Alamo, Texas, a Great Base for South Texas Sojourn of Bugs, Butterflies and Birds

For a fun outdoor getaway filled with butterflies and birds, look no further than Alamo, Texas. No, not The Alamo.  Alamo, Texas.

Empress Louisa butterflies at the Alamo B & B Inn

Empress Louisa butterflies at the Alamo B & B Inn

The small town in Hidalgo County may seem like an unworthy stop on the drive to South Padre Island with its strip malls and fast food joints dotting the highway.   But the former headquarters of the Alamo Sugar and Land Company sits in the center of the Rio Grande Valley and makes a perfect base for exploring the bird and butterfly hotspots of South Texas.

A Fourth of July trip took Bob and me to the National Butterfly Center, the Global Birding Center and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in a 48-hour off-season nature sojourn that made us want to rebook in the “high season” of October or March.

We stayed at the Alamo Inn B & B, a historic naturalists’ retreat just five miles from the fabulous Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge.  Our new friend Ro Wauer, butterfly guidebook author extraordinaire, who we met at the Wings Over the Hills Festival in Fredericksburg this spring, recommended it highly.  And despite the historic part of the hotel being closed for the off-season, Proprietor Keith Hackland made us feel welcome with his profound hospitality, charming South African accent, and dog friendly accommodations in adjacent studio apartments (Cost:  $78 per night).  Our dog Cocoa made friends with Hackland’s sweet pooch Henry, and roamed a huge, fenced yard.

Hackland offered hefty 20-page handouts of bird species we were likely to see upon check-in, retrieved from his well-stocked outdoor store which was also closed for the off-season.  Alas, we’re not serious birders and I’m a novice (but extremely enthusiastic) lepidopterist, more interested in the whole life cycles of plants, creatures and ecosystems than checking species off a life-list.  Yet the pages and pages of species had me intrigued:  were there really 500 species of birds and at least 200 different butterflies cruising the area around our hotel?  Apparently so.

Termite hatch left bug detritus everywhere

Termite hatch left bug detritus everywhere

We arrived Sunday afternoon and planned a late morning visit to the National Butterfly Center.   (One of the best things about chasing butterflies is that they don’t get up early.) As we sat on our front porch Sunday evening and watched buff-bellied hummingbirds nectar on Turk’s Cap, a thunderstorm blew in, dropping a quarter-inch of rain on the Alamo Inn’s garden.

Ten minutes later, a torrent of flying creatures filled the air–a massive hatch like we had never witnessed.  I thought at first they were Mayflies, but Hackland nabbed one with one hand and provided a positive I.D.: termites. “This happens pretty regularly after it’s been dry,” he said.

Empress Louisa butterflies at the National Butterfly Center

Empress Louisa butterflies at the National Butterfly Center

The next day, Empress Louisa, Asterocampa louisa, butterflies filled the air at the National Butterfly Center.  They fluttered along the pathways, nectared on lantana, and rested on miniature log roosts assembled by the Center.    This video provides a great overview.

The 100-acre park, opened in 2004, is a project of the North American Butterfly Association, which planted hundreds of host plants to draw butterflies from all corners of the Valley and northern Mexico.  More than 200 species have been identified along the Center’s trails.

Lake Flato's World Birding Center Headquarters in Mission, Texas

World Birding Center Headquarters in Mission, Texas, photo courtesy Lake|Flato Architects

Ambling the park-like grounds last week, we saw Queens, Sulphers, Whites, Swallowtails, Zebra Longwings, unusual hairstreaks and brush foots.  We had the place to ourselves, and enjoyed the solitude in spite of a muggy heat.  Tip:  be sure to bring your own snacks and drinks as the Butterfly Center offers no refreshments.  According to office manager Flora Vela, the Center had contracted with a restaurant to open a cafe on the premises earlier in  its history, but the deal fell through.

At the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley

At the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley

Next stop: the World Birding Center ecotourism headquarters, built by San Antonio’s  AIA Firm of the Year, Lake|Flato Architects.  The award-winning building anchors nine birding destinations that dot the Valley and draw thousands of ecotourists each winter.  Unfortunately our trip here was cut short by another downpour.  A lovely Black Witch Moth kept us company under the eaves of the magnificent galvanized metal quonset-hut style patio. As a drumbeat of raindrops pounded on the tin roof, we were able to observe the rainwater collection system in action.  It felt like the tropics.

