Forget the rare cold front that sweeps down the spine of the Intermountain West and dusts the high La Sal Mountain peaks with August snow. Forget that school begins before Labor Day, and that the campground crowds have changed from families to snowbirds. Ignore those random aspen leaves that blush yellow and signal “Autumn Ahead”. These signs may point to the start of fall, but there is still some summer season left in the La Sals.
Yeah, skip all those signs and head to high elevations where wildflowers bloom and butterflies flutter by. On a warm day, figure on a steady stream of tortoiseshells and fritillaries, coppers and blues, whites and sulphurs, checkerspots and commas, and admirals and monarchs to keep pace with the day.
Butterflies may seem idyllic, fluttering across mountain meadows and sipping on flower nectar, but that’s not all they consume. Tree sap, carrion, and nutrients from moist soil or even animal scat are sucked up their straw-like proboscis. Butterflies have a perceived image, but don’t let their daintiness fool you. Their late summer ragged and tattered wings betray their challenges of survival – avoiding furred, feathered or insect predators.
Summer’s FlutterbysSummer’s FlutterbysButterflies are in the order Lepidoptera, from a Latin word meaning “scaly wings.” Overlapping scales on the wings resemble roof shingles; this creates a pattern and coloration on the butterfly’s wings. The different patterns are for camouflage, warning signs, or to mimic other butterflies. And since butterflies don’t do as well in cold weather, their wings act as solar collectors absorbing radiant energy from the sun to raise their body temperatures and stir the butterfly into action.
Several of the “aristocratic” butterflies found in the La Sals include the red admiral, Weidemeyer’s admiral and viceroy. The red admiral has reddish bands across the wings, while the Weidemeyer’s has white bands across the black wings. The viceroy mimics the monarch, a butterfly that is toxic to predators.
Another striking butterfly is the tiger swallowtail whose yellow body bears tigerish black streaks. Named for the long barn swallow-like tail projections, this butterfly seems to float above the mountain meadows.
Other well-represented groups of butterflies in the La Sals are the anglewings, fritillaries and blues. Sharp indentations along the wing margins identify the anglewings which include commas, tortoiseshells and mourning cloaks. When these butterflies fold up their wings, the wing’s angular edging breaks up their silhouette and makes them difficult to spot. Fritillaries offer some identification challenges due to the similarity of the species, while the blues seem like pint-sized wonders up above 9,000’.
In addition to the butterflies, one other prominent insect in this alpine world is the white-lined sphinx moth. Often mistaken for a hummingbird because of its shape and size, this moth may be active during the day, visiting flowers in search of nectar. Unlike the butterflies that form a chrysalis, the moth spins a cocoon and pupates underground.
So even as summer flutters by, the butterflies of summer offer a reminder that the season is not yet over. One just has to ignore the calendar and venture up to the mountains.