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Butterflies in the Garden - Henry Turner
April 2003



Hooray for spring and butterflies!

I went to the nature center a few days into spring to begin stalking some of our loveliest, early butterflies. My first stop was the circle of benches behind the Interpretive Center. I know that I can always find one of my favorites there, since two twelve-feet tall ash trees border the area. No sooner had I entered the space than two beautiful Tiger Swallowtails soared by just above my head, both probably males, one chasing the other away from its territory, a choice perch near the ash trees where females inevitably come. In minutes two more appeared, swooping by and spiraling upward. Could this be a couple engaged in a mating dance? Female Tiger Swallowtails can be either yellow with stripes like the males or nearly black to resemble the unpalatable Pipevine Swallowtail. In either form, their hind wings have a deep bluish border. Not detecting any blue-tinged hind wings, I decided that the foursome were just a bunch of guys asserting themselves and seeking to control territory.

After watching this foursome for quite a while, I headed down the Caprock trail, pausing briefly beside each small, flowering redbud tree, carefully scanning its branches. Just as I was about to make the trail's first sharp descent, I paused by a redbud no more than three feet tall. A sudden, brief fluttering revealed a Henry's Elfin. It was exciting because, other than in photographs, this was the first one I'd ever seen. Elfins are just slightly smaller than Hairstreaks, which they resemble, though they lack as distinct a tail and fly more slowly. Keeping their wings closed like Hairstreaks, their under wing coloring is typically grayish brown to dark brown with the rear part of the hind wing often a frosted brown. This section can have a very subtle and lovely blend of tones. Henry's Elfin is one of the spring's first butterflies and, though they use some other host plants (like Texas persimmon and Mexican buckeye), in our area they can usually be found nectaring on small redbuds. For those using it as a host, the redbud remains central to their life cycle, which involves only a single brood each year. Adults nectar and females lay eggs on the little tree, the larvae eat the flowers and leaves and then pupate on or near it. This year's offspring will spend most of the year as well as overwinter in pupae form and emerge next March to start the cycle once more. Look for their tiny larvae, either greenish or a reddish brown, both having double rows of tiny white bars down their backs. Though not as clever as a Hairstreak with its deceptive false eye near its tail, this Elfin has a delicate loveliness you shouldn't miss.

While the area around the Interpretive Center is excellent for watching butterflies, I decided to visit the Boardwalk. In the gravelly area near our parking, Sulphurs flew close to the ground, searching for nectar in the company of a Hairstreak. The latter didn't pause long enough to be identified, but its color was not quite typical of the Gray Hairstreak. Striking out on a barely discernable trail that merged with the river trail from the Boardwalk, I hadn't gone twenty feet when a small, white butterfly zipped by my leg. A few seconds later, its flashy orange wing tips were apparent and we were off to the races! It was my most favorite spring butterfly, the Falcate Orangetip, and, almost as fast as a Sulphur, it flew on down the trail several feet off the ground, slightly zigging and zagging as it went with Henry (not the Elfin) in hot pursuit. For all its strange movement, the Orangetip displayed much more dignity than its pursuer, who, eager to see it better and perhaps to photograph it, moved with a weird combination of stealth and speed, glad that no one else could see him. Short of running, there was no way that I could catch up with him (only males have the orange wingtips), and, though disappointed, I gave up the chase. Then, almost instantly I realized both how lucky and grateful I was to at least have seen him and onone of his predecessors for two springs in a row.

I hope you take advantage of a warm sunny day to hike at the Nature Center. In the city, we occasionally see a butterfly this time of the year; in the country, they seem forever to be crossing our path. On a day with some sunshine, virtually all butterflies have warmed up by ten o'clock or so and will have begun to fly. If you get out a little earlier, you will have the chance to happen upon one that is still basking in the sun and you can observe it more leisurely and thoroughly. Naturally you want to check out the eastern side of trees, rocks, and bushes, where bflies catch the morning rays. The Nature Center is an excellent spot for seeing spring species, and the Botanic Gardens improve as nectar-producing plants begin to bloom. Thank goodness the short days of winter have passed, our moods have perked up, and so have our scaly-winged friends. T.S. Eliot had many things in mind when he wrote that "April is the cruelest month," but butterflies and redbud blooms were not among them.

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



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