A Different Form of Cloudlessness

With Tropical Storm Nicholas wandering off to the northeast, rain turned to drizzle and the wind began to lay, but no more than a tiny patch of blue decorated our afternoon sky. Two hundred miles to the west, lovely blue after-storm skies were beginning to appear, but, in southeast Texas, clouds were the order of the day.

On the other hand, I had a different sort of cloudlessness to enjoy, having discovered this Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) near the beach on Sunday. I almost always see this butterfly in flight, but this one had chosen to pause and sip nectar from a deeply shaded Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), said to be one of its favorite flowers.

As autumn approaches, I sometimes see dozens of these butterflies in a single afternoon as they migrate back into the area. One of our most common butterflies, their colors range from an eye-catching lemon yellow to a darker yellow or white; in this instance, I suspect the wings may appear a bit green because of the foliage surrounding the insect.

They do make a nice substitute for an uncloudy day.

 

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Gathering and Going

So far off the road I never would have seen them, a group of twenty Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) caught the eye of the friend who’d accompanied me to the Brazoria Refuge last Sunday. “Cranes!” she exclaimed. “Turn around!” And so I did.

Too distant for clear images, and made somewhat dull by dim, foggy light, two of the birds’ primary field marks — their red crowns and the funny, feather-duster-like tail feathers called bustles — still were visible. If you enlarge the image, even their colorful eyes can be detected.

The cranes are winter visitors to Texas, arriving in October or November and generally departing by February or early March. Gregarious by nature, they can be found feeding in fields, pastures, and coastal marshes. Flock size varies from place to place; this group of twenty is typical of what I’ve seen in our area.

I didn’t expect to see cranes in flight, and wasn’t prepared for the suddenness of their departure. Still, one primary difference between Sandhill Cranes and Great Blue Herons became obvious as they rose above the trees: cranes fly with outstretched necks and legs, while the Great Blue Heron curls its head back and rests it on its body while in flight. As the group gathered more tightly in the sky, I was able to include all twenty birds in a photo.


Another difference helps to distinguish airborne herons and cranes. The Great Blue Heron’s wing beats are slow, and the bird rarely brings its wings above parallel. Sandhill Cranes, on the other hand, are given to sharp, snappy wing movements, and often raise their wings above their bodies.

I hear Sandhill Cranes far more often than I see them. Their calls in flight are  instantly recognizable, and unforgettable. I was lucky on this day not only to see the birds but to hear them as well, as they prepared to join others of their kind in their great migration.


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Clicking on any image will provide more detail.

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.

 

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