Local Butterflies 2023


2023 brought another exciting year of butterfly observations! Highlight moments included both one of the largest butterflies in North America, as well as the smallest – the Giant Swallowtail and Western Pygmy  Blue (photo at right). The Giant Swallowtail made an appearance for only about four hours on August 19th, and the Western Pgymy Blues appeared from September 18th off and on until November 8th. (Female black swallowtail photo at left on Verbena bonarensis.)


This year, I paid even more attention to butterflies in our garden, diligently counting species and numbers each day. I’m still essentially a butterfly, rather than moth observer, but do record some moths that fly during daylight. In 2023, I’ve paid more attention to slight differences among the small butterflies, and by doing so noticed a few more species.


As one might expect, small species were harder for me to identify, mostly because they are smaller to spot, and then flit suddenly from leaf to branch to flower quite quickly, making it harder to focus the camera lens. I also bought another butterfly guidebook, Butterflies of Oklahoma, Kansas and North Texas, by Dole, Gerald and Nelson, that I found extremely useful. After reading through the butterflies that are commonly found in our area, I became more critical in my observations.


By paying even better attention, I identified a few more species that most probably were present in previous years, that I failed to identify. Marine blue, Western pygmy blue, Juniper hairstreak butterflies, and Funereal Duskywing, a spread-wing skipper, were a few of these “new” species I noticed this year. I’m happy to report, so far our garden hosted three of the little “Blues” – Reakirt’s blue, Marine blue and the Western pygmy blue. In looking over my photos of 2022, I did observe the Western pygmy blue, but failed to recognize it as such. I don’t believe I mis-identified any butterflies on previous articles about Local Butterflies, just in my notes. It is quite an exciting feeling whenever I’m able to recognize and identify new species to our garden.


This past year, I planted more summer alliums or ornamental onions, specifically, ‘Millenium’ allium, which was the 2018 Perennial Plant of the Year. I heartily recommend this plant for any butterfly gardener, or just plain gardener. It is reliable, increases in size to about 18” wide and tall, with month long rosy-purple spheres of flowers. After two years, the plants are large enough to divide and spread throughout your garden. They are as attractive to humans as they are butterflies. (American Lady on Allium 'Millenium' at left. Notice the white dot in the orange segment, and damaged wing bite.)


After trying out cosmos for two years, I decided not to replant this annual. For me, it took until September to bloom and took up too much room. For me and the butterflies, zinnias provide more color and interest. My one lantana plant attracted butterflies enough to earn its place in my garden each year. And as ever, the two best plants in our garden for butterflies are purple vervain, Verbena bonariensis and Gregg’s Blue Mist Flower, Conoclinium greggii. Although it’s native to Brazil, purple vervain was the most visited plant by butterflies in my garden – a butterfly magnet. Tall to 3 ½ – 4 feet, it's a slender and branching plant with small flat clusters of small purple flowers. Blooms spring to fall. It's a perennial plant that will put out a few seedlings that can be moved if another area would be better. If you can only squeeze one species of butterfly nectar plant into your garden, this would be my choice (plant in a group of 3 as a minimum for best effect). Gregg’s Blue Mist Flower, Conoclinium greggii, is another butterfly magnet. Two - three foot tall perennial with divided light green leaves, native to Texas and New Mexico and into Arizona. Spreads by rhizomes, which can be easily dug up and moved to more locations. Blooms summer into the fall. Very attractive to Queens and other butterflies. (Giant swallowtail on flame acanthus at right.)

Plants mentioned in my other butterfly articles performed well again. Check them out for much more detailed lists of plants (and the butterflies they attracted): Local Butterflies, Local Butterflies 2021, and Local Butterflies 2022. Each of these articles have lots of information about butterflies and butterfly plants for the Texas Panhandle. All photos in this article were taken in our home garden in 2023, unless specifically mentioned.


Before I talk about our local butterflies of 2023, here is some gardening news from last year. (Queen at left, one damaged and one untouched on Gregg's blue mist flower, Conoclinium greggii.)


