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Not Rotten to the Core:
Butterflies of the Big Apple

by Harry Zirlin and Jeff Ingraham

From the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Manhattan looks like a cubist composition of glass, steel, concrete and asphalt. You would think it the next to last place on earth to look for butterflies -- right behind Antarctica. Well, you might very well think that, but you would be wrong. Manhattan and the other four boroughs that make up New York City -- the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island -- are rich in butterflies. Indeed, a single park like the Bronx's Van Cortlandt has more species inhabiting it than are found in all of Great Britain.

New York City offers some surprising beauty. A male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectars on orange milkweed. July 1990. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (photo by Don Riepe)

   For the past thirteen years, members of the New York City Butterfly Club, including the authors, have been mapping the distribution of the City's butterflies in time and space. We have found approximately 120 species within a 50 - mile radius of Manhattan and most of them can be found in at least one of the five boroughs. Some of these butterflies are hard-core urbanites, actually thriving in parks, vacant lots, railroad right of ways, roadsides and similar habitats. Among these are Red Admiral, Question Mark, American Lady, Painted Lady, Mourning Cloak, Pearl Crescent, Cabbage White, Orange Sulphur, Eastern Tailed-Blue, Silver-Spotted Skipper and Common Sootywing. One of us, (Zirlin) once saw a Red Admiral perching outside his boss's window on the 24th floor of a building on 52nd Street and Third Avenue in mid-town Manhattan.

Surprising Snow Geese awake as the World Trade Towers glow in the rising sun.July 1990. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (photo by Don Riepe)

   Most New York City butterfliers have favorite stories of their most incongruous butterfly encounters: a Red-banded Hairstreak feeding at a dumpster in an alley in downtown Manhattan; a Common Checkered-Skipper (which is not common in the New York City area) perching in Bryant Park on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue; a chrome yellow Cloudless Sulphur dashing south above the crowds and buses on Third Avenue. These occasional glimpses of urban butterflies, while they cheer us for a moment, are not the nitty-gritty of Gotham butterfly spotting. For that, you need to abandon the glass and steel canyons and head for the parks and other remaining open areas. Each borough has its own butterfly hot spots. The Bronx has Van Cortlandt Park and Pelham Bay Park; Manhattan -- Inwood Hill Park; Queens -- Alley Pond, Cunningham, and Forest Parks as well as Jamaica Bay National Recreational Area. Brooklyn -- Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and Floyd Bennett Field. Staten Island is loaded with goodies: Sailor's Snug Harbor Park, Wolf Pond Park, the Greenbelt and Tottenville are among them.

   What is especially significant about these places is that they are not only the best places to find butterflies in New York City, they are among the best places to find certain species anywhere in the Northeast. Van Cortlandt Park has one of the largest populations of Silvery Checkerspots that we know of and is a fairly reliable place to see the rare "Northern" Southern Hairstreak. Jamaica Bay and Floyd Bennett Field are some of the only places we knew of in the East to find Checkered Whites on a consistent basis. Tottenville and Inwood Hill Park are bastions for the hackberry-feeding American Snout, Hackberry Emperor and Tawny Emperor.

   While veteran eastern butterfliers may be jaded by the riches in their own backyard, many of the species found in New York City will be "lifers" or rare treats for the tourists or business visitors from the western United Sates or other parts of the world. There is nothing anywhere west of the Rocky Mountains like a male Spicebush Swallowtail with its glorious clouds of green scaling against a rich velvet black. Yet this butterfly is easy to find in many areas of the City from May through August. Red-spotted Purple, Little Wood Satyr, Hoary Edge and Least Skipper are just a few more of the species that could be new to visitors from far away but are nevertheless common in many City parks.

An odd couple Tawny Emperor (left) and Compton Tortoiseshell enjoy some of the best "mung" that the City has to offer. Sept. 1995. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (photo by Don Riepe)

   A few butterflies can be seen in City parks even on exceptionally warm winter days, but if you can plan your trip to New York to maximize the species on the wing, mid-June through mid-July is probably the peak period. Most of the interesting Spring species in the East are not easy to find without leaving the City proper and heading for the Pine Barrens east on Long Island or to the south in New Jersey. But many of the butterflies that begin emerging in late May can be found in the upland parks like Van Cortlandt, Inwood Hill, Alley Pond and Staten Island's Greenbelt.

