Counting butterflies

In search of Painted Ladies and other lovelies

COUNT HIM IN <br> Don Miller, a science professor at Chico State and butterfly enthusiast, checks the numbers of this year’s count—down from last year, he reports.

Don Miller, a science professor at Chico State and butterfly enthusiast, checks the numbers of this year’s count—down from last year, he reports.

Photo By Jasmine roufchaie

A small group of dedicated individuals gathered at the end of a dirt road next to a battered barn. They were prepared to spend the entire day traipsing through Big Chico Creek Canyon looking for beautiful but fragile butterflies.

Most people are aware that the Audubon Society does an annual bird count, but how many know about annual butterfly surveys?

In fact, this was the third Chico-area butterfly survey. It took place beginning Monday morning (June 8) at both of Chico’s ecological reserves. (The two previous surveys occurred in 2006 and 2008.) The surveys’ purpose is to track fluctuations in butterfly populations over time to ascertain which species are in the area and whether they are staying healthy.

The larger of the two outings was held at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, 3,950 acres on both sides of the creek located just east of Bidwell Park, about 10 miles from town. You get there by turning north off Highway 32 and driving down a twisty dirt road.

The second survey took place at the Butte Creek Ecological Preserve, a 93-acre site located off Honey Run Road in lower Butte Creek Canyon, between The Skyway and the Honey Run Covered Bridge.

Though the turnout at the Big Chico Creek site was relatively small, with only about five people in attendance, those few were more than ready for the count. They stood at the backs of their cars discussing previous years’ findings and planning the day’s journey.

They all wore sturdy brown hiking boots with long pants good for a five- to six-hour trek through the woods. They were led by Don Miller, a professor at Chico State, and Jeff Mott, director of the ecological reserves. The men were intent on looking at particular rock areas and at the black oaks in the vicinity to see if they could identify and count some of the less-common species that tend to flock there.

“We’re going to a remote area, and I mean remote,” Mott said as he helped pack up the truck for their journey into the deep woods.

A male Pale Swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon).

Photo By Jasmine roufchaie

Miller removed a wooden box about the size of a cereal box from his car. It contained his collection of butterflies, each neatly pinned. He took one out and spun it around so everyone could see it from different angles.

Miller had brought four butterfly reference guides, but some members of the group seemed to have identification down to a science and didn’t need their help. They could tell species, age and sex just from watching the insects—a remarkable skill, considering that there are literally thousands of butterfly species.

“You can look and see behavior and then you are able to say: ‘That one has to be a male,’ ” Miller said.

Miller’s collection contained a variety of differently colored and shaped butterflies, and some did appear quite similar. The team was able to make distinctions about gender and species, however, simply by changing the angle of the box or picking up a specimen and examining it in the light.

Ready to head out, the group climbed into a truck fitted with two benches, using the sides of the truck as backs. Each member of the team brought a butterfly net. The idea was to catch the insects in order to make educated guesses about the population size in comparison to the previous years’ surveys.

After driving deeper into the reserve, they set out into the woods brandishing nets and catching butterflies. Every time a new butterfly fluttered by, the group came out swinging their nets. Rare was the butterfly that, once seen, escaped being caught.

They all knew a great deal about butterflies and were clearly excited to be doing this count. Miller had an almost uncanny ability to identify butterflies that most people wouldn’t even have noticed, much less known their species and sex.

(On July 2, Miller will fly to Papua New Guinea, joining local adventurer John Lane in another exploration of the wildlife of one of the world’s most unspoiled regions. There he will continue his research on butterflies and other insect species.)

At the end of the day, the team compiled its number of sightings and catalogued them by locations, number of times spotted and the number of different species.

In the 2008 survey, the team covered six different areas and identified 27 species and 220 different specimens. In 2006, the team identified 24 different species.

This year’s data will be compiled and sent to a national census run by the North American Butterfly Association Butterfly Counts. For more information about the national count and its results, visit