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Now you see me, now...
One of the most wonderful butterflies spreads its wings to a span of barely over one inch. Usually, you catch a glimpse of it, noticing something tiny darting from plant to plant only to alight suddenly. When you approach to view it more closely - boom! It's gone again. Wings held upright, it's probably some kind of skipper, you may think, perhaps dismissively. It's so natural, so easy for us to enjoy large butterflies - the Swallowtails, the Monarchs, the Fritillaries, and the Brushfoot. Walking through the recently burned prairie at the Nature Center, you have only to scan the area to see Tiger Swallowtails holding on, as if for dear life, to delicious thistle blooms. Or, visiting a friend's yard, you'll see Gulf Fritillaries in numbers that surprise you if the garden contains some passion vine. Though requiring a keener, more patient eye, the small Hairstreak remains a treasure and a delight. Taking a little time to observe it, you'll discover that it's as lovely and as varied a butterfly as you'll see. As its family name implies, it's one of the Gossamer-Wings.
Hairstreaks comprise the Theclinae, one of the four subfamilies of the Gossamer-Wings, the family Lycaenidae. Other small Gossamer-Wings that we are likely to see include Henry's Elfin (variously classified, partly resembling a Hairstreak) and those in the Blues (subfamily Polyommatinae), such as the diminutive Eastern Tailed Blue and Reakirt's Blue. Most, though not all, Hairstreaks have a pair of hair-like tails (and often additional shortened tails) extending from the lower back edge of their folded hindwings along with a brightly colored spot suggestive of an eye in the lower back corner. As you recall, this deception is heightened when the two hindwings are rubbed together with the moving tails appearing even more like antennae. Notably, a Hairstreak will alight with its head down and its decoy tail and eyespot uppermost so that these less vulnerable parts may attract the attention of any potential predator. The characteristic Hairstreak marking (and the one for which they are named) is the midband or series of thin, hairlike lines on the underside of their wings, usually parallel to the wing edge. They consist of one or more vertical rows of line segments, thin crescents, or scallops of various colors, though usually white, sometimes black or orangey-red. For example, the Hairstreak we're most familiar with, the Gray Hairstreak, has a red and black midband bordered with white.
While usually difficult to observe, when a Hairstreak finds a nectar source of which it's particularly fond, it will, seemingly oblivious, allow you to sit within a few feet to watch. Actually, it may seem that it's the Hairstreak who's doing the watching though, keeping its eye - wonderfully large and seemingly disproportionate to its head and body - glued on you. But engaged in serious nectaring, it freely rotates around a group of blooms, 'cause, after all, it keeps the eyespot on its hind wing peeled on you too!
Some of this spring's most fun sightings have been Hairstreaks. Always making the scene, the common Grays hung out forever on alfalfa blooms and on the short, crimson clover I planted to edge a new bed in my back yard (Goodbye lawn, hello lantana and mistflower!). The Gray Hairstreak uses a large variety of plants from different plant families as hosts for its larvae, which, like larvae of many Gossamer-Wings, often dine on blooms and fruits rather than leaves. Among other Hairstreaks found in our area you may see the Soapberry and the Red-Banded Hairstreak. The former closely resembles the Gray but it is usually found in the vicinity of its host plant, the soapberry tree. The latter Hairstreak, less common, has grayish brown underwings with a wide red band edged in white. Allow some leaves to accumulate in your beds, for in them the Red-Banded will lay its eggs.
One of the loveliest and certainly the largest Hairstreak, the Great Purple, calmly nectared on a coneflower in my front garden in early June. It appeared a dark purplish-gray with its wings held upright, then - my goodness! It's flashing at me! As it slid back a hindwing overlapping its forewing, it revealed a long, crescent-like sliver of luminous blue on the underside of its forewing. Next, as it briefly separated its upright wings, I saw their topsides - not gray at all but that same, brilliant luminous blue. Should this be called a Blue rather than a Great Purple? Well, the underside of its wings is unmistakably Hairstreak in its markings. If you have their host plant, common mistletoe, growing in a tree nearby, you may see them too.
I visited the LBJ Grasslands - a favorite place to watch butterflies - often this spring to observe and photograph them. And in early June Dale Clark emailed to share his excitement in finding at the Grasslands some less commonly seen Hairstreaks. Off Joann and I went the next morning to focus on the little road leading into Black Creek Lake. Prairie bluets grew along the road, and you had only to pause to see here a Hairstreak, there a Hairstreak, almost everywhere . I was hoping to see one of the species that I'd not yet seen this spring, the Olive or Juniper Hairstreak, which, naturally, uses our eastern red cedar as its larval host. Shortly, I heard Joann say in a low voice, "Juniper," and there it was, lime green wings interspersed with a coppery brown area, set off by the vertical white midband - a veritable jewel that might seem to belong in a rainforest. Throughout April and early May we had walked LBJ, always on the alert around cedars, but never glimpsing one. But then, the bluets weren't yet in bloom.
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.
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