   The other parks also begin to reveal their butterfly populations in earnest in May. From the Bronx in the north to Staten Island in the south, the following are among the City's best butterflying spots.

Van Cortlandt Park: (last stop on the number 1 or 9 trains at 242nd Street). This and Pelham Bay Park are the two largest City parks. Good areas in Van Cortlandt are Vault Hill and the marshy areas near the golf course and the railroad tracks. From 242nd Street, walk north along the playing fields and head for the paths that wind through the wooded prominence which is Vault Hill. This area contains remnant grasslands with good stands of dogbane and other wildflowers.

   In June and early July look for Spicebush Swallowtail, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, American Copper, Coral Hairstreak, Banded Hairstreak, Hickory Hairstreak, Striped Hairstreak and Great Spangled Fritillary here. These will be sharing the blossoms with a good variety of skippers including Zabulon Skipper, Hobomok Skipper, Hoary Edge, Silver-spotted Skipper and Delaware Skipper. Silvery Checkerspots are also at Vault Hill but most individuals are found along paths farther back near the riding stables.

A White M Hairstreak, with its brilliant iridescent blue topside (not visible in this photo) is one of the many tropical immigrants to New York City. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (photo by Don Riepe)

   For detailed information on finding these and other spots mentioned in this article call the Urban Park Rangers at 212-360-2776. The wet areas in Van Cortlandt harbor Mulberry Wings and Baltimore Checkerspots but they are exceedingly difficult to find. Still, it is nice to know that they are there and they occasionally wander out to the nearest flower clumps alongside the railroad tracks.

Pelham Bay Park: (Last stop on the Number 6 train). Pelham Bay is an extensive mix of wetlands, second growth forest and grassy areas. We have found a colony of Baltimore Checkerspots at the northwest corner of the wetlands adjacent to Orchard Beach near City Island. The colony may be transient. One of us (Ingraham) once found Meadow Fritillaries in an open area among the oaks at the edge of the Bruckner Expressway while huge trucks whizzed by. Beside these specialities, most of the commoner species can be found here as well.

Inwood Hill Park: (Last stop on the A train). Inwood Hill is at the very northern tip of Manhattan and contains the last remnants of the forest that once covered Manhattan. This is a good place to get Pipevine Swallowtails and the dark form of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. It is also good for the hackberry-feeding American Snout and Hackberry Emperor. On the milkweeds in June, scores of Banded Hairstreaks cover the blossoms, jostling each other and the less common Hickory, Striped and 'Northern' Hairstreaks. What are probably the only Silvery Checkerspots in Manhattan are occasionally found here in small numbers. Look on the upland paths for mulberry trees dropping their berries and see what the squished berries attract: Hackberry Emperors, Eastern Commas, Question Marks, Mourning Cloaks and Red Admirals.

A European Small Tortoiseshell in Central Park visits a butterfly bush, another non-native species. Oct. 12, 1995 (photo by Peter Post)

Central Park: Manhattan's Central Park is somewhat disappointing as far as its butterfly composition is concerned. This is probably due to the fact that Central Park was created from cleared land in the 1800's, as opposed to other parks that contain land that was never cleared. Nevertheless, a local enthusiast, Nick Wagerik, has acquired an impressive list of fifty-three species over the years for Central Park. Moreover, the absence of certain species from Central Park even after the lapse of so many years provides important insights into the difficulty many species experience recolonizing areas from which they were extirpated. Still, the Conservatory Gardens at 105th Street and 5th Avenue will reward you with some nice species and in good years is a fine place for southern strays. Sachems, Fiery Skipper, Ocola Skipper and even Long-tailed Skippers and Clouded Skippers have been seen here. American Snouts will come to the sweet pepperbush when it is in bloom. Strawberry Fields is a good place for both.

