Annual butterfly count ‘shattered all records’

by Ryder W. Miller


The 23rd annual San Francisco Butterfly Count, held on Father’s Day this year, “shattered

all records,” according to Liam O’Brien, a lepidopterist and organizer for the annual

butterfly count.

GreenHairstreak-8-17 copy

Green Hairstreak Butterfly

“It’s never come together like this, folks, in the last 12 years I’ve been running it.

Yes, we’ve had heat, but the count usually gets disturbed on count day with

the ‘wall of June gloom’ tsunaming out half the circle to the West,” wrote O’Brien via e-

mail to participants.


“I woke up last Sunday, June 18, stepped out on my front porch, looked up at Twin Peaks,

and thought, ‘My God, I think they might see Butterflies in the Presidio today,’”

O’Brien said. “People don’t realize that too hot is just as bad for butterflies as too

cold. They dart into bushes and get into the shade to cool down – not so good when your

trying to inventory them.”


Butterflies, despite some of their bright colors, can be hard to find. According to

Wikipedia, “Butterflies are often polymorphic, and many species make use

of camouflage, mimicry and aposematism to evade their predators.”  Bright colors can

also provide a warning in the animal and plant kingdoms – that they contain toxins and

should not be eaten.


Eight parties of 18 people each spread out on a warm Father ’s Day to make SF

Butterfly Count history. The total number of species found were 29, which beat the

previous record from 2012 of 26. The total number of individuals seen was 1,435,

up from the 2011 record of 967.


“Numbers like we never had before,” O’Brien said. “Everything looked pretty



One of the special sightings was of a Spicebush Swallowtail, and the Anise

Swallowtail was seen in record numbers this year.


Some places to watch butterflies in the afternoon without doing any harm include

Golden Gate Park’s Strawberry Hill and Botanical Gardens, and Grandview Terrace.


In related news, the local Green Hairstreak Project is going strong, but more public

involvement is desired. The Green Hairstreak Project connects wildlife corridors for

butterflies and other species in the west side of the City.


This year’s Green Hairstreak Festival, which is held at Herbert Hoover Middle

School, had a larger than usual crowd. “We have begun seeing Green Hairstreaks in the

Hoover Middle School habitat gardens, and this is so encouraging

to the students, who, with Kids in Parks, get immersive outdoor education and

learn a ton about the butterfly,” said Amber Hasselbring, who manages the Green

Hairstreak Project. “We spotted our first male butterfly in mid-December, a

whole month earlier than ever on record.”


The butterfly emerged at the Tiled Steps Project at 16th Avenue and Quintara

Street and was seen during the volunteers’ third Saturday of the month workday.


“The current trend seems to be that butterflies are flying in larger numbers during the

warm, sunny still days of early spring from March through May,” said Hasselbring.

“We are committed to taking care of our 11 existing sites with great care, and we have a

growing backyard natives nursery, where residents care for a number of plants in their

own backyards, and we then plant them in the corridor each winter. We are looking

for new people to adopt plants to care for,” Hasselbring said.


Hasselbring urged local residents to get involved with the butterfly habitat program.


“We have a new batch of signs up that let people know how to see and discover

these butterflies and how they can participate in citizen science efforts, like posting

on iNaturalist. When the habitat is intact, so many other species benefit. And people

also benefit by learning about how important it is to plant native plants so keenly

adapted to our local climates and soils.


“We are looking forward to developing new ways to study the corridor in a more

prolonged way and are looking for volunteers and ideas for how to do this by utilizing

our community ties, best practices and new relationships. However, with a small

part time staff of three people, we need extra motivation,” Hasselbring said.


The SF Butterfly Count results showed numerous species, including: Western

Tiger Swallowtail (23); Anise Swallowtail (125 – a new national record); Pipevine

Swallowtail (38); Cabbage White (487 – a new San Francisco record); Orange

Sulphur (5); Gray Hairstreak (17); Echo Blue (194 – a new count record); Acmon

Blue (50 – a new count record); Western Pygmy Blue (2); Gulf Fritillary (21); Field

Crescent (3); Mylitta Crescent (41); California Sister (4); Harriet Reinhard (1 –

established in 1984, rare in city proper); American Painted Lady (7); Painted Lady

(13); West Coast Painted Lady (8); Red Admiral (28); Common Buckeye (56);

Satyr Anglewing (2); Mourning Cloak (2); Monarch (3); California Common Ringlet

(30); Common Wood Nymph (74); Mournful Duskywing (2); Common

Checkered Skipper (48); Fiery Skipper (11); Sandhill Skipper (6); Umber Skipper

(31); Rural Skipper (5); Unid. Papilionid (9); Unid. Nymphalid (46); Unid.

Hesperiid (7); Unid. Lycaenid (42).


For more information about the annual butterfly count or the Green Hairstreak

Project, go to the websites at and

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