While only certified idiots come to southern Texas in August, the weather here is no respecter of vacation times for the rest of the country. And while the butterfly action is (I’m told) fairly modest compared with peak seasons earlier and later in the year, a day in August in the LRGV is typically better than a full year list in the mid-Atlantic.
I’m currently here in the LRGV for a combination of birding and butterflying; I’ve been here since Monday (late) and will be flying back this coming Monday (early) to the DC area. Birds and butterflies don’t always mix well in the East; seems that really productive areas for one are often lacking in the other. That’s really not the case in southern Texas, where EVERYBODY hangs around water of one kind or another. That’s certainly been the case this week.
My base camp is McAllen, the largest city in middle of the LRGV with Brownsville to the east and Laredo to the west. McAllen is also ground zero for the World Birding Center, a necklace of nine premier birding sites from South Padre Isand to the historic town of Roma. The headquarters for the WBC is Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in the next-door town of Mission, which is also home to the National Butterfly Center about a mile down the road. Both sit directly on the Rio Grande (or, if you’re on the other side, the Rio Bravo).
I started the butterfly part of the sojourn Tuesday morning at Bentsen, the offices and visitor center for which were closed (Texans treat August like we treat the dead of winter, with reduced hours and skeleton staffing). But the grounds were still open, and I spent a good two hours simply wandering around the grounds surrounding the administrative buildings, where most of the flowering plants are.
A Giant Swallowtail kicked things off quickly, a species I have not yet seen in the MD area this year. They ended up being pretty common in most of the places I’ve been visiting in Texas. Also in the parking lot was when I got out of the car was Empress Leilia, the only one I’ve seen so far among the (literally) thousands of Tawny Emperors to come. A small yellow pierid looking very much like Little Yellow turned out to be its congener Mimosa Yellow, which is more common here at this time than Little Yellow. The big orange (and sometimes white) pierids turned out to be, you guessed it, Large Orange Sulphurs, very partial to the local Wild Olive, with large catalpa-like flowers currently in bloom. A couple of VERY long-tailed skippers turned out to be the common (right now) Brown Longtail, some of which apparently never develop tails and some of which have tails that rival those on Zebra Swallowtails.
But Bentsen was mostly about birds (including lifer Buff-bellied Hummingbird and chicken-like Plain Chachalacas). Around 11 I headed down the road for the National Butterfly Center.
Of course I read the NABA literature, and see the occasional posting of sightings from the NBC, but nothing really prepares you for stepping out of the car (in this case, with the exterior temperature gauge reading 118F!) and seeing a hundred Queens working the flower beds along the front entrance. The staff was very gracious, although the interior really is still pretty sparse and the educational programs seem pretty rudimentary. Of note is that the Center sells the Swift Guides to butterflies (US and Mexico) but not Brock & Kaufman.
Out the Center’s back door is a formal garden of nectar plants; lantana shrubs were the star attraction for hundreds of American Snouts (I drove through blizzards of these coming down from San Antonio) and Lyside Sulphurs, creating a dizzying confusion that at first made it hard to pick out other leps in the melee. But gradually I was able to sort through them to pick out Laviana White-skipper (but didn’t find the closely related Turk’s-cap White-skipper), Giant Southern White, Ceraunus Blue (the only blue or hairstreak species I’ve seen so far this trip), and more longtails, mostly Brown but also at least one Dorantes Long-tail.
The hot sun drove me down towardthe wooded path, a quarter-mile or so of shade and (occasional) water lined with bait stations and capped with another set of native plant gardens down by the river. Even though the bait logs were drying out already, every one had a dozen or more Tawny Emperors on it, and some also had Tropical Leafwings and I picked out one Dingy Purplewing.
Coming up the trail was clearly another butterflier who turned out to be Mike Rickard, whom many of you may know from his listserv posts and volunteer butterfly/dragonfly walks in the LRGV. Although he was headed out, he graciously turned around and guided me back down the trail he was coming out of, showing me Gray Cracker (the “ghost” butterfly), Mexican Bluewing (the official butterfly of Mission, TX), Crimson Patches, Statira Sulphur, and Fawn-spotted Skipper (looking for all the world at first glance like a Clouded Skipper, which were also on the trail). Other old friends in the NBC gardens included Fiery Skipper, more Giant Swallowtails, Little Yellow and Southern Broken-dash. The scene-stealer for me, though, was the massive White Angled-Sulphur (Mike gave me ID tips that helped me distinguish it from the equally impressive Yellow Angled-sulphur I spotted the next day).
After Mike left (and invited me to join on a couple of upcoming butterfly and dragonfly walks he’s leading this week), I found a couple more species on my own: Texas Crescent and Bordered Patch in particular. I tried turning Variegated Fritillary into Mexican Fritillary to no avail; ditto Common Checkered-skipper into Tropical Checkered-skipper. The heat was getting to me, so I called it a (very productive) first day in the field and started my way back toward the car when I spotted this retiring Common Paraque sacked out in the shade of a Potato Tree: