Welcome to the Rivanna Master Naturalist Chapter!

Welcome to the Rivanna Master Naturalist blog!  We are a local chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalist program, a statewide volunteer program that trains and organizes Virginians to participate in natural resource education, citizen science, and stewardship projects to benefit the environment.  Now through January 11, we are accepting applications for new volunteers to attend our basic training course which begins February 10.  For application information and other details, visit our Training page.

We strongly encourage prospective volunteers to attend an information session to meet some of the Chapter members as well as better understand the program and the volunteer requirements. Three sessions will be held at Ivy Creek Natural Area Education Building at 1780 Earlysville Road, Charlottesville, VA 22903 on Wednesday, December 2 at 9:00 am; Saturday, December 12 at 10:00 am; and Monday, January 4 at 7:00 pm.


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Call for Volunteers: Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program


The Rivanna Master Naturalists have partnered with the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program to assist with a unique statewide program that aims to restore Virginia’s oyster population by returning oyster shells from the plates of diners to the bottom of our state’s rivers.

The program, a joint effort of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Center, is successfully returning thousands of pounds of oyster shells to their natural ecosystems. Restaurants in the city of Richmond are already recycling nearly 13,000 pounds of oyster shells every six weeks, but Charlottesville is not far behind. Expanding the project to Charlottesville earlier this year served as a trial as organizers aim to expand into more populous locations like Newport News and Northern Virginia.

While “recycling” might bring to mind the idea of oyster shells being repurposed into something new (like crushed to be used in gardens or driveways), the program actually aims to return oysters to their natural ecosystem.

“100% of these shells were heading to the landfill. We’re reclaiming them and diverting them,” explains Todd Janeski, coordinator of the statewide effort.


At one point, oysters were so plentiful in Virginia’s waters that historical documents include accounts of small boats becoming stuck on oyster reefs, their oars scraping against these large masses of hard substrate. Oysters provide huge ecological benefits for their habitats, the most notable of which is their powerful filtering ability: a single oyster can filter an entire bathtub-sized volume of water in just one day.  Today, the oyster population in Virginia is at less than 2% of its historical peak.

Janeski explains that the goal of the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program is to collect empty oyster shells which are then amassed into complex reef structures that provide the perfect habitat for new oysters to grow. These reefs are loaded with spat (baby oysters) before being restored to Virginia’s waterways.

“In the first few days of their lives, oysters are free-swimming organisms, looking for a hard substrate to attach to. You could put down a tire rim, or crushed concrete, but they prefer oyster shell because it’s their natural environment,” Janeski explained.

These oyster shell reefs also provide additional ecosystem benefits. As the shells begin to slowly decompose, calcium carbonate is released into the water, helping to balance acidic pH levels in local waterways.  Offshore reefs also absorb wave impact, reducing the impact onshore and limiting erosion.   The reefs also provide ideal habitat for other native species such as striped bass, spotted sea trout, and crabs.

This project is a great way to connect oyster lovers and other citizens upstream in Charlottesville to the restoration of a natural wild oyster population downstream. Through involvement with the project, Janeski hopes that citizens will realize that “by supporting these restaurants, you’re supporting part of the restoration process.”

2015-03-25 13.53.00

Local volunteer project coordinator Colleen Kiernan is eager for additional help collecting from area restaurants and encourages Rivanna Master Naturalists to contact her about supporting the project. Even  30 minutes a week can help ensure the project’s ongoing success.

There are currently 10 weekly daytime pick-up spots available at locations including Blue Light Grill, Fossett’s, Rock Salt, and Public Fish & Oyster. Restaurants rinse their shells and place them in buckets outside their business at their chosen time. Volunteers will not need to enter the restaurant: simply grab the bucket, transport the shells to the repository in Belmont, and return the emptied bucket to the restaurant.

“Master Naturalists are a key part of this process. We wouldn’t be where we are without your help,” Janeski pointed out.

Can you help with this volunteer project? Contact Colleen Kiernan (cckiernan [at] gmail [dot] com). Colleen will send you a Signup Genius link listing open volunteer slots for each week.

