When Do We See the Most Butterflies?

by Sue Ann Kendall

In my personal blog earlier this week, I shared photos of a lot of butterflies I’ve been seeing around Milam County. One of our readers, who is also a follower of this blog, expressed surprise that we see so many butterflies in the autumn. She also wondered where the butterflies came from. Were they here all along or are they migrating through? It got me to wondering if this was an atypical year or if there are usually plentiful butterflies in early November. And I thought for sure some of the butterflies (monarchs and snouts) migrated but I figured the rest were born here and stayed on to become food for the birds.

So, I went and looked up whether the butterflies we see here migrate or stay here, and what times of year they are seen most. I got all the information off iNaturalist and Wikipedia, and I have lots of links in this post that you can explore.

Gulf Fritillary

Dione vanilla have been seen to migrate twice a year (in Florida). But they only go from south Florida to north Florida. Here is the chart of their distribution here in Texas (from iNaturalist). You can see they are here year-round but peak around the beginning of autumn, when all those yellow flowers are out.

Gulf fritillary appearances

There have been lots of observations around where I live, so they are pretty common, but beautiful.

Common Buckeye

This one, Junonia coenia, I see a lot but only at some times of the year. It’s also seen year round here but has a spring peak as well as a fall peak. I’m getting the idea that autumn is a big butterfly time here!

Common buckeye appearances

These do migrate, but seem to be here all year, because it isn’t too cold, I guess. Here’s what research says:

Common buckeyes move to the south along with tailwinds directed to the north or northwest after the cold fronts from September or October. They are sensitive to the cold and cannot spend the winter in northern regions that will experience extreme cold temperatures. However, they will migrate back from the south during the spring. It was spotted in California in late summer, early fall of 2022.

The butterfly gardener’s guide. Dole, Claire Hagen. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Botanic Garden. 2003. ISBN 978-1889538587OCLC 52223505.

Pipevine Swallowtail

Battus philenor is not as common this time of year. It’s also more of a forest butterfly than a prairie one, which explains why I saw it at Tarrin’s – lots of wooded areas near her ranch. This one is also more of a warm-season butterfly. I probably saw one of the last adults for this year. I see lots of observations of caterpillars right now on iNaturalist.

They must not migrate, since I didn’t find any information on that. I do want to note that they need the pipevine plant to lay eggs on, and I found a member of that family at my neighbor Sara’s place earlier in the year. Yay!

Observations near me. The top one is our place.

Queen

Danaus gilippus is most definitely a fall flyer. It’s only found in the southern US and is more common in South America. This one, like the monarch, uses milkweed plants as its host. It sure is pretty.

Queen butterfly sightings

Painted Lady

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is another one with two peaks. One thing I’m noticing, though, is that even the ones with a spring peak have a larger one in the autumn. So, that explains something that Louise was asking about: many butterflies seem to be autumnal!

Painted Lady sightings

Painted ladies are the most widespread of all butterflies and are found worldwide. I hadn’t known that! They are resident in places like where I live, but also migrate to northern areas in the summer.

Common Checkered-Skipper

Common Checkered-Skipper (Burnsius communis) is one I can’t get verified, but the ones I see sure look like the ones in the picture. It doesn’t seem to have been studied as much as many of the others, though it’s really pretty with its blue body and lacy pattern on the wings. And yep, it’s another one that is seen mostly in the autumn.

Checkered skimmer sightings

Variegated Fritillary

Euptoieta Claudia is common in this area. They seem to be prevalent all year except in the dead of winter. I think they’re pretty, too.

Variegated fritillary

They use passion vines as their host, which may explain why we see so many here. I have LOTS of passion vines! They also like disturbed areas and open fields, which we have plenty of around here. They produce multiple broods per year, which may explain the prevalence during all the warm months.

This is such a pretty photo

Dainty Sulphur

Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole) is a tiny yellow butterfly, the smallest of the bunch, it turns out. We have lots of sulphurs around here, and they are very busy little fellows, so it’s hard to get photos. This one seems to go away in the hotter months. I do recall seeing them all winter, since we always have something blooming, like chickweed, which is one of its favorites.

Dainty sulphur observations

This one is also white and other colors, so now I know that all those teeny ones I see are the same butterfly. I learned something!

Thank you for holding still

Fiery Skipper

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus) is another small one. They are incredibly numerous around here and are very busy little things. I enjoy watching them skipping around. Well, when I read the article on them, it became clear why I see so many! They love Bermuda grass. Guess what all the pastures around here were planted in? Bermuda grass. The beloved coastal Bermuda has pretty much made life difficult for the native grasses around here, but I guess that makes the fiery skippers happy. It makes them a pest in Hawaii, though. I say, eat away, skippers!

