Silently trudging through damp prairie grasses in the rain, Nanette Sarenpa suddenly lunges forward, swinging a net down onto a fluttering insect.
Siah St. Clair hurries over and carefully transfers it into a jar.
“It’s an eyed brown,” the retired Springbrook Nature Center director says as he examines the butterfly.
Opening the lid, St. Clair gently holds the small bronze-brown butterfly between his forefinger and thumb to show its markings.
“See how it has little spots that look like eyes?”
Before moving on, he takes out a notepad to write down the name of the species.
Decades of data
St. Clair has been conducting these annual butterfly surveys at the Fridley nature center for 20 years. Now retired, he volunteered his time on Saturday, July 12, for a morning and afternoon session of counting butterflies.
Over four hours, he saw 72 butterflies of 11 different species. That’s lower than average — typically St. Clair sees nearly 20 species and a total of 100 butterflies — but he said rain isn’t optimal weather. One drop of water could damage the wings of smaller butterflies, so they hide underneath leaves.
The highest number he’s seen in one day was more than 300 butterflies.
“It really depends on the summer,” he said. Over 20 years, St. Clair said he’s seen over 45 species.
“There are a lot of years when you don’t see certain ones,” he said. “A lot of butterflies are out early in the summer, and then they’re gone.”
Some of the species seen at Springbrook — such as the red admiral — don’t overwinter in Minnesota. Their larvae can’t survive the harsh cold, so they migrate from southern states to lay their eggs in the summer.
The number of butterflies seen can also depend on how many volunteers are out on the field with St. Clair. The more eyes — and butterfly nets — the better. This year, it was St. Clair and three others.
Each year, he marks down the number of each species seen, what the weather was like and how many people he had counting.
“If we have 15 people with us, we see a lot more butterflies than if you only have three people,” he said. “Especially if you have kids — they see stuff; their eyes are so quick.”
St. Clair also conducts annual dragonfly surveys and bird counts at Springbrook. He said he started doing butterfly surveys after he read about other places tracking the insects.
“Butterflies are a real indicator of environmental health of habitats,” St. Clair said. “I thought, ‘Well, OK, this is something we can do that people would enjoy.’”
The survey is used as a way to observe whether butterfly populations within Springbrook are diminishing or increasing.
“You start seeing trends over time,” he said. “Over 20 years, there are a number of species that we don’t see now as much.”
As a kid, St. Clair spent his summer days chasing butterflies. Throughout his 35 years as Springbrook Nature Center director, he felt right at home.
“I get to do what I was doing as a kid,” he said. “For all those years I was working here, I was getting paid to do it.”
With its brown coloring and a wingspan of just over an inch, the eyed brown may appear to be a moth to the average person. St. Clair said one difference between moths and butterflies is their antennae; moths typically have feather-like antennae, while butterflies’ antennae are wider at the tips.
After examining the spots on the Eyed Brown and recording the species in his notepad, St. Clair releases his fingers, allowing the butterfly to spread its wings, none the wiser to the 20 years of data of which it is now a part.
Elizabeth Sias is at email@example.com