Some Gardening News


New USDA Cold Hardiness Zone Map


To better help gardeners in choosing the right plants for the right place, the Department of Agriculture released a new plant hardiness zone map in November, 2023. This is the latest revision since it’s last in 2012. The 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map reflected a warming climate with over one third of our country shifting to a half zone warmer, affecting winter temperatures more than summer temperatures. This new 2023 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map compared to the 2012 and 1990 maps, “zone boundaries in this 2023 edition have shifted in many areas. The new PHZM is generally about one quarter-zone warmer than reported in the 2012 PHZM throughout much of the United States, as a result of a more recent averaging period (1976-2005 vs. 1991-2020).” (U. S. Department of Agriculture, USDA Plant Zone Hardiness May Creation.)


This new 2023 version also contains a search function by Zip code to find your current hardiness zone. For my Zip code, 79121, we stayed the same in Zone 7a, and reports a +2° change in temperature from 2012. I noticed, too, zip codes in the city of Amarillo east of 79121 warmed +3°. Rural locations may not have warmed as much as cities over the past 30 years. However, gardeners should note that “past performance is no guarantee of future results” in the garden or the stock market. Warmer doesn’t mean an Arctic cold front won’t bring temperatures below zero. (Photo of Gulf fritillary at right.)


Monarch News

In butterfly news, you may recall on December 30, 2021, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added the monarch butterfly to the Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered. This listing did not affect legal implications at all in the United States. (Monarch Joint Venture.) (Photo at left of tattered monarch.)


Nevertheless, the IUCN Standards and Petitions Committee received a petition in June of 2023 challenging the appropriateness of the population models used in the monarch’s assessment over the past 10 years. Consequently, on September 27, 2023, the IUCN Standards and Petitions committee announced it would change their listing of the monarch butterfly from endangered to extinction to vulnerable to extinction on December 11, 2023. It was further stated that it could lower the alarm rating even lower to “near threatened” if the upcoming census suggests the population is stable or growing.


This controversy centers around population numbers in the past, way back to the introduction of large scale agriculture in the 1800’s near or around the monarch’s over-wintering area in Mexico. The clearing of the forests allowed milkweed plants to flourish, as well as the monarch populations. The challenge petition also noted tendency of monarch populations to crash, then recover.


The monarch’s eastern population decreased by more than 90% since the mid-1990’s, and the western population more than 95% since 1980’s. However, “the assessment also noted that the stability in overwintering monarch numbers seen since 2014 made current rates of decline less concerning than they were in years past.” The IUCN panel decided that the eastern monarch populations “reached an inflection point in 2014, with a steep decline giving way to a slower decline or a slight increase,” thus supporting a vulnerable, rather than endangered designation.


Since that ruling, the eastern monarch numbers for the 2023-2024 overwintering period were released. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the number of acres used by overwintering monarchs in Mexico was only 2.2 acres, a decrease of 59%, less than the previous year’s acreage of 5.5 acres, and the year before that was 7 acres. The last big rise in eastern monarch population was 2019, when monarchs were found wintering on nearly 15 acres. (Monarch Joint Venture.) While we would all like to see the monarch populations rebound, chances are, the monarchs will eventually go back on the endangered list. As of this writing in early May, I have not yet seen a monarch butterfly in my garden this year (but that is usually the case).


Pollinator-Friendly Plant Labeling Bill

Organic gardeners have been aware for quite awhile that plants sold for pollinator gardens at many nurseries and big box stores have been treated with pesticides that can harm the pollinators they attract. Of course, not all nurseries, but most.


Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon introduced a bill last year that would require the Department of Agriculture to create a certification program for plant growers to certify that their plants have not been treated with pesticides harmful to pollinators. Specifically, “a producer (i.e., a nursery or farmer growing a plant or cultivating a seed for sale) may submit an application to USDA for approval to sell or label a plant as a USDA pollinator-friendly plant. To qualify, a plant must (1) be living; (2) have a Natural Resources Conservation Service determination that it is native to the United States and known to be beneficial to pollinators (including providing habitat and forage for pollinators); and (3) be produced without any pesticide or substance prohibited from being used in the production or handling of organic products under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. (Pollinator-Friendly Plant Labeling Act.) The bill has been read twice and referred to a committee. If it does eventually pass and become law, I suspect it’ll be several years before it goes into effect. Please note this would only apply to native plants known to be beneficial to pollinators. That really leaves the vast majority of plants sold outside this proposed program. (Texas Crescent on our native prairie zinnia at right.)