2015-06-16 11.37.42


More information about oyster restoration statewide can be found here and here.

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7th Annual Big Meadows Butterfly Walk – August 30th

by John Holden

On August 30th, thirty-three Master Naturalists from the Rivanna Chapter immersed themselves in the grassy meadows of Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park . The leader has been going up there at least once a week since April, and felt it has been the best butterfly year in many. Walking less than 200 yards from the Wayside parking lot confirmed this to all! We had 10 species in a small area of Common Milkweed in the first minute.

Highlights of the day (and there were many) included the large number of Monarchs in flight and a large number of Monarch caterpillars . There was also a large number of Black Swallowtails, a spectacular butterfly in flight and upon landing with a double row of deep yellow dots on the forewings .

In the 2 1/2 hours we were there, some of the additional species  sighted included: American Lady, Red Admiral, Tiger Swallowtail, Mourning Cloak, Variegated and Great Spangled Fritillaries, Spicebush Swallowtails, Sulphurs, Eastern Tailed Blues, and Common Buckeyes.
This year was the greatest sheer number of individuals we have ever observed, and the species count (in the mid 20s) was close to the highest number of species we have ever seen (31). Keeping that number down was a lack of several usually-seen Skippers.

A key to seeing butterflies is finding “butterfly magnets,” or nectar plants.  Field Thistle was in full bloom. Earlier in the summer there were others, including Turks Cap Lilies, Hoary Mountain Mint, and my favorite Wild Bergamot or Monarda. Rather than walking a couple of miles, it seems that just sitting in a camp chair next to a patch of Monarda would be all that is needed.
On another note, it is really essential to carry binoculars for butterfly observation. There are close focus binoculars just for this purpose.

(all photos courtesy of Eve Gaige)
DSC_0137       DSC_0138 DSC_0151     DSC_0213 DSC_0232    DSC_0255 DSC_0338    DSC_0339


Species list (compiled by Devin Floyd)

  1. eastern tiger swallowtail, Papilio glaucus
  2. black swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes
  3. spicebush swallowtail, Papilio troilus
  4. orange sulphur, Colias eurytheme
  5. clouded sulphur, Colias philodice
  6. cabbage white, Pieris rapae
  7. eastern tailed-blue, Cupido comyntas
  8. pearl crescent, Phyciodes tharos
  9. red admiral, Vanessa atalanta
  10. red spotted purple, Limenitis arthemis
  11. American lady, Vanessa virginiensis
  12. painted lady, Vanessa cardui
  13. common buckeye, Junonia coenia
  14. variegated fritillary, Euptoieta claudia
  15. great spangled fritillary, Speyeria cybele
  16. meadow fritillary, Boloria bellona
  17. Aphrodite fritillary, Speyeria Aphrodite
  18. monarch, Danaus plexippus
  19. common wood nymph, Cercyonis pegala
  20. Horace’s duskywing, Erynnis horatius
  21. silver spotted skipper, Epargyreus clarus
  22. sachem skipper, Atalopedes campestris
  23. mourning cloak , Nymphalis antiopa

In addition, our North American Butterfly Association 4th of July butterfly count team has recently posted their data from this year’s count.  Check it out and see a comparison with other years on our publications page.

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Wavy Leaf Basket Grass Pull, August 14th

 by Ruth Douglas


Participants hard at work on a patch including both WLBG and Japanese stilt grass: foreground: L to R Katha Bollfrass, Dave Smith, and Tana Herndon; background: Peter Clark of the Ivy Creek Foundation

A team, consisting of Peter Clark (Ivy Creek Foundation) and Rivanna Master Naturalists Tana Herndon, Dave Smith, Katha Bollfrass, and Ruth Douglas visited William Woods Memorial Natural Heritage Area to pull Wavy Leaf Basket Grass last week. Pat Klima joined to get some pictures and a good GPS reading for the first location of Wavy Leaf Basket Grass (WLBG) along the trail.

