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.
Species list (compiled by Devin Floyd)
- eastern tiger swallowtail, Papilio glaucus
- black swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes
- spicebush swallowtail, Papilio troilus
- orange sulphur, Colias eurytheme
- clouded sulphur, Colias philodice
- cabbage white, Pieris rapae
- eastern tailed-blue, Cupido comyntas
- pearl crescent, Phyciodes tharos
- red admiral, Vanessa atalanta
- red spotted purple, Limenitis arthemis
- American lady, Vanessa virginiensis
- painted lady, Vanessa cardui
- common buckeye, Junonia coenia
- variegated fritillary, Euptoieta claudia
- great spangled fritillary, Speyeria cybele
- meadow fritillary, Boloria bellona
- Aphrodite fritillary, Speyeria Aphrodite
- monarch, Danaus plexippus
- common wood nymph, Cercyonis pegala
- Horace’s duskywing, Erynnis horatius
- silver spotted skipper, Epargyreus clarus
- sachem skipper, Atalopedes campestris
- 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.