Fall’s Final Flutterings

Even in December, an assortment of butterflies graces the Texas landscape, taking advantage of our relative warmth and lingering nectar sources.

The Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus) shown above can be distinguished from Monarchs and Viceroys by the white spots on its hindwings and darker color. I recently found a dozen of these beauties flocking around the remnants of Gregg’s mistflower (Conoclinium greggii ) in a Kerrville garden.

On the other hand, this Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) found a congenial resting spot alongside the Willow City Loop in Gillespie County. Its family, the Nymphalidae, contains butterflies called ‘brushfooted,’ due to the reduced size of their front legs. Seventy-three species of this largest butterfly family are found in Texas, including fritillaries, checker spots, crescents, American Painted Ladies, and Red Admirals.

At the Lost Maples State Natural Area, I got my first look at a somewhat amusing butterfly known as the American Snout (Libytheana carinenta).There’s no question how its name arose. The pronounced elongation of its mouth parts look very much like a snout; they remind me of an anteater.

The Snout’s larvae, pupae, and adults are quite dull, resembling partially opened leaves. When adults rest on twigs with their wings folded and their antennae and snout aligned toward the twig, they often resemble a dead leaf.

Hackberry trees serve as hosts for the American Snout; adults feed on a wide variety of flowers, and often can be found sipping water and minerals from mud.

American Snouts do migrate, but not in a traditional north to south direction. Instead, they move locally among patches of suitable habitat, particularly after rains produce fresh hackberry leaves. A 1976 study discovered the butterflies moving in three different directions east of I-35, with one flight reversing directions between morning and afternoon. Their migrations are fascinating; this article provides more complete details.


Comments always are welcome.

62 thoughts on “Fall’s Final Flutterings

  1. When one talks about organic/natural holiday ornaments, can’t forget these! Saw a Monarch passing through before all the wind and rain. Lantana is trying to offer snacks.
    Always thought hackberry trees a worthy addition to yards.
    Lovely wanderings and wings!

    1. A Christmas butterfly tree — what a fine idea. I know a couple of critters who’d be thrilled if you provided one for them. Dixie’s tree-tipping would be nothing compared to that chaos.

      It took me a while to learn to identify hackberries, but they are a fine tree. I especially like their bark; it’s good to know they provide so much for both birds and insects. I found one next to a large birdbath in Comfort; it was full of robins who’d drop down for a drink, and then fly back up to the limbs to perch.

  2. I used to not spend a lot of time thinking about hackberries until most of the ones in my area died or were cut down. Turns out they are one of the main food sources for Cedar Waxwings too. In the last few years I’ve missed my winter visitors.

    1. I’ve had waxwings here only twice. Once, they perched for a few days in a Crape Myrtle, but one year they arrived just as the fruits of the palm trees were ripening.They stayed three days, and when they left, there wasn’t a fruit to be found; they’d stripped every one. I didn’t know they favored hackberries; I’ll have to keep an eye out. As I recall, they arrived here in January both times.

    1. It is interesting. Week before last, there were enough migrating through my area that they were noticeable, even at the marinas and crossing Hwy 146. There may be a lot of drivers who envy them; while we sit, stuck in construction traffic, they just keep fluttering by.

    1. Thanks, Jeanie. Finding this trio was great fun. Despite it’s reputation for being ‘flighty,’ the Buckeye was especially willing to stay put for photos. I suspect it was happy to have found a warm spot on a rather cool day.

  3. That’s a great shot of a Snout! We have rivers of them flowing up the bluff and across our property during migrations but I’ve never seen them as clearly as in your photo. I’m always fascinated by the size of the flock as they are streaming by and I miss the individual details.

    1. I couldn’t believe some of the descriptions I read of the Snout’s migrations. They may not go as far as the Monarchs and others, but they certainly know how to make good use of fresh growth on hackberries.

