth.

These very large butterflies have been particularly abundant at Prairie Ridge and across most of the Triangle this year. They feed on a wide variety of plants in our Nature Neighborhood Garden and come in two different colors.  Males and about half of the females are as pictured above, yellow with black markings of the typical color pattern most people associate with this species.  About half of the females are entirely black, however.  These are the “dark morph” of the species.  If the light hits their wings just right, you will be able to see that they still have the stripes of the yellow version, though the stripes are so close in color to the rest of the scales on the wings that you won’t normally see them.

One of the most exciting finds this year was a large number of Gulf Fritillaries:

Gulf Fritillary. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Gulf Fritillary. Photo by Chris Goforth.

This is a tropical species that moves northward into the US in the summer. Some years they make it as far north as North Carolina and other years they do not.  This year was a marvelous year for Gulf Fritillaries!  We were able to confirm at least a dozen individuals in the garden at one time, but there were likely even more in other locations on the grounds.  Like their relative the Variegated Fritillary, the Gulf Fritillary lays its eggs on the Purple Passionflower vines throughout the Prairie Ridge grounds and the caterpillars will feed on the leaves once they hatch.

Another great find this year was a large number of Sleepy Oranges:

Sleepy Orange. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Sleepy Orange. Photo by Chris Goforth.

This is not a rare butterfly at Prairie Ridge, but some years are better than others for this species. This is apparently a good year!  We saw many in the garden during the count, feeding on Ironweed, Coral Honeysuckle, and other flowering plants.  Sleepy Oranges belong to the butterfly family Pieridae, which is known for its rapid flight and brief stops at flowers.  They get their name from their relatively slow flight compared to most of the other species in the family.  You’ll often see them dart from plant to plant close to the ground, their bright orange upper wings visible until they land and clap their wings together over their backs, exposing the pale yellow lower surface as they sip nectar.

Overall, we documented over 150 butterflies of 21 species at Prairie Ridge throughout the day. The data we gathered will be combined with that from other sites around Raleigh, then the entire dataset will be submitted to the North American Butterfly Association’s annual Butterfly Count Program.  These counts help NABA publish data on the current distributions of butterfly species across North America.  The data can also be compared to counts from previous years to monitor population changes and how weather and land use impact butterfly species.

Thanks to everyone who helped count butterflies at Prairie Ridge this year! We’re already looking forward to participating again in 2017 to play our part in butterfly research, conservation, and appreciation.

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