17 Common Butterflies in Washington! (ID Guide)
“What kinds of butterflies can you find in Washington?”
I love watching butterflies in my neighborhood! It’s amazing to see the incredible variety of different colors, patterns, and sizes.
There are hundreds of kinds of butterflies in Washington! Since it would be impossible to list them all in one article, I chose the most common and exciting species to share with you today. 🙂
Today, you’ll learn about 17 kinds of butterflies found in Washington.
If you enjoy this article, make sure to check out these other guides!
19 Common BIRDS in Washington! (ID Guide)
5 Kinds of SNAKES That Live in Washington! (Includes venomous species)
Admirals, Queens, & Emporers
These large and brightly colored beauties are some of the most recognizable butterflies in Washington!
#1. Red Admiral
- Vanessa atalanta
- Red Admirals have a wingspan of 1.75 to 2.5 inches.
- The coloring is dark brown with a reddish circular band and white spots. The underside of the back wings looks similar to bark.
- The caterpillars are pinkish-gray to charcoal with white spots. They have spines along the back that resemble hairs.
The Red Admiral is the most widespread butterfly in Washington!
Look for this beautiful butterfly near the edge of forests in moist habitats. Red Admiral Butterflies have a unique favorite food – they love fermented fruit! If you’d like to attract them, try placing overripe cut fruit in a sunny spot in your yard.
Red Admirals are migratory butterflies. They fly south toward warmer climates in winter, and then move north again in late spring, where food is more plentiful.
If you’re looking for a butterfly in Washington that’s easy to observe, you’re in luck! Red Admirals are very calm and easy to approach and frequently land on humans!
RELATED: How to Attract Butterflies: 17 Tips!
#2. Painted Lady
- Vanessa cardui
- Painted Lady butterflies have a wingspan of 1.75 to 2.5 inches.
- The coloring is pinkish-orange, with dark brown to black markings near the wingtips and white spots inside the black markings.
- The caterpillars’ coloring is variable, ranging from greenish-yellow to charcoal. Most have light-colored spots.
Look for Painted Lady butterflies in Washington in open areas that are quiet and undisturbed, like roadsides, pastures, and gardens. This species migrates south to Mexico over winter and returns in the spring.
The population of Painted Lady butterflies can be drastically different from year to year. It’s common for them not to be seen for years in a row in some places, then suddenly show up in more significant numbers.
The Painted Lady is the only butterfly that mates year-round! Because of its constant migration pattern, it spends its entire life in suitable areas for its eggs to hatch.
- Danaus plexippus
- Monarch butterflies have a wingspan of 3.5 to 4 inches.
- Their recognizable coloring is a “stained glass” pattern of orange with black veins. White dots line the outside edge of the wings.
- Caterpillars are plump, with black, white, and yellow bands and tentacles on each end of its body.
Monarchs are easily the most recognized butterfly in Washington!
They are famous for their color pattern and migration. Look for Monarchs anywhere there is milkweed, which is the only food source their caterpillars eat.
Most people are familiar with the declining population of Monarchs. However, you might not know that this indicates an overall population decline of many other pollinating species like bees. Planting local milkweed species to attract Monarchs will also help these other species.
During migration, usually in mid-September, you may even see groups of hundreds flying south!
#4. American Lady
- Vanessa virginiensis
- American Lady Butterflies have a wingspan of 1.75 to 2.5 inches.
- The coloring of this species is a brilliant orange with dark borders and markings and white and purple spots. The underwings have an ornate pattern similar to a cobweb.
Look for American Lady butterflies in western Washington near open landscapes with leafy, flowering plants.
On the underside of the wings, American Lady butterflies have eyespots. These circular markings make the butterfly look intimidating to predators, warding off potential danger.
Eyespots aren’t unique to butterflies – moths, other insects, and even some fish species display this evolutionary defense strategy!
Additionally, American Lady butterflies are nervous and will often take flight at the slightest disturbance.
- Limenitis archippus
- Viceroy butterflies have a wingspan of 2.5 to 3.25 inches.
- Their coloring is deep orange with black edges and veins and white spots on the black border.
- The caterpillar is a mix of green, brown, and cream colors. It has two “horns” on its head that look like knobby antennae.
The first thing you might notice about the Viceroy butterfly is that it’s almost identical to the Monarch! The easiest way to tell them apart is to look for the black line on the bottom wing. This line is present in Viceroys, but not Monarchs.
Even though these two butterflies are similar in appearance, their caterpillars look remarkably different. Viceroy caterpillars are greenish-brown, spiny, and certainly not as beautiful as Monarch caterpillars.
I think of them as the “ugly duckling” of caterpillars, but they’re one of the prettiest butterflies in Washington!
One other key difference between these two species is that Viceroys don’t migrate. Instead, the caterpillars roll up and hibernate in leaves and emerge during the next breeding season.
Crescents, Commas, and Anglewings
Named for the tiny markings on the undersides of their wings, these butterflies are known for their intricate designs.
#6. Mourning Cloak
- Nymphalis Antiopa
- Mourning Cloaks have a wingspan of 3 to 4 inches.
