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Festival Shows Growing Popularity of Butterfly Watching

by John & Gloria Tveten

   With the new year, we pause to look back over our wildlife adventures of 1998. During this past year we canoed with loons and Bald Eagles in Minnesota and enjoyed close-up encounters with Gila monsters and sidewinders in Arizona. On trips to Texas' Rio Grande Valley, we reveled in the abundance of subtropical birds found nowhere else in the United States.

   Butterflies, too, provided magical highlights of our year, and these most beautiful of the insects figure prominently in our plans for 1999.

   Walking forest trails in Minnesota in June, we watched huge yellow-and-black Canadian Tiger Swallowtails and delicate little Olympia Marbles. Here we found Arctic Skippers and rare Bog Fritillaries, species that range no farther south than the northern tier of states.

   Southeastern Arizona in late July produced swarms of butterflies with the summer "monsoons," and we were able to photograph such new species as the lovely little Leda Hairstreak (Leda Ministreak) and the Ares Metalmark, Nabokov's Satyr and the Acacia Skipper.

   Butterfly watching closely parallels bird watching, and it is rapidly gaining in popularity across the country. Indeed, the January issue of WildBird magazine called butterflies "the next wave of watchable wildlife," also noting that "birders are finding the sport of butterfly watching an exciting addition to their outdoor activities."

   Further proof of this popularity was the success of Mission's 1998 Texas Butterfly Festival, which we were privileged to attend as keynote speakers in late October. Sponsored by the Mission Chamber of Commerce, the South Texas Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association and Eagle Optics, the festival attracted butterfly enthusiasts from across the continent.

   As birding festivals quickly discovered, it is important that such events also reach out to the younger generation, and Joanna Rivera succeeded admirably in this regard with her "Butterflies for Kids." Here children ages 3 to 12 had an opportunity to explore the world of butterflies in hands-on art activities and games. Free and open to the public, this youth program drew a large and enthusiastic crowd.

   It was the field trips, however, that attracted many to the Rio Grande Valley festival, and the timing for the event could not have been better. Heavy rains in late summer and early fall prompted enormous eruptions of butterflies, including many species seldom seen north of Mexico.

   One morning found us in Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a remnant of tropical thorn-scrub woodland best known for its bird life. The butterflies are equally unique, however, and we watched Zebra Longwings (Zebras) sailing through the forest and Mexican Bluewings perching amid clumps of Spanish Moss to flash their electric-blue patterns.

   Less colorful but equally exciting were White-patched and Coyote Skippers (Coyote Duskywing), both species new to our lists. Then, in the butterfly garden near the refuge headquarters, we discovered a Teleus Longtail and both Mallow and Yojoa Scrub-Hairstreaks.

   They, too, were species we had never been before.

   On Sunday morning we joined another field trip to El Canelo Ranch north of Raymondville. Famous among birders for its nesting pair of rare Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls in the back yard of the charming bed-and-breakfast, El Canelo's prairies and oak mottes also harbor a wide variety of butterfly species.

   Led by Valley butterfly experts Mike Quinn and Carrie Cate, we wandered through the fields and along sandy, winding roads, enjoying flights of rusty-brown Queens and glistening, iridescent Pipevine Swallowtails, stopping to examine more closely the many Large Orange Sulphurs and Great Southern Whites.

   Here we were able to learn the difference between the closely related Turk's-cap and Laviana White-Skippers and to see the characteristic wing shapes of the Dorantes and common Long-tailed Skippers. It was here, too, that Gloria found the lepidopteran prize of the trip, a Common Banner, an extremely rare butterfly from Mexico and Central America that seldom strays across the Rio Grande.

   In these two field trips alone, we listed 58 different kinds of butterflies, five of them species we had not seen before. More important, we were able to study their characteristic field marks under the tutelage of local experts and become familiar with their fascinating life histories.

   As we look back at 1998, we count Mission's Texas Butterfly Festival as one of the highlights of our year. We will remember it not only for the myriad exotic butterflies that swirl through South Texas in the autumn months but also for the many people with whom we shared our lepidopteran adventures.

   As the festival concluded, we continued on to the Monterrey area in Mexico with a group of 20 ardent butterfly watchers.

   There we saw even more brilliant tropical specialties, and we will write about that trip next week.

   To receive information on next year's Texas Butterfly Festival as it becomes available, contact the Mission Chamber of Commerce, 220 E. Ninth St., Mission, Texas 78572. Phone 800-580-2700.

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 1, 1999)

19 Dec 1999 / Main South Texas Page