The trail we first walked was off to the right of the road that goes past the home of the two donors of the property, Mr. Williams and Mr. Lambert. Shortly after one spots their home, two abandoned roads branch off to the right, marked with red surveyors’ flags and red surveyors’ tape. We first took the road slightly uphill and to the left of the other one. I’ve been getting GPS readings from my camera, but they are nothing like the reading Pat Klima got and I don’t think mine should be counted on. Pat’s reading on that road, as we reached the first patch of WLBG we spotted was Lat. 37.9753599, Long. 78.59170359.


Katha and Pat

We found a number of patches that went down the hill, off to the right of the road, and marked them with flags 30, 18, 31, 29, 25, 22 and down the hill from 22 with flag 10. Also found a small patch just uphill from the trail, flag 12. We pulled enough to fill 1 black plastic bag.

We then went back to the primary road and took the other abandoned road down past a cemetery located to the left of the trail: Tana and Peter noted that it was this road that they’d been down when Tana spotted the first patch of WLBG back in July. We first spotted it somewhat past the cemetery, in the road, and marked it with flag 26. There was quite a lot of bittersweet and kudzu in that area, too. Along the trail we found more and marked it with flag 21, then 36, 22. We also encountered Ailanthus further along the trail marked flag 17, and more isolated patches of WLBG beyond that. We pulled 3 bags partially full. We ran out of time at that point and returned to the cars about 1:30.

We left several bags full for Pat Klima to pick up later in the day to incinerate.

I should also note that those in the group who had long sleeves got some WLBG seeds on them, and one person who had a cloth bag with tools put the bag on top of some WLBG that she’d pulled and placed in a bucket, and found some seeds on the bag. The seeds were not sticky at that point, but did attach to fabric. We have decided to stop pulling the grass for the season due to the seeds attaching to cloth, and this will only get worse as they get sticky.
Tucker Rollins of Albemarle Co. said he’d seen some WLBG along the railroad tracks and was not sure whether that patch was on county property or not. This brings up some interesting questions: Does this mean that trains could be the vector here, and if so, where did they pick the seeds up? Or are there are other infestations within an area near enough to the Williams Natural Heritage Area that seeds were transported from them to the area we found?
It seems clear that this is an extensive patch and we really don’t have any idea of its boundaries. It needs to be thoroughly surveyed, and sprayed with an herbicide as soon as possible.

Master Naturalists and others who are out in wooded areas should be on the lookout for more infestations. We need as many “eyes on the ground” as we can enlist.

(More information on this invasive plant can be found on the Virginia DCR fact sheet.)

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Rivanna Master Naturalists Help Clean the Bay Again!

large group of volunteers receiving instructions from the leader

Volunteers receiving instructions before heading out to pick up trash.

Note: Thanks to Rivanna Master Naturalist Pat Klima for submitting the photos and text for this post!

Clean the Bay Day is an annual event coordinated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to engage volunteers in removing trash from Virginia’s streams, rivers, and other waterways.  The 27th Clean the Bay Day was June 6 2015.  As in many past years, Rivanna Master Naturalists Tex Weaver and Pat Klima were Zone Captains at Riverview Park in Charlottesville.  They were joined by 28 volunteers, 13 of whom were Master Naturalists. Together, they removed more than 300 lbs of trash and debris to improve Riverview Park and the health of the Bay.

three smiling volunteers next to a table with a display

Rivanna Master Naturalists had a booth at the event.

Other Clean the Bay Day events happened at 275 sites around Virginia.  The Chesapeake Bay Foundation reports this final tally of impacts:

Clean the Bay Day 2015 in a clamshell:
Approximately 6,000 volunteers
Removed over 105,000 pounds of debris…
From over 450 miles of stream and shoreline.
(All in just three hours!)

Join us next year on the first Saturday in June for Clean the Bay Day 2016!

two volunteers with a cart of trash they collected

Real trash from our Rivanna River!


volunteers standing next to all the trash they collected

Rivanna Master Naturalists and Site Captains with the final haul of the day!

