The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Fall Butterfly Season Can be Marvelous by Ro Wauer

From early October until mid-November, it is possible to find 50 to 65 kinds of butterflies in the Golden Crescent in a single day. These include many of the year-round residents, species that have wandered northward, as well as the numerous so called migrants that are passing through our area. The best known of these southbound butterflies is the monarch, actually the only true butterfly migrant. It is the only species that goes south in fall, overwinters in Mexico, and returns (at least part way) in spring. The many other butterfly species going south in fall never head back in spring. They wander south of their normal breeding sites in fall to die before they are able to return in spring.

Although the monarch is well recognized for its fascinating behavior and long life, the mourning cloak butterfly may live longer, as much as eleven months. Monarchs that emerge in August or September, fly south to Mexico for the winter, and start northward in March or April, live only nine or ten months. The mourning cloak, very rare in South Texas, instead of migrating to Mexico for the winter, can overwinter in protected crevices and such, and fly about during warm winter days, even when there is snow on the ground. The life span of most butterflies, however, is seldom more than two weeks.

Some of the other southbound butterflies one is likely to encounter this time of year include the monarch-like queen, both American and painted ladies, and the sulphurs, such as the southern dogface and cloudless and large orange sulphurs. The sulphurs, small to mid-sized yellow butterflies, can be especially abundant in fall, nectaring on a wide variety of flowers along our roadsides, in fields, and in our gardens.

One of the more exciting groups of butterflies likely to be encountered in fall include the more tropical species that wander northward in fall, rarely present at any other time of year. This includes the monarch-like soldier, another of the milkweed butterflies, that looks very much like the queen. Watch also for three large sulphurs: white and yellow angled-sulphurs and orange-barred sulphur. And white peacocks also appear in fall, although this species may be a temporary colonist in our area. This status refers to those butterflies that have wandered away from their normal breeding range, found proper foodplants on which the females lays eggs, and a population persists until some environmental condition kills off the population.

Two additional tropical species, that usually are considered only fall visitors, are present this year in reasonably large numbers, the zebra and julia heliconian. These two gorgeous creatures have been present in my garden, and many other locations in South Texas, for almost two months this year. There are even reports of zebras as far north as the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. Such a northern movement occurs only rarely, and it is possible that such an extensive “invasion” will result in temporary colonies. This movement probably is the result of the greater than normal rainfall this year. Some additional tropical species possible in our area this fall include Florida white, Mexican yellow, tailed orange, zilpa longtail, and white-patched skipper.

A third group of butterflies that help to increase the daily tally is the residents that increase in numbers or are more obvious because they take advantage of the late blooming flowering plants. By mid-October, my crucitas (Eupatorium odoratum) come into flower. These plants act as amazing butterfly magnets, attracting and holding all of the resident and many of the wandering butterflies. Last year on October 27, I recorded a high of 52 species within my half-acre yard. My crucitas are just starting to bloom, and I know that, with the amount of rainfall we have experienced this year, that my one-day total is likely to be even greater. It is a wonderful time of year for butterflies!


At 9:23 AM, Blogger AJ's View said...

Your writing is as interesting as the butterflies themselves.They are interesting creatures and quite delicate, i must say.You know, where I stay(Brunei Darussalam), I see the same old species all the time. It is actually a rare siting, at least for me, if I catch sight of a different kind of species.

At 10:34 AM, Blogger Wildwoods Home said...

So Monarchs mark the Fall in Texas. I knew they flew to Mexico. And the end of summer always means that the Monarch is soon to disappear from the milkweed here in New England. We've seen so many fewer monarchs in the past few years. Enchroachment on their breeding grounds, no doubt. Thank you for your interesting blog. I'll follow it in the future!

At 6:07 PM, Blogger Poet Hound said...

Loved the article. I attended the BUtterfly Festival in Gainesville and the Butterfly Museum workers explained how they tagged the butterflies and kept track of their flight. If a butterfly lands on you, you might see if there's a sticker on the inside of its wing and enter it on-line. Aren't butterflies amazing?


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