By Karen Hastings
A rare butterfly debuts in the Rio Grande Valley.
Butterfly photographer David Hanson thought the aqua-and-black beauty perched beneath the wild olives at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park last April 13 was a rainbow skipper — a significant sighting for any South Texas naturalist.
But soon after he e-mailed a photo of his find to a New Jersey friend, Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), Hanson’s phone started ringing.
“Do you know what you have?” Glassberg asked.
Glassberg’s trained eyes — and many such are focused on Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley these days — had spotted a U.S. butterfly first. Hanson had photographed not the more common rainbow skipper, with its smaller wing “windowpanes,” but the only Phocides belus, a.k.a. beautiful beamer, ever recorded in this country.
Hanson’s find becomes the 723rd butterfly species documented in North America and the 294th for this three-county region, which rivals entire states such as California and Florida for its butterfly diversity.
“If you were going to pick one place in the country for butterflies, this is it,” says Sue Sill, botanist in charge of developing the world’s first free-flight butterfly park near Bentsen. “There is no other place with this kind of diversity.”
An increasing number of butterfly enthusiasts — with their close-focusing binoculars and digital cameras in hand – are trekking to Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties in South Texas. Their destinations are the riparian woodlands and thorn forests preserved at places such as Bentsen. Their goal might be a banded orange Heliconian slurping up nectar from a Texas lantana, or a two-barred flasher sunning on a wild olive — or any of the Mexican “vagrants” that wander into the United States most frequently at the southern tip of Texas.
News of Hanson’s sighting has added to the boom in butterfly tourism already in progress here. Less than a mile from Bentsen, NABA is planning a 100-acre International Butterfly Park along a picturesque bend of the Rio Grande. A few miles away, the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands’ wing of the World Birding Center has planted six of its acres in blue mist flowers, Turk’s cap and other flowering plants that butterflies love. The Edinburg WBC is part of a nine-community collaboration with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, dedicated to birding and nature tourism.
Other butterfly-friendly sites in the Valley include the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco, the Sabal Palm Audubon Center & Sanctuary in Brownsville and Santa Ana and Laguna Atascosa national wildlife refuges, all of which recently have expanded their native plantings.
The man who found the beautiful beamer, David Hanson, only recently became a butterfly-watcher. A pilot, radio-controlled aircraft buff and birder, he is a winter Texan from Wisconsin who makes a beeline for South Texas each fall.
Hanson was in the right place at the right time last April when he stopped by the flowering wild olive trees at Bentsen’s front gates, a butterfly hotspot. Walking toward the trees, Hanson nearly collided with a blue-and-black specimen that abruptly disappeared into the undergrowth. He lay on his back on the sidewalk to capture a digital portrait of the butterfly, which was hiding under a low-hanging leaf.
“First of all, it’s humbling,” says Hanson of his record. “Of all the people the good Lord could have bestowed this on, it was me. It’s a great honor.”
Only two years ago, Hanson says his universe of lepidoptera was divided into “white butterflies, yellow butterflies and monarchs.” Then a long-tailed skipper wandered into his home and he picked up a guidebook and a digital camera. Now a U.S. record is attached to his name. He says the butterfly enthusiasts flocking to the Rio Grande Valley share common passions.
“If you are a butterflier,” he says, ”you love beauty, you love nature, you love the challenge of identification. If it has wings, I love it.”