Light of wing and rich in color, butterflies are delightful to behold. Watch one flutter past or flit from flower to flower and feel it lift your spirit. Examine them up close and marvel at their intricate markings.
From early spring through late fall, butterflies of different varieties abound in Long Island gardens, fields, meadows and yards. Taking a few minutes -- or several hours -- to chill out and observe them can be pure pleasure, inexpensive and great family fun. Think of it like birding, only butterflies are more numerous, easy to identify and let you sneak close enough to get a really good look -- no binoculars needed.
AUGUST IS PRIME TIME
Although present here throughout the warmer months, it's during August and early September when you'll find the greatest variety of butterflies. From speedy aerodynamic skippers to demure blues and abundant cabbage whites, plus woodland varieties like mourning cloaks, red admirals, commas and question marks (yes, the last two have punctuation clearly stamped on their wings) -- the varieties seem endless. More than 150 species of butterflies inhabit the state each year. Among the more uncommon ones locally: buckeyes, Baltimore checkerspots, pipevine swallowtails and, largest of all, the giant swallowtail, a huge, brown, tailed butterfly with yellow bars and a wingspan that can breach 7 inches.
"There really are a lot of varieties to see on Long Island," says Andrea Burrows, 23, of East Islip, an intern with the environmental program at Connetquot River State Park Preserve, where there's a butterfly garden. "My favorites are the eastern tailed blues -- they are tiny, cute and I love their colors."
Be aware that most species tend to fly in the late morning or late afternoon, preferring cloudy skies when it is very hot. Looking on windless days also offers an advantage since butterflies don't take well to being blown around.
"It also helps to look in areas with a diversity of flowering plants since each butterfly species has a favorite on which to feed and requires a specific type of leaf on which to lay eggs," explains Jeffry Petracca, a Cornell University entomologist on staff at the Long Island Aquarium's butterfly exhibit in Riverhead. Certain species prefer the edges of woodlots and swamps. Tiger swallowtails, he says, like to rest in the canopy of trees but drop down to feed in gardens and fields. Meanwhile, black swallowtails love zinnias.
For a close-up photo op, approach slowly from behind and position yourself among the flowers so the sun will shine on a butterfly's open wings when it lands.
The butterfly crescendo on Long Island arrives with the fall monarch migration. Hit the ocean or Long Island Sound beaches in early October and you'll see dozens each day stopping to feed on goldenrod growing wild among the dune grass before taking evening shelter in the protective needles of pine trees. Monarchs start appearing here in July, but broods that mature in early fall are larger and better at dealing with a migration that may cover 2,000 miles and stretch from Canada to Mexico.
"We just found monarch caterpillars on our milkweed plants," Burrows says. "That's a signal to get out and look now. Butterfly populations in our area are at their peak this month, so don't wait to head out."
WHERE TO GO
While Long Island offers several marvelous enclosed butterfly exhibits at such places as the Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown, the Cornell Cooperative Farm in Yaphank and the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, which features uniquely flying exotic butterflies from around the world, there's nothing like seeing native species in the wild -- and now is the perfect time. Fields, meadows, swamp edges, community gardens and flower gardens are all prime butterfly viewing areas, but you can't go wrong at any of the following butterfly hot spots:
With a mix of swamp edges, fields and deciduous trees, this is a great draw for a wide variety of butterflies.
Bethpage State Park
Two new butterfly gardens were recently planted near the entrance to the children's trail. These should now be attracting a mixed assortment of butterflies.
Planting Fields Arboretum, Oyster Bay
Incredibly beautiful with lush outdoor gardens, this is a great place to see swallowtails, painted ladies, red admirals and a mix of cabbage and sulfur butterflies.
Avalon Park and Preserve, Stony Brook
Take the yellow trail to find the natural wildflower field near the barn where a mix of everything from swallowtails and monarchs to skippers, hairstreaks and painted ladies should be easy to find.
Mashomack Preserve, Shelter Island
$3 suggested donation
With 10 miles of hiking trails, swamp edges and giant fields and meadows, you'll find a great mix of butterflies in natural settings here throughout the summer and early fall, but be careful of the ticks.
Connetquot River State Park Preserve, Oakdale
Butterfly gardens and miles of wooded trails attract a mix of field, garden and woodlot species including mourning cloaks, red admirals, monarchs, swallowtails, blues, skippers and cabbage verities.
Sweetbriar Nature Center, Smithtown
In addition to the indoor exhibit ($5 adults, $3 younger than 12), natural plantings throughout the preserve draw local butterflies in generous numbers. This is a great place to bring the kids or find butterflies that are willing to pose for the camera.
Bayard Cutting Arboretum, Oakdale
Butterfly numbers here are down this summer, but this is the only public park on Long Island where you might glimpse the rare pipevine swallowtail as its caterpillars feed on the large Dutchman's pipe vines, which grow on the property.
VIEWING THE FALL MONARCH MIGRATION
Caumsett State Park, Huntington
You'll find plenty of monarchs along the shore here and might also catch a glimpse of the locally rare Baltimore checkerspot if you visit this month.
Smith Point County Park, Shirley
Take the nature trail though the dunes to see an amazing number of monarchs both feeding and in flight. Watch the pine trees in the evening to see monarchs blend in with the needles for the evening.
Jones Beach State Park, Wantagh
You'll find plenty of monarchs looking for places to feed and rest as they continue their southward migration.
Montauk Point State Park, Montauk
A great place to find monarchs willing to land as this is the first stopping point for migrating butterflies that come across the water from New England.