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Butter flying everywhere...
One of my joys this time of the year lies in observing --- or at least trying to observe --- some of our speediest and loveliest butterflies. Darting and suddenly changing direction are common flight habits of a number of species, including the gem-like Hairstreaks, but especially various species of Sulphurs. Such rapid flight makes them difficult and sometimes frustrating to watch. These yellow butterflies seem constantly moving --- here, there, often where you least expect them --- only to stop without warning. Actually, they usually stop to nectar on a red flower, such as Turk's cap, tropical salvia, or red penta. Though yesterday, when visiting the Botanic Gardens, I found over a dozen busily feeding on lavender fall aster. While they're found in weedy fields and along roadways most of the summer, this fall nectaring frenzy presents a great opportunity to study Sulphurs with their bold colors and patterns. Follow me, and let's try to sneak up on a few.
Sulphurs are part of the family Pieridae, which also includes the Whites (as in Cabbage White) as well as the Marbles and Orangetips (which include the fantastic Falcate Orangetip). It appears likely that centuries ago in Europe butterflies were thus named because of numerous yellow Sulphurs in the air. Most Sulphurs appear to be very strong fliers and, with their host plants, senna and other members of the pea family, being widespread, several species disperse all the way to northern states during summer. Though some may do so individually, it's more likely that, like the Monarch, they make their way north through successive broods. As for the large numbers that we see here in the fall, there are several theories. It has been suggested that while many remain up north and die with the first freeze, significant numbers fly south. On the other hand, it may just be that the population in the southern parts of our state becomes so large by the end of summer that many are forced to fly north to our area. Regardless, we have all been nearly engulfed by busily nectaring Sulphurs over the last week, a wonderful addition to asters.
The largest Sulphur that we commonly see here is the lovely Cloudless Sulphur, which is a delicate pale yellow (summer females may be nearly white, while winter ones are a darker yellow) and is about two-thirds the size of a Monarch. Unlike most Sulphurs, the Cloudless has the same delicate yellow on both surfaces of its wings but has a common white spot on the underside of its hind wing with only females having dark spots on both sides of their forewings. An extremely rapid flier, the Cloudless normally flies about six to eight feet above the ground at a seemingly frantic pace, as if it's always late! Sound familiar? Perhaps it was just desperately seeking partridge pea or senna for ovipositing.
Slightly smaller than the Cloudless, the Orange Sulphur and, smaller still, the Sleepy Orange are also active now. Both comprised the majority of the butterflies I saw on the Botanic Gardens' asters and today a significant number joined Monarchs and Queens in my garden in an apparently insatiable feast on blue mistflower. The Orange Sulphur somewhat resembles the larger Cloudless when viewed with its wings closed, as both have a white spot in the middle of their hind wing. Like the female Cloudless, though, the Orange also has a black spot in the middle of its forewing. The Sleepy Orange lacks such an obvious spot on the underside of its hind wing. Instead, it has a rather wavy line while its winter form reveals a number of wavy lines enhanced by a more orange tint. The fourth Sulphur of some size to be seen in our area is the Dogface. Looking at the underside of its closed wings, it appears quite similar to the Orange in having a dark spot near the center of its forewing but with several white spots in the middle of its hind wing. Most notably, though, the Dogface is the unique among these four Sulphurs in having a pointed forewing.
Now --- are you still with me? Thank goodness. This is the best part! The real beauty and most striking coloring of these butterflies appear on the dorsal side, of which we get only glimpses. But, as infrequently as you will see this side of the wings, it's quite worth the wait! The top side of the wings of the Orange, the Sleepy Orange, and the Dogface has a wide black border. In the area between the black border and the abdomen, both the Orange and Sleepy Orange display varying and striking shades of orange, whereas the Dogface is yellow. But in the case of the latter, the yellow area forms what approximates --- yes, a dog's face --- with a black eye suitably positioned.
Last week I visited Garner State Park northeast of Uvalde and saw large numbers of these Sulphurs. On the first morning I was walking through frostweed (that amazingly covered an area about the size of a football field), when I suddenly encountered a lovely yet strange looking Sulphur. Still covered with dew, it hung from the blooms of a four-feet tall frostweed, sunning itself and trying to warm up enough to fly. The underside of its wings were a pale yellow but the tips were fringed with pink and it had the same pink running vein-like throughout the hind wing. Excited, thinking that I had encountered some exotic, tropical Sulphur that had ventured north out of Mexico, I was suddenly taken back when, sufficiently warmed, it opened its wings to fly off and there, staring at me, was a dog's face! This was my first glimpse of the winter form of a female Dogface, and a sublimely beautiful form it was.
You will commonly see two other Sulphurs, the Little Yellow and the Dainty Sulphur, both barely over an inch across, the latter somewhat less. The Little Yellow has yellow (male) or pale yellow (female) coloring on the topside of its wings with a black border roughly similar to the latter three species described above. The Dainty is recognizable mainly by its petiteness. In the summer it appears in a pale yellow form with some grayish-black on the tips of the upper side of its forewings. Its winter form has a markedly subtle beauty, however. Seen with folded wings, the under sides appear to have been lightly brushed with a shade of gray-green, complete with brush marks.
The Orange, the Sleepy Orange, and the Dainty Sulphurs spend the winter in adult form here. I've perhaps never enjoyed a butterfly so much as when seeing one of them on a sunny day in January or February as they nectar on the few blooms of my sheltered, lavender lantana. They reassure me that, in spite of its slumber, nature lives and that spring truly will come again.
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