A Beginner's Guide to Butterfly Watching

Purple butterfly

On June 1, lepidopterists everywhere will don their binoculars and celebrate Butterfly Awareness Day. But this annual holiday isn't just for experienced butterfly watchers; it's also a great opportunity for amateurs to start learning about butterflies.

Butterfly watching has grown more popular in recent years, and for good reason. There's little required to get started — just a pair of binoculars, a keen eye, and some field clothes — although a field guide is also helpful.

To learn more about butterfly watching and why it's gaining popularity, we chatted with Court Whelan, who has been involved in both the business and scientific arenas of ecotourism for the past nine years. Whelan holds a doctorate degree in Ecotourism Entomology (a program that he helped create at the University of Florida) and is an internationally recognized expert in ecotourism, entomology, and the role they play together in promoting conservation on a global scale.

Where to Go

"There are two main things people look for with butterfly watching," Whelan says. "The most important is diversity; they want a high count of different species. The second is assemblages of the same species."

Your ideal butterfly watching location will depend on which of these is your goal. If you're aiming to see diversity, you'll want to head to an area like Central and South America. "Near the equator is where you'll see the highest species count. It's somewhere in the 4000's in Ecuador and Peru," Whelan says.

Monarch Butterflies Resting in a Tree

The diversity you'll find in any given area is dictated by the variety of climate zones. Take Ecuador for example. "If you're low, at sea level or near it, it's hot, humid and rains a lot," Whelan explains. "As you go up in elevation in the Andean mountains, you find multiple climate and life zones, which means there are different plants for butterflies to feed on and lay eggs on. Although there will be some overlap in the transition zones, the butterflies you find at the Amazon basin will be totally different than what you'll find at 10,000 feet."

If a trip to the equator isn't in the cards for you, there are plenty of places to find wide butterfly diversity in the United States. Florida and Arizona are two of the most popular U.S. destinations.

If you're more interested in seeing enormous numbers of the same butterfly, there are several options. The most well known is the gathering of 2 billion Monarch butterflies that migrate from southern Canada and across the U.S. to either the California coast or central Mexico for the winter. There are several species with large populations in Florida, too, like the Viceroys you can find streaming down the Interstate in huge quantities.

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