2017-06-29 / Nature

Fair-weather Fans

By Charles Avenengo

A worn and tattered common buckeye butterfly photographed last Saturday during the East Bay Butterfly Count. (Photo by Charles Avenengo) A worn and tattered common buckeye butterfly photographed last Saturday during the East Bay Butterfly Count. (Photo by Charles Avenengo) Butterflies represent the sunny side of life.

When remnants of last Saturday’s Tropical Storm Cindy struck Aquidneck Island, the torrential downpours threw a small monkey wrench into the annual East Bay Butterfly Count. A scheduled public butterfly walk at Ballard Park was canceled because clearly no self-respecting butterfly was about to come out during foul weather and get its dainty self wet.

But when it cleared up later in the day and the sun emerged, the butterflies came out. Correspondingly, butterfly counters throughout Newport and Bristol Counties headed out into the field and tallied away.

Sponsored by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, this year’s East Bay Butterfly Count was the 14th year that it has been conducted. Results of the census are still being calculated, and despite losing the morning to the stormy weather, a decent number of the winged beauties was recorded in Newport. In all, within the city, 53 individuals of 11 species were registered. Last year, for the 2016 East Bay Butterfly Count, in the entirety of Newport County, 21 field observers counted 312 individuals of 25 types of butterflies.

A female black swallowtail. (Photo by Charles Avenengo) A female black swallowtail. (Photo by Charles Avenengo) Because butterflies prefer the lazy, hazy, crazy times-of-day of summer, their human fans can enjoy a cup of coffee before heading out into the warmth of the day. This is unlike birdwatchers, who are up and about at the crack of dawn to catch the dawn chorus.

Another advantage of looking for butterflies over birdwatching is that locally there are far fewer butterfly species than birds. For the most part, identification of butterflies is fairly straightforward. Everyone knows the monarch, and with a little practice, over two dozen or so common species on Aquidneck Island can be sorted out easily.

A cabbage white. (Photo by Carmen Rugel) A cabbage white. (Photo by Carmen Rugel) This would all be good were it not for the thorny issue of a group of butterflies called the “skippers.” These are tiny, mostly-brown butterflies that all look alike and don’t like to sit still for long. They are seemingly impossible to sort out. Birdwatchers are faced with a similar difficulty with hard-to-identify sparrows. Sometimes, the sparrows are simply dismissed by birders as “LBJs” or “little brown jobs.” Sparrow-identification, however, pales in comparison to skipper classification. Rhode Island has about 35 types of skippers.

Fortunately, Rhode Islanders have an outstanding resource, Maryland-based Dr. Harry Pavulaan, considered one of the nation’s foremost expert lepidopterists (those who study butterflies and moths). Before relocating to Maryland, Dr. Pavulaan conducted the most comprehensive field research in Rhode Island pertaining to butterflies. Now, with advances in technology, when a tough-to-identify butterfly is encountered (usually a skipper), if observers get a decent photo of the insect, they can forward the image to Pavulaan. Upon examining the picture, he generally can identify it.

An American painted lady. (Photo by Carmen Rugel) An American painted lady. (Photo by Carmen Rugel) The sighting of a skipper in Newport once played a small role in lepidopteron annals. The occasion was the June 2008 East Bay Butterfly Count. My son, Hugo, then a young boy whom I had dragged along for the occasion in Miantonomi Park, suddenly saw a skipper butterfly dart out from a shrub and aggress towards us. Clueless to its identity, we stalked it and were able to take some decent photos of the skipper. Employing the Pavulaan advantage, we immediately dispatched the photos via internet to Maryland.

This red-banded hairstreak butterfly is seldom encountered on Aquidneck Island. (Photo by Charles Avenengo) This red-banded hairstreak butterfly is seldom encountered on Aquidneck Island. (Photo by Charles Avenengo) After investigating the images, Pavulaan informed us that we had seen a Zabulon skipper, a species associated with Southern woodlands. As it turns out, he said, the species was experiencing an explosive range expansion, and our sighting was the furthest east that it had ever been recorded.

We basked in the glow of this discovery for only a few weeks, however. That September, another territorial Zabulon skipper was discovered in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, about 15 miles east of Newport. The Zabulon continued to expand its range and while still considered uncommon, it is now colonized throughout Southern New England.

Back at Ballard Park, after the wash-out, Executive Director Colleen McGrath said she would consult the calendar to find a suitable rain date. If she could, she might want to consult the meteorological crystal ball, because in keeping with their penchant for their fair-weather fans, it is going to have to be a sunny day for the butterflies. McGrath might want to schedule the walk for after everyone has had their morning coffee and the butterflies have had a little flower nectar.

Some Common Butterflies of Newport

Eastern tiger swallowtail
Black swallowtail
Cabbage white
Clouded sulphur
Orange sulphur
Cloudless sulphur
American copper
Eastern tailed-blue
Spring azure
Great spangled fritillary
Pearl crescent
Baltimore checkerspot
Question mark
Eastern comma
Mourning cloak
Red admiral
American lady
Painted lady
Common buckeye
Red-spotted purple
Little wood satyr
Common wood-nymph
Silver-spotted skipper
…and some other nemeses

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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