Monday, October 25, 2010

Identfying Butterflies in Montgomery County Texas

Each year, there are a number of butterfly counts sanctioned by the NABA (North American Butterfly Association) in Southeast Texas. This article is provided to help the novice identify common species in Southeast Texas. Identifying butterfly species is fulfilling but not exceptionally difficult.; in one outing, you may see the same species many times. It helps if you have some experience, but as a novice, you can identify species in these counts, even though you actually know little. Believe me, there must be an expert in the group to be able to count them efficiently and accurately, but every person available to assist in the process is appreciated. I know! I went cold turkey out in the field last year and found I could be a big help. I am a member of the local chapter of  BEST, the local  chapter of NABA, which organizes such activities in the Houston area. These counts are normally based only on observation; catching these insects in a net is normally undesirable and unnecessary.  Those who have sharp eyes for subtle differences can see a butterfly at a distance and identify it as a specific species or subspecies. I am simply amazed at how they do it, but there are some rules of the road. Those who know their butterflies very well, know what species to expect in what ecology. So if we are observing these insects in an open field, a species is more likely to be seen than another that might like the shade of forest. Another way is to understand species of host plants and know what butterflies are attracted to which species. So it helps to know what species of plants are normally found in a particular location and conditions.

All photos in this article were taken on this one butterfly count in Montgomery County, Texas, just northwest of The Woodlands. Well-planted butterfly gardens will have abundance of the insects but other natural areas this year were much less abundant than last year. I am noting some late comers though on the open pond close to my home.   

On this particular day, our group would also be catching Monarchs and tagging them. So we set out with nets and a cage to hold them. Our primary mission was to find how many species we could identify and in what abundance at benchmark locations. Our secondary mission was to capture Monarchs, then tag and release them for their subsequent journey to Mexico, where their discovery is recorded.

For all of North America, there were only 50 counts conducted in the Fall of 2009. Several of those were conducted right here by BEST. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in these events. This one was in our backyard, literally. A count covers an area having a diameter of 15 miles. Our area was north of FM 1488 and west of FM 2978.  

I will give you some photos of common butterflies that were identified on this count. First a little background. There are six families of butterflies.
  1. Swallowtails - generally large with distinctive prongs on their wings as "tails", e.g. Black Swallowtail
  2. Brush-footed - generally has two pairs of legs. e.g., Monarch
  3. Whites and Sulfurs - soft distinct colors with colored markings, six legs, often seen "floating in the air". e.g., Orange Sulfur Butterfly
  4. Gossamer-winged Butterflies - medium to small butterflies which tend to shine in the sun and have colorful patterns on their wings. e.g., Gray Hairstreak Butterfly
  5. Metalmark Butterflies - not often if ever seen here. They are a tropical variety and beautifully colored. 
  6. Skippers - quite different from other butterflies, there are many species. They are short and stubby looking and move quickly about when they feed,  "skipping" from flower to flower. e.g.,Fiery Skipper 

Gray Hairstreak
This Gray Hairstreak is abundant and widespread throughout this continent. You are likely to find it in the sun amidst a home garden such as this one.
Gray Hairstreak
 This Gray Hairstreak was spotted in another location , appearing a bit different in different light.
Southern Cloudywing Skipper

  The Southern Cloudywing Skipper uses the same plant for a host as the Gray Hairstreak, Bush Clover.
Fiery Skipper male
The Fiery Skipper was the most common butterfly in all in our counts. Gardens were simply swarming with them. Several varieties of grasses serve as hosts, especially Bermuda.
I have added this because what may appear as a butterfly, can easily turn into being a moth. There is a distinct difference between the two. The wing structure is totally different so they fly differently.
Common Buckeye
The Buckeye is quite common all over the United States. I saw a few of these this trip but in Trinity County, saw many. They love the sun will utilize several types of plants as hosts.

Duskywing Butterfly
This butterfly looks very plain when its wings are folded back but when spread out, it comes alive in brown colors. 
White Stripe Long-tailed Skipper
A readily identifiable skipper that has a tail on its wings similar to the Swallowtails.
White Striped Long-tailed Skipper

Northern Broken Dash

Note the small white marks on the wings. It is best to have a pair of binoculars when  identifying butterflies.  No one could identify this except one person in our group.  We had an expert of the skipper family with us on this outing.
Clouded Skipper
This photo provides better markings of the Clouded Skipper and a view of the wing structure of the skipper family.
Orange Sulfur
 The Orange and Little Sulfurs are similar. One typically sees the Little Sulfur on the ground but the Orange Sulfur stays on the plants. 
Little Sulfur
Cloudless Sulfur

