Butterfly Q&A with Paula Matile

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve will host the 5th Annual Marvin Schwilling Memorial Butterfly Count on Saturday, June 22, 2013. To learn more about butterflies and the annual count, we conducted a Q &A with The Nature Conservancy in Kansas’ Conservation Specialist Paula Matile. Paula helps organize and run the annual butterfly count.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve | May 31, 2013


    1. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Let’s start right in. Can you tell me about the Marvin Schwilling Butterfly Count? What can volunteers expect?
    We have two sessions that last 3 hours each. The first one starts in the morning and the second starts in the afternoon.  Count participants gather at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve headquarters barn where we divide into small groups that will cover a total 7-mile radius. Each group will have an expert helping them spot and identify the butterflies. Each group records how many different species they see and the number of each species.  After each session we reconvene at the Preserve’s barn to compare notes and tally the numbers up.
    1. Do you have to have experience in identifying butterflies to join this event?
    Absolutely not. This event is for the inexperienced as well as the experienced butterfly watcher. Remember, each group will have an expert helping them. People really pick up the spotting and identifying the more common species in an hour or less.
    1. After you gather the information where does it get recorded?
    We record our findings on the North American Butterfly Association website. NABA tracks population trends and species diversity in specific areas and across the country. Their goal is to increase public awareness and enjoyment of butterflies.
    1. After you tally the results of the butterfly count, do you make any land management changes based on what you found?
    We might. The butterfly counts are just another way to help us evaluate the condition of our prairie.  Let me preface this by noting that butterflies, like many birds, have different behaviors, some are generalists and some are specialists. Generalist species tend to thrive in several types of habitat – even if the habitat appears fragmented. They adapt easily. Specialists are more selective in their habitat. So before we reach any conclusions about our land management we have to determine whether they are generalists or specialists.
    1. Because specialists are more attuned to grassland changes since they are so selective?
    Yes. Take for example monarchs. They do not seem as impacted by grassland management as say a regal fritillary.  Monarchs are present in all types of habitats from cropped fields and other disturbed areas to wide open native prairie areas.  On the other hand, the Regal Fritillary prefers good quality tallgrass prairies.  With the decline of tallgrass prairie, there has been a negative impact on Regal Fritillary populations.   We have found that in areas where we have patch burned we find higher populations of the Regal Fritillary than we do in areas where large tracts of land have burned.
    1. Have there been major fluctuations since you started these annual counts?
    For the most part, we see on average about 1,000 individual butterflies and about 40 different species.  Our highest count was 1,350 in 2010 and last year due to the early hot weather our count was down to 415 individuals.  This year, with spring lasting longer we hope that the numbers will be back to the usual.
    1. What are the most common types of butterflies found in Kansas? What are the rare ones you hope to see?
    Some of the more common butterflies we have seen in our counts include the Arogos Skipper, Variegated Fritillaries, Regal Fritillaries, Monarchs, Orange Sulphurs, and Checkered Whites.   A common one that’s very big and pretty is the great spangled fritillary.  The very small and pretty one is the pearl crescent. One we don’t see show up in our counts very much is the Reakirt’s Blue, as it is fairly small and inconspicuous or harder to spot. .
    1. What kind of habitat do butterflies in Kansas like best?
    It varies according to species and can vary widely.  Some prefer woodlands while others require good quality prairie.  Others can be found near wet areas, in gardens and cropped fields.  Some are even seen in highly disturbed areas and urban areas.  You may find a generalist type in 4 or 5 of these areas. A specialist may be only in one or two of these areas.
    1. When is the best time and best conditions in which to view butterflies?
    A warm sunny day with low wind speeds.   If it’s too windy, they will hide in the vegetation. Typically, you can see butterflies from about April to September or October. However, some butterflies like the Juvenal’s  Duskywing  may only be seen  from March to May.
    1. What threatens butterfly populations, and what is the Conservancy doing to help populations thrive?
    They are susceptible to prairie fragmentation.  Expansive controlled burning can impact them. Severe weather and fluctuations also can adversely affect them. In Kansas, we are helping butterflies by providing varied habitat structure and maintaining plant diversity.  The Nature Conservancy is protecting habitat through conservation easements and other conservation efforts like helping to identify appropriate energy development sites.
    1. What are the best things people can do to encourage butterflies in their own yard?
    If you want to develop a butterfly garden, you need lots of sun and lots of nectar sources and do not use pesticides as they kill caterpillars and adults.

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Contact information

Shelby Stacy
Philanthropy and Communications Coordinator
700 SW Jackson Street
Suite 804
Topeka, KS 66603

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