A female Eastern tiger swallowtail rests on mountain mint at Panola Mountain. (Special Photo: Phil Delestrez)
Phil Delestrez walks down a path through a wide open field of native grasses and wildflowers, part of the 150-acre Power of Flight Area at Panola Mountain State Park. The heat from the sun is tremendous and gnats fly about, landing on sweaty skin, but Delestrez is oblivious. He’s on the hunt for butterflies.
“There’s a swallowtail,” he says excitedly, going on to explain that the Eastern swallowtail males are the yellow variety and the females predominantly black with blue, a tactic to make predators think they are the poisonous pipevine swallowtail.
A resources manager with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Delestrez is also a butterfly expert, so well regarded that an Atlanta Audubon Society member recommended he lead a butterfly educational program.
The Atlanta Audubon Society butterfly class takes place on Sept. 20 from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Panola Mountain State Park. Participants meet at the visitor center at Panola Mountain to learn about butterflies that can be found in the Atlanta area and the Piedmont region. Delestrez will discuss butterfly families — such as swallowtails, satyrs, grass skippers, spread wing skippers, sulphurs and monarchs — and their habitats.
After a lunch break, the group will drive to the Lake Alexander area, where they will proceed to hike into the Power of Flight grassland area in search of the colorful insects.
The round-trip hike is about three miles, and long pants, covered shoes and tick repellent is recommended. Those thinking that butterfly nets might be in order can go ahead and put that idea aside. Instead, hikers should bring a pair of close-focus binoculars and a digital camera.
The cost for the butterfly workshop is $55, or $50 for Audubon members, and the program is limited to 15 people. Because of the length of the program and the hiking involved, the butterfly excursion is open to those 12 and above. If a child comes with an adult, the cost for the child is $30.
Delestrez said the butterfly class and hike will not be like a visit to the Callaway Gardens butterfly center.
“It’s going to be a long time in the field and you’ll need a lot of patience,” said Delestrez.
Delestrez said the idea for the hike came about during a bird walk he was helping to lead with the Atlanta Audobon Society. That day, the Power of Flight grasslands attracted more butterflies than birds prompting the Audobon representative to suggest he lead a butterfly program.
Delestrez said the diversity of habitats in the Power of Flight area is what attracts the butterflies. Dry grasslands, wet meadows, bottom land forests and a river that runs the periphery of the area are ideal locations for a variety of butterflies, as well as other wildlife.
Since 2001, Delestrez and others have headed up an effort to restore native grasses and flowers in the Power of Flight area. Native thistle, mountain mint, rosinweed, golden root and boneset are just a few of the species that have been planted.
Not only are seeds and plants put in regularly, but prescribed burns also take place, which cull out non-native species. Native species grow back and, in fact, flourish after the burns.
The grasses are particularly important, said Delestrez, because certain butterflies only lay their eggs on specific types of grass, as their offspring, the caterpillars, only eat those grasses.
For example, sulphurs, the yellow and orange butterflies, only lay their eggs on plants in the pea family. Others, like those in the satyr family, are dependent on river cane. The monarchs, which pass through on their path from Mexico to Canada and back again, prefer the milkweed.
Thunder rumbles in the distance, a summer storm brewing, but Delestrez presses on into an area that he and volunteers planted last year with over 300 native grasses and plants. He comes back smiling, pleased that the plants are thriving and, in turn, the butterflies are feeding.
“To have that many plants up in one year, to see the clumps in the different places where you planted them is very satisfying,” he said.
To sign up for the butterfly workshop, download a registration form at www.atlantaaudubon.org and send the completed form with payment to the Atlanta Audubon Society office, 4055 Roswell Road, Atlanta, GA 30342, attention Melanie Furr. Call 678-973-2437 for more information.