2015: The Butterfly Year in Review


My trusty field pack festooned with state park and butterfly site passes from my end of the year trip to Texas for the biennial Butterfly Festival in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Most of the sites there are open for paying visitors only.

The flight season for 2015 will likely go down in lep history for the mid-Atlantic as a middling year, known best for its huge hole in the middle of summer, when a lot of expected species just never showed up in any quantity (or at all) and the grand finale of being overrun by Ocola Skippers at the tail end of the season.  Here’s my somewhat biased take on the regional butterfly season (and a few personal asides) in 2015.

2015 APR 18 Ap Grizzled Sk_VA-Alleghany-Covington_pic by Matt Orsie 1

Appalachian Grizzled Skipper on dandelion in Alleghany Co VA [2015 APR 18, photo by Matt Orsie]

APRIL — It was a slow start to the season in 2015 for most species; all of the anglewings were delayed in emergence and none of them — Mourning Cloak, Eastern Comma, Question Mark, Red Admiral, both Ladies — showed up as early as they usually do, and none of them showed up in the kinds of numbers we typically expect the rest of the year.  Partly I think this can be attributed to a series of late hard freezes and inclement weather, which also seems to have knocked down the numbers of most whites and sulphurs.  Happy exceptions were Falcate Orangetip and especially Olympia Marble, which began showing up on south- and west-facing shale barren slopes in Allegany Co. by mid-April (APR 13 for me). I suspect Olympia Marble flies even earlier than this most years in the warm microclimate these habitats provide, it’s just that we lepsters don’t usually venture out to their preferred spots early enough.  Highlight locally for me of this month was a chance sighting of Milbert’s Tortoishesell, also in Allegany Co., that eluded capture by both net and camera.

April also saw me on my first extended foray of the season, the first leg of which began on a trip near Covington VA organized by Mike Smith to a known habitat for Appalachian Grizzled Skipper, a species I believe is now lost to the MD butterfly fauna.  This proved a very productive trip with abundant sightings of fresh skippers, a life butterfly for me as well as an elfin trifecta of Eastern Pine, Brown, and Henry’s Elfins and numerous puddle parties of Dreamy and Sleepy Duskywings.  I headed south from Covington to a conference in Oak Ridge TN, after which I explored a number of areas near Chattanooga for a couple of successful chases for my life Giant Yucca-skippers, as well as Gemmed Satyr and Goatweed Leafwing.

2015 May 20 Pepper and Salt Skipper MD-Frederick Co-Gambrill SP 1

A surprising Pepper and Salt Skipper in Frederick Co MD, basking on a black cohosh leaf. Note the strongly checkered fringes on the wings [2015 May 20, photo by REB]

MAY — I had my first observations in several decades of West Virginia White on Mother’s Day weekend in Garrett Co. MD, flying in relatively undisturbed habitats along forest streams and rivers.  My search in the same habitat for Dusky Azure turned up nothing, but will probably be a target for next year.  I spent more time on the Eastern Shore in early May than in most previous years, adding new locations for Cobweb Skipper and Dusted Skipper, but also finding a new site for our regionally rare Frosted Elfin.  Appalachian Azures flew well in 2015, and on a hunt for this species in a couple of known habitats near Frederick MD I ran across a previously unknown colony of Pepper-and-Salt Skippers, long thought to have been extirpated east of panhandle.

Swallowtails except for Zebra were struggling this spring; no big flights of Appalachian Tiger (or Eastern Tiger for that matter).  Giant Swallowtail, usually picked up by the end of the month somewhere in the upper Potomac drainage, was practically AWOL, as it continued to be for most of the rest of the year, a pattern that seems to becoming the norm these days.  We also missed seeing some of the early irruptions of Red Admiral, Painted and American Ladies, and sulphurs like Cloudless and Sleepy Orange.  Both these pierids would be hard to come by the rest of the year.  Skipper-wise, it was a very early year for Sachem, Indian Skipper, and Hoary Edge, as well as a seeming irruption year for both Northern and Southern Cloudywings.  Carolina Satyr continued its colonization of more MD counties, including the far western ones.

