By Peter Vankevich
The Ocracoke Observer newsroom has received its share of interesting visitors. Located on a dirt road near the lighthouse, it overlooks one of the island’s mosquito control canals, originally designed to be tidal and would whisk larvae out to the Pamlico Sound. So, it’s not unusual to see a variety of birds, turtles, butterflies, dragonflies and other interesting fauna.
Okay, to perhaps the envy of other newspapers, the Observer newsroom is a screened porch that provides this view.
While working on Aug. 6, a large butterfly flew through the ajar door. Glancing up from the laptop screen, I noticed it was trying to get out but was blocked by the screens.
“Looks like a monarch,” said Connie Leinbach, the paper’s editor.
Walking over to it to take a closer look, I said, “That’s definitely not a monarch. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one like this before.”
I grabbed a butterfly identification guide. The butterfly’s orange wings with tiny white spots and black borders made identification easy–a queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus).
After I took several photos with a camera and a smart phone against the morning’s glaring light, it was time for the butterfly’s freedom. Leinbach placed a wide-mouth container over it, captured it and released it outside.
Upon further research, I discovered that this is one of the rarest of the approximately 175 butterfly species of North Carolina.
I discovered this by checking Jeff Pippen’s excellent photographic nature website that covers lots of birds, butterflies, dragonflies, amphibians and reptiles along with a lot more flora and fauna.
He described it as a rare migrant from farther south. Queens have been found several times along the N.C. coast, primarily around Fort Fisher, New Hanover County.
“Will Cook and I found one of the first ones at Ft. Fisher in 1995!” Pippen exclaimed on the site. But in 1999, Hurricane Floyd struck the area and might have wiped out the tiny colony.
I followed up with Harry LeGrand, author and chief editor of the Butterflies of North Carolina website found on the larger North Carolina Biodiversity Project website.
He referred me to the queens’ distribution map on the website, noting this was the first report from Hyde County.
On a good year, there may be 10 reports for the entire state.
Sometimes described as the southern cousin of the monarch butterfly, the queen belongs to a family (Danaidae) that is common to both New and Old Worlds, specifically found throughout the tropics and into the temperate regions of the Americas, Asia and Africa.
In the United States, they can be found regularly in peninsular Florida and southern Georgia, as well as in the southern portions of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, rarely straying farther north.
It was a newsworthy story back in 1995 for the Chicago Tribune, which reported a sighting in Cooks County, the first time seen since a single one was observed back in 1928.
Beyond the immediate curiosity, the article said that such reports intrigue scientists who study the distribution of species as unexpected visitors may signal otherwise invisible ecological shifts.