Back East Backyard Big Year

Quite a bit has happened since the last time I wrote a blog post.  In the Fall of 2015 we made a huge move from L.A. to downstate New York (since moving here I’ve learned that the locals take their regional descriptions very seriously, and upstate NY does not start till up around Albany) and taken a job as Director of Conservation Science at the Mohonk Preserve.    I’ll write more about this amazing place later but for now I want to talk about my last post and how I’ve decided to put my metaphorical money where my mouth is.

It’s been about ten years since I’ve lived in the east, and during that decade trips to the right coast have been rather sporadic.  I also switched study species in that time, changing from birds to butterflies.  As a result, I’m much more familiar with the butterfly fauna of the western U.S. than I am that of the eastern U.S. despite spending 75% of my life in the east.  I’m delighted to be back in the land of green vegetation, spring wildflowers, and gentle rolling mountains, but I’m having to re-learn the local flora and fauna almost from scratch.  I decided that one way to do that, at least for butterflies, was to do a Big Year.

A quick refresher- a Big Year means trying to see as many species as possible in one calendar year.  Most people think of Big Years as being things that birders do, traveling around the country and spending lots of money, but there are other ways to go about it.  Not only is my Big Year focused on butterflies rather than birds, but I’m confining my Big Year to the species found on the lands of the Mohonk Preserve.  This does a few things:  it gets me familiar with the species in my new backyard/workplace, and it gives the Preserve a comprehensive list of what butterflies are found on the Preserve and where.  To keep things interesting, Zach is doing a Preserve Bird Big Year.

Rather predictably, Zach is waaaaaay ahead of me on species counts, but I’m finally starting to see some butterfly action.  While Zach has been in double digits almost since the first of the year and now hovers around 75 or, I’m delighted to be at 7*.  When it’s all said and done we’ll probably judge our ultimate successes as a percentage of possible species rather than just go based on raw totals, but really the competitive aspect is a distant second to the idea of getting out and seeing as much of the land as possible and learning to identify its inhabitants.

So what have I seen so far?  First up, unsurprisingly, were the Mourning Cloaks.  They started to show up in February due to our incredibly mild winter and their habit of overwintering as adults.  Compton’s Tortoiseshells came out at the same time, followed by Eastern Commas.  Cabbage Whites are now quite common and truthfully are driving me slightly nutty as I check each one to make sure it isn’t a Margined White. Eastern Tiger Swallowtails started to show themselves last weekend.  I’ve had a reliable report of Black Swallowtails but haven’t recorded one myself.  A few days ago I was thrilled to get my first member of the Melitaeini, a Pearl Crescent.

Celastrina MSPP

Blurry photo of an Azure, Celastrina sp., at Mohonk Preserve

The butterflyers amongst you may have noticed that I have not yet mentioned Azures, Celastrina spp.  That’s because the taxonomic status of this genus in our area is still a bit of a puzzle to me, and I need to do some careful reading and looking to see what’s possible and what’s out there.  For now I’m loosely calling everything “Spring Azure” but there’s a good chance there are two or more species of Celastrina flying right now.

*Pending a better understanding of Azures in the area I’m considering what I’ve seen so far one species.

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