Canopy Walk, feels like the jungle at Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge

Bob Rivard on the Canopy Walk at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

At the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, some of the wetlands were dry, but those back-to-back thunderstorms created a steamy, fertile backdrop for a hike.  We hoped to spot the Valley’s signature Green Jay, and helpful attendants at the front desk offered to spread birdseed in the feeding area to increase our chances.

No luck, but Kiskadees, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, and other flying creatures kept our walk interesting and the screaming cicada chorus and tropical bird sounds provided an apt soundtrack as we traversed the Canopy Walk and climbed the Tree Tower.

An off-season visit has the advantage of  no crowds, but we’re already planning our high season return.

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American Snout Butterflies Inundate South Texas–enroute to San Antonio, Austin?

Butterfly listservs were all aflutter this week with news of butterflies inundating South Texas.  The American Snout butterflyLibytheana carinenta, arrived en masse in Brownsville and McAllen this week, firing up Facebook, Twitter and email lists with tales of snout butterfly overload.  “American snout butterflies swarm into the Valley,” reported the Brownsville Herald this morning.

American Snout Butterfly, photo via wikipedia

American Snout Butterfly, photo via wikipedia

“Clouds of those butterflies,” Carina A. Wyant Brunson posted on Facebook from McAllen, Texas.  “It’s hard to walk without bumping into one.”

Dalia R. Salinas of Brownsville relayed that she was sitting outside with her granddaughter “when all of a sudden a swarm of butterflies flew right in front of us. It was amazing, and to see my granddaughter’s face light with amazement was so delightful.”

We had an American snout outbreak in San Antonio in the summer of 2006. The migrating masses clogged car grills, gummed up windshields, and massed on local asters, dogwood, goldenrod and anything else bearing nectar.  There’s a good chance they’re coming our way again soon.

The mottled grey insects disguise themselves as dead leaves when their wings are closed.  In an open-winged pose, they flaunt orange, black and white accents.   They lay their eggs on hackberry trees, a drought-tolerant native considered a trash shrub by some.   But the hackberry is actually a fantastic wildlife plant.  Its leaves provide food for

Hackberry tree

Hackberry, beloved by the American Snout butterfly, photo via Texas A&M

Snout caterpillars and its berries offer important winter sustenance for birds.  The large numbers of migrating Snout butterflies can completely defoliate a hackberry tree, but  “It’s nothing to worry about,” said Michael Nentwich, Forester for the City of San Antonio.   “The trees will recover.  These are seasonal things that happen.”

This year’s weather pattern has lent itself to a butterfly boom, as we’ve written before.   And with temperatures rising earlier in the year, it makes sense the Snouts are arriving in June, rather than August, as they did last time.

In the annals of American Snout butterfly migrations, 1921 ranks as a most remarkable year.

I brake for butterflies via zazzle.com

After a world record downpour in Central Texas on September 9-10, 1921, when 36.4 inches of rain fell in an 18-hour period, a Snout butterfly breakout resulted a few weeks later.   “An estimated 25 million per minute southeasterly-bound snout butterflies passed over a 250 mile front from San Marcos to the Rio Grande River,” according to Austin entomologist Mike Quinn’s website Texas Entomology, a trusted and entertaining  source for Texas insect news and info.  Scientists noted at the time that the butterflies’ flight “lasted 18 days and may have involved more that 6 billion butterflies.”

Wow.  So no complaining if a few of the migrating insects get hung up in your car grill.  And remember to brake for the butterflies.

Tales of a Butterfly Evangelist Shared at Pecha Kucha Night San Antonio

When Vicki Yuan invited me to present on butterflies to the San Antonio chapter of the American Architecture Foundation’s periodic Pecha Kucha Night event, I had no idea what a challenge it would be to frame the amazing story of the Monarch butterfly migration into 20 20-second slides.

That’s right.  Twenty slides, each timed exactly to 20 seconds.  That’s the strict format for Pecha Kucha, a program launched in Tokyo in 2003 for sharing people’s passions by two British architects.    Pecha Kucha means “chit chat” in Japanese.

There’s so much to tell when you’re talking butterflies.  Those who know me can attest to my tendencies to natter on about their charms.  Convey a multi-generation, 3,000-mile migration made by creatures that weigh less than a gram and find their way “home” to a place they’ve never been–all in six minutes, 40 seconds?

