It’s a banner year for monarch butterflies. Have you noticed?

It’s a banner year for monarch butterflies. Have you noticed?

The Westerly Sun

NORTH STONINGTON — Describing this as a “banner year” for monarch butterflies, local naturalist Bruce Fellman said they have been noticeably more abundant at the local sites he has visited.

At the Avalonia Land Conservancy’s Forsberg/Lamb refuge, the Preston Nature Preserve and the Stonington Land Trust’s Miner Preserve, Fellman has counted more monarchs this summer.

“This relative abundance is in sharp contrast to recent years, during which I’d be lucky to spot one or two adults,” he said. “In these areas and others, I’m also spotting both eggs and caterpillars, which range in age from day-old to ready to pupate, although, so far, I haven’t spotted any chrysalises.”

The caterpillars, Fellman said, are members of the generation that will migrate south. The adult monarchs we are seeing now will not be migrating.

“Most of the adults currently in our area are travelers from the south and are here to mate and give rise to the migrants,” Fellman explained. “These adults will, I’m pretty sure, not be making the journey to the southern mountains themselves.”

Fellman’s monarch observations are confirmed by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, which conducts an annual butterfly population survey in June and July. The count was performed by 45 volunteers in five different sectors of the state, including Washington County.

While the final figures have not been tabulated, Volunteer Services Coordinator Jon Scoones, who organizes the count, said a total of 52 species and 1,454 individual butterflies were recorded, a decline from last year which is at least partly the result of the rained-out June survey day. (Butterflies don’t fly when it’s raining.)

Two species with lower counts this year were the cabbage white, down by two thirds, and the pearl crescent, which was at about one fifth of last year’s population.

Monarch sightings, on the other hand, increased from just 29 in 2016 to 134.

“Hey look, the monarchs as kind of a litmus test are coming back, and we can attribute that to the hard work of individuals and organizations planting pollinator plants,” Scoones said. “The numbers that were down were primarily the ones that were down because of the rain event.”

Martin Wencek, supervising environmental scientist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, is a butterfly enthusiast and one of the state’s experts on the insects. He, too, has noticed more monarchs throughout the region this year.

“Unquestionably yes,” he said. “And that’s everywhere, not just in Rhode Island. That’s New York State and Connecticut for sure.”

The reasons why there are more monarchs are hard to pin down. More people are aware of their plight and are gardening with pollinators and monarchs in particular in mind, but there are additional factors affecting monarch numbers.

“There may be more milkweed plants, but I’m pretty confident that’s not the reason we’re seeing a lot more monarchs,” Wencek said.

Monarchs spend the winter in central Mexico, where they roost in Oyamel fir forests, which grow in a small, mountainous area. Illegal logging has eliminated some of their winter habitat.

“Mexico as a country has recognized the benefit of having those small, isolated populations on those mountaintops, that it generates a significant amount of tourist dollars, so in that regard, they’ve deemed it worthy of protection, but other than sending people down there to appreciate it so they can feel like they’re making enough money off it, there’s nothing else we can do,” Wencek said.

Rhode Island also has some new butterfly species which could be spreading northward as temperatures warm; the variegated frittilary, the zabulon skipper and the red-banded hairstreak.

“In the last five years, I’m beginning to see some butterflies that I wouldn’t expect to see with any regularity that I’m now seeing regularly,” Wencek said. “That would be the red-banded hairstreak, the zabulon skipper, and those are bugs that aren’t just coming up here and dying. I think they’re actually breeding here, because I’m getting them every year in my yard.”

Scoones said that despite the decline in individual butterflies, he was encouraged to see that the number of species recorded this year was the same.

“I think it’s positive,” he said. “We’re still seeing the same number of species, which is good. You don’t want to lose species.”



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