Bring on the Butterflies!
Butterflying made simple! Learn butterfly names and where the best places are to look for them.
Discover why butterflying is one of the fastest-growing outdoor hobbies in North America.
Yes, this does involve turning the word “butterfly” into a verb, but it doesn’t mean you have to watch out for sticks of butter flying through the air. This hobby is parallel to the world of birding. In short, it involves finding, identifying and enjoying the many kinds of butterflies in the wild. It’s the perfect activity for anyone who enjoys being outdoors on gorgeous, sunny days—and who doesn’t?
A World of Variety and Color
It’s no wonder that thousands of people are taking up this pursuit. More than 600 species of butterflies live in the U.S. and Canada, and they come in limitless colors and sizes. To see all these varieties, you would have to travel to beautiful landscapes all over the continent, from mountain meadows in the Rockies to subtropical woods in the Florida Keys or desert canyons in California. Of course, you don’t actually have to travel to see butterflies. As with birding, butterflying offers endless surprises and rewards right in your own backyard.
With so many kinds out there, it helps to have a good field guide to identify your finds. When you see a butterfly, start by considering the size: Is it large like an eastern tiger swallowtail, small like a spring azure or somewhere in between? Keep in mind that little butterflies don’t grow up to be big ones—they are full-grown by the time they go through the pupa stage and emerge as winged adults.
Identifying Butterflies continued
Next, look at wing shape. Are the wing edges irregular like those of an eastern comma? Do they have long “tails” on the hindwing, like a zebra swallowtail? The color pattern of those wings is important as well. Sometimes the best field marks involve minor details of just a few different spots or lines.
Flight action is worth watching, too. The monarch and viceroy butterflies have similar color patterns, but the monarch sails along with its wings held up in a shallow V, while the viceroy makes several quick flaps and then goes into a flat-winged glide.
Some people prefer to go butterflying with a camera, taking pictures of their finds, and then looking them up later. If you do this, be sure to take photos from all angles. Sometimes you need to see the wings from both the top and the underside in order to figure out the ID.
The Right Binoculars
Binoculars for watching butterflies? At one time, that wouldn’t have made sense. Until recent years, no binoculars would focus any closer than 20 or 30 feet away, too far to be useful for such small creatures. But optics companies have heeded the needs of naturalists, and today you can find binoculars that will focus down to less than five feet, allowing you to see fine details on even the tiniest butterflies without scaring them away. Check the figures for “minimum focusing distance” when shopping for optics. Not only are close-focusing binoculars ideal for watching butterflies and other little things, they’ll also give you stunning looks at birds visiting bird feeders right outside your window.
For successful butterflying, you don’t have to tough it out in bad weather. In fact, there’s no point in going out when it’s cold or rainy, because butterflies won’t be flying. The best butterfly activity is on warm, sunny days without too much wind. A few kinds will fly on cloudy days, even in the deep shade of the forest, but most like sunshine and they’ll stop flying when it’s overcast.
To find a good variety of species, it helps to visit a variety of habitats. A few types of butterflies will range far and wide over the countryside, but many are limited to particular habitats. For example, the little wood-satyr likes forest edges, the bronze copper lives around marshes and swamps, and the meadow fritillary prefers damp meadows. Some butterflies are almost always found very close to the host plants for their caterpillars: juniper hairstreaks are usually perched on eastern red cedars and other kinds of junipers, while eastern pine elfins are invariably close to pines. If you explore new, natural habitats, you are likely to find new butterflies.
Try Every Season
As long as you have a mild, sunny day, there is no “best” time of year to look for butterflies. In fact, it’s good practice to try different months of the year. Some butterflies have long flight seasons, but others are flying for just a few weeks in spring, midsummer or fall. If you go out repeatedly at different seasons, you’ll find a distinct mix of species on the wing each time.
Where to look? Overgrown fields with a variety of wildflowers are always a good place to check for butterflies. Many butterflies are attracted to mud puddles to absorb salts and other chemicals.
Where do butterflies go when you’re not seeing them?
A few types migrate, but most are permanent residents. When you don’t see adult butterflies on the wing, it just means they’re going through their other life stage: egg, larva (caterpillar) and pupa. Butterfly eggs are pinhead-sized and hard to spot, but searching for the caterpillar and pupa stages can add interest to your time outdoors. However you decide to approach it, butterflying can add to your enjoyment of time outdoors and your appreciation of a world of small wonders.
The Basic Butterfly Groups
- Swallowtails: Large butterflies, often with extended “tails” on hindwings.
- Whites and sulphurs: Butterflies mostly of open country, usually white, yellow or orange.
- Blues: Very small, with weak, fluttering flight. Usually blue on top of wings.
- Hairstreaks: Very small, fast-flying. Often have threadlike “tails” on hindwings.
- Coppers: Fairly small, mostly in fields and marshes. Usually with some coppery brown markings.
- Fritillaries, crescents and checkerspots: Medium-sized to small. Usually orange with intricate pattern of black on top of wings.
- Brushfooted butterflies: Our most varied group, large to small, but often very colorful.
- Satyrs: Usually some shade of brown. Floppy flight, often in wooded areas.
- Spreadwing skippers: Small, with thick body and fast flight. Often some shade of gray, black or white.
- Grass skippers: Small, with thick body and fast flight. Usually some shade of orange.