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Albany Pine Bush A Vital Habitat To Rare Butterflies

As many Capital Region residents know, the Albany Pine Bush Preserve is home to a rare type of butterfly called the Karner blue. But the unique landscape is also home to a species that the federal government wants to know more about.

Inside the Truax Barrens at the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, Conservation Director Neil Gifford stands on a sandy path.

Looking across a green, brushy landscape, there are scrub oak plants about a yard tall and scraggly-looking pitch pines. One of the largest scrub oak-pine barrens in the country, Gifford says this area is home to a variety of animal species.

“Prairie warblers, indigo buntings, brown thrashers, and a number of reptiles and amphibians like spotted turtle, box turtles, spadefoot toad, which is a desert toad.”

And of course the Karner blue butterfly.  A tiny, cerulean flyer comes in for a landing.

“Is it a he?”

“It’s a he.”

“It’s a he. And he’s hanging out right on the cuff of my jeans, on my boot right now.”

The adult female Karner blue lays its eggs on a plant called wild blue lupine. It’s also the only plant its caterpillars eat.

Here, in early June, blue patches of lupine flowers stand out amid the green scrub. In the distance, there’s a plume of smoke, as workers with the Pine Bush Preserve Commission start a prescribed fire. Gifford says without the fires, the landscape and its wild blue lupine cannot remain.

“Fire has been on this landscape in ecological time for tens of thousands of years. And this site has existed for a pitch pine-scrub oak barren for thousands and thousands of years as a result of that relatively frequent wildland fire.”

Thanks to the Pine Bush Preserve Commission’s work, the Karner blue’s population was declared recovered four years ago.

But we’re also on the lookout for another rare species, the frosted elfin, a small brown butterfly.

Gifford explains that both species make use of different parts of the wild blue lupine, a plant which has seed pods, similar to peas.

“As the pods develop, the threatened frosted elfin butterfly lays its eggs on the pods. And that’s how the two species, Karner blues and frosted elfin, share the same resource, or the same plant. One feeds exclusively as a caterpillar on the seed pods, the other eats principally the leaves.”

While both species emerge with the lupine in the spring, we didn’t see any frosted elfin on this day – it’s a little late in their flight season. The adults only live about two or three weeks.

But places like the Pine Bush Preserve are instrumental in understanding more about the species. Today, the federal government is looking to understand more about the frosted elfin in particular.

Robyn Niver is a conservation biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

“So enough states had identified this as a species of concern that it came on our radar as ‘Oh, how this is species doing? Is this a species we should also be worried about?’ Kind of at the federal level,” said Niver.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the condition of nearly 90 percent of frosted elfin populations across the eastern U.S. is unknown. Historically, the frosted elfin, which relies on wild blue lupine and another plant, wild indigo, ranged from the Northeast down to Florida and across to the Midwest.

A decision is expected in 2023 on the federal status of the frosted elfin. So areas like the Pine Bush, where biologists work to preserve shrinking habitat – and engage the public – are important.

“Most federally listed species are on private lands, especially in the East where we don’t have a lot of public land, so having excitement and support for rare species is essential,” said Niver.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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