If Monarch butterflies can complete such a journey, I should be able to share their story–and my own evolution as a butterfly evangelist–in under seven minutes.  It was a great exercise in expository discipline.  I hope you enjoy it.

For more on Pecha Kucha Night San Antonio, see the Rivard Report’s coverage of the event.

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“Common” Painted Lady Butterflies Providing Not-so-Common Insights on the Development of Tiny Flying Robots

The Painted Lady butterfly, Vanessa cardui, claims the title as most common butterfly in North America–and inhabits almost every corner of the globe.  The multi-colored flutterers brag five white spots on each black-and-orange forewing and have been tapped

Painted Lady Butterfly

The Painted Lady Butterfly is being studied to develop micro aerial vehicles, MAVs.

for elementary school science classes for years since they are readily available and can complete their life cycle on an artificial diet.  In the wild, Painted Ladies host on thistle and a variety of common weeds.

But now this common butterfly is helping scientists figure out the intricacies of micro aerial maneuvering in a study at John Hopkins University that will hopefully lead to refinements in a new class of tiny flying machines:  micro aerial vehicles,  or MAVS.

Painted Lady butterflies tapped to develop MAVs

Painted Lady butterflies tapped to develop MAVs: CLICK to view the video.

A team of researchers at the Maryland campus has received funding from the U.S. government to study flight in butterflies with the intent to develop tiny flying robots that can be used for intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, and search-and-rescue missions.

Butterfly inspired flapping wing MAV "micro aerial vehicle"

Butterfly inspired flapping wing MAV "micro aerial vehicle" --photo courtesy Harvard University

“We look to nature for inspiration,” said Tiras Lin, an undergraduate mechanical engineering student at John Hopkins who is working on the study.  “What can we learn from the flight…of a butterfly?”

A lot, apparently.

Lin and his team used three high speed 3-D cameras to closely observe tthe Painted Lady’s amazing agility and maneuverability.  Click on the second photo in this post to see the video and some of the fascinating footage.

He compared the creature’s aerial maneuvers to those of an ice skater, suggesting that like a spinning skater, they “alter their moment of inertia” depending on whether they want to speed up or slow down.

Rajat Mittal, a professor of mechanical engineering at John Hopkins and who is overseeing the study, pointed out that mechanical engineers typically are well-suited and successful at designing large things like aircraft or ships” but when it comes to designing small things we are fairly deficient.”

The Painted Lady is providing insight and inspiration, making her not so common after all.

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Banner Butterfly Year Caused by “Ecological Release” in Texas, says Monarch Watch Founder Dr. Chip Taylor

Texas has been called the “most important state” to the Monarch butterfly migration by Monarch Watch founder Chip Taylor.   Now our Lone Star State is getting attention for spawning an “ecological release” that has resulted in a butterfly “season like no other,”  Taylor told the Hornell Evening Tribune in New York.

Banner year for butterflies, thank you, Texas!

Banner year for butterflies. Thank you, Texas!

“This year continues to amaze,” Dr. Taylor wrote to the DPLEX email list, well-read by hundreds of academics, enthusiasts and others who follow the Monarch butterfly migration.   Taylor detailed ample and early sightings of Monarchs, Sulphurs, Red Admirals, Buckeyes and other species to the Midwest.   Watch the video above for examples.

Taylor and others attribute the 2012 banner butterfly year to a perfect storm of circumstances in Texas, including:

  •  An historic drought which killed butterfly and caterpillar predators, notably fire ants, followed by
  • Generous, well-timed rains, a mild winter that caused host and nectar plants to flourish, and caterpillars and butterflies to thrive.

Eventually, host plant and nectar populations will drop back to normal, as will this year’s butterfly explosion.

In the meantime, enjoy the show.

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Want to Meet the Beetles? Better Hurry, Removal of Milkweed Beetles from San Antonio River’s Milkweed Patch Imminent

An invasion of red-and-black milkweed beetles have made a temporary eyesore of the San Antonio River’s celebrated Milkweed Patch on the Museum Reach.  The striking insects, whose colorful torsos suggest the patterns of a tiki mask, have moved into the 1200-square foot Tropical milkweed garden on the banks of the San Antonio River just south of the Pearl Brewery  in a classic play of nature’s cycles.

Milkweed Beetles have taken over the Milkweed Patch

Milkweed Beetles have taken over the Milkweed Patch

The beetles, which look like ladybugs on steroids, don’t bite, sting or carry diseases. They do, however, defoliate milkweed plants, and have left the highly trafficked stretch of the River with some unattractive bald spots.

