Counting Butterflies in the Pearl River Basin
39th Pearl River Butterfly Count
by Linda Auld
Butterfly counting, similar to the Audubon Bird count, is an important survey done nationwide, in Canada and Mexico to document the species that occur in certain areas at certain times of year. In 2012 there were 463 counts done and those reports are available through the North American Butterfly Association. Phil Fischer, Jr. is the pioneer who began the Lower East Pearl River/Honey Island count in 1975. It is one of only four counts that has been done since the beginning of the program. To keep the data variables low and consistent, we walk the same trails and travel the same roads each field trip. Our group counts five times each year and we can see a different number of butterfly species and individuals with each visit. As we walk the trails, participants call out when they have spotted a butterfly, we identify it, then it is tallied. At day's end, we have recorded our survey of what we have seen and discovered. In spring- depending on rainfall- many trails are flooded and are not accessible. But, by our last count date, all trails are open and ready for exploring. That is part of the real excitement of anticipation and not knowing what treasure we will find.
Honey Island Swamp - September 28, 2013 - N.A.B.A "Labor Day" Butterfly Count
Blue skies and flowering meadows greeted Dorothea, Dale and me when we entered the Pearl River “Honey Island Swamp” Wildlife Management Area that beautiful Saturday morning. Mark was already waiting for us at the front gate check-in station where regulations request you sign-in and out each time you visit. This documentation helps the rangers to keep up with who is on the property and their contact numbers plus to specify their activities. You must also have a fishing license or Wild Louisiana card before entering a wildlife management area.
Looking at the map one can see that once you have exited Hwy. 59, you will find Old Hwy. 11--the main road--with two roads that parallel each other while also intersecting the main highway. They are named Oil Well Road and Indian Bayou Road on the right then Indian PoBoy Road to the left, which leads to the shooting range. Interesting hiking and ATV trails are positioned on either sides of these gravel roads, which usually have water standing on either sides along with an assortment of both butterfly nectar and host native plants. Each season has a different array of blooming plants but today we are seeing the butterflies getting nectar from the Bidens (Spanish Needles), Ageratum, Verbena, and Eupitorium.
Verbena ridgida sprawls alongside the paved highway at the front gate area. The pretty purple flowers are a magnet for hungry skippers. This morning we saw several Dun and Fiery Skippers flitting about. A Clouded Skipper was checking out the pink morning glory, dipping its tongue deeply into the blossoms when a Gulf Fritillary came barreling through. The Sida was growing like a carpet near the gate and the Checkered Skippers were skipping around, flirting, mating, and laying eggs on the Sida leaves.
At the boat launch area we discovered a Carolina Satyr lek. It was exciting to see a cloud of two to three dozen Carolina Satyr butterflies swirling about in some sort of mating ritual dance flight. Usually we spot one or two at a time but today the Satyrs were having a party! The Carolina Satyr butterfly's normal flight pattern is more of a "close to the ground bobbing up and down" motion. This was something totally different and we were pleased to find several spots in different areas of the swamp with similar activity. We counted a total of 323 Carolina Satyr individuals for the day!
Chickadees and Carolina Wrens were singing to us as we hiked through the knee high purple asters and ageratum. A pair of Pearl Crescent butterflies were flirting until a Silvery Checkerspot zipped in and interrupted their play. A Southern Pearly Eye was sitting in the shade of the oak trees near the stand of bamboo. When we were just about to reach the end of this trail, I giggled with delight to see one we do not see often--a Lacewing Roadside Skipper! It sat, perfectly posed, for my camera to snap a shot.
At the Nature Trail meadow we spotted an American Painted Lady butterfly tasting the plants with her feet, looking for the Cudweed to lay her eggs. Two beautiful female Red Admiral butterflies were checking out the Boehmaria leaves and were laying some eggs. As we walked down the trail, Cloudless Sulphurs would zoom by as if they were in a big hurry to get somewhere. Occasionally, a Sulphur would stop briefly to sip nectar from the scarlet red Lobelia (or Cardinal Flower) blossoms. The Buckeye butterflies were basking in the sunlight, showing off their beautiful, colorful eye spots on their spread open wings.
We were so happy that the Oil Well road was open! (It is closed March thru September 15th to protect turkey nesting.) Various flowers were blooming along the ditches and the skippers were having a field day! My goodness! Yehl, Fiery, Broken Dash, Whirlabout, Tawny Edge and Little Glassywing Skippers were making us wish we had reviewed the skipper books before this morning! Our group loves a challenge and we definitely had one trying to identify these swirling, busy, little creatures. Great fun! We were snapping photos and feverishly attempting to count each and every one. They do not hold still. Sometimes, counting butterflies can truly be tricky.
At the end of that road, we were pleasantly surprised to see three Queen Butterflies--very uncommon in our area. They did not stop, but were flying like they were headed straight to Mexico. Just like Monarchs, Queen butterfly caterpillars eat the Milkweed plant which grows in certain spots in Honey Island. We could hear the Pileated woodpecker calling as we finally spotted our first swallowtail of the day--a Tiger Swallowtail--majestically soaring through the treetops.
It looked as if the 15 or so Pearl Crescent butterflies—as they eagerly slurped up the nectar and pollen—were playing leap frog as they visited all the flower blossoms in a large patch of yellow Mellipodium. A freshly-hatched Gray Hairstreak was grinding its tails as it sat atop a Brazilian Verbena flower. The iridescent green Long-Tailed Skippers were happily skipping from one flower to the next when Mark spotted a Dog Face Sulphur. This is only the second time in 38 years this butterfly has been seen here!
It is almost certain that we will see Sulphur butterflies at the railroad track area since Cassia obtusafolia, a Sulphur butterfly host plant, grows in large patches. Sure enough, we counted three species of Sulphurs--Sleepy Orange, Little Yellow and Cloudless. Also, a Red-Banded Hairstreak was perched on a Goatweed flower as it was busily grinding its tails. As it flew, it flashed its blue upper wing color as a special ,"Hello!" that made me smile. The Southern Skipperling butterflies, one of the smallest here in Louisiana, live in the grassy meadow next to the railroad track. They are yellow with a thin white stripe across the underside of the bottom wing, and is as tiny as your pinky fingernail. There were two nectaring on the Bidens.
At the end of the day, we heard the Barred Owl call to us, "Who cooks? Who cooks for you?" We had hiked all the familiar trails and had counted 37 species with 749 individuals. I’m remembering all the fun we had this year at the swamp and am looking forward to another year ahead of new discovery...it's out there, we just have to take the time to find it.
Butterfly Species - Count
Black Swallowtail - 8
Giant Swallowtail - 5
Spicebush Swallowtail - 1
Palamedes Swallowtail - 1
Orange Sulphur - 1
Cloudless Sulphur - 5
Sleepy Orange - 1
Snout - 3
Gulf Fritillary - 2
Pearl Crescent - 36
Question Mark - 4
American Painted Lady - 2
Red Admiral - 1
Buckeye - 1
Red-spotted Purple - 7
Viceroy - 1
Carolina Satyr - 8
Silver-Spotted Skipper - 3
Horace's Duskywing - 2
Common Checkered Skipper - 60
Tropical Checkered Skipper - 2
Swarthy Skipper - 1
Southern Skipperling - 5
Fiery Skipper - 1
Whirlabout - 14
Yehl Skipper - 1
Photos, courtesy of Linda Auld, are of the Viceroy Butterfly, Southern Pearly Eye, and Buckeye Butterfly.