Another Small Tortoiseshell was one of two found at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Aug. 31, 1988 (photo by Don Riepe)

Jamaica Bay: (Take the IND A train to Broad Channel Station. Proceed by walking on Noel Road to Cross Bay Boulevard, turn right and walk about three quarters of a mile to the Refuge Visitor Center.) Jamaica Bay in Queens is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area that also includes Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, Great Kills in Staten Island and Sandy Hook in neighboring New Jersey. Almost 70 species have been recorded at Jamaica Bay. When the buddleia is in bloom, the Visitor's Center is a good place to start. Park rangers manage the area for butterflies and often slather a mixture of fermenting fruit and beer ("mung") on the trees to attract anglewings and emperors who are partial to such delights. Another good spot is the open field to the left of the parking area at the Visitor's Center when the milkweeds and bouncing bet are in bloom. Some fairly common species here are Black Swallowtail, Question Mark, Eastern Tailed-Blue, Pearl Crescent, Swarthy Skipper and the two common sulphurs of the Northeast, Clouded and Orange. Special species that local aficionados come here to see include American Snout and Tawny Emperor, both of which breed on the hackberry trees, Salt Marsh Skipper which breeds on the Spartina grass but nectars at camphor-weed and Checkered White, which can be found at the tern nesting area in September or along the railroad tracks.

A very unusual, partially melanistic female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectars at a day lily at the New York Botanical Garden. July 18, 1993. Bronx New York (photo by Jeffrey Glassberg)

   Jamaica Bay is also one of the best places to consistently find southern strays such as Cloudless Sulphur, Fiery Skipper, Variegated Fritillary and Common Buckeye. These species share the coastal flyway with flocks of migratory birds and the flocks of migratory humans arriving and departing at nearby JFK Airport. The beautiful and large Broad-winged Skipper has undergone a tremendous population explosion due to its ability to use the common reed (Phragmites) as a foodplant. It is abundant at Spring Creek in late July and early August. Spring Creek is just north of the refuge. Ask for directions at the Visitor's Center.

Floyd Bennett Field: [Take the IRT #2 (also #5 at rush hours) to Flatbush Avenue. Take the Q35 bus to the park. Ask the driver to let you off at the main entrance and walk past the barracks to the open areas] An abandoned airfield rich in history (Lindbergh took off from here on his famous flight) it also contains some of the last vestiges of the Hempstead Plains grassland. There are buddleia bushes and other cultivated flowers around the greenhouse. In the overgrown runway strips adjacent to Flatbush Avenue there exist relict populations of Cobweb Skipper and Dusted Skipper, but you need to be a real zealot to search them out in April and May. Common Checkered-Skippers, Checkered Whites and Pipevine Swallowtails are sometimes here in August and September. Black Swallowtails can be common along with Common Buckeyes and Red-banded Hairstreaks on the sumac blossoms. Look for swallowtails around the mimosa trees.

Hackberry Emperors are best found at Tottenville, at the southern end of Staten Island (as of this writing, still a part of New York City). (photo by Don Riepe)

Prospect Park/ Brooklyn Botanical Gardens: (Number 2 or 3 train to Grand Army Plaza). There is a little magic in ascending Prospect Park's Lookout Hill, the highest point in Brooklyn, in late May to find male Black Swallowtails, Red Admirals and American Ladies hilltopping just as they do in California or Arizona. Well, a hill is a hill and it must be topped. The Botanical Garden right next to Prospect Park is lovely for the plants, of course, but harbors interesting butterflies as well. We have found Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars on the Pipevine and White M Hairstreaks on the buddleia and ice-plants. Common butterflies in uncommon settings: A Mourning Cloak drifting through the cherry blossoms in the Japanese Garden.

Tottenville: (Southernmost tip of Staten Island). Wooded and open areas near the Conference House. This is an area of great historical significance and was once a good place to find Indian arrowheads. The woods and adjacent open fields near the Conference House are one of the best places to see Hackberry and Tawny Emperors as well as American Snout. This is also a good place in the Fall to see southern strays such as Sachem and Fiery Skipper. Look for them on the goldenrod and tickseed sunflowers.