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Rivanna Master Naturalists in Fluvanna County

Contributed by RMN volunteers Walter Hussey, Ida Swenson, John Wilkinson, and Pat Burkett

Rivanna Master Naturalists are becoming more active in Fluvanna County and doing great education and stewardship work to benefit the county’s natural resources and community members.

volunteer kneeling in field next to a sign saying "Quail Recovery Team Member"

Rivanna Master Naturalist volunteer Walter Hussey

One major new effort, led by RMN volunteer Walter Hussey, has been wildlife habitat restoration at Pleasant Grove Park. Several years ago Fluvanna County purchased a huge parcel of undeveloped farm land along the Rivanna in Palmyra. Sports fields and trails were added and the old farm house restored and turned into a museum about farm and river life in the area since the early English settlements. However the plentiful natural history at the Park also needed attention. Virginia Master Naturalists worked with Fluvanna’s Parks & Rec office to develop a plan for the stewardship of the natural resources at Pleasant Grove Park. One of our first efforts was to gain approval for a renaturalization of almost 50 acres of parkland that had been farm fields but were now being mowed. After 2 appearances in front of the Board of Supervisors, during which the Master Naturalist presentation appeared to be the key turning point, we got approval to return and maintain these areas in a natural state. Since then, we have developed a visitor educational brochure about wildlife habitats in the Park; marked the spraying and ripping of the fescue sod; assisted in a grant for, and the execution of, the planting of almost 300 trees as hedgerow anchors around the fields; laid out, and assisted in the building of, several new trails in the fields; aided the Girl Scouts in development of a tree identification trail (along with Ida Swenson); conducted an invasive removal pull and prepared an area for the installation of a Pollinator Garden next Spring.

RMN, and our work here in Fluvanna, were the subject of the cover article in Fluvanna’s local newspaper, the Fluvanna Review.

two volunteers standing in river holding a car tire

Rivanna Master Naturalists John Wilkinson and Pat Burkett removing tires from the Rivanna River

New RMN chapter members and Fluvanna residents, Patricia Burkett and John Wilkinson, led another successful stewardship project in the county in partnership with the Rivanna Conservation Society. After noticing many old tires on the bottom of the Rivanna River, they organized a tire clean-up event. It was so successful that they organized two follow-up events to take out even more tires. In total, around 150 tires were removed from the river between Crofton and Palmyra.  This project was also featured in the Fluvanna Review (see page 15.)

In addition to these new stewardship efforts, RMN volunteer Ida Swenson has continued to lead a 4-H Junior Naturalist club in the county. Ida also has been heavily involved over the years in Fluvanna Public Schools, working mainly with the High School and the Elementary Schools. Programs at the Scheier Natural Area have also been on her list! She and Walter are helping plan the second annual Earth Day Festival on April 25. She and Donita Ahearn enjoyed teaching on a high school field trip to the Rivanna River; the highlight was watching Pat Burkett, John Wilkenson, and Dan Triman float down the river with one of their loads of tires.

Rivanna Master Naturalist volunteers also participate in Stream Watch in Fluvanna County. Ida and Donita have adopted two sites. Other MNs test the Rivanna River, while spots are still open for Cunningham Creek, Raccoon Creek, Cary’s Creek and others!

Newly planted trees with protective tubes in a line across a field

Newly planted trees at Pleasant Grove

As we continue our re-naturalization and nature education efforts at Pleasant Grove Park, there are a multitude of RMN volunteer opportunities. Please contact Walter Hussey at whthinker [at] yahoo [dot] com if you’d like to be a part of this exciting project.

