by Sue Ann Kendall
In my personal blog earlier this week, I shared photos of a lot of butterflies I’ve been seeing around Milam County. One of our readers, who is also a follower of this blog, expressed surprise that we see so many butterflies in the autumn. She also wondered where the butterflies came from. Were they here all along or are they migrating through? It got me to wondering if this was an atypical year or if there are usually plentiful butterflies in early November. And I thought for sure some of the butterflies (monarchs and snouts) migrated but I figured the rest were born here and stayed on to become food for the birds.
So, I went and looked up whether the butterflies we see here migrate or stay here, and what times of year they are seen most. I got all the information off iNaturalist and Wikipedia, and I have lots of links in this post that you can explore.
Dione vanilla have been seen to migrate twice a year (in Florida). But they only go from south Florida to north Florida. Here is the chart of their distribution here in Texas (from iNaturalist). You can see they are here year-round but peak around the beginning of autumn, when all those yellow flowers are out.
There have been lots of observations around where I live, so they are pretty common, but beautiful.
This one, Junonia coenia, I see a lot but only at some times of the year. It’s also seen year round here but has a spring peak as well as a fall peak. I’m getting the idea that autumn is a big butterfly time here!
These do migrate, but seem to be here all year, because it isn’t too cold, I guess. Here’s what research says:
Common buckeyes move to the south along with tailwinds directed to the north or northwest after the cold fronts from September or October. They are sensitive to the cold and cannot spend the winter in northern regions that will experience extreme cold temperatures. However, they will migrate back from the south during the spring. It was spotted in California in late summer, early fall of 2022.The butterfly gardener’s guide. Dole, Claire Hagen. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Botanic Garden. 2003. ISBN 978-1889538587. OCLC 52223505.
Battus philenor is not as common this time of year. It’s also more of a forest butterfly than a prairie one, which explains why I saw it at Tarrin’s – lots of wooded areas near her ranch. This one is also more of a warm-season butterfly. I probably saw one of the last adults for this year. I see lots of observations of caterpillars right now on iNaturalist.
They must not migrate, since I didn’t find any information on that. I do want to note that they need the pipevine plant to lay eggs on, and I found a member of that family at my neighbor Sara’s place earlier in the year. Yay!
Danaus gilippus is most definitely a fall flyer. It’s only found in the southern US and is more common in South America. This one, like the monarch, uses milkweed plants as its host. It sure is pretty.
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is another one with two peaks. One thing I’m noticing, though, is that even the ones with a spring peak have a larger one in the autumn. So, that explains something that Louise was asking about: many butterflies seem to be autumnal!
Painted ladies are the most widespread of all butterflies and are found worldwide. I hadn’t known that! They are resident in places like where I live, but also migrate to northern areas in the summer.
Common Checkered-Skipper (Burnsius communis) is one I can’t get verified, but the ones I see sure look like the ones in the picture. It doesn’t seem to have been studied as much as many of the others, though it’s really pretty with its blue body and lacy pattern on the wings. And yep, it’s another one that is seen mostly in the autumn.
Euptoieta Claudia is common in this area. They seem to be prevalent all year except in the dead of winter. I think they’re pretty, too.
They use passion vines as their host, which may explain why we see so many here. I have LOTS of passion vines! They also like disturbed areas and open fields, which we have plenty of around here. They produce multiple broods per year, which may explain the prevalence during all the warm months.
Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole) is a tiny yellow butterfly, the smallest of the bunch, it turns out. We have lots of sulphurs around here, and they are very busy little fellows, so it’s hard to get photos. This one seems to go away in the hotter months. I do recall seeing them all winter, since we always have something blooming, like chickweed, which is one of its favorites.
This one is also white and other colors, so now I know that all those teeny ones I see are the same butterfly. I learned something!
Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus) is another small one. They are incredibly numerous around here and are very busy little things. I enjoy watching them skipping around. Well, when I read the article on them, it became clear why I see so many! They love Bermuda grass. Guess what all the pastures around here were planted in? Bermuda grass. The beloved coastal Bermuda has pretty much made life difficult for the native grasses around here, but I guess that makes the fiery skippers happy. It makes them a pest in Hawaii, though. I say, eat away, skippers!
I also learned why the butterflies I see that are identified as fiery skippers look so different. They are sexually dimorphic, with the males much brighter than the females. I’m suddenly becoming a butterfly expert as I write this.
I am trying to figure out what butterflies I see earlier in the year. Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) is one I know I see in spring. Even this one peaks in the fall, though. It’s tiny, but holds still enough that I can get photos. Thanks!
These guys, American Snout (Libytheana carinenta), just migrated through here, so I know they are migratory. But they are most often seen in autumn, like all the others so far. Migrations happen after droughts that are followed by heavy rains, which explains the one last week. The Wikipedia article says sometimes there are so many that they darken the sky. Wow. Funny looking, too.
Another beauty, Phyciodes tharos is more of a spring and summer butterfly that’s found all over North America. It’s very common in this area.
Asterocampa celtis is one of the summer butterflies around here, probably because of its ties to the hackberry tree (which we have plenty of). I guess it shows up when the trees start blooming.
This is a weird butterfly. It’s rarely seen visiting flowers (I see it on trees, duh). And it doesn’t pollinate the trees:
Species in the genus Asterocampa are regarded as being “cheater” organisms, since these butterflies do not pollinate flowers when they feed from them. This species can more accurately be described as parasitizing their hosts and plant food sources since they extract nutrients without providing any benefits to the host.Neck, Raymond W. (1983). “SIGNIFICANCE OF VISITS BY HACKBERRY BUTTERFLIES (NYMPHALIDAE: ASTEROCAMPA) TO FLOWERS” (PDF). Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society. 37 (4): 269–274.
How about that?
Eastern Giant Swallowtail
I’ll stop with Papilio cresphontes, since I finally found one that isn’t most common in the autumn. This one is more of a summer butterfly. It’s always great to see one of these gracefully flitting around.
This is the largest butterfly in North America, so I’ve shared with you both the largest and the smallest today! The caterpillars are pests to citrus growers, but they are just beautiful sights as far as I’m concerned.
I lied about stopping. I forgot to stick the monarchs (Danaus plexippus) in my original post, figuring everyone already knows all about them, but since I have all kinds of delicious milkweed on my property for them to enjoy, I figure I’d better share their data, too.
As you can see, these are butterflies of summer, but you’ll still see a few of them at other times of the year. They are famous for migrating, but not all of them do so, thus the sightings at other times of the year. And did you know these were the first butterflies to have their genome sequenced? Yep. Also, did you know how to tell males from females? Males are larger and have a spot on a vein on each hindwing. I guess mine’s a female, or you can’t see the spot when the wings are folded.
I’m very lucky, because the only time I ever went to the interior of Mexico (it was for work), our hosts drove us the long way to Valle de Bravo, where we were meeting, so that we could drive through the mountains where the monarchs stay in winter. If you go around noon, they drop to the ground to feed, and we got to see hundreds and hundreds of monarchs floating down. We had to drive slowly to keep the butterflies safe, and there were men with flags that said “Mariposas – Despacio” (butterflies – go slowly) at the entrance to the forest. This was in the early 2000s, so there were way more monarchs than there are today.
From what I’ve looked at, it turns out that late summer to early autumn is the best time to see butterflies around here. It also appears that most of the butterflies we see in Milam County don’t migrate far, if at all. I enjoyed learning all this, and I hope you get something out of it, too.