Saturday, April 13, 2019

Recording observations and reporting data

Waaay back in 2016, I wrote an article explaining a few methods for recording butterfly observations: Recording Geospatial Data
Reminder: you can use the search bar on the left of my blog to search for butterflies or questions you might have and it will bring up any of my posts matching that topic.

As the 2019 butterfly season is starting up, I wanted to revisit the ways you can record and submit your observations.

Reporting...what, when, why, where, how?
What: any butterflies you see! We might not care about every single day you see a Cabbage White (an introduced and ubiquitous species) in your backyard, but it can be helpful to know the overall distribution and flight period. Perhaps one year you mark every day you see a Cabbage White in your yard, then in subsequent years you only track the day you see the first Cabbage White of the year in your yard, and maybe a few days towards the end of the season.

When: please don't overwhelm a record-keeper with daily emails of your observations. We will gladly take all the data, but if you are a prolific observer, save up your data and send in batches, either a couple times over the summer or once at the end of the year. If you are an occasional observer and/or have questions about an identification, go ahead and send an email at the time. If I can answer a question around the time you saw a butterfly, it might help you make better observations at the time rather than waiting for the following season.

Why: the data is used for research. Information on seasonal flight patterns gives insight into how butterflies respond to seasonal weather patterns or habitat changes. Location data can reveal patterns of habitat use, helping us identify overall species ranges, subspecies ranges, or population segregates, adding to our knowledge of the species.

Where: everywhere! Your backyard garden, a green strip in the city, coastal forests to mountain tops. The vast majority of butterfly records are near roads, which is to be expected and is still important, but if you are an avid hiker, especially if you are a backpacker getting into remote parts of the state, any records you can provide are very important to filling in the gaps in our data.

How: photographs, specimens, written or digital notes, emailed or mailed to a record-keeper. Details below...

Snipped view of butterfly records mapped on a large-scale map.
Recording data
I still highly recommend using the Avenza app as a way to quickly record locations that can easily be exported and emailed to a record-keeper. You can review my description of the app and some of my suggestions about the maps to use in the 2016 article linked above. They continue to add new maps for purchase in the store and improve the app. You can still purchase Benchmark state atlas overview maps (the two-page spread of the whole state you would see in the front of a printed Benchmark Atlas), but they are now starting to make the entire atlases available, a seamless mosaic of all the pages in a state atlas! I've purchased the California Benchmark Atlas in this format for $25 as I will be visiting the state later this summer. It looks nice and should be useful for helping me follow mountain roads and knowing where I'm at. I also recently discovered that you can plot photos from your phone into an Avenza map; it will create a pin at the location the photo was taken, and if you open the pin attributes you will see the photo. These can then be exported and viewed in Google Earth or emailed to other people. For more details on how to use Avenza, see my 2016 article or email me to request a copy of a help document I wrote (only slightly more detailed than the article).

Smart phones (at least iPhones) come with a default app called Compass. Most people ignore this, but did you know that besides the compass it also gives you your latitude and longitude location? I didn't! This was recommended to me by a colleague. If you are more of a paper-and-pen records keeper, you might prefer to use this over Avenza, as you simply open the app and write down your lat/long location for any observations you are making. Another option is to simply take a screenshot of the app whenever you take some pictures of a butterfly, as a quick and easy way to track the location of your sightings (on an iPhone, press the power button and the round menu button at the same time to take a screenshot of your phone). Just make sure you remember if you took the screenshot before or after the photos it's supposed to go with!

Submitting records
A few northwest lepidopterists work on projects to compile butterfly and moth records across Washington and Oregon and adjacent areas (depending on the project).

If you are interested in moths and assisting with data collection, please visit the PNW Moths website. They have excellent photographic plates of macro moths (larger moths, excludes the tiny "micro moths") that can help you identify what you are seeing, in addition to other photos on the detailed species pages. There is a "contact us" link for emailing the web administrator.

If you are interested in Washington butterflies, please submit records to me! I am helping with a project to compile all records in the state. We are working on a database of the records that will be used for research. For example, it is known that the Coronis Fritillary migrates up and down in elevation over the summer, but all the data has never been mapped, so having a complete set of records over history will help answer questions and provide a visual look at what is happening. The database will not be distributed publicly and data for sensitive species will be treated carefully. If you have other concerns for privacy or how the data will be used, please ask. If you wish to contribute to our work, please send the following information to me (contact email on the left of my blog page)...
  1. Your name (& any other observers you wish to give credit to for the record)
  2. Location data (Lat/Long coordinates or a very detailed description, or both)
    • Latitude and longitude coordinates are highly preferred, we can generate the elevation and a text description of the location ourselves as long as we have the lat/long coordinates.
    • PLS (Township, Range, Section) is acceptable if a detailed description is included, such as "forest road 3800, just past sharp switchback in the south half of section 10, T10N R20E", this way we can generate Lat/Long coordinates based on your description.
    • Other data may be included but is not required: elevation, weather conditions, etc.
  3. Date (day, month, year)
  4. Photograph(s) or detailed description
    • A photograph may not be accepted if it is a difficult to identify species that cannot be confirmed without a collected specimen. In such a case, the record may be included in the database but will have a note that it is "questionable/not confirmed" or something similar.
    • Think about the species or species-group you are photographing and try to capture important features. If it is a blue or a fritillary, most species will require a ventral (underside) shot for positive identification. If you can't get that angle, or only a little peek at it, go ahead and send the photos anyway, we may still be able to make a positive ID based on the clarity of the images and/or habitat, date (some species only fly early or late in the season), etc.
    • Pictures of other species flying at the same location can tell us what an otherwise unidentifiable butterfly is in your photo. This is because the season can vary widely depending on your location and elevation. A species that might not be expected to fly in late May could be corroborated by other unexpectedly late or early-flying species seen in the same location at the same time.
    • Even blurry photographs can sometimes be identifiable, so don't hesitate to send what you have!
    • If you can't get a photograph, give a clear description of what you saw and the record might still be accepted. For example, a "brown butterfly flying in sagebrush-steppe habitat" wouldn't be accepted because it could be any of three species of wood nymphs, but "a small white butterfly with orange-tipped wings" could only be a Julia's Orangetip, nothing else looks like it! While female Great Spangled Fritillaries look nothing like Mourning Cloaks when viewed side by side, they can easily be mistaken for Mourning Cloaks when they're flying because of the general darkness of their wings with the light tan/yellow border. If you can describe that you are seeing a butterfly with solid black (or reddish tinted in the sun) wings, an obvious thin yellow border on the wing and a row of blue spots just inside the border, we would be able to accept it as a Mourning Cloak record.
For Idaho butterflies, I am unaware of any efforts to document records in the state. However, because of the lack of field guides covering the whole state, I am considering writing a simple guide to Idaho butterflies, so am interested in compiling information about the distribution of species across the state. If you live in Idaho or visit often and would like to submit records, please send me data as described above for Washington and I will keep this information in a similar database.

For Oregon butterflies, there are records-keepers for the state but I am not up to speed on who the primary contacts are for submitting records. If you are interested in submitting Oregon records, let me know and I will try to put you in contact with the correct people. A great Oregon-specific butterfly resource is the new website launched by Neil Bj√∂rklund: Butterflies of Oregon

In addition to the individual records-keepers, some records websites include:
These websites are handy but they don't "talk" to each other and some of the users submit their records on more than one site, so it can be tricky for record-keepers to monitor all of them to glean information and to check for duplicate records between the sites. My recommendation is that if you wish to submit your records to these websites, you also send your data to a local records-keeper (myself or others).

Happy hunting!
Zerene Fritillaries at the Sinlahekin, July 2018