2021 Butterfly Day

Last week, the Fellows and I helped with an annual butterfly count at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. Since 1985, Neil Dankert has been coming up to the Preserve around July 4 each year to conduct a butterfly survey. As a result, we have a great species list for the site, but also some indications of which species are more or less abundant/present nowadays than in the past.

A coral hairstreak rests on a log for a few moments after being released from a ziplock bag.

In addition to these once a year counts, Neil and former University of Nebraska-Kearney professor, Hal Nagel, conducted an intensive two year survey (including multiple visits per year) in the mid 1980’s. The pandemic interrupted an effort to repeat that two year survey effort and learn more about potential changes in the butterfly populations, but we hope to restart that effort. During Neil’s once-a-year counts, some species haven’t been found for quite a few years, but it’s possible they’ve just adjusted their schedule to come out earlier or later than his annual visits. Looking across the entire season and multiple years will help us better understand what’s actually changed.

Hubbard Fellows Kate and Sarah explore a riparian meadow along the Niobrara River.

In the meantime, Neil’s annual counts continue to give us valuable data. Maybe just as importantly, they are also a chance for him to pass on his incredible knowledge to others. This year, those others included our Hubbard Fellows, Kate and Sarah, as well as a few other volunteers. We visited the spots Neil goes to each year and counted everything we found – catching anything we couldn’t identify with certainty. We’d transfer the unknown butterflies from net to ziplock bag and then hand them to Neil for identification before releasing them again.

A two-spotted skipper. This is an at-risk species in Nebraska tied to wet meadows and similar habitats. We found the species in two different locations.
Jonathan Nikkila holds a caught-and-released Gorgone Checkerspot butterfly.
Here’s the same Gorgone Checkerspot Jonathan was holding, with our sampling crew in the background.

Hanging around with an absolute expert in their field is always fascinating and inspiring. I’m an ecologist with a lot of years of experience, but my knowledge is pretty shallow in many areas. I can identify most of the common butterflies, for example, but when it comes to skippers (the shorebirds of butterflies) or other tricky groups, I need Neil to point out why the pattern of spots on one fuzzy brown butterfly is different from the pattern on another one. We found 11 different skipper species and many of them looked awfully similar to each other.

Even more impressive is listening to Neil describe what species are going to be at each of the sites we visit and where we’ll find them. Our group was split into smaller pieces and I got to walk with Neil and his wife Jennifer at our first stop. We hiked the public trail and Neil pointed to a grove of oak trees surrounded by some smooth sumac in bloom. “We’ll find banded hairstreaks in those oaks”, he said. Sure enough, on both the oaks and surrounding sumac plants, we found several of the intricately-patterned little critters. The same thing happened later with other species in other habitats, including Acadian hairstreaks, two-spotted skippers, dun skippers, and others. We didn’t find any ottoe skippers or silver-bordered fritillaries in their respective spots this year, but that might have been timing or just bad luck – he’s found them in recent years.

Regal fritillaries were pretty common, though not nearly as abundant as great spangled fritillaries, which we had to count by the tens in some places.

By the end of the day, we’d found at least 37 different butterfly species. Great spangled fritillaries were the most abundant of the day, followed by little wood satyrs. Also common, but less showy than the great spangled fritillary, was the long dash skipper – a species I would not have identified without Neil’s help. Other species that were new to me, or just highlights because of their usual scarcity, were the Delaware skipper, two-spotted skipper, northern broken-dash, little glassywing, and coral hairstreak.

This kind of annual survey is a really important way to track what’s happening with a group of organisms. Combining these annual counts (to get a broad pattern) with some more intensive season-long surveys should help us better understand how populations might be responding to landscape changes, climate change, and other factors. A place like the Niobrara Valley Preserve is in a landscape that has seen changes, but less dramatically so than many others. If we pick up big shifts in butterfly populations there, it could have particularly important implications. Stay tuned – I’ll let you know what we learn.

I went back to one of the wetland sites in the evening and found this monarch caterpillar on common milkweed.
We saw lots of monarch butterflies during the count. This one was actually photographed the following morning at sunrise.

Hubbard Fellowship Post – Sarah Ponders Plants

This post was written by Hubbard Fellow Sarah Lueder. Sarah doesn’t give herself full credit for all that she’s learned during her five months in the prairie so far, but it’s also a nice reminder that learning the names of species isn’t the ultimate goal. As naturalists and ecologists, the stories of those species lives are much more interesting and important. All Photos are by Sarah.

It’s not every day I face the fact that I know very little about the world around me. It’s easy to put a label on something and move on, not considering that what I am interacting with is a part of a vastly complex system. As I sit and type on this computer, I am not thinking about all the hardware, software, data, and clouds it takes to make the words appear on my screen and eventually, yours. Well, I am now, but 99% of the time it’s simply “computer” to me.

This is certainly useful for efficiency: label and move on! I can focus my time and not spend too much of it reveling in my ignorance.

However, if I don’t look behind the veil occasionally, I forget what lies beyond my view of the curtain. Unbeknownst to me, I had been getting a little too familiar with the label of “prairie” in the early days of the fellowship. For example, looking out the windows at the Derr house (where I am staying on the Platte River Prairies preserve) I found myself thinking something along the lines of, “wow, how nice, a prairie!” with the unconscious sentiment of “and I am familiar with the prairie!”

Luckily for me there are activities like searching for prairie plants that remind me about how much there is to learn.

Recently this became obvious when Kate and I were out looking for common and showy milkweed plants for a research project Chris is implementing. From beginning to end, I was met with opportunities to confront my prairie novice status. To start off, when deciding where to begin our search, I made the bold claim that we should look in an area that had not been recently burned. I thought the milkweed plants might be too small to identify in the recently burned area. However, after finding around 20 milkweed plants, only 3 were discovered in the unburned area. 17 were found in the area I had written off as unsearchable. This led to me to questions like ‘where in the world did that notion come from? And why did I feel such confidence in it?’

A milkweed plant firmly rooted in the burned area… could have been anywhere though, right? Photo by Sarah Lueder

During the search, I was surrounded by plants I could not confidently name. They outnumbered milkweed 100:1, and more questions arose at every turn. ‘Do I know enough to say that these two individuals are the same species? This one has slightly more serrated edges, but is also larger, maybe the edges become more serrated as it grows? This kind of looks like a plant we learned a few weeks ago, but did the leaves really change that much already?’

This about sums up how the milkweed search went initially

I found this a little discouraging at first, feeling like I had not learned enough, but as I started to think about what else I did not know about the prairie, this feeling evolved. If I had known the names of the plants, I might have just used them as more labels (‘Upright cone flower… bang! Next one!’). Instead, I was left with a sense of bafflement. This brought me to a halt and made me question ‘who are you, and how did you get here?’ I was wordless, smiling and shaking my head, thinking about the myriad reasons behind why every plant ended up where it did. Site history, soil conditions, climate, and the influence of other species all surely played their role. The realization that there was so much to learn transformed my discouragement into joy, provoking respect, curiosity, humility.

I still consider plant ID a vital skill in prairie stewardship, and I can happily say I have continued to improve in this. But I realized if I see a species and only want to name it, I might unintentionally keep myself from learning more about its life. It will be something I practice, approaching prairies with a continuous questioning. I will try to do this, understanding it’s possible to remain a perpetual student of theirs.

And so far, when I am able to remember, I can’t help but feel I am a part of a great and thrilling mystery.

Prairie in all her mystery, featuring shell-leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus), Photo by Sarah Lueder