Butterflies in our Garden, 2023

My method of recording butterfly observations were, as in the past, as follows: I would make several observations per day, often sitting outside with a glass of iced tea watching for any butterfly to flutter on by. I recorded the highest number of any one species per day that I was able to count at one time, not a compilation during the day. For example, if at eleven o’clock, I saw two black swallowtails, then later at noon, one; at one o'clock, 3 black swallowtails, and at 4, 4 black swallowtails, then the number recorded was four for the day. Counts definitely varied from hour to hour, with the most butterfly activity between the hours of 11 o’clock and four. On days that were cloudy, stormy, cold, or if we were out of town, these days were not counted as observation days. Only days that butterflies were observed were counted. I observed thirty different species in our garden in 2023.


January - April

The butterfly year started out with great promise. Early in the year, my husband and I made a visit to Palo Duro Canyon, January 9, 2023. Surprisingly, I saw the first butterfly of the year, an orange sulphur. In our own garden, a cabbage white on February 5th, and then on February 27th, another sulphur, a Reakirt’s blue and a common sootywing. By March 15th, I observed cabbage whites nearly every day, but no other butterflies. Just as a note, I did not count or include cabbage white butterflies. (Orange sulphur at left on cosmos.)

Mid-April brought sightings of white-lined sphinx moths nearly every day, with the occasional common sootywing or common checkered skipper through the end of the month.



The first week of May’s flowers and plants enticed larger butterflies into the garden.


Because 2022 brought few eastern black swallowtails into our garden, I grew fennel and parsley and set the plants out in early April, hoping to attract some of them. It worked like a charm. From May 1st through October 2, our garden experienced 54 days in which black swallowtails were observed, for a total of 67 black swallowtails. This compares with black swallowtails being observed only 6 days in 2022. It is definitely a plus if your garden contains plants that a species prefers. (Photo of tattered black swallowtail on Centranthus rubra in May at left and on parsley at right, perhaps laying eggs.)


Because of early black swallowtail presence, as well as fennel and parsley, many tiny pale yellow spherical eggs were laid. The parsley and fennel were crawling with larvae in various stages all through the month and into June. I watched these plants be devoured, but not killed. Their leaves continued to be eaten and re-grown as the various waves of larvae emerged. I expected a black swallowtail bonanza!

As the caterpillars grew into their large stage four size, their activity slowed, then off they went – in the middle of the night, I think to pupate. One day they’d be there munching away, then stationary, then the next day gone. I searched among the perennials for their chrysalis’. Finally, I found only four, that I watch with interest, daily.


After about two-three weeks, I noticed one of the chrysalis’ darkening. On the others, not so much. Upon closer examination, it appeared they had a tiny black hole. After one very windy day in July, 40 – 50 mph, in which I did not go outside to observe the chrysalis, the black swallowtail had emerged leaving just the shell of a casing. The other chrysalis’ remained the same, intact. I finally concluded the wasps, or some other predator, had also found them. Nothing ever emerged. Where I had expected a great procession of new black swallowtails, I observed only the occasional single or pair in our garden in June and July.


There are over 550 species of swallowtails (Papilionidae), most of them tropical and with prominent tails. The eastern black swallowtail is the most common to our Texas Panhandle area, however, we do have sightings of the eastern tiger swallowtail (observed one this April in Palo Duro Canyon) as well as the giant swallowtail, the pipevine and two tailed swallowtail. I have seen the black, eastern tiger, and giant swallowtail in our garden. But 95% of the time, I observe the black swallowtail.


The black swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes asterius, is a large butterfly, 3 ¼ – 4 ¼ inches across. The upper surface of wings is mostly black; on the inner edge of the hindwing is a black spot centered in larger orange spot, think of it as an eyespot. Black swallowtails exhibit sexual dimorphism, a different appearance in the male and female of the species. Males have a yellow band near the edge of wings over a black background; females have a row of yellow spots, and their hindwings have an iridescent blue band over a black background, more pronounced than in the male. The males and females are virtually identical on the undersides. Females are slightly larger than males.

For easy identifying on the “fly”, look for a dark body with a double row of creamy yellow dots. On both upper and under wing surfaces, look for an orange-red eyespot with a center black “pupil.” These are located at corner of the hindwings. The upperside (dorsal) female has much more blue, the male more yellow, both have two rows of yellow/orange spots on the underside (ventral).


