As a person who is still relatively new to the world of birding I feel that I have made some pretty big strides in figuring out the wide variety of birds that I see and hear. I might not identify them all but I definitely manage to put a name to the vast majority that cross my path.

But while I am out there looking for birds I see many other interesting things. Mammals and reptiles are mostly easy to figure out, but my botanical knowledge is virtually nonexistent, and I know less about the huge variety of insects and spiders and other creatures that fit into the catchall category of creepy-crawlies than I do about plants. I must improve my identification skills if I am to be able to describe myself as an overall naturalist in addition to being a birder.

And butterflies seem like the ideal stepping stone from birds to bugs. After all, they fly, they are often brightly colored and strikingly patterned, and if I can’t figure out what they are in the field I can always get a picture and identify it from a field guide while comfortably curled up on my couch. Plus, what better way is there to spend a hot summer day than to watch butterflies flutter by?

Up until recently, there were only three species of butterfly I could confidently identify: Monarchs, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, and Mourning Cloaks. Virtually everyone knows what a Monarch looks like but here are the other two:

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Mourning Cloak

I particularly like the Mourning Cloak because they emerge so early in the spring, giving additional incentive to be out looking for early migrants of the avian persuasion, and I like their ragged appearance that allows them to hide amid the leaf litter.

Lately, I’ve learned that several a couple of the most common species of butterfly here in the northeastern United States are actually introduced invasives infiltrating from the other side of the Atlantic. Cabbage Whites, the small white butterflies that appear over every field and roadside patch of wildflowers and are easily identified by their white wings with small, dark spots and their ubiquity, were introduced in the nineteenth century. European Skippers, small, fuzzy and mostly orange, are still expanding their range, even though they are already abundant across the northeast.

European Skipper

One of my favorite species I’ve learned to identify are Pearl Crescents, which are to me as precious as their name implies. I spent a couple hours one afternoon this May watching and photographing them feeding on clover blossoms.

Pearl Crescent

So in anticipation of putting this post together I went for a stroll this evening at Five Rivers Environmental Education Center, my favorite local patch, hoping to find a species I hadn’t yet identified. I found one but it wasn’t in decent camera range until I jumped like a mountain goat onto an old concrete pillar sticking out of a pond, risking my dry feet and my dignity, because that’s what’s expected of us 10,000 Birds bloggers. Even after my exertions the pictures weren’t great but once I got home and pulled out my Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America I quickly realized the butterfly was a Red Admiral.

Red Admiral

Now I know that identifying these common butterflies is probably old hat to some of you out there. So if you are yawning to yourself thinking “This Corey character, what an amateur,” while rolling your eyes at my humble attempts to learn the lepidoptera I would ask you to put in the comments your recommendation for a butterfly-only field guide. That way, when I find a butterfly not in my insect guide I won’t have to waste your precious time by posting its picture here and asking for help.

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Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy, their son, Desmond Shearwater, and their indoor cat, B.B. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.