“Big Years” in the age of iNaturalist

Tom Stock and Beth Johnson picking up our 2013 MD100 sighting of Bronze Copper.

Long-time readers of LepLog will remember that Tom Stock and I did a “Butterfly Big Year” effort for Maryland in 2013. Tom gave a terrific keynote presentation on this Big Year last fall at the 2021 Texas Butterfly Festival that some of you may have been fortunate to attend.

At the time, we called it the “MD100 Project” because, realistically, we thought it would be hard to reach that milestone. And it was, although we both ended up just over the mark with 105 and 102 species respectively. The first 90 were relatively straightforward, with just a little bit of luck and timing. The next 10+ were like pulling teeth.

And so far that record stands.

In 2013, most of the real-time butterfly observation was informed by personal emails/word of mouth, reports on listservs about things being seen, and historical records of species’ occurrence. It was a hard slog, sometimes tracking down locations and details that were never committed to writing in the first place, or even if they were, were still sitting in someone’s file drawer or computer hard drive and weren’t shared publicly.

In the decade since, however, butterfly observers have a tremendous leg up over our efforts in 2013. iNaturalist in particular provides a wealth of information (and has a good five or so years of data since it came into widespread use), although some of the sightings are suspect and some observers opt not to share date or locality data. eButterfly and BAMONA are also in much wider use, as are various butterfly, insect, and natural history pages on Facebook.

In this information-rich environment, given time and energy and transportation (it took me 5 trips to the Eastern Shore to snag King’s Hairstreak in 2013), a more realistic target should probably be 110 species for Maryland. A number of previously rare or local species are expanding their range (i.e., Carolina satyr), we have better data on some historically occurring species (Two-spotted Skipper, Hoary Elfin), we know more about the biology of some species that might make them easier to observe (adult gall feeding by canopy hairstreaks like Edwards’, King’s, and Early, for example) and we have new locations for a number of other hard-to-come-by specialties (Leonard’s Skipper, Pepper and Salt Skipper, Silver-bordered Fritillary, Northern Azure, and the cocyta-group crescents, whatever they turn out to be).

So it’s a good time to be contemplating a Butterfly Big Year no matter where you live — which I may do again once I retire; doing this while holding down a full time job as Tom and I did is not for the faint-hearted! Let’s just set the bar a little higher to account for the new ease of accessing observation records.

This entry was posted in general butterfly news, maryland, sightings. Bookmark the permalink.

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