Tips on Butterfly Watching

Resources:

  1. Butterfly Field Guide–The guide will also provide information on flight times, range, the foodplant (caterpillar food) and nectar sources (adult butterfly food).
  2. A Checklist of butterflies possible in your region of the state or country.
  3. Close-focusing binoculars will help you see details of pattern and color that are often necessary to identify the butterfly.

Use of these resources will make your search easier and your identification more certain.

Finding Butterflies:

  1. Seek out open areas with a variety of natural vegetation, especially flowering plants. Butterflies sometimes rest in the sun to warm their flight muscles (basking), and are most active during midday on a sunny, warm (~60 degrees F), and windless day.
  2. Walk slowly and watch carefully for flying butterflies and those perched on flower heads, blades of grass, leaves of shrubs and trees, and those resting on moist ground or along the edges of puddles. Some perched butterflies rest with wings open while others have their wings closed. They are often hard to notice unless you patiently and carefully observe your surroundings.
  3. Pick a promising area that is relatively close to home and begin to explore at frequent intervals during the Spring/Summer season and at different times during the day from 9 am to 3 pm. Record your observations and make notes of date, species seen, weather conditions, temperature and hours spent exploring.
  4. Adult butterflies can be found taking nutrients (nectaring) on flowers, from sap on tree trunks, rotten fruit, and dung. Often male butterflies are found on a favorite perch (perching) waiting for a passing female or are flying back and forth in a territory (patrolling) on the hunt for a mate.  Males also gather on moist ground to take mineral salts used in reproduction (puddling), or are found flying at the peak of hills (hilltopping). Caterpillars are sometimes located feeding if you find the right larval foodplant (host plant). Butterflies found feeding or mating are sometimes easier to approach for close and prolonged observation.

Identifying Butterflies:

  1. When a butterfly is first observed in the field or garden, carefully notice as many features as possible BEFORE turning to the field guide.
    • Relative size (large (>2-1/2”) – like swallowtails; medium (1-1/2 to 2-1/2”) – like most brushfoots; or small (<1-1/2”) – like grass skippers or blues)
    • Shape of wings (rounded, pointed, or with forewings truncated)
    • Posture (open or closed wings) when perched
    • Color and pattern on the wings
    • Flight pattern (close to ground or higher) and flight behavior (wings flat or at an angle)
    • Behavior (basking, nectaring, perching/patrolling, puddling, hilltopping, courtship/mating, oviposting (laying eggs))
  2. All of these observations will provide helpful clues. Your observation and identification skills will improve with continued practice and time spent in the field.

  3. Try to place the butterfly in the right family
  4. Butterflies are seasonal and each species flies at certain times during the year (flight) and only in certain parts of the country (range) and in certain types of plant associations (habitat). A good field guide will help greatly with these aspects of butterfly watching.
  5. Explore areas like fields of wildflowers, hilltops, canyons, stream sides, marshes, trails and roadsides in open space areas. All of these areas provide different habitats and should yield a variety of butterflies.
  6. Most of all enjoy the time you spend outdoors and approach your quest with enthusiasm to learn about these beautiful creatures.