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Wildlife by the Numbers

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Firefly photograph by flickr user art farmer

On Thursday some Adirondackers will be out with nets and binoculars, counting butterflies, just as they have one July day each year for 18 years.

Last year, Northern New York Audubon volunteers counted 350 butterflies in the vicinity of Lake Placid—a record 30 species. Among the monarchs, tiger swallowtails and cabbage whites were less-obvious things like a northern pearly-eye, a hobomok skipper and a lot of Atlantis fritillaries.

The counters send their data to the North American Butterfly Association census, a citizen-science program that spans Canada, the United States and Mexico. An unusually warm spring set milkweed blooming ahead of schedule, and many butterflies also appear to be on an accelerated migration and mating timetable, so Adirondack counters are going out a week earlier than they ordinarily do.

If butterflies are too small and quick for you, there are bigger, slower things that need counting—no scientific training required. Loons, for one. The Wildlife Conservation Society’s annual Adirondack loon census takes place Sunday, July 22 [correction: Saturday, July 21]. Volunteers tally adults and chicks on a pond of their choosing from 8 to 9 a.m., pleasant duty in a canoe. You can choose a lake and sign up here. The results help guide management decisions that affect loons.

Citizen wildlife counts are important because the bigger a database is, the more scientifically rigorous it is. Many animal populations are believed to be shrinking; keeping track of their numbers over a wide area and a long period of time can sketch a picture of what’s really happening on the landscape.

Chimney swifts are a species scientists think may be in decline. I’m excited to take part in A Swift Night Out, a continent-wide effort to count them. Watching the birds’ aerial acrobatics is an obsession of mine, but what appeals to me most about A Swift Night Out is how easy it is. I plan to sit in a lawn chair with friends at dusk as the birds come to us, circle in the sky by the hundreds, and then funnel down the chimney where they nest. In Saranac Lake the evening of Friday, August 10, or Saturday, August 11, we’ll be in the parking lot of St. Bernard’s school; the birds have used its round brick stack as a roost for years. In almost every settled area in the Adirondacks you can hear swift chatter in the skies above. If you pay attention in the evening, the flying cigars will lead you to where they flock and then dive down to roost.

People count all kinds of things. The Museum of Science, Boston, noticed that fireflies seem to be disappearing from serene summer evenings, so it has begun Firefly Count.

“I think we all can agree that snakes have been ignored in past conservation efforts,” the website of Snake Count says; spring or fall is the time to stand up and count those who can’t stand up and be counted.

There’s FrogWatch USA and of course the one that started it all, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, the oldest continuous wildlife survey in America.

And a reminder: if you want to count it all, the Adirondack All Taxa Biological Inventory will hold a BioBlitz on Saturday, July 14, based at the Saranac Lake Free Library. Experts will be on hand to help identify what you bring in. Buzzzfest at the Wild Center on the Fourth of July provides a great introduction to bugs, including some you can eat.

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