2015 JUN 28 Hickory HS 4 NJ-Sussex-Whittingham WMA

Having scrutinized dozens of Banded Hairstreaks over the years for subtle differences that might give a Hickory, it was SO REFRESHING to see very obvious Hickory Hairstreaks like this one.

JUNE — Early June saw me on another foray out of the area, this time with my friend Beth Johnson.  During the first week of June we visited several butterfly hotspots in Wisconsin, notably Crex Meadows NWR, where we found our target life species of Karner Blue and Mottled Duskywing, and additional lifers of Gorgone Checkerspot, Persius Duskywing, Northern Crescent, and Canadian Swallowtail.  After Beth headed back to DC, I went farther north into MN in an unsuccessful search for bog elfins, frits, and alpines, but did score a great view of one of the ode world’s most-sought species — Ebony Boghaunter — at Sax Zim Bog.

Locally, it was a good flight year for Harris’ Checkerspot and Silver-bordered Fritillary in MD, and at least for the first brood of Baltimore Checkerspots.  Harvester was seen regularly, although not in the numbers we had it last year.  Long Dash skippers and European Skippers were quite common this year in the right habitats. This continued a trend of seeing good or at least normal flights for most butterflies who are at the southern edge of their range (or at least have distribution centers in New England and Canada) and poor flights for butterflies of more temperate climates, especially southern migrants.

Tom Stock and I spent the last days of June on the road to northern NJ for hairstreaks, where we saw hundreds of Hickory, Striped, and Banded Hairstreaks flying together with ample opportunity to compare the markings on these confusing ‘streaks.  In the same area we got good looks at Eyed Brown.  We didn’t continue west from here for a sighting of Acadian Hairstreak; Matt Orsie and Barry Marts did, and got this special hairstreak. It’s on my list for next year.

2015 JUL 9 Clodius Parnassian UT-Utah Co-Alpine Road at North Fork Ridge

Nemesis no more! Clodius Parnassian on the Alpine Loop in UT. [2015 JUL 9, photo by REB]

JULY — My own field time was somewhat limited as I began teaching a 5-week summer course on butterfly conservation for the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Natural History Field Studies program at Graduate School USA.  Most of my weekends in July and August were tied up in field trips with the learners, but we had some great sightings and field experiences.

Before the classes started, in early July, I did head west to Garrett Co. for Aphrodite (but no Atlantis) Fritillaries and Bog Copper (just over the MD border into WV), and then farther west still to Utah for my third lep expedition of 2015.  I spent the better part of a week butterflying and birding in Utah based out of Park City, chalking up my first parnassian (Clodius) and a bushel of new coppers (Ruddy, Blue, Edith’s and Purplish Coppers, among a number of other new blues, whites, and fritillaries).

Back in MD, it was a good Northern Metalmark year in Green Spring State Forest, but otherwise we were all beginning to notice a marked absence of large numbers of grass skippers, pierids, and even tailed-blues and crescents.  But ours was a minimal dip compared with the coastal Carolinas, which were as depauperate of butterflies in 2015 as most observers could remember.  Monarchs, contrary to the tales of woe from the Midwest, were seen on practically every butterfly walk in the area this summer.  A late-July trip along the Pocomoke River showed a surprisingly robust flight of Palamedes Swallowtail in their only known major breeding spot in MD.

I don’t think anyone saw King’s Hairstreak regionally in 2015 (although I never made it to the King’s best site in 2015, checking out instead some stands of its host plant, sweetleaf, in a new location in hopes it might be found there).

2015 Aug 16 Dion Skipper DC-Kenilworth Gardens_Walt Gould

A surprise Dion Skipper, new DC record, found by Tom Stock and Walt Gould scouting for the DC annual count at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens [2015 Aug 16, photo by Walt Gould]

AUGUST — The drought of many species continued, including Bronze Copper and Great Purple Hairstreak,   Single Giant Swallowtails were seen at a few locations in the region (including one in its former redoubt of Hoyles’ Mill in Montgomery Co. MD).