Female swallowtail butterflies lay from 250 – 400 eggs during their relatively short lifespan. It is estimated a female must lay at least 60 eggs to replace itself. I did not find 60 eggs, but I did not make a count of either eggs or larvae. First and second instar stages of the black swallowtail are mostly black with a white saddle. Older larvae are bright green with black bands and white dots. Black swallowtail larvae have four and/or five instar stages.


Black swallowtails have a few defense mechanisms, including eversible (the ability to turn inside out) bright yellow orange fleshy forked-tongue or horn-like organs behind the head known as osmeteria. When touched, larvae rear up, extrude the osmeterium, and attempt to smear the potential predator with a chemical repellent that has an offensive odor. If you are unsure a caterpillar is a black swallowtail or a monarch, monarch caterpillars do not have osmeteria.

Development time is temperature dependent, however egg stage lasts four to nine days, the larval stage 10–30 days, and the pupal stage nine to 18 days (except for overwintering pupae), forming a green chrysalis in spring through late summer. This is one reason you may see waves of butterflies in the season – waiting for the next generation to develop. The chrysalis are either green or brown. Pupae are the overwintering stage, which form a brown chrysalis in autumn that usually attaches to something non-deciduous like bark or stone, which offers better stability and protection for winter months. Black swallowtails do not migrate, but overwinter in sheltered positions throughout their normal wide range – most of the eastern and mid-western United States west to the Rocky Mountains, southwest into Arizona and northern Mexico and into southern Canada.

Black swallowtail, like many butterflies, have many predators, including centipedes, spiders, mantids, beetles, ants, wasps, toads, frogs, lizards, birds, rodents, and bats. One other obstacle to butterflies is fierce weather. After a particularly strong rain storm one June day, several caterpillars where killed by wind and rain pummeling them to death.


Other May butterfly observations included painted ladies, an American lady, more sulphurs, red admirals, a variegated fritillary, gray hairstreak, common checkered skippers and white-lined sphinx moths, as well as the annual plague of black/gray moths, rounded out the rest of the month of May. (Variegated fritillary on prairie zinnia at left, and a Horace's duskywing at right on a Salvia 'Blue Marvel'.)



June -- 2.15 Species per Observation Day


June continued with black swallowtail sightings, more red admirals, variegated fritillaries, and Reakirt’s blue especially in the first half of the month. The second half of June brought gray hairstreaks, common checkered skippers and white-lined sphinx moths, a Texas crescent, common sootywings, snowberry clearwings and a Horace’s duskywing and more black swallowtails, although not in the numbers I was hoping for. But still, far better than last year. We can usually expect two to three generations per year in our climate, so their presence won’t necessarily be constant. Overall, I observed fewer butterflies in June than in May.


The first queen butterfly appeared on June 28, whereas last year, I observed the first queen on June 15. Queens were the most observed butterfly in 2022, observed 81 days for a total of 515 queens for the season. Monarch’s aren’t the only species whose butterfly populations ebb and flow from one year to the next. I’ve seen it with the painted ladies, American ladies, and now maybe the queens? (Funereal duskywing at right on sage leaf.)


July -- 5.38 Species per Observation Day


Black swallowtails and Reakirt’s Blue were mainstays for the first half of July. Once or twice I spotted a large butterfly fly from the backyard to the front a time or two but it didn’t settle long enough for me to identify it. On July 3rd, however, as I sat down to observe with a glass of iced tea and camera, a Question Mark butterfly was resting on the side of our house near where I sat. This was my first sighting ever of a Question Mark. This was exceedingly exciting!


Question Marks, Polygonia interrogationis, are brushfoot butterflies in a group known as “anglewings,” having heavily scalloped wings. Also known as “Violet Wings” because of their violet edging, Question Marks have an upperside that is red-orange with four black spots, the first looking more like a dash. The forewing is hooked. The upperside hindwing of the summer form is mostly black with a short tail. An underside marking of a white “question mark” gives this beautiful butterfly its name. Aside from the white question mark on the underside, the underside is cleverly disguised as a dried leaf. Not a nectaring butterfly, they sip liquids from overly ripe fruit, animal dung, and oozing trees. This year I’ll put some overripe fruit outside to attract them. The Question Mark is easily confused with the Eastern Comma – look for a black dash followed by a line of three black dots on the forewing to identify it as the Question Mark. In most cases we are out the range of the Eastern commas, anyway. The Question Mark is 2 ¼” – 3 inches wide. It overwinters as an adult; its range is east of the Rocky Mountains across the U. S. and into southern Canada and can be seen from March through November.