Migrating Monarch butterflies moved through town earlier this spring, laying the first generation of eggs in their annual migration at the Milkweed Patch.  The resulting acrobatic caterpillars occupied the Patch, feasting on milkweed leaves, the Monarch butterfly host plant.  Late straggling Monarchs continue to mingle with our local colony but the pervasive milkweed beetle, Labidomera clivicollis, dominates.

Milkweed Patch going bald thanks to milkweed beetles

Milkweed Patch going bald thanks to milkweed beetles

Volunteers for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist program based at the University of Minnesota and which aims to better understand the Monarch life cycle and migration, have noticed fewer Monarch caterpillars and chrysalises during their weekly observations as beetles consume the milkweed leaves.

Discussions ensued about possibly pruning the milkweeds, which typically die back in winters when a hard freeze occurs.   That didn’t happen this year.  But San Antonio River Authority staff determined a better approach would be to hand-remove the beetles, THEN prune the plants.

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

“We believe this to be a holistic management approach with minimal negative impact to the environment that is consistent with our commitment to the local community for the project, ” said Steven Schauer, Manager of External Communications at the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which oversees maintenance of the area.   The Museum Reach stretch of the San Antonio River was designed as a manicured, urban park setting, unlike the Mission Reach section, which is managed as a native riparian restoration.

SARA deserves praise for working with MLMP  volunteers and resisting the use of pesticides to address the problem.   A round of pesticides would quickly rid the area of

Gulf Fritillary

Gulf Fritillary, photo courtesy NABA.org

beetles (and other plant pests) and would also jeopardize the Monarchs’ and other butterflies’ continued colonization of the River.  Just north of the Milkweed Patch is a huge Passionflower planting, where Gulf Fritillary butterflies have made their home and are breeding.

If you’d like to “meet the beetles,”  better do so in the next few days.  The critters will be less visible once the hand removal is accomplished.

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Wings Over the Hills Nature Festival in Fredericksburg to Celebrate Butterflies, Bats and Birds this Weekend

Fredericksburg’s Wings Over the Hills Nature Festival takes place this weekend and brings a welcome respite from San Antonio’s 10-days of Fiesta.  Just a one-hour, wildflower-loaded drive from San Antonio or Austin, the event celebrates the unique winged wildlife of the Texas Hill Country.

The festival provides 72 hours of nature-oriented education and entertainment.   Guided nature walks, butterfly, birding and bat presentations, a raptor display, and a Star Party on Saturday night at a remote ranch that brags a 360-degree skyscape unsullied by light pollution, fill the three-day schedule.

I can’t wait.   Even though I’ll be presenting two talks on Monarch butterflies, I plan to grab a seat at award-winning nature photographer Rolf Nussbaumer‘s nature

Monarch buttefly on hummingbird feeder

I'll be talking about Monarch butterflies at the Wings Over the Hills Festival this weekend.

photography class, Ro Wauer‘s overview of Hill Country butterflies, Diane Oegard’s talk on bats, and James Laswell‘s presentation on dragonflies.  Early Saturday and Sunday mornings, birding, butterflying and dragonfly “chases” take place, guided tours held at Ladybird Johnson Park and other outdoor venues.

On Friday at 6 PM,  Master Falconer John Karger of Last Chance Forever, Birds of Prey will do his raptor show at the Fredericksburg High School Auditorium.   Karger helped me celebrate my birthday a couple of years ago by releasing two Coopers Hawks at our

John Karger, Last Chance Forever

John Karger, Last Chance Forever

place on the Llano River.   The raptors had tangled with an electrical line and were injured, unable to fly until Karger’s organization nursed them back to health.  I’ll never forget them perching momentarily on my leather-gloved forearm before they took flight.  Now whenever I see Coopers Hawks soaring over our stretch of the river, I assume they are my birthday raptors.

Karger’s work is laudable and his show starring rehabilitated owls, falcons, hawks, vultures and eagles unforgettable.

The Star Party on Saturday night, 9 PM, should be spectacular.  Anyone who has ever visited the McDonald Observatory’s weekend Star Parties in West Texas can attest to the majesty of a completely dark sky twinkling with millions of stars you’ve only seen in photographs.   Shooting stars are practically routine in such circumstances, so if you attend, bring your wish list and make a wish.