I also learned why the butterflies I see that are identified as fiery skippers look so different. They are sexually dimorphic, with the males much brighter than the females. I’m suddenly becoming a butterfly expert as I write this.

Fiery Skipper Sightings

Gray Hairstreak

I am trying to figure out what butterflies I see earlier in the year. Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) is one I know I see in spring. Even this one peaks in the fall, though. It’s tiny, but holds still enough that I can get photos. Thanks!

Gray hairstreak
It held still

American Snout

These guys, American Snout (Libytheana carinenta), just migrated through here, so I know they are migratory. But they are most often seen in autumn, like all the others so far. Migrations happen after droughts that are followed by heavy rains, which explains the one last week. The Wikipedia article says sometimes there are so many that they darken the sky. Wow. Funny looking, too.

American snouts

Pearl Crescent

Another beauty, Phyciodes tharos is more of a spring and summer butterfly that’s found all over North America. It’s very common in this area.

Pearl crescent

Hackberry Emperor

Asterocampa celtis is one of the summer butterflies around here, probably because of its ties to the hackberry tree (which we have plenty of). I guess it shows up when the trees start blooming.

Hackberry emperor

This is a weird butterfly. It’s rarely seen visiting flowers (I see it on trees, duh). And it doesn’t pollinate the trees:

Species in the genus Asterocampa are regarded as being “cheater” organisms, since these butterflies do not pollinate flowers when they feed from them. This species can more accurately be described as parasitizing their hosts and plant food sources since they extract nutrients without providing any benefits to the host.

Neck, Raymond W. (1983). “SIGNIFICANCE OF VISITS BY HACKBERRY BUTTERFLIES (NYMPHALIDAE: ASTEROCAMPA) TO FLOWERS” (PDF). Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society37 (4): 269–274.

How about that?

It’s on a tree

Eastern Giant Swallowtail

I’ll stop with Papilio cresphontes, since I finally found one that isn’t most common in the autumn. This one is more of a summer butterfly. It’s always great to see one of these gracefully flitting around.

Giant swallowtail

This is the largest butterfly in North America, so I’ve shared with you both the largest and the smallest today! The caterpillars are pests to citrus growers, but they are just beautiful sights as far as I’m concerned.

Monarch

I lied about stopping. I forgot to stick the monarchs (Danaus plexippus) in my original post, figuring everyone already knows all about them, but since I have all kinds of delicious milkweed on my property for them to enjoy, I figure I’d better share their data, too.

Monarch sightings

As you can see, these are butterflies of summer, but you’ll still see a few of them at other times of the year. They are famous for migrating, but not all of them do so, thus the sightings at other times of the year. And did you know these were the first butterflies to have their genome sequenced? Yep. Also, did you know how to tell males from females? Males are larger and have a spot on a vein on each hindwing. I guess mine’s a female, or you can’t see the spot when the wings are folded.

I’m very lucky, because the only time I ever went to the interior of Mexico (it was for work), our hosts drove us the long way to Valle de Bravo, where we were meeting, so that we could drive through the mountains where the monarchs stay in winter. If you go around noon, they drop to the ground to feed, and we got to see hundreds and hundreds of monarchs floating down. We had to drive slowly to keep the butterflies safe, and there were men with flags that said “Mariposas – Despacio” (butterflies – go slowly) at the entrance to the forest. This was in the early 2000s, so there were way more monarchs than there are today.

Conclusions

From what I’ve looked at, it turns out that late summer to early autumn is the best time to see butterflies around here. It also appears that most of the butterflies we see in Milam County don’t migrate far, if at all. I enjoyed learning all this, and I hope you get something out of it, too.

Beautiful Arachnid Mystery

by Sue Ann Kendall

Yesterday morning, it was very foggy at my house. As usual, I stopped to enjoy the droplets of water in the grass and hanging on the chicken wire at the henhouse. On my way back from feeding the chickens, I happened to glance at the steps to the RV that’s parked next to our garage. I was entranced by the jewel-like effect the dew had on the spider webs that are usually just busy trapping flies and other insects.

Arachnid artistry

Yes, spiderwebs have a job to do, but that doesn’t mean one can’t admire their construction and strength. That water had to be heavy, but the webs held up. There was also a light breeze, and I wish I’d thought to take video of the webs as they danced around, still holding on to most of their water droplets.

I didn’t see any evidence of spiders in any of the webs I saw, including ones around the grounds near my house. They were probably avoiding their webs until it dried off a bit.

You can see how dewy it was in the background grass

I figured most of the webs I saw were woven by an orbweaver, judging from their shape. I know that the yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) are mostly gone, so I ruled them out. But I’ve seen a couple of different orbweavers around this fall and I’m not sure which ones they are, because I haven’t gotten any confirmation from iNaturalist reviewers (follow the link to view and confirm or deny my guesses!). Most appear to have been Western spotted orbweavers (Neoscona oaxacensis) or tuft-legged orbweavers (Mangora placida).

