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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Stars on the Prairie, Stars in the Hills

It didn’t twinkle, but this delightful blue star caught my eye nonetheless. I’d seen the flower in the past, and recognized it as Amsonia tabernaemontana, a member of the Apocynaceae, or dogbane family.

The plant’s genus name honors 18th century Virginia physician Dr. Charles Amson, while its interesting specific epithet (tabernaemontana) recalls Jakob Theodor von Bergzabern (1525-1590), who Latinized his name as Tabernaemontanus, or ‘mountain tavern.’  Also a physician, botanist, and herbalist, Tabernaemontanus has been considered the father of German botany.

The native range of the blue star which bears his name lies well beyond Texas; it can be found as far north as Illinois, and as far east as North and South Carolina. Looking beyond my single star, I found plants bearing its extraordinary multi-colored buds, as well as a few scattered plants covered in blooms.

As I was admiring the flowers, an older man stopped his truck on the road and called to me. “You think those flowers are pretty? Go on down the road a couple of miles to where they’ve burned the prairie, and you’ll see hundreds of them.”

He wasn’t wrong. In the past, I’d witnessed the emergence of thousands of spider lilies after a prescribed burn, but I wasn’t prepared for acres of blue stars, on both sides of the road.

In places, the contrast between the scorched land and the resurgent flowers was breathtaking.

Blue star nectar attracts ruby-throated hummingbirds, carpenter bees, and hummingbird moths, but on that day it was the least skippers (Ancyloxypha numitor) that fluttered by the dozens through the flowers.

The blue stars I found on the coastal prairie aren’t the only Amsonia species in Texas. Amsonia ciliata, sometimes known as fringed bluestar, thrives in dry, open woods or chalky hills; these were photographed between Medina and Vanderpool along Farm-to-Market road 337. The distinctively narrow leaves, as well as slightly shorter and more rounded petals, make identifying the species relatively easy.

Like Amsonia tabernaemontana, the fringed bluestar seems to draw clouds of butterflies. Here, a Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) spreads its long, narrow wings over one of our prettiest Texas wildflowers: the perfect way to spend a spring afternoon.

 

Comments always are welcome.