The morning of the annual North American Butterfly Count at the White House Farm started out overcast, causing our little Lepidoptera friends to hide out under leaves and branches. A few skippers were out in the garden, attracted to the oregano blossoms, but the large, showy swallowtails were waiting until the coast was clear and the possibility of rain decreased. As one butterfly book notes, rain to butterflies is like humans being pelted with volley-ball sized water balloons.
We checked the native wildflower planting along the back driveway, a location usually a-buzz with life attracted to the New England aster blossoms, switchgrass, butterfly weed, Joe Pye weed, phlox, bergamont and wild sunflowers and other native plants, but all remained quiet. However, once we reached the riparian area we began to see silver spotted skippers and a few duskywings. The temperature increased slowly as the sun came out and the tally increased steadily.
Farm owner Scott C. Plein has created a wonderful habitat for butterflies at the farm with numerous native warm season grasses which serve as hosts to many Lepidoptera and a mixture of wildflowers for nectaring. The moisture of the river (and afternoon thunderstorms) moisten the soil, providing places for “puddling parties” where butterflies gather to extract minerals from the soil. On hot summer afternoons, the 52 acre riparian buffer is buzzing with dragonflies, damsel flies, birds, butterflies and many other small insects. This is a conservation success story as the area has been returned to its natural healthy habitat, supporting the ecosystem and helping to protect water quality in the Shenandoah River.
For 2 1/2 hours we walked, recording the easy-to-identify species and taking photos of the small, fast flyers to research later with the computer’s zoom function. Sometimes one subtle marking differentiates one skipper from another or a comma butterfly from a question mark or tiny “tails” indicate an Eastern Tailed Blue from a summer azure.
Color and wing pattern is the easiest way to determine butterfly species but we also noted flight style, size, shape, resting posture (wings open or closed) and the presence of favored host plants.
Butterflies are infinitely fascinating and provide a wonderful way to explore a local ecosystem, and, as with any aspect of nature study, the more one learns, the more one wants to know.