6 Butterflies You Can Find in the Winter

01
of 07
North American Butterflies That Overwinter as Adults

Butterfly feeding on tree sap.
Late winter butterflies can be seen feeding on tree sap on warm days. Getty Images/EyeEm/Chad Stencel

Winter can be a dreary time for butterfly enthusiasts. Most butterflies spend the winter months tucked away in an immature life stage – egg, larva, or perhaps pupa. Some, most famously the monarch butterflies, migrate to a warmer climate for the winter. But there are a few species that diapause as adults during the winter months, waiting for the first days of spring to mate. If you know where to look, you might be lucky enough to spot a butterfly or two while the snow is still on the ground.

These early season butterflies often become active in early March, even in the northern reaches of their range. Some winters, I've seen them even earlier. Butterflies that overwinter as adults often feed on sap and rotting fruit, so you can try to lure them out of hiding by putting some overripe bananas or melon in your yard.

Here are 6 butterflies you can find in the winter if you just can't wait for spring. All 6 species belong to the same butterfly family, the brush-footed butterflies.

Sources:

  • A Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies (Peterson Field Guides), by Paul A. Opler and Vichai Malikul
  • A Field Guide to Western Butterflies (Peterson Field Guides), by Paul A. Opler and Amy Bartlett Wright
  • Butterflies of North America, by Jeffrey Glassberg
  • Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America, by Arthur V. Evans
  • Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA) website
  • Wisconsin Butterflies website

 

02
of 07
Mourning Cloak

Mourning cloak butterfly.
Mourning cloak butterfly. Getty Images/Johner Images

In Butterflies of North America, Jeffrey Glassberg describes the mourning cloak butterfly: "Above, there is nothing like a Mourning Cloak, with its plush brown velvety color, studded with royal blue and edged in ochre." It is, indeed, a handsome butterfly in its own right. But when you find a mourning cloak butterfly warming itself in the sun on one of the last days of winter, you may think it's the most beautiful sight you've seen in months.

Mourning cloaks are some of our longest-lived butterflies, with adults surviving as long as 11 months. By the end of winter, individuals may be noticeably tattered. On late winter days when the temperature is mild, they may emerge to feed on tree sap (most often oak) and sun themselves. Throw some bananas and cantaloupe on top of your garden compost heap, and you might find them enjoying a late winter snack.

Scientific Name: 

Nymphalis antiopa

Range:

Nearly all of North America, with the exception of the Florida peninsula and the southernmost parts of Texas and Louisiana.

Habitat:

Woodlands, stream corridors, urban parks

Adult Size:

2-1/4 to 4 inches

 

03
of 07
Compton Tortoiseshell

Compton tortoiseshell butterfly.
Compton tortoiseshell butterfly. Flickr user harum.koh (CC by SA license)

The Compton tortoiseshell butterfly can be mistaken for an anglewing, due to its irregular wing margins. Tortoiseshell butterflies are larger than anglewings, however, so consider the size when making an identification. The wings are orange and brown on their upper surfaces, but drab gray and brown underneath. To differentiate the Compton tortoiseshell from other similar species, look for a single white spot on the leading edge of each of the four wings.

Compton tortoiseshells feed on sap and rotting fruit and are often first seen in early March within their range. The Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA) website also notes that they may visit willow flowers.

Scientific Name: 

Nymphalis vau-album

Range:

Southeastern Alaska, southern Canada, northern U.S. Sometimes found as far south as Colorado, Utah, Missouri, and North Carolina. Rarely found as far as Florida and Newfoundland.

Habitat:

Upland forest.

Adult Size:

2-3/4 to 3-1/8 inches

 

04
of 07
Milbert's Tortoiseshell

Milbert's tortoiseshell butterfly.
Milbert's tortoiseshell butterfly. Getty Images/All Canada Photos/Kitchin and Hurst

Milbert's tortoiseshell is simply stunning, with a wide orange band of color that gradually fades to yellow at its inner edge. Its wings are outlined in black, and the hindwings are usually marked with bright blue dots on the outer edge. The leading edge of each forewing is decorated with two orange marks.

Although the flight season for Milbert's tortoiseshells is May to October, overwintering adults may be seen in early March. This species can be plentiful one year and rare the next.

Scientific Name: 

Nymphalis milberti

Range: 

Canada and northern U.S. Occasionally migrates south as far as California, New Mexico, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, but rarely seen in southeastern U.S.

Habitat: 

Moist locations where nettles grow, including pastures, woodlands, and marshes.

Adult Size: 

1-5/8 to 2-1/2 inches

 

05
of 07
Question Mark

Question mark butterfly.
Question mark butterfly. Getty Images/Purestock

Question marks like habitats with open spaces, so suburban butterfly enthusiasts have a good chance of finding this species. It's larger than other anglewing butterflies. The question mark butterfly has two distinct forms: summer and winter. In the summer form, the hindwings are almost entirely black. Winter question marks are mainly orange and black, with violet tails on the hindwings. The underside of the butterfly is drab, except for the contrasting white question mark symbol that gives this species its common name.

Question mark adults feed on carrion, dung, tree sap, and rotting fruit, but will visit flowers for nectar if their preferred diet is in limited supply. In some parts of their range, you can lure them out of hiding on warmer March days with overripe fruit.

Scientific Name: 

Polygonia interrogationis

Range: 

East of the Rockies, from southern Canada to Mexico, with the exception of the southernmost part of Florida.

Habitat: 

Wooded areas, including forests, swamps, urban parks, and river corridors

Adult Size: 

2-1/4 to 3 inches

 

06
of 07
Eastern Comma

Eastern comma butterfly.
Eastern comma butterfly. Getty Images/PhotoLibrary/Dr Larry Jernigan

Like the question mark, the eastern comma butterfly comes in both summer and winter forms. Again, the summer form has dark, nearly black hindwings. When viewed from above, eastern commas are orange and brown with black spots. A single dark spot in the center of the hindwing is an identifying trait of the species, but difficult to see on the summer form individuals. The hindwings have short tails or stubs. On the underside of the hindwing, the eastern comma has a comma-shaped white mark that is noticeably swollen at each end. Some guides describe it as a fishhook with barbs at each end.

Eastern commas like to sun themselves on warm winter days, even when there's snow on the ground. If you're on a late winter hike, look for them on woodland trails or at the edges of clearings.

Scientific Name: 

Polygonia comma

Range:

Eastern half of North America, from southern Canada to central Texas and Florida.

Habitat:

Deciduous woods near sources of moisture (rivers, marshes, swamps).

Adult Size:

1-3/4 to 2-1/2 inches

 

07
of 07
Gray Comma

Gray comma butterfly.
Gray comma butterfly. Flickr user Thomas (CC ND license)

The name gray comma may seem to be a misnomer because its wings are bright orange and black on their upper surfaces. The undersides do appear dull gray from a distance, although  close inspection reveals they are marked by fine striations of gray and brown. Gray commas have black wing margins, and on the hindwings, this margin is decorated with 3-5 yellow-orange spots. The comma marking on the underside is pointed at each end.

Gray commas feed on sap. Although their abundance varies from year to year, you stand a good chance of seeing one in mid March if you live within its range. Look for them in clearings and along roadsides.

Scientific Name: 

Polygonia progne

Range:

Most of Canada and northern U.S., extending south to central California and North Carolina. 

Habitat:

Streamsides, roadsides, and clearings near woodlands, aspen parklands, and gardens.

Adult Size:

1-5/8 to 2-1/2 inches