Alabama butterflies radiant, but ‘picture is not rosy,’ expert sayst says

July 17th, 2010
By Thomas Spencer, The Birmingham News

Joe Songer

Joe Songer

BRENT — Above the dirt road, under a canopy of green in the midst of Oakmulgee District of the Talladega National Forest, the sky is suddenly aflutter with dozens of wide-winged butterflies.

Eastern tiger swallowtails, flash their yellow and black. Spicebush swallowtails flap with big black wings, highlighted by blue, white and orange. Tiny blue summer azures bob frenetically among them.

For a moment, Mike Howell, a biology professor at Samford University, is lost in a childhood reverie: “You won’t see this in the city, boys and girls. It’s a magic moment.”

And one that may be getting rarer.

While Alabama’s butterfly populations haven’t been studied systematically like populations elsewhere, Howell’s gut feeling is that the colorful clouds of summer’s sprites he remembers from his 1940s childhood in rural South Alabama are fewer and farther between.

“I don’t have hard data but I know what I see,” Howell said.

Worldwide, scientists are sounding the alarm about “silent natural disaster’ of plummeting populations of butterflies.

In March, at Butterfly Conservation’s international symposium, British naturalist David Attenborough announced a major conservation push in Britain, where a report this year found that five butterfly species have gone extinct since the 1970s and most of the 54 remaining species were found to be declining fast.

Scientists in Europe and Japan also reported declines.

Scott Hoffman Black, the executive director of the U.S. based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, presented at the symposium similar concerns from North American experts.

“The picture is not rosy,” Black said. “I queried experts from across the country. Most all of them noted that butterflies are in decline, some of our most common butterflies included. It seems to be continent-wide that we are seeing butterfly decline.”

Scientists don’t know the exact cause but point to a host of factors working against butterflies.

Climate change is pushing butterflies out of their familiar territory, bringing new predators in.

The landscape of weeds, wildflowers and wetlands butterflies prefer are increasingly fragmented due to suburban sprawl.

The aggressive use of pesticides to control mosquitoes and herbicides to maintain weed-free lawns and golf courses are also believed to be contributing to the decline.

To find a remaining richness of butterflies, Howell took to the back roads with Vitaly Charny, an amateur naturalist-turned butterfly expert, who has been documenting Alabama butterflies for more than a decade.

Far from the interstate and off a rural highway, native vegetation that has escaped the mowers rises up in dense stands of yellow: black-eyed Susans and coreopsis.

As if on cue, butterflies become more numerous.

Into the forest, the road turns to dirt and is bordered on either side bottomland and swamp. Here, the still air of summer begins darting with dragon and damselfly and bobbing with butterflies.

Shortly after getting out of the car, Charny has identified a yellow flash among the roadside weeds as a least skipper, North America’s smallest butterfly. He follows with swallowtails, skippers and satyrs.

In a short span of time, Charny has counted 84 butterflies from 21 of Alabama’s 139 butterfly species.

“We’re in a little butterfly heaven,” Howell said.

By a clear creek, nectar producing plants like buttonbush, joe-pye weed and milkweed grow.

The butterfly dine not only on the nectar, but also sip minerals from dried mud puddles on the road and in swamp. The local flora also includes host plants, like the streamside switch cane, where the butterflies lay their eggs.

A little father down the road, a privately-owned plot of timber has been clear-cut. The adjacent plot was replanted as a dense pine plantation, a monoculture that won’t be appealing to the butterflies.

It was in this area several years ago that Charny discovered a colony of the endangered Mitchell’s Satyr, one of North America’s rarest butterflies. He’d like to see more butterfly habitat preserved. “It’s a good place to save,” Charny says. Everything goes together.”

Charny came to the U.S. as a political refuge from the former Soviet Union 21 years ago.

His university degree is in nuclear physics, but in the U.S. he’s been everything from a janitor, to a librarian, to an assistant on an Alabama lizard breeding farm.

Now a software developer, Charny’s passion and talent is finding, photographing and counting butterflies, a hobby he started in his native country but has developed in the United States.


For almost a decade, he has been keeping systematic counts of butterflies at various sites in Alabama.

His work is a starting point for a larger effort to document Alabama butterfly populations so conservation efforts can be based on data.

Howell and Charny co-authored a new book “Butterflies of Alabama,” hoping it can be the beginning of more interest in and attention to butterflies in the state.

Published by Pearson Learning Press, the 500-page photo-filled guidebook is the first book devoted specifically to the state’s butterfly fauna.

Also on the way later this summer is another book: “Butterflies of Alabama: Glimpses into Their Lives” by Paulette H. Ogard and Sara C. Bright to be published as part of the Gosse Nature Guides series by the University of Alabama Press.

Butterflies are important links in the food chain and also have a role in pollination. Their presence is also an easy-to-spot marker. “They’re are a good indicator species for the health of the surrounding ecosystem,” Charny said.

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