The largest county in Washington state, Okanogan County is well known for its wildlife and abundant flora and fauna. However, it’s less known that Okanogan County, and specifically the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, is simply packed with butterflies!
Of the 155 species of butterflies found in Washington, 124 can be found in Okanogan County, and of these, there are an astounding 92 species that can be found in and around the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, just about an hour’s drive northwest of Omak.
The Sinlahekin is the oldest wildlife area in Washington state, with the first parcels purchased in 1939 using federal Pittman-Robertson funds to preserve mule deer winter range. Its dominant habitat types are the regional shrub steppe, wetland and dry forests. In addition to butterflies, over 215 species of birds, 60 mammals, about 20 reptiles and amphibians, and over 25 fish species reside or migrate through this area.
A family road trip to the Sinlahekin would be a great way to inspire a budding lepidopterist or biologist. Stay in Omak at the Peppertree Inn, or closer to the Sinlahekin at Spectacle Lake Resort. Bring along water, snacks and a picnic blanket, as well as binoculars and identification books, like the National Audubon Society’s field guides and Butterflies of the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area. If you’re so inclined, bring a nature journal as well, perhaps even a miniature water color kit.
Selected Sinlahekin butterflies to discover
Milbert’s tortoiseshells are very colorful butterflies, at least when you get to view the dorsal side of their wings as they are flying around or perched with wings spread. The wing color next to the body is a dark brown with patches of orange on the forewings. Milbert’s tortoiseshells are similar to the mourning cloak in two ways: they overwinter as adults, and when a Milbert’s tortoiseshell rests with its wings closed they appear to be a previous year’s dried leaf or vegetation and are difficult to see.
Nearly everybody has heard of the amazing migrations of the monarch butterflies, but there is another butterfly that is a phenomenal migrator — painted lady butterflies. They are found throughout the world. In the western U.S. they begin their migration in the Southwest and can fly as fast as 30 mph at 6-12 feet above ground traveling up to 100 miles per day, thus they can reach northern areas well ahead of monarchs. Painted lady butterflies have been seen migrating through the Sinlahekin and Chiliwist wildlife areas. Many photographers find them difficult to capture, as they seem to rarely land and do so only momentarily.
One of the butterflies you can plan to spot nearly year-round is the mourning cloak — they are one of the seven butterflies that overwinter in the Sinlahekin. In very early spring, they are commonly found hibernating under logs and in enclosed areas. Identify them by their striking yellow borders on the dorsal side of the wings with lines of blue dots bordering the yellow on a rich deep brown background. They have been noted feeding on carrion, scat, rotting fruit, sap, and occasionally flowers. After mating in spring, the females lay eggs in masses of 100-200, primarily on willow species, birch, aspen and a few others such as hawthorn, rose and maple. Caterpillars emerge and live in a group web, feeding on young leaves, then pupate and emerge as adults in June or July.
A tip for butterfly enthusiasts is to look for butterflies in wet or muddy areas alongside streams, or after a rain where they are getting salts by “mud puddling” or, as Caitlin LaBar calls it, a “puddle party.” There can be a multitude of species and individuals at these locations. Watch for them in riverside areas where their preferred stinging nettles, thistles, willows, and aspens grow. Many look for nectar on dandelion, rabbitbrush, Canada thistle, osier dogwood and chokecherry.
Learning to identify and notice butterflies can open up a whole new world, wherever you are. It is a delight to see these bits of color flitting about or pollinating flowers as they drink the nectar. Okanogan Country also hosts a variety of hiking trails, kayaking lakes, wildlife viewing points, and prime camping sites, so there are many adventures to be had in the Okanogan Valley while you search for butterflies.
No matter where you travel in Okanogan Country, stop at every chance you get to sample the flavors, culture, friendliness and authentic hospitality — of Washington’s largest county. Free guides and maps at www.OkanoganCountry.com.