The center of this one is rather wonky but does the job.

This morning was still damp, but not as foggy, so the webs were back to being almost invisible, but hey, I spotted a brown lump in one of the webs. I found her! The webs by the RV seem to be made by yet another orb weaving friend, the furrow orbweaver (Larinioides cornutus), which I have seen before in Milam County. The pattern is quite different from the others I’d been seeing this summer, so I’m fairly confident, even though no one has confirmed the observation yet (I just put it up a couple of hours ago).

I was happy to be able to know to whom I owed the debt of gratitude for the spectacle of web adornment I got to enjoy yesterday.

I do think maybe one or two of the webs were made by different spiders, especially the one by the front gate, which was made by an old spidey buddy of mine, who, judging by her coloration, is probably the Spotted Orbweaver (Neoscona crucifera). These webs aren’t quite as neat and tidy as the ones by the RV.

Well, regardless of whether my identifications are right or not, I’ve had fun with the orbweavers in my vicinity, and hope you enjoyed learning a little more about them. Below are some more of my photos of these cool arachnids and their webs.

Developing Observation Skills

by Sue Ann Kendall

I see some pretty cool things on my walks around my ranch. I think part of my poor posture comes from looking down all the time, in case I see something. But that’s a small price to pay. I’ve been doing a lot more aural observation lately, and that’s come in really handy when I’m looking for new species to add to my collection on iNaturalist. I have almost 600 species identified since I started, 62% of my 1600+ observations are research grade. I’m trying to get a good picture of what can be found in this little piece of the Earth.

Yesterday and today I’ve put my listening skills to a test. I can’t take a picture of something if I can’t find it, and sounds often lead me to something interesting. For example, I went to check the mail, which is a third of a mile walk from my house. I often stop to observe in the pond and arroyo I go by. That’s hard right now since the pond is being dug up to make it deeper if it ever rains, and our gate emits an annoying beep that I once accidentally identified as a South American bird via an app. But yesterday I was alarmed to hear what sounded like someone talking in the stream. It sort of sounded like, “Help, help!” So I put down my mail and went searching.

I followed the eerie sounds and got closer to where our “spring” starts. I didn’t want to get my feet wet, so I was careful. At one point it seemed like I was right on top of whatever it was, but I couldn’t see anything, so I stomped my feet. That caused something to move and gave me a focus for my eyes. Finally I saw something.

Is it a water hose?

Now I know why my friend’s orange and black water hose spooks the horses. That Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus) sure looked like a garden hose. I was not inclined to grab it to get a better photo. But what was the sound?

I knew right away that it was a cricket frog, since that’s the kind of frogs I hear all the time from that location (I learned how they sound from one of our Chapter Meetings). I guess it’s now a former cricket frog, thanks to the circle of life. So, my aural observation skills clued me in without even having to see the frog. I was happy to learn from reading about these ribbon snakes that they hang out on the edges of wet areas (check) and primarily eat…of all things…cricket frogs! I also learned that the one we have here at the ranch is the orangestripe subspecies, T. proximus proximus, which is why it didn’t look like the one in the main photo on iNat, which had originally confused me.

Coachwhip

By the way, I am only seeing ribbon snakes and coachwhips lately. I haven’t seen a rattlesnake or a rat snake in a month or two (the hens are glad about that). The coachwhip in this picture climbed into my son’s cabin and was hanging out on the ceiling. Luckily, he’s had pet snakes before, so he just knocked it into a laundry basket and took it outside (then sealed the hole the snake came in).

Back to my observations. Today was the same story. I was putting mail in the box to be picked up, this time. I kept hearing a sharp chirp, and it wasn’t the broken gate. It was coming from the black willow trees on our dam, which no, I’m not cutting down, because they are native and feed lots of things. I looked and looked, trying to home in on where the chirps were coming from. To the bird’s credit, it didn’t stop chirping until it began making tapping sounds. Aha. Now I knew to stop looking in the branches and look at the trunks of the trees instead.

Sure enough, there was a perky little ladder-backed woodpecker (Dryobates scalaris), pecking away and chirping during rests. There are a lot of woodpeckers around here (they like the grapevines to hide in and are especially fond of the telephone pole across the road), but I mostly see larger ones. Neither I nor the bulldozer grinding away behind this bird deterred it one bit from its mission.

I’m glad I keep listening when I go outside. I might have missed both of these interesting observations and new species!

Spoonbills in Milam County

by Sue Ann Kendall

I still get the feeling sometimes that I live in an aviary. I can’t believe how many interesting birds drop by my property and let me observe them. Yesterday was a particularly good day, because in addition to the storks who’ve been visiting for a couple of weeks, I found something different, a roseate spoonbill!