Members of the Fredericksburg Astronomy Club will be on hand with telescopes,  orientation talks and explanations of the constellations and satellites.  It should be a great time to see Venus, which is staging its last transit for more than a century before crossing the face of the sun on June 6. According to the stargazing website Stardate,   Venus will be at its most brilliant this weekend, “shining 20 times brighter than the brightest true star in the night sky.”

Organizers have done an excellent job breaking up the programs, field trips and events so visitors can partake at their own pace, picking and choosing all or some of the offerings.  A weekend pass goes for $40 and provides entry into many events;  day passes $15.  Star Party, raptor show, motor coach tours and photo class are separate, and some don’t require a festival pass at all.   For details, see the Wings Over the Hills website.

Desperately Seeking Milkweed: Monarch Butterfly Caterpillars’ Voracious Appetites Create Milkweed Emergency

Anyone have any emergency milkweed? The 30 or so caterpillars have totally stripped mine and the nurseries don’t seem to have any. I really don’t want to lose them. –T. Kinsey, San Antonio

I, too, have run out of food (asclepias tuberosa) for my Monarch caterpillars. I have approximately 14 caterpillars ranging from the 1st through the 5th instar. The little ones can’t eat the hard stem, which is all that is left. I am scrambling around asking everyone I know if they have any butterfly milkweed and so far, no luck.  –C. Nugen, Stephenville

I have a great number of monarch caterpillars on the milkweed plants in my garden,  more than I have ever seen!! Only thing is,  I think there are more than there is food. Will they find nearby plants to eat or start eating the stems of the plant? Please help as I am bit worried that they will not all get to the next life stage.  –L. Jarvis, San Antonio

Monarch butterflies have been arriving in the “Texas funnel” for weeks, laying their first generation of eggs on milkweeds in yards, gardens, and throughout the state.  But judging from emails, text and Facebook messages I’ve been getting, we just don’t seem to have enough milkweed to keep up with their voracious appetites.  The creatures eat 200x their birthweight in milkweed leaves by the time they bust their stripes to form their gold-flecked jade chrysalises.

The milkweed shortage appears to be the result of the Monarchs’ early arrival and crazy weather this year.  When the Monarchs arrived in March, a lot of wild milkweed wasn’t even out of the ground yet.    The wet, mild winter provoked a bountiful wildflower showing, creating serious competition from more aggressive species.   Then we had a slew of 80- and 90-degree days that sped up growth of both the caterpillars and plants.   Result?  Lots of caterpillars and not enough food.

What to do if you find yourself with dozens of hungry caterpillars and no milkweed for them to feast on?  If  you don’t have access to milkweed in the wild nor from fellow gardeners, your best bet is to call local nurseries and ask if they have any Asclepias in stock.   Be sure to ask for Asclepias, the scientific name, since it’s not unusual for nurseries to sell “butterfly bush” or “butterfly weed” which are great nectar plants (often in the Buddleia family) for all types of butterflies, but useless for hosting Monarchs or other milkweed feeders.

Next, tell the nursery staff that you are raising caterpillars.   That means the plants you purchase for caterpillar food must be free of systematic pesticides.  Nursery staff will often swear they have not sprayed anything on the plants, but that doesn’t mean the grower didn’t.

Fat and happy Monarch cats devoured Sharon Sander's milkweed

Fat and happy Monarch cats devoured Sharon Sander's milkweed patch

Two friends experienced this difficult lesson in the past week.  Sharon Sander emailed with joyous photos of hundreds of Monarch caterpillars decimating the milkweed patch  at the River Road Community Garden.  Sander asked if I had any extra milkweed.  Since I did not, I encouraged her to seek out pesticide-free milkweed at one of our local nurseries.

Beautiful Asclepias Curassavica from Shades of Green turned out to be full of pesticides

Beautiful Asclepias Curassavica from Shades of Green turned out to be full of pesticides

Sander located milkweed at Shades of Green Nursery in San Antonio.  She explained to nursery staff that she was raising caterpillars and was told no systematic pesticides had been used.   She brought the plants home and moved 200 caterpillars to the robust plants.

The next day, “They all died,” Sander wrote via text message.  Sander contacted Shades of Green, an excellent nursery, and was given pesticide-free replacement plants.  Still, a sad lesson.

Wendy Meyer, co-manager of Shades of Green was very apologetic about the incident and said that unbeknownst to Shades of Green, the grower had used the pesticide Dursban (chlorpyrifos) on the milkweed plants.  Supposedly Dursban dissipates in 10-14 days, but in the meantime is readily absorbed into the plant tissue and anything that eats the plant.