Also, that third day of July, the first of the small dainty sulphurs arrived. They were the ninth most commonly seen butterfly in our garden. They were joined by common checkered skippers, cloudless sulphurs, gray hairstreaks (fourth most observed butterfly) and a Texas Crescent. Another sighting of two queens on July 13th and 14th.


By mid July, painted ladies made regular appearances, the second most observed species in 2023. Skippers also started to appear. Skippers, sometimes called Hesperiids, are a large and diverse group usually included under butterflies. Skippers are in the family Hesperiidae, that have gotten their common name from their rapid, skipping flight. They are small in size and are different from other butterflies in that their bodies are larger in proportion to their wings and have a hooked bulb at the end of each antenna, bent ninety degrees to the side, rather than straight. There are seven subfamilies of skippers; many North American skippers are grouped in three subfamilies, the grass skippers, flowering plant skippers and giant skippers, which include yucca and agave skippers. Some sources divide them into two subfamilies, grass skippers and spread-wing skippers. The spread-wing skippers are easier to identify, and I’ve named some individually, such as duskywings, common ckeckered skipper, and the common sootywing. I still have definite problems identifying the grass skippers, so I have not except in rare moments. The unidentified skippers made up the largest group observed during 100 days, 795 individual skippers in all. (Photo at left a skipper, perhaps a Sachem?)


Painted ladies accounted for 89 observation days and 332 butterflies. Their numbers were up considerably from last year (54/193). From mid-July until the end of October, painted ladies could be seen most days. Painted ladies are similar in appearance to American ladies, which have only two eyespots on their ventral side, rather than painted ladies 4 eyespots. Sometimes I can only tell if I’d seen an American lady when I review my photos and notice the tiny white dot in the middle of its orange forewing segment. I observed only two American ladies, one at the end of May, another the third week in July (see photo near the top left for an American Lady.).


Other butterflies observed in the second half of July were more Reakirt’s blues, a snowberry clearwing, common sootywings, gray hairstreaks, cloudless sulphurs, a variegated fritillary, common checkered skipper, dainty sulphurs, Texas crescents, and common buckeyes. Black swallowtails maintained their presence, as did skippers in ever slightly increasing numbers.


A visit to the Amarillo Botanical Gardens to check out their population of butterflies netted an unusual sighting. A white form of the bordered patch, Chlosyne lacinia. The bordered patch is a medium size brushfoot butterfly from 1 ½ – 2 inches across. This species is highly variable in coloration and marking, both the ventral and dorsal sides of the wings are black. The upperside has a wide orange/cream median line, while the ventral side has a wide yellow/cream line. The dorsal side also shows small white spots on the margins against black. The underside has small white postmedian spots, with larger yellowish spots on the margin. The ventral wing displays reddish spots near the abdomen, most often separate from the median line, and also a reddish-orange basal spot near the head. The bordered patch’s upperside at ABG was only black and white with no orange at all. Bordered patches love sunflowers, ragweed and cowpen daisies. (Photo of a bordered patch on rudbeckia at left at the Amarillo Botanical Gardens.)


At the fourth week in July I started to notice a few small butterflies that looked different. They were small and flew quickly from flower to flower, never really settling in one spot very long to get a clear photo. Coupled with the near constant motion, as they moved, the light glinted off their scales differently, providing different looks. But, regardless, I started to think they were a different species than what I usually saw. I checked a few butterfly websites and checklists for our area. Yes, they could be a different species. This is when I bought the book, Butterflies of Oklahoma Kansas and North Texas, which also included the Texas Panhandle. I needed a hard copy guide.


After reviewing the photos I had taken, I discovered one butterfly was a Juniper hairstreak, taken near a small juniper shrub. Juniper hairstreaks are small, about an inch to 1 ¼ inches across. They are usually observed with wings up – their underside is pale green with white, brown and black markings. When the sun shines on them just so, they are beautifully iridescent – quite a little gleaming jewel of the junipers! This is the only butterfly I’ve seen that has green on the underside. I found it very attractive. (Photo of a Juniper Hairstreak at right on Allium 'Millenium.')


