Park holds third annual butterfly count

By Julie Fann
star staff

  Dismiss the notion that counting butterflies is entertainment for the terminally blasé, those who lack a more exciting social life. Butterfly counters are vastly under-rated, intelligent people who perform a valuable task.
  Don Holt is a biologist who led this year's third annual butterfly count at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area on Sunday. Eight others accompanied him on the hunt for as many different butterfly species as they could find in one day in Carter County from sunrise to sunset.
  "Like counting birds, counting butterfly species helps gauge the health of the outdoor environment. These counts are led across the United States, and biologists use the results to monitor changes," said Jennifer Bauer, Sycamore Shoals park director.
  During the morning, Holt and the others had counted 23 different species of butterflies in the park area alone, indication of a healthy environment. They spent the afternoon searching at the Carter Mansion, on Holston Mountain, and around Watauga Lake.
  "The guidelines are strict for one day only, from sun up to sun down. Sometimes counters will find another species after the count is officially over and they want to add it in, which you can't do," Bauer said.
  Butterfly counters must be curious voyeurs of the interminably beautiful and come equipped with binoculars and a field guide. Other than that, no other professional credentials are required. "Most find that as they count, they learn a lot about the different species and their habits," said Bauer.
  The most important requirement of binoculars for butterflying is that they allow the user to focus on objects that are in close range. With most binoculars, if an object is closer than 12 feet away, the binoculars cannot focus properly on the object and it will appear fuzzy. Binoculars that focus sharply on objects that are under six feet away are the best type for counting butterflies.
  Some of the species that inhabit the Carter County area include the Spring Azure, the Spice Bush Swallowtail, the Pipe Vine Swallowtail, and the Monarch, the most popular butterfly known for its nearly one-year life cycle and migration to Mexico.
  A common behavior of butterflies during this time of year in late summer, according to Bauer, is called "puddling". "Butterflies will gather in groups in dry or wet areas, and you will see them opening and closing their wings and shaking," Bauer said. Butterflies love flowers, particularly milkweed.
  All butterflies have hard-wired into them features that protect them from predators. For instance, the Pipe Vine Swallowtail typically lays its eggs on a plant called the Dutchman, which is poisonous to birds and other creatures that might want to dine on caterpillars.
  According to information from the North American Butterfly Association Web site, there are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world. About 725 species have occurred in North America north of Mexico, and about 575 of them occur regularly in the lower 48 states of the United States. About 275 species occur regularly in Canada. Roughly 2,000 species are found in Mexico.
  In most parts of the United States, about 100 species of butterflies exist. The number is higher in the Rio Grande Valley and some parts of the West, somewhat less in New England. In Canada the number decreases, and in Mexico the number greatly increases.
  An adult butterfly probably has an average life-span of approximately one month. In the wild, most butterflies lives are shorter than this because of the dangers provided by predators, disease, and large objects, such as automobiles. The smallest butterflies may live only a week or so, while a few butterflies, such as Monarchs, Mourning Cloaks and tropical heliconians, can live up to nine months.