San Antonio River Walk Boasts Vibrant “Butterfly City” Along Museum Reach as Butterfly Wildscape Matures

Having spent the last year in Austin, I haven’t had the chance to check on my favorite public milkweed patch on the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River Walk as often as I’d like.  Whenever I came to town over the last year and my husband and I found ourselves at the Pearl Brewery Farmer’s Market or enjoying a taco at La Gloria, we would wander down to the vast expanse of Asclepias tuberosa (native Butterflyweed and Monarch butterfly host) planted by the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) two years ago.

The Museum Reach Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio Riverwalk

The Museum Reach Milkweed Patch on San Antonio River Walk in Dec. 2011, dwarf white Lantana in background

A visit upon my recent San Antonio homecoming left me grinning.   A diverse population of butterflies flitted along the flowering stretch of river just south of the Pearl Brewery.

Monarchs, Sulphurs, Painted Ladies, Gulf Fritillaries–all nectared on native milkweed, lantana and passionflower vines, aerially skipping above the walkways and enchanting those lucky enough to bear witness.  Even after hints of a first frost descended on San Antonio this week, the butterfly wildscape looked stunning–robust, healthy, and still showing flowers.  Recent rains helped.

Passionflower and its fruit, the host plant to the Gulf Fritillary and Zebra Longwing, on the San Antonio Riverwalk

Passionflower and its fruit, the host plant to the Gulf Fritillary and Zebra Longwing, on the San Antonio River Walk

I’m not the only one delighted by the display.   Benjamin Ahlburg, a five-year-old fellow butterfly fan and son of Trinity University’s President Dennis Ahlburg and Penelope Harley, relayed via email that a recent trot down the River Walk left him charmed.

“Mum, it really is a butterfly city,” he told his British mom in an accent worthy of Harry Potter.  Tourists and passers-by parked themselves on benches to observe the butterfly festival, pronouncing it “lovely.”

Sulphur butterfly on lantana, photo by

Sulphur butterfly on lantana, photo by

Austin has Ladybird Lake and its incumbent urban charms–hipster-crowded running trails, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards for rent, and of course, the famous bat colony under the Congress Avenue bridge.

San Antonio’s River Walk has some of that, and more:  a unique marriage of wild and  urban.  Venture north or south of the touristy downtown River Walk and enjoy publicly funded improvements that bring the wild aspects of South Texas into our downtown backyard.  This urban wildscape befits San Antonio’s geographic location as “the funnel” of the Monarch Butterfly migration and as a crossroads for myriad butterfly species. And for home gardeners and those with acreage destined for a butterfly wildscape, our San Antonio River Walk provides proven inspiration for what works.

San Antonio River Improvements Project Map

San Antonio River Improvements Project

Two years after its installation during our historic Texas drought, the SARA’s $72.1 million Museum Urban Reach Segment extends 1.5 miles north from downtown, from Lexington Street to Josephine Street.   The project is part of  $358.3 million in San Antonio River improvements to restore the San Antonio River by Bexar County, the City of San Antonio, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) and the San Antonio River Foundation.

And it gets better.  South of downtown, the Mission Reach segment of the improvement project offers an even longer, more natural river walk all the way to Mission Espada.   The undertaking will restore 334 acres of riparian woodland and includes the planting of more than 20,000 young trees and shrubs, 39 native tree and shrub species and more than 60 native grass and wildlife species. It’s already happening and vividly on display just south of The Blue Star Arts complex.

According to the Project website, when the restoration is complete,

“The native landscape will look wild rather than manicured. Grasses and wildflowers will be allowed to grow to their natural heights rather than mowed. Boat traffic on the river will be limited to canoes and kayaks rather than barges. The result will be a serene, natural landscape where visitors can enjoy the inherent beauty of the river.”

Hallelujah.  More butterflies in our future.

Queen and Monarch Butterflies Share Beauty, Charm and Gold Dotted Chrysalises: How to Tell the Difference

Monarch butterflies get all the press as our most beloved species while the Queen, a close cousin, goes largely ignored.   Life’s not fair, even for butterfly beauties.

Upon close inspection, you’ll find that Queens share the charms of their closely related Monarch sisters, including large size, bright-striped caterpillars and chrysalises that resemble a gold-dotted jade crystal.

If you have flowers blooming now, you’re likely seeing Queens, Danaus gillippus.  Like Monarchs, Queens host only on milkweed, but they nectar indiscriminately.   During this historic Texas drought, they’re clinging to river bottoms, seeking the goldenrod and swamp milkweed that blooms in late summer.  In our gardens, they gravitate to lantanas, pentas, milkweed and purple mistflower.

