Master Naturalists: Discovering a Rio Grande Valley gem in Mission
By Paul and Mary Meredith
Nov. 28, 2013 at 5:28 a.m.
Visit Cockrell Butterfly Center in the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and you will be impressed with the diversity of insects they have on display in a man-made butterfly habitat.
In mid-October, we saw something more exciting while attending the 2013 Texas Master Gardener Association Conference in McAllen. One of our tours went to the National Butterfly Center in Mission.
It is 100 acres of native habitat near the Rio Grande, established by the North American Butterfly Association as a butterfly education and conservation refuge.
Its ecological diversity supports more than 200 butterfly species and 46 dragonfly species during any year. There are trails through wild areas: riverside, brush and grassland habitats; and planned demonstration gardens with trees, shrubs, perennials and annual plants native to the Lower Rio Grande plains.
Many of those same plant species are also native to Northern Mexico, and all are butterfly hosts. Tropical butterflies, seen nowhere else in the U.S., are attracted to these larval host plants at the center. The plants provide food for the tropicals' caterpillars, helping complete the butterfly life cycle again and again.
Why only in the Valley? Those tropical and desert host plants are not cold-hardy and cannot live north of the Valley's U.S. Department of Agriculture Zone 9 temperature range.
Seeing queen, monarch, American snout, Gulf fritillary, various small and large sulphurs and giant swallowtail butterflies that we regularly see in our yard or in the Master Gardeners' Victoria Educational Gardens was no surprise.
But things got interesting and challenging. Paul had a ball photographing for identification what Ro Wauer, our favorite butterfly expert, calls Lower Rio Grande Valley specialties.
It's true - there were critters Paul had never seen since he started collecting butterflies in the early 1950s. In less than two hours, we saw giant whites, great purple hairstreaks and yojoa scrub-hairstreaks. We spotted long-winged heliconians: julias (occasionally seen in Victoria) and zebras.
He photographed rarely seen red bordered pixies. There were bordered patches, goatweed leafwings and striking white peacocks.
There were skippers - oh gosh - several long-tailed species, plus spread-winged types (sickle-winged and Turks cap whites).
A profusion of small to large closed-wing-type skippers were there, more than Paul could ever identify. There are too many kinds, and they fly/flit too fast for identification.
When to visit
Some butterfly species are at the center year-round. Others are seasonal - spring or fall - depending on their host plants' life cycles. Really rare ones - you just have to be lucky to be there at the right time.
But always go on a sunny day with light winds - when it is warm enough for the critters' wing muscles to work.
It's a trip.
Sources: nationalbutterflycenter.org; "Butterflies of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, " by Roland H. Wauer; jeffpippen.com/butterflies.htm; fs.fed.us/global/iitf/pubs/sm_iitf040%20%20(5).pdf?
Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.