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Master Naturalists: It's still busy outdoors

By By Paul and Mary Meredith
Dec. 27, 2012 at 6:27 a.m.

An almost mature Gulf fritillary caterpillar has probably shed its skin for the last time.  After eating more passion vine leaves for a day or so to fatten-up, it will find a protected location under an overhang and change into a pupa that looks like a curled-dried leaf.  It will winter over and hatch next spring, about the time that passion vines sprout new leaves.

Some monarch characteristics

• Monarch butterflies have a habit that encourages butterflies of other species to emulate their color and markings. Monarchs use milkweed as food plants for larvae, the nectar source for the butterflies. The toxic chemicals they absorb from these plants make monarchs distasteful to predators. So the plants provide monarchs vital protection from predators. Other butterfly species are said to emulate monarchs' coloring and markings to discourage predators. Some predators have been reported to learn to leave monarchs alone after one distasteful bite. Then they also avoid other butterflies that look like monarchs.

• Sexes of monarch butterflies can be easily determined by the large black pheromone scale on the interior edge of the male monarch's hindwing. The scale is absent on the female monarch.

• Project Monarch Watch works to educate people about Monarchs, to distribute milkweeds to support reproduction by Monarchs, and to restore Monarch waystations throughout the Texas migration flyway. More information is available throughNative Plant Society of Texas and monarchwatch.org.

It's so busy everywhere this time of year that it's often hard to keep up with what's happening outdoors. And some of us don't like some happenings as the 2012-13 winter nears. One thing we definitely dislike is the drastic drop in our rainfall the last couple of months. We were catching up rainfall-wise until October and November together brought us less than 1/2 inch. That little definitely changed the outdoors at our house.

For one thing, we had few hummingbirds after the dramatic decrease in rainfall. The sugar water in our feeders regularly turned cloudy from non-use. We remember how hummers follow water sources such as rivers and creeks in dry weather to stay near available nectar. They may be around but not here. We'll refill after New Year's for winter residents.



What we have had

During the monarch butterflies' fall migration, we also had waves of several species. And now we have butterflies of those varieties even after the last wave of migrants blew through. The species we have had include gulf and variegated fritillaries, zebra long-wings (uncommon Valley species), Julia Heliconian, checkerspots, hairstreaks, nymphs, crescents, Carolina satyrs, yellow sulfurs, tawny and hackberry emperors, and, of course, monarchs and queens. We still have some of those species around.



What we now have

The post-migration larvae and butterflies currently at our place hatched from eggs left by the transients. We'd see a pair (or three) dancing in the air, circling in courtship. They mated, depositing eggs. Paul has found caterpillars in various locations around our place. The passion vine we've planted is a food plant for several of our current caterpillar species.



Caterpillar ways

The eggs hatch when we get a warm spell. Some caterpillars emerge from the stasis they go into while changing (metamorphizing) into adults - butterflies. Those butterflies are smaller, weaker, less colorful than butterflies born during warmer weather, with more food available. The larvae may or may not survive. Some may never hatch at all.

But the butterflies currently appearing in our outdoors are brightly colored at the beginning. However, our new adults age like their parents did. The longer they live, the more their colors gradually fade. And they may be pecked by birds, etc., leaving them with chewed-up wings. They become old butterflies, and they may not live as long or be as large or as robust as their parents - born under better conditions, with more food available.

None of our current butterfly species are feeding on milkweed. Small composite flowers, such as lantana and mist flower, are still nectar sources; and passion vine is being eaten by larvae. We have native passion vine planted near lantana in several places, which attracts them. Our pipevines (Dutchman's pipe) are still feeding the pipevine swallow tail larvae, though numbers are lower in the cooler weather. We don't have many nectar plants still in bloom, just a few, to feed those species.

Sources: "Butterflies of the Lower Rio Grande Valley," by Roland H. Wauer; "Butterflies of North America," by Jim P. Brock and Kenn Kaufman; "Butterflies and Moths, A Golden Nature Guide," by Robert T. Mitchell and Herbert S. Zim; Wikipedia.

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at paulmary0211@sbcglobal.net.

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