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Butterflies and moths in our garden

other wildlife in our garden

What's a-fluttering?

Butterflies are the most popular visitors in most gardens, for sure. Until recently, I would just smile as a butterfly skipped by, and maybe follow it until it disappeared out of sight. But now that I'm armed with a camera, butterflies beware! I've gotten a lot of help from the friendly people at Gardenweb's butterfly garden forum identifying the various species featured here. Another good resource is the USGS Butterflies of North America website, and of course the invaluable help from the folks at Bugguide.net.

Most moths are rather non-descript and fly at night - so no photos of those. But there are a few that'll make you take notice quick! Until I started paying attention to my garden's wildlife, I had very little idea what distinguishes butterflies from moths. Friendly webbers pointed me to a nice little page with some basic information.

Butterflies and moths go through a full metamorphosis. Some pictures of caterpillars, their larval life stage, are included on my crawlers page.

Butterflies

monarch butterfly danaus plexippus

monarch butterfly danaus plexippus

The monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, is probably the most famous of the bunch. The photos here document my first sighting of one of these impressive butterflies in our Pennsylvania garden. On one sunny day in late July, there it was, gracefully dancing around the pond and the swamp milkweeds that surrounded it.
viceroy limenitis archippus

viceroy limenitis archippus

Viceroys are monarch lookalikes. Scientists still argue over the evolutionary purpose of the resemblance of the butterflies, which are not closely related species. We just like both of them, each on its own terms. It so happens that we spotted the viceroy one year before the monarch shown above, one day in mid-September. We were charmed by a visit by this graceful butterfly, which spent about fifteen minutes visiting our patio and pond area, and was not the least bit shy. I loved its gliding, almost floating motion. Viceroys use willows as caterpillar hosts. Although our arctic willow (pictured at left) was among the plants visited, I didn't notice any egg-laying going on - heck, I don't even know if this was a female...
Pennsylvania, Sept 2004

One year, all of a sudden, we saw quite a few of these beautiful, large Eastern tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus). This is the first one to sit still long enough for a picture. I'm glad it picked the verbena in the cutting garden to do so, because it makes for a pretty background. We hope to see many more of these. With a little luck, we'll get to see their really cool caterpillars, with fake eyes, as well. I'll be on the lookout.
Pennsylvania, August 2005

Eastern tiger swallowtail: papilio glaucus
gulf fritillary: Agraulis vanillae wing bottom gulf fritillary: Agraulis vanillae wing top

Having moved to Houston, it's only natural that I'd start seeing gulf fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) in the garden. For some time, I would see their cheerful orange shapes flitting about the garden, but they would never sit still. Finally, one was enticed by our Salvia 'Hot Lips' for long enough that I managed to snap a few pictures. I was surprised to see the striking color patterns of the bottom side of its hindwings, which isn't really apparent when the butterly is in flight. Gulf fritillaries are common in the southern reaches of the US. The one pictured here, seen in early October, was likely in the middle of its southward migration to Florida, where it will overwinter in a frost-free climate. Larval host plants are passionflowers, which our garden doesn't offer (yet). Still, in late summer and early fall, these are the butterflies we see most in our new garden.
Texas, October 2017

Azures are smaller butterflies. Frustrating for amateur photographers like me: in flight, they display their sky-blue upper wings, but when they sit down they fold their wings, to show their bluish gray underwings. Even those possess a delicate beauty, complemented by the black-and-white antennae, which are hard to discern from casual observation. The one photographed here, feasting on a rattlesnake master flower, is most likely the summer azure (Celastrina neglecta).

According to some information I found, the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) prefers bird poop and tree sap over flowers, but I guess it had to settle for our verbena.

Another nice encounter with a red admiral, this one enjoying the nectar from our sedum spectabile.

red admiral vanessa atalanta

The buckeye (Junonia coenia) may look very scary to its would-be predators, but it's a beauty in the eyes of us humans. This one was sunning itself on our concrete front walk in late August.

