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Butterfly Fever

With butterfly-friendly flora popping up all over South Texas, rare beauties are becoming easier to find.

By Karen Hastings

When North Carolina photographer Randy Emmitt traveled to the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas last December to expand his rare butterfly portfolio, he never expected just how successful the trip would be.

Emmitt knew subtropical South Texas was the place to find uncommon butterfly species, but what he found was even better: a dainty beauty with transparent wings - a thick-tipped greta (Greta morgane) - that had never before been seen in the United States. "The day I found it, I was hanging out with the local butterfly folks. Everybody had just left, and I was heading to the car and taking a last look at the flowers."

The mystery clearwing was dancing along the golden eye daisies outside the World Birding Center headquarters at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Emmitt quickly grabbed his cell phone and, within minutes, a crowd of 10 local butterfliers had returned to share his find.

"Somebody said it was 100 years since any (clearwing) had been found in the United States," says Emmitt. "I didn't expect something so big and so beautiful to show up, and yet be so unique. It just happened to be my luck."

Luck indeed. Emmitt had wandered into a butterfly phenomenon that unfolded across the Lower Rio Grande Valley last fall: Six different U.S. record species were reported in 52 days in one county at the southern tip of Texas.

From a dusted spurwing (Antigonus erosus) spotted along a Hidalgo County roadside on October 17, to Randy Emmitt's clearwing on December 8, it was a banner season for butterflies in South Texas. It was not, however, a surprise.

Already known nationally and beyond as prime birding territory, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is quickly gaining equal notoriety as the place to find rare butterflies. The Valley alone has 300 of the country's 700-plus species. In terms of butterfly diversity, that places it in the same league as the top butterfly states, including Texas (with 455 species), Arizona (347) and New Mexico (321). Some 75-plus species - from the guava skipper and Guatemalan cracker to the jaunty red-bordered pixie - are found nowhere else in the United States but the southernmost counties of Texas' Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Recent finds only add to the excitement. Since 2003, there have been a total of at least 10 new U.S. records from the area - 10 species never before documented in the United States.

Butterfliers - with their close-focusing binoculars and digital cameras - are hoping the phenomenon will continue in the prime season beginning this fall, despite last year's rare Christmas freeze that did major damage to plants and to lepidoptera.

"There's no telling what's out there," advises experienced Mission butterflier David Dauphin. "Just get out there and look!"

The North American Butterfly Association - which boasts 5,000 members and 32 chapters around the country - says interest in butterfly tourism is increasing rapidly across the country. In far South Texas, the year-round good weather, the proximity to Mexico and an increase in butterfly habitat add up to an increasingly popular butterfly-watcher's destination.

Avid collectors and watchers discovered the region decades ago. Now Valley communities are "adopting" charismatic butterflies like the Gulf fritillary, blue metalmark and queen, and schools are starting butterfly clubs and planting caterpillar food plants such as guava, passion vine and guamuchil in butterfly gardens of their own.

Why is the Valley such a butterfly - and butterfly-watcher - magnet?

Butterfly experts suggest several factors for the Valley's diversity, popularity and recent spike in new record species.

"A great portion of the diversity that the Valley enjoys is because of strays from Mexico," says Mike Quinn, an invertebrate biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "If you come in October, November and December, you're going to see all kinds of really great butterflies."

Another factor is a year-round mild climate that's easy on both butterflies and their human patrons. When other areas are locked in winter, butterfly travelers to the Valley can count on sunshine and comfortable temperatures.

"We definitely plan on coming down to South Texas again," says University of Indiana Professor James Hengeveld, who's been coming to the Valley since 2003. "When there are no butterflies in northern states, they can be found year-round in South Texas. And there is always something new to see."

Plus, as biologist Quinn points out, it's so easy.

"Just about every park, refuge and nature center now has butterfly gardens that are often right around the visitors' center and very easy to access," says the biologist. "You don't have to get up at the crack of dawn and do a death march down the Jaguarundi Trail to see a bird high up in the canopy. You can drive up to the visitor's center and see the butterflies right there."

With more eyes in the field - and faster communication via digital cameras, email and cell phones - each rarity or new record only builds enthusiasm for the next. Knowledgeable butterfliers head for the Valley's remaining pockets of riparian woodland and thorn forest, where considerable effort has been made to attract these tiny jewels. Along with the NABA park and the Edinburg WBC (see sidebars), they include:

  • The World Birding Center at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park has planted most of its 2-acre headquarters in Turk's cap, lantana and red tropical sage. The site has been rewarded with two of the recent U.S. records: a beautiful beamer, or belus skipper (Phocides belus), in April of 2003, and Emmitt's thick-tipped greta.
  • Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, south of Alamo, was among the first to feature a butterfly garden, and it now boasts several. This 2,088-acre refuge has recorded more than 300 butterfly species in all, including favorites like the zebra longwing and Mexican bluewing. On Oct. 23, 2004, an east-Mexican white-skipper (Heliopetes sublinea) was found there, another in the string of recent U.S. records.

Other hotspots include most of the best birding sites in the region, such as Sabal Palm Audubon Center and Sanctuary and Los Ebanos Preserve in the lower Valley; Frontera Audubon and the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco; Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge on the Laguna Madre and the Convention Centre grounds and wooded lots of South Padre Island.

"The birding map of the Rio Grande Valley is now the birding and butterfly map," says Mike Quinn.