Alas, I have photos of two “hairstreaks” that I could not definitively identify. One has a bit battered and bruised with a bite taken out of it’s hind end. Obviously, it had suffered some traumatic attack by a predator and survived. But it did make it difficult to tell whether it was tail-less by nature, rather than predation.


Seeing the Blues


I had noticed, too, in reviewing the checklist for butterflies of Potter and Randall Counties on the Butterflies and Moths of North America website, that I could be seeing different species of the gossamer winged “blues” (hairstreaks are also gossamer winged butterflies). There are four blues listed on the Randall County checklist, and seven blues on the Potter County checklist: Marine blue, Western pygmy blue, Eastern tailed-blue, Spring azure, Reakirt’s blue and the Lupine blue. For some reason, my thought pattern ran, that since I had a cultivated garden, naturally, I wouldn’t observe all the butterflies on the county checklist, as I wasn’t providing that wide range habitat needed for such diversity. So I didn’t consider other species. (Photo of Marine blue at left on a salvia.)


After I was able to view digital photos with the aid of a hard copy photo and description, it was much easier for me to see the differences in these very small butterflies. Yet still, some of them elude my identification. Looking back on the photos taken in 2022, I could plainly see that I had kaleidoscope of Western pygmy blues that visited our garden in September of 2022. After this revelation, I became even more observant of these tiny winged wonders. (Photo of Pearl Crescent at right.)


On the 21st of July I spotted what I thought was a Gorgone checkerspot and the last day of July, a pearl crescent. Identification of the pearl crescents can be difficult, seeing the species has sexual dimorphism (slightly different looks in male and female) and seasonal as well. Pearl crescents, Phyciodes tharos, look very much like Gorgone checkerspots and it’s easy to confuse them; I did. One of the best websites for determining their true identity is Alabama Butterfly Atlas, scroll down and click on Get Identification Help. It points out differences on the male/female dorsal and ventral sides, as well as seasonal forms. For the Gorgone checkerspot, it is easier to identify it from the ventral side, so if butterfly hunting, photos of the ventral side are equally helpful. It turns out I did not have a Gorgonne checkerspot, just pearl crescents. One note on trying to differentiate between them, these two butterflies have slightly different wing shapes.


August -- 6.16 Species per Observation Day

In August, painted ladies flourished, with it not uncommon to see 6 or more per day for most of the month, increasing to double digits the last week of August. It was turning out to be a great painted lady year. Most species were most abundant in August, compared to other months of the year, at 6.16 species per observation day. July came in second at 5.38, and September a close third at 5.32 butterfly/moth species per observation day. In 2022, October was the busiest month for butterfly observation at 6.25, and September the second busiest at 5 butterfly/moth species per observation day.


A note on observation days: if I was in town, or in town and looked for butterflies and did not see them, this was not counted as an observation day. Only days with actual butterfly observations were recorded.

Most of the monarch sightings were made in August, slim though their numbers were at only 18 observation days and 19 total monarchs. At our garden, we did not experience seeing either a flush spring or fall migration.


In addition to painted ladies, the preponderance of butterflies seen in August were skippers of several species, common checkered skippers, gray hairstreaks, queens, snowberry clearwings, and dainty sulphurs. These were followed by Reakirt’s blue, Marine blues, checkered whites, common sootywings, Funereal duskyings, and a giant swallowtail. While other butterflies were gaining in number, I had fewer and fewer black swallowtail sightings from August on.


The Marine blue, Leptotes marina, is a small butterfly ¾ – 1 inch in size with brownish blue upperwings. The hindwings upperside has two small black spots at the margin. The underside is a zebra-like striped gray-brown/white on the hindwing. This is an easy identification marker. It has several generations in a year, from April through October. Marine blues range extends from southern California east to Texas, north as far as Wisconsin, and east again to the Kentucky. It’s host plants are legumes, and has adapted to blue plumbago as a host plant for its caterpillars.