Orange sulphur (Colias eurytheme, identified by the slight orange coloration on the forewings) getting its nectar on a Verbena hastata alongside our pond.

orange sulphur butterfly
clouded sulphur

This clouded sulphur (Colias philodice) was nice enough to sit for a portrait

Another sulphur, species unknown, was enjoying our knautia arvensis one morning.

sulphur butterfly
banded hairstreak: satyrium calanus

Banded hairstreak (Satyrium calanus), skipping from flower to flower on a coreopsis in late June. Not a butterfly I see much, perhaps because it's quite inconspicuous most of the time. There's one generation per year, flying from June through August. Its host trees include oak, hickory, and walnut. gray hairstreak: strymon melinus

And here's its relative, the gray hairstreak (Strymon melinus), feasting on Joe Pye weed. I've only seen this species once.

meadow fritillary: boloria bellona

Just when I thought I'd encountered all butterflies that were likely to visit our garden, this meadow fritillary (Boloria bellona) comes along to feast on our echinaceas. Its larval host plant is viola, which our garden has in abundance (V. sororia, to be precise), so perhaps its offspring is already waiting in the wings, ready to fly out reinforcements in a few weeks. I wouldn't mind that at all – I was quite pleased with this one's brief visit.
Pennsylvania, July 2015

A beautiful spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) came to visit our garden one day, and just couldn't help but keep coming back to our perennial pea. I didn't mind having ample opportunity to observe and photograph its pretty colors and figure.
Pennsylvania, September 2005

This black swallowtail gal (Papilio polyxenes) had most likely just emerged, and wasn't too comfortable flying yet. After I took lots of pictures, bug-boy Ben managed to have her climb onto his hand and carried Ms Beautiful around for a bit. The first butterfly photos of the year (2006)!
Pennsylvania, June 2006

Papilio polyxenes: female black swallowtail
Papilio polyxenes: male black swallowtail

More than ten years later, we're establishing a new garden in Texas, and wouldn't you know it – there's black swallowtails here too! Although I've seen several species by now, this boy was the first large butterfly I managed to capture on digifilm (and not very well, either: he had to flutter hard to keep his balance in the stiff breeze that was blowing in our back yard). It's visits like this that remind me why I put so much sweat into building a colorful garden!
Texas, September 2017

I've also had the pleasure of meeting its offspring in its various stages. One of them is this colorful caterpillar, chomping away on our rue.

Papilio polyxenes: black swallowtail caterpillar
Papilio polyxenes: black swallowtail caterpillar

Papilio polyxenes: black swallowtail caterpillar

Above and to the right are two earlier larval stages of the same black swallowtail species. The one at top was perhaps an inch long, the one at right was real little at well under half an inch long. Isn't it amazing how many different appearances they take on during their life span? I found these on a parsley and a lovage plant in early to mid-June.
Pennsylvania, June 2014

swallowtail pupa

I spotted this empty shell of a chrysalis one late-October day, perched high on our back-yard fence. I have no idea how long it had been there, or when it was vacated, but it was certainly an impressive structure. I was told it had belonged to a swallowtail butterfly; given my observations around the Houston garden, that makes it likely a black swallowtail. Next time around, I hope to spot the pupa before the butterfly emerges!
Texas, October 2017

The cabbage white (Pieris rapae) is the butterfly we see most in our gardens. Their caterpillars are an agricultural pest, but the adults add a cheerful movement to our gardens throughout summer. This one is sitting on some stock (matthiola) foliage, drinking in the wonderful scent of the nearby flowers.

With most butterflies, I get only the undersides of the wings, or only the top sides (depending on how they like to sit down), but cabbage whites will do both, so here's another pic.

pieris rapae cabbage white mating

Making cabbage-white babies. The female is on the left.

