The majority of butterfly species in our region pass the winter in the larval stage (caterpillars), a smaller number as pupae (chrysalides), and rather few as eggs. But some of our common butterflies overwinter as adults.
They are the last generation of summer, and instead of just dying, as the great majority of adult butterflies and other insects do in autumn, they seek out a protected spot, for example under loose tree bark or in a rock pile, close their wings, and become dormant for the cold season. This can be as long as 4-5 months in the Pacific Northwest.
Adult winter dormancy is characteristic of the genus Nymphalis, butterflies with showy upperwings but very cryptic underwings. These adults are then the first butterflies of spring, even as early as February, as those with a hibernaculum in a sunny spot warm up enough to emerge and fly out to explore the world and, presumably, find a mate and breed.
The Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) is the best-known among these butterflies, as its upperside is both spectacularly colored and unmistakable. Breeding on willows and many other common trees and shrubs, it is almost ubiquitous, although absent from dense forest. A freshly emerged Mourning Cloak is often the first sign of spring for a Northwest naturalist, rocketing through a clearing or resting on a sun-drenched log. Don't look for this species on flowers; it prefers tree sap, rotting fruit, and fresh dung!
Milbert’s Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis milberti) is another common species all over the Pacific Northwest. Its upperside is no less beautiful. This species breeds only on stinging nettle, but that plant is sufficiently common that Milbert’s are everywhere. They overwinter in the same sorts of places as Mourning Cloaks and emerge similarly early. Fresh individuals of both species have yellow bands on their wings that fade to white with age. That difference can be seen in the two photos here.
The California Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis californica), also known as Cal Tort to the butterfly cognoscenti, is similar in shape to the other two Nymphalis species but with still another dorsal pattern. It looks rather similar to other butterflies, for example several species of anglewings (Polygonia). The host plants are shrubs of the genus Ceanothus (deer bush, mountain balm), and these are most common from the Cascades east.
This species is of even more interest biologically than the other Nymphalis because of its population cycles. It is absent some years but present in prodigious numbers in others. If you ever drive on a mountain road in late summer and are dazzled by the sheer density of butterflies flying off the road and swirling around the car, they are likely to be this species.
Cal Torts that build up to these numbers undergo massive emigrations, pouring through the mountains and down to the coast, where they are seen flying south with other butterflies and dragonflies. The points of origin and destination of these migrating butterflies are unknown, but the movements may be a consequence of host plant availability, population pressures, and/or weather conditions. This would be a good species to study in depth.