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Skill Builder: Backyard Beauties

5 easy tips to help you get started in butterfly watching today.

By Elaine Robbins

“The highest enjoyment of timelessness,” wrote novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov, “is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love.”

You, too, can enjoy the transcendent beauty of shimmering butterflies feeding at dazzlingly colored flowers. And there’s no better place to pursue this experience than here. Texas is blessed with two monarch migration flyways and 430 species of butterflies — far more than any other state. The Rio Grande Valley alone has more species than all of eastern North America combined. Although you can see butterflies year-round, the best viewing is in fall and spring, and late October is the peak time.

If you want to deepen your enjoyment of watching butterflies, here are five ways to get started:

Find a Field Guide

Several new field guides make butterfly identification easy. Two excellent choices for beginners are the Kaufman Focus Guide to Butterflies of North America and Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Butterflies. Both have color plates organized by family, so you can learn to identify butterflies first by family (swallowtails, whites and sulphurs, brush-footed butterflies, for example) and then by species (pipevine swallowtail, cloudless sulphur, gulf frittilary).

Buy Close-Focus Binoculars

While you need long-distance viewing for birding or hunting, to open your eyes to the exquisite close-up world of butterflies, you’ll need a pair of close-focus binoculars. Look for models that focus at six feet or closer. Eagle Optics Ranger Platinum Class 8x32 is an excellent lightweight choice that focuses down to 3 feet and has light-gathering ability comparable to larger models. Pentax’s Papilio 6.5x21 is a compact pair that focuses down to an amazing 1 1/2 feet. It has a wide field of view, which makes it easier to spot what you’re looking for. Kahles 8x32 is a lightweight choice that focuses down to 5 feet and produces a crisp, bright image.

Take Photographs

Butterflies are beautiful subjects for photography, but they’re also notoriously skittish subjects. “I tell people that they have to stalk the butterfly as though they are hunting,” says photographer Larry Ditto, whose butterfly images appear frequently in this magazine. “The closer you get, the lower profile you have to take. Sometimes you need to get down on your knees and elbows. Butterflies seem to perceive that something large is looming over them, so try not to cast your shadow on them.”

You’ll need a camera that has a telephoto lens or a 100mm macro lens for close-ups. “Most of the time I like to get down on the same level as the butterfly,” says Ditto. “You’re trying to get those big flat wings on the same plane as the camera.” Ditto also recommends using a flash to bring out the color in butterfly wings.

Plant a Butterfly Garden

If you want to attract butterflies to your garden, find a sunny spot and plant large patches of one or two of their favorite flowers. Butterflies flock to salvia, lantana, butterfly bush, butterfly weed, mistflower, Indian blanket, and purple coneflower. Avoid insecticides and pesticides — even organic ones. They can kill butterflies and their caterpillars.

Take Off

For the best butterfly watching experience in Texas, head to Mission in late October for the annual Texas Butterfly Festival. The festival features several days of field trips and seminars by the nation’s top experts. While you’re in Mission, be sure to see the International Butterfly Park.

Of course, one of the best things about butterfly watching is that you don’t have to go tromping around the world — or get up at 6 a.m. as you do for birding — to enjoy it. On some sunny afternoon, just head to your local botanical garden — or better yet, to your own backyard — and discover an exquisite, tiny world just waiting to be found.

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