by Peter Hall

Butterflies are creatures of habit and of habitat. Most species require fairly specific conditions before they will breed and remain in an area. The Fletcher Wildlife Garden is an experiment illustrating that if you create habitats with those necessary conditions, butterflies will arrive and prosper.

In 1991, the first steps were taken to alter what was a fairly sterile site from a butterfly’s point of view — large areas of mowed grass with a ravine down the centre. During that first year, only eight species were seen, mainly common ones, such as the Cabbage White and the Northern Crescent, whose larvae (caterpillars) feed on a variety of widespread, often weedy plants. Some were also migratory species, such as the Question Mark and the American Lady, which were likely just passing through.

Now, after letting the grass and selected weeds, such as milkweed and nettles, flourish as larval food sources and planting flowers with high nectar content, like daisies, butterfly weed, and clover, our butterfly checklist stands at 46 species and increases annually.

Observations at the garden should be reported via the e-mail address at the bottom of this page, as there are still a number of butterfly species that could be expected to establish colonies at the site or pass through during migration or dispersal from other locales.

The FWG consists of a number of habitats created specifically to attract wildlife including butterflies. These habitats are representative of the broader range of ecosystems that you can find in the Ottawa district. Each will be attractive to certain species of butterflies.

Butterfly Meadow

The Butterfly Meadow was once a field of mowed grass that had no appeal for butterflies. After turning the sod, the area was planted with about 100 species of wildflowers and garden plants known to be used by butterflies and other insects as sources of nectar and larval food.

Now you can regularly see the handsome black and yellow Black Swallowtail as the females lay eggs on Queen Anne’s Lace, a member of the carrot family. You’ll also find the Clouded Sulphur and more rarely the Orange Sulphur, both of which feed on clovers and alfalfa which were planted in the meadow.

The Eastern Tailed Blue, once rare in the Ottawa District, is now a regular at the meadow, feeding as a caterpillar on a variety of legume plants.

Old Field

Once the grass was allowed to grow throughout the FWG, grass-loving butterflies began to appear. The first were the small orange skippers, including the European and the Long Dash. They dart about among the long grass stems where their caterpillars feed.

In 1993, Common Ringlets began to appear and, within a few years, became quite common. With their plain brownish coloration, it is easy to see why they were known by an earlier name, the Inornate Ringlet.

Where milkweeds have grown up in clumps, you can expect to see the large, bright-orange Monarchs, as the females lay their eggs singly on the undersides of leaves. You may also occasionally see another large orange butterfly, the Great Spangled Fritillary, with its bright silver spots on the underside, nectaring on milkweed flowers, a favourite of many butterflies.

One final grassy-area species that was seen for the first time in 1996 is the Silvery Blue. Since then, it has become one of the commonest butterflies flying in June. Its caterpillars feed on the cow vetch that is common throughout the grassy areas.

Old Woodlot

In the southeast corner of the FWG, the Old Woodlot is made up of a variety of mature trees, such as ashes and oaks. The leaves of these trees offer food to a number of caterpillars. The striking White Admiral with its blue spots and wide, white bands patrols the edge of the woods. The Eastern Comma and the Question Mark butterflies, with their cryptic underside markings and their ragged-looking wing edges, are most often seen perched on the trunks or limbs of mature trees, disguised as old leaves to avoid the gaze of predators.

Only a very few Striped Hairstreak butterflies have been seen at the FWG, but this small brown and greyish species with its hair-like tails, probably feeds as larvae on the oak or ash trees found in the woodlands. Look for the adults on milkweeds.

Amphibian Pond

Creating this pond by damming a small creek before it drops into the ravine has resulted in the appearance of a butterfly species that depends on wet conditions.

The Least Skipper is the smallest butterfly in the Ottawa district and feeds on marsh grasses. A colony first appeared at the east end of the pond, likely coming as a stray from down by the Rideau Canal where the species has been seen. Sedges may also attract some of the sedge-feeding skippers found in the district.

The Ravine

The wooded ravine running through the centre of the FWG creates an opportunity for butterflies to overwinter in a protected location free from strong northerly winds. Here you are most likely to see three species that overwinter as adult butterflies — the beautiful purple and yellow Mourning Cloak and the orange and brown Milbert’s and Compton Tortoiseshells. These are all members of the anglewing group of butterflies and, as adults, do not feed at flowers but on rotting fruit or tree sap.

