American Ladies and Common Buckeyes, both with multi-colored eyespots, often can be found in the Tallahassee area during the winter. Small, orange-and-black Pearl Crescents are frequently seen too. Florida’s state butterfly, Zebra Heliconian, black with narrow yellow stripes, may fly all through mild winters, but usually disappears after hard freezes. Large, yellow Cloudless Sulphurs and somewhat smaller Sleepy Oranges often get minerals from damp ground. Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park, Lafayette Heritage Trail Park, and Black Swamp Nature Preserve (on the north, east, and south sides of town, respectively), are good places to look for them.
These are just a few of the more than two dozen butterflies that can be seen in the Tallahassee area December-February. Most are seen before the first hard freeze or after the last one, but some can be found on warm, sunny afternoons, even in January. Most butterflies drink nectar from flowers, so a good way to find them during the cold months is to look for patches that are exposed to the sun, but sheltered from the wind. Spanish needles (Bidens alba), with white petals and a yellow center, is a favorite native nectar source.
Mourning Cloaks are seen regularly at Torreya State Park 40 miles west of Tallahassee, and irregularly at Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park in town. They are famous for flying on mild winter days, even farther north, but, unlike most butterflies, don’t drink flower nectar.
Coastal sites usually have higher nighttime temperatures than inland sites in winter and so may have more butterflies. At St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and the Big Bend Wildlife Management Area keep an eye out for Queens, and their close relatives Monarchs (they don’t all migrate to Mexico).
Text by David Harder and photographs by Brian Lloyd, both members of the Hairstreak Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association