      I suspect their details would be hard for anyone to see when they’re on the move. This one was hanging over Can Creek on its little limb, and it couldn’t have been much more than an inch long. I was some distance away, and I suspect that kept it from flying off. I used my 18-135mm lens, so this is a substantial crop, but it was worth it just to get the photo. At first, I thought it was a gall on the stem; I only realized it was a butterfly when I looked through the camera lens.

  4. I’ll look closer for the American snout! I’ve left a Hackberry in the yard knowing it’s home to several native species; this one I didn’t know! Thank you, Linda. I’m fostering a Monarch caterpillar brought in to the garage on a milkweed plant, Asclepias tuberosa, aka Pleurisy Root. (According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower center in Austin, the native tribes used this root as a cure for pleurisy and other pulmonary ailments). Linda, your columns lead us in all directions!
    Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to all.

    1. I’m like the Bear Who Goes Over the Mountain, Sue Lane — I just go out to see what I can see, and sometimes what I see is quite marvelous. I didn’t know until another person mentioned it that Cedar Waxwings make use of hackberries, as well. If I thought I could tempt Waxwings into my yard, I’d plant one in a minute.

      I did see a large flock of robins in Comfort last week, and I was lucky enough to spot four Whooping Cranes in flight south of Schulenburg. They’re on their way!

    1. It’s so unpredictable. This year, while people were fussing about not seeing Monarchs, they were streaming across Clear Lake for days. I amused myself at work by counting them as they flew by. Last year and the year before, I only saw little yellow ones migrating.

      I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that they’re much like the geese or other game birds; they’ll go where the conditions are right and the food supply is the best. I’ve seen more geese this year than I’ve seen in the past five. I don’t know what’s changed, but something certainly has, and the area around Eagle Lake was thick with birds last week.

  5. I haven’t seen any of these in the past few weeks, but I don’t have much blooming at this point. The one butterfly that winters in my garden consistently is the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta). It suns itself on logs, garden art, seed heads–and sometimes, the gardener!

    Love your shots!. I always have a tough time identifying the Viceroy; it’s just too much like the Monarch and flits away before I’m sure of which one it is. I find the differences between the Monarch and Queen significant enough that they’re easy for me to distinguish. Simple pleasures. :)

    1. I thought this page was especially helpful in getting a fix on the Viceroy. Now that I know the Queen has white dots and the Viceroy has that black line across its wing, it should be easier to identify them.I found a flight of Queens at the Texas Natives nursery a couple of years ago, and I must say, they were as cooperative as these when it came to photo-taking.

      I learned something else when I double-checked the collective noun for butterflies. Did you know that one expression for a group of bees is “a bike”? Apparently “bike” is an old English word which means a colony, nest, or swarm. I found it used on several British sites, like the Sussex Wildlife Trust, so it must be a thing — at least over there.

      1. A bike of bees, heh? I’ve never heard of that, thanks for sharing–I see a blog post title sometime in the future!!

        Thanks for the link, that’s helpful. I don’t think I get Viceroys very often, but I’ll bet I’m mis-identified one. Or many. :)

        1. I meant to add that I’d mentioned that I hadn’t seen many butterflies, but I was out today and realize there are still quite a few skippers around. As for identification, they’re too quick for me!!

    1. We had a bit of torrential rain here yesterday; it’s too bad it couldn’t have spread itself west into the areas marked by drought. Isn’t post-rain green wonderful? Some of the fields here already are greening up — and the rice farmers surely are happy.

    1. For quite some time I thought everything orange and black was a Monarch. Then, I figured out the Queens, and if I ever see a Viceroy, I might get the ID right. I do like the Buckeyes, although every time I hear the name I think of a state or a cookie made to look like a nut.

  6. The migration pattern of the American Snout is similar to my trying to find an address in a foreign country…I even look like the creature trying to read a map.
    Merry Christmas and Happy 2021.

    1. Well, look closely. By the expression on its face, the Snout seems a bit perplexed; perhaps it’s having a hard time with its own map. Every time I look at it, I laugh.

      I have a hard time imagining you having difficulty finding an address, given the territory you’re prone to explore. On the other hand, mountains and desert might be easier to navigate than cities. Sometimes it seems that way. Let’s hope 2021 is easier to navigate than this year has been.

