BROWNSVILLE — An abundance of spring butterflies illustrates how wildlife habitat in Cameron County is rebounding since last summer’s devastating heat and drought, experts and enthusiasts said Friday.
The area’s lush landscape appears to be due to a mild winter and regular rainfall in the area since January—including storms in March and this month.
“The habitat is in relatively good shape because of the unusual rains we’ve had, and it all comes down to habitat,” said Stephen J. Benn, project leader for the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area in the wildlife division of Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. “I was looking at a granjeño yesterday that was just loaded with fruit, and that’s a very good sign.”
Across Texas, butterfly spotters have reported higher populations of red admirals and checkered-white sulphurs this spring as wildflowers thrive. In southern Cameron County, the checkered-whites remain in high numbers, though the red admiral mostly have moved north from Brownsville in the past few weeks, according to Sherry Wilson, a volunteer at Resaca de la Palma State Park in Brownsville and who guides butterfly and nature tours.
Elsewhere in the Valley, red admirals continue to be seen.
At the Brownsville refuge, Wilson has noted the recovery of trees, shrubs and flowers that host caterpillars and provide nectar for butterflies. On Friday afternoon in the butterfly garden near the refuge’s visitor’s center, several other species — including checkered-whites, phaeon crescents and yellow sulphurs — drank nectar from mistflower and daisies.
The Rio Grande Valley is the only place in the United States to see the Mexican blue-winged butterfly, outside of extremely rare sightings along the border toward El Paso. And on Friday, dozens of them fluttered across shaded trails, lighting upon tree branches.
“I noticed, particularly, along this trail that all the plants here were seriously stressed by the drought,” Wilson said. “Then in January, we got some rain, and everything perked up.”
Another spring visitor at the refuge has been the band-celled sister. Elsewhere in the Valley, spotters have seen guava skippers, red-bordered pixies, bordered patches and several others.
Norman Winter, the executive director of the National Butterfly Center in Mission, said he’s noticed a drastic change in the habitat since 2011, when the plants had been hit by a freeze in February and then a drought in the summer.
“When I came out here (in 2011) to apply for my job, there wasn’t a blade of green anything. There wasn’t any green. There wasn’t any butterflies. There wasn’t anything,” Winter said. “It was tough last summer, and I didn’t even realize how bad it was until I saw how good this spring has been.
“There’s so many more butterflies now.”
Butterfly abundance is tied strongly to rainfall patterns, according to “An Introduction to Butterfly Watching” booklet published by TPWD. “Spring and fall are the seasons of greatest abundance in Texas,” the primer states. “Most plants are in peak condition at these times. Fresh leaves are preferred conditions for caterpillar development.”
More rains would be welcome, of course, but so far the recent storms have made an impact, Winter said.
“The butterfly year is really shaping up to be a good one,” Winter said. “I think we’ll really have a lot of butterflies.”
Within city limits, success in spotting butterflies depends on the availability of nectar and host plants. For example, the herb garden outside Lola’s Bakeshop on Palm Boulevard produced sightings last week of brown longtails and white peacocks.
“White peacock butterflies can range farther north out of the Valley, but really here and in Florida is the best place to see one,” Wilson said. “Brownsville and the Valley is an excellent place to see them, and it would be incredibly rare in other places.”
The Valley has a variety of long-tailed butterflies.
“Your brown longtail is another Valley specialty,” Wilson said. “The chioides longtail is another specialty, and it’s like the brown longtail, but the undersides of the wings have some white markings on them.”
The TPWD butterfly primer recommends establishing butterfly gardens near pristine, undeveloped areas with natural habitat. “The garden, rich in nectar, will attract the adults while the undisturbed habitat serves as an excellent source of caterpillar food plants,” it explains.
Passion vines attract various fritillary butterfly species, and mistflower, crucita and milkweed lure in queens, soldiers and monarchs.
Groundcovers like silky-leaf and Texas frogfruits appeal to Texan and phaon crescents, among other small butterflies.
The North American Butterfly Association recommends gardens with at least three types of nectar plants, three types of caterpillar host plants and even butterfly feeders, such as a log or board coated with a rotting fruit mixture.
For a beginner’s education in butterfly species, the Gladys Porter Zoo also has a butterfly garden with live native specimens inside a netted tent. There, visitors can observe Mexican blue-winged butterflies, malachites, julias and others.
Summer will bring the return of scorching temperatures, and further rainfall would benefit the region.
“I think things are looking good. We’ve had rains, and we have more on the way,” Stephen Benn with TPWD said before the arrival Friday’s thunderstorms.