NABA's Jeffrey Glassberg notes that, 20 years ago, the word "butterflier" did not exist, and there were no crowds with their binoculars focused down. Yet in a few short decades, he predicts there will be more butterfly enthusiasts than birders coming to stay, eat and spend in the Valley.

"We see more and more family units outside," agrees Dauphin. "It's a fun, easy and inexpensive family activity. And almost all kids like butterflies: They're gentle. They're colorful. They're slow, and they don't fly away as easily."

And in the "Magic Valley," it doesn't take a 2,000-acre refuge to host excellent butterfly habitat.

David and Jan Dauphin moved to Mission in 2003 strictly for the butterflies. They immediately set about transforming their tiny residential lot - covered in landscaping rock - into a miniature butterfly oasis, with native flowering plants and a babbling brook.

"In this little postage stamp yard, we put in probably 55 species of host and nectar plants," says Dauphin. "In the year and a half since, we've probably had 121 species of butterflies" - including the pale sicklewing and starred skipper - "and that's more than most state lists."

On Nov. 20, 2004, Jan saw an unfamiliar pale-orange-and-white butterfly swoop onto her backyard where it rested on a Texas lantana. It was a common melwhite (Melete lycimnia isandra), and another U.S. first for the Valley.

"It was thrilling!" says Jan. "It's so exciting when something new shows up."

Butterfly Bend

What the Serengeti is for elephant, zebra and lion, the North American Butterfly Association's new International Butterfly Park near Mission is for butterflies: A place to roam free.

Established on 100 acres of former sorghum and cotton fields, along a reed-fringed bend of the Rio Grande, the park is the only one in the world devoted to wild butterflies. And, according to its founder, no place but South Texas would do.

"The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is the only place where the butterflies are flying all year, and the numbers and kinds of butterflies dwarf anyplace else," says Jeffrey Glassberg, who founded the North American Butterfly Association in 1992 and has been watching butterflies in the Valley for 35 years.

"You can stand there looking at the river and imagine the butterflies flying in from Mexico," says Glassberg. "In fact, you can stand there with binoculars and watch them come in - you don't have to imagine."

NABA created the park on land donated by the same developers who gave acreage for the nearby World Birding Center headquarters at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Today, you'll find a tiny gift shop and portable office buildings, and a half-acre of cowpen daisies, blue mistflower and wild olive, spilling over beds and gravel walkways. Here and there, log sections hang like tiny trapezes, smeared with rotten bananas, brown sugar and beer for a butterfly treat.

Not much to see yet? Then recheck those close-focusing binoculars and have your digital camera ready.

Even in its early stages, the park has been successful in attracting the rare butterflies known to inhabit, or sometimes wander through, South Texas. Since 2003, the park has recorded more than 150 species - including the ruby-spotted swallowtail, zebra longwing and red-bordered pixie.

The park also has been associated with four of the last 10 U.S. record sightings in the Valley: the stag hairstreak (Rekoa stagira) and turquoise longtail (Urbanus evona) in 2003, and the common melwhite (Melete lycimnia isandra) and cross-barred white (Itaballia demophile) in 2004.

Gazing south toward the river, restoration ecologist Shelley Beville looks down gently sloping terrain that one day will feature tranquil ponds and Montezuma bald cypress. A crop of gaily colored plastic flags marks 22 acres of recently restored ebony resaca and sabal palm habitat.

"Every flag you see is a seedling. We planted with a shovel and lots of elbow grease," says Beville. Between January and April 2005, she organized 820 volunteer hours and oversaw the planting of 3,800 seedlings of coral bean, plumbago, retama, brush holly and manzanita.

Starting this fall, another 30 acres will get similar treatment, with species found in the mesquite savannah, barretal and Tamaulipan thorn scrub habitats.

"We want this park to look like nature at its best," says park Executive Director Sue Sill, who launched a $2.5 million capital campaign this year to raise money for a permanent visitor's center and intensive landscaping.

"We want people to come here because it's a beautiful place - and they might just discover the butterflies and get fascinated by them too."

Upcoming Butterfly Events

Mission

Mission's Texas Butterfly Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary Oct. 20 - 23. Organizers saw record crowds last year and are hoping to better a 2004 festival species count of 106. Seminars, workshops and children's activities are scheduled. Get your reservations in early, because Mission Chamber of Commerce Tourism Director Farwa Naqvi says field trips sell out fast.

"If you're into butterflies, you really need to be here in Mission in October," says Kim Garwood, president of the local NABA chapter. "It's a good festival for beginners, but it's also fun if you're an expert. You get a real collection of folks here who are knowledgeable, enthusiastic and passionate."

Edinburg

The Edinburg Scenic Wetlands wing of the World Birding Center is planning its first-ever Butterfly Festival on Oct. 29. The park features a 3.5-acre butterfly garden, as well as an active dragonfly pond. A festival theme will be Dia de los Muertos, in honor of Mexican legends that link the annual fall monarch migration with the returning souls of honored ancestors.

"We do have a spectacular habitat," says Marisa Oliva, park manager of the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands at the WBC. "When you come out to the gardens in October, everywhere you walk, hundreds of butterflies will just lift off the plants. Everything from the malachite - a gorgeous green and brown butterfly that's less than 6 inches wide - to the smallest, the western pygmy blue, which is only about a half-inch. Every mistflower bush is just covered."

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