Submitted by guest author Eric C. Cummings of Somerset Lake in Hancock, NY —
In and around the village of Hancock lie some of the best places to observe the gems of the insect world — butterflies. With its deep forests, mountain streams, hillsides covered in flowering plants, and stretches of lush fields, Hancock provides an ideal habitat for these charming creatures. The variety of environments provides a tremendous diversity of not only flowering plants for butterflies that feed on nectar, but also, and more importantly, the host plants that provide nourishment to the caterpillars that will eventually transform into these beautiful flying gems.
Butterflies come in all sizes, shapes, and colors — environmental adaptations designed to camouflage and protect them from harm. From the tiniest Least Skipper which is barely a half inch long, to the over 5-inch wide Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail. From the brilliant orange of a Viceroy or Monarch warning predators that it tastes bad, to the shiny metallic blues of the diminutive Eastern Tailed Blue which disappears from view when it lands with wings closed. The incredible shimmering maroon and cream colors seen when the Mourning Cloak opens its wings is perfectly hidden by bark-like undersides. And the perfectly shaped and camouflaged wings of an Eastern Comma look just like the dead leaves of the trees it likes to perch and hide on.
Butterflies, like birds, also have flight periods — times of the year when certain species predictably eclose (or “hatch”) from their chrysalises, stretch their wings, and take flight. For the butterfly lover, or anyone interested in nature, Hancock and the surrounding area offers some of the best viewing and observation in the Catskills all year round. Early June sees Harris’s and Baltimore Checkerspots, two rather uncommon species that have made a home here. Later in June and throughout July, the Fritillaries take center stage, large, golden brown and orange butterflies with silvery spots on their underside that glisten in the sun. They continue throughout the summer months. The spectacular large yellow and black Canadian, Eastern, and Appalachian Tiger Swallowtails all call this place home as well. It is one of the few places you can find all three closely related species in one spot. The differences are subtle, but if you want to study a bit more in detail, you can find all three species either nectaring on flowers along the side of the roads, or “puddling” right on the dirt roads. Puddling is when butterflies find moist ground from which to soak up minerals and other nutrients. They can sometimes be found all huddled together in large numbers.
Eastern and Canadian Tiger Swallowtails “puddling”
There are also many butterflies that will only feed on minerals and salts or rotting fruit or even animal dung. These include the Red Spotted Purple, the White Admiral (a species variant not found in many places, but to which Hancock plays host), the Commas and the Question Marks, and one of the other spectacular woodland species that can be seen in this area — the Mourning Cloak.
The best time of day to find and observe butterflies is mid- to late morning. Butterflies are up and active as things start to warm up during those morning hours. Butterflies are “solar powered.” That is, they need warmth and sunlight for energy to fly and feed. On cool, overcast days, they are much less likely to be visiting flowers or looking for food. Instead, they will conserve energy and perch underneath leaves and such until the sun shines and temperatures rise.
As you might expect, a good time to look for butterflies that like to “puddle” is after a day or night of rain. The muddy areas near puddles on back dirt roads and other locations provide just what they seek. The moisture from the rain makes it easier for them to soak up the nutrients they need. If you want to observe butterflies in action, one prime location is along Peas Eddy Road in Hancock. You can also often find butterflies on the shores of the Delaware River all along the East and West Branches. Look for islands and muddy areas near the shore — and don’t be surprised if you find some Tiger Swallowtails enjoying the river right along with you!
Most butterflies live only a short time — often just a few weeks to a month. However, some species will actually overwinter as adults, living 10 months or more. Species such as the Eastern and Gray Commas will hibernate by finding shelter in deep crevices such as in the bark of trees. Once temperatures warm in spring, they take flight again to mate, lay eggs, and start the cycle over again.
If you’re looking to get outdoors and enjoy some time with Mother Nature, grab your camera and bike, drive, or hike your way along some dirt roads and paths and along the river in Hancock and watch closely (just steer clear of private property, please!)… Not only will you observe Hancock’s winged gems in action, but you’ll also get to see some of the beautiful surroundings that this area is so blessed with.
Above: Top Left to Bottom Right – Harris’s Checkerspot, Peck’s Skipper, Canadian Tiger Swallowtail, Gray Comma (top), Gray Comma (underside), Northern Pearly-Eye, Orange Sulphur, Red Spotted Purple, American Lady (underside), American Lady (top), Silver Spotted Skipper, Great Spangled Fritillary (Top), Great Spangled Fritillary (underside), Mourning Cloak, Viceroy.