(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — Throughout any given year, 98 species of butterflies and moths can be seen in Erie County. They don’t all arrive or occur at the same time, however. That said, during the first two weeks of July, people could see 25 to 30 species on any given day.
Some butterflies have traveled long distances. The monarch butterfly, for example, travels up through Erie during its lifecycle and overwinters in Mexico. Meanwhile, the painted lady butterfly can fly from southern Pennsylvania to northern Pennsylvania in a single day.
Jerry McWilliams is a naturalist and a local authority on butterflies. Before his retirement, McWilliams worked for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission for 33 years. In his retirement, he works and volunteers on multiple Erie County survey projects. He’s co-authored several books on birds (he’s also a birding authority), and he’s compiled a checklist of butterflies and moths in Erie County made available by the Presque Isle Audubon Society. He has personally added 400 species of moths never before recorded in Erie County. He’s modest about that accomplishment.
“It’s mainly because nobody else is doing it,” McWilliams said. “A number of years ago, I decided this is more than just a hobby and that I’m contributing to science. So I started poking around in different publications to see what work had been done in various places, and I found out there were big holes, and one of them was Erie County.”
McWilliams has been fascinated with butterflies since he was a child. He vividly remembers watching cabbage white butterflies through the kindergarten windows. That fascination didn’t immediately couple with confidence. McWilliams would net butterflies in public, but when people approached, he would hide in the bushes for fear of being being teased. But that’s changed these days. He has an extensive collection of butterfly and moth specimens. A lifetime of collecting and documenting is kept in stacks of drawers — like an archive room in a museum — in a room at his home. His records go back to about 1975 (that’s nearly 50 years). A university in Florida is interested in receiving his collection when he’s ready to donate.
“As I got older, I thought, ‘You know, there’s probably some people out there who are going to be interested in what I’m doing and interested in the information I’m collecting… I get a lot satisfaction out of it knowing I’m not wasting my time,” McWilliams said.
It’s baffling to hear that McWilliams ever hid in bushes to avoid scrutiny. When he describes monarch butterflies, he lights up, offering vivid descriptions and gesturing excitedly. His passion is evident.
“You can’t beat monarch butterflies — it’s a popular butterfly, and that was one of the first butterflies when I was a child that got me excited. And it was even more exciting to have it in the hand and open the wings and see all the beautiful patterns,” he says. He then talks about other butterflies, their patterns, their iridescence, their rings, and how “they look like an artist painted them.”
The migrant brood of the monarch butterfly is some of the longest living. They live about seven to eight months. Most other butterflies only live about two to three weeks. And not only do monarchs live long, they’re also tough.
“A bird can grab them and won’t kill them. They can tear pieces of wings off, and they keep flying,” McWilliams said.
In collecting specimens, naturalists and lepidopterists (a scientist who studies butterflies and moths) must dispatch the butterflies and moths. Sad though it may be, it’s for an important purpose — tracking butterflies and moths validates climate change and highlights other environmental changes. But McWilliams said many people today choose to study and observe butterflies and moths using digital cameras instead of taking physical specimens.
In Erie County, people can observe and study butterflies in their own backyards. It doesn’t take much equipment — a butterfly net and/or binoculars. McWilliams suggests planting a butterfly garden with butterfly weed (a type of milkweed), purple coneflower and butterweed. Don’t use herbicide or pesticides, he says.
“You want the whole life history of the butterfly in your backyard,” McWilliams said. “Get the monarchs to lay eggs, the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on your milkweed, they form chrysalids, and you can see the butterfly emerge and fly out of your backyard — that’s kind of the goal.”
For people who can’t plant a garden, McWilliams said both Presque Isle State Park and Asbury Woods Nature Preserve offer trails and ample opportunity for observation. Beach 8 at Presque Isle is especially productive he said, adding, “You can see several species of butterflies just walking around without having to worry about getting ticks.”
He also advocated for a trip to Asbury Woods, commending the nature preserve for its butterfly management.
The best time to see butterflies is on warm days when there’s essentially no wind. He recommends venturing to a trail between the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The butterfly season peaks in July then begins to wane, however, some vagrants will visit late in the summer, like the aforementioned migrant monarch butterflies. Also, butterflies can be seen in winter (except January) in Erie County — the mourning cloak butterfly overwinters here and emerges from under the bark on sunny days.
McWilliams recommended three books: “Butterflies of Pennsylvania: a field guide” by James L. Monroe and David M. Wright; “Butterflies Through Binoculars The East: a field guide to the butterflies of eastern North America” by Jeffrey Glassberg; “Butterflies of North America” by Jim P. Brock and Kenn Kaufman.
And if for some reason a person neither wants to plant a butterfly garden nor wants to walk free trails to see butterflies, there’s a chance they may just get lucky. Within the last five years, McWilliams witnessed a migration of red admiral butterflies across Erie County. First he noticed one, then very soon another, then another and another. They were moving in the same direction, from east to west. Within a few hours, he estimates he had counted some 3,000 or 4,000 red admiral butterflies.
“Then I started getting phone calls from people in the city of Erie saying, ‘What are these butterflies all over the place?’ It’s hard to tell how many of those red admirals flew through here in that day or two period — maybe millions,” he said. “These events occur every so often. Every few years or maybe decades. You’ll get a mass movement of one particular kind of butterfly, and it’s usually butterflies that we consider transients.”
McWilliams will celebrate his 69th birthday next month. He says he wishes he would’ve started documenting his findings in the 1960s. He wondered how much longer he’ll spend observing in the field.
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“The big thing for me is the awareness of what’s out there. Too many people are walking around with their cellphones in their hand, or they’re driving around in their car — they’re completely unaware of what’s around them. They don’t look up in the air to see a bird fly over them,” he said. “People put in a butterfly garden and they have butterflies come in, and it’s an oh-my-gosh-aspect of it, like, ‘Look at that big yellow butterfly. I didn’t know they were around here. That’s the first one I’ve ever seen.'”
“It makes people aware of what we have and how important it is not to lose it.”