Butterfly enthusiasts spent Friday morning identifying and photographing different butterflies in the Nellysford area of Nelson County.
Every year since 2011, Susan McSwain has led a group of mostly master naturalists on an official butterfly count in Nelson County. This year, on July 13, McSwain led the 20th annual official count in Nelson and documented 789 individual butterflies and 33 species.
Lou Siegel, executive director of the Rockfish Valley Foundation Natural History Center, asked McSwain to lead another butterfly walk this week around the 6 miles of trails by the center for any and all butterfly enthusiasts, no matter the level of expertise.
According to McSwain, there are close to 100 different species of butterflies in Nelson alone, and the count July 13 was the second best conducted over the 20 years the event has been held in Nelson. On Friday morning, a group of five spent two hours following McSwain along the natural trails near the foundation building, hoping to see some of the butterflies found on the prior official count.
“This year was the first year an American Copper butterfly was sighted in Nelson County,” McSwain told the group as they discovered one making its way from flower to flower.
Along with the new addition to the county, the group came across a handful of different butterflies, including the cabbage white, a male and female Zabulon skipper, Eastern tiger swallowtails, spicebush swallowtails, and buckeye butterflies.
“They’re easy to spot,” McSwain said about the buckeye butterfly, due to the pattern of circles lining their wings.
McSwain’s expertise on butterflies comes from years of participating as well as leading official counts and her own research.
On Friday morning, temperatures had significantly cooled, from the more than 100-degree heat index the area experienced a week prior down to the upper 70s. For participants, it was great but for butterflies, according to McSwain, the ideal temperature is between 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit with winds of no more than 5 mph. McSwain guessed the previous week’s heat resulted in a decrease of butterflies along the trails.
“Normally, we would have seen many more in this area,” McSwain said toward the end of the walk.
Despite this, the group enjoyed the occasion and got excited every time they spotted a butterfly making its way through the area. Most of the group would look through binoculars to get a good glimpse of the quick insects flying around, while McSwain looked at her official list count to see if that particular species had been seen the week before. One group member had a book with him and looked up each butterfly so the group could see its name and wing decoration.
Robert Jennings, a Nelson County resident, said he heard about this event through the Rockfish Valley Foundation and decided to check it out. Jennings works with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as a Virginia grassroots and fields specialist, and although he was very familiar with many of the critters and plants Friday, doesn’t consider himself a butterfly expert.
“I’m an enthusiast, but not an expert. I wanted to learn more,” Jennings said.
Jennings said he knew McSwain would be a good leader and because the walk wasn’t too far from his home in Nellysford, where he has lived for the past two years, he decided to come out Friday morning.
During the walk, the group also saw a number of moths McSwain was able to identify, as well as various plants that attract butterflies. In an email, McSwain said a good way to tell the difference between moths and butterflies is to look at the ends of their antennae. Butterflies have have long, thin antennae that end in knobs resembling tiny golf clubs, while moths have unclubbed, comb-like, feathery antennae.
McSwain said when looking for butterflies, it’s important to look everywhere because not all butterflies are attracted to flowers.
“Look in both the sun and the shade,” McSwain told the group as she pointed to a butterfly floating between green plants nestled in the shade.
The end of the walk couldn’t have been better if it were planned, as the group stumbled upon a group of at least 10 eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies plus one spice bush swallowtail “puddling” under a bridge. Puddling is something butterflies do when they get too hot or are in need of nutrients. They gather at a shallow puddle or a muddy area and drink the mineral-rich water.
“It’s great, informative, and done at a good pace,” Jennings said about the walk.
Erin Conway covers Nelson County for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5524.