Some efforts where we could use volunteers this year include:

  • Planting 400 DGIF and NPS donated potted plants in the Pollinator Garden on Earth Day, 4/25
  • Planting 250 American Plum trees in additional hedgerows and wildlife food plots when DOF delivers the trees later in Feb/ Mar
  • Planting 2.8 acres of wildlife food seeds when DGIF delivers seeds in early Spring
  • Installing a Blue Bird Nesting Trail with VBS bluebird houses
  • Conducting hikes through these nature areas
  • Building a Kids and Family Nature Hike Trail
  • Producing nature interpretive guides for existing trails
  • Developing nature education programs
  • Organizing and conducting fescue eradication and other invasive pulls
  • Developing nature activities such as bird sighting reports, self guided nature scavenger hunts, etc. for the park
  • And of course all the planning, organizing, preparations, grant applications, etc that go with the above!
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Learn More About Becoming a Master Naturalist

Are you interested in becoming a Virginia Master Naturalist but are not sure what is involved or if it is right for you?

group of 7 volunteers with binocularsWould you like to learn more about the program, what you may gain and how you can join a community of volunteers to help protect Virginia’s natural resources?

The Rivanna Master Naturalists are conducting three Information Sessions ahead of the annual Basic Training Class which begins February 10, 2015.   The Information Sessions will be held on December 16 at 7 PM and January 6 at 7 PM or January 11 at 2 PM at the Ivy Creek Natural Area Education Buillding at 1780 Earlysville Road, Charlottesville.   During these sessions we will review the program and schedule so that you gain a better understanding of the scope and topics that will be covered.   We will also discuss the requirements for completing the course and certification.  Several local master naturalists will be there to share what they have gained from this program and how they fit the volunteer requirements into their lives.  You will learn what types of activities are available and hear what motivates our members.  You may also find the Virginia Master Naturalist website quite helpful   http://www.virginiamasternaturalist.org.  Please join us at one of the above sessions.

Applications for 2015 class are due January 12.

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Neighborhood Nature Walks in October and November

Rivanna Master Naturalist volunteers will be leading Neighborhood Nature Walks on Sundays in October and November.  These hikes take place at city parks and are designed to engage the communities near those parks.  young child holding binoculars

All walks will be on Sunday afternoons, and will start at 2 o’clock sharp at the upper pavilion in each park. Walks will be canceled if it is raining or snowing.

The “Nature Walks for Children” are aimed toward children from 6 to 12 years old; all children must be accompanied by an adult. The other walks are aimed toward adults and interested young people 12 and up.

If you have questions or want more information, feel free to e-mail Tony Russell at taorivertony [at] gmail [dot] com or call 434-872-4571 during regular business hours.

October 19 – 2:00-3:00 pm, Forest Hills Park, “Nature Walk for Children”
October 26 -2:00-3:30 pm, Forest Hills Park, “Birds in Our Neighborhood”
November 2 -2:00-3:00 pm, Washington Park, “Exploring the Bog Garden”
November 9 -2:00-3:00 pm, Washington Park, “Nature Walk for Children”
November 16 -2:00-3:30 pm, Forest Hills Park, “Trees in Our Neighborhood”
November 23 -2:00-3:00 pm, Washington Park, “Trees in Our Neighborhood”

Forest Hills Park is at 1022 Forest Hills Avenue in Charlottesville.
Washington Park is at Preston Avenue and 10th Street NW in Charlottesville.

The Virginia Master Naturalist program is open to all, regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, genetic information, marital, family, or veteran status, or any other basis protected by law. An equal opportunity/affirmative action employer.  If you are a person with a disability and desire any assistive devices, services or other accommodations to participate in this activity, please contact Michelle Prysby at (434-872-4571/TDD*) during business hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. to discuss accommodations five days prior to the event. *”TDD number is (800) 828-1120.

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Rivanna Master Naturalists Go Native: Creating Habitat, Protecting Water Quality, and Enhancing Appreciation of Native Plants


This article was written by RMN volunteer Bitsy Waters, with photos from Devin Floyd and other RMN volunteers and partners.  An expanded version of the text and more photos are available as three PDF files on our Publications page and as printed posters that can hang on our chapter’s display board for use at events.

volunteers planting trees in a parkRMN volunteers are actively involved in the design, planting and maintenance of many native plant gardens and buffers in our area.  These native plant gardens have a number of goals, including creating habitat, protecting water quality, and developing broader understanding of the role of native plants in the health of our natural environment, not to mention the beauty these areas bring to our landscapes!

