Elfins, Marbles, and Duskyings – Springtime Butterflies in Southern Ontario

(text and photos by David Geale)
Think “butterfly” – most people will imagine swallowtails floating lazily around a summer meadow, Monarchs fluttering at milkweed plants, or perhaps skippers darting frenetically between flowers. Even if told to think of “spring butterflies,” most people would (not incorrectly) think of Mourning Cloaks and commas sipping maple sap, or tiny blue azures bouncing over the woodland floor stopping to nectar at spring wildflowers. There’s nothing “wrong” with those butterflies, of course, but I thought it would be interesting to introduce you to some less-known denizens of the Southern Ontario spring: butterfly species that have only one generation per year and are only on the wing briefly, between April and June, each year. They’re out there before Monarchs return to Canada, and are nowhere to be found when the year’s second generation of Mourning Cloaks takes flight.
butterfly Callophrys niphon
Commas, like Mourning Cloaks and a few others, hibernate for the winter as adults, so are ready to go as soon as temperatures reach 10 °C or so – occasionally they even fly on warm winter days. The earlierst of our true spring butterflies spend the winter as chrysalids. Most of these are elfins – 6 species (in Southern Ontario) of nickel-sized, largely brown hairstreaks. Eastern Pine Elfins are very common from April through June, while others are much rarer: Bog Elfins are found in just a few black spruce bogs in Eastern Ontario, while Henry’s Elfins are inexplicably local, mostly in areas with sandy soil – and both of these only fly for a couple of weeks in May. If you look carefully among the ubiquitous Cabbage Whites – a European species that is now abundant throughout North America – you could be lucky to spot two uncommon spring specialties: the endangered West Virginia White (in damp woodlands) or the beautiful Olympia Marble (open glades and meadows).
butterfly Euchloe olympia
Emerging slightly later are species that over-winter as a caterpillar, and need to finish their growth and pupate early in the spring; most of these are skippers, in particular duskywings. Juvenal’s (whose caterpillar feeds on oaks) and Dreamy (willows, birches, and poplars) Duskywings are common in Southern Ontario, especially in May. Mottled Duskywing (New Jearsey Tea) is much rarer and highly localized; the Alderville Area is home to a healthy population, where you can also find the afore-mentioned Henry’s Elfin. Also in May, the uniquely speckled (and poorly-named) Arctic Skipper flutters weakly between grass blades, while Hobomok Skippers are abundant along roadsides and in woodlands, avidly visiting spring flowers.
butterfly Carterocephalus palaemon mesapano
Local birdwatchers know to look for woodcocks in spring, egrets in summer, jaegers in autumn, and redpolls in winter. Anyone seeking butterflies needs to be equally aware of the time of year, especially if they’re after the wonderful springtime beauties I’ve mentioned here. By July – when a lot of people start noticing butterflies – it will be too late, so get out there over the next month or so and see what’s puddling, nectaring, and patrolling in your backyard!

Lone Pine Land Trust

Lone Pine Land Trust is a non-profit charity based in Northumberland County.