It's butterfly time: Increasing temperatures nudge inconspicuous caterpillars to emerge from their cocoons as the flashy, charismatic “it” bugs of the insect world. It doesn’t cost a thing to marvel at the colorful creatures loose in Arizona. Here, some stories and a slideshow of photos.
As good butterfly stories go, Marceline VandeWater and Gretchen Bickert have their share of doozies. VandeWater, a Scottsdale botanist, recalls seeing a pair of metallic black-blue pipevine swallowtails so busy mating that they let themselves be devoured by a preying mantis.
“It was so terrible and sad, I deleted all the pictures I had taken of them, and I didn’t stay to watch the outcome,” she says, grimacing.
Bickert, a registrar at the Phoenix Zoo, recounts a canoe trip in Peru: “This thing came floating down out of the forest toward us, and I kept looking at it, and looking at it, like ‘What is that thing?’ No kidding, it was as big as a bird!” she says of her encounter with a rainforest-dwelling blue morpho, an electric-blue, iridescent monstrosity of a butterfly that can reach a wingspan of 8 inches.
Bickert and VandeWater could collect more tales this season, as increasing temperatures nudge inconspicuous caterpillars to emerge from their cocoons as the flashy, charismatic “it” bugs of the insect world.
“Spring is one of those times when butterflies start to pop, and we’ll start seeing more and more of them,” says Bickert, a Mesa resident who helps manage data for an endangered butterfly conservation program in Moorpark, Calif.
Arizona is home to 331 species of butterflies, making our state second only to Texas in its wealth of varieties, according to Hank Brodkin, co-author of “Butterflies of Arizona: A Photographic Guide.” Brodkin says Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountain range peters out in southeastern Arizona’s sky island country, creating a corridor for Neotropical plants and wildlife to establish a foothold farther north.
For East Valley nature lovers, that makes “butterflying” easy and virtually free.
“There are a few varieties out right now,” says VandeWater. “but April and May are good months, and we may see 20 species.”
The insects become active around midmorning, once the sun has had time to warm their cold-blooded bodies. They flutter about looking for food and mates until temperatures reach about 95 degrees. Then, they seek shade deep in the brush or head for higher elevations, where lower temperatures keep flowering plants in bloom.
“As far as turning someone on to nature, the butterfly is the perfect creature,” says Bickert. “Even a child can easily learn about them and look for them.”
That’s because they’re plentiful, harmless, a cinch to get close to and fairly easy to identify. Not to mention pretty enough to earn names like pearl crescent, question mark and white-dotted cattleheart.
“I have more than 100 species on my life list,” says VandeWater, who discovered the hobby after waiting in a butterfly-filled field in the White Mountains for friends on a hiking trip to come back down the trail. “To see a live one in the wild for the first time, that makes my day,” she says.
This spring she’ll search blooming deserts and mountain meadows for additions to that life list, a log butterfly lovers keep of every type of butterfly they spot in nature.
Perhaps, the butterflies will come to her, as territorial Empress Leilias and mourning cloaks have in the past.
“They come flying up at you to warn you to get away,” she smiles. “But what can they do to you really, you know? They’re just little, beautiful things.”
>> Central Arizona Butterfly Association is the Valley’s chapter of the North American Butterfly Association. Members gather for field trips, presentations and workshops, and monthly meetings. For information, visit www.cazba.org.
Central Arizona Butterfly Association field trip coordinator VandeWater offers tips for beginning butterfly enthusiasts:
- Binoculars with close-focus capability are a must. “They don’t have to be expensive,” says VandeWater. “But since butterflies are so tiny, and they are often nestled down in the grass or leaves, close-focus binoculars allow you to get a really detailed look at them.”
- A compact paperback guide with large color pictures is best for toting with you. Consult larger, heavier books for in-depth information when you get home.
- Cold-blooded butterflies angle their wings to soak up the sun; a wide-brimmed hat will help you achieve the opposite effect, providing shade for your face during butterfly-hunting hours.
- Don’t approach butterflies too quickly. Their vision, says VandeWater, is sort of like looking through a mass of drinking straws. They see shape and movement, not detail, so approach slowly and keep yourself “small” by not looming over them.
- “You really shouldn’t touch them,” says VandeWater. “You can quickly damage their powdery wings.” Instead, let a butterfly land on you and observe it until it flits away.
- Gone are the days of catching butterflies in a net only to pin and hair spray them to a foam board; collect them in photographs instead. “You can get really amazing, high-quality pictures of butterflies with just a regular point-and-shoot digital camera,” says VandeWater.
Where the butterflies are
As temperatures rise, says Central Arizona Butterfly Association field trip coordinator Marceline VandeWater, butterflies move to higher elevations, following blooming flowers for a steady supply of nectar. Look for them in these spots.
March-April: In the East Valley, any blossom-covered stretch of land is a good place to start, says Gretchen Bickert, a registrar at the Phoenix Zoo. Try desert-landscaped sidewalk paths or neighborhood parks; strolling the campus at Arizona State University in Tempe; or hiking the Superstition or Goldfield mountains.
May: Practiced butterfly enthusiasts head for the Ballantine Trail and Sycamore Canyon areas off state Route 87 on the way to Payson, or the Seven Springs Recreation Area north of Cave Creek.
June: Try hiking parts of the Highline Trail on the Mogollon Rim.
July: Head for the White Mountains or Flagstaff, where VandeWater says you may see Arctic-region butterflies.
August-October: Southeastern Arizona’s Mexico border region is bursting with species. “I’ve seen literally hundreds of little yellow butterflies in the air at once down there,” says Bickert.