- The coloring is black with an iridescent sheen. A yellow border and a row of purple spots mark the outer edge of the wings.
- Caterpillars are black with white specks and a row of red spots on the back.
Mourning Cloak butterflies are most often found near deciduous forests. However, their habitat includes many developed areas like suburban yards, parks, and golf courses.
You might have a hard time finding this butterfly in Washington.
Even though it’s fairly widespread, its preference for cold weather and solitary habits make it hard to spot even for an avid butterfly enthusiast! In addition, it’s so well-camouflaged when its wings are folded that you might miss one right in front of you.
Mourning Cloaks are often the first butterflies to become active in the spring! In fact, some adults are even active through winter on warm days, when snow is still on the ground.
They’re also one of the longest-lived butterflies around, with some individuals living up to ten months!
Fritillaries are some of the most abundant butterflies in Washington. They have a checkerboard type pattern and are usually shades of orange and black.
#7. Great Spangled Fritillary
- Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies have a wingspan of 2.5 to 3.5 inches.
- Their coloring is orange with black lines and dots that form a web-like pattern on their wings. In addition, the undersides of their wings have silvery white dots outlined in black.
The Great Spangled Fritillary is one of many butterflies in Washington that prefers open, sunny areas like pastures and meadows.
It’s not uncommon to see hundreds of them in large milkweed or violet fields!
This species doesn’t migrate; instead, its caterpillars hibernate over winter and emerge in the spring. That happens around the same time as the new growth on their host violet plants appears.
Interestingly, male Great Spangled Fritillaries die weeks before females, right after mating. The females then feed for another two to three weeks and lay eggs before also dying off.
#8. Silver-Bordered Fritillary
- Silver-Bordered Fritillaries have a wingspan of 1.6 to 2.1 inches.
- Their coloring is bright orange with irregular black markings. The wings have a thin white edge and a thick black border with orange dots inside. The underside of the wing has metallic, silvery dots along the edge, which is how this species got its name.
Silver-Bordered Fritillaries are small, rare butterflies in Washington.
Their preferred habitat is wet grassland, which is often turned into agricultural fields. This habitat disruption has caused a decline in the population of the Silver-Bordered Fritillary.
Despite these challenges, you can still attract Silver-Bordered Fritillaries to your garden by planting violets for their caterpillars or thistle as a nectar flower.
They typically fly low to the ground in jerky, fast movements, so keep your eyes on the grass and look out for streaks of orange!
Satyrs & Snouts
Satyr butterflies prefer cool, shady areas with less sunlight than other butterflies in Washington. There are estimated to be over 2,400 distinct species!
#9. Common Wood-Nymph
- Cercyonis pegala
- Common Wood-Nymphs have a wingspan of 2 to 3 inches.
- Coloring can vary greatly, but generally, this species is shades of brown with dark eyespots.
- Caterpillars are yellow-green with dark green stripes and white hairs.
Common Wood-Nymphs are found in many different habitats, including open forests, meadows, agricultural fields, and salt marshes. Their caterpillars hatch late in fall and hibernate through the winter.
Look for this species in late summer and early fall since it’s most active this time of year.
Adult Common Wood-Nymphs occasionally eat flower nectar but prefer to feed on rotting fruit or decaying plants.
This is one of few species whose host plant (which the caterpillar eats) is grass. Kentucky Bluegrass, one of its favorites, is also a popular lawn grass. So, you may not even need to plant anything new to attract this species!
These brightly colored, delicate-looking butterflies in Washington are some of the prettiest to look at!
- Celastrina ladon
- Azure Butterflies have a wingspan of 0.75 to 1.25 inches.
- Their coloring is dusky gray to cornflower blue, with spots and stripes in shades of gray. Females of this species tend to be darker and less colorful.
Azure butterflies in Washington are found in open woodlands, forest edges, roadsides, and hiking trails.
They’re one of the most widely-seen species in our area and very abundant within their range.
It’s common to see Azure butterflies before spring flowers are even in bloom! Azures are part of the Gossamer-Winged butterfly family, which gets its name from their wings’ fringed, fabric-like texture.
Three additional Azures have recently been given species status:
- Summer Azure, Celastrina neglecta, is usually found later in the year and has more vibrant coloring than its early cousin.
- Appalachian Azure, Celastrina neglectamajor, has a smaller range but is the largest Azure butterfly.
- Dusky Asure, Celastrina nigra, is the least vibrant, often with no blue or ashen gray-blue wings.
#11. Eastern Tailed-Blue
- Eastern Tailed-Blue butterflies have a wingspan of 0.75 to 1 inch.
- Males and females have very different coloring on their upper wings. Males are brilliant blue with a brown border and white edges, and females are grayish-brown with white edges. Both sexes have one or two small orange spots above the wing tails.
Look for Eastern Tailed-Blue butterflies in eastern Washington in vacant lots, pastures, and home gardens.
They’re one of our most abundant species and easily attracted to flowers.
The easiest way to identify Eastern Tailed-Blues is by their hair-like tails on each of the hind wings. But, these often break off, so you may find some individuals without tails.
