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Butterflies in Southern Arizona

Butterflies in Southern Arizona

by Jon Friedman

Photo by Reenie Breitling-Hollister

I remember visiting the Museum of Natural History in New York when I was a kid. I was mesmerized while standing in front of large display cases that featured an amazing array of butterflies – large and small, some extremely colorful and some less so, native and non-native, etc. I was endlessly fascinated and spent a lot of time with those exhibits. Growing up in a densely populated large northern city as an urban kid, I was totally unfamiliar with almost every species of butterflies that were stuck to their boards with special pins. I have never forgotten that experience.

In the past, butterfly collecting was limited to those few dedicated souls who were educated about butterflies, had the right equipment for collecting, had a budget for display cases and related supplies, and time enough to be in the field and later prepare the specimens for display.

Birding also had similar beginnings. Prior to Roger Tory Peterson’s publishing the first guidebook for the identification of birds in the 1940s, birders would have to shoot birds so they could examine them in hand to learn the details of any particular species. Peterson’s guidebooks allowed birders to trade in their guns for binoculars and camera in their quest for “hunting” for new species.

Photo by Richard @ SearchNet Media

In our modern times, butterfly collecting is now left to scientific researchers and butterfly watching (referred to as butterflying) is a fast-growing hobby throughout the country. As a movement, interest in butterflies took root in New York in the 1980s with the advent of close-focusing binoculars, butterfly guidebooks, and macro photography (digiscoping in today’s terminology). Before the end of that decade, Jeffrey Glassberg, a dedicated birder and admirer of butterflies, established the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). Today there are dozens of local, state, and regional butterfly groups that loosely fall under the umbrella of NABA.

Gulf Fritillary by Richard A SearchNet Media

While it remains a legitimate scientific and educational endeavor to collect actual specimens from the wild, this role is limited to a relatively small number of researchers. The larger butterfly audience, like the birding community, no longer needs to collect actual specimens. Just keeping a list or photo album is reward enough without having to have the actual specimens. Most of today’s high end optics feature close-focusing abilities (as close as 3-4 feet) that serve both birders and butterfliers equally well. With the addition of a good butterfly field guide, most birders are ready to explore the fascinating and colorful world of butterflies.

In Southern Arizona, the Tucson Botanical Gardens puts on an annual exhibit of live butterflies each year, beginning in October and lasting several months. Their exhibit features both native butterflies (and moths) as well as specimens from throughout the world. The growth cycle, from egg to adult, is also well documented. This is one of the most popular exhibits in all the state. Many thousands of families see this incredible exhibit each year. And nothing will inspire nature lovers as much as this particular annual exhibit.

Pipevine Butterfly by Richard @ SearchNet Media

As early as 1981, the first serious field guide to identifying butterflies of North America was published as part of the continuing Audubon series of field guides. The butterflies were photographed in the wild, in their natural habitat, and afforded the observers a more detailed look at these beautiful insects than most could possible see live in the field. With the advent of close-focusing binoculars and field guides, observers could now see the various species without disturbing, damaging, or killing any butterflies.

There is still much to learn about butterflies and, as in the birding community, much new knowledge will be accumulated by those amateurs out in the field. As in birding, some species of butterflies will prove difficult for novices to correctly identify in the field. Field guides are indispensable for correct identification of some sparrow, flycatcher, and warbler species. The same will prove true for some species of butterflies. Like birding, this is a hobby that allows the novice to become a scholar, if they choose to do so.

In 1999, the Southeastern Arizona Butterfly Association, NABA’s only Arizona chapter, was established by Priscilla and Hank Brodkin of Patagonia. Many of the best-known birding hotspots:

  • Sonoita Creek in Patagonia
  • Huachuca Mountain canyons
  • Madera Canyon in the Santa Ritas
  • Cave Creek in the Chiricahuas
  • California Gulch
  • Guadalupe Canyon in the extreme southeastern corner of the state
  • Sycamore Canyon along the border west of Nogales

among many others also offer excellent habitat and opportunities for observing butterflies.

Photo by Reenie Breitling-Hollister

In fact, Arizona is second only to Texas as the state with largest number of butterfly species available for observation. Southeastern Arizona is the single best region of the state to engage in this hobby as it contains the greatest diversity of habitats. Over 330 species of butterflies have been observed here! The passion of birders can easily extend into the field of butterflies without any extra time or expense. And, as with birding, the rewards greatly exceed the effort.

Arizona butterflies can be organized into several families. They are:

  • Swallowtails, large butterflies with tails;
  • Whites and Sulphurs, species that are predominantly white or yellow;
  • Hairstreaks, small butterflies that often have tiny tails on the hind wings;
  • Blues, small butterflies with blue upper wings on the males;
  • Coppers, small butterflies that generally have copper-colored upper wings;
  • Metalmarks, small butterflies that generally have metallic-appearing markings and long antennae;
  • Brush-footed Butterflies, a large group of diverse species that appear to have only four legs; and
  • Skippers, medium to small brown or blackish butterflies with the antennae clubs bent backwards.

Most butterfly field guides are organized similarly to bird guides. Images are usually photographic with accompanying descriptions of key field marks, relative size, seasonal availability, host plants, range, habitat, similar species, and other pertinent information.

Besides the popular Peterson field guide mentioned earlier, another excellent field guide is Butterflies of Arizona – A Photographic Guide. This book by Bob Stewart and Priscilla and Hank Brodkin is filled with amazing close-up images and all the necessary accompanying information for accurate identifications. The Wild Bird Store offers butterfly field guides and feeders to attract them to your back yard.

There are non-profit organizations devoted to the non-consumptive study, appreciation, and conservation of butterflies that have public memberships and publish literature on butterflies.

  • North American Butterfly Association(NABA)
  • Southeast Arizona Butterfly Association  (SEABA) It offers monthly meetings, field trips, and other activities. 
  • Lepidopterists' Society is another organization for those interested in butterflies and moths. 

If you want to learn even more about local butterflies, you can contact the Arizona Native Plant Society, P.O. Box 41206, Sun Station, Tucson, AZ. 85717. Request their popular Desert Butterfly Gardening pamphlet.

You can also begin your own butterfly garden by planting nectar-producing plants that butterflies prefer. Many of the flowers that folks cultivate for hummingbirds also work in attracting butterflies. But there are nectar-producing plants and host plants that are more specific to butterflies. Southeastern Arizona has several public butterfly gardens, in addition to small neighborhood and community gardens located throughout Tucson. Well-developed butterfly public gardens can be visited at:

  • Tucson Botanical Gardens on Alvernon Road, 
  • Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on Kinney Road
  • Patagonia Butterfly Garden and the 
  • Bisbee Butterfly Garden at the base of Brewery Gulch.
Road Runner and Gulf Frittilary by Doris Evans

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