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What's in Flight 

August, 2019

There is big news in the butterfly world. The population of Monarch butterflies that summer here in our park and up and down the East Coast of America has greatly increased. Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, reports that the number of East Coast Monarchs is now 225 million, up 144 percent from last year. [They are counted while they over-winter on the fir trees of Oyamel, in Mexico].  ‘It is the highest count since 2006 and a thank you from the butterflies to all the people who planted native milkweeds [their host plant].’ Sadly the Monarchs on the West coast haven’t fared as well. Their numbers are in steep decline, Curry reports: ‘The numbers dropped to fewer than 30,000 this year, down from 1.2 million two decades ago.’

1 Monarch Butterfly Lucie Young.JPG

Monarch Butterfly on Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Lucie Young

2 Monarch Butterfly Lucie Young.jpg

Monarch Butterfly on Zinnia (Zinnia)

Lucie Young

July through September is the peak time to see butterflies in the park and around the city.  ‘You can see Red Admirals flying along the streets,’ says Hazel Davies, Director of the Butterfly Conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History. ‘They behave like a New Yorker. They are fast flyers, high tailing it down the avenues moving in an erratic fashion dodging traffic.  The fast erratic flight is because they need to evade predators whereas the slower, floating and gliding butterflies [such as the Monarchs] tend to be more toxic.’

3 Red Admiral Deborah Bifulco.jpg

Red Admiral on Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii)

Deborah Bifulco

Most butterflies spend their adult life feasting on nectar. But when a butterfly looks at a flower, it sees something far more magical than anything we see. Parts of the flower sparkle and fluoresce with ultraviolet markings. (Photographer Craig P Burrows’ images of flowers, taken under ultraviolet light, hint at what we may be missing with our limited vision). As Davies explains. ‘Butterflies see part of the light spectrum we don’t see.  To them the center of a flower is like a landing strip guiding them towards the nectar and pollen.’  Another feature of butterfly vision is they can see nearly 315 degrees around them, which helps spotting predators, food and water sources.

4 Ultraviolet_Flower_Craig_Burrows.jpg

Ultraviolet Flower

Craig Burrows

5 Plains-Coreopsis-Craig_Burrows.jpg

Plains Coreopsis

Craig Burrows

6 Cucumber-Flower-Craig_Burrows.jpg

Cucumber Flower

Craig Burrows

This summer there has been an abundance of Question Marks and Commas in the park.  These two butterflies, from the Anglewings group, are named for the tiny silvery-grey question mark or comma on the underside of their wings.  The Question Mark is a beauty with crenulated wings, and brownish-black spots on an orangey-red background and a violet rim around its hind wings. Closely related is the Comma, which is slightly smaller in size. Both travel up here in late spring from as far south as Florida. They come to breed, laying their eggs on the leaves of nettles and the American Elm and Hackberry trees. As butterflies, they are unusual in their diet.  Instead of sipping nectar, they prefer to feast on tree sap or fermenting fruit, which can sometimes make them appear tipsy or unwilling to fly.

7 Question Mark Lucie Young.jpg

Question Mark

Lucie Young

8 Question Mark markings Kent McFarland.

Question Mark markings

Kent McFarland

9 Comma Butterfly Bob Hall.jpg

Comma Butterfly

Bob Hall

Other butterflies flitting around the park this month include the beautiful Swallowtails, which are among the largest butterflies in the world with a wingspan of up to five and a half inches wide for those in India and three and a half inches wide for those in our park. 

10 Spicebush Swallowtail Deborah Bifulco

Spicebush Swallowtail

Deborah Bifulco

11  Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Jeffrey Ev

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Jeffrey Evans

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Lith Gontijo.j

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii)

Lith Gontijo

12 Eastern Swallowtail Lucie Young.JPG

Eastern Swallowtail

Lucie Young

At the tinier end of the spectrum are the pretty Eastern Tailed- Blue (about the size of a quarter) and the silvery-blue Summer Azure (the size of a nickel).

13 Eastern Tailed-Blue Deborah Bifulco.j

Eastern Tailed-Blue

Deborah Bifulco

14 Summer Azure Deborah Bifulco.jpg

Summer Azure

Deborah Bifulco

Many butterflies have bright showy colors on the upper side of their wings and are dull brown or grey underneath. But the Painted Lady and the American Lady have pretty eyespots and patterns on the bottom side of their wings.  These eyespots are to confuse predators,’ says Davies. ‘If a bird pecks at the eyespots, it’s not fatal. A butterfly can still fly if it loses a bit of a wing. But not its head.’  The Painted Ladies are sometimes called Thistle Butterflies as thistles are the favorite host plant for their caterpillars. These butterflies are among the most successful in the world. They can fly up to 30 miles an hour, covering 100 miles in one day during migration.

15 American Lady Butterfly has two eye s

American Lady Butterfly on Allioum (Allium)

has two eye spots on the lower wing

Jeffrey Evans

16 Painted Lady Butterfly has four eye s

Painted Lady Butterfly

has four eye spots on the lower wing

Deborah Bifulco

Words: Lucie Young


Images: Deborah E Bifulco, Craig P Burrows, Jeffrey Evans, Lucie Young, Kent McFarland, Bob Hall, Lith Gontijo



The Butterfly Conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History opens October 12, 2019


Hazel Davies ‘Inside Butterflies’ book


Craig P Burrows Photography


Xerces Society Monarch information

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