Great Purple Hairstreak
Not so common is the Great Purple Hairstreak, but we found several in one backyard that we visited.
Gulf Fritillary female
This butterfly is often called the Passion Flower Butterfly, because its host is the Passion Vine. There is a native species of the plant, but you will often find another variety sold at nurseries. The native species lays close to the ground. Their leaves are very similar, but their flowers and climbing characteristics are different.
Gulf Fritillary male
One of the amazing features of the Gulf Frit is its underwing. It is elaborate and shiny, resembling a masterpiece creation of the orient, such as with inlaid oyster shell.
Tawny Emperor
Another beautiful creature but less brilliant than some of the others. As you might guess by looking at it, it prefers the woody areas, especially on the edge of the forest where it blends into its habitat quite safely. It feeds more on sap and fruits, rarely on flower nectar. Its host is the Hackberry Tree.
I know; it looks like a Monarch. Well, although related, the Queen is smaller, darker and very beautiful. 
American Snout
One of the woody butterflies.  This one normally blends in with its habitat by perching on tree limbs. I caught this one on a leaf, so that it could be seen clearly. It is a little blurred but you get the idea of this unusual butterfly. They migrate in mass in the fall, similar to the Monarch. Their host plant is the Hackberry tree.
Common Checkered Skipper
    Moderately common here. Prefers sunny warm habitats. Host is Shepherd's Needles among flowering plants.

This may be the one butterfly that almost everyone knows and can readily identify, except they get it mixed up with the Queen and other relatives. The Milkweed plant is its host. There is a fear that this butterfly will be extinct in 30 years due to illegal logging in Mexico and the dwindling habitats north of Mexico. Our reality is that the population will decline but not be quite as threatened as some conservationists believe.
Butterfly Count Team left to right:  Steve Abbey & Z Anglin, Carol & Ken Fraser (Back row), Randy Scott, Pat Lee, Farrar Stockton, Ednelza Henderson, Diane Cabiness, Hugh Wedgeworth, Diane Milano.

Results of the count 
Total species: 52
Total individuals: 842
Pipevine Swallowtail 13 Red-spotted Purple
Polydamas Swallowtail Viceroy 1
Black Swallowtail 1 Goatweed Leafwing 1
Giant Swallowtail 5 Hackberry Emperor 7
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail 4 Tawny Emperor 15
Spicebush Swallowtail 2 Northern Pearly-eye
Palamedes Swallowtail 8 Southern Pearly-eye
Cabbage White Creole Pearly-eye
Checkered White Gemmed Satyr
Great Southern White Carolina Satyr 1
Falcate Orangetip Little Wood-Satyr
Orange Sulphur 3 Monarch 34
Southern Dogface 1 Queen 9
Clouded Sulphur Silver-spotted Skipper
Cloudless Sulphur 70 White-striped Longtail 12
Orange-barred Sulphur Long-tailed Skipper 1
Large Orange Sulphur 1 Southern Cloudywing 1
Little Yellow 18 Northern Cloudywing 3
Sleepy Orange 10 Confused Cloudywing
Dainty Sulphur 3 Glassy-winged Skipper
Great Purple Hairstreak 2 Juvenal's Duskywing
Soapberry Hairstreak Horace's Duskywing 3
Banded Hairstreak Funereal Duskywing 1
Striped Hairstreak Wild Indigo Duskywing
Northern' Oak Hairstreak Common Checkered-Skipper 18
Henry's Elfin Tropical Checkered-Skipper 6
Eastern Pine Elfin Laviana White-Skipper
Olive' Juniper Hairstreak Turk's-cap White-Skipper
White M Hairstreak Swarthy Skipper 1
Gray Hairstreak 16 Julia's Skipper
Red-banded Hairstreak 3 Neamathla Skipper
Dusky-blue Groundstreak Clouded Skipper 37
Ceraunus Blue 3 Least Skipper
Reakirt's Blue Southern Skipperling 2
Eastern Tailed-Blue Fiery Skipper 249
Spring' Spring Azure Whirlabout 5
Summer' Spring Azure 1 Southern Broken-Dash 3
American Snout 2 Northern Broken-Dash 1
Gulf Fritillary 60 Little Glassywing 5
Zebra Heliconian Sachem 4
Variegated Fritillary Yehl Skipper
Silvery Checkerspot Broad-winged Skipper
Texan Crescent Dun Skipper 21
Phaon Crescent 5 Lace-winged Roadside-Skipper
Pearl Crescent 1 Common Roadside-Skipper
Question Mark Celia's Roadside-Skipper
Eastern Comma Eufala Skipper 11
Mourning Cloak Twin-spot Skipper
American Lady 10 Brazilian Skipper
Painted Lady 3 Ocola Skipper 15
Red Admiral
CommonBuckeye  130

Online Resources 
1. Identifying Bugs - I like this site but it needs some more depth
2. B.E.S.T. - Houston Butterfly chapter of NABA 
3. North American Butterfly Association

Related Commentary Articles:
1. Tagging of the Monarch
2. Trinity River National Wildlife Park (2009 butterfly count)

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