Butterfly Nature Trail

Butterflies at Rockfish Valley Foundation (RVF)

In accordance with the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), an official Butterfly Count Circle was established in Nelson County in 2000. RVF has been one of the most important locations in this count circle since 2005.

Beginning in 1992, NABA has sponsored Butterfly Counts throughout North America. The Butterfly Count is similar in nature to the better-known Christmas Bird Count that has been conducted by the National Audubon Society for more than a century. As with the Christmas Bird Count, NABA has created a grid of Butterfly Count Circles that are 15 miles in diameter. The Count Circle that was created in Nelson County has its geographic center near the end of Davis Creek, which incorporates most of the county. The top of the Circle encompasses Reid’s Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Nelson Butterfly Count takes place once a year on a single day in July. 2015 marked the 15th annual count. In 2005, RVF created its first trail system, and those trails and meadows were added to the list of locations for participants to visit on the Butterfly Count. The result of adding RVF as a counting location on the Butterfly Count was immediately impressive, and the RVF trail system became one of the most popular and well-liked stops on the Count day by participants. To date, 38 species have been observed on the RVF trail system on official Count Days, with additional species observed during other times of the year.

One butterfly species, the Gray Hairstreak, Strymon melinus, has been observed in a few locations in Nelson County. However, it is far from common in the area, and RVF is the only place where it can reliably be found. RVF is also the only location where it has been observed on the Count Day. The west trail along the Rockfish River at RVF apparently offers a micro-environment conducive to this species, as it is sometimes can be seen in numbers during the Count Day.

Although moths are not an official part of the butterfly count, the current leader of the Nelson Butterfly Count keeps a record of any moths observed on the count day. A number of day-flying moths are always seen, but the Black-bordered Lemon, Marimatha nigrofimbria, has never been observed at any location other than RVF on the Count Day. This moth is quite striking and easy to identify, and while it is not listed on any watch list, it is seldom seen in Nelson County. The RVF meadows appear to be good habitat for this moth.

RVF trails and meadows have become an integral part of the Nelson Butterfly Count, and the entire morning segment of the day-long Count is spent at RVF by the team of observers led by the Count leader. A second team covers the mountain areas of the Count Circle. The afternoon segment of the Count includes two other locations of significance, and together with RVF, these three sites produce 95% of the butterflies observed on Count Day.

The trails and meadows at RVF are superb places for seasoned butterfly watchers to find a wide variety of species throughout the year. They also provide one of the best locations in Nelson County for beginners to learn about butterflies, moths, and the plants that provide food and shelter for these important insects. As such, RVF trails are a popular destination for nature instructors desiring an accessible, user-friendly outdoor classroom.