Central Oregon's spring skies often feature the colorful wing beats of a diverse range of butterflies – eye candy that can be as poetic as they are metamorphic.
Perhaps overlooked for their feathered compatriots – often their predators – many striking varieties of butterflies are emerging from winter to flit and flutter to our delight. Central Oregon is home to the six butterfly families, says Dr. Robert Michael Pyle, who co-authored the book "Butterflies of the Pacific Northwest," with Caitlin C. LaBar.
To provide readers with a quick-and-dirty guide for "butterflying," which is to butterflies what birding is to birds, Pyle has selected a butterfly species from five of the six butterfly families. (Due to space constraints, along with its appearance in late summer, Pyle has omitted the metalmark family.)
– Butterfly 101
Butterflies are two kinds of animals, Pyle said. First, creeping, crawling, worm-like creatures that chew foliage, then flying, sucking animals that sip nectar. After hatching from eggs, the caterpillars (or larvae) immediately eat the leaves they were born on. Caterpillars stick to particular host plants, which they depend on for sustenance. Many butterfly species spend winter in the pupa or chrysalis stage, enclosed in a hard shell that they attach by silk to a branch, a fence post, the eave of a house or under a layer of dead vegetation. (Most butterflies do not make a cocoon, which is the silken bag that wraps many moth pupae.) Inside the capsule, they complete their metamorphosis into butterflies. Butterflies typically complete their life cycle, from egg to adult, in several weeks. Once a butterfly, they spread and dry their wings for several hours before fluttering off to find a mate, Pyle said.
Some butterfly species spend winter as eggs or caterpillars. The cold doesn't affect them because their bodies flow with a chemical that acts as an antifreeze. A few species hibernate as adults. They tuck themselves into tree cavities, ledges and caves, or under human structures like house awnings, safe from precipitation and predation. These butterflies tend to be the first species we spy in the spring.
Flight pattern: Early April to late July, peak in May to June. It winters during the caterpillar stage.
Characteristics: Measures less than 13/4 inches across. Skippers, which are furry, look like moths, but they fly more quickly and with more flickering. The Propertius duskywing, named in part after the Greek poet, has subtle coloring that includes a smoky gray-black on the forewings, Pyle said. The hindwings are a warm brown. The Propertius duskywing likes to bask in the sun with its wings open.
"It's fanciful, but the Propertius duskywing does remind people of a witch on a broomstick," Pyle said, referring to the butterfly's "witchy" coloring and the way it flaps its forewings up from the middle.
Host plants: The Propertius duskywing is the only species whose caterpillar feeds on the buds of the Gary oak or Oregon white oak. As an adult, it nectars on cama lilies.
Location: Propertius duskywing is found in Central Oregon, Washington and Northern California. It is particularly bountiful in oak woods and in canyons.
Short-tailed black swallowtails
Flight pattern: Early April to early August; peak in June. It winters during the chrysalis stage.
Characteristics: Measures less than 31/2 inches across. Six species of this family emerge in Central Oregon's spring. The short-tailed black swallowtail is not the most common, but many think it's the most beautiful, Pyle said. The short-tailed black swallowtail is a shiny ebony with rows of small yellow spots across the wings. Bright blue and red spots dot its hindwings, where the tail is. The tails are a device to distract birds and other predators from the butterflies' bodies.
"Birds are color-sighted and see the red and blue spots and think, 'Oh, that's where the action is,' " Pyle said. "They try to grab them but the tail tears away, which doesn't harm the butterfly, which can fly away. All the bird gets is a little bit of tissue instead of a nice, delicious morsel." A lot of butterflies have evolved tails for this purpose. The short-tailed black swallowtails are the least known for displaying this behavior because their tails are so short. Unlike arachnids and crustaceans, butterflies cannot regrow limbs. A butterfly species called the anise and the short-tailed black swallowtail often fly together and look alike, yet the anise has bands of yellow on its wings.
Host plants: Biscuit root is a member of the carrot family, which is abundant in Central and Eastern Oregon. Adults nectar on spreading dogbane and groundsel; males find nutrients in puddles.
