The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Saturday, March 29, 2003

Butterflies and Hummingbirds
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, March 29, 2003, © 2004

Mariposas y chuparosas. Butterflies and Hummingbirds. In either Spanish or English, these are poetic and descriptive words, and so are the names of their species.
A scene:
"Come Here!"

The excited cry bursts from the butterfly garden at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.
"It's on the Blue Mist. A Southern Dogface!"

Ah, the naming of butterflies. There must be some Grand Council of Common and Uncommon Appellations striving in a dark-paneled room somewhere to arrive at the most inventive words for these creatures. One of my favorites is GREAT SPANGLED FRITILLARY! If you say it with exuberance, it sounds as if you have just struck oil on your ranch. The subject of the scene above was an easy one to call. On the upper side of its dark forewing is what the yellow image of a dog's face. Other butterflies are challenging and amusing to label for identification.

Of course, there are categories to use as guidelines: color, shape, pattern and behavior. Regarding color, we have the whites, the sulphurs, the blues., et al. One of the latter resides in the Rio Grande Valley, the Western Pygmy Blue, the world's smallest butterfly. If you wish to see a larger, more obvious species, try Trail A at Santa Ana at the right time. A number of Malachites can be a special treat as they flash green wings against a dark chocolate pattern. Their name comes from the mineral, a carbonate of copper. About the size of a Monarch, they seem like large flying emeralds.

Other lovely sights are the Red-bordered Pixies with their red and orange-yellow spots against dark backgrounds; you cannot miss the swallowtails, with streaming hindwings like the bird's tail; or the leafwings, whose imitative shape is for protection against predators; and as for patterns, you have Ringlets, Checkerspots, Pearly Eyes, Broken Silver Drops, Broken Dashes Long Dashes, and Hairstreaks. There is one with the number eighty-eight for a marking. It is called the Eighty-eight! The hordes of American Snouts that hatch out here in the fall have been known to darken the sun...and clog your car radiator. What appears to be a long proboscis, actually palpi, makes them easily identifiable.

Behavior determines some names: Skippers and Skipperlings are known for their erratic flight. There are the Crackers which make such a sound on the wing and the Flashers which flare their colors. Certain habits also determine names. The Harvester is the only carnivorous butterfly, so named because its larva gathers up and eats aphids.

Pure poetic imagery is the criterion for names like Bog Elfin or Frosted Elfin. There is a Painted Lady, along with the American Lady and West Coast Lady...White Admiral, Swarthy Skipper and Red Admiral sound like combatants in a naval battle among several nations. One of my wish-to-see butterflies is the elegant Erato Heliconian. The genus name was the Greek Muse of lyric poetry..how fitting!

There is a category that makes one wonder, but there have to be good reasons behind the names. Here we have the Fatal Metalmark, the Rusty-tipped Page. and the Confused Cloudywing. Concerning the latter, the confusion results from the variability of the wing spots, making identification a problem.

Let us turn to those feathered dazzlers, the hummingbirds. Here in the Valley, we have resident Buff-bellied, Black-chinned and migrant Rufous and Ruby-throated; these are the common ones, but a great stir among the birding community occurs when Green Violet-ears or Green-breasted Mangos hum up from Mexico to our residential feeders.

There are 400 or so species of this family in Latin America all the way from our border to the southern latitudes of South America. Their names sound like like precious stones or fairyland characters.

There are Sunangels, Sparkling-tailed Woodstars, Little Wood-Satyrs, a Mexican Woodnymph and a Mexican Hermit (sounds like a fairy tale romance)...Sabrewings ( fighter jets, perhaps)... Purple-crowned Fairies ( sprites from the Mexican rainforest)... Golden-crowned Emeralds (there is treasure for you)...Starthroats...Black-crested Coquettes (sounds like dance hall girls from an old Jimmy Stewart western), Green-throated Mountaingems...and Blue-throated Sapphires.

After all of this, it should be clear that the names come from wonderfully creative minds. However, the name is not the creature,. Have you ever just wanted to look at a bird or a flower without labels, without identifying it in a field guide? Knowing the simple, pure enjoyment of the object for itself and taking pleasure in the essence of it? Human beings need to name everything, to tag it with their own language.. Scientifically, it does make sense, because we do need nomenclature in order to seek what is in nature for enjoyment or use. And it does sell field guides!

At any rate, you can enjoy these fluttering miracles with or without a name.... just keep your book handy to appreciate the naming of things.

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