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2014 butterfly count reaches more than 150,000

A Painted Lady is nectaring on red clover. This was one of only two seen during the 2014 counts. (John Weber / Enterprise)

By John Weber / For the Enterprise

Last month, wife Marlene and I completed our 125th summer butterfly count in north central Minnesota. Those counts, spanning 22 seasons starting in 1993 have achieved another milestone: our 150,000th living butterfly (actually 150,122nd)!

This year also marks the 20th year in which we’ve conducted six “4th of July” counts per summer and the 20th consecutive year the Park Rapids Enterprise has run a recap of our season with some of my pictures.

Over those years we’ve been aided by a small, but dedicated band of counters.

Where does 2014 stand?

For many years, I considered the 15,577 butterflies tallied in 2001 to be the “gold standard” season. Happily, this year marks the third year in a row that a new second-place or “silver” finish has been produced.

The 12,428 individual butterflies tallied in 2014 were 3.8 percent greater than the 11,977 for 2013, which in turn was 12.7 percent above the 10,630 for 2012.

Given how well last year’s season turned out combined with our long, cold winter, I had no inkling how 2014 would unfold.

The count season started in the Nevis area with 32 species and 2,392 individuals. That fast pace out of the starting gate stumbled badly at our next count at Bluestem Prairie. We tallied only 26 species and 263 individuals (our 9th poorest count).

I probably should have said “blown away” rather than “stumbled” for Bluestem. Winds gusted to 30 mph! (Have you ever seen white caps on flooded ag fields? We certainly did all too often that day.)

Things rebounded at Deep Portage area with 33 species and 1,520 individuals. Then a major step backward in the Fertile area in Polk County with only 28 species and 673 individuals. There, the culprit was heavy spring precipitation that had just sat on flat prairie soils retarding plant and butterfly growth alike.

Then came the Itasca State Park count: an “embarrassment of riches” so to speak (i.e. butterflies were everywhere)! We had 54 different species; tying the most we’ve had on the 22 counts there. Plus a whopping 5,134 individuals were recorded! If we’d known at the time we needed only 38 more butterflies to exceed the previous high count set at Bemidji last year, we would have kept counting for 10 more minutes. That’s probably all the time we would have needed!

The season ended in the Bemidji area with a more modest 44 species and 2,437 individuals. That was still the second-best count of the season for both species and individuals.

Overall, three of our six summer counts this year placed in the top 14 of our 125 total.

Purpose of counts

Our six “4th of July” butterfly counts are part of a much larger effort that spans the North American continent.

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

Each count has a 15-mile diameter circle that is visited each year. All living butterflies found on a single day in that circle are reported to NABA. 2014 marks the 40th year that these counts have been held. They provide valuable citizen-gathered data on butterfly population trends.

Northern Crescent update

Several people remarked having seen a number of the small orange and black Northern Crescents. That’s understandable since there were plenty of them to see. Even though we had 853 fewer Northern Crescents this year compared to 2013 counts, the 5,799 we tallied made them this year’s most-common species.

Overall, Northern Crescents are the only species present on all of our 125 summer counts. Their 22-year total of 37,232 accounts for one of every four butterflies tallied.

Other 2014 tidbits

Silvery Checkerspots grabbed the #2 most common spot for this year. Their total of 1,189 was up an amazing 1,065 over the mere 124 spotted on counts last year.

Holding down the #3 spot was European Skipper with 723. A very close #4 was Dun Skipper with 722 individuals.

Overall, this year’s top four species accounted for two-thirds of all individuals. The remaining 63 of total 67 produced the other third.

Ten species did appear on all six counts: Orange Sulphur, Northern Crescent, Mourning Cloak, Red Admiral, White Admiral, Northern Pearly-Eye, Monarch, Least Skipper and Long Dash. All but the ever-present Northern Crescent had close calls at being a “no show” in 2014

In fact, 10 species present in 2013 were “no shows” on this summer’s counts. However, eight species absent last year were tallied in 2014: Checkered White, Bog Copper, Purplish Copper, Question Mark, Green Comma, Painted Lady, Red Admiral and Dreamy Duskywing all in very small numbers.

No new species were found this year. Cumulative total remains at 99. However, those 99 represent an impressive, almost 70 percent of all species found in the whole State over an entire butterfly season rather than a few weeks in mid-summer that the six daily counts are held in north central Minnesota!

Monarchs and more

On our counts in 2012, we had 889 adult Monarchs. Last year only 58 showed up.

Earlier this year, the overwintering Monarch population in Mexico was announced at 35 million. (It had been as high as one billion in 1996!)

We did have an uptick to 250 adult Monarchs on this year’s counts. However, on weekly, non-count Monarch monitoring this summer, Monarch activity of eggs, caterpillars and adults was still greatly-diminished from the 15-year averages we’ve recorded. (Milkweed is vital for the Monarchs. The caterpillars must feed on milkweed. All through the migratory route taken by Monarchs, recent ag practices have almost eliminated milkweed. Readers are encouraged to protect patches of milkweed as much as possible. By doing so, this can be a step to reverse the severe decline of the Minnesota State Insect: the Monarch.)

As I write these lines in mid-August, this year’s migratory Monarchs should be underway to Mexico. So far I’ve had scarce sightings. Are there still noticeable numbers of Monarchs yet to pass through here in late summer? Only time will tell.

That goes for other butterfly species as well. After the “fall” Nevis count we did on August 2, the door seems to be “rapidly closing” on this year’s butterfly season. Maybe the recent, needed-rain will perk things up a bit longer.

Meanwhile, enjoy every one of these winged wonders that fly your way