Queens on Purple Mistflower                                                   Queen butterflies, wings folded, on Purple Mistflower

Queens generally precede the Fall Monarch parade.  While they don’t migrate like Monarchs, they are seasonal, showing up in the Spring and Fall.

Telling the difference between the two can challenge butterfly observers. On first glance, Queens and Monarchs seem identical, but look closely and you’ll see that Queens are solidly burnt orange, almost brown, with wings folded.  Monarchs have much more variation in their coloring.   With wings open, the difference is more striking.  Queens

Queen butterfly, wings openQueen Butterfly, wings open.  Oh, and it’s a male.

display none of the “stained glass” veins of Monarchs (see the banner photo at the top of this web page).  Queens’ open wings boast a solid orange-brown, with only white specks on the outer edges and a black outline.

In the caterpillar stage, Queens flaunt similar Monarch-like yellow and black stripes, but they also sport three sets of filaments, the amusing antennae-like protuberances that seem to feel the world around them in expressive contortions.  Monarchs display only two. Queens also wear a red accent where those filaments connect to the caterpillar, presumably a warning sign to predators:  Stop, don’t eat me!

Queen caterpillar on milkweedQueen Caterpillar on milkweed

As a chrysalis, Monarchs and Queens could be twins, except that Queens are slightly smaller.  Both attach themselves vertically from a a horizontal surface with a silk button after forming a “J” shape, then spin a shiny green chrysalis flecked with gold dots.  While some butterfly species opt for disguises verging on the disgusting in the chrysalis stage–as bird droppings (Red-spotted Purples) and dried crinkled leaves (Gulf Fritillaries)–Queens and Monarchs win the chrysalis beauty pageant.  Their fantastic jade coloring and intriguing gold flecks provoke some folks to wear them as jewelry. (Not something I recommend.)

Queen and Monarch ChrysalisesQueen Chrysalises are usually smaller than Monarch Chrysalises

For more tips on how to tell the difference between Queens and Monarchs, see these blogposts from the Texas Butterfly Ranch archives:

Queen Butterfly or Monarch Butterfly? Sometimes it’s Hard to Tell the Difference

How to tell the Difference between Future Monarch Butterflies and Future Queen Butterflies, Part II

Butterfly FAQ: Is Relocating a Monarch Chrysalis OK? Yes, and Here’s Tips On How to Handle Them With Care

A common quandary when blessed with the gift of caterpillars noshing nearby is whether or not it’s safe to relocate them once they form their chrysalis.

Tom Pelletier of the Ask A Naturalist website wrote today, explaining that six gorgeous Monarch caterpillars were busy at work on a milkweed plant in a yard adjacent to a high traffic sidewalk.

“Once the chrysalis is formed, can we move each one to a safer location in our back yard? Does it matter where the butterfly emerges, i.e.  does it have to be on milkweed?”

Monarch and Queen Chrysalises taped to Kitchen Counter

How do you think these Monarch and Queen chrysalises got here?  They’re adhered with tape.

The answers are yes, you may relocate the creatures once they make their chrysalis, and no, the caterpillars do not need to chrysalis on milkweed.  In fact, Monarch and other chrysalises often are found as far as 30 feet from the hostplant where they ate their last meal.

Entomologists speculate that caterpillars leave their host plants to protect themselves from predators.  “Caterpillars frequently strip the plant, so to form a chrysalis on a naked plant would leave them terribly exposed,” said Mike Quinn, an entomologist and founder of the Austin Butterfly Forum.  My unscientifc theory is that caterpillars need a quiet spot to transform themselves into a completely different lifeform. Growing wings and planning your first flight must require deep concentration.

Given the above, and the high incidence of caterpillar mortality caused by birds, spiders and other predators, I would be inclined to bring those caterpillars inside to assure they have the best chance of completing their life cycle.  You can feed them milkweed leaves and keep them in a clean container, then relocate the chrysalises once they’ve formed.

Jiminy Chrysalis!  Monarch and Queen Chrysalis Tree.  Thank you, dental floss.

Learn more about rearing Monarch butterfly caterpillars at the Monarch Watch website.

Those of us who raise caterpillars in our kitchens and gardens have been known to use pins, tape, glue, fishing line–and dental floss, my favorite–to fasten chrysalises to twigs, coffee stirrers, chopsticks, potted plants,  even the kitchen cabinet.