Asterocampa celtis: hackberry emperor butterfly

I've seen this one only once, on the patio screen door right outside of our kitchen, one summer evening as dusk was approaching. It's a hackberry emperor (Asterocampa celtis), a butterfly known for its flighty behavior, not sitting still for pictures very often. I don't know where its host tree is, because I'm not aware of any hackberries in the neighborhood.

Skippers

Skippers (family Hesperiidae) are considered butterflies, but they are somewhat separate from their Papilionoidea brethren. In general, they are smaller and more skittish in flight, and most of the ones I've seen (with some exceptions as shown below) have more muted colors than those flashy big butterflies. So I keep my collections of skippers a bit separate, below.

checkered skipper pyrgus communis

checkered skipper pyrgus communis

The checkered skipper (the one pictured here is probably Pyrgus communis) is a smaller butterfly - not much more than an inch in wingspan. Most of the ones I encounter are very flighty, sunning themselves for a few seconds at a time at perches near ground level, and never stopping for a photo op. But this one, found on a cool October morning, was much more docile, allowing me to shoot close-up photos and even sitting on my finger for a few seconds.
Pennsylvania, October 2004 silver-spotted skipper: Epargyreus clarus

Silver-spotted skippers (Epargyreus clarus) were among the most common butterflies we'd see in our Pennsylvania garden. They normally prefer their flowers in the blue and red spectra, but the one pictured here just couldn't resist our mountain mint.
Pennsylvania, August 2004

Peck's skipper: Polites peckius

All of a sudden, in late July, Peck's skippers (Polites peckius) would descend upon our Allentown garden. They'd be all over! Although diminutive, they are fast fliers.
Pennsylvania, July 2004
Peck's skipper: Polites peckius
Cool tongue.
Pennsylvania, July 2005 wild indigo duskywing: Erynnis baptisiae

This skipper is most likely a wild indigo duskywing (Erynnis baptisiae), although baptisia was not among the many plants it visited when I found it fluttering through the garden.
Pennsylvania, August 2004 clouded skipper: Lerema accius

My first skipper sighting since moving to Texas, this clouded skipper (Lerema accius) is a little brown job among its more colorful brethren, but I was happy to spot it nonetheless. Its range, mostly the southeastern U.S. and further south into the Americas, doesn't quite include our previous garden in Pennsylvania, but it is quite similar in many respects to the skippers we saw there, documented above. They started appearing in July, and were quite plentiful by mid-August, continuing well into October. This one was nectaring at a salvia flower.
Texas, August 2017

long-tailed skipper: Urbanus proteus

When I first saw this irridescent beauty, I mistook it for a day-flying moth, but soon learned it was in fact a long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus). It occurs year-round here in Texas (and along the gulf coast and Florida), while it flies in late summer and fall in other parts of the eastern United States. Its caterpillars feed on plants in the bean family. I never did see it in Pennsylvania, but hope it will be a frequent visitor to our Texas garden.
Texas, October 2017

white-striped longtail skipper: Chioides albofasciatus

Just a few weeks after the first longtail sighting above, two other longtails were darting around our lantanas on a warm Saturday afternoon. While not quite as striking, I'm still happy that these white-striped longtails (Chioides albofasciatus) chose to vist our garden. They range from central America to the southwestern U.S. through to Louisiana, flying from early spring to late fall. As with its cousin above, its larval hosts are plants in the legume family.
Texas, October 2017

fiery skipper: Hylephila phyleus (male)

Sometimes it's hard to judge, when you spot a skipper flitting about, if it's one you've seen before or a new species. I had no such trouble with this fella: the firy skipper (Hylephila phyleus) is quite distinctive, with its yellow-orange overtones, bold patterning, and smoothly rounded hindwings. This member of the grass skippers uses bermudagrass as one of its host plants, which should make it quite happy in our neighborhood, with acres of the stuff. Its range includes a broad swath of the eastern and central U.S., but I had never spotted it in Pennsylvania.
Texas, November 2017

Moths

From the dramatic to the barely noticeable, here are the moths I've managed to take snapshots of through the years.

