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SEASON OF MILESTONES: 2019 butterfly count sets records

080319.N.PRE.HarrisCheckerspot.jpg
Many butterflies have drab ventral underwings; not so the vibrant Harris' Checkerspot, one of just three seen this year.

In July 1993, my wife, Marlene, and I started conducting “Fourth of July” butterfly counts in north-central Minnesota. We started small with two that first year.

We are grateful for the small band of counters who tromp around with us each year.

I considered last year to be “a season of surprises.” I term this year as “a season of milestones achieved.”

Milestones achieved

  • 155 summer counts held with the Northern Crescent the only species present on every count.

  • 25th consecutive year with six counts per summer.

  • Cumulatively surpassed 200,000 individual butterflies, with 200,951 tallied.

  • Most individual butterflies in a single six-count season: 15,669.

  • Recorded the count with the greatest number of individuals: 6,373. (That’s a bit dubious. I’ll explain later.)

  • Season’s total of 73 species exceeded only by the 76 in 2003.

  • Silver anniversaries (i.e. 25 years) each for Nevis and Bemidji counts.

  • Also 25th consecutive year the Enterprise has published a summary of our count activity.

Purpose of counts

A 15-mile diameter circle is established for each count. On a single day, all living butterflies found in that circle are reported to the North American Butterfly Association (NABA).

Our counts are among 400 held each year in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The citizen-gathered data provide valuable information on butterfly population trends in North America.

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2019 marks the 45th year the “Fourth of July” counts have been held.

Present on all six counts

As a result of what turned out to be a scheduling blunder, only these four species were present on all six counts: Northern Crescent, American Lady, Monarch and Long Dash Skipper.

Top five species

Usually I would comment on the Top 15, but this year I’m focusing on the Top 5 since they were so dominant. The five are European Skipper, Northern Crescent, Common Wood-Nymph, Clouded Sulphur and Monarch. Those five represented 11,138 individuals, or 71.1 percent of the total 15,669 tallied.

That means the remaining 68 species were relegated to only a 28.9 percent share.

Needles in haystack

Included in the remaining species are 14, too numerous to list, represented by three or fewer individuals. Those 14 species accounted for 16.4 percent of the 73 total; less than 0.2 percent of the 15,669 individuals.

These needles in the (butterfly) haystack certainly keep us on our toes!

Recapping 2019

Here’s a brief overview of our six counts.

Nevis had its 25th anniversary, as part of an overall 155 counts we’ve conducted. Nevis got us off to an excellent start with 1,785 individuals, an increase of 315 over 2018.

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Central Polk County on June 26 was a major blunder. Only 120 butterflies were tallied during a very long count day. Only two of our new 155 total counts have had fewer. It seems we were way too early there.

The Deep Portage count was held on its customary date of July 6. The 6,373 individuals recorded were up an incredible 3,596 from 2018! However, one species – European Skipper – dominated. How dominant? The Euro Skip, as we call them, accounted for 90.1 percent (i.e. 5,743 of the 6,373).

The Bluestem count in Clay County was originally planned for June 30. However, the blunder in Polk County caused us to rethink things. Our rescheduled date of July 11 was doubly wise: The butterfly season was finally progressing nicely, and we were joined by a second team unavailable on June 30.

As a result, we saw 33 species (up from 24 last year). Individuals climbed to a very respectable 1,587 from the 689 we had when only one team available in 2018.

Itasca State Park did not add any new species in 2019. However, the 54 species tallied this year tied the most we’ve ever had on a north-central Minnesota count. Turns out the other two times we had 54 species were aso at Itasca: 54 in 2009, again five years later in 2014, and still again five years later in 2019. (What does Itasca hold in store for 2024?) The total 2,406 individuals in 2019 were a very modest gain of 55 over the 2,351 last year.

Bemidji marked our 25th count there, the 155th overall. I felt our summer count season ended on a gangbusters note there. We recorded 44 species (up from 30 last year). The 3,398 individual butterflies jumped an impressive 2,293 from the fairly meager 1,150 last year. The July 21 weather was virtually ideal, whereas last year's count was held on a miserably overcast and cool July 21.

North Crescent update

As mentioned earlier, the Northern Crescent is the only species present on all 155 counts. The consecutive string was almost snapped at Polk County: only two showed up. Northern Crescent numbers rebounded from 474 in 2018 to 1,721 this year, the second-most common butterfly after European Skippers.

Euro Skip lament

After counter Susan Hengeveld had been on a team that had 95 percent European Skippers on the Deep Portage count, she lamented, “There were so many Europeans around you were afraid you were missing other skippers. So out of 120 you could be missing Tawny-edged or Peck’s Skippers. So you had to kick the Euro Skps out of the way.”

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(I’m sure she meant figuratively!)

As I mentioned two years ago, what we call Euro Skipos arrived as eggs in a shipment of Timothy Grass hay that landed in London, Ontario in 1910. They have been expanding their range ever since.

After being most common species in 2017, they dropped to No. 3 ranking last year, but regained the top spot in 2019. (In their home continent of Europe, they are called “Essex Skippers.”)

Monarchs and more

Our counts this year recorded 758 adult Monarchs, down 172 from 2018’s 930. As I type these words in late July, I feel the slow arrival of “summer” had a definite impact on Monarchs as well as on some other butterfly species.

In the 10 days since the end of the ”summer” count season, I’ve witnessed a Monarch frenzy of activity: mating adults, eggs and caterpillars. That is very encouraging.

No telling how much monger the butterfly season will continue this year.

In the meantime, I encourage you to appreciate every one of these winged wonders that flitters into your life.

John Weber is a local butterfly and dragonfly enthusiast. Since 1997, Weber has been meticulously recording every dragonfly sighting. He’s counted butterflies since 1993.

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