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Florida

Chasing Butterflies

Couple Has Dedicated More than a Decade to Tracking Butterflies at Disney Wilderness Preserve.

For the past 14 years, Haines City residents Buck and Linda Cooper have braved Florida’s hot summer sun at The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve to count butterflies. 

Butterflies are more than just nature’s eye candy. They serve a very practical purpose: helping pollinate plants.

While some butterflies are generalists (they have no preference for host plants for their eggs), some butterflies will lay eggs on only one type of plant. Butterflies also are a food source for birds, amphibians and other predators.

Butterfly watching has grown considerably over the past decade, according to the North American Butterfly Association. The Coopers’ interests in butterflies blossomed unexpectedly while working as naturalists at the Street Audubon Nature Center in Winter Haven for more than a decade.

While there, they fostered a few plants that attracted butterflies, particularly skippers. A passing interest turned into a full-time hobby.

Day Skipper

“Skippers are the sparrows of the butterfly world,” Buck Cooper says. “They get their name because of their erratic flight patterns, skipping from flower to flower. Most people don’t pay attention to them because they are small, and orange or brown. It is much more of a challenge to identify them.”

Butterfly counts with the Coopers are serious affairs—these are not jaunts in the woods. The couple spends eight-hours straight, mostly in remote wooded areas. They go equipped with a good set of binoculars, a digital camera and plenty of sunscreen. The couple doesn’t use nets and, because a butterfly can easily be photographed with a digital camera, they don’t need to collect specimens.

“Really, the difference between us and birders is that we don’t have to get up early and if it rains we can go home because butterflies don't fly in the rain,” Linda says.

In June and July, the Coopers participate in 13 North American Butterfly Association's 4th of July Butterfly Counts and compile seven of these counts. They are done in state parks, wildlife management areas and private nature preserves. The couple provides species lists to the North American Butterfly Association and to all groups for whom they volunteer.

The couple also tracks state-listed butterfly species in central Florida for Florida Natural Areas Inventory. Other months of the year find them in the field doing surveys for state agencies or just for pleasure.

Stuck in the Middle

Because of The Disney Wilderness Preserve’s central location in the state, it attracts fascinating species from both the northernmost of southern butterfly species and the southernmost of northern species. 

  • In 2008, the Coopers observed the return of the ruddy daggerwing – 90 miles north of its normal range -- thanks in part to the return of strangler fig, the Ruddy Daggerwing’s host plant species.
     
  • The Appalachian Brown has also been spotted. It is seen only in isolated populations in central Florida and at its southernmost range.
     
  • The discovery of a Palatka skipper last year brings the number of species recorded at The Disney Wilderness Preserve to 70. There are roughly 160 species of butterflies in the entire state.
Almost Paradise

Inside the boundaries of the preserve, the Coopers have watched the Conservancy's restoration efforts return former e watched the Conservancy’s restoration efforts return former grazing pastures to native grasslands and longleaf pine forests.

Controlled burns conducted on a natural cycle at the preserve help encourage the grasses that butterflies and skippers rely on for survival. 

“It’s a boon to all wildlife, not just butterflies,” Linda says, adding she has seen the diversity of butterflies increase at the preserve. “The marshes have been restored. The Conservancy has done a beautiful job out there.”

Outside preserve boundaries, the hobby has become frustrating for the couple. As development encroached upon Poinciana over the past few decades, natural butterfly habitat is vanishing. The dunes and grasses that served as habitat have been either leveled or mowed down, Linda says.

Teach Your Children Well

As naturalists and educators, the Coopers believe that butterflies provide a simple way for parents to help their children understand and experience nature in their own backyard

“It’s an easy way to get wildlife in your backyard – just plant the butterfly’s host plant,” Linda says. “It’s easy to get children involved, and they are very good at finding the chrysalis because they are down at the right level.”

Postscript

The Coopers led their most recent butterfly count this summer. The numbers of species and number of butterflies seen were fewer than in previous years

“The hard winter, prolonged drought and then flooded conditions had to have an impact on wildflowers and on butterflies,” Linda said. “It also rained during the middle of the day. The preserve is very wet with fields we usually walked for butterflies that were totally underwater.”

Despite the lower numbers, the Coopers noted a large number of gray hairstreaks feeding on blackroot. The group counted a total of 46 species and 535 butterflies.

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