The authors point out that Checkered Whites are easier to find in New York City than in almost any other location in the northeast United States. Sept. 10, 1994. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (photo by Rich Cech)

Sailor's Snug Harbor Park: This picturesque locale was originally a retirement home for destitute seamen. The Parks Department acquired the land and the landmark buildings and the Staten Island Botanical Society maintains the extensive gardens. The buddleia attracts whatever is flying up or down the coastal flyway. But check out all the flowers, because you never know what the bloom du jour is attracting. This is another good spot for southern strays. One of the few spots in New York City where the dark female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is relatively common. They must be migrating up the coast because no one ever seems to see dark females in the first brood in the Spring. (And dark females only come from dark females). These are just some of the best areas in the City. Almost any open area with plants will have at least some of the common species from Spring through Fall.

Map of New York City and Selected Parks
(map by Richard Hildreth)

Butterfly Species List
Abbreviations are: A, abundant, likely to see more than 20 individuals per visit to the right spot at the right time; C common likely to see 4-20 individuals; U uncommon, likely to see 0-4 individuals; R, rare, unlikely to see individuals of these species, even in the correct habitat; S, stray, not seen every year. Numbers refer to months. For example, Pipevine Swallowtail is rare to uncommon from May through October.

Pipevine Swallowtail R-U 5-10; Black Swallowtail C 4-9; Eastern Tiger Swallowtail C 4-9; Spicebush Swallowtail U-C 5-9; Checkered White U-R 7-9; Cabbage White A 3-11; Clouded Sulphur C 4-11; Orange Sulphur C-A 4-11; Cloudless Sulphur S 8-10; Little Yellow R-U 7-10; Harvester R-U 4-9; American Copper C 4-11; Coral Hairstreak C 6-7; Acadian Hairstreak R 6-7; Banded Hairstreak C-A 6-7; Hickory Hairstreak R-U 6-7; Striped Hairstreak U 6-7; 'Northern' Southern Hairstreak R 6-7; 'Olive' Juniper Hairstreak R 4-5, R 7-8; White M Hairstreak R 4-9; Red-banded Hairstreak U-C 5-10; Gray Hairstreak C 4-10; Eastern Tailed-Blue C-A 4-10; Spring Azure C 3-4; Summer Azure C 6-10; American Snout U 6-10; Variegated Fritillary U-C 6-9; Great Spangled Fritillary U 609; Aphrodite Fritillary R 6-9; Meadow Fritillary R 5-9; Silvery Checkerspot U-C 6-7; Pearl Crescent A 4-11; Baltimore Checkerspot R 6-7; Question Mark C 3-10; Eastern Comma U 3-10; Mourning Cloak C 2-11; Compton Tortoiseshell R 3-10; Red Admiral C 4-10; American Lady C 4-11; Painted Lady U-C 4-10; Common Buckeye U-C 4-10; Red-spotted Purple R-U 5-9; Viceroy U 5-9; Hackberry Emperor U 6-9; Tawny Emperor U 6-9; Little Wood-Satyr C-A 5-8; Common Wood-Nymph U 6-9; Monarch C-A 5-11; Silver-spotted Skipper C-A 5-10; Long-tailed Skipper R/S 8-10; Hoary Edge C 6-7; Southern Cloudywing R 6-7; Northern Cloudywing U 6-7; Dreamy Duskywing C 4-6; Juvenal's Duskywing C 4-6; Horace's Duskywing U 5-9; Wild Indigo Duskywing C 5-10; Common Checkered-Skipper U-R; Common Sootywing C 5-9; Swarthy Skipper C 6-9; Least Skipper C 6-9; European Skipper A 6-7; Fiery Skipper S 7-10; Leonard's Skipper R 8-9; Cobweb Skipper R 5-6; Clouded Skipper RS 7-10; Indian Skipper R 5-6; Peck's Skipper C 5-10; Tawny-edged Skipper U 5-10; Crossline Skipper C 6-8; Long Dash R 5-7; Northern Broken-Dash C 6-9; Little Glassywing C 6-8; Mulberry Wing R 7-8; Hobomok Skipper C 5-7; Zabulon Skipper C 5-9; Broad-winged Skipper C 7-9; Dion Skipper R 7; Black Dash R 6-7; Dun Skipper C 6-9; Dusted Skipper R 5-6; Salt Marsh Skipper U-R 6-9; Ocola Skipper RS 8-10.

29 Dec 1997 / Main Page