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed

Jenny Singleton of Grapevine relayed a similar story.  Upon leaving town for vacation, she stocked up on milkweed for the hungry Monarch caterpillars she was leaving behind.  “I went to my favorite nursery to buy more milkweed and left the new, full plants next to the eaten up ones,” Singleton wrote in an email. “Checked on them this AM and to my horror, I’ll bet 75% were dead! I was sick!”

Unfortunately, nurseries don’t always know their growers as well as they  should.  And most plant shoppers won’t buy plants with bugs on them.   Milkweed plants are an ecosystem unto themselves and attract aphids, milkweed beetles, milkweed bugs, various flies and wasps.  Pesticides will kill all these pests–as well as Monarch eggs and caterpillars. It’s a challenge for growers who are often inclined to spray plants immediately before shipping to make them attractive and insect free to shoppers.

Tropical milkweed is easy to grow

Tropical milkweed is easy to grow

If you don’t know the provenance of your host plants, the best solution is to GYO (grow your own) milkweed.  Milkweed flowers develop a plump seed pod.  Tropical milkweed, while not native, is easy to grow and a Monarch butterfly magnet.  Remove the seeds from the milkweed fluff and sow in pots or the garden.  We’ll detail that process in a future post.

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Bats, Blooms, Butterflies and Moths–Everyone is Early this year

Our wet and mild winter has migratory creatures and seasonal blooms arriving in Central and South Texas early this year.  According to biologists and naturalists, we’re running seven – 10 days ahead of schedule.

Monarch butterflies, which typically start showing up in Texas en masse in late March, have been spotted regularly since early in the month.  Over at Bracken Bat Cave, maternal bats who overwinter in Mexico also arrived ahead of schedule.

Caterpillar on Bluebonnet

Caterpillars and bluebonnets--both early this year

“This year they were 10 days early,” says Fran Hutchins, Bracken Bat Cave coordinator and a Texas Master Naturalist.  Hutchins adds that the insect eating mammals began showing up in waves around February 21.  “There hasn’t been a lot of research on specific dates of their comings and goings,” says Hutchins, explaining that he inadvertently noticed the increase in bat population while completing an overwintering survey at the Cave. Congress Ave. Bridge bats returned early this year.

Congress Ave. Bridge bats were early this year

Bats returned early this year

The pattern holds for wildflowers and birds. “It’s definitely early,” says Andrea Delong-Amaya, director of Horticulture at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. “But in terms of what’s normal, it’s hard to say.  It just hasn’t been as cold.”  Reports of the Golden Cheeked Warbler, our local endangered songbird, arriving a bit early have made the rounds at the San Antonio Audubon Society, according to Martin Reid, an avid birder and environmental consultant.

“It’s a mixed bag: some of our resident birds are showing signs of breeding activity slightly earlier than usual–probably related to rain,”  he explains.  “But it doesn’t seem to have much effect on the wintering birds.”

Is it the warmth or the wet that drives the timing?   Depends on who you ask.

“On average I think the Weather Service is better than us insect experts at predicting the future,” says Dr. Mike Merchant, writing on Texas Agrilife Extension’s delightful Insects in the City blog. “But I still don’t put too much stock in long-term weather forecasts.”   Dr. Merchant chronicles the early arrival of Armyworms to North Texas in a recent post.   The gregarious grass eaters get their name from reproducing in droves and marching across prairies in soldier-like formations.

Armyworm Moth in Lawn

Armyworm Moths have arrived early to North Texas -- photo Texas Agrilife Extension

Matt Reidy points to the weather.  “Pepper weeds, bluebonnets, prickly poppies–those are all early.  Not because of temperatures, but because of rain,”  says Reidy,  Texas Parks and Wildlife Biologist.  “When you get the moisture, that’s what determines what you’re gonna get when.”

Many peg climate change for the advance of the season.   Interestingly, February 2012’s average high temperature was about the same as–actually .07 degree less than–the historic average of 66 degrees in San Antonio.   Yet, the average LOW temperature for the month was 4.5 degrees higher than average.

Minimum temperatures are especially impactful to seed germination and plant growth.  Seeds and plants require a certain soil temperature in which to germinate and thrive.  Savvy gardeners know to put a heating pad under setting seeds to expedite sprouting. Higher average minimum temperatures translate into faster growth, and an earlier season.

