(This 798th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 16, 2006.)
In early July each year about thirty local professional and amateur entomologists census butterflies in Niagara County. Their count is part of a national program, this year its 14th locally.
I joined Morgan Jones to spend the day counting. I am at best only a helper on these counts, my butterfly identification severely limited, so I relied heavily on Morgan's excellent skills.
One thing I have noted on these counts is how the date determines the butterflies we see. For example, we saw only three of those big orange and black monarch butterflies. They will reach peak numbers in late July and again in September just before they migrate south to Mexico. We also saw only two yellow and black Eastern tiger swallowtails. Their numbers peaked in May and will peak again in late July.
These peaks occur because of the insects' short life span. Between those peaks, the adults having died off, you find only their eggs, caterpillars or cocoons.
The three most common butterflies we found were the cabbage white, the common wood nymph and the European skipper. Interestingly, two of those three, the cabbage white and the European skipper, are introduced species.
The cabbage white is, as its name indicates, almost pure white, usually showing only a few contrasting gray or black spots. We found them everywhere: in fields, gardens and even lanes though woodlots. Any white butterfly you see here is almost certainly this species although other whites -- the checkered white and the West Virginia white -- are occasionally found in western New York.
Medium-sized -- 1.7 inch wingspread -- the cabbage white is useful for judging the size of other butterflies by comparison.
Common Wood Nymph
photo by Bruce Marlin
The common wood nymph, for example, is just slightly larger. It is as dark as the white is light. Their colors vary, ranging from dark brown to a deep chocolate brown that to me appears almost black. A very few individuals here show an orange area with two black "eyes" at wing ends, a characteristic more common in the South. The wood nymph is also a butterfly of open fields.
Another medium-sized butterfly is the mostly yellow clouded sulphur. We found a few of them with the whites and wood nymphs in meadows.
A lighter brown medium sized butterfly is the eyed brown. It occurs along the edges of woodlots where it replaces wood nymphs. It has many small yellow-ringed black eye-spots near its wing edges.
The European skipper is one of many difficult to distinguish small - one inch wingspread - orange and black butterflies. We found almost 150 of them but always had look closely to distinguish them from the tiny moths that also inhabit the tall grass.
Most years we also find many least skippers but this year we recorded only one. Morgan did, however, point out a silver-spotted skipper, the one skipper even I can easily identify by its striking white wing spot.
There is one other rather common small, orange and black butterfly that is easy to separate from the tiny skippers by its slightly larger size. We found several dozen of these pearl crescents.
Along wood edges we also found two dozen very attractive little butterflies called spring azures. When they rest and spread their wings, they are a lovely blue, but in flight and with their wings closed as they are seen more often they appear light gray.
photo by Erik Nielsen
There were other delicate little butterflies. Morgan found a beautiful little gray Acadian hairstreak. Examined closely we could see the tiny "tails" at the backs of its wings that are common to most hairstreaks as well as the orange crescent of dots and single blue spot along its wing edges.
Morgan also found an orange and gray American copper just where he expected it: in an isolated field behind an orchard. Like so many other butterflies it looked different with its wings open and closed.
We also found a Northern broken dash, a comma, a question mark, a red admiral and several mourning cloaks giving us a good total of 18 species. Others will add at least as many more, but still only a fraction of the over 100 species recorded here.-- Gerry Rising