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'Flying Jewels' Sparkle in Georgia Skies

September 14, 2003|Elliott Minor | Associated Press Writer

ALBANY, Ga. — Jerry Payne is not afraid to climb north Georgia slopes and slog along soggy riverbanks near Macon to count butterflies.

It's his passion.

Payne and other enthusiasts take part in several of the eight butterfly counts held throughout the state each year. They scour the countryside, armed with binoculars, sunscreen and insect repellent as they search for American ladies, fiery skippers, Eastern tigers and about 160 other butterfly species that live in Georgia.

"They don't bite, they don't sting and they don't carry diseases," said Payne, who lives near Macon in Lizella. "They're as colorful as firecrackers and not as dangerous."

What these so-called citizen scientists have found this year has environmentalists elated: The butterfly population appears to have rebounded from a four-year drought that deprived the colorful, fluttering insects of habitat and the nourishing nectar they sip from flowers.

The higher numbers indicate a healthy ecosystem.

Enthusiasts near Forsyth reported 57 types of butterflies. The count of individual butterflies was found to have increased 350% over last year.

"This year was extraordinary," said Terry Johnson, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist responsible for plants and non-game animals. "We've set all kinds of records and seen more species that we've ever seen before."

The counts -- there are 494 nationwide -- are reported to the North American Butterfly Assn., which works to increase enjoyment and conservation.

Besides alerting scientists to possible environmental hazards before they affect humans, butterflies also add to the quality of life with their beauty and, in the caterpillar stage, they are an important food source for birds, Johnson said. He calls them flying jewels.

Payne, 65, a retired entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has the best of both worlds -- he is also an avid bird-watcher. He believes the popularity of bird- and butterfly-watching is a sign of growing environmental awareness.

"Everybody, I guess, has had that epiphany," he said. "They've been out and hunted, fished, littered the environment and cut down the pine trees. Now they want to give back."

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