For several weeks White Admiral butterflies have been a common sight along dirt roads, where they obtain nutrients from damp soil. They are a kind of “brush-footed butterfly,” having reduced forelegs that are folded up and often bear a brush-like set of hairs. Like most other butterflies in their genus (Limenitis), White Admirals fly with alternating quick wingbeats and flat-winged glides. It is not unusual to see males perched on trees along trails or forest clearings, waiting for females to come along.
After years of White Admirals and Red-spotted Purples being classified as different species, they are now considered to be one and the same species, even though their appearance is quite different. (Red-spotted Purples lack the bold white banding on their wings that helps break up the outline of White Admirals.) Where their ranges overlap, which includes New England, individuals with characteristics of both of these butterflies are seen with some regularity. Look for White Admirals, Red-spotted Purples and intermediates feeding on rotting fruit, in dirt roads, scat and flowers throughout the Northeast.
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Butterflies in the family Nymphalidae are also referred to as brush-footed butterflies (their front pair of legs are much reduced, brush-like and nonfunctional). Several species of Admiral butterflies belong to this family, and one of the most common in New England is the White Admiral, also known as the Red-spotted Purple. White Admirals overwinter as caterpillars and emerge in late April to feed for several weeks on the young leaves of cherries, willows, poplars and birches, as well as other trees, before forming chrysalises and transforming into butterflies. It is relatively easy to recognize the larva of any species of Admiral butterfly, as they are our only horned bird-dropping mimics. Quite an effective way to discourage predators!
If you’ve been traveling on sunny dirt roads lately, chances are that you have seen White Admiral butterflies all over them. They are in the road to obtain salts and minerals that have leached from the soil into standing puddles and moist dirt. Because butterflies do not have chewing mouthparts as adults, they must drink their meals. While nectar is their main source of nutrition, males often supplement their diet with these minerals. The act of acquiring nutrients in this manner is referred to as “puddling.” If there’s no water around, a butterfly may regurgitate into the soil and then drink in the hope of retrieving minerals. In addition to finding butterflies on dirt roads, look for them puddling on animal scat.