Identifying Fast Fritillaries:Check Out the Eye Color
Late summer is for fast-flying Greater Fritillaries in northern New England. These orange and black roadsters streak around old fields and meadows halting suddenly to taste the sweet nectar of a flower and then off they go again. Just a few days ago I saw all three species in just a few hours of butterfly watching, the treasures of late summer.
Greater Fritillary caterpillars strictly feed on violets. The adults lay eggs on or near the plants and the young larvae hatch and then overwinter in the leaf litter and finish their business the next summer. The adults of all species are mostly orange with black spots, chains and bars. The undersides have silvery sheens in spots giving them their alternate name of “silverspots”.
In northern New England we have just three species now: Great Spangled Fritillary, Atlantis Fritillary, and Aphrodite Fritillary. The fourth one, Regal Fritillary, was found here when New England was a more pastoral landscape. The last one known in Vermont was seen in the 1940s.
It wasn’t long ago that I had a terrible time identifying Greater Fritillaries in the field, but there are a few tricks here in New England that help. Fritillaries in the west are a whole different ballgame. More than once I have cursed the scaled-wing gods and nearly thrown my binoculars down the nearest ravine while trying to decipher them there.
The first trick is to get a pair of close focusing binoculars. I have a pair that will focus on my shoelaces. It opens up a whole new world. Many of you are probably bird watchers. Identifying butterflies takes the same skills; the field marks are just smaller! Second trick is to get a good field guide. I use to lug around several books and whip each of them open to get the different prospective each provides as I attempted to put a name on the butterfly that invariable flew away long before I was on the page. Now, with electronic guides, like Audubon Guides Butterflies, I just make sure my phone is charged up. The third trick is to bring along a digital camera. It doesn’t have to be fancy at all, just something that you can snap some photos of the butterflies and then study them later if you need to. If your point-and-shoot camera has a setting with a small flower, use that. It is a macro setting and it will allow you to creep up to a butterfly and take an incredible close-up (warning: this too can lead to serious frustration and is highly addictive).
Here’s the key to identifying the Greater Fritillaries here in New England. Look through those close focusing binoculars you just bought and check out their eye color. Yes, that’s right, eye color. One of the three species has gray-blue eyes, the Atlantis Fritillary. The other two have amber to yellow-green eyes. Atlantis also tends to have bold, black wing margins above on both the forewing and hindwing, but remember, this can wear as the butterfly ages.
So now we have two amber-eyed species to sort out. Heck, we’re down to a 50:50 chance now! Great Spangled tends to be larger, but size is often difficult as a field mark unless the difference is great. In this case, it isn’t that helpful because Aphrodite is also a fairly large butterfly in the east (smaller as you go westward). If you can get a look at the underside of the hindwings, you can usually nail the identification. Aphrodite has a very narrow yellow to cream colored submarginal band (that’s the last cream colored band before the silver spots on the edge of the wing). This band has a lot of brown scaling creeping into it making it very narrow. Great Spangled has a really wide submarginal band. Most, not all, Aphrodite have a beautiful rose blush on the underside of forewing.
The upperside can be a little tricky. The forewing margin of Aphrodite tends to have two thin, parallel black lines with orange between them. Most also have a small mark basally near the trailing edge of the forewing. Great Spangled doesn’t have these at all.
Once again butterfly fans, these field marks won’t work so well out west. May the scaled-wing gods help you out there.