Annual Macon butterfly count keeps tabs on ecosystem

The van rumbled along the damp clay road as Andy Rindsberg narrowed his eyes upon the thicket of verbena and kudzu scattered underneath the Georgia Power lines.

Suddenly, the vehicle screeched to a halt. Rindsberg grasped his camera, binoculars and field guide and leapt out of the car.

“Look at that!” he exclaimed, gesturing at what appeared to be a clump of average roadside weeds.

Nearly invisible to the naked eye sat a tiny, drab, mostly brown butterfly atop the leaf of a buttonbush.

“It’s so ornate,” Rinsberg said as he squinted into his binoculars. “It’s a Creole Pearly Eye. I’ve never seen one of those before.”

Rindsberg was one of eight volunteers who joined wildlife officials Monday for Macon’s annual butterfly count. Participants split into groups and counted as many different butterfly species as they could in one day to keep track of population trends.

The count surveyed a 7.5 mile radius, including parts of Bond Swamp, the Ocmulgee National Monument and Central City Park.

Early in the day, volunteers had a difficult time finding butterflies because of the drizzly wet weather.

“The butterflies don’t like to move around much when it’s rainy like this,” said Tim Keyes, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

At 11:30 in the morning, after walking down the banks of the Ocmulgee River for about two hours, a group of butterfly counters at Bonds View Road had only found 10 species.

“It’s really kind of dead right now,” Keyes said.

Just as volunteers prepared to retire for lunch, however, the sun emerged from behind the storm clouds and butterflies began to whiz around.

Keyes and his crew put off lunch until 1:30 p.m. because they kept finding more butterflies.

They found yellow Fiery Skippers flitting near the sycamore trees on the river’s banks, Red Admirals darting across the pathway and stately Hackberry Emperors sipping on the puddles in the road.

“The male butterflies like to have puddle parties right after a big rain. They’ll come out and drink up the water and take it back to the females,” said Rindsberg, who is a professor at the University of West Alabama.

By early afternoon, the group had counted 28 different species, but Keyes said he expected at least 40 species to be identified by the end of the day.

Identifying butterflies can be a cumbersome task, Keyes said. Usually, the two winged-insects zip by so quickly that a bystander isn’t able to get a good look at them.

To make the process easier, volunteers brought cameras to snap pictures of the butterflies before they flew into the bushes.

“Some of them are just naturally shy but others are paparazzi hogs and love to be photographed,” Rindsberg joked. “But, always, the first thing I do is try to get a picture.”

Once Rinsberg captures a photo on his digital camera screen, he can almost always identify which one of Georgia’s more than 120 native butterfly species the specimen belongs to within a matter of seconds.

“It’s really not that hard to do. Anyone can do it if they spent a few days studying (butterflies),” he said.

Rinsberg said butterfly counts are important not only because they keep tabs on how butterflies are doing, but because they indicate the health of the ecosystem as a whole. “We absolutely must keep doing these counts, because they’re the first warning sign if something bad is about to happen,” he said.

To volunteer to be a butterfly counter in next year’s count, call the Department of Natural Resources office in Macon at 994-1438 or visit the Web site of the North American Butterfly Association at www.naba.org.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.