RMN volunteers work with schools, local governments, state agencies, and a host of non-profit partners to create and maintain these natural areas. Generally, partner organizations take the lead and ask for RMN help in installing and maintaining the gardens and buffers, but our members often play a major role in helping partners design the gardens and select the plants as well.

Many of our local schools are creating native plant gardens. This, along with creating kitchen gardens, is helping children learn about what it takes to sustain wildlife and grow our own food. Attracting butteries is always exciting too!

Local governments in our area are becoming increasingly focused on the value of natural plants in protecting our streams, managing stormwater and sustaining wildlife. Albemarle County has created a Piedmont Virginia Native Plant Web Database to support public and private efforts to use native plants:

Volunteer efforts have reached beyond our immediate area. They include native tree planting and seed collection in Shenandoah National Park and helping launch the Mid-Atlantic Regional Seed Bank for native seed collection with other east coast partners. These are part of larger regional and national eftorts to preserve and plant native species.

Ix Park Ecosystem Installation

photo of native plant landscapingCenter for Urban Habitats Rivanna Master Naturalist graduate Devin Floyd has founded the Center for Urban Habitats (CUH) in Charlottesville. The Center’s mission is to advance understanding of biodiversity and natural history in the Charlottesville area by installing and monitoring experimental plots that exemplify local native plant and animal ecosystems. CUH is currently installing a large native plant community on a former industrial site in the heart of downtown Charlottesville. RMN and other volunteers are helping the Center with this effort. The installation at the IX Park is happening at the site of a buried stream that was once the heart of a vibrant ecosystem. numerous butterflies on blooming Common Milkweed plantA meandering walking path was designed using stream flow geometry, and it courses through the native ecosystem and traces the long lost footprint of Pollock’s Branch, which now runs through an underground pipe. When the meadow is completed it will contain more than 5,000 locally adapted native plants of more than 100 species. The site will convert roughly 12,000 square feet of neglected urban industrial space (surrounded by businesses, a parking lot and residences) to a vibrant ecosystem teaming with wildlife.

The plants were chosen as a community of interrelated species, rather than as a collection of specimens. This project involves more than just putting native plants in the ground. It replicates plant and wildlife communities for a broader ecosystem approach. A variety of wildlife is already being drawn to the site. Pollinating insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals are benefitting from the diversity of local milkweeds, mountain mints, asters, goldenrods, eupatoriums, and other plants that have been installed.

Other Native Planting Projects Rivanna Master Naturalists Have Helped Create and Maintain

  • Bog Garden at Washington Park
    Partners: Albemarle Garden Club, Piedmont Master Gardeners, and Charlottesville Department of Parks and Recreation
  • Buttery Garden at Ivy Creek Natural Area
    Partners: Piedmont Garden Club, Piedmont Master Gardeners and Ivy Creek Foundation
  • Clark School Native Plant Garden
    Partners: Clark School, Charlottesville City School Yard Garden Program, Center for Urban Habitats and Thomas Jeerson Soil and Water Conservation District
  • Crozet Elementary School Rain and Streamside Gardens
    Partners: Crozet Elementary School, Albemarle County Schools
  • Loft Mountain Native Planting and Seed Collecting
    Partner: Shenandoah National Park
  • Monarch Garden at Burnley Moran School
    Partner: Charlottesville City Schools
  • Mid-Atlantic Regional Seed Bank (MARSB)
    Partners: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and others
  • Piedmont Virginia Community College Native Plant Garden
    Partners: PVCC and Albemarle County
  • Quarry Park Native Plant Buffer
    Partners: Rivanna Conservation Society, Charlottesville Department of Parks and Recreation, U.Va. Batten School, Peace Lutheran Church
  • Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Native Plant Garden at Albemarle County Office Building
    Partners: VCE and Albemarle County

New native gardens and landscapes are being created all the time — is there one near you?

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NABA Butterfly Count and Class: What a great turn-out…of people, that is.

This article is written by VMN volunteer and Rivanna Chapter member Terri Keffert, who co-founded and co-coordinates the Albemarle County NABA Butterfly Count.

