Butterfly spotting, part 2: new butterfly visitors

This summer, I also discovered some new butterflies in the garden. I have been trying to attract them by adding more food plants: flowers with nectar for adults, and a variety of host plants for their caterpillars. My efforts are certainly paying off.

Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies

For the first time ever, I saw Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies. Over several weeks, we watched them drinking nectar from flowers.

You can see this butterfly’s proboscus that it uses like a flexible straw to drink nectar from flowers. Here it is drinking from Ironweed blooms. (August 25, 2019)
Such a pretty pattern inside the Great Spangled Fritillary’s wings. The latin word fritillus means chessboard, which describes this pattern well. This butterfly is feeding on Purple Coneflowers. (August 24, 2019)

I had read that Fritillaries use native violets as host plants. Since most people consider them an annoying weed, especially when they’re in lawns, they’re usually pulled out or mowed down. My neighbours kindly gave me some Common Blue Violets before they re-sodded their front lawn. I am letting them spread, along with Wild Strawberries, to form a natural, ‘living’ mulch beneath my hedgerow shrubs.

This thriving patch of Wild Strawberries and Common Blue Violets was alive with pollinators in the spring. I watched ground-nesting bees gathering pollen, and returning to their nests beneath the leaves. (May 26, 2019)

In the late summer, Fritillaries lay their eggs on or near violets. Newly hatched caterpillars don’t feed; instead they overwinter in leaf litter, and start eating fresh violet leaves the following spring.

Red Admiral butterflies

We only spotted Red Admirals a few times in our yard. I had heard from others that they were plentiful this year, but not for us.

A Red Admiral basking on a rock beside our artificial stream. (July 14, 2019)

Admittedly, Red Admirals are tricky to attract to the garden because their preferred host plants are nettles. Against my better judgement, I moved a Stinging Nettle seedling to my pollinator garden for Red Admirals. I now know that Stinging Nettle spreads vigorously through its root system and seeds. Controlling it is obviously a delicate, and sometimes painful, operation. I wouldn’t mind so much if I actually had Red Admiral caterpillars on the plant.

Next spring, I plan to move chunks of Stinging Nettles into big pots, surrounded by chicken wire to protect children and the dog, and dig out the rest. I’d also like to find False Nettle seeds, so I can try to attract Red Admirals in a less troublesome way.

Red Admirals may also use Hops as a host plant, like the Golden Hops vine that has spread from next door. This vine seems impossible to get rid of, despite our combined efforts on both sides of the back fence, so I don’t recommend planting it.

Another trait that makes Red Admirals more difficult to lure to the garden is that adults have an unusual diet. Instead of drinking nectar from flowers, they drink tree sap, fermented fruit, and bird droppings. While we do have a mature Sugar Maple in the back already, I’d like to add an apple or pear tree for the Red Admirals, as well as for us to eat.

A White Admiral butterfly

I only saw a White Admiral once. They lay eggs on a variety of shrubs and trees, such as the willow, birch, native cherries, and oak that are in our yard. The adult butterflies are also fans of sap, rotting fruit and animal droppings.

A White Admiral resting on a ‘Limelight’ Hydrangea flower cluster. (August 27, 2019)

A Mourning Cloak butterfly

This Mourning Cloak wouldn’t pose with its wings open, so you can’t see the pretty blue dots that line the creamy edges of its wings. Like the Admirals, Mourning Cloaks also feed on sap and dung. They overwinter as adult butterflies, hiding under bark or leaves. Then, they emerge early in spring, even before flowers are in bloom, which may explain their unusual food preferences.

This Mourning Cloak didn’t stick around for long. (July 17, 2019)

Mourning Cloaks will use willows as their host plant. I saw my first Mourning Cloak three years ago when we bought a Pussy Willow shrub at a fall nursery sale. I assume the butterfly hitchhiked home with us on the plant. They will also use Hackberry trees, like the one I chose for our front pollinator garden.

A few Blues

Up until a few years ago, I had no idea there were blue butterflies here in Ontario. On a Father’s Day walk at the local Pinhey Forest Trail, I spotted a tiny, ethereal, blue butterfly on the path. Since we spotted this butterfly in mid-June, I’m guessing it was a Summer Azure.

This pretty little butterfly was only about an inch across when its wings were open. (June 19, 2016)

This summer, I spotted a tiny blue butterfly visiting our Heart-leaved Aster flowers. I managed to take a few pictures with my phone before it flew away. You can see how small the butterfly is compared with the equally small flowers of this aster.

A dainty Eastern Tailed Blue, I think, on Heart-leaved Aster flowers. (August 30, 2019)

Eastern Tailed Blues lay eggs on legumes. I hope it found a patch of Wild Lupines, Showy Tick Trefoil, Round-headed Bush Clover, Canada Milk Vetch, or Wild Blue Indigo in our garden. The caterpillars that overwinter may hide inside the legume seed pods — another reason not to clean up the garden in the fall.

A Duskywing butterfly

Here is another butterfly I had never heard of before — a Duskywing. It was drinking nectar from Mountain Mint flowers before resting on an adjacent yarrow. It is either a Coumbine Duskywing, which uses Wild Columbine as a host plant, or a Wild Indigo Duskywing, which uses, you guessed it, Wild Indigo. I have both host plants in the front pollinator garden where I found this butterfly, so that doesn’t help me narrow down an ID.

iNaturalist suggests this is a Wild Indigo Duskywing, but I can’t distinguish it from other Duskywings. Perhaps its appearance so late in the summer indicates that it is a Wild Indigo Duskywing. (September 3, 2019)


Every once in a while I found Skippers in the garden, too. They’re small, but quite distinctive-looking; they hold one set of wings up, and the other set out to the side. They use various native grasses as host plants.

An unidentified Skipper on Anise Hyssop. (August 3, 2019)
You can see the wing position more clearly in this older photo. I think this was a European Skipper on ‘May Night’ Salvia. (June 25, 2018)

Sharing some tips, too

Next time, I’ll share some butterfly spotting tips with you, as well as some interesting observations I’ve made of butterfly behaviours.

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