At the Children’s Garden at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, volunteers planted tomatoes the first week in March–“weeks early,” according to David Rodriguez, Horticulture specialist for the Texas Agrilife Extension.  Those tomatoes will likely be ready the first week in May.   “Everything’s off,” says Rodriguez, referring to Nature’s unpredictable timing.

Earlier this year, the USDA announced changes in plant hardiness zones, moving parts of San Antonio into the same planting zone as Houston and Corpus Christi. Some San Antonio zip codes moved from zone 8b, with annual lows of 15 – 20 degrees, to zone 9a, with annual lows of 20-25 degrees.

The redrawn maps (plug in your zip code and find out your zone here)  seem to be telling us something that birds, butterflies and bats have known for awhile: it’s just not as cold as it used to be.

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Number of Monarch Butterflies Down as They Leave Michoacan and Head through Texas

The Monarch butterfly population status report was made public this week. Given last year’s perfect storm of bad conditions–late freeze, historic drought, raging wildfires–butterfly followers were expecting bad news.  It was.  Overall Monarch butterfly numbers were down 28%.

Monarch butterflies are leaving Michoacan and heading to....Texas!

Monarch butterflies are leaving Michoacan and heading to Texas.

The much anticipated document issued each spring by the World Wildlife Fund assesses the overall health of the migrating population by calculating the physical space they occupy in the Oyamel fir forests of Michoacan, Mexico.  This year, the millions of butterflies occupied a little more than seven acres.   The average is almost 18 acres.

Monarch Watch, a Monarch butterfly monitoring program based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, put a positive spin on the findings, tagging the report “relatively good news,”  given dismal expectations.  “Nevertheless, this represents another low population – one well below the long term average near seven hectares,” the citizen scientist and academic collaborative reported.

The report was issued especially late this year, on March 15, an act that aggravated scientists and left others wondering why it took so long.  “The international scientific community is baffled why it  took so long for WWF and others to release the colony data for the current overwintering season,” wrote renown Monarch butterfly scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower in an email to the DPLEX list, a butterfly listserv followed avidly by

Monarch butterflies are on the move in Texas

Monarch butterflies are on the move in Texas

butterfly enthusiasts and scientists.  “The long delay actually hampered research planning for important molecular studies by the scientific community.”   Brower challenged WWF officials on the reasons for the decline, suggesting that while crazy weather and habitat loss tied to herbicide tolerant crops are factors, illegal logging and “severe degradation of the Oyamel forest ecosystem has been and still is occurring.”

Interestingly, a spokesperson for PROFEPA, the equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency in Mexico, said earlier this year that illegal logging at the roosting grounds had been contained to 3.7 acres.

The good news is that the butterflies have left their Mexican roosts and are coming our way. Reports from Twitter, Facebook and butterfly listservs detail FOS (first of season) sightings of the migrating butterflies flitting through Texas, laying eggs on native and tropical milkweed plants, delighting gardeners and butterfly fans.

Kip Kiphart, a volunteer for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project at Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne reported via email that he found 27 eggs on his native milkweed plants in Bergheim, Texas this week.  Others chimed in:   “Saw two in my  yard in southwest Austin,” said Helen Boudny Fremin. “We’ve had a couple in Marathon this past week,” reported Mathew York.  “Pretty sure I saw a Monarch butterfly yesterday,” tweeted Mike Leggett, an outdoor writer in Austin. Those migrating Monarchs presumably will visit San Antonio’s local colony over at the Museum Reach Milkweed Patch for some mixed company nectar sipping.

Monarch butterflies have left Michoacan and been spotted all over Texas

Monarch butterflies have left Michoacan and been spotted all over Texas

Texas has been called the “most important state” to the Monarch butterfly migration because of its strategic location between the roosting grounds and the milkweed beds and nectar prairies that serve as hosts and food sources for the famous insects.   Millions of Monarchs pass through Texas each spring and fall as they make their multi-generation migratory flight from the Mexico to Canada and back.  Spring in Texas is a critical time for the Monarchs, as they seek out milkweed plants–their host, and the only plant on which they will lay eggs–to continue their multi generation migration north.

With our exceptional and well-timed South Texas rains this winter, the Monarchs will have plenty of wildflowers for nectar and milkweed  for reproducing. Time to plant more milkweed in our gardens to get the migration off to a good start.

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