July was a busy month for butterfly enthusiasts in New Hampshire. Across the state on various weekends, over 130 participants gathered for day-long butterfly monitoring surveys organized by partners involved in the NH Butterfly Monitoring Network. While the results might look like long lists of species names with tally marks, they’re much more than that. They’re a testament to the meaningful data volunteers can contribute and to the growing excitement about butterflies in New Hampshire.
Formed in 2022 with the leadership of NH Fish & Game Department, the NH Butterfly Monitoring Network promotes awareness of butterflies, provides a community for learning, and engages volunteers in identifying and counting butterflies across New Hampshire. A collaboration between state agencies, land trusts, conservation organizations, and university partners interested in butterfly conservation, the Network encourages volunteers to share their butterfly observations on various platforms (like iNaturalist or eButterfly) anytime they’re outside and helps to coordinate annual surveys. These surveys – part of a nationwide effort by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) to collect data on butterfly species across North America – provide information and insight into the distribution and relative population sizes of the species counted, potential changes in butterfly populations, and how habitat and weather changes affect butterflies. There are 450 ‘circle counts’ nationwide that, sometime during the month of July, record all butterflies observed at sites within a 15-mile diameter circle in a one-day period. Here in New Hampshire, there are currently six count circles – Lake Sunapee, Great Bay, Conway Area, Monadnock Region, Capital Area, and Baker Pond (Wentworth).
These counts welcome butterfly enthusiasts of all levels, even those with no prior experience identifying butterflies. “Butterfly identification can be a challenge, and many – maybe even most – of us are still learning,” shared Brett Thelen, Science Director for the Harris Center for Conservation Education which helps to coordinate the Monadnock Region count with survey sites in Hancock, Peterborough, and Antrim. “But it is so much fun to spend a day tromping through meadows in search of beautiful butterflies with other nature lovers.” Beginners are paired with more experienced identifiers and there are plenty of nets and field guides to go around, so participating in a survey is a great way to learn.
For those that wanted to show up with a bit more knowledge, several of the count circles offered trainings during the winter and early spring to prepare some volunteers for the big day. “Our local group has improved significantly with the speed and accuracy of identifications in the field, which partially explains the increase the number of species identified this year,” shared Amy Highstrom, who coordinates the Lake Sunapee count in partnership with Ausbon Sargent Land Trust. “It's because of the core group of dedicated learners and volunteers who study the more difficult species that this kind of data collection is possible.” Other groups plan to offer similar trainings or increase the number and types of trainings offered before the July 2024 surveys. “We anticipate good growth in volunteer numbers as the word gets out more and we offer more trainings both in person and online next winter-spring,” said Rick Van de Poll, coordinator of the Conway count on behalf of Tin Mountain Conservation Center.
While most of these count circles are in their first or second year, one – the Baker Pond count – has been around since 2004. With 20 counts under their belt, the number of volunteers involved and sites surveyed has grown. This year, 32 volunteers surveyed 28 sites in and around Wentworth, including the Schwaegler Family Tree Farm and the Thomson Tree Farm. Data that is collected annually from the same count circle and sites can, over time, provide insight into population trends. “We observed 11 Monarchs for this year's count,” reported George DeWolf, coordinator for the Baker Pond count. “This was down from a high of 60 Monarch butterflies in 2012.” As time goes on, this type of long-term monitoring at all six count circles will help to identify additional species that need conservation action.
There were highlights from each count and all teams returned to their basecamp on the day of their survey with stories to share. The Monadnock count identified a new species – the Dion Skipper – breeding in the state. Despite racing to beat the rain, volunteers at the Great Bay count had a great day counting 239 individual butterflies and documenting 33 species on town conservation properties, state-owned land, and a federal wildlife refuge – including the Black Dash, a species uncommon in the area. Other groups had ideal, sunny conditions. For the Capital Area count, that meant an unexpected high of 8 Karner Blue butterflies (a federally endangered species) in the Concord Pine Barrens and well over 40 Crescent butterflies that flitted through an open area at the Boscawen Town Forest. “It was a great day for counting butterflies!” reflected Diane Deluca, who coordinates the Capital Area count on behalf of NH Audubon.
All of the count circles recorded at least 30 species of butterflies, ranging from Mulberry Wings to Mourning Cloaks, from American Coppers to Appalachian Browns. With a lot of ground to cover and over 130 documented butterfly species in the state, there is the opportunity for many interested volunteers to share useful butterfly observations – either as part of these surveys or on their own time. The NH Butterfly Monitoring Network invites you to join in!
Want to get learn more and get involved? The NH Butterfly Monitoring Network will be launching a new website in early 2024 where you’ll be able to find information on butterfly species, sharing your observations, trainings and events, and getting involved in a count circle. In the meantime, you can join the NH Butterfly Monitoring Network iNaturalist Project to get involved and stay informed. If you have questions about the NH Butterfly Monitoring Network, you can reach out to:
Wildlife Conservation State Specialist, UNH Cooperative Extension
Wildlife Diversity Biologist, NH Fish & Game Department