Location: The short-tailed black swallowtail can be spotted from Northern California to Central Canada. In spring, it's common in canyons, especially if there is a creek. In general, the swallowtail family loves muddy banks and puddles. "You can find dozens of them," Pyle said. Males have a nutritional need for the mineral salts that have dissolved into the mud. Females are much more tied to flowers than males, such as blue larkspurs and phlox. Swallowtails can also be found on the tops of hills and buttes where they congregate to mate during spring and early summer. "It's quite a spectacle," Pyle said.
Family: Whites and sulfurs
Flight pattern: Mid-March to mid-August; peak in July. It winters during the chrysalis stage.
Characteristics: Measures less than 11/2 inches across. The males' white wings feature bright, citrus-orange tips. Their wings' undersides are a marbled green. "When they fly, the orange flickers almost seem disembodied," Pyle said. "As if bits of orange flying through the sky." Females are pale yellow with orange tips.
Host plants: The Sara's orangetip caterpillar feeds on wild mustard plants. The adult nectars on dandelions, daisies and wild mustard plants.
Location: It's very common in early spring to spy Sara's orangetips in the lowlands, such as sage and juniper deserts and grasslands. Canyons that feature moisture are also hot spots for Sara's orangetip. Later in summer, it's found in higher elevations. This butterfly doesn't migrate; instead, a slower mountain spring postpones hatching. The Sara's orangetip is common around Mount Bachelor and in the Three Sisters Wilderness in late summer.
Family: Blues, coppers and hairstreaks
Flight pattern: Late February to early October; peaks in April and August. It winters during its chrysalis stage.
Characteristics: Measures less than 11/4 inches across. The echo azure is "the most brilliant blue," Pyle said. "Like (the sky) on one of the prettiest, sunniest days. Just take a bit of the sky and pull it away and you'd have these little blue butterflies." Their brilliance inspired Robert Frost's poem "Blue-Butterfly Day." "(Frost) writes about a spring day when flecks of the sky fall down to the mud."
Host plants: Echo azure, which is a far less picky eater than the aforementioned butterflies, subsists on a variety of shrubs' and bushes' buds. The butterflies emerge as early as March to lay eggs near the buds. As the buds burst and the flowers begin to develop, the larvae come out to feed on them. Flowering shrubs popular with the echo azure include the creek dogwood, the ninebark and the oceanspray.
Location: Echo azure are found alongside bush-lined creeks, particularly those that wind through canyons, moist woodlands and sometimes in open, dry country. The echo azure is a common butterfly in Bend because many people have flowering shrubs. "They don't do any harm; they just eat a flower here or there," Pyle said. "They're not a pest."
California tortoiseshell and anglewings
Family: Brush-footed butterflies
Flight pattern: Late January to mid-December, peaks in April and August. It winters as adults.
Characteristics: Measures less than 21/2 inches across. These two species will be discussed as a group because they're tricky to distinguish, and they're often seen together.
Their forelegs, which Pyle described as "T-Rex paws, or little brushes," are evolutionary advancements. Including the famous monarch, brush-footed butterflies exist in vast numbers. Anglewings look ragged and have angles. This trait increases their camouflage in that they resemble bark, soil or stone – particularly during rest, Pyle said. The butterfly's very bright colors, including a rusty orange-red, gold or orange can be seen when the California tortoiseshell and anglewings take flight.
Host plants: Brush-footed butterflies feed on buck brush, stinging nettle and wild currant. Wild rhododendron provide sustenance in the mountains. Willow trees sometimes host these butterflies, too.
Location: Brush-footed butterflies are found in mountain picnic ground, near waterfalls, or in any green, moist glade, with ample sun. They have vast outbreaks, in which they fly up hill. Hot spots include along Santiam Pass and around Mount Bachelor. The Metolius River, Big Summit Prairie in the Ochoco National Forest and the Green Lakes area all provide this family with the sweet spot of moisture, vegetation and elevation. "You'll see a great display of many butterflies," Pyle said. "Follow the moisture. Later in the summer, as it gets hotter, go uphill to find butterflies."
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