October is Butterfly Month in South Texas
Ro Wauer, October 19, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003
OCTOBER is when the majority of the approximately 150 butterfly species that have been recorded in the Central Gulf Coast region can be expected. Many may remain active until the first really cold winter days arrive. Increasing numbers begin in late summer and fall when butterflies from more tropical areas stray northward. September and October is when southbound migrants, such as monarchs, red admirals, and painted ladies join the throngs of full-time residents and strays. October, therefore, is when butterfly enthusiasts in our area can find 45 to 55 species during a single day.
Many of the tropical strays are striking in appearance! Zebra and Julia heliconians, white peacocks, soldiers, and sickle-winged skippers cannot help but attract attention. Yet many of our full-time residents are just as spectacular. Giant swallowtails, great purple hairstreaks, gulf fritillaries, common buckeyes, queens, and white-striped longtails can easily match the fall strays. Although the majority of our butterfly species can be expected almost anywhere, a few, such as the palamedes swallowtail, great southern white, dark tropical buckeye, and salt marsh and obscure skippers, normally are found only along the coast. A visit to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is the best bet for finding spectacular palamedes swallowtails nectaring among the many wildflowers.
The hobby of butterfly watching is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is about where the hobby of birding was when the first really good bird field guides became available in the 1960s. Only during the last few years have some excellent butterfly field guides appeared, making it possible to identify butterflies in the field without collecting specimens. And new close-focusing binoculars have added measurably to field identification. In addition, numerous towns, parks and refuges, as well as private citizens, have installed butterfly gardens, a great way to attract butterflies for easier observations. Examples of recently developed gardens include Victoria's Master Gardener's Demonstration Garden near the airport, Bay City's Matagorda County Birding Nature Center along SH 35, and Rockport's Green Acres Demonstration Garden in downtown Rockport. These new gardens not only attract butterflies but butterfly enthusiasts as well. And with the publication of my "Site Guide to Texas Butterflies" (Texas A&M Univ. Press) next year, that will include these three sites along with a grand total of 75 butterfly finding sites throughout the state, butterflying undoubtedly will come into its own, an important part of the Texas ecotourism industry.
Texas is the number one butterfly-state with more than 425 species, almost 100 more than second place Arizona. About 725 species have been recorded in North America, north of the Mexican border. Butterfly enthusiasts travel to Texas just to find butterflies, and their numbers increase substantially every year. The Mission, Texas, Chamber of Commerce has already recognized this potential and this year's "Texas Butterfly Festival" (www.texasbutterfly.com), also in October, is in its eighth year. The Lower Rio Grande Valley, with 265 species, is recognized for the greatest number of species in North America. Lepidopterists, scientists who study butterflies and moths, claim that 15,000 to 20,000 butterflies occur worldwide.
Another reason for the increased interest in butterflies is their wonderful diversity. Within our own neighborhoods can be found both the largest (giant swallowtail) as well as the smallest (western pygmy-blue) of North American butterflies. We also can find species that congregate at tree sap or fruit, such as the tawny emperor, question mark, and goatweed leafwing. Or we can find a yellow butterfly with a perfect dogface marking, the southern dogface. Flying is shaded areas may be a Texan crescent, our only butterfly named for the state. And when weather conditions are just right, American snouts, a small butterfly with a long snout, can be so numerous that they literally can darken the sky in flight.
Butterfly gardens continue to spring up all across the state. With the right plantings, even private gardens can become a butterfly magnet. One day last October, I recorded a grand total of 43 species in my own yard near Mission Valley. The dozen most common species that day included cloudless and large orange sulphurs, dusky-blue groundstreak, gulf fritillary, monarch, queen, coyote cloudywing, tropical checkered-skipper, and sickle-winged, clouded, dun, and ocola skippers. Gardens also attract strays or rare species that seem to appear out of nowhere. A white angled-sulphur, banded hairstreak, Cassius blue, gray cracker, Zilpa longtail, and white-patched skipper, species not previously known for our area, have taken advantage of flowering handouts in my garden.
Butterfly identification can be fairly easy with the right tools: a good field guide, a local checklist, and close-focusing binoculars. Size is important in butterfly identification, but wing pattern is even more important. Any species can vary in size by as much as 40 percent, depending on the nutrients available to the caterpillar, the butterfly's larval stage. Butterfly wings often possess shiny bright lines, amazing eyespots and even tails, useful for fooling predators, as well as spectacular colors. Behavior can be another good clue to butterfly identification, whether it is soaring about like swallowtails or monarchs, flapping and gliding like buckeyes or common mestras, flying swiftly in circles like blues or hairstreaks, or "skipping" about like skippers. Good field guides contain these insights.
There are several good reasons that butterfly watching is gaining so much momentum. It is not only because they are beautiful and fascinating creatures, but, more than any other wildlife, they can easily be attracted to our yard or any other outdoor location desired. And because many butterflies roam widely about, garden visitors in the afternoons can be different than those in the mornings. For many of us, butterflies represent the very best of the natural world: beauty, purity, and insight into the great outdoors.
A recent butterfly garden brochure, written by Derek Muschalek of Yorktown and I, contains all the best butterfly plants for our region. Our brochure - "Central Gulf Coast Area" butterfly garden plants - is available on line at www.naba.org.
The author's 12 top butterfly (nectaring) garden plants include (1) crucita (Eupatorium odoratum), (2) Mexican heather (Cuphea hyssopifolia), (3) "New Gold" lantana (Lantana sp.), (4) weeping lantana (L. montevidensis), (5) Gregg's eupatorium (Eupatorium greggii), (6) pentas (Penta spp.), (7) butterfly bush (Buddleia lindenyi), (8) sky-flower (Duranta erecta), (9) cowpen daisy (Verbesina enceloides), (10) skeleton golden-eye (Viguiera stenoloba), (11) butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), and (12) Texas kidneywood (Eysenhardtia texana).
Suggested Field Guides
Butterflies of North America (Kaufman Focus Guides) by Jim Brock and Kenn Kaufman, 2002. Houghton-Mifflin Co., Boston, MS.
Eastern Butterflies (Peterson Field Guides) by Paul Opler and Vichai Malikul. 1992. Houghton-Mifflin Co., Boston, MS.
Butterflies Through Binoculars, The East by Jeffrey Glassberg. 1999. Oxford Univ. Press, NY.