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The Butterflies of March

by Bryan on March 19th, 2012

Summer in March isn’t the only reason you’re seeing butterflies. Yeah, the warm weather certainly has the gossamer wings in flight. But it’s hardly unusual to see butterflies in March. When you do, it’s all about butterfly sex.

Now flying are butterflies that actually hibernate the winter as adults (rather than eggs, caterpillars or pupae). Sunshine and moderate temperatures are enough to rouse them to fly about and, well, you know, make more butterflies. They’ll copulate, the females will lay eggs and, having continued the cycle, these oldtimer butterflies will finally die off. Here’s a quick guide to a few species now flying, each shown from above and below.

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)

Milbert’s Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis milberti)

Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma)

In the second photo of this one, note the little “comma” marking on the underside of the hindwing.

Questionmark (Polygonia interrogationis)

In the second photo of this one, note the little “questionmark,” which is really more of a “semicolon.” From above, to help distinguish this one from Eastern Comma, note the little horizontal black rectangle near the apex of the forewing. Commas don’t have this mark. Questionmarks also tend to be a bit more “tailed” than commas and often have that distinctive silvery edge to their hindwings.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

These don’t overwinter at northern latitudes, but do migrate in good numbers some years. I’m seeing lots of them here in Arizona and getting reports from elsewhere. So they seem to be on the move.

And here’s a little early-flying moth, called The Infant (Archiearis), which some people mistake for a butterfly.


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  1. Thanks, Bryan! Will be looking out for butterflies now. Never had snowdrops in March, but this year I do, beside some snow crocus and scillas. Saw some tiny butterflies/moths the other day on my walk through a meadow where I took some shots of male and female monarchs last year. The enjoyed all the golden rods. Happy Spring!! Wished I could join you for the Warbler Weekend, MarionS

  2. Sharon permalink

    Hey Bryan,
    The number of butterflies on a hike at Honey Hollow (Jonesville) were incredible! The Eastern comma or question marks wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to be sure what they were. But I also saw a number of smaller butterflies that were more spotted and their wing margins weren’t as intricate. Any chance it could be the Painted Lady here in VT?

    Also saw the Infants! Very cool!

  3. I’ve added Painted Lady photos to the post. They seem to be on the move bigtime out here in Arizona. Astromuffy, can you send me a photo of yours?

  4. A painted lady butterfly was waiting for me when I left out the back door of my house and into the enclosed walkway that leads outside. I let her sit there for a day, then set her free the next day. Today, she seemed to be waiting for me to round the corner to my house, and brushed her wings against my face as I walked by. Glad to find this blog – I was wondering how it was that I am seeing a butterfly in March. That’s new for Northern Ontario.

  5. Awesome! The Infant, as in the newborn, as in the first flying lep of the season. I suspect that’s it. I’ll bet that’s what you found, Kristen.
    I’m off for sunset shots at the Rim!

  6. Kristen permalink

    I saw my first Mourning Cloak of the season yesterday here in coastal Maine. Also, a couple of little tiny orange things that looked skipper-ish, though maybe they were Infants? (And what’s up with that name?! I love the names of butterflies as much as the bugs themselves, I think.)

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