In an ideal world, I’d have been here Friday night and had a full day of birds and butterflies and botany in the Lower Rio Grande Valley under my belt already before arriving at the 2015 Texas Butterfly Festival.
But alas, this is not an ideal world. Strong storms and heavy winds delayed our arrival to Dallas on Friday — Tom Stock and I were flying together for this trip — including a diversion to Tulsa for refueling. By the time we reached Dallas, our last flight to McAllen had already left; the next one wasn’t until the following afternoon. So we didn’t actually set foot in McAllen until 4 pm on Hallowe’en.
Luckily, one of the pearls that comprise the necklace of birding sites known as the World Birding Center sits right next to the airport in McAllen, and it’s well known as the home of the incomparable Red-bordered Pixies. So we picked up the car and hustled over, where we immediately picked up this gaudy dandy in considerable numbers. And while we were there, in something less than half an hour, Tom started racking up the life birds that south Texas has to offer — Plain Chacalaca, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Clay-colored Thrush, Pyrrhuloxia, and others.
Then it was off down the road to the hotel that is hosting the Texas Butterfly Festival, and a chance to meet up with the rest of the posse from the mid-Atlantic: Jim Brighton, Tom Feild, Michael Drake, Barry Marts, and Matt Orsie. We snacked a bit at the reception, met the various worthies of the North American Butterfly Association, and headed out for beers at a local brewpub before turning in.
This morning was an early one, with most of us turning out before sunrise to try to find a Tropical Parula warbler that has been hanging out at the visitor center of the state park that borders the National Butterfly Center in Mission: Bentsen Palm State Park. Even with the time change, we made it out as the sun came up to pick up a couple more good birds for Tom but dipped on the Parula. As compensation we did manage a good collection of Common/White Checkered-skippers (inseparable in the field) to compare with Tropical Checkered-skipper, and a bewildering array of mostly plain brown skippers that would taunt us the rest of the day
We made it to the National Butterfly Center for a 9 am departure on a foray to see if we could relocate an
historical location for one of the amazing giant-skippers, Manfreda Giant-skipper, closer to the coast along the Arroya Colorado river near Rio Hondo at a location called Cielo Escondido. We did find good amounts of the giant-skippers’ larval food plant — Manfreda, an agave also colloquially known as Rattlesnake Agave — but failed to find either the adult giant-skippers or the distinctive “chimneys” the caterpillars make when they emerge from boring into the rosette of agave leaves.
But there were other great butterflies to see, and the new species came as relentlessly as the hot Texas sun! Within the first couple of minutes out of the van we already had Portrillo Skipper, Red-bordered Metalmarks, and fleeting glimpse of Brown-banded Skipper. Other interesting skippers during the Cielo Escondido foray included Mazan’s Scallopwing and Sicklewing Skipper; Two-barred Flasher added some color. Mexican Bluewings were quite common, and there were several Zebra Longtails floating lazily over the roadway. A Vesta Crescent hung out accomodatingly in the middle of the gravel road.
A trio of metalmarks — Fatal and Blue in addition to the Red-bordered — competed for attention with some very good hairstreaks. Red-crescent Scrub-hairstreak was arguably the best of a batch that also included Mallow Scrub-hairstreak and the intensely green Silver-banded Hairstreak, several of which were laying eggs on balloonvine, a presumed caterpillar host.
Tom and I also skived off on our own for a while to check out the river banks, where we scored both Green and Ringed Kingfisher, lifer birds for us both.
On the return to Mission, the party stopped briefly at Hugh Ramsey Nature Park near Harlingen, an extensive Texas Ebony forest. Best butterfly of this stop was Guava Skipper, although we’re still scratching our head over an unidentified hairstreak that could be a contender!
And then it was back to the National Butterfly Center for the evening’s reception, complete with a margarita machine and excellent food before returning to our hotel to pore over the field guides and online resources to match up some specimens we couldn’t put a name to in the field.
Tomorrow it’s a boat ride along the Rio Grande with stops at some otherwise inaccessible locations where other butterflies might be found. But that’s for another blog post!