A blog of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation

Falling for Butterflies

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

“We have a wide range of butterflies here – swallowtails and sulphurs, skippers and crescents, longtails and fritillaries.”

David Arbour, biological aide for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, has been documenting the butterflies at Red Slough Wildlife Management Area in extreme southeastern Oklahoma for more than a decade.

“Red Slough is just a fantastic spot for butterflies.”

At least 80 species of butterflies have been observed on the area, from the flashy and readily recognized to the more camouflaged and often overlooked.

These butterflies may differ in size, color, and even their preferred food plants but basic similarities remain. Butterflies are flying insects with six legs, a pair of clubbed antennae, and two pairs of scale-covered wings. They also have a long, coiled tongue used to suck nectar from flowering plants.

“The secret to finding butterflies is to find the patches of flowers they like,” Arbour said.

At Red Slough WMA and across Oklahoma, these natural butterfly gardens change with the seasons.

“I typically find early springtime butterflies like the spring azure and pine elfin at one of Red Slough’s big plum patches,” Abour said. “In June, the tall, purple spikes of blazing star are very popular with butterflies. And buttonbush is our best butterfly plant in the summertime; swallowtails are really attracted to buttonbush.”

“In the fall, smooth beggartick, or Bidens laevis, is the best place to watch for butterflies at Red Slough,” Arbour said. “This plant grows really well in dried wetlands, but it still likes to have its feet wet. I’m just now seeing the yellow blooms at the edge of the wetlands and will be closely watching these stands of wildflowers for rare butterflies.”

While Red Slough has numerous butterflies that regularly occur, species typically found further south have floated to the management area on strong south winds.   

"My best butterfly luck is from mid-October to early November," Arbour said. "That’s when we get most of our rare species.”

“Butterflies fly year-round at Red Slough. But our winter sightings are limited to species that hibernate, and then only on warm days."

Flowering plants aren’t only the secret to finding butterflies, but also to photographing them.

“My experience is that food is a high priority of butterflies,” Arbour said. “If you find butterflies feeding – even if you startle them – they’ll typically come back in just a few minutes. They’re there for the food.”

Though a popular butterfly destination today, Red Slough WMA hasn’t always attracted butterflies or butterfly enthusiasts. “In the early days of restoration, we didn’t have the right habitat,” Arbour said.

To best manage the wildlife resources at Red Slough and other Wildlife Department managed areas, biologists have been working to improve their habitat; increasing the amount of native plants available.

“We’re finally getting native wildflowers established and butterflies and other wildlife are finally coming in,” Arbour said.

“With time, I think it will only get better.”