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What's flying now (and other observations about butterflies)...
By late November, most butterflies have bred and died. These have left their offspring to overwinter in egg, larva, or chrysalis form until next spring. Other adults have either gone farther south (other than the Monarchs, not many) or are still alive but relatively inactive except on warm days. Overwintering adults suspend breeding until spring's warmth rejuvenates the host plants for their larvae. The butterflies overwintering in our area will tend to live on tree sap and dung (and any rotting fruit you thoughtfully put out on a warm, sunny day). While your sightings may seem few and far between, you'll see some activity this winter. Joann Karges reminds us that butterflies overwintering here include the Red Admiral, Questionmark, Buckeye, Variegated Fritillary, American Snout, Goatweed Leafwing, Orange Sulphur, Sleepy Orange, and the Dainty Sulphur. The neat thing is that you'll certainly see one when you least expect it.
Remember the Gulf Fritillaries and how they've kept laying eggs on the passion vine? Well, an adult was nectaring and lazing around the yard today. And I counted eight larvae eating away, a few on leaves induced by this warm spell; however, the majority were eating on the green stems. Ajilvsgi (see the book list) implies that some may overwinter as adults in our area. While I've not seen one overwintering here, a warm winter may allow that. I'll keep an eye on those larvae, too, especially with cold weather imminent.
In the fall it's common to see different types of Sulphurs nectaring on red-flowering plants, particularly native red salvia, Salvia coccinea, pineapple sage, or even turk's cap. For the longest time yesterday, an orange sulphur simply couldn't choose between red salvia blooms and those of sweet-smelling, weeping lantana (Lantana montevidensis). Though an exotic that has become naturalized, it has value because it really kicks into high gear in cool weather. While not a native, it fills an important gap by providing nectar when most plants are closing down production.
Texas Crescents rule! At least in my garden. All this sunny week, two have been nectaring on anything that was blooming, but especially cowpen daisy, zexmania, weeping lantana, and the red pentas that I've potted to overwinter in the greenhouse (you can go broke adding nectar and host plants the first few years, so remember: most natives grow from seed, cuttings or division and some exotic annuals, like pentas, overwinter indoors very well, so you only need buy them once). Today, the two Texas Crescents spent most of the time doing their frantic little spiraling dance and enjoying one another and having the garden pretty much to themselves, not having any larger butterflies around to chase off. I envied their glorious dance.
The butterfly I saw most this week was the Clouded Skipper, which seemed inseparable from weeping lantana. This Skipper is only about one-half inch wide and nectars with its brownish-gray wings folded. The key identifying mark - you may need your magnifying glass - is a slightly curving pattern of three white dots in the upper back corner of its folded wings. One of my winter projects is to study Skippers more and I'll share what I learn in the next month or so (oh, no, is that sound the crowd running for the exits?).
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.
Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas by John and Gloria Tveten. 1996. University of Texas Press.
Butterflies through Binoculars: The West by Jeffrey Glassberg. 2001. Oxford University Press.
Four Wings and a Prayer by Sue Halpern. 2001. Random House.
Native Texas Plants by Sally Wasowski and Andy Wasowski. 1997. Gulf Publishing Company.
Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife by Noreen Dalmude and Kelly Conrad Bender. 1999. Texas Parks and Wildlife Press.
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