November 26, 2013

Lots More South Texas Critters

I initially thought I'd write one or two posts about our recent trip to the Rio Grande Valley but it looks like I'm on my third and there is at least one more to come! With 10 days to spend in this area and with so many friendly people out and about looking for wildlife in the same places that we visited, we had plenty of opportunity to photograph all sorts of insects, birds and other creatures. We also had a lot of indentification help from an excellent guide. The staff and volunteers at many of the parks and preserves that we visited were eager to help visitors and to exchange information about what was in the area. 

This summer here in Ohio we started to get interested in identifying dragonflies and damselflies, so we put some effort into it on our Texas trip, hoping to see some that were new to us. We weren't disappointed! Here is a lovely Rainpool Spreadwing damselfly

and a Desert Firetail, which really lights up lakeside vegetation:

This is a Rambur's Forktail, which was one of the more common damselflies at quiet pond edges:

Watching dragonflies can be a real challenge, since they fly so fast and some rarely stop. Patience is sometimes rewarded, though, and here is a look at two gorgeous dragonflies; the Carmine Skimmer is on top and the similar (and more common) Roseate Skimmer is the lower one.

There was no way that we could resist taking lots of photos of this outrageous Mexican Scarlet-tail that Bill spotted at Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park:

Moving up the phylogenetic tree to vertebrates, a few reptiles caught our attention, including this Gulf Coast Ribbon Snake:

At Frontera Audubon Sanctuary we came across this pair of lizards which we were told are Cuban Anoles:

With the mild climate of the valley, it is not unusual for exotic critters to establish large populations. That is the case with the Marine Toad, an amphibian which has been introduced to areas around the world to control pests in agricultural fields. Unfortunately its voracious appetite has lead to declines in native species. This toad was huge--bigger than a softball:

Of course we didn't ignore the birds either, and we saw plenty of cool ones. My two Rio Grande Valley favorites are the Green Jay

and the Great Kiskadee:

The morning chorus of Kiskadees is one of my favorite things about the valley. It just evokes the tropics for me. This link has a recording of its call.

A really exciting highlight of the trip for us was seeing a young bobcat at Estero Llano Grande State Park. Its mother was in the area too but we didn't see her. What a treat it was to be able to photograph this beautiful creature:

Stay tuned for more valley highlights!

November 20, 2013

The Rio Grande Valley--Butterflies and More!

As I explained in my last post, our late October/early November trip to south Texas was mainly aimed at seeing the spectacle of thousands of butterflies of many species in the Rio Grande Valley. As an added bonus we saw lots of other wildlife and enjoyed seeing many people that we have met over the years through birding and other outdoor activities. We even managed to fit in a field trip with the Texas Butterfly Festival

All around the valley various parks and preserves have planted gardens which are expressly designed to attract butterflies. Some of these include Resaca de Palma State Park, Frontera Audubon Sanctuary, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Estero Llano Grande State Park, Edinburgh Wetlands, the National Butterfly Center and Bentsen Rio Grande State Park. It is no secret that these gardens are quite popular (with both people and insects) and that they help to bring valuable tourist dollars into the area, supplementing the revenue from birders who visit the valley in the fall and at other times of year. Many of these sites cooperatively market themselves, giving visitors a wide range of options during their stay in the valley. I described these places in posts here and here, earlier this year.

Some of the most popular plantings in the butterfly gardens include Mistflower or Crucita (Eupatorium odoratum and related species), Lantana (Lantana urticoides), Mexican Olive (Cordia boissieri) and Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus drumondii). Here is a brilliant Blue Metalmark on Lantana:

a Cloudless Sulphur (which occurs in Ohio) on Turk's Cap:

a Southern Dogface on Mistflower (note the little poodle face on this butterfly that gives it its name!):

and American Snouts on Mexican Olive:

Even when not in bloom, the Mexican Olive attracts insects; it must exude some sort of sweet substance on the fruits. The blooms are stunning and are an excellent nectar source.

Snouts were probably the most numerous butterflies that we saw and there were literally millions of these little flyers on flowers, in the forest and in the air. People reported seeing clouds of them migrating along certain stretches of highway while we were there. Its caterpillar food plant is hackberry, and many that we saw showed lots of evidence of caterpillar use. This butterfly has a large range and is not uncommon most years in Ohio. Here is a photo of it opened up, showing its beautiful orange pattern, alongside a plant called Esperanza (Tecoma stans).

