NATURE NARRATIVES: 3 seasons of butterflies

By Melissa Walker
       Our suburban backyard aspen grove, only 40 feet by 50 feet, is now quiet and mostly still. Summer's songbirds have migrated south and nighttime's cold air lingers until noon. Some mornings the only motions I detect are the falling aspen leaves - spiraling and catching the sun's rays like summer's butterflies.

Monarch butterfly with worn wings feeds on butterfly weed.
Melissa Walker photo

       I have been captivated by butterflies this year. The book, “Chasing Monarchs,” by Robert Michael Pyle, inspired my renewed interest in observing butterflies. The author encourages everyone to pay more attention to butterflies and to help these flying works of art to thrive. All that butterflies need to survive are habitats of native flowers, shrubs and trees that are pesticide-free. Even a window box of native flowers may attract and nourish a butterfly that needs nectar, especially since so many plants in our natural lands have been devastated by drought, wildfires and floods.
       My observations began on March 14 when I spotted my first butterfly of 2013: a Mourning Cloak. With its velvety dark wings etched in bright yellow, the butterfly was a welcome sign of spring. It fluttered over our small pond and into the aspen trees. I noted that the temperature on this early spring afternoon had reached 60 degrees, the minimum flight temperature for butterflies.

A tiger Swallowtail nectars on purple coneflowers.
Melissa Walker photo

       All summer long, yellow Tiger Swallowtails decorated the air and flowers. I could never predict their flight path, when they would alight on a flower or disappear over the fence. The Swallowtails leisurely visited our purple coneflowers, sucking nectar through their hollow, straw-like tongues. They are well named, with black stripes on their broad yellow wings.
       It was mid-summer, July 18, when I first saw a Monarch butterfly, its wings boldly patterned in bright orange and black. Monarchs appeared occasionally from July through October, pausing to gather nectar on the coneflowers and butterfly weed, or alighting on the milkweed plants. The milkweeds are essential to the survival of Monarch butterflies because Monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed plants, and their caterpillars eat only milkweed leaves.

A Painted Lady on rabbitbrush.
Melissa Walker photo

       I didn't expect to see many butterflies after September, but I was wrong. On Oct. 3, a Monarch and a Mourning Cloak fluttered through our aspen grove and dozens of light yellow butterflies nectared on dandelions. On Oct. 10, a Checkered White, with black checker-like squares on its wings, found nectar in purple asters that were still blooming in a sunny spot on the south side of our yard.
       On Oct. 21, when I stopped by the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center, I noticed a golden rabbitbrush shrub that was covered with insects. As one of the last plants in bloom this fall, the rabbitbrush was a magnet for scores of butterflies, moths, honeybees, flies and beetles. The butterfly that caught my eye was a Painted Lady, strikingly patterned in colors of orange, yellow and black.

A Checkered White butterfly on a purple aster.
Melissa Walker photo

       I saw at least a few butterflies every day that I looked for them in October. Even this afternoon, Nov. 2, as I walked through Rock Ledge Ranch, I saw one tiny yellow butterfly. It landed on the ground to gather the sun's warmth, then took off through the split-rail fence and out of sight.
       All of the butterflies will get through the coming winter in different ways. Some will lay eggs, then die, yet their offspring will emerge next year in the warmth of spring. Some will survive the winter as a pupa inside its chrysalis, and remarkably, some will overwinter as adults in sheltered places. Most remarkable of all, the Monarchs will migrate all the way to southern Mexico, an almost impossible journey.
       It is time to say goodbye to the butterflies as autumn gives way to colder days. Clouds hide Pikes Peak, then clear to reveal winter's snowy signature. Very soon, all the butterflies will disappear from our view…waiting until springtime to re-emerge.
       Note: For more information about planting flowers for Colorado butterflies, visit www.ext.colostate.edu/ pubs/insect/05504.html.

A Westside naturalist, Walker posts regular entries in her online blog at naturenarratives.com. She has given her permission to reprint selected pieces in the Westside Pioneer.