The big story for August was the early and large boom of Ocola Skippers, a condition that persisted until the first frost of autumn.  A rash of single sightings of Long-tailed Skippers late in the month gave us hope of an equally impressive fall explosion of this species, but that never happened.

The DC NABA annual count, led by Tom Stock centered on the US National Arboretum and Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, gave its best count ever, including DC count’s first Dion Skipper, found a couple days earlier by Tom and Walt Gould as they scouted for the upcoming count.



One of Matt Orsie's EIGHT Gray Commas from Big Run SP [2015 SEP 7, MD: Garrett Co]

One of Matt Orsie’s EIGHT Gray Commas from Big Run SP [2015 SEP 7, MD: Garrett Co]

SEPTEMBER — The highlight really was a lowlight in 2015; Little Yellows seen only twice all year, very few Cloudless Sulphurs, Variegated Fritillaries, Common Buckeyes, and Sleepy Oranges, all of which usually liven up our early falls here.  Not this year.  An exception to the rule proved to be a very strong flight of Gray Commas along the circuit loop through Big Run and Savage River.





Evan's Skipper in matching Crucita flowers [2015 Nov 5, Santa Ana NWR, photo by REB]

Evan’s Skipper in matching Crucita flowers [2015 Nov 5, Santa Ana NWR, photo by REB]

OCTOBER, NOVEMBER — October passed uneventfully, the Brazilian Skippers and Long-tailed Skippers noted just to our south in Norfolk never made it up this way.  A sighting of Bronze Copper sent me scurrying to the Eastern Shore, but by the time I arrived two days later the entire area had been mown to stubble.  So by November I was anxious to be seeing some new butterflies, and joined colleagues Tom Stock, Tom Feild, Jim Brighton, Barry Marts, Dave Czaplak, and Matt Orsie (and a ton of new lep friends) for the Texas Butterfly Festival in early November hosted mostly by the National Butterfly Center in Mission, TX.  Recent rains made conditions right for a number of great new life butterflies (even though I had been here in 2013 in midsummer).  Among the lepidopterological riches were Guava Skipper, Two-barred and Frosted Flashers, Malachite, Silver Emperor, Purple-washed, Evans’ and Obscure Skippers, and a host of new-to-us hairstreaks, including the first documented US record of Shadowed Hairstreak.  Notable checkerspots included the diminutive Elada and the Theona Checkerspot.

DECEMBER — For me, that was pretty much the end of the butterflying season, although locally field observers reported Cabbage White, Common Checkered-skipper, Orange Sulphur, Clouded Sulphur, anglewings and a few others well into December in record-breaking warmth.  I even had a rather fresh Sachem at Thanksgiving nectaring on early-blooming snowdrops.  Hats off to Matt Orsie for the first butterfly of 2016, a Mourning Cloak on January 3!

In all, while 2015 was not one of the super lepping years in the mid-Atlantic that will go down in memory, still it was filled with great butterflies, good friends, and wonderful trips to some of America’s most spectacular natural areas.  I hope 2016 follows suit; among my tentative plans are a New England circuit in late May/early June to try to replicate Matt’s success last year with Early Hairstreak, and a possible trip to the southwest and southern California in the spring to see what the rains from El Nino have brought us.  I’ll be teaching again this summer for NHFS, mid-June to mid-July for “Butterflies of Early Summer” and look forward to sharing my passion for these critters with a new group of naturalists.  Fall will see me back in Texas near the Lower Rio Grande Valley, so I’m sure to head back down to Mission and perhaps farther west this time for more tropical and subtropical specialties.  And if I can work it out, some jaunts up and down the Virginia and Carolina coasts for their host of interesting skippers in late summer, including the newly described Crystal Skipper.

Have a super year yourselves in 2016, and check back on LepLog later in the year for the 2016 calendar of field trips and annual counts, as well as the weekly Lep Field Forecast beginning in April.

2015 Oct 31 Red-bordered Pixie_Melanis pixie

Red-bordered Pixies disported in the parking lot at Quinta Mazatlan [TX, Hidalgo Co, November 2015]




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