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Mexican Ecological Park Harbors Many Exotic Butterflies

by John & Gloria Tveten

   Our introduction to Chipinque Parque Ecologico is sudden and dramatic.  Stepping from our vans, we are surrounded by swarms of colorful butterflies.  Large Orange Sulphurs and Queens sip nectar from beds of flowers that flank the parking lot. Lemon-yellow Cloudless Sulphurs and Giant Swallowtails swirl around our heads.

   These are species that we might also see in southern Texas, but many others are entirely new to us. A gorgeous Mexican Silverspot, a close relative of the common Gulf Fritillary, alights on a proffered hand and rests for a moment before flying off again.  Soldiers, relatives of the more familiar Monarch and Queen, hover on orange-brown wings before our eyes.

   The silverspot and Soldier are butterflies we have never seen before, and it is in search of such tropical beauty that we have come to Chipinque.  Led by naturalists Mike Quinn and Carrie Cate, we are among 20 participants from Mission's Texas Butterfly Festival who have journeyed southward to the Monterrey region in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, for two days of butterfly watching in late October.

   Located 20 miles from downtown Monterrey on the slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental, Chipinque Ecological Park is operated by the state government and a consortium of private interests.  Park supervisor Rene Flores tells us that about 3,500 people visit the 3,200-acre preserve each month, enjoying its natural beauty and the plants and animals it protects.

   Around the headquarters and visitor's center we find a host of new butterflies that seldom range northward across the Rio Grande.  Here are little Mimosa Yellows and the much larger Orange-barred Sulphur, a tiny cyna Blue and Curve-winged Metalmarks.

   Perched on a flowering shrub is an unusual greenish hairstreak that Californian Fred Heath, a member of the board of directors of the North American Butterfly Association, identifies as a rare Longula Greenstreak.

   One of our group reports a Rainbow Skipper, and we all hurry up the winding mountain road to a high bank where this large and gaudy prize feeds at a stand of flowers. Focusing our binoculars, we revel in a beauty that belies the Rainbow Skipper's membership in the normally drab skipper family. Its wings resemble stained-glass panels, with pale green iridescent areas separated by wide, dark veins.

   Still farther up the slope we find a butterfly hanging, wings folded, beneath an overhanging limb. Only by paging through our combined field guides do we finally identify the cryptic pattern as that of a Common Banner, a "lifer" for virtually everyone in the group.

   All too soon, we must leave Chipinque as evening approaches.  Driving again through the city, we ascend another mountain road, traversing a series of switchbacks high into the pine-oak forest that spills down the steep slopes.

   Our home for the night will be at El Manzano, a private recreation area maintained for its employees by a large company in Monterrey.  Here we are joined by members of the Monterrey Butterfly Watching Club, Papalotl.  The only club of its kind in Mexico, Papalotl takes its name from the word for the swallowtail butterfly in Nahuatl, the Aztec language.

   We are awakened the following morning by a dawn chorus of Mexican Jays and Rufous-capped Brush-Finches. Bright sunlight chases the chill from the mountain slopes, but fog hangs heavy in the lovely valley where we meet for breakfast.

   Here we discover Monarch butterflies roosting in the tall pines that surround a grassy meadow.  Tens of thousands of these familiar insects have paused on their migration to hang in pendant clusters through the cold night.  Now, warmed by the sun, they gradually take flight, streaming up the valley, undoubtedly bound for their winter home farther south in the volcanic zone of Michoacan.

   Walking the trails of El Manzano, we watch a Peregrine Falcon hunting over a little lake and discover a large Alligator Lizard that scurries off through the brush. Orange-flowered Lilies bloom at the edge of the forest, where bromeliads festoon the trees.

   Here, too, butterflies abound. There are several species of crescents and sulphurs, tiny iridescent blues and hordes of active, darting skippers. Hanging beneath a leaf is a freshly emerged Ruddy Daggerwing, its long-tailed wings not yet hardened enough for flight.

   At noon the fog settles back into the valley, and suddenly more Monarchs sweep down around us. Swirling against the lowering sky, they fly until the fog becomes too thick and then congregate in the trees to roost.

   Heading down the mountainside, we reach La Estanzuela Parque Natural in late afternoon as clouds are building and a light rain begins to fall.  The butterflies remain active, however, and just outside the entrance to the park we find two of the species we had most wanted to see, the Red Rim and the Elf.

   A flowering acacia hosts hundreds of exotic butterflies of many kinds--Tropical Leafwings, Band-celled Sisters, the Common Banner and another Ruddy Daggerwing.  Never have we seen so many on a single shrub. Walking up along a stream within the park, we add still more new species to our list.  Skippers abound, and we see the colorful Two-barred Flasher, Chisos Banded-Skipper, Potrillo Skipper and East-Mexican White-Skipper.  Sitting exposed on a leaf is a Creamy Stripe-streak, a bizarre little hairstreak with a jazzy scientific name, Arawacus jada.

   At dusk, just as we turn to leave the park, the best butterflies of the day actually find us.  Two large, rusty-orange insects fly down the path and land beside us, giving us ample opportunity to examine them at close range. Only with a Mexican butterfly book do we later succeed in identifying them as Opsiphanes boisduvalii.  Lacking a common name, Fred Heath coins the name "Orange Owl," for this species does, indeed, belong to the subfamily Brassolinae that contains the owl butterflies.

   Still savoring our great success, we meet for a late dinner with our gracious hosts from Papalotl and then head northward on the long drive back to Texas.

   The group list contains 87 species of butterflies for the two days; our personal count is 75.  Of those, 27 species are "lifers" that we have never seen before. This search for Monterrey's colorful and unusual butterflies will always rank among our favorite adventures along the nature trails of the world.

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 8, 1999)

19 Dec 1999 / Main South Texas Page