Why do we do it?   To ensure their completion of the life cycle is one reason.   But it’s also one of the most rewarding aspects of “butterflying.”  To witness eclosure, the moments surrounding a butterfly’s emergence from its chrysalis, is always magical.  The only way to do that is to have the chrysalis in captivity, where you can monitor its progress and not miss the miracle of metamorphosis.

When relocating a chrysalis, keep in mind:

1.  Putting them in direct sun–a hot window, for example–can damage their development.  A bright, protected spot is best. 
2.  Monarchs and other species need to hang vertically so that when they eclose, gravity can assist in their wings forming properly.   Swallowtails are different.  Try to emulate the chrysalis’ natural positioning as much as possible.
3.  Once the butterfly emerges, it needs several hours before it can fly. If you’ve brought it in the house to watch, leave the newborn alone until its wings harden up and it starts beating them slowly.  Then you can release it outside.
Eastern Swallowtail and Sister Chrysalis on a Chopstick

Eastern Swallowtail Butterfly and Sister Chrysalis adhered with nontoxic glue to a Chopstick.

An excellent resource for relocating chrysalises and reattaching them without causing harm is Shady Oak Butterfly Farm.   Edith Smith, butterfly meistress, and a member of the International Butterfly Breeders’ Association, has been raising butterflies for decades and graciously shared the useful links below.  Thank you, Edith!

1.  How to move/relocate chrysalises
2. How to adhere chrysalises with glue
3. What to do if a soft chrysalis falls
4. How to reattach a swallowtail chrysalis
For more info on this topic, check out our post on How to Move a Monarch Chrysalis.

How to Raise Butterflies-to-Be: Rearing Caterpillars the Topic at Monday’s Austin Butterfly Forum

Ever wonder about the best way to raise caterpillars at home for fun?  I do, and experiment all the time–with mixed success.  That’s why I’m so looking forward to the Austin Butterfly Forum’s “How to Raise Caterpillars” meeting on Monday, April 25 at the Zilker Botanical Center.   The show starts at 7 PM and it’s free.

Eastern Swallowtail Caterpillar

Tips for raising Eastern Swallowtails and other caterpillars will be covered at the Austin Butterfly Forum on Monday

San Antonio butterfly lovers, I encourage you to make the drive Monday night.  The chance to learn such esoteric skills directly from passionate butterfly enthusiasts doesn’t happen that often–and it’s free.  Also, it’s a great chance to connect with your community of fellow butterfly enthusiasts.

According to organizer Dan Hardy, several Forum members,  all of whom have years of experience raising caterpillars and hatching butterflies, will lead the session.  You’ll learn:

  • Which butterfly species are best for novices
  • How to trouble shoot illness and disease
  • What kind of gear you need to get started
  • Where to find eggs and caterpillars and how to transport them, plus
  • How to watch for females laying eggs.

“We’ll talk about all the ways caterpillars get into trouble, ” says Dan, a pathologist by training, matter-of-factly. “Problem is, there’s rarely a cure!”

The Austin Butterfly Forum was founded in 1993 and is a nonprofit organization devoted to education and enlightenment about butterflies, with occasional forays into moths.  The membership includes about 50 hobbyists and butterfly gardeners.   Dan says several bonified entomologists participate as well, as do moth lovers.

Sounds like my kind of crowd. Hope to see you there.

PS.  The Austin Butterfly Forum will also hold an all-day workshop on Saturday, May 7 at the same location.  The session runs 10 AM – 4 PM, costs $35, and will offer the basics of butterflying, identification, gardening, and caterpillar rearing tips, as well as a guided walk around Zilker garden.  The fee gets you lunch and set of plants to get started.  For more information, contact Jeff Taylor, 512.825.8368.

It’s a boy! Queen Butterfly born this morning–a sign that Monarchs will be here soon

What a great Sunday morning!   As I was making coffee, I noticed a Queen chrysalis had turned black and would be hatching soon.   Before I had finished my first cup, this perfect specimen had emerged, leaving the spent chrysalis behind like a cascaron during Fiesta.

After about 90 minutes, we took him outside and he flew off to light on a nearby Desert Willow.

In case you’re wondering, you can tell it’s a boy by those two little black pouches evident when he spreads his wings.   Word is he uses these pheromone glands to get the lady butterflies excited.

More good news:  whenever we start seeing Queens, that means Monarch Butterfly season is just around the corner.  I’ve already seen a couple at the ranch, and harvested some eggs.

Stay tuned for updates.  It’s not too early to order your Monarch tags from Monarch Watch.