12 Common Butterflies Found in Washington! (state)

What kinds of butterflies can you find in Washington?”

Common Butterflies 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. 🙂

12 kinds of butterflies in Washington.


#1. Red Admiral

  • Vanessa atalanta

Types of Butterflies found in Washington

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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!


#2. Painted Lady

  • Vanessa cardui

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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.


#3. Monarch

  • Danaus plexippus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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.


#5. Viceroy

  • Limenitis archippus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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.


#6. Mourning Cloak

  • Nymphalis Antiopa

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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!


#7. Great Spangled Fritillary

  • Speyeria cybele

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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. Common Wood-Nymph

  • Cercyonis pegala

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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!


#9. Gray Hairstreak

  • Strymon melinus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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!


#10. Cabbage White

  • Pieris rapae

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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.


#11. Orange Sulphur

  • Colias eurytheme

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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.


#12. Clouded Sulphur

  • Colias philodice

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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.


#13. Common Checkered-Skipper

  • Burnsius Communis

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 0.75-1.25 inches.
  • Their coloring is faded white with tan-colored bands and a black or brown edge on the hindwing. From above, they have a distinctive black and white checkered pattern.
  • Females are darker in color.
  • Males are extensively covered with long, bluish-white hairs on the body.

It’s easy to see how this butterfly in Washington got its name.

The Common Checkered-Skipper has a distinctive block pattern on its wings that looks like a checkerboard.

Common Checkered-Skipper Range Map

Its favorite host plant is Mallow, and it prefers pastures, open fields, and disturbed sites. This species is often seen next to roads.

Males search out a suitable female to mate with, and then she lays her pale green eggs on the soft parts of the hostplant. Once the caterpillar emerges, it feeds on the host plant and curls the leaves around it for winter protection.


#14. Sachem

  • Atalopedes Campestris

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 1-1.5 in.
  • The Male’s forewings are dull orange with brown edges. The hindwings are shadowy yellow with a unique brown area on its edge and a band of pale spots.
  • The Female’s forewings are dark brown, with the center of the wing dull orange. The forewing’s edges have black patches and white windows. Their hindwings are brown with pale spots in a V shape.

Sachems prefer wide open spaces with full sun. Their habitat includes pastures, fields, suburban lawns, and gardens.

The male plays a laid-back role in the mating prosses and perch near or on the ground while waiting for an interested female. Once a female chooses and mates with a male, she lays her eggs on dry blades of grass. The Sachem caterpillar roles itself in leaves for protection and feeds on blades of grass.

One of the easiest ways to recognize this skipper is to look at its flight pattern. The Sachem has a zippy, whirling way of flying, similar to the Whirlabout and the Fiery Skipper. Lepidopterists often call these three species the “three wizards,” because they often look like they’re casting spells!


#15. Silver-Spotted Skipper

  • Epargyreus Clarus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 1.75-2.25 inches.
  • They have a large silver patch on the central part of the hindwing.
  • From above, the wings are dark brown with a golden-orange band. From below, they look much the same with frosted lavender edges.

These skippers in Washington have a fascinating appetite!

Silver-Spotted Skippers have long tongues that they use to feed on everything from mud, flowers, and sometimes even animal feces. Due to their appetite, they prefer being near the edges of forests where nectar is abundant.

Males of this species perch on tree limbs or elevated vegetation until he notices a female. Then he begins a jerky flight to investigate and attract the female. After they have mated, the female lays her eggs on a host plant.

Silver-Spotted Skipper caterpillars are just as unique as their adult form. For protection, the caterpillar cuts a flap into a leaf, rolls it to form a tube, and then secures it with silk. The leaf tube provides the caterpillar protection during the day until it comes out at night to feed. In addition, when the caterpillar is threatened, it regurgitates a bitter green chemical and flings its scent away to confuse predators!


#16. Anise Swallowtail

  • Papilio Zelicaon

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 2-3 inches.
  • Their coloring is yellow with black bands on the edges of their forewings. The body is mainly black, with lateral yellow stripes along the abdomen.
  • Their hindwings are largely yellow, with a yellowish orange eyespot.

Anise Swallowtails prefer open areas both inland and on the coast. These butterflies in Washington aren’t picky about where they live!

They use a mating strategy called “hill-topping.” This is where a male perches on a mountain cliff, hilltop, or high foliage and waits for a female to find him. That’s one way to conserve your energy while finding a partner!

Anise Swallowtail males are aggressive, especially when breeding, and they defend their territory by attacking other males to secure a potential mate.


#17. Western Tiger Swallowtail

  • Papilio Rutulus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 3-4 inches.
  • Their wings are bright yellow with broad black stripes along the edges. Four black stripes run parallel across each forewing from the front to the back.
  • From above, the hindwings are yellow with black stripes and orange and blue spots near the tail.

Look for these butterflies in Washington near water.

Western Tiger Swallowtails prefer being close to rivers, streams, and lakes, and they’re often seen in gardens, roadside meadows, canyons, and parks.

Western Tiger Swallowtail Range Map

To find a mate, males flutter around hilltops or canyons looking for a female. After mating, the female will deposit her eggs on the leaves of a host plant, usually a willow, cottonwood, or aspen tree. When the caterpillars appear, they instinctively seek shelter in the tree’s foliage.

As a deterrent against predators, the caterpillar has two large spots on its tail that look like eyes. They also have a forked organ called a Stinkhorn or Osmeterium, which produces a foul smell to keep predators away.


#18. Two-Tailed Swallowtail

  • Papilio Multicaudata

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 3-6.5 inches.
  • From above, their coloring is yellow with black stripes. The hindwings have blue marks and a tiny orange eyespot, as well as thin black stripes and two tails per wing.
  • Females have additional blue markings and a brighter yellow color.

Two-Tailed Swallowtail butterflies in Washington prefer areas with open space and plenty of sunlight. Look for them in foothills, canyons, valleys, woodlands, roadsides, parks, cities, and suburb gardens.

Males of this species spend their entire life finding a female to mate with due to their short lifespan. If it takes a long time to find a mate, males search for nutrients in rotten material, dirt, and sometimes feces, an odd behavior called mud puddling.

Although it’s one of the most recognizable features, the Two-tailed Swallowtail doesn’t need its tails to fly. Instead, they’re often used to escape predators. When a predator attacks the Swallowtail and grabs onto its tails, they break off, and the butterfly can escape.


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!


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