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A ‘bittersweet’ butterfly count in 2021

John Weber, a local butterfly enthusiast, shares his observations and beautiful photography.

081421.N.PRE.NorthernCrescent9166.jpg
The northern crescent is the only species present on all 167 butterfly counts. A female is shown here.

In July 1993, my wife, Marlene, and I began conducting Fourth of July butterfly counts in north-central Minnesota.

We have now completed our 29th season. At the same time, we’ve reached our 167th Fourth of July count.

Last year, COVID-19 challenges were at the forefront. The 2021 season could be best described as “grueling.”

Adverse climate

We did have some carryover from the pandemic. Generally, we had teams of only related members. We hope to expand the size of teams in 2022. We shall see.

In the meantime, I again express deep appreciation for the small, but dedicated band of counters who’ve stuck with us for a growing number of years.

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But grueling was the watchword for what faced counters in 2021. I could devote this entire article to spelling out all the adverse climate and weather factors that we faced, but I won’t. For readers who spent any time here this summer, you’ll know what I’m talking about even when I skip the details.

Even as tough as it was for the counters, butterflies and nectar sources alike were tremendously under duress. They still are as I write these lines in early August.

We’ve held six counts per season since 1995. Given the adversity butterflies faced in 2021, I’m surprised that 17 species were present on all six counts. The 17, too numerous to mention here, represented one-fourth of the 67 species tallied in 2021, but accounted for almost 60 percent (57.6 percent) of this year’s 8,973 individual butterflies. The 17 exhibited a wide range per species: as many as 841 and as few as 31.

Top 15 species

The past two years, my articles focused on the top five species, since they were so dominant. However, I’m returning to the top 15, which I feel are more representative of what was happening in 2021.

These 15 species did account for three-fourths of this year’s butterfly population.

The 1,095 Compton tortoiseshells seen this year propelled that species to a new No. 1 ranking. European skippers had held the top spot each of the two previous years. Rounding out this season’s top five were common wood nymph, northern crescent and monarch.

Needles in haystack

We talled 11 species with fewer than three individuals each. Though they constituted only 16.4 percent of the total 67 species, they certainly kept us on our counting toes. However, they contributed less than 0.2 percent to the overall tally.

Recapping 2021

Here’s a brief review of our six summer counts.

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Nevis kicked off the season on June 27. Again, European skippers proved to be the most common species. However, this year, they numbered only 336, not the mind-numbing 3,430 on the 2020 Nevis count. A very respectable 45 species were tallied. Could 2021 turn out to be a species-rich year, we wondered?

The Bluestem count in Clay County on June 30 immediately squashed any such expectations since only 29 species were found. The number of individuals did experience a modest gain of 125 over 2020.

The Deep Portage count on July 5 was a real sizzler: temperature-, not butterfly-wise. For example, while driving away from the sun on Wood Tick Trail, the Ford maxed out with outside temps reaching 99 degrees! The 184 individual Euro skips were less than 20 percent of the 986 total butterflies. Two years earlier on that count, the Euros had been a mind-boggling 5,743.

The Itasca State Park count on July 10 was bittersweet. Bitter was Line 3 construction, while sweet was Compton tortoiseshell. In our sector, our best butterfly spots had been converted to pipeline hauling roads. However, Compton tortoiseshells were present in Olympic record-breaking numbers: 1,058! That should be a record-high count for North America. It would shatter the previous record of 851, set where else but Itasca State Park in 2015.

Aided by Comptons, the 3,289 individuals found in 49 species made Itasca our best count this summer.

Central Polk County, held on July 15, enabled counters to see that drought conditions there could even be worse than Hubbard County. Against all odds, we were pleased to tally 895 butterflies and 30 species.

Bemidji closed the summer season on July 18. All the summer’s challenging factors culminated in our having fewest individuals (830) on a 2021 count. The 40 species was very respectable.

Northern crescent update

Through 2021, the northern crescent continued to be the only species found on all 167 summer counts. Even though 202 fewer showed up this summer, the total of 741 bumped them to No. 3.

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For the second year in a row, northern crescents had their best showing at Nevis with 296. It was downhill from there, with only 40 tallied on the final count in Bemidji.

Because the caterpillars feed on late-season asters, I’m very concerned that our continued heat and severe drought will snap the consecutive string in 2022. Time will tell.

Euro skip factor

Back in 2016, Euro skips represented only 2.4 percent of total individuals.In 2019, and again in 2020, the percentage ballooned to 40.7 and 33.5 percent, respectively.

After dominating both years at No. 1, there were 3,171 fewer Euros recorded in 2021 versus 2020. The 617 dropped their rank to No. 5. There was a noticeable shrinkage of their share to 6.9 percent among total individuals.

Euros have an intense, but brief flight season. Has their marked dominance on our counts now ended? Again, we shall see.

Purpose of counts

Each count has an established, 15-mile diameter circle. During a single day, all living butterflies in that circle are tallied. Data are reported to the North American Butterfly Association.

2021 marks the 47th year that the Fourth of July counts have been held. Our counts are among the 300-some held each year in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The citizen-gathered data help researchers study butterfly population trends in North America over multiple decades.

Monarchs and more

We tallied 705 adult monarchs on the counts this summer. Given the many detrimental factors affecting butterflies, I was surprised that only 60 fewer adult monarchs showed up on our six counts.

As of this writing, my picture of the 2021 monarch season, as a whole, is as murky as our skies have been from the wildfire smoke lingering close to the ground.

Several unsettling situations were revealed on our fall Nevis count, held Aug. 1. It was disturbing that, generally, the nectar sources were pretty well dried up. More unsettling was the scarcity of blazing star in bloom. It is a very important nectar source for monarchs journeying to their overwintering grounds in Mexico.

So, I’m ending this overview by imploring you to savor every monarch or other butterfly encounter you may still have in 2021. We’ll see if 2022 brings a better season. Here’s hoping!

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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