From the tiny marine blue and small pearl crescent I was noticing in the garden, my eyes opened wide as a large flash of black and yellow swept by. Last year I enjoyed one brief sighting of a giant swallowtail, as I was driving out on my way to an appointment. This year, I was at my observation post and saw it come swooping in in wide graceful arches. It landed on Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii, flame acanthus. Flame acanthus attracts both butterflies and hummingbirds, and is a xeric, cold hardy and very heat tolerant perennial from southern U. S. and into Mexico. Flame acanthus dies back to the ground each winter, but emerges as the temperatures heat up at the end of April. It has a long blooming period.


The giant swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes, is quite thrilling to see, as it is one of the largest of the North American butterflies ranging in size from 4 ½ to 6 ¼ inches. My visitor was more in the 6 inch size. It frenetically sampled flower to flower, wings all a flutter. Most of my photos were a blur owing to this frenzy. The giant swallowtail is black and displays a bold yellow band straight across both wings horizontally and along the edge of the hind wings. Their tails are edged in black filled in with yellow, perhaps once an eyespot that evolved over time. The underside is mostly yellow with black and blue markings. Males have slightly more yellow, while females are slightly larger. It can be seen all over from east of the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic coast. (Giant swallowtail at left on Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii, flame acanthus, also a photo near the top of this article on the right.)


Also spotted in August was one sighting of the Gulf fritillary, a large butterfly to about 3 inches in size. I would have more sightings if I grew passion vines, but I never have. May pop, or Passiflora incarnata, is, I believe, the only cold hardy passion flower for our area, but can also be mildly invasive. However, I do recommend it as a host for several different butterflies. Maybe next year.


September – 5.32 Species per Observation Day


September was another busy month for butterfly observation, but not as busy as I’d hoped. Perhaps this is do to a week spent out of town during prime butterfly viewing time. Most of the usual suspects visited our garden: painted ladies, a few monarchs, lots and lots of skippers, sulphurs, Reakirt’s and Marine blues, checkered whites, pearl crescents, one black swallowtail, and one common buckeye, a Funereal duskywing and a few Western pygmy blues. I expected a large population (twenty to thirty at a time) like I noticed last year, but only found them in ones, twos, threes and fours. Both years, I observed their presence when the fall sedums, like sedum, ‘Autumn Joy,” was in bloom. I mainly see them on the sedum flowers and after that, the iceplant. Gray hairstreaks jumped in numbers for about ten days at the end of September, with one day six, then the next eight hairstreaks in all. Then the population leveled at two to three into the first half of October.(Damaged pearl crescent at left.)

The Western pygmy blue, Brephidium exilis, is the smallest butterfly in North America, sized at ½ to ¾ inch. This is not any bigger than my thumb nail. They look remarkably smaller than the Marine and Reakirt’s blue. Mostly they nectar wings up, showing white flecked with black, followed by brownish orange and then blackspots on white fringes (and that’s a lot to pack onto such small wings). Some websites mention an eyespot as a black and green eyespot, but even magnified, it still looks like a black spot. The “blue” is only on the dorsal wingside. Pigweed, saltbush, and members of the goosefoot family are host plants, the adults nectar on small flowers. Western pygmy blues are usually found in deserts, salt marshes and the wastelands of the Southwest in central California, southern Nevada and New Mexico to central Arizona. It has moved east into Texas, and has recently colonized in Florida. Experts think this range expansion is due to their ability to adapt to local plants and their “tiny but mighty” wings that flew them upwards high into the sky, and then were pushed east by strong storm systems. They have also been seen in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, most likely brought in along with desert plants (Discover Magazine, August 2023). (Western pgymy blue on sedum flower at right.)




Throughout the year, I noticed butterflies of most species have had a life fraught with trauma. Weathered wings, torn and shredded were not uncommon, especially during August through October. This article on butterflies, I've chose to include photos of butterflies that have been damaged by one predator or another. Certainly not all butterflies were injured, but enough and consistently, that it got my attention. Considering that the lifespan of these spring/summer born butterflies is 2 – 6 weeks at most, and usually around two weeks, their seemingly idyllic life is only imagined. From the moment they emerge from their chrysalis, predators await. And as noted above, eggs and larvae are predated upon in large measure. Given the large number of black swallowtail larvae I saw, the outcome was relatively few butterflies, despite their caterpillars’ scary and odorous osmeterium.


