Butterfly Garden a Delight to Birdersby John & Gloria Tveten
Harlingen's Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival ranks as one of the premier birding celebrations in the country. Nationally acclaimed speakers and numerous field trips to avian "hot spots" throughout South Texas draw hundreds of avid participants from across the continent.
The major attraction, of course, remains the wealth of subtropical birds that occur nowhere else in the United States. People come to see Green Jays, Chachalacas, Altamira Orioles and Long-billed Thrashers. Others will add such rarities as the Brown Jay, Hook-billed Kite, Ringed Kingfisher or Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl to their lifetime lists.
This past November, however, the birding festival showcased another, more unexpected treasure-trove of wildlife wonders. This new attraction was a butterfly garden filled with colorful lepidoptera. Some were as uniquely tropical as the most prized of the exotic birds.
Over the course of the five-day festival, we personally saw 43 different species in this small garden. Five of them were butterflies we had never seen before, species that seldom range northward across the Rio Grande.
Certainly many birders are also developing an interest in butterflies. These brilliant insects have been called "the next watchable wildlife." Many of the festival's attendees, however, had no previous experience with butterfly watching, yet they left with a heightened awareness of these colorful winged gems.
Established just a few years ago in the park across from the Harlingen civic auditorium where the birding festival is held, the circular garden spans slightly more than 100 feet and is cut into four wedge-shaped segments by paths through its center. Along the paths and the periphery of the garden are low hedges of Blue Plumbago and Coral Vine interspersed with Lantana and Turk's-cap. All were in full bloom for the November event.
First visiting the garden with our friends Mike Quinn and Carrie Cate, who had a hand in its development, we found it swarming with huge Giant Swallowtails and tiny Ceraunus Blues. Among the yellow sulphur butterflies were Cloudless and Large Orange Sulphurs, Mexican and Little Yellows, and Dainty Sulphurs, the smallest of all the Pierid family.
Here, too, were the familiar Monarchs and Queens, but accompanying them was a Soldier, also called the Tropical Queen, a much rarer butterfly from more southern latitudes. Our list grew quickly with the addition of Fatal and Red-bordered Metalmarks, Great Southern Whites, Gulf Fritillaries and American Snouts. A host of small orange-and-black butterflies included the Phaon, Pearl and Texan Crescents.
On one rainy afternoon, Quinn came to tell us of a Red-bordered Pixie that they had found resting on the foliage of a small citrus tree in the garden. This unique member of the metalmark family has black wings with orange tips and a pattern of bright red spots. A tropical species seldom seen in Texas, it was one that had long eluded us.
New skippers, too, swirled around the flowers each and every day, from early morning until dusk. Among the Long-tailed and Dorantes Skippers we found a Brown Longtail, another new butterfly for our lists. White-patched Skippers shared the blooms with Tropical Checkered Skippers, and among 15 species of the Hesperidae family we managed to identify a little Olive-clouded Skipper unique to the Rio Grande Valley and adjacent Mexico.
Perhaps the most exciting discovery was a Blue Metalmark, a small butterfly with shimmering, iridescent turquoise wings. Found from Mexico southward to Honduras, it is so rare in the United States that nothing has been reported about its life history.
Again, we were in the auditorium when the Blue Metalmark was first seen, and Mike Quinn arrived on the run to bring us the news. Our mad dash across the street to the butterfly garden drew a crowd of curious onlookers, and soon scores of people were enthralled by the beauty of a single tiny insect.
Drawn by the excitement, they stayed to see and learn about Mallow Scrub-Hairstreaks and Dusky-blue Groundstreaks, and to appreciate the lovely White Peacocks that fluttered throughout the garden.
Soon a Giant White arrived to share the floral bounty, and then an enormous White Angled-Sulphur claimed our attention as it clung to the Turk's-cap, sipping nectar from the scarlet blooms. The former is a rare visitor to deep South Texas, but the latter is an even greater prize that was new for all of us. White above, with yellow patches on its forewings, the White Angled-Sulphur is pale greenish white below with short tails on its hind wings.
The world of butterflies gained many new converts on this sunny afternoon, most of them drawn to the garden by word of a small blue metalmark that had so excited us. Many left with a new appreciation for this other world of colorful flying creatures, so like the birds in many ways.
Unlike many other wildlife forms, however, butterflies can be attracted to even the smallest gardens or backyard habitats, and those plots can play an enormous role in conservation. Preservation of Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons or Piping Plovers requires a country-wide effort, or even international cooperation.
Certainly such large-scale programs would also aid butterflies and other insects, but a single backyard garden with some larval food plants and nectar-bearing flowers can make an enormous difference.
The brochure of the Papalotl butterfly club of Monterrey, Mexico, about which we wrote last week, contains a quote from Baba Dioum: "At the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what has been taught to us."
Harlingen's outstanding butterfly garden brought us a great deal of pleasure and taught us many lessons. Hopefully those lessons will be applied by all of us who appreciate nature's beauty and seek to preserve wildlife and its critical habitat.
John and Gloria Tveten are freelance nature writers and authors of several books including The Birds of Texas, Wildflowers of Houston and Southeast Texas and Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas.
(first appeared in the Houston Chronicle in the "Nature Trails" column, January 15, 1999)