The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Fall Season is All Around Us
by Ro Wauer

Although South Texas has only a few broadleaf trees that turn color in fall, numerous other signs of fall are present for those of us that recognize those changes. And those changes can vary considerably from falling leaves to migrating birds and monarchs to fall blossoms that are extra attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies.

Already we are experiencing the southward movement of a wide variety of birds, from waterfowl and shorebirds to a huge diversity of songbirds. And for those of us who watch carefully for our returning wintertime species, we already are finding American kestrels, loggerhead shrikes, and a few warblers on their wintering grounds. My favorite of all those is the American kestrel, a small falcon that haunts our fields and pastures, usually found sitting on a high post or on utility lines. There they watch carefully for movement of a small rodent or snake, grasshopper, or other insects that they can dive upon, capture with their sharp talons, and haul back to a perch to consume their catch. The majority of our early kestrels are females that usually arrive ahead of the smaller but more brightly marked males to claim a territory. The arriving males usually find a less preferred site.

Right now, during the last few days of September and early October, migrating hummingbirds are at their peak. Any hummingbird feeder could possibly host one or two dozen ruby-throated hummers, a few black-throated hummers, the resident buff-bellied hummer, and any unusual species that happens by. Anna’s, Allen’s, broad-tailed. and rufous hummingbirds are possible.

Fall is the best time in our area for butterflies. There already has been a huge build-up of sulphurs. My garden currently is playing host to dozens of large orange and cloudless sulphurs and fewer numbers of lysides and southern dogfaces and little yellows. Pipevine and giant swallowtails also are commonplace right now, as are queens and a few skippers. But the huge numbers of butterflies can be expected by mid-October and into December when crucitas (Eupatorium odoratum) bloom. These marvelous shrubs are true butterfly-magnets, and their flowers are preferred over any other flowers that bloom in fall.

More species of butterflies can usually be found in our area during October and November than in any other period during the year. If my yard is an example, I recorded 68 species in 2007, 69 in 2006, and 71 in 2005. October and November is that time of year when a number of species appear that emerge locally only in fall or move northward en mass from more southerly areas. Some of those fall-only butterflies include Lacey’s scrub-hairstreaks, Julia and zebra heliconians, common mestras, white peacocks, soldier, and Dorantes longtails. In 2007, probably because of the amount of rainfall, the number of Julia heliconians in our yard was unbelievable. From November 9 to 13, we counted as many as 300 individuals daily. So far this fall there has been only one or two Julias per day. Perhaps that number will increase during the next few weeks.

But what is so extra species this time of year is the number of strays that can occur. Although some of the stay species may appear for only a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days only, before moving elsewhere, they can add considerable excitement while present. Some of my most exciting fall finds these last few years have included Florida whites, white and yellow angled-sulphurs, statira sulphurs, Mexican yellows, tailed oranges, dingy purplewings, zilpa longtails, white-patched skippers, Erichson’s white-skippers, and violet-banded skippers.

Fall of 2008 will undoubtedly produce more excitement. As the butterfly numbers increase and the wintering birds return, there is little doubt that nature-lovers have a lot to look forward to.

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