  7. That’s a good butterfly trio to conclude the year with. It’s probably just a coincidence that all three favor orange and brown—but then it seems that most butterflies do in these here parts.

    1. I went back and looked at a couple of other still-unidentified butterflies and skippers from this time last year, and it seems to be true; orange, brown, and gray predominate. The more colorful butterflies, like the swallowtails, seem to be more common in the spring and summer. I suppose someone knows the reason, or at least has some hypotheses, but it’s an interesting difference.

      On the other hand, it doesn’t take much scientific knowledge to realize that big, colorful butterflies might as well be flashing signs that say, “Eat Me!” if they stayed around during the months when the world’s gone dull and brown.

      1. I think you’ve got it there – they’ll blend into their backgrounds and evade predators more easily. Love the photos and the information too. It’s wonderful that Texas has so many butterflies. Here there’s plenty of reason for concern over our butterfly numbers.

  8. I count myself lucky if I spot one buckeye a year. when I lived in the city and after we bought the house next door I turned that front yard into a huge wildflower/butterfly garden and saw all those you mention except painted ladies and snouts. though I have seen snouts. we have so many hackberry trees around here I’m surprised I never see them here.

    1. I see more Buckeyes than any others on the list. I do see quite a few skippers and various swallowtails, but I’m certainly not good at identifying them by species. I can manage the swallowtails if they stop to rest, but generally I just go with “skipper” and that’s good enough.

      This article has some good information about their life cycle. The caterpillars are green and only an inch long when mature, which may help to explain why they’re not so easily noticed.

  9. Wouldn’t that Common Buckeye make a perfect model for an enameled brooch with cabochon set gemstones? (3x life size would be just right . . .) It would be so gorgeous against a green fabric.

    1. You’re absolutely right. So many plants and insects would transform wonderfully well into jewelry, and the Buckeye is one of them. It might look good against the electric blue in its wings, too. Even though we’re well into December, this one seemed remarkably fresh and undamaged — just beautiful.

  10. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen anything other than monarchs and white cabbage butteflies here, but maybe I’m not looking closely enough. If I may say so, I really like your snout.

    1. Isn’t that snout the cutest thing ever? When I first found its name, I couldn’t help but think of an expression that my dad and his friends commonly used. If someone had imbibed a bit too much, they were said to “have a snootful.” When I looked up ‘snoot,’ I found that it’s a Scottish English variant of ‘snout.’ Don’t you think this fella would make a fine drinking companion?

      1. To envision having a drink with a companion with that profile is to conjure up a scene from a Star Wars backwater saloon. I can all-too-easily imagine it sticking that thing into its drink and inhaling it in a matter of a few seconds.

        1. Ross Perot might have been wrong. That “giant sucking sound” he mentioned might have been nothing more than a few hundred Snouts down at the bar, having a little holiday cheer.

  11. They were just talking on the radio last week, about declining butterfly and insect populations. So it’s particularly welcome to see these photos, which are great shots. I’m glad you did a Snout Out Shout Out for that little anteater guy – – it’s so homely and funny-looking, I like it. And they may call the Buckeye “common” but it’s really handsome, isn’t it.

    1. The Buckeye is one of my favorites — partly because it’s pretty, and partly because it’s one I can identify. It’s not easily confused with other species, that’s for sure. As for the Snout, I found there is a connection between that butterfly and my dad: at least, etymologically. When my dad and his friends talked about someone who’d had a little too much liquor, they often said he had a ‘snootful.’ It turns out that ‘snoot’ is a Scottish English variant of ‘snout’ — can’t you imagine the Snout making its way along its twig with its snoot full?

      1. Ha! I can see it weaving along, trying to follow its nose, with its eyes crossed. As long as it remembers how to flap its wings, if it falls off.
        Snootful is a great term, like someone getting piggish with too much alcohol.

