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Counting Butterflies

This Saturday I had the amazing opportunity to participate in the 20th Annual Butterfly Count at Big Oaks. I had no previous experience with butterflies- in fact before this event the only butterfly I was able to confidently identify was a monarch. Turns out it was false confidence because in attempting to bulk up on my butterfly identification skills before the count, I discovered that the monarch and viceroy are very similar looking so I had probably been misidentifying butterflies. My lack of experience was not a grand self-realization given that I am from Phoenix, Arizona, an urban environment within a desert.

However, I approached the task with enthusiasm and 30+ volunteers and refuge staff by my side. Together we walked and drove transects in the refuge while identifying and counting butterflies we observed. It was really fun to see some of the volunteers in their element being able to quickly identify butterflies by species and even sex.

Their passion was contagious and I couldn't help but share their excitement when they gasped over seeing a gray hairstreak or debated whether or not they really saw a swarthy skipper. I may not have known all the species, but it was thrilling to be a spectator to such a diversity of butterflies I had never seen before. I even made friends with a little summer azure (as pictured above). As the day wore on, the butterflies were drawn out and became even more active since they are ectothermic and rely on the sun for warmth.

We saw many monarchs throughout the day which is a great sign because monarchs are an indicator species. Monarch declines indicate environmental issues so a boom of monarchs lets us know that the environment at Big Oaks is doing well.

At the end of the day when we all returned to the office for a final count, we had identified 50 different species of butterflies- just two shy of our record! I'm looking forward to hearing about next year's count and if the swarthy skipper really was just a fluke...

If you're interested in butterflies and other neat pollinators, feel free to check out Quanit's blog post or our project page to learn more about our refuge's new pollinator restoration project.


"We've done this before". (April, 2018). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved from

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