Watch for Early Spring Butterflies
by Ro Wauer
After our recent cold and wet weather, I am more than ready for butterflies. Yet I know that it will still be several weeks before butterfly numbers are back to what we can expect during the warmer days in late spring. But that doesn't mean that we can’t start watching now for some of the very early species, especially for the two butterflies, Henry's elfin and falcate orangetip, that fly in early spring that we will not see the remainder of the year.
Henry's elfin can be expected first, in early to mid-February just when agarita shrubs begin to bloom. The yellow flowers of these early flowering plants seem to be a preferred nectar source for these little hairstreaks. They often will remain on the flowers for some time, even allowing for a reasonably close approach to see them well or to get a photo. Others will easily frighten with a close approach, and swiftly fly away. Henry’s elfins are not the easiest of butterflies to locate, however, as they are only quarter-size when perched and their brown, black and gray colors blend in very well with the plant's branches and leaves. Elfins undersides have a very dark base and lighter, almost frosty, margin. A close look will also reveal two tiny white spots at the forward and trailing edges of their hindwings. And really fresh individuals, those that have only recently emerged and not worn, will possess extremely short tails. Larval foodplants for this hairstreak can vary from redbud to Mexican buckeye, to Texas bluebonnets, viburnum and American holly.
The second springtime only butterfly is the falcate orangetip, but very, very different than elfins. This is a gorgeous little creature with a wingspan only a little over one inch. The upperside of this miniature white is all white except for orange wingtips on males and a central black dot on females; females lack the orange wingtips. The forewings are slightly hooked, thus the falcate name. The underside of both sexes is mottled silver and black with greenish edges. When perched they fold their wings so their undersides is visible. Yet they seem to spend most of their time on the wing, flying about searching for either a mate or, in the case of the females, for specific larval foodplants, including rock cress, bitter cress, and a few other mustards, on which to lay eggs. Their flight is swift and constant and usually low to the ground, so following one in anticipation of it landing to allow for a good look is seldom worthwhile; most good observations are the result of serendipity.
Besides the fact that both of these butterflies fly only in early spring, there is another similarity. Their tiny caterpillars hibernate most of the year. Orangetip females, however, lay a single egg on each hostplant; they are able to detect an egg already laid on the host. The tiny caterpillars feed on the hostplant's leaves and flowers before hibernating. But elfins may lay several eggs on a single hostplant. The caterpillars also 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.