No butterfly garden is complete without lots of caterpillar food plants, and most of these gardens were planted with that fact in mind. This has allowed some fairly rare butterflies, which are more common to the south, to breed in the valley. We were fortunate to see a couple of these, along with their caterpillars. Here is the gorgeous Guava Skipper:

and the diminutive and well-named Red-bordered Pixie:

Another butterfly that was quite common, especially for the first few days of our visit, was the Queen, a relative of the Monarch:

Here is a very short video that gives some idea of the scene:

Another interesting feature of many of the butterfly gardens, and particularly those that have woodland areas, is the "bait log". These are segments of small branches, hung from a tree or other support, and slathered with a mixture of beer, brown sugar, and mashed bananas. This brew attracts butterflies that aren't particularly interested in flower nectar but that utilize rotting fruit and/or sap. Most of these are Tawny Emperors:

In addition to butterflies, other critters come to the bait logs;

The big guy on the left is a tarantula wasp and the large beetle on the right is a harlequin flower beetle. Assorted bees, wasps and flies usually also appear, and sometimes crowd, these bait logs.

The gorgeous Mexican Bluewing butterfly is a frequent guest at these logs and is a special feature of these semi-tropical wooded areas near the Rio Grande River:

It was absolutely stunning to see these beautiful insects flying in the dappled shade of the forests. The one in the photo above is a male; here is a female at a bait log--notice that it has more white spots on the forewings:

There were so many gorgeous butterflies that I'd like to show here but this is getting long! Here are just a few (well,maybe more than a few!) more butterfly highlights. This is another woodland butterfly called the Band-celled Sister:

The Common Mestra was indeed common in many places we visited:

Even though it was a bit tattered, this Crimson Patch was still gorgeous:

Wow--this Tailed Orange was such a beautiful pumpkin orange color:

On of the most sought-after butterflies in the valley is the Great Purple Hairstreak, which we were fortunate to see at Estero Llano Grande State Park:

Tiny but exquisite, this Red-crescent Scrub-hairstreak was an exciting find:

An open Tropical Leafwing was a real treat; most are seen closed on bait logs:

I almost forgot one of my favorites, the Ruddy Daggerwing:

Last but certainly not least is the exquisitely beautiful Silver-banded Hairstreak, nectaring on Scorpionweed. This was one of the smallest of the 90+ butterfly species that we saw:

Butterflies weren't the only attraction in the valley on our trip, and my next post will illustrate some non-lepidopteran critters!

November 16, 2013

Back in the Heart of Texas (Well, the southern part, anyway)

Last January Bill and I had a great time exploring several sites in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and along the Gulf Coast. One of the highlights was seeing lots of butterflies that never make it to Ohio. The locals agreed that the butterflies were pretty good while we were there, but that late fall was really the best time to see lots and lots of a wide variety of butterflies in the valley. In fact, the lower Rio Grande Valley in the fall is probably the best place and time to see butterflies in the entire United States. That definitely made me determined to plan a trip for late October, so off we went and it more than lived up to my expectations!

Just imagine looking up into the sky and seeing literally thousands of butterflies, dancing along, trying to get to who knows where. The beauty of individual butterflies was amazing, but the sheer numbers made the experience astounding. I hardly know where to begin to describe what we saw, so I’ll try to hit the highlights.

We flew into Corpus Christi, and had a couple of days along the south Texas coast before getting into the Rio Grande Valley. We headed up to Rockport and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which is a prime wintering site for North America’s small population of Whooping Cranes. We were a bit early in the season to see the cranes, but there were a lot of other things to see, including these beautiful butterflies:

and this amazing Live Oak tree which is probably over 1000 years old:

As we left Rockport, we were treated to a beautiful sunrise

and some excellent birding--here are just a few examples of what we saw as we headed toward the Rio Grande Valley:

We picnicked along the Nueces River, which played a major role in the Mexican-American War. The Republic of Texas claimed the Rio Grande as its southern border, while Mexico regarded the more northerly Nueces River as the southern border of Texas:

Our next main stop was at Sabal Palm Sanctuary near Brownsville. Its forested trails and excellent butterfly garden yielded plenty of highlights. This well-camouflaged creature is a Texas Spiny Lizard:

And speaking of camouflage, check out this Carolina Mantis:

The trails here feature the name-sake Sabal Palms and many other semi-tropical trees such as Texas Ebony and Prickly Ash:

This dense vegetation supports a wonderful range of moth caterpillars, including these three and many, many others:

The two silkmoth cats are huge--as big around as a finger (and not a pinky!). Check the links here and here to see the magnificent adults.

We saw many Tawny Emperor butterflies in the forested area; its caterpillar feeds on a common species of hackberry. In fact, this was one of the most common butterflies of the trip:

Butterflies both large and small were attracted to the plantings in the garden. This is a Large Orange Sulphur, which is nectaring on Crucita or Mistflower (Eupatorium odoratum) which is probably the main plant in most south Texas butterfly gardens:

Some of the other butterflies in the garden included the Rounded Metalmark (note the metallic dots along the wings):

the Red-bordered Metalmark:

and this beautiful, fresh Mimosa Skipper:

That is probably enough for one post, but here is a tantalizing preview of coming attractions:

This is the fabulous Mexican Bluewing, which has become a symbol of the rich butterfly diversity in south Texas. I will follow up with some more of the 90+ species of butterflies that we saw on the trip along with many other highlights!