Try a little butterfly-watching in Okanogan County


The largest county in Washington state, Okanogan County is known for its wildlife and rich flora and fauna. However, it is less well known that Okanogan County and in particular the Sinlahekin Wildlife Areais just full of butterflies!

Of the 155 species of butterflies found in Washington, 124 are found in Okanogan County, and of those there are a staggering 92 species found in and around the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, just about an hour’s drive northwest of Omak.

The Sinlahekin is the oldest game reserve in Washington state. The first lots were purchased in 1939 with federal Pittman-Robertson funding to preserve mule deer winter territory. Dominant habitat types are the regional scrub steppes, wetlands and dry forests. In addition to butterflies, over 215 species of birds, 60 mammals, around 20 reptiles and amphibians and over 25 species of fish live or migrate through this area.

A family road trip to Sinlahekin would be a great way to inspire a budding butterfly researcher or biologist. Stay in Omak im Peppertree Inn, or closer to Sinlahekin at Spectacle Lake Resort. Bring water, snacks, and a picnic blanket, plus binoculars and identification books, such as the National Audubon Society field guides and Butterflies of the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area. If you’re inclined to do so, bring a nature journal too, maybe even a miniature watercolor set.

Selected Sinlahekin butterflies to discover

Milbert’s tortoise shell are very colorful butterflies, at least when you can see the back of their wings when they are flying around or sitting with their wings spread out. The wing color next to the body is dark brown with orange spots on the forewings. Milbert’s tortoiseshell are similar to the mourning cloak in two ways: they hibernate as adults, and when a Milbert’s tortoiseshell rests with its wings closed, it appears to be a dried leaf or previous year’s vegetation and is difficult to see.

Almost everyone has heard of the amazing migrations of the monarch butterflies, but there is one other butterfly that is a phenomenal wanderer – painted lady butterflies. They can be found all over the world. In the western United States, they begin their migration in the southwest and can fly up to 30 miles per hour at an altitude of 6-12 feet above the ground and travel up to 160 miles per day, allowing them to reach northern areas well before the monarchs . Painted lady butterflies have been seen migrating through the Sinlahekin and Chiliwist wildlife areas. Many photographers find it difficult to capture them as they rarely land and only do so temporarily.

Mourning Cloak Butterfly (Adobestock)

One of the butterflies that you can see most of the year is the Mourning gown – You are one of the seven butterflies that overwinter in Sinlahekin. In the very early spring they are often overwintered under tree trunks and in closed areas. You can recognize them by their striking yellow borders on the back of the wings with lines of blue dots that border the yellow on a rich deep brown background. They have been found to feed on carrion, feces, rotting fruit, juice, and the occasional flower. After mating in spring, the females lay eggs in masses of 100-200, mainly on willow species, birch, aspen, and a few others such as hawthorn, rose, and maple. Caterpillars hatch and live in a group network, feed on young leaves, then pupate and hatch as adults in June or July.

One tip for butterfly lovers is to look for butterflies in wet or muddy areas along streams, or for a rain where they can get salts from “mud puddles” or, as Caitlin LaBar calls it, a “puddle party”. There can be a wide variety of species and individuals in these locations. Keep an eye out for them in river areas where their favorite nettles, thistles, willows and aspens grow. Many look for nectar on dandelion, rabbit bush, Canadian thistle, osier dogwood, and chokeberry.

Learning to identify and notice butterflies can open up a whole new world wherever you are. It is a joy to see these splashes of color fly around or pollinate flowers as they sip the nectar. Okanogan Country is also home to a variety of Hiking trails, Kayak lakes, Wildlife observation points, and prim Campsitesso you can have many adventures while looking for butterflies in the Okanogan Valley.

No matter where you travel in Okanogan Country, stop at every opportunity to sample the flavors, culture, friendliness and authentic hospitality of Washington’s largest county. Free guides and maps below

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