The Peak of the Butterfly Season
by Ro Wauer
October into November is the height of the butterfly season in South Texas. That is when many of the resident species are active and, also important, many more southern species put in their appearance. The best butterfly day in my yard near Mission Valley during the last ten years since I have been keeping records occurred on November 10 when I recorded 43 species. But on most days from mid-October to December, depending upon the weather of course, 35 to 40 species are usual.
Using that November 10 date as a sort of baseline, common species (5 or more individuals) included pipevine swallowtail, cloudless and large orange sulphurs, dusky-blue groundstreak, gulf fritillary, goatweed leafwing, monarch, queen, coyote clouduwing, sickle-winged skipper, common and tropical checkered-skippers, southern broken-dash, sachem, and dun, eufala, and ocola skippers. A few less common species of special interest, because they were rare that year, included orange-barred sulphur, great purple hairstreak, rounded metalmark, zebra heliconian, common mestra, and dorantes longtail.
This year has been very different because zebra heliconians have been numerous all during September and October, rounded metalmarks have found regularly, but gulf fritillaries are less numerous. And this year I am regularly finding white-striped longtails and long-tailed skippers, species that were found only rarely in previous years. But that is one of the fascinating characteristics of butterflies. Comparing butterflies with birds, for instance, once you know what birds to expect in a certain locations, that population and number doesn't change much; exceptions occur during migration. In the case for butterflies, one can visit one's yard several times during a single day and find something new every time.
The secret of finding yard butterflies is providing them an excuse to stay around. This time of year it is most important to provide them with food of some kind. That usually includes flowering plants where they can feed on nectar. A few butterfly species prefer overripe fruit or mash. The single best nectaring plant in fall is crucita (Eupatorium odoratum), but several other flowering plants also work very well. Other good ones (alphabetically) include butterfly plant (Buddleia davidii), crossvine, firebush, Gregg's eupatorium, goldeneye (Vigieria stenoloba), lantanas (especially gold and weeping lantanas), Mexican heather, pentas, and sky-flower (Duranta erecta).
The best overripe fruit include bananas, mangoes, and watermelon. I also make a mash from bananas that works extremely well. That recipe includes 6-8 overripe bananas, one-half pound of brown sugar, and two cans of beer. I mix it up well in a blender and then pour the mixture into a jug and let that ferment a couple days (leave the lid loose). That mash can then be poured onto a feeding tray of some sort or on a tree trunk or elsewhere. Question marks, goatweed leafwings, tawny emperors, and even Carolina satyrs love the stuff. But so do bees and ants; I hang one feeder log, with a scooped out section, from a wire with a film cassette fixed to black exploring ants. I still haven't figured how to keep bees from helping themselves.
The fun of butterflies, like hummingbirds, is that it is easy to attract them to a location where they can easily be observed. Even a tub with a few flowering plants in a small yard or porch does well. Plus, providing butterflies with nectaring plants enhances their numbers and survival.