Look for Oklahoma beauties on mild winter days

Butterflies and moths aren’t all gone during coldest months

An orange sulphur butterfly finds late-season nectar on flowers blooming near Tulsa on Nov. 11. Photo by Kelly J Bostian / KJBOutdoors

For the CCOF

Visions of winter wonderlands occupy thoughts as the holidays approach, but Oklahoma’s winter days which range from bitter to balmy can reveal different winter beauties—butterflies and moths.

Temperatures across Oklahoma dropped to freezing and the upper 20s on October 18 and 19 but rebounded to a high of 88 just two days later. Most flowers wilted, but people with surviving blooms were treated to butterfly invasions—including some big orange monarchs and bronze and black variegated fritillaries.

Even now, as snow blankets parts of the state and winter weather patterns are officially upon us, local experts say butterflies and moths are in our midst, and might even be seen on truly wintry days.

Every child learns in school about butterflies that sleep away the winter in a cocoon or chrysalis to emerge as a springtime butterfly, but many species overwinter in the adult stage. Some overwinter as eggs. Some are caterpillars and individuals of some species might be found in any one of those life stages.

The most commonly noticed Oklahoma butterfly to overwinter is the orange sulphur, a medium-sized butterfly with yellow wings that sport a blush of orange and pink, and have black borders on the outer edges of the upper wings.

Survival strategies

The adults of these butterflies find crevices in trees, hollow trees, brush piles, and buildings and they might even slide down deep in leaf cover on the ground. But, active year-round, any particular orange sulphur might overwinter as an adult, or as an egg, a caterpillar, or in a chrysalis, according to John Fisher, a lifelong naturalist and amateur lepidopterist in Tulsa.

Several medium-sized fancy butterflies also may overwinter here, Fisher said.

“Red admirals will overwinter,” he said. “They will find a crevice to get out of the weather and just hunker down. Sleepy oranges, they have a wing people say looks like a closed eye but I don’t see it, they overwinter, and so can the question mark and eastern comma,” he said. The wings of the latter have orange, brown, bronze, black, and white colors with patterns that resemble those punctuation marks.

The most beautiful of all, in Fisher’s opinion, is called the mourning cloak—although he prefers the name it bears in Europe, the Camberwell beauty, named for a location instead of a priest’s funeral robe.

“Because they are beautiful, they are really gorgeous,” he said. “They have black wings with yellow fringes and have these terrific iridescent blue spots. You can find them on a winter day, even in January or February, with snow on the ground. If you have sunshine and not much wind, look around and you might see them flying around.”

A tough invasive moth

One wintertime moth in Oklahoma is a recent invader. First seen in the Northeast in 1985, it had spread across the continent to Alaska by 2005. Called the large yellow underwing moth—even though it is only about 2.5 centimeters long—it is among the large family of armyworm moths.

As the name does suggest, the moth is a mottled brown with yellow-orange underwings. Some call it “winter cutworm.”

“If you see a green caterpillar on top of the snow it is probably Noctua pronuba,” Fisher said. “They have an incredible range from the Mediterranean to Siberia and even up in the Himalayas.”

Fascinating and cold-hardy as they may be, they can also multiply in large numbers and wipe out crops and lawns, and entomologists have yet to learn all they need to know about controlling the Eurasian invaders.

Anyone who has a camp, deer stand, or shed they visit occasionally in winter months likely has seen a little arrowhead-shaped moth called the black snout, or green clover worm.

“It’s small. If you see a little triangular brown moth that looks like an arrowhead that’s it,” Fisher said. “You will find them all winter long.”

The moths can at times be a problem for spring soybean and alfalfa crops come springtime.

Other late-autumn butterflies will of course perish, which includes some late-migrating monarchs and other species like the colorful gulf fritillary and buckeye that migrate up into Oklahoma each summer from Texas and other Gulf states.

Monarchs that stop short

Sandra Schwinn, a Monarch Watch conservation specialist for Oklahoma, said monarchs that migrated through the state in early October started arriving in wintering grounds in Mexico the second week of November.

Some stragglers always are reported from Oklahoma and areas north into November, but those most likely perish, Schwinn said.

There are scattered reports of late survivors of unknown origin, however.

Journey North, a migration tracking organization, asks volunteers in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas to report wintertime monarch sightings.

The organization notes that not all monarchs migrate to Mexico. Some breed throughout the winter in the southern U.S., and scattered reports show that other monarchs might overwinter in a non-reproductive state. Researchers are working to understand that phenomenon.

Fisher said he once saw a monarch during an Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count event on Oklahoma’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve the first week in January.

“There was about four inches of snow on the ground and the wind was blowing out of the south and I look up and here is this monarch fighting the wind,” he said. “I tried to catch it but the snow was too deep to run. Who knows if someone tried to raise it and released it late, or it was a straggler that found shelter somewhere but got flushed out. Who knows? Butterflies are very interesting,” he said.

Kelly Bostian is an independent journalist writing for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To learn more about what we do and to support Kelly’s work, see the About the CCOF page.

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