Hunting Bromeliad Hairstreaks in the Desert?

2017APR18 Strymon solitario Grishin & Durden, 2012 (Big Bend Scrub-Hairstreak)_TX-Brewster Co-Rio Grande Village nature trail

Big Bend Scrub-hairstreak, Strymon solitario, one of dozens hill-topping on a limestone mesa near Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park. [TX: Brewster Co., 2017 April 18, photo by REB]

As part of my long-planned foray to the Big Bend area of extreme southwest Texas, I’d been keeping an eye out for recent literature on any interesting leps being found there.  But as I’ll report in a longer LepLog piece, the weather gods did not favor butterfly hunting in April this year.  The spring came early with good rains and prompted an early bloom and flush of spring butterflies; by the time I got there last week most of the nectar sources had crisped up and withered away.  With them went most of the spring species I’d hoped to see.

So it was without a lot of hope that I decided to recover — after one particularly grueling hike day into the heart of the Chisos Mountains tracking the Colima Warbler — by driving down the following day to the relatively flat desert along the Rio Grande in search of one of North America’s most recently described butterflies.  I was after  Big Bend Scrub-hairstreak, named by Nick Grishin and Christopher Durden in 2012 from an area near Rio Grande Village called Boquillas Canyon in the far western reach of the national park [Grishin, N.V. & C.J. Durden. 2012. New bromeliad-feeding Strymon species from Big Bend National Park, Texas USA and its vicinity (Lycaenicdae: Theclinae). Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society 66(2): 81–110.]  This new species, Strymon solitario, the Big Bend Scrub-hairstreak, has a limited distribution in exceptionally arid, rocky habitats where one can find its food plant, Texas false agave, Hechtia texensis.

2017APR18 Hechtia texensis Ground Bromeliad_TX-Brewster Co-Rio Grande Viillage nature trail

Texas false agave, Hechtia texensis, a plant of arid, rocky limestone desert and host to larvae of the Big Bend Scrub-hairstreak. It’s called a false agave because it’s actually not an agave at all but a desert-adapted bromeliad.

Imagine my surprise, then, when after walking out the nature trail at Rio Grande Village and climbing up to the top of a limestone promontory overlooking the river, that I encountered veritable swarms of hairstreaks hill-topping on the summit.  I’d seen few lycaenids at all in Big Bend to this point, and none of them hairstreaks, so I was pleasantly surprised to find them landing on my cap, my hand, my camera — and on the fading stalks of Hechtia that were all around!  Sure enough, when I got back to the computer that night and compared the photos with the illustrations in Grishin & Durden and elsewhere online, looks like this is another population of Big Bend Scrub-hairstreak.

The species epithet solitario, by the way, doesn’t have anything to do with its gregariousness or lack thereof.  It’s named after El Solitario, a geologic formation looming over the landscape in the neighboring Big Bend Ranch State Park, where specimens also were collected.


El Solitario, a geological formation in extreme southwest Texas that gave name to the recently described Strymon solitario. [photo courtesy Texas Parks & Wildlife Department]

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2 Responses to Hunting Bromeliad Hairstreaks in the Desert?

  1. Did you happen to see the Colima warbler when you were there?

  2. Rick says:

    That was the primary reason for going, and I did (finally) see the beast. Took me the better part of 13 hours, surviving a flash flood, hail, a lightning storm, a bear, and a party of Colima-seers on horseback as part of an organized trip that was far too cheery. Also had Mexican Whip-poor-will, Mexican Jay, Blue-throated Hummingbird, and Gray Vireo on the trip. On the way back to Austin picked up Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo at South Llano River SP. Only bird target I dipped on was Montezuma Quail ….

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