There you go, three storks, one very pink spoonbill, a great blue heron, and a great egret!

It was especially good to see the spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) in person and watch it eating up close through my binoculars, since I had seen some specimens when we went to the Texas A&M Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections last month. Oops, I just realized that I hadn’t written up that event, so darn it! You can go read about it in my personal blog post, So Many Dead Things. Below are the specimens I looked at.

Linda Jo Conn investigates the spoon-shaped bill as Dr. Gary Voelker looks on. Heather Prestridge, who gave us our tour, is holding the specimen.
You can see the variety of shades of pink they have, depending on what they’ve been eating.

The spoonbills are coastal birds, which is why you don’t see too many of them here in the middle of Texas. I’ve seen them one other time, though. According to Wikipedia as reproduced on the iNaturalist site, many were seen outside their usual range in 2021, so perhaps this behavior is continuing this year.

They’d just finished feeding, so I don’t have a good photo of that.

They are fun to watch as they eat, swinging their bills from side to side to catch delicious (and hopefully pink, to keep their feathers pretty) foods. The one I saw was parading alongside three storks on the shore of the tank behind my house, which appears to be a hotbed of small edible items these days.

I wonder if this one got separated from his or her buddies and took up with the storks, which also hang around in small groups. They were getting along just fine and didn’t seem to be bothering my resident shore birds at all.

Here’s some more about their eating habits:

This species feeds in shallow fresh or coastal waters by swinging its bill from side to side as it steadily walks through the water, often in groups. The spoon-shaped bill allows it to sift easily through mud. It feeds on crustaceansaquatic insects, frogs, newts and very small fish ignored by larger waders… Roseate spoonbills must compete for food with snowy egretsgreat egretstricolored herons and American white pelicans.

Roseate Spoonbill, iNaturalist
These guys fly with outstretched necks, like the storks, and unlike herons.

I’m wondering if I’m seeing so many interesting shore birds here lately because other shallow waters have dried up from the drought. I’ve also been enjoying a tricolored heron and a kingfisher. I’ve seen the resident green heron more and more recently, as well.

Keep your eyes open as you drive through Milam County, especially as migration time approaches. You’ll be seeing snow geese, sandhill cranes, ducks, and other interesting birds. Admittedly, you will probably find many of those by also listening. Those geese and cranes make quite a racket as they fly by. Look for the dark wing areas on the geese and listen for the clacking sounds of cranes.

I hope you enjoyed learning about a fascinating visitor. Here are some more of my photos of the spoonbill and friends.

Learning about Vultures at the Chapter Meeting and Beyond

by Sue Ann Kendall

The September Chapter Meeting presentation for El Camino Real Master Naturalist was by Debbi Sorenson, who has been observing vultures on her property for years and decided to do some research on these fascinating scavengers.

Debbi listens to questions and comments during her presentation

We learned how to distinguish our two resident vultures, the turkey vulture and the black vulture from each other. The easiest way is to look at their heads. Turkey vultures have red heads and black vultures have black heads. In flight, turkey vultures have white on their lower wings, while black vultures just have white “fingers” or wing-tips. The turkey vultures are also a little larger.

There you go, heads

Other interesting tidbits I gleaned were that turkey vultures are almost exclusively carrion feeders an find their food through extra-sensitive senses of smell. Black vultures both hunt and eat carrion and use sight to locate their food. They often see the red vultures eating and take over from them. I’ve seen this at my house.

These black vultures at my ranch found a dead snapping turtle that turkey vultures were eating, and took over.

Debbie also shared the ranges of both birds and told us about their breeding behavior, which is to lay two eggs in abandoned buildings or dead trees and raise them there. George Bowman, a visitor to our meeting, shared how he had a baby vulture raised on his front porch this year (which many of us had enjoyed on Facebook). He ended up with a poopy porch, but a successful fledging of the baby.

Debbi shared that their barn is a vulture nesting headquarters for a pair, and that they enjoyed watching one with just stumps for feet (Old Peg) as it grew. Debbi shares her garbage with them and gets lots of observations in return. I also enjoy watching them. They are graceful in the air but are pretty fun on the ground. I love to watch them as they hop, hop, hop around my tank behind the house.

I guess Debbi isn’t alone in enjoying vultures and their behavior. She had lots of questions to answer, and she also explained that our other resident carrion eater, the crested caracara, is not a vulture at all, but is a falcon, also known as the Mexican eagle.

Here’s what you call a group of vultures, depending on what they are doing.

Our meeting concluded with the recognition of two of our members. Congratulations to Alan Rudd and Scott Berger for getting their annual recertification for forty volunteer hours and eight advanced training hours. And Scott received a milestone recognition for 250 hours contributing to the Master Naturalist organization. We appreciate our members!