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Master Naturalists: Butterflies are everywhere

By By Paul and Mary Meredith
May 24, 2012 at 12:24 a.m.

A Gulf fritillary caterpillar has grown to full size on a diet of noxious passion flower (passiflora) leaves.  It is in the process of changing to a pupa.  Gluing its tail to a protected surface with silk from a gland on its head, it takes on a characteristic "J" shape, growing a dull skin under the old one, which it sheds.  It loses its spikes, and its bright orange coloration with black stripes that say, "Don't eat me. I taste bad."  In half an hour, it will be totally defenseless and look like a dried leaf stuck to the surface.  In a week or so, depending on temperature, its skin will split again and a butterfly will emerge.  Inflating brilliant-orange wings with striking silver spots on its under-wings, it's ready to fly, find a mate and start the cycle of life again.

This year, butterflies have given us several different sorts of evidence of their existence, and not just in our yard. And the evidence has been from all their stages, from caterpillars to butterflies.



Monarchs

Monarch caterpillars have stripped our milkweeds twice. And the milkweeds are, of course, coming back again. We're still having some monarchs regularly, but basically they've already progressed through here on their northward migration.



Gulf fritillaries

We have lots Gulf fritillaries all day long, visiting our blooming passion vine, their host plant. We have three different passion vines species blooming.



Pipevine swallowtails

We planted one dutchman's pipe plant about five years ago. They've multiplied. It's the host plant for pipevine swallowtails, and it's doing its job attracting them. We see some on the vines out front daily.



Checkerspots, small white species

Dozens of checkerspots, such as pearl crescent, and small white species, such as little yellow, cabbage white, checkered white, with 1- to 1 1/2-inch wingspan are also with us and elsewhere in our Mid-coast. They both fly above our buffalo grass area and are down in the grass. They're also evident in open areas around where we live. When our buffalo grass isn't mowed every week, they're in the taller parts of that grass, sipping nectar from the blooms of the small, low-growing weeds among that grass. Those weeds include, for example, scarlet pimpernel, frogfruit and oxeye daisy.



Cardinals

We've also had cardinals down in the buffalo grass, eating its ripe seeds; they'll be back later for whichever seeds ripen in the interim.



Mockers

And, of course, we've seen mockingbirds sitting in our tall trees around the grass, waiting to target one of the butterflies flying around over the grass, then swoop down to snag and devour it.



Small butterflies elsewhere in our region

We've spotted many of the same small butterflies in grasslands and prairie areas elsewhere in our Mid-coast region. One grassland and prairie area where we've seen them is where Paul traps beetles as part of his checking for invasive beetles. It's also where Mary "trapped" "her" chiggers. The area's not mowed regularly; the grass is not short. The butterflies and chiggers are there.

And we've observed the same small butterflies - we've started calling them "the little guys" - in grassy areas along the waterline at Port O'Connor. They're sipping nectar from scarlet pimpernel, frogfruit and oxeye daisy growing in those grassy areas. We see it "up close" when doing our phytoplankton monitoring network sampling at Port O'Connor fishing pier.

We've not seen any birds swooping after any of the small butterflies at either of those locations.



Chrysalises

We're still getting new Gulf fritillary chrysalises under our garage eaves and on the horizontal boards on the fence. Several weeks ago, we had clusters of them, each was about 2- to 3-inches away from its closest neighbors. They're still hatching. So in some of those places, the vacated chrysalises hanging there are so dense that they look like dirty Christmas tree tinsel.

Sources: Paul is a Master Gardener Entomology Specialist Certified in 2010 by AgriLife Extension; "Butterflies of the Lower Rio Grande Valley," by Ro Wauer; "The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies," by Robert M. Pyle, Consulting Lepidopterist

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

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