How many butterflies?

Published 7:41 pm Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Folks in the Great Dismal Swamp will be counting butterflies next weekend, but they can’t do it alone.

Staff at the wildlife refuge are seeking dozens of volunteers — no experience required — to help them count the thousands of butterflies that are expected to be in the swamp next weekend.

“It’s going to be hot, and it’s going to be buggy,” said Don Schwab, a wildlife biologist at the refuge. “Other than that, fun will be had by all.”

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The butterfly count is an annual event that happens around the same time across North America. It is a way for biologists to monitor the population of the most common species in order to be aware of any changes in their numbers.

“It helps us get an idea of what’s happening with numbers,” Schwab said. “If you start seeing a change in those, that indicates something’s going on.”

This is the 17th year the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which spans more than 112,000 acres in Suffolk, Chesapeake and North Carolina, has participated in the count. The swamp frequently has had some of the highest counts in the country for swallowtail varieties, including the tiger swallowtail — Virginia’s state insect — and zebra swallowtail.

Past counts have turned up as many as 63 different butterfly species in the swamp, Schwab added, but the average number is around 45.

Members of the public are invited to come help with the count. No prior butterfly experience is required, Schwab said.

“It’s open to everybody,” he said. “We’ve got people from experts right down to somebody that’s never done it before.”

Groups of volunteers will fan out across a 15-mile-diameter circle, which covers most of the Virginia portion of the swamp. Newbies will be grouped with butterfly experts to assist in identifying the species of each sighting.

“It’s a good mixture, so people can learn,” Schwab said, adding that the count makes for both a technical and leisure activity. “It’s a scientific and public use activity,” he said.

Volunteers will meet July 31 at the Washington Ditch parking area at 8 a.m. and return at 5 p.m.

“One nice thing about butterflies is they’re more civilized than birds,” Schwab joked, referring to the annual bird count conducted in December. “You don’t have to start before sunrise.”

Volunteers coming to the count should bring plenty of water and a lunch, and dress appropriately for a day in the wilderness. Call Schwab or Deloras Freeman at 986-3705 for more information and to let them know you are coming.