I noticed one of the most effective predators, the mantids, aka. praying mantis, in September. He, the mantid, had set himself among the caryopteris, often upside down on the stem near the flower. This coincided with the period of an abundance of painted ladies. That day, I passed by and noticed a painted lady hanging by a very odd angle. What had happened I wondered? Closer inspection revealed the painted lady firmly grasped by the mantis’ arms and was being eaten. I stood and watched. Within a matter of mere minutes, a forewing fell to the ground, all that was left of that poor painted lady. I continued to watch off and on for a few hours, as one after another butterfly or bee was either devoured to managed a harrowing escape – hence the damaged hindwings I’ve been seeing. Needless to say, over the week, the daily observed population decreased. (Photo of praying mantis eating a painted lady at left, and a damaged common buckeye at right.)


The battered and tattered butterflies were escapees from the mantid’s and birds grasp. Through much of September until the first cold snap in October, I watched mantids eat bees, skippers, moths, flies, wasps and butterflies the size of painted ladies (and monarchs if they would’ve been around in any quantity). But any size butterfly was at risk. Indeed, mantids have been known to eat hummingbirds!

Mantids aren't the only predators of butterflies and moths. Birds, bats, frogs, lizards, spiders, wasps, and mammals. Butterflies are also killed by bacteria, viruses and invertebrate parasitoids, that kill from the inside out. Included in the mammals category are humans, through various means such as loss of habitat, chemicals and mechanical means (vehicle windshields). Mantids are just the most visible, if one searches for and sees the actual moment of predation. (Damaged red admiral on Allium 'Millenium' at right.)


October -- 3.52 Species per Observation Day


On October 1, I observed the last of the black swallowtails in our garden for the year, not to return until their first siting in 2024, on May 6th, a female checking out the fennel for laying eggs.


Butterfly numbers of species and numbers overall waned in October, although the first hard freeze didn’t happen until the very end of the month. Skippers were holding their numbers into the double digits, then decreased dramatically the second half of October. (Photo of dainty sulphur at left.)


Painted ladies, gray hairstreaks, Marine blues, dainty sulphurs, an orange sulphur, a common buckeye, a trio of pearl crescents, the occasional monarch and the western pygmy blues most days were enough to keep my interest in observation.


By mid-October, skippers, common checkered skippers painted ladies, Marine and Western pgymy blues and one sole monarch observed on the 24th making it’s lone journey to Mexico were the stragglers before the freeze. It froze on the 29th for five consecutive nights.




Maybe because I still checked the garden several times a day, I was able to see a few hangers-on imbibe the last drops of nectar. I observed western pygmy blues, common checkered skippers, dainty sulphurs, orange sulphurs – and a few days before Thanksgiving -- painted ladies two days in a row hoping for sustenance from the pansies, the only flower left blooming. I noticed one black swallowtail caterpillar on the parsley grasping the stems, almost in stasis. And one December day, because we had a warm spell, on December 22, a solitary painted lady, again sniffing around the pansies. Over at the vegetable tunnels where the parsley grew, the black swallowtail caterpillar sunned himself. Afterwards, he was not to be found.


And with that the butterfly year came to an end, a day after the winter solstice. My butterfly observation year began on January 9th, and ended December 22 -- nearly an entire year. The garden was finally at rest until the sun returns to warm their wings another year.


Butterflies and Moths Observed 2023    
Butterfly/Moth Number of Days Butterfly/Moth Observed Total Number per Species
Skippers 100 795
Painted Ladies 89 332
Black Swallowtails 54 67
Gray Hairstreaks 48 80
Common Checkered Skippers 40 54
Queens 39 59
Common Sootywings 32 35
Reakirts Blues 31 51
Dainty Sulphurs 31 44
White-lined Sphinx Moths 27 50
Snowberry Clearwings 26 28
Western Pygmy Blues 21 39
Monarchs 18 19
Orange Sulphurs 12 13
Marine Blues 11 12
Common Buckeyes 10 12
Cloudless Sulphurs 10 10
Pearl Crescents 8 9
Red Admirals 8 8
Variegated Fritillaries 8 8
Texas Crescents 8 8
Checkered Whites 7 7
Funereal Duskywings 6 6
Clouded Sulphurs 4 4
Gulf Fritillaries 3 3
American Ladies 2 2
Juniper Hairstreak 1 1
Horace’s Duskywing 1 1
Question Mark 1 1
Giant Swallowtail 1 1


Angie Hanna, May, 2024