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More butterflies seen in area

A Dion Skipper nectars Swamp Milkweed, one of 52 on this year's counts. (John Weber / For the Enterprise)1 / 4
A Great Spangled Fritillary nectars Fragrant Giant Hyssop, one of 12 species found on the six counts this year. (John Weber / For the Enterprise)2 / 4
A fairly "fresh" adult Question Mark rests on a fern, one of 27 found on the 2012 counts. (John Weber / For the Enterprise)3 / 4
A male Bronze Copper nectars Blue Flag Iris. (John Weber / For the Enterprise)4 / 4

Last month, Marlene and I completed our 20th season of "4th of July" butterfly counts in north central Minnesota.

With the help of a small, but dedicated band of counters through these years we have now attained our 113th count since July 1993. (By the way, we have now tallied 125,717 individual butterflies for those 20 seasons combined.)

On March 14 this year, I saw my first over-wintering butterfly - a Mourning Cloak. (This is one of six species that can and do over-winter as adults around here.) Soon, many other butterflies were fluttering around.

As a result of all the early season butterfly activity I witnessed, I "expected" a very good count season in 2012. I was not disappointed! The 10,630 butterflies logged on the six counts this year were up 68.4 percent over the 6,313 in 2011. I was surprised that the number of species we saw dropped from 69 to 65.

For 18 of the 20 years, we have done six summer counts each year. In 2012, we had 1,502 butterflies on the Nevis count; 2,018 on Bluestem Prairie (Clay County); 1,056 on Central Polk County and 1,471 on Bemidji.

Two of our counts celebrated their 20th year: Deep Portage (only two of 20 counts had more than this year's 2,004 butterflies) and Itasca State Park (only one year topped the 2,579 butterflies we had this July).

Purpose of counts

Our six "4th of July" butterfly counts are part of a much larger effort spanning the continent.

The North American Butterfly Association (NABA) compiles data collected each year from over 400 counts held in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

All living butterflies found during a single day in an established 15-mile diameter circle are tallied and reported to NABA. 2012 marks the 38th year that these counts have been held. They are providing important citizen-gathered data for scientific analysis.

Where does 2012 stand?

For a number of years, I have considered our 2001 count season to be ranked first. The 15,577 individual butterflies we tallied that year became our "gold standard".

After a number of "poor" count years in recent seasons, I am happy to report that 2012 "brought home the silver" - a second place finish with 10,630 butterflies.

Three of our counts this year were among the 22 "best" counts we've had in terms of total butterflies reported.

Immigrant offspring

On April 12, I saw the first butterfly immigrants pouring in from the south - Red Admirals. In the May 5 Enterprise, I speculated that their offspring could produce "dozens - possibly hundreds" on the July counts. And that is what happened: 256 Red Admirals were tallied; quite an upswing from the lone Red Admiral on the 2011 counts.

Offspring of other immigrant species were also present last month: Variegated Fritillary (4), American Lady (83), Painted Lady (60), Common Buckeye (32) and Common Checkered-Skipper (10).

Altogether the immigrants totaled 445 in 2012, but only five in 2011!

An early spring warm up and record heat throughout much of the country spurred the migration north. Very agreeable conditions around here produced the favorable numbers of butterfly offspring that we tallied on the counts.

Northern Crescent update

The small orange and black Northern Crescents remain the only species found on all of our 113 summer counts. They enjoyed a notable upsurge in 2012, going from only 364 in 2011 to 1,024. However, 470 - or almost half of this year's Northern Crescents - were present on the first count in Nevis on June 24. By the time of our final count on July 21 in Bemidji, only 32 were tallied.

This year, Northern Crescents accounted for almost 10 percent of the total 10,630 individuals. The 20-year average has been 19.7 percent.

Will Northern Crescents ever achieve a 20 percent share again? Only time will tell.

Other 2012 tidbits

Orange Sulphurs were the most-common butterfly found, 1,564 strong. They were also one of 12 species found on all six counts. The other 11 were Clouded Sulphur, Great Spangled Fritillary, Northern Crescent, Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Northern Pearly-Eye, Eyed Brown, Monarch, Least Skipper, Peck's Skipper and Delaware Skipper.

On the other hand, 13 species or 20 percent of the total 65 had four or fewer individuals when totaling the six-count season. The seldom-seen species really keep us on our toes as we count!

Monarchs and more

On May 10 this year, I witnessed the earliest arrival of Monarchs from the south in the 20 springs we've been here. That was a full three weeks earlier than in 2011. (Remember, we had a "real winter" 2010-11!)

We have been just on the edge of severe drought and the record-heat plaguing much of the nation's heartland for weeks now. So far, Monarchs have been thriving here. Witness the 889 Monarchs present on this year's counts, up noticeably from the 410 in 2011.

Last year, Monarchs had a very long migratory generation flying through here on their journey south. Will that be the case in 2012, as well? Again, only time will tell.

As I write these lines, there is a bit of a butterfly hiatus with far fewer on the wing than has been the case for the past four-and-a-half months. Already in 2012 I have recorded so many butterflies that I have to keep telling myself: "John, it's only the end of July, not September!"

Depending on the dual impacts of weather and climate, the 2012 butterfly bonanza could continue for many more weeks.

I certainly hope so!