About Our Count

A record number of eager and curious participants joined in on both the Advanced Butterfly Identification class in June and the annual Albemarle County/Charlottesville North American Butterfly Association (NABA) count that followed. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the number of butterflies that were counted – following the great spangled fritillary butterfly with wings opensecond long cold winter in a row, the numbers of individuals and species were significantly lower this summer.Over fifty intrepid students from Albemarle and surrounding counties came out to Ivy Creek Natural Area to learn how to identify butterflies on a stormy night on June 11, 2014. Nancy Weiss and Terri Keffert shared many of the marvelous characteristics that are used to distinguish each species from another, including some butterfly trivia along the way.

All that newfound or refreshed knowledge was then put to good use on Saturday, June 14, when 39 volunteers weresplit into three teams led by Nancy, Terri, and Laura Seale and sent to sites across the county to count butterflies. What a beautiful day it was! Temperatures were in the high 70s/low 80s and sunny. But signs of the long, cold winter were evident. Many of the flowers that pollinators love so much were still not blooming, or barely. But more than that, the butterflies that were so active after 2013’s similar winter were not there this year. One concern was the lack of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and the ever-present Cabbage Whites that are usually so prolific every year. The hope then was that the butterflies, like the flowers, were just getting a late start this year. However, now at the end of the summer, while numbers have risen, the populations still do not seem to have recovered.

The Rivanna Master Naturalist website has the data sheets for 2014, as well as a comparison summary of previous years’ counts and conditions.

Overall, across all six sites, we counted 217 individuals and 19 different species, with Great Spangled Fritillaries, Eastern Tailed Blues, and Silvery Checkerspots dominating the counts. As a comparison, 535 individuals and 27 species were counted last year. Even in 2012, when the survey took place the day after the great derecho and temperatures were blistering hot, we counted 275 individuals and 26 species.  The data from 2014 and a comparison summary of previous year’s counts and conditions are posted on our Publications page.

But this is why it’s so important to perform these surveys – to be able to see the anomalies, and to become aware of possible trends or environmental problems that may be occurring. Myself, I’m optimistic that the butterflies will recover by next year if the winter conditions aren’t repeated.

Many thanks from Nancy and Terri to all who helped with this count and all who wanted to!

Where have all the butterflies gone?

great spangled fritillary butterfly with wings closedConcern about the lack of butterflies this year in Charlottesville and Albemarle County has generated much discussion about why this has happened. Even now, at the end of the summer, the diversity of species and the number of individuals is much lower than it has been in prior years.

One of the stronger hypotheses is that the butterflies were struck by a double whammy this year. First, we’ve had two years of long, cold winters, plus hard frosts this spring. (So many of the plants that normally survive took a hit this year, so it may make sense that the butterfly overwintering life-stage may have had a high mortality rate as well – not that they were reliant on those plants – just an related observation.)

Then perhaps to go along with that is a circle of life issue. The major cicada cycle last year lowered the number of acorns that larger critters had to feed on last winter, thus perhaps encouraging those animals to find and eat the protein-rich caterpillars/chrysalis’ more than what is normal.

I got so excited this morning to see four Eastern Tiger Swallowtails on my Purple Coneflowers! That’s the most I’ve seen together all year so far. Disconcerting when I remember how many of these I usually see all along the roadways and in the fields all summer. John Holden reported with excitement the larger numbers of butterflies he saw up in Shenandoah National Park last week, especially along the mown areas where monardas and other flowers have been allowed to grow. I’m suspecting that with fewer adults earlier in the year, it just may take more time and many generations to recover, but my hope is that they will.

I’ve wondered how far afield this population decrease has occurred. I haven’t talked to anyone or read about any other areas of the country (except the Monarch problem, but that’s a different issue.) But then, I haven’t searched it out either. Since I’m not seeing national headlines about it, it makes me think that it is an environmental issue based on just our region (or wherever similar climate and/or cicadas conditions may have been present.) It’d be interesting to know…

What do you all think? Does that sound feasible? What are your insights? Your theories? Have you read or heard anything?


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