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Meeman-Shelby Butterfly Count

Entomology 101I didn’t really make any New Year’s resolutions this year, but over this longer-than-usual winter I did decide that I wanted to try experiencing nature communally more often in 2013.  Because all nature nerds have different true loves, I learn so much from people who are fascinated by bees, wildflowers, or even types of soil.  I love going exploring, coming home, and thumbing through my field guides until I have a pretty good idea of what I’ve photographed, but I also really enjoy walking through a meadow with someone else who leans over, looks at a dragonfly, and attempts to hold a conversation with it.  (Usually it goes like this: “Stay still.  You’re not afraid of me!  You don’t need to fly away right now, do you?  You’ve got nowhere to be!”)

In that spirit of togetherness, I joined a couple of listservs for fellow Tennesseeans who spend their free time monitoring the lives and loves of butterflies and dragonflies around our fair state.  This week I got an email about a North American Butterfly Association count happening at Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park, and I decided I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday.

This was my first official count of any kind, so I learned that they happen regularly (three times a year at designated sites) and that counters split into small groups and cover swaths of ground once and only once, singing out to the group member with a clipboard every time they see a new butterfly.  Meeman-Shelby has a variety of habitats, from meadows to ponds to grassy areas (the less recently mowed, the better) where butterflies flit about, singly or in large groups.

All told, we spent about six hours in the park and had great fun (stopping for lunch at the Shelby Forest General Store, which probably has the widest selection of beverages I’ve ever seen in one place–had me a glass-bottle Coke, yes I did).  Our final count showed 625 individual butterflies from 27 species, several of which were new to me.  Let’s check out a few of them, shall we?

In the morning we surveyed in the areas adjacent to the Visitor’s Center and Piersol Lake.  It quickly became obvious that we were going to see an abundance of Juvenal’s duskywings.   We kept checking under the wings for a couple of spots, which distinguish this butterfly from the similar Horace’s duskywing.  We saw a lot of spots: we counted 91 Juvenal’s and only one Horace’s.  Juvenal

We saw a few beautiful swallowtails, including some zebra swallowtails, which I’d only ever previously seen flitting elusively past.  I consider the shot on the left below a lucky one, because I don’t often get to see the undersides of butterflies, and this one’s wing pattern is even more interesting beneath.  I also love its red antennae.  At bottom is a dark-form female Eastern tiger swallowtail, slurping up some nutrients from the mud.  Dark-form females mimic another butterfly, the pipevine swallowtail, that tastes unpleasant to predators.  Smart ladies.Zebra swallowtail, Eastern tiger swallowtail

We found this pepper-and-salt skipper along a wooded trail.  There was a lot of fleabane here, so it was a popular spot.  Fleabane is one of those plants that doesn’t look like much from afar, but is quite beautiful close-up.  I think you could say the same for this butterfly.  It really shines the closer you get to it.Pepper-and-salt skipper

A few random butterflies we saw in the woods and the lawn close by: a Zabulon skipper on some woodland phlox, a clouded sulphur enjoying a dandelion, and a gemmed satyr blending in almost completely with a leaf.  Our group leader, Bart, had been disappointed that we hadn’t seen any satyrs along the trail, so we had turned to leave.  Then another of our group members, Jim, somehow saw this tiny camouflaged creature near the fleabane.  That is some amazing vision, because I could barely find it in my photos!

Zabulon skipper, clouded sulphur, gemmed satyr

After our stop at the General Store, we headed down to Eagle Lake Wildlife Management Area, which was an absolutely beautiful place I never knew existed.  The numbers we counted were, unfortunately, way down from last year’s count, but spring was so early last year and so late this one that I imagine everything’s a little off.  Still, after a slow start we ran across a good variety of butterflies.  Some, like the monarch and sleepy orange, were too elusive to photograph, but others were too absorbed in their nectaring to notice us.  I was so impressed by what my fellow counters could see through their binoculars–I pretty much operate at a 100mm focal length in my nature outings, but they can spot markings from all the way across a pond.

Eagle Lake Wildlife Management Area

One of my favorite finds of the day was the Phaon crescent below left.  We saw almost 200 pearl crescents (below right), many of them lingering over the path so we had to wade through them, but only a few Phaons.  This was a new-to-me butterfly that I recognized immediately as being different from what I was used to seeing.  Another new-to-me butterfly was the common sootywing (middle left), which is dark like duskywings but smaller and harder to corner.  At middle right is a pretty silver-spotted skipper, and at the bottom an Eastern tailed-blue or two.  Phaon crescent, pearl crescent, common sootywing, silver-spotted skipper, eastern tailed-blue

When the butterflies were scarce, we still saw some other interesting things around Eagle Lake, including a beaver and a turtle.  I also saw this extremely cool moth, a chickweed geometer (look at the brushes on its antennae!).  On the right is some kind of stink bug, which I only find notable because I don’t understand what it’s doing with its leg stuck to the leaf above.  Yoga?  Do stink bugs do yoga?  The two cuties at the bottom are female and male fragile forktails, respectively.  The blue forktails always confuse me a little bit, but right after I took these pictures they started mating, so that solved that.

(Speaking of mating, at one point the crane flies were getting so frisky that I yelled out, “Stop mating on my pants!!!”  Another pair promptly began mating on my face.  That’ll teach me to be careful what I wish for.)
Chickweed geometer, stink bug, fragile forktails

I call this Resplendent with Ranunculus.  Unfortunately butterflies don’t really like buttercups (you’d think with their names being so similar…), so while this was a glorious area to walk through, it didn’t yield too much for our count.Eagle Lake Wildlife Management Area

And since you’re reading ::crickets::, which is a dragonfly blog masquerading as a cricket blog, here are a few of the odonates that distracted me throughout the day.  These little fellas were patrolling the entire day wherever we found ourselves.  I caught a few of them perching, so I can tell you they’re baskettails, but I’m not sure whether they’re slender or common.  A couple of them have that dipped-in “wasp-ish” waist that distinguishes slender baskettails, but the other one does not.  Clearly more field research is needed.  Darn.  :)Baskettail dragonflies

Finally we come to a few of the “good hiders” I found in last week’s visit to Lucius Burch.  This time the lancet clubtails weren’t particularly interested in hiding; the photo at top right is barely cropped.  I caught the pair at the bottom in the act, and I would like to thank them for graciously not mating on my face, pants, or any other item attached to my person.  Keep it classy, dragonflies. Lancet clubtails

I had a most excellent time counting with my fellow butterfly fans (and lagging behind when I found a pretty dragonfly).  Much more communal science in the future!

Bart Jones - April 22, 2013 - 10:17 pm

We really enjoyed your company on the count as well and are glad you joined us. I hope you will catch count fever just as I did and we’ll see you on more counts in the future. And your photos are really nice. I absolutely love the photos of the fleabane at Eagle Lake and the “Resplendent in Ranunculus” shot. Primo!

Bart Jones

Melissa - April 23, 2013 - 9:46 am

Thanks Bart! “Count fever” has officially been caught.

Allan Trently - May 14, 2013 - 1:28 pm

Excellent coverage of the butterfly count. Great photos!

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