Butterfly Monitoring

For several years, I’ve been trying to start butterfly monitoring with the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network (IBMN). Everything finally came together this year. Last weekend I did my first butterfly monitoring at Nachusa Grasslands. Butterfly monitoring is, well, counting butterflies by species, in a specific route, throughout the season. During this first year, I need to identify 25 species of butterflies. Forty years ago, I could identify more than that, but I’m a bit rusty.

So, I walk at a regular pace, scanning the area, left and right on the trail, spotting butterflies. As I see one, I identify it and mark it on my field report. When I’m done, I report my data to the database. Sounds easy and straight forward. My first time out, I identified about half. The rest were noted as “unknown butterflies” so I have some learning and growing ahead of me.

The beginning of my butterfly monitoring route at Nachusa Grasslands.

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Things they don’t teach you in butterfly monitoring training:
1- How do you count each Monarch only once? They go here, over there, cross over the trail, and then you wonder, did I already count you?
2- Prairie plants are dense and tall. Those little butterflies can dart across the trail and into the plants and disappear before I can even see the markings or colors.
3- You need to protect yourself from ticks. That means bundling up in insect repellent treated clothing, head to toe, hiking boots, walking stick for uneven ground, binoculars (if i can get them out and focused fast enough) and so much more gear. There must be a simpler way!
4- It is good to know what a species looks like both flying and resting, but what about moving so fast, never resting, and not at an angle to fully see all four wings at once, like in the photos?
5- Back when I knew all the different species, it was because I caught them, put them in a kill jar and mounted them and used a detailed key to identify them. No guessing! I don’t even catch and release for monitoring. New skills are needed.

When my route is done, I have a short 10-15 walk back to the parking lot that allows me time to linger, get out my iPhone for a few photos, as I head to my car and decide if I have enough energy to get my good camera out to capture prairie life.

Bee Balm starting to fade.

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Bee Balm is so named because bees like it, as do other pollinators, like hummingbirds and butterflies. I saw many bumble bees on the bee balm. The bee balm was in various stages of aging, most being past prime for blossoms, but still showing a lot of activity! Some of the bumble bees were so big that they caught my “scanning eyes” as a possible butterfly when I was monitoring, as did some dragonflies.

Milkweed going to seed.

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The milkweed plants had much more variety of life cycle. Some were in full bloom and others, like this one, were beginning to form the seed pods. There are several different milkweed plants at Nachusa and part of my education will be to learn to identify them all, as Monarchs do favor all of them for nectar and laying eggs. I should see much Monarch activity where I see all milkweeds, if I know which plants are milkweeds!

I should get back to butterfly monitoring at least 5 more times this summer, hopefully more. Weather is an issue, as is distance. I chose a location an hour away from my home. I like going there, but it is at least a 3 hour commitment to monitor and I need to leave room in my days and flexibility in my schedule so I can make that trip. Weather has not been helpful this last month. Rain, wind and cloudiness are not good for butterfly sightings. In fact, I have rules to follow: at least 70 degrees, partly cloudy to full sun, little wind to moderate wind, no rain. The last two weeks didn’t give many days to choose from! But I will continue, and try to get more of my own photography adventures in as well. The native grasslands, prairies, offer so many opportunities for interesting captures. I’m looking forward to what I can share in future blogs!