Butterfly effect: Experts, amateurs enjoy counting winged creatures at Corkscrew Sanctuary

Dania Maxwell/Staff
Volunteers Leslie Burgess, left, Robin Gardner, center and Rachel Singletary, right, are counting butterflies at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary for an ongoing program of the North American Butterfly Association to census the butterflies of the U.S., Canada, and part of Mexico on Wednesday, August 8, 2012 in Naples, Fla.

Photo by DANIA MAXWELL // Buy this photo

Dania Maxwell/Staff Volunteers Leslie Burgess, left, Robin Gardner, center and Rachel Singletary, right, are counting butterflies at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary for an ongoing program of the North American Butterfly Association to census the butterflies of the U.S., Canada, and part of Mexico on Wednesday, August 8, 2012 in Naples, Fla.

As she kept an eye on the treetops Wednesday at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Marnie Thorne admitted to being a little butterfly crazy.

"I have such a severe addiction, it's almost an illness," said Thorne, 41, of Golden Gate Estates. "They are amazing creatures."

Thorne was among a couple dozen amateurs and experts, of all ages and from far and wide, who scoured the sanctuary in northern Collier County for its 14th seasonal butterfly count Wednesday.

The count is one of about 500 in the United States, Canada and Mexico compiled by the North American Butterfly Association as a way to monitor the health of butterfly populations and study the effects of weather and habitat change.

"That's how we know what's going on in the ecosystem, what's changed and what we can do to improve the habitat for these species," said Corkscrew program manager Sally Stein, who organized the count.

The Corkscrew counts date to 1994, with a five-year hiatus from 2002 to 2006, and have attracted as few as three butterfly hunters to as many as 25 on Wednesday, a record for the count, Stein said.

The number of butterflies counted roughly correlates to the number of observers, from as few as 300 butterflies to more than 1,000 in 2011. With just one of five groups' tallies in, Wednesday's count already stood at 525 butterflies and 38 species, including two species — sleepy orange and three-spotted skipper — that are not often seen, Stein said.

"Those were nice to get," she said.

As the group gathered Wednesday morning before the count, counters excitedly pointed into the scrub and called out the species names of butterflies they could see from the deck at the Blair Audubon Center.

"Butterflies have taken over our lives, but it's a good thing," said Buck Cooper, 82, who traveled from Haines City, with his wife, Linda, for the Corkscrew count, one of 13 they take part in every year as far away as Texas.

Counters divided into groups and then fanned out to six different parts of the sanctuary within a circle 15 miles wide. The counting went from about 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. They don't worry so much about double-counting a butterfly, assuming they'll be missing some along the way as well.

A designated tally-keeper carried a clipboard. Others wore binoculars or had cameras to snap a picture of a butterfly for identification later. Some carried butterfly guide books for help.

Color, wing markings, size — even flight patterns — all can help identify a butterfly on the move. A long, unobstructed view of a still butterfly is rare, they said. Some soar skyward. Others seem to stumble along the ground.

As the morning heated up Wednesday, an Eastern tiger swallowtail, yellow and black and larger than an average butterfly, swooped delicately in and out of a group of counters standing motionless.

"He's just flirting with us," said Carolyn Littlejohn, 66, a Corkscrew counter from Pine Island.

She and the others watched as it landed briefly on the ground in front of the group and then fluttered down the side of a dirt road, around a corner and out of sight.

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