Counting butterflies

Citizen scientists help measure ecological health

Lisa Sorensen checks out a stowaway mourning cloak during the annual butterfly count at Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve.

Lisa Sorensen checks out a stowaway mourning cloak during the annual butterfly count at Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve.

Photo courtesy of Clara Buchholtz

Fluttering lightly on a crisp morning breeze, a shiny jet-black butterfly crossed a group of onlookers. A row of contrasting bright-white spots dotted the bottom of its wings. As it flitted to a nearby golden poppy patch, the delicate creature drew eyes from all those who had gathered that morning to spot the flying insects.

“There’s one already!” said Don Miller, professor of entomology at Chico State, as he looked up from his attendance sheet, a handwritten page with the names of those gathered June 1 at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve (BCCER) for the North American Butterfly Association’s annual butterfly count.

“A pipevine swallowtail,” he said, identifying one of the more common butterflies he reckoned everyone would see a lot. His tone was nevertheless excited, his eyes still following the butterfly intently, bobbing along with the swallowtail’s movement as it weaved up and down through the poppies.

A smile of wonderment remained on his face—a smile that could have just as easily belonged to a child seeing his or her first butterfly, despite his 56-year fascination with the creatures.

“When do we start counting?” asked one of the onlookers, breaking his trance.

“At 8:30,” Miller said to laughs—the time being closer to 8:45 a.m.—as he flipped from his roll sheet to his tally sheet and marked the swallowtail on the count.

Numbering around 20 people, including multiple experts adept at identifying butterflies, the group that gathered that day was larger than expected based on past counts. Benches had to be arranged to seat everyonein an open, bear-scat-laden area near the reserve’s parking lot and visitor center.

The butterfly count, often compared to the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, is a citizen science project. The butterfly association compiles data—collected primarily by laypeople, at set sites and times annually—and makes it available to researchers who track migration patterns and populations. The BCCER has participated 12 times officially.

The open area where the group congregated was one of many clearings in otherwise oak-canopied rolling hills. There, small, leafy bushes, many just beginning to flower after late May rains, connect into a backdrop of waving husks of golden grass.

Three expert identifiers received tally sheets, containing a list of butterflies known to be in the area from past research and counts. Along with Miller, each led one of four smaller groups to cover more ground, and count more butterflies.

One group left on foot to measure areas near the visitor center, while the three others braved bumpy rides on the occasional dirt roadbut mostly grass trailsthat crisscross the remote reserve.

Anton Dresler readied his bug-catching net. He stared intently, taut, prepared and still—save for his not-quite shoulder-length brown hair blowing with the wind. Awaiting the right moment, Dresler gazed into a nearby waist-high bush thick with thin, light-green leaves.

Just then, a flutter of black and white and orange flashed forth from the leaves.

“Catch it! Catch it!” urged a member of the small group he had led into a clearing of bushes and knee-high grasses along their route. She already had seen Dresler’s expertise with the net on several smaller, harder-to-identify butterflies he had gently snatched out of the air. Those, he’d either photographed and released, or captured in jars for later identification and confirmation with the other experts.

“It’s a sister,” Dresler said, relaxing, lowering his net in favor of a pen, marking the count.

Easily identifiable by its brilliant orange wingtips and bright-white bar running down the rest of its wing, the California sisteranother common varietydid not need to be caught for confirmation. Despite Dresler’s knack for keeping the delicate insects alive while snatching them from midair, the practice still can be harmful or even fatal to the captured specimen, and he avoided it when possible.

By late afternoon, Dresler had filled his backpack with butterflies. The four groups reconvened around 4 p.m. in a repurposed barn just across from the visitor center. Tables were littered with captured butterflies and cameras filled with pictures of other insects to be identified.

“People say, ‘What’s the big deal with butterflies?” Miller told the CN&R after the crowd had cleared and captured butterflies had been released back into nature. Miller did not total the count that day; five days later, he still had numbers to crunch.

A large diversity reflects a healthy environment, he said, and a lower count can mean the opposite. Ultimately, though, the event is really about getting people out and involved.

“Frankly,” he said, in a quiet tone, “the more people know about these wonderful animals, the more they’ll care about them, and the more inclined they’ll be to want to preserve them for future generations.”