Backyard Garden

Because the Backyard Garden contains elements of all the other habitats, you can expect to see a wider variety of butterflies there, including some that may be passing through. Single specimens of large species, such as the Atlantis Fritillary and Painted Lady have been seen there.

In 1997, the very striking black and yellow Canadian Tiger Swallowtail and the largest local skipper, the Silver-spotted Skipper, were seen around the Backyard Garden. It is the variety of nectaring sources, such as the Butterfly Weed, Joe Pye Weed, coneflower, bergamot, and wild asters, that attract them.

In 2016, Giant Swallowtails have regularly nectared on various flowers in the BYG, in particular, they visit phlox and butterfly bush flowers. Their larvae usually feed on citrus plants (Rutaceae sp.) but one caterpillar was found on a Common Rue plant in 2017.

Species found at the FWG

The following is a list of the species that have been observed at the FWG since 1991. The species for which we’ve observed eggs or larvae are marked with an asterisk.

Note: The names in this list follow, for the most part, the recently revised and updated Checklist and English Names of North American Butterflies issued by the North American Butterfly Association.

Butterfly species Year first sighted

Skippers — Hesperiidae
Photos, ID, larval food, etc.
  • Juvenal’s Duskywing Erynnis juvenalis
  • Silver-spotted Skipper Epargyreus clarus
  • Arctic Skipper Carterocephalus palaemon
  • Least Skipper Ancyloxypha numitor
  • European Skipper Thymelicus lineola
  • Leonard’s Skipper Hesperia leonardus
  • Peck’s Skipper Polites peckius
  • Tawny-edged Skipper Polites themistocles
  • Long Dash Skipper Polites mystic
  • Delaware Skipper Anatrytone logan
  • Hobomok Skipper Poanes hobomok
  • Dun Skipper Euphyes vestris

Swallowtails — Papilionidae
Photos, ID, etc.
  • *Black Swallowtail Papilio polyxenes
  • *Giant Swallowtail Papilio cresphontes
  • Canadian Tiger Swallowtail Papilio canadensis

Whites and sulphurs — Pieridae
Photos, ID, etc.
  • Cabbage White Artogeia rapae
  • Clouded Sulphur Colias philodice
  • Orange Sulphur Colias eurytheme

Gossamer-wing Butterflies — Lycaenidae
Photos, ID, etc.
  • Bronze Copper Lycaena hyllus
  • Banded Hairstreak Satyrium calanus
  • Striped Hairstreak Satyrium liparops
  • Eastern Tailed Blue Everes comyntas
  • Lucia Azure Celastrina lucia
  • *Silvery Blue Glaucopsyche lygdamus

Brush-footed Butterflies — Nymphalidae
Photos, ID, etc.
  • American Snout Libytheana carinenta bachmanii
  • Great Spangled Fritillary Speyeria cybele
  • Atlantis Fritillary Speyeria atlantis
  • Pearl Crescent Phyciodes tharos
  • Northern Crescent Phyciodes cocyta
  • Question Mark Polygonia interrogationis
  • Eastern Comma Polygonia comma
  • Compton Tortoiseshell Nymphalis vau-album
  • Mourning Cloak Nymphalis antiopa
  • *Milbert’s Tortoiseshell Nymphalis milberti
  • *American Lady Vanessa virginiensis
  • Painted Lady Vanessa cardui
  • *Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta
  • Common Buckeye Junonia coenia
  • *White Admiral Limenitis arthemis
  • *Viceroy Limenitis archippus
  • Northern Pearly-Eye Enodia anthedon
  • Little Wood-Satyr Megisto cymela
  • Common Ringlet Coenonympha tullia
  • Common Wood-Nymph Cercyonis pegala nephele

Monarchs — Danaidae
Photos, ID, etc.
  • *Monarch Danaus plexippus

Silver-spotted Skipper; photo Aroop Ghosh

Least Skipper; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

Hobomok Skipper; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

Black Swallowtail; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

Clouded Sulphur; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

Banded Hairstreak; photo Christine Hanrahan

Great Spangled Fritillary; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

Eastern Comma

White Admiral; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

Red Admiral; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

Little Wood Satyr; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

Monarch on Viper’s Bugloss; photo Christine Hanrahan

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This page was revised on 10 June 2021
© Fletcher Wildlife Garden
Text: Peter Hall, OFNC
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