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In Celebration of Spring: Let the Butterflies Begin ...
As I walked along the Oak Motte Trail recently, the sight of Orange Sulphurs flying through the weathered stands of grass reassured me that, in spite of what man may do to it, all seemed right with the world. So far, no matter how much habitat we bulldoze, most butterfly species continue to thrive in our limited, natural sanctuaries and – perhaps surprisingly – our growing number of home gardens with added host and nectar plants. During my walk I saw other over wintering species, such as the Sleepy Orange Sulphur, the Dainty Sulphur, and even a faded Buckeye whose normally brilliant, blue eyespots had dimmed over the winter. Then, while passing through one motte, a fairly large, pale orange butterfly flew above me, returned and – suddenly – dive-bombed at my head. Apparently satisfied that it had my attention, it lit on a branch above me, and, though faded, gloried in its exquisite, scalloped wing form. Another wonderful Question Mark was waiting for spring and a mate.
Spring brings forth some of our loveliest and most interesting butterfly species. From late February to March the beautiful Mourning Cloak ends its hibernation and may be seen looking for a mate. It flies so swiftly that you may get only a glimpse of its dark maroon-colored upper wings, but if you do, you’ll recognize it because both the top and bottom sides of their wings have a creamy border that stands out in contrast. After mating in early spring, their first brood will appear in mid-May and a second brood will emerge from their pupae in mid-July. Interestingly, this brood will immediately enter a dormant state (aestivation) during summer’s heat and will emerge briefly in the fall in order to store up food, only to resume their hibernation for winter. This second brood of the Mourning Cloak is very long-lived, rivaling the last brood of the Monarch that flies to Mexico for the winter.
Speaking of which, in late February Monarchs become more active in their over wintering colonies in the mountains of central Mexico. As the desert begins to bloom, they will begin their journey north to Texas. We can usually expect them through our area from late March through early April, laying eggs on milkweed at the Nature Center, along railroad tracks, and even in our gardens if we’ve protected our tropical milkweed and it’s putting on fresh leaves. For those who’ve yet to become familiar with the complexity of their migration cycle, take a look at the March ’03 article in the archives (it is a bit lengthy). Check out the milkweed for larvae from time to time and enjoy the adults, which you may see flying here as late as June or July (some seem to hang out in Texas instead of going north!).
Be sure to inspect the redbuds as they begin to bloom! Boy, I love Hairstreaks and a little butterfly that resembles (and is likely related to) them will soon be nectaring on redbuds, mating, and laying their eggs on or near redbud blooms -- Henry's Elfin. You may say, “But this little thing is a drab brown – not very pretty at all!” Ah-hah! Peruse more closely, my friend. The shades of brown may vary, and the rear part of the hind wing may appear the most subtle, delicate blend of browns and silvery grays. Observe and enjoy, because this is the single adult brood of Henry’s Elfins that you’ll see this year. Their offspring will pupate, not to emerge until this time next year.
From March into April a small whitish butterfly may zig and zag along, flying just a few feet off the ground. The males are easiest to recognize, for rather than being largely white like their females, their upper wing tips appear a glorious, screaming orange! Yes! The wonderful Falcate Orangetip. Falcate simply indicates that their forward wings form a little hook where the rear edge meets the wing tip. The orange area is bordered by alternating black and white marks and the underside of the hind wings of both sexes appears white with a beautiful, brownish-green marbling. They resemble another species, the Olympia Marble, largely white on top but with a more sparsely patterned marbling on the under side of the wings. At LBJ Grasslands we saw many Falcates last spring feeding on clumps of crow poison. While that may not sound appetizing, nevertheless, walk through the woods at the Nature Center this spring and perchance you’ll meet a Falcate Orangetip.
Books to read:
Here are the most useful guides I know of to help you plan and develop your own butterfly garden or meadow or to learn more about our butterflies. Remember that both the Tarrant County Butterfly Society (see "More Info") and the Dallas County Lepidopterists' Society (see link below) meet monthly and often have field trips in which you are quite welcome to participate.
Butterfly Gardening for the South by Geyata Ajilvsgi. 1990. Taylor Publishing Company.
This remains one of the most useful resources for anyone wishing to begin gardening to attract butterflies. It has a heavy emphasis on Texas, and differentiates among the butterflies commonly found in each part of the state and discusses most of the useful native plants for each area. It also includes a chapter on photographing butterflies.
Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas by John and Gloria Tveten. 1996. University of Texas Press.
O.K This has nothing to do with the Cross Timbers, you say. Well, that's so except that the photographs and the lengthy discussion of each species make this book a gem. What's more, there are some super photos of many of those larvae you see and wish that you could identify! (Photos of butterfly larvae are hard to find. Another decent collection can be found in Donald and Lillian Stokes' The Butterfly Book, pp. 34-5. See also the Dallas County web site listed below.)
Butterflies through Binoculars: The West by Jeffrey Glassberg. 2001. Oxford University Press.
If you want one handbook to carry in the field, get this book. Good photos and careful description of each species with precise notes as to the differences between similar species. Also contains maps showing areas in which each species is commonly found as well as indication of the number of broods usually in that area. He also indicates the general habitat of species and common larval plants used.
Four Wings and a Prayer by Sue Halpern. 2001. Random House.
A thoroughly documented account of the monarch migration -- a history of the various theories about it, all cast within the narrative of a personal journey. A very good read.
Native Texas Plants by Sally Wasowski and Andy Wasowski. 1997. Gulf Publishing Company.
Buried within this superb discussion of native plants are suggested plants for attracting butterflies ("Wildlife Garden Plan", pp.116-121). Discussion of individual plants will often mention their relative value to butterfly gardening (e.g., "Wafer ash is an important tree for butterfly gardeners.")
Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife by Noreen Dalmude and Kelly Conrad Bender. 1999. Texas Parks and Wildlife Press.
A focused discussion of gardening for butterflies (pp. 93 ff.), followed by a good list of not only the host plants but also the nectar plants preferred by some of the more common butterflies in Texas.
Sites to visit:
http://www.dallasbutterflies.com/ -- excellent site of Dale Clark, local lepidopterist.
http://www.monarchwatch.org/ -- have a question about monarchs?
http://www.learner.org/jnorth/ -- answers to a trillion questions about monarchs. Most important, each spring they compile an updated map based on current sightings so that you can follow the migration of the monarchs north. They also map the journey south.
http://www.naba.org/ -- the North American Butterfly Association; much info.
http://forums.gardenweb.com/forums/butterfly/ -- some practical help on butterflies and gardening to attract them.
http://www.txcn.com/sharedcontent/features/texasgardener/BI_BUTTERFLY.6a12d05e.html -- garden guidelines by Charlene Rowell of Heard Museum and Tina Dombrowski of Texas Discovery Gardens.
http://www.texasdiscoverygardens.org/TopTenButterflyPlantlist.htm -- list of some useful host and nectar plants.
For more information, you may contact:
Tarrant County Butterfly Society (817) 923-8474
Joann Karges or (817) 923-8474
Henry Turner or (817) 922-9484