Ten Butterflies for Beginners

(This column was first published in the June 1, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    They are flowers that take flight and their delicate beauty adds immeasurably to our fields and gardens. That sentence can only describe butterflies -- colorful insects that seem designed only to flutter away their brief lives to please us.

    In this column I suggest how to identify ten common and easily distinguishable butterflies but I don't want these notes to take away from simply appreciating these dainty fliers. Still it is fun to be able to name some of them and starting with the easiest is, I believe, the best way. You can add those tougher to identify once you have mastered these easy ones.

    My descriptions will focus only on major features for ease in learning. For more complete descriptions I recommend one of Jeffrey Glassberg's Butterflies through Binoculars guides, for beginners preferably the Boston-New York-Washington edition because it includes fewer species.

    To me the most distinctive butterfly is the tiger swallowtail. It is a large butterfly, bright yellow with black wing edges and black stripes that run parallel to its body. Its tiger stripes give it its surname while swallowtail describes the narrow black wing extensions that trail behind it. These butterflies have graced our gardens for several weeks already this spring.

    Replace the yellow of the tiger swallowtail with orange and you have our long distance migrant -- the monarch. Because these butterflies retreat to Mexico for the winter, they will not become common again here until late June. (In fact, most entomologists agree that the "returning" butterflies are offspring of those that flew south last fall.)

    Now we have our first look-alike, the viceroy. It is slightly smaller than the monarch, with which its almost identical orange and black pattern is easily confused. But unlike the monarch, the viceroy has a black stripe on the hind wing that crosses the other lines.

    The mourning cloak is another large butterfly. It is the only black (or very dark brown) butterfly with yellow wing edges. Because they overwinter as adults, these are among our earliest butterflies, but we are between broods now. They will become more plentiful again in mid-July.

    Our small white butterflies are almost all cabbage whites, an abundant and widespread species. Look for black dots on the wings -- one: male, two: female -- and a dark gray outer wingtip.

    Replace the white of the cabbage butterfly with lemon yellow and you have our two sulphur butterflies, the clouded sulphur and the orange sulphur. As is to be expected from its surname, the latter species has orange tints but, since the species interbreed, it is just as well for beginners to call them all sulphurs.

    Less common but a delight to find are our two tiny blue butterflies, each about half the size of the cabbage white. The Eastern tailed blue has minute swallowtails with several orange dots nearby. The spring azure lacks these characteristics and its females have dark wing borders.

    Rounding out my ten species are two medium sized brown butterflies with ragged looking wings -- the comma and the question mark. Tell them apart by looking at the small white punctuation mark from which their names derive on their underwings.

    Once you have mastered these common butterflies you will be ready to move on to the tougher IDs, in particular identification of the many look-alike skippers. If you make headway with them, you will find yourself well beyond my capability. -- Gerry Rising