White Mountain Alpine Butterfly Count and Insect Survey

(Above) Lycaena cupreus in Campito Meadow

Some resources and links:

Project overview

Count pages and photos:

White Mountain GLORIA project web pages

Ken Davenport's White Mountain Butterfly List and Correspondence

Derham Giuliani's White Mountain Butterfly list

A damselfly (Argia) hides at Crooked Creek.


Butterfly Count Overview: We just completed our seventh "4th of July" butterfly count (see NABA web site for details) on July 26 of 2011. The purpose of the NABA counts is to determine how many species and individual butterflies can be observed within a 15 mile diameter circle, during a 24 hour period, on the same date year after year. The White Mountain Count circle is centered on Piute Mountain, located in the Mt. Barcroft 7.5' quadrangle, in the center of the southern half of the Whites. The count area includes White Mountain Peak, the third highest peak in California at 14,250' elevation, the Barcroft Plateau and McAfee Meadow, a high alpine fellfield with springs between 12,000 and 13,000' elevation, the white-soil barren lands on the east slopes of sheep mountain, the alpine sage steppe and meadows below timberline on Campito Mountain and County Line Hill, the Bristlecone Pine Forest at Crooked Creek and Blanco Mountain (also on white soil). The count circle also includes numerous watered canyons such as Piute Creek and Coldwater Canyon, and reaches down to the valley floor on the west, but we are not sampling in these lower elevation areas at present.

One of the goals of this type of repeated annual count is to look for long-term changes in the butterfly fauna. For this reason the count area is set in advance and does not change from year to year. Similarly, we will pre-determine the timing (i.e. the time of the month) well in advance, and the count will then take place on that day regardless of conditions. The protocols are well described in the North American Butterfly Association NABA web site. NABA also administers the counts and publishes the count data each year in softcover format.

The primary goal of the White Mountain count is to survey butterflies from the alpine areas of the White Mountains between 3,000 and 4,000m elevation (note: treeline at this latitude is at about 3500m). The high alpine habitat is generally not accessible to butterfly counters in California, the White Mountains being the main exception. Because of the single-day restriction, we choose a date that will suit the flying period for the high alpine species. Any time before mid-July will generally be too early. Of course, this means that the spring flying period for many lower elevation species will have ended. The best way to sample the butterfly diversity at the lower elevations would be to hold an additional count earlier in the year.

One of the challenges of conducting the White Mountain count is the presence of similar species and varieties. We have met this challenge by inviting experts to join the count and assist with identification. We have also, as appropriate and necessary, taken voucher specimens for verification. The individual count pages (see links above) list the species ID'ed by outside experts.

We do not expect to set records for abundance or species diversity on the WM count. We do hope to find some unusual species, as well as provide baseline data in high alpine habitats and the great basin region. These data, accumulated over the years, may reveal shifts associated with floral and faunal changes that are predicted to take place over the next century. The count circle includes all the White Mountain GLORIA summits, and, if carried out over a number of years, will provide a faunal component to the WMRS-GLORIA project (see web page for more information). The WMRS-GLORIA project is designed to sample alpine environments over a long period of time, in order to detect changes which may be correlated to climate change. We also hope to spur interest in insect diversity in the White Mountains and the high alpine environment. Perhaps these results will spur more quantitative research.

In spite of our modest goals and small group of counters, we did record a continental record high count in July 2007 of 875 Plebejus shasta, the Shasta Blue. It is interesting to note that this population outbreak was only evident above 12,700' elevation (3870m), which at this latitude is about 1200' (365m) above treeline. The relative abundance of this species has persisted in the subsequent years of counting (see 2011 count page for more details). These sorts of findings can suggest apsects of a species' life history that may have been overlooked by not sampling in the high elevations.

The count data is summarized in the Count results excel file 2005-present Count sites spreadsheet, broken down by species, year, and site.

Insect Survey Overview. In 2006 we added two additional components to the alpine insect survey, both of which attempt to sample the broader arthropod assemblage at the same sites used by the butterfly count.  We use systematic sweep netting as an integrative tool that samples a relatively large area and targets the fauna in the vegetation canopy.  This technique uses the same sort of net that is used for catching individual butterflies, but rather than pursuing animals one at a time, we sweep the net in a pattern through all of the sampling area to try to sample all fauna, including those that we do not see at first.  We also use vacuum netting to more quantitatively sample a much smaller area for ground dwellers.  We toss a steel quadrat with a conical mesh net attached to capture animals.  We then use a vacuum to pull animals away from the ground and into a net in the vacuum tube.  These two approaches complement each other and the butterfly count.