          1. Yes! I always think snobby and snooty are interchangeable. I just looked at Webster’s synonyms, and there’s a lot of fun ones: hoity-toity, high-hat, stuck-up, etc. And a really good British one “toffee-nosed.” But they didn’t list “Putting on airs” and “a bit lah-di-dah, ain’t ya?”

    1. Down here, the seasons aren’t as distinct as they are farther north, and it’s common to see plants and even insects that seem ‘out of season.’ Soon, most butterflies will be gone, but there still are plants for them to feed on, and it’s great fun to come across them.

  12. So nice to see butterflies — even in pictures — at this time of year! I guess it’s still ‘Fall’ there, but ‘Winter’ would be more accurate for here. No, we don’t have snow on the ground, but the low angle of the sun and cooler temperatures makes it feel wintry. I think I’ve seen the Buckeye here, probably feasting on my Sedum.

    1. It’s cool, and heading toward cooler, but these short days and long nights do seem winter-like despite the absence of snow. I think it’s the light as much as anything for us. But just think — tomorrow, the sun begins to rise in the sky again, and it won’t be long until we’re griping about how hot it is, and longing for winter! But first comes Christmas with its joys, and a new year that (with luck) will bring some good things in 2021.

  13. How wonderful to have butterflies to watch in the midst of winter. I’ve never heard of the American Snout before, but it is like a chimera. You are right about the anteater, but my first thought was shrew. Why do you think the Queen butterflies were gathering round the dead Gregg’s mistflower though?

    1. Shrew would be a good choice, as well. I suppose I thought ‘anteater’ because I’ve never seen a shrew (that I know of). We do have a couple of native shrews in this area, but I’m not sure how common they are. As for the Queens, I think this one was resting. There were mistflowers still in bloom only a few inches away, but I wasn’t able to get a decent photo of a butterfly on the flowers. Had it not been for the bloomss, I might not have been able to identify this butterfly’s resting spot.

  14. I really like that Queen butterfly image…the rusts with the dried looking plant say Fall to me. There is a place around here called Butterfly World. Cannot answer why I have yet to visit…what a photo op or butterfly picture practice site it would be! Perhaps 2021 will be the year to give them a visit!!

    A Merry Christmas to you and best wishes for a healthy, happy, ‘normal’, 2021 for us all!!!

    1. There’s a butterfly center at the Houston Natural History Museum that I’ve never visited, either. ‘So close and yet so far’ seems to be true of much in Houston; the traffic and parking are enough to give me pause, even though it’s only thirty or so miles away. Maybe I’m just getting old!

      Maybe we both should do a little ‘flight practice’ next year. Heaven knows it would be more pleasurable than much that we’ve endured this year. Here’s to that more normal year; I hope it begins with Christmas, and that you have a wonderful holiday.

      1. Oh thanks…you too!!

        Cheap soul that I am I may have been daunted by its 40 entry price. But, I know it costs to maintain such a spot. Need to do it though!! Maybe in Spring!

  15. Fantastic shots, Linda. I love the richness of the colors you’ve captured. Butterflies are so often too fast for me to capture well and so close in. Can’t imagine how butterfly tracking is logistically accomplished!

    1. They are beautiful, aren’t they? (Well, maybe the Snout’s not exactly beautiful by human standards, but it no doubt appeals to other Snouts!) I hope your celebrations are as rich and colorful. Merry Christmas to you and Roomie, and to your whole family!

  16. Ha! When I looked at that last one snout immediately came to mind along with a vision of an anteater. Another similar snout might be found on a weevil. I am always jealous of your year ’round flowers and now these flying flower add to the envy. There’s nothing “common” about those buckeyes.

    1. I’m going to have to look through my files and see if I might have a ‘snouty’ weevil photo. I doubt it; I probably would have thought of them if I’d photographed one. I see that there’s an agave snout weevil, so they surely are around. There probably are even more species; I’ll have to watch for them.

      We had an honest to goodness cold front last night. Yesterday it was 80, and then we dropped 40 to 50 degrees. It’s not snow, but it’s a lot more Christmas-like for this former midwesterner than heat and humidity. What the butterflies will think of it is something else.

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