How to Identify Martha’s Vineyard Butterflies

To: Bluedot Living
From: MV Atlas of Life
Subject: How to Identify Martha’s Vineyard Butterflies

With 82 species of butterflies known from Martha’s Vineyard, learning to recognize these colorful insects may seem like a daunting task. But if you set aside extirpated species, rare vagrants, and butterflies with specialized habitat requirements, the task looks a lot easier! The vast majority of butterflies that a beginning observer encounters will likely be members of a small number of common, adaptable species. Here are 12 of our most widespread butterflies, ones that commonly visit yards and gardens. Learn to recognize these and you’ll have a strong basis for learning the rest of the Island’s butterflies. 


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

light yellow and black butterfly on purple flowers
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. – Photo by Matt Pelikan

Unmistakable! The size of your hand, bright yellow and boldly striped with black, this butterfly breeds in woodlands but ranges across the entire Island. Two or three generations mature each season, and this spectacular insect can be found in varying numbers from late April into late September.


Black Swallowtail

Black and white butterfly
Black Swallowtail. – Photo by Matt Pelikan

Black with prominent yellow spot bands crossing its wings, the butterfly frequently lays its eggs in gardens on dill or fennel plants. Its near look-alike, the Spicebush Swallowtail, is much more restricted to natural habitats than the Black Swallowtail is. Members of several generation be found from early May into mid-October in a typical year.


Cabbage White

white butterfly
Cabbage White. – Photo by Matt Pelikan

One of just two non-native butterflies found on the Vineyard, this medium-sized white species is common around yards, gardens, and farms. Its caterpillars eat members of the cabbage family, giving this butterfly its common name. A hardy species, Cabbage White adults are usually on the wing by late March, and the species can be found here into early November.

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Orange Sulphur

Orange butterfly on a white and yellow flower
Orange Sulphur. – Photo by Matt Pelikan

Rare on the Vineyard until the 1940s, this butterfly is very similar to the closely related Clouded Sulphur, which lacks orange coloring on the forewing. Both species are common in yards and agricultural habitat on the Vineyard; their larvae feed on pea family plants including alfalfa and vetch. Both sulphurs fly into early winter; there are even January records for Orange Sulphur! White-morph female sulphurs can be confused with Cabbage White, but note the “bull’s-eye” marking in the center of a sulphur’s hindwing.


American Copper

copper and gray butterfly
American Copper. – Photo by Matt Pelikan

This small butterfly, about the size of a penny when its wings are folded, is common and widespread on the Vineyard and has an extraordinarily long flight season: three or even four generations, from mid-April into early November. The black-spotted orange forewing and gray hindwing with an orange border are good ID cues.


Gray Hairstreak

gray butterfly on orange flower
Gray Hairstreak. – Photo by Matt Pelikan

A common and adaptable butterfly; its larvae use pea family plants including native bush clovers. Several generations occur each year, from mid-April into late October. Like all its hairstreak relatives, Gray Hairstreaks typically perch with their wings closed over their backs. The undersides of the wings of all our hairstreaks have distinctive patterns of stripes or spot bands.


Eastern Tailed Blue

light gray butterfly on a twig
Eastern Tailed Blue. – Photo by Matt Pelikan

This tiny insect, about the size of a fingernail, can be recognized by the tiny tails (sometimes absent due to wear) and orange spot at the margin of the hindwing. Males are blue above; female are gray. This is another butterfly with larvae that feed on pea family plants. Hardy despite its small size, several generations of this species produce peaks of abundance in early spring, midsummer, and late summer/early autumn.


American Lady

yellow and gray butterfly
American Lady. – Photo by Matt Pelikan

Like the Monarch, a migratory species that probably does not survive the winter on the Vineyard but recolonizes the Island every year. Numbers vary widely from year to year, and the species is typically present from mid-April into late November. The American Lady closely resembles its less common relative, the Painted Lady.


Pearl Crescent

black and orange butterfly on yellow flower
Pearl Crescent. – Photo by Matt Pelikan

A very common, medium-sized butterfly. Its larvae feed on a wide range of asters. The size and lace-like black markings on the wings are distinctive among our butterflies. There are generally three generations each year, flying between mid-May and mid-October; this species may be rare or absent between those population peaks.


Monarch

orange and black monarch butterfly on pink flowers
Monarch. – Photo by Matt Pelikan

An iconic insect, known by nearly everyone. The Monarch’s migratory lifestyle and association with milkweeds as its larval host plant are also well known. Monarchs typically arrive on the Vineyard in May, reach their peak of abundance during their southbound migration in September, and may persist into early December. The large size, black wing veins, and white-spotted black wing borders are distinctive.


Peck’s Skipper

brown and yellow butterfly
Peck's Skipper. – Photo by Matt Pelikan

A small butterfly, well under an inch in length, this is the most common and widespread of the Vineyard’s 18 “grass skipper” species (so named because they use grasses as their larval host plants). Note the two large yellow patches on the underside of the hindwing (our other skippers also have distinctive markings on their undersides, as well as more subtle but still useful differences when seen from above). Peck’s Skipper exhibits three generations between mid-May and early October on the Vineyard.


Zabulon Skipper

brown and yellow butterfly
Zabulon Skipper. – Photo by Matt Pelikan

One of several related species of southern United States that have been expanding resolutely northward, the Zabulon Skipper has only been established on the Vineyard for about ten years. But it is highly adaptable and at home in yards and gardens and has grown rapidly in numbers. Males have a nearly unmarked, golden disk on the undersides of their hindwings; females, seen less frequently, are much browner and look quite different.

Looking for more information on Vineyard Butterflies? Visit MV Atlas of Life's butterfly page for an annotated checklist, links to recent observations and ID guides, and a list of useful resources.

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Matt Pelikan
Matt Pelikan
Matt Pelikan is a wildlife biologist who works for BiodiversityWorks and leads the MV Atlas of Life project. He also writes the biweekly "Wildside" column at the MVTimes.
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