Some butterflies are disgusting. Some are sneaky. Others are just plain beautiful. And NC is the perfect state to seek them out.
There’s nothing like spotting the iconic Monarch butterfly out in the wild. With its bright orange colors and super migration powers—some travel up to 3,000 miles to reach their homes for the winter—this butterfly is truly a delight to watch.
Sadly, monarchs are at risk of going extinct. While conservation efforts are underway to help save their dwindling numbers, there are plenty of other butterfly species you can gaze upon right in your own backyard—or at your local butterfly house.
North Carolina is the perfect place to start butterfly watching (if you haven’t already), with over 175 species of butterflies fluttering around the state. And the good news for those of us who haven’t quite mastered how to focus binoculars, NC butterflies often fly much slower and closer to the ground than our birds.
Often, all it takes to attract a butterfly is a native plant or two, a piece of sweet fruit, or some help from a professional (again, we can’t recommend enough checking out a local butterfly house).
Here are five types you can be on the lookout for.
There’s nothing “common” about the Common Buckeye. With stunning eyespots that have an ombre effect from pink to blue to black, the Buckeye makes predator protection a fine art. These beauties fly close to the ground, nom-nomming on the nectar of clovers and phyla in every county in NC in the spring, summer, and fall.
They are also a favorite of Alyssa Taylor, environmental education program coordinator at the Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, and among the species in the garden’s collection of native butterflies:
“All the species that are in the house are ones that you could find in the state of North Carolina! Some of the ones featured are Monarchs, Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, and Giant Swallowtails. On any given day there can be upwards of nine different species flying within the house and over 100 total butterflies,” Taylor says.
While the Common Buckeye can still be spotted locally through October, the Native Butterfly House at Airlie is only open through Oct. 1.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, our state butterfly, is pretty hard to miss. It’s gigantic, with a wingspan of five to six inches. And bright: with yellow wings, black stripes, and, in females, splashes of blue and orange.
Like the Common Buckeye, the Swallowtail can be found all over the state through early October, and it doesn’t favor one particular region. These tigers don’t particularly like the shade, but if you set up your garden with plenty of milkweed and Joe-Pye-weeds (more purple hydrangeas than dandelions), you can expect to see up to 12 in one day.
While adult Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are stunning, they definitely have an ugly duckling stage. Swallowtail eggs are nearly indistinguishable from slimy bird poop—a trick to keep away unwanted diners.
The Red-Spotted Purple
This butterfly (see above) is neither purple nor red, but you’ll forgive it the second it opens its wings. Starting from its jet black body, each wing starts with vertical lines of metallic teal deepening to indigo. The “red spots” are strokes of brown on the wings’ far bottom corners.
The Red-Spotted Purple can be spotted across the state from March to November on wooded trails. While they do enjoy some nectar from cherry trees and other plants in the rose family, these butterflies prefer a nice hunk of rotting meat. Which proves the age-old adage: Never trust a pretty…wing.
The Long-tailed Skipper is a bit more elusive than the previous butterflies. But for Katie Hagen, the Animal Management Supervisor (and official butterfly wrangler) at the North Carolina Zoo, it’s worth the special effort to spot.
“Its appearance is striking and somewhat unexpected, with its teal body and elongated hind wings that form the two tails. This one can be somewhat difficult to observe since it’s not a big showy butterfly that catches your eye when in flight,” Hagen says of her favorite NC butterfly.
The Long-tailed Skipper is easiest to spot in NC’s coastal plains in October and November slurping up morning glory nectar. Dedicated lepidopterists have also encountered them across the entire state.
Unfortunately, Hagen doesn’t get to work with Skippers on a daily basis. The Kaleidoscope Butterfly Garden, which is open through September, is dedicated to Neotropical, Asian, and African butterfly species. The only featured butterfly commonly found in NC is the Monarch butterfly.
Everyone has a different definition of cute. But if blobfish give you full-on cute aggression, you will love American Snout Butterflies. Pinocchio has been spotted throughout the state, but is easiest to find in hardwood forests through November.
The American Snout is a picky eater. The only plant it will eat are hackberries—a tree native to North Carolina. In fact, planting a hackberry tree is probably the best way to attract an American Snout, since they like to spend their days hanging out on hackberry leaves and branches.
Don’t have a hackberry tree? American Snouts also love animal droppings and human sweat.
Yeah—butterflies are disgusting.