Tips for butterfly watching

It’s been wonderful seeing so many butterflies in our garden. I never know when one will show up though, so it’s still unexpected and exciting to see them. Here are a few tips I’ve learned to increase the chances of spotting butterflies.

Keep an eye on their favourite places

Adult butterflies visit flower patches looking for nectar-rich flowers for food. They’ll also hang around them scouting for a mate. I group at least 3 plants of each kind of flower, and repeat groups if space allows. These groupings make it easier for butterflies to find the flowers while they’re flying past, and provide lots of food in one spot.

Keep a close eye on favourite butterfly flowers, such as Purple Coneflowers, Anise Hyssop, Ironweed, and annuals like Mexican Tithonia and Brazilian Verbena. Late in the summer, I checked our Ironweed patch often, and found a variety of butterflies there. Ironweed is very tall — at least 7 feet — with bright purple blooms, and I have two groups of them in front of our hedgerow.

A Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly on Ironweed flowers. (August 25, 2019)
A faded American Lady butterfly on Ironweed flowers. (August 31, 2019)
Two migrating Monarchs on Ironweed flowers. (September 1, 2019)

If you don’t have a garden of your own, you can visit a few butterfly gardens in Ottawa for free. Fletcher Wildlife Garden features many native flowers in a butterfly meadow, as well as a demonstration backyard garden. I always see butterflies when I’m there. Maplelawn Garden is a historic walled garden that was restored using an original Georgian garden plan. It includes classic garden flowers, a few native cultivars, and annuals all laid out in a formal style. In September, I visited Maplelawn Garden and saw dozens of migrating Monarchs and Painted Lady butterflies on annual salvias. Here’s my Youtube video of this stunning sight.

Host plants will also attract butterflies that are looking for a mate, or for a place to lay eggs. For example, if you stake out a patch of Milkweed plants in the summer, you’ll likely see Monarchs. Since many butterflies use native trees and shrubs as host plants, you may also find them in woodland clearings or forest edges.

A couple of years ago, our family was surprised to find a congregation of Black Swallowtail butterflies fluttering around on a hill near the Mooney’s Bay Playground. Apparently they were ‘hill-topping’, in which male butterflies hang out on top of a hill, and females will visit them there to mate.

Choose a sunny, calm afternoon

I don’t even bother looking for butterflies early in the morning because they aren’t active in cooler temperatures. They cannot fly when their body temperature is too low. Monarchs must be at least 13°C in order to fly, according to Journey North. Wait for the warmth of late mornings, afternoons, and early evenings.

If it’s cool, but still sunny, you might find butterflies warming up by basking on rocks or leaves in the sun. In September, I watched butterflies alternating between feeding on flowers in the increased shade and basking in the sun.

This Giant Swallowtail landed on a Lilac leaf to warm up in the late September sun. (September 25, 2019)

You’ll also increase your chances of seeing butterflies on calm days when it’s easier for them to fly.

Be still and give them some space

Butterflies are always on the look-out for predators. If you’re moving around nearby, if you get too close, or if you cast a shadow on or near them, they may mistake you for a predator and fly away. Use binoculars or camera for a better view. If you really can’t resist getting a closer look, move slowly toward them and stay lower to the ground.

Butterflies are always on the look-out for danger for good reason. This Little Wood Satyr narrowly missed becoming a Robin’s snack. When the Robin jumped at the butterfly, it startled me as well. (June 20, 2018)

When butterflies do get scared away, they’ll likely return to the floral food source. I’ve noticed that Monarchs will fly in a large circle, and then back to the same flowers.

Each summer, I see butterfly nets for sale in toy stores. You can enjoy and observe butterflies just fine without catching them in a net. You risk injuring their delicate wings in the process.

Be patient and watch for movement

Butterflies come and go when you least expect them, and they may not stick around for long. I park myself in the garden with my knitting so I can watch without getting bored.

Watch for movement. Once you stay put and observe, you’ll be surprised how much insect activity you’ll see. The same trick works for spotting birds. I sometimes see moving shadows on the ground, and then look up to find the butterfly or bird above.

Identifying butterflies

Once I started finding butterflies, I realized how few kinds I had seen before. I use a mix of sources, in print and online, to identify unfamiliar butterflies. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • A Pocket Guide to Butterflies of Southern & Eastern Ontario (and Southern Quebec), by Rick Cavasin. This is the first place I look when I am trying to identify a butterfly because the possibilities are narrowed down to our location. The pictures are small-ish, but easy to see all at once for comparison. Although the author provides lots of photos online, I prefer his handy, laminated guide. I bought mine at the Gilligallou backyard bird store in Almonte.
  • iNaturalist. I created an iNaturalist account (cornerpollinatorgarden) this summer, and I wish I had done it sooner. Once I upload a photo, iNaturalist suggests IDs. Usually within a day, I get confirmations or suggestions from other users. It’s tempting to get lazy and let iNaturalist and its more expert participants do the work for me, but I try to figure out an ID first.
  • The ROM Field Guide to Butterflies of Ontario, by Peter W. Hall et al. I use this to find out more information once I have narrowed down an ID. I like that it shows each butterfly’s caterpillar and provides interesting extra information. I’m particularly keen to discover each butterfly’s host plants to see if I have them already or might want to add them to my garden.
  • Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA) is a good online source for more information once I have narrowed down an ID. It’s quicker, and lighter, to use BAMONA on my phone when I’m outside than a paper field guide.
Without the help of iNaturalist, I’m not sure I could have identified this Northern Crescent butterfly in my garden. Its host plant is asters. (July 2, 2019)

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