Butterfly Identification

To indulge in butterfly identification is great fun!

Published Oct 10th 1999 in Wildlife

There is nothing more spectacular than the morning flight of roosting Monarch Butterflies. During the first two weeks of October, Monarchs pass through the southern part of the Llano Estacado. In the draws, isolated forests of Hackberry and Soapberry harbor a concentration of Monarchs not usually seen in the urban forests of Midland and other towns. Hundreds of thousands of Monarchs cover every tree in a one-night stand of illusory fall “foliage.”

In l997, steady south winds stalled the Monarchs in our area for two weeks. Night after night, hundreds of monarchs clustered in the trees at the Sibley pond. Arching lower branches were lined with Monarchs packed in military formation. During the day, each patch of wildflowers featured a dozen of the big butterflies. The butterflies seemed to get drunk at the lantana and verbena near the building, hanging on in blissful oblivion even as visiting school children reached out and gently stroked their bodies.

Every year thousands of Monarchs are tagged with tiny numbered “sticky notes.” Schoolchildren and amateur lepidopterists across the country participate in this nation-wide project. If you find a tagged butterfly, report the number online to the Monarch Project’s website. This study helps researchers figure out what happens in migration. How do weather systems affect the migration? How fast does migration cross the United States en route to the wintering grounds in the mountains of Mexico?

Butterfly watching has become a growth industry. Tour operators offer visits to the Monarch wintering grounds, as well as tours to places filled with many species of butterflies. Most butterfly watchers are not collectors, preferring to keep a life checklist in the manner of birdwatchers, as well as daily lists around their homes. Around the 4th of July, over 300 groups across the U.S. conduct Butterfly Counts, counting butterflies from sun-up to sundown. The data collected during these events helps monitor how populations of more uncommon species are faring. Have you ever watched butterflies?

Butterflies are light, airy, ephemeral, magical – fairy-like. When twenty or fifty swirl and dance above a group of flowers it seems the flowers have taken flight. When one lands on an outstretched finger it is an unexpected and wonderful blessing. In the presence of butterflies, a person’s senses blossom – suddenly the scent of flowers seems sweeter, and the colors of both butterfly and bloom seem brighter.

JoAnn and Don Merritt have contributed the most to promote butterfly appreciation in Midland, giving dozens of programs to schools, clubs, and other groups, before recently retiring from the endeavor. Don’s photographs and JoAnn’s bubbly, infectious love of the subject have inspired dozens of people to begin gardening to attract butterflies. JoAnn’s garden, shaped like a butterfly, was the first garden in the county devoted to insect attraction. When the Merritts first sponsored a July 4th butterfly count thirteen years ago, only four other people joined them. In 1999, over 20 people participated.

Linda and B.G. Johnson’s garden is well known to local horticulturists and local butterfly watchers alike. Unusual plants adorn such garden ornamentation as a lion’s cage and a satellite dish used as a gazebo roof. The garden has attracted over 35 species of butterflies at one time –uncommon diversity for one locale. Long-tailed Skippers were discovered at their garden this August (a first record for Midland County), and two weeks later their larvae and chrysalis appeared!

People such as these two couples are wonderful for all that they add to life on the Llano Estacado. We are enriched by their enthusiasm, and inspired by their activities. They celebrate nature’s glories in a joyous way and are most deserving of public recognition.

The example set by the Merritts and Johnsons leads others to observe more closely. For example, have you ever seen the Giant Swallowtail larvae? It looks like a large bird dropping. If disturbed, however, a pair of large red "horns" pops out of its head, releasing a foul smell. The larvae will twist and turn, trying to rub the smell on its annoyer. Rue, a rarely grown medicinal herb, and Hoptree, a native shrub from the Stockton Plateau south of Midland, are the host plants for the Giant Swallowtail caterpillar.

Pipevine Swallowtails visit Midland all summer. Their host plant is the pipevine, but none grow within a hundred miles. Drifting on the winds, they arrive to nectar on lantana, verbena, and many other plants. A blue iridescence on their hindwings glitters in the sun as they dance from blossom to blossom. Pipevine Swallowtails spend much of their time in shade, so the iridescence is a surprise as they dart into the sun.

This summer seemed was a season to celebrate Swallowtail butterflies. Two-tailed Tiger Swallowtails and Black Swallowtails joined the above mentioned species. All are large showy butterflies. Males of the different species will defend a favored area, chasing away other males. Butterfly fights are often circular dogfights, spiraling higher and higher, up over trees, disappearing from view, but the winner returns alone to feed in victorious glee.

Butterflies do not like cloudy or windy days. Hiding in trees and shrubs, they await better times. A few species seem to like the shade. Question Marks fold their wings, looking like dried leaves. Wood Nymphs perch on interior branches of trees. In the fall, hundreds of Red Admirals and Painted Ladies find sap. Willow sap seems to be their favorite.

Other sources of nutrients for butterflies may seem strange. Rotting fruit on the ground attract many individuals. Animal urine attracts “blues” and “yellows” of a dozen species. Around stocktanks and feed troughs such “puddle clubs” are common. Many species will come to wet soil to extract the moisture. Become a butterfly watcher! It is guaranteed to lift your spirits and make your heart dance!