The silvery-blue color of the underside of their wings is another good sign that you’ve found an Eastern Tailed-Blue.
#12. Gray Hairstreak
- Gray Hairstreak butterflies have a wingspan of 1 to 1.5 inches.
- Their coloring is slate gray with a single bright orange spot on each lower wing. Below, their wings are light gray with a black and white stripe.
Look for Gray Hairstreak butterflies in open areas like roadsides, unused pasture, and rural meadows. Their caterpillars use many plants as hosts, so they’re common across many different habitats.
Gray Hairstreaks are one of a few butterflies in Washington with thin, long wing tails that resemble hairs.
This adaptation is a defensive strategy that draws predators away from the butterfly’s body. By mimicking a head with antennae and using its eyespots as a distraction, Gray Hairstreaks give themselves time to escape!
#13. Coral Hairstreak
- Coral Hairstreaks have a wingspan of 0.9 to 1.25 inches.
- Their coloring is light grayish-brown with an outer row of coral spots ringed in black. They also have a second row of smaller black spots ringed in white.
You’re unlikely to mistake a Coral Hairstreak with any other butterfly in Washington!
Its coloring, both on the wings and its body, makes it unique among small butterflies.
Coral Hairstreaks prefer brushy fields and woodland edges with plenty of dense shrubs. Adults are especially attracted to milkweed blossoms for their nectar and as a place to perch.
Coral Hairstreak caterpillars use wild cherry and American plum trees as their hosts and feed on the fruits of these trees.
Whites & Sulphurs
These small, unpatterned butterflies are common in Washington and often the first sign that spring has arrived.
#14. Cabbage White
- Pieris rapae
- Cabbage White Butterflies have a wingspan of 1.25 to 2 inches.
- The wings are light greenish to white, with black wing tips and black dots in the center of each wing. Males have one black dot on each side, and females have two.
- Caterpillars, sometimes called Cabbage Worms, are dark green with a light green stripe along the back.
Cabbage White butterflies are well-suited to almost any habitat in Washington.
The only areas they avoid are dense forests with little room to fly. You can even see this species if you live in the city since they often live in very large metropolitan areas!
Look for Cabbage Whites in the summer, when they are most active and breeding. Their caterpillars, sometimes called Cabbage Worms, are a pest because they often overtake and eat cabbage, kale, nasturtium, and other brassica plants.
If you have a vegetable garden and see Cabbage Whites, you should pay extra attention to your plants to ensure these hungry insects don’t ruin them! In fact, Cabbage White butterflies are invasive in Washington. This non-native species was transported here through the food and agricultural trade.
Since it’s so well-suited to our climate, its population has exploded and it’s now considered one of the most damaging invasive species to crops.
#15. Orange Sulphur
- Colias eurytheme
- Orange Sulphur Butterflies have a wingspan of 1.5 to 2.5 inches.
- Their coloring is bright yellow-orange with black borders on the wings and irregular black spots.
Look for Orange Sulfur butterflies in Washington along sunny roadsides, meadows, and gardens.
Its preferred food and host plant is Alfalfa, which is how it got the nickname “Alfalfa butterfly”.
The easiest way to recognize an Orange Sulphur is by its flight pattern. They have an erratic, jerky flying style and usually stay low to the ground.
You’re likely to see this abundant and widespread species in urban and suburban environments during the spring and summer.
#16. Clouded Sulphur
- Colias philodice
- Clouded Sulphur butterflies have a wingspan of 1.75 to 2.75 inches.
- This species has two color forms, one white with a light green cast, and one yellow. Both morphs have a red-ringed eyespot and pinkish borders on the wings.
Clouded Sulphurs are some of the most common butterflies in Washington!
This is because they’re prolific breeders and are at home in almost any habitat.
Look for them along roadsides, parks, and home gardens. They are often found in the same area as their closely related cousins, the Orange Sulphur. However, the erratic, jerky flight style of Orange Sulphurs set them apart from most other butterfly species. To properly identify a Clouded Sulphur, look for a “wobbly” flying butterfly.
There are two distinct morphs of the Clouded Sulphur. The white morph is primarily white with a greenish tint, and the yellow morph is almost entirely yellow. Interestingly, ONLY females display the white color morph, and males are always yellow.
#17. Little Sulphur
- Little Sulphur butterflies have a wingspan of 1 to 1.5 inches.
- The coloring is bright yellow with a black border or wing tip in males. Females have pale yellow wings with dark speckles and blotches.
- Caterpillars are deep green with a thin cream stripe on each side.
Look for Little Sulphurs in disturbed open areas like roadsides, vacant lots, and hiking trails. They’re also known as Little Yellows for their small size and bright yellow wings.
To attract them, try planting a local variety of aster whose nectar this species loves! Their caterpillars use the partridge pea as a host plant, so it’s a welcome addition to any butterfly garden.
Like many butterflies in Washington, Little Sulphurs can be found year-round in warm climates. Further north, look for this butterfly from late June to early October.
Do you need more help identifying butterflies in Washington?
Try this field guide!
Which of these butterflies have you seen in Washington?
Leave a comment below!