The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Two Very Early Spring Butterflies
by Ro Wauer

Watch carefully for two of our earliest spring butterflies! Both are hardly noticeable, as one is very small and the other blends in so well to the vegetation that it is seldom obvious; it takes a concerted effort to see either one very well. The two species are the falcate orangetip and Henry's elfin. Both fly only from early February through March, and they cannot be found during the remainder of the year.

Falcate orangetip is a gorgeous little creature with a wingspan only about one inch. The upperside of this miniature white is mostly all white except for orange wingtips on males and a central black dot on female, females lack the orange wingtips. The forewing is slightly hooked, thus the name falcate. The underside of both sexes is mottled silver and black. When perched they fold their wings so their underside is visible. Yet they seem to spend most of their time on the wing, flying about searching either for a mate, in the case of males, or for specific larval foodplants, including rock cress, bitter cress, and a few other mustards, on which the female can lay eggs. Their flight is swift and constant and usually very low to the ground, so following one in anticipation of it landing to allow for a good look is seldom worthwhile; most observations are the result of a serendipitous sighting.

The falcate orangetip is the only orangetip that occurs in the eastern half of Texas, although it occurs throughout much of the eastern United States. Two other orangetips occur in the United States, but both are western species, just barely reaching Texas in Far West Texas, such as in the El Paso area. These two western orangetips, the Sara and desert orangetips, also are springtime fliers only, and can be expected in Texas only from February through April.

Henry's elfin, unlike the constantly moving falcate orangetip, is far easier to see once it has been located. It usually spends much of its time nectaring on flowers where it can be found crawling from one flower to the next. The difficulty in observing Henry’s elfin is that it often is easily spooky, flying away when approached, and it blends in so well with the vegetation that it can be hard to find. It is, however, considerably larger than the orangetips.

Being a hairstreak, Henry's elfins perch with their wings closed so one rarely sees the upperside, which is nondescript brown. The underside is also brown with darker bands with a tiny white spot at each end. The outer half of the hindwing is pale, giving it a frosted appearance, while the wing base can be very dark, even black. And the margins of the hindwings are scalloped. And unlike most hairstreaks, it lacks a tail.

Like the falcate orangetip, Henry's elfin is an eastern species, although it does range westward across South Texas to eastern New Mexico. Larval foodplants can vary from redbud to Mexican buckeye, to Texas bluebonnet, viburnum and American holly. Two other elfins occur in Texas, the frosted and eastern pine elfins, both known only in East Texas in the pineywoods area.

Besides the fact that both these butterflies fly only in spring, there is another similarity. Their tiny caterpillars hibernate most of the year. Orangetip females lay a single egg on each hostplant; they are able to detect an egg already laid on the host. But elfins may lay several eggs on a single hostplant. And the tiny caterpillars feed on the hostplant's flowers and leaves before going into the hibernation stage. But by early spring they become active and are soon flying about to the delight of all us butterfly lovers.

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