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Butterfly Forecasts for Central Iowa  
  March 2018  
  Red admiralDon't you just hate winter?  Earlier last week I tried to get in my car but the doors wouldn't open because of the ice that was caked on it.  I had to tap around the edges of the door before I could get it open to get my ice scraper out.  Then I had to do the same with another door.  I started the car, but had to let it heat up for about twenty minutes before I could even get to the ice to scrape it.
We have had mostly dry weather earlier in the winter, and now we are getting that stuff the forecasters call a "wintery mix." But the days are getting longer, a few minutes per day.  And the weather will get warmer as well.
The butterflies are coming!
In most years the first butterflies of the year are spotted in March.  Sometimes it is not until the end of the month, but just as often they can show up during the first week.  2017 and 2016 were exceptional years, though, with early butterfly sightings in February.
Mourning cloaks and eastern commas spend their winters in Iowa in the adult stage, and are the most likely to be seen early on.  Gray commas and compton tortoiseshells have similar life cycles and might be possible as well, but they are not very common here so are less likely to be seen than the other two.
If you walk in the woodlands on a sunny March day, watch for sunny branches up high where you might see the eastern commas basking.  Look for moisture on the bark of trees.  That can be an indication of sap leaking from a crack in the bark or perhaps where a branch meets the main trunk.  It can also be caused by small holes drilled into the bark by sapsuckers (a type of woodpecker).  Early butterflies use that sap as a source of food, as flowers are not yet blooming.
Red admirals are generally considered to be migratory in Iowa.  They have been observed flying south in the winter and a different generation re-populates the state in the spring.  Large numbers can show up in the spring, often late April, but if the weather cooperates they might show up as early as March.  In additon to the migration, however, red admirals seem to have a little bit of plasticity in their life cycle.  In warm winters some individuals may be able to live through the winter as either adults or some other stage.  Last year, some of the first butterflies seen in Iowa were red admirals.eastern comma

Cabbage white butterflies spend the winters in the pupal stage, and are therefore very early butterflies as well.  Typically they start flying in early April, but they might show up in March if the weather cooperates.
The numbers will be small, and the total number of species that could be seen will also be small.  Still, one or two butterflies are better than none, and are a sign of things to come.
So get out in the wild areas of Iowa when you can.  Enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells.  Watch for butterflies.
Warmer weather is coming.  Butterflies will be here before you know.

Harlan Ratcliff

  Little wood satyr