Where have all the monarchs gone?: Counting butterflies at the Schuylkill Center [photos]

When Jan Clark-Levenson’s daughter, Michelle, was eight and attending the Miquon School, she found a rare white butterfly with symmetrical black dots and bright orange tips on its wings.

The falcate orangetip had not been seen in the region for many years, so, at first, local butterfly experts didn’t believe it.

But the next year, Michelle got credit for finding a whole colony of falcate orangetips. Her story was featured in American Girl magazine and inspired her mother to pursue butterfly identification as a hobby and passion.

A summer tradition

On Thursday, Jan Clark-Levenson, now a former president of the local chapter of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), volunteered to guide other wildlife enthusiasts in an annual butterfly count at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, not far from the Miquon School.

About a dozen people joined Clark-Levenson for the count, which is part of NABA’s efforts to track butterfly populations and diversity in the region.

“We really do it for research purposes, to see what’s here,” said Claire Morgan, volunteer coordinator at the center.

Monarchs gone missing


Morgan said the group found 16 different species last year, but she expected that one of the most recognizable butterflies would not be found on this year’s walk.

“We think the monarchs are down. In Mexico their overwintering areas are being deforested,” she said. 

“I saw one fly by me in Center City,” a young woman told the group.

“You have to be careful,” Clark-Levenson said, “you can easily misidentify a viceroy for a monarch. I haven’t seen a monarch yet.”

Other species were in abundance as the group set off from the center’s main building. A silver-spotted skipper flitted overhead and landed on one of the potted native plants the center cultivates and sells to gardeners and landscapers.

Some counters carried laminated sheets with large color photos of common species. Others flipped through wrinkled field guides. But most of the time, Morgan or Clark-Levenson knew the species on sight.

Forty minutes in, the group had walked less than half a mile into the woods and already identified nine species, but still no monarchs.

“We usually have lots of big butterflies that are really easy to identify,” said Morgan as the group paused near a meadow on the western side of the center’s grounds where the land drops off toward the river.

Here, the sound of traffic rushing by on the Schuylkill Expressway reminded the group they were still in Philadelphia. “We haven’t seen any of those butterflies today,” Morgan said. “It’s all been these smaller species that are generally harder to spot.”

The final tally

As the count wound down after two hours, Myron Anton, who travelled 40 minutes to the Schuylkill Center from his home in the Northeast, reminisced about his travels around the world in search of natural beauty.

In Africa, he saw elephants and lions and wildebeests in the wild. His birding life list got so long, he gave up keeping track and took up butterfly identification.

“But really any day I get to walk in the woods is a good day in my book,” Anton said as he made his way up a gravel path.

No one spotted a monarch, but as the group dispersed at the main building, Claire Morgan tallied the species they identified.

“Sixteen species this year,” she said. The group found 16 last year.

And as they’ve done for the last 25 years, they’ll count butterflies again next year.

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