Where to see Butterflies
Flighty, fancy butterflies may be on the wing year round in southern Arizona. Even a warm, sunny date in December or January can produce half a dozen species. But the numbers of these warm-weather fans increase beginning in mid-February and continue on until about mid-November, or even later in a warm autumn.
If you’re heading out to look for butterflies, it helps to know that these are creatures of sunlight, and many will stop flying even if the sun goes behind a cloud. So don’t expect to see many on a heavily overcast day.
Blooming plants are obvious attractants for adult butterflies. Look for patches of flowers along roadsides, in wildflower meadows, and in Tucson gardens.Some flowers are more alluring than others. Butterflies like flowers with “landing pads” so they can sit comfortably while they sip nectar. However, not all butterflies sip nectar from flowers. Some are rarely, if ever, seen at blossoms. Instead they may be attracted to rotting fruit, tree sap, or even animal dung.
Males of some species are attracted to damp soil. Check puddles and the edges of rivers and streams for muddy areas. Butterflies in these “puddle parties” are taking in salts and chemicals from the mud. It’s possible to see hundreds of individuals at one of these congregations, or sometimes just a few.
Although butterflies expend a lot of energy searching for food and feeding, they also spend a lot of time searching for mates and looking for the right plants on which to lay eggs. Many butterflies are closely tied to the plants on which their caterpillars or larvae feed. These are called larval foodplants. You can find particular types of butterflies by learning to recognize their foodplants. For example, Queens and Monarchs like milkweeds; sulphurs like members of the pea family; Black Swallowtails like parsley and rue.
Males of some species seek mates by flying to the top of a hill and waiting for females to make an appearance. This is called “hilltopping.” Hilltopping may occur in southern Arizona as early as March and continue through the warm months. Check the tops of hills, both high and low. Late morning to mid-afternoon on sunny days are best. Some males patrol for females in different ways, flying along linear pathways such as trails or washes searching for mates.
One of the best places to watch butterflies can be in our own backyards. A primary threat to our fanciful friends is the loss of habitat due to development and agriculture. We can all help in their conservation by restoring natural vegetation in our own gardens. Preserves for butterflies do not have to be very large. We can easily create pockets of habitat by planting butterfly-friendly gardens that include nectar plants for adults and larval foodplants for their caterpillars.
Another threat to butterflies is the indiscriminate use of pesticides or herbicides. Herbicides may kill the larval foodplants that some caterpillars need, while pesticides may kill both the caterpillars and adult butterflies. So what if there are a few holes in some of your leaves? Caterpillars rarely do any permanent damage. Let the caterpillars nibble on your plants, for the reward is a beautiful adult butterfly for all to enjoy. LHK
Some other places to see butterflies!
TBG! The Butterfly and Wildflower Gardens are particularly good. The Butterfly Garden peaks in September and October.
The town of Patagonia has a public butterfly garden in the common area in the middle of town...best in late summer.
Garden Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains is a lovely streamside habitat that's excellent for butterfly watching April-October (also good for wildflowers late August and September!)
During the summer months, the upper elevations on Mt. Lemmon are good. Check roadside flowers and mountain meadows.
The Butterfly and Moth Garden at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.