ActiasLuna: Luna moth female


Supposedly, luna moths (Actias luna) are prevalent throughout the Eastern U.S., but I've only ever seen one. On a sultry mid-July evening, Amy spotted it in a shrub near our patio pond. It wasn't ready to fly yet (they are night-flyers, and it was still fairly light out), so she allowed me to take some photos. When night fell, she flew away suddenly, up up and over the house. I hope she finds a moth fella to have kids with — after all, it's the only thing she lives for: adult lunas live for just a week, fasting the whole time (easy when you don't have a mouth), while seeking out opportunities to mate and deposit their offspring eggs in suitable trees.

I didn't immediately recognize this as a moth - but it is one. Day-flying, and sleek of form, it's a yellow-collared scape moth (Cisseps fulvicollis).

cisseps fulvicollis yellow-collared scape moth

My most impressive moth discovery was this snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), also known as bumblebee moth, often listed among the hummingbird moths. This one was resting on my hardy hibiscus (I found it while hunting for Japanese beetles), and didn't mind me shooting a photo from up close.

And another clearwing, seen almost three years later to the day, this time in full flight during a hot afternoon.

clearwing moth

This handsomely patterned moth was enjoying the warmth of our pool cover when I discovered it. Little did I know that it was the parent of an agricultural pest: it's an armyworm moth (Pseudaletia unipuncta)!

Hardly eye-popping, but with a refined upside-down charm, this is probably a woollybear moth

Noctua pronuba yellow underwing moth

Burly guy in the grass - when flying, he showed his orange wings; when fully folded, only a dull brown color. Not very shy, he crawled all over me and settled into my shirt collar. An ID inquiry at BugGuide suggests that this is a large yellow underwing moth, Noctua pronuba.

Seen from a few feet away, this guy looked like a piece of leaf debris on a corn leaf. A little closer up, it was clearly a moth, with a triangular jet-fighter shape (that photo didn't turn out). This photo shows the side view, with odd appendages and dull globe eyes. It's probably a Palthis moth.

Palthis moth
emmelina monodactyla: morning glory plume moth

We found this one on the outside of our kitchen patio doors one evening, looking very much like it was Trying To Tell us something. It's definitely a plume moth, and most likely the morning glory plume moth, Emmelina monodactyla. I think that species name means "one-fingered", but I don't know how to count moth fingers! The larvae of this species feed on plants in Convolvulaceae, so I may have my bindweed infestation to thank for this moth's visit. acrolophus popeanella: Clemens' grass tubeworm moth

One hot summer afternoon, I went to look at a hypertufa trough that was just about ready to be planted, when I spotted an excellently camouflaged moth sleeping on the side of the trough. It was quite content to let me take a bunch of photos right in that spot, but was annoyed when I prodded it, fluttering off to a nearby flagstone where it settled down again. That's where I took this picture, which shows the antennae (they were hidden in all the scruffiness in the original position). I found that this is Clemens' grass tubeworm moth (Acrolophus popeanella), which is native to a large swath of the eastern U.S. Its larvae feed on roots of red clover, which is not significantly present in our garden. So it was probably just moving through, taking a nap in what it thought would be a nice quiet place... enyo lugubris: mournful sphinx moth

 

First moth picture from Texas – this big moth was perched right outside our front door, sitting perfectly still in the sunshine. It is a mournful sphinx (Enyo lugubris), which occurs in tropical America and southern North America, occasionally venturing as far north as the midwest and New York. Even though this one sat still for me to take its picture, it does fly during the day. Its larval hosts are plants in the grape family, adults feed on flower nectar. It reportedly makes a whirring sound when flying, but I haven't witnessed that yet. pannaria wave moth: leptostales pannaria

I spotted this little beauty as it was sunning itself one afternoon on a fig leaf. This is most likely a Pannaria wave moth (Leptostales pannaria), in the family of geometrid moths. It is found in the southeastern United States and Caribbean.


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Last modified: November 05, 2017
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