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Summertime Butterfly Watching

Native butterflies are one of the many wonders we get to experience here in the Northern Colorado Front Range area. Because we have multiple habitat types (plains, foothills, montane, sub-alpine and alpine) the list of known butterflies is brimming.

There have been 226 species spotted along the Front Range and almost 200 of those are here in Larimer County.

Parks, open spaces, natural areas, and wildlife refuges are rich in opportunities for spotting multiple butterfly species. The Larimer County natural resources website has a thorough list of trails that can take you to different types of habitats.

If you are the sort of nature enthusiast who enjoys checklists and lives in (or visits) the Front Range, here are two lists for you!

Front Range butterfly checklist

Larimer County butterfly checklist

WHEN TO LOOK FOR BUTTERFLIES

May through August is the best time for spotting butterflies in Colorado. Butterflies need warm temperatures and as each habitat warms up, you’ll start to see butterfly action. They bask in sunshine with their wings spread to raise their body warmth, needing to be around 85 degrees before flying. Look in sunny spots with low-growing plants. As for spotting butterfly movement… By simply slowing down, you can begin to spot butterflies. Letting your eyes slowly roam over the landscape might help you notice movement in your peripheral vision. Some species soar and flap their wings intermittently, some species dart around madly. It’s possible for an experienced butterfly spotter to identify a species just by its flight pattern!

FIND BUTTERFLIES AT THEIR FOOD SOURCE

Butterflies can find nutrients in a wide assortment of substances. Most butterflies drink nectar but some drink from rotting fruit juices, tree sap, dung or carrion! If you see a group drinking from shallow puddles or muddy spots, this is called puddling, and the butterflies are taking up salts and other nutrients not found in nectar. The banks of streams and rivers are a great place to observe puddling. Remember that female butterflies are also looking for a place to lay their eggs and these caterpillar foods are different from the adult’s nectar sources.

Some common caterpillar food sources:

  • Willow, cottonwood, chokecherry, and aspen trees—Some types of swallowtail, admirals, and mourning cloaks
  • Milkweed- Monarchs
  • Dill, parsley, fennel, carrot— Black swallowtail
  • Thistle, hollyhock, sunflower— Painted Lady, checkerspots, skippers
  • Alfalfa—Orange Sulphur, clouded sulphur, Melissa blue
  • Grasses— Wood nymphs

Common butterfly food sources:

  • Sap flows, rabbitbrush, thistle, milkweed, butterfly bush, alfalfa, mustards, lilac, clover, cosmos and many garden flowers
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