Rare Butterflies in Upstate New York

Rare Butterflies in Upstate New York

Peter Hall, advisor to eButterfly
Saratoga Sand Plains Wildlife Management Area

Among the most unique and at-risk habitats in eastern North America are the sand plains of central New York state. The localized, rolling dunes in this area are covered in pitch pines with a low ground cover that has been dominated by sundial lupines. This combination also makes them one of the last strongholds for a number of butterflies that are also at risk.

Karner Blue Plebejus samuelis

In a visit there in mid-May 2023, four of us from Ontario visited the key sites. We were especially looking for three butterfly species – Karner Blue Plebejus samuelis, Frosted Elfin Callophrys irus, and Mottled Duskywing Erynnis martialis. Being from Ontario, our interest was also in the measures being taken by state and conservation authorities to save and, in some cases, recover the necessary habitats for these rare butterflies. All three are now extirpated or endangered in Ontario. We were hoping to gain more information to aid possible reintroduction or recovery programs now underway in the province.

Frosted Elfin Callophrys irus

Two sites were of particular interest. The Albany Pine Bush Preserve is on the western edge of the city of Albany. It has a wonderful Discovery Center and a series of trails through areas that have been enhanced for lupines to grow. The plant is the main food source for the Karner Blue and the Frosted Elfin caterpillars. In addition to talking to conservation staff at the center, we also walked several trails and found Frosted Elfins to be common and one Karner Blue. The Elfins were at peak flight period while the later-emerging Karner Blues were just starting their flight season.

Our next site was the Saratoga Sand Plains Wildlife Management Area north of Albany. We were met there by dedicated staff who took us on a tour of the prime areas that have been developed and were at various stages of lupine recovery. The lupine numbers were impressive, and the Frosted Elfins were numerous. Even the Karner Blues were further along than at Albany and were relatively easy to find.

While at Saratoga, we also saw the efforts being made to recover the Mottled Duskywing, which feeds as a caterpillar on species of ceanothus, especially New Jersey Tea. While not common, the duskywing was seen and photographed at several locations.

Mottled Duskywing Erynnis martialis

The impressive work being done on the sand plains of upstate New York offer hope for the conservation of these rare butterflies in Ontario and other parts of the eastern United States.