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A Birder's Guide to Butterflies

Updated on November 18, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Butterfly Capture by Camera

Winged Beauty
Winged Beauty | Source

While primarily a birder, I have a great fondness for anything with wings. I go for butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, different types of bees and whatever else flies around my garden that looks interesting when there aren’t any birds. I collected five species of sphinx moth visiting my plumbegos one year. They are gorgeous creatures too with about 11,000 species around the U.S. So, when I had a chance to learn more about butterflies, I signed up. This month, I spent three days learning not only how to spot butterflies better, but also how to identify and photograph them.

I registered for the Texas Butterfly Festival through the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. This would be their 30th year. Intrigued, I made it part of my Rio Grande Valley tour for the fall. Things get hopping in the Rio Grande Valley in autumn. Many of the parks close during the summer. By October they are open again in time for the bird and people migration. Winter Texans, the local term for visitors from the Midwest and other Northern states, number around 100,000. There has been some drop in numbers, the 2014 winter season saw $710 million in tourist revenues, according to a Kristen Mosbrucke article in The Monitor.

The National Butterfly Center

Per their website, “The National Butterfly Center supports the education and conservation mission of NABA. Not only does the center collaborate with the National Park Service to ensure the survival of monarchs on their mass migration through the Rio Grande Valley, it recently partnered with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife to plant 12,000 plugs of rare grasses and endangered wildflowers.” The Geoffrey McAllen Memorial Native Grassland and Wildflower Refugium is now part of their 100 acre properties. “The National Butterfly Center is the North American Butterfly Association’s (NABA) flagship facility. The area boasts more than 1,200 different species of plants, 500 species of birds, 200 vertebrate species, roughly 300 species of butterflies, and over 90 species of dragonflies and damselflies.”

Butterfly Basics

Birders love getting out in the woods, savannah, dessert or wherever one can find birds. Everywhere I have sought birds, I have also found butterflies. They are so beautiful and worthy of appreciation. Most of my birding trip files include a few, but to learn butterflies you need some some of the same basic tools. First, you need some guides or reference materials to teach you how to group and then recognize what you are seeing. To catalog butterflies with photographs requires a different methodology to than the bird photographer normally uses.

Information and References

I took my first plunge into learning more about butterflies years ago when I bought my first butterfly book, Butterflies of Houston & Southeast Texas, by John and Gloria Tveten, both local Houstonians. It’s a good beginner guide with excellent pictures of caterpillar beginnings and living butterflies. They are organized into 10 species groups from the showy Swallowtails to the tiny Skippers named for their fast darting flight. Within those are a kaleidoscope of color and design.

The guides I saw used most by butterfly people are shown with Amazon links below. The third book is specifically for the Rio Grande Valley. You can also use small foldout pictorial guides of the most common butterflies for your area. The National Butterfly Center had their own that were given as part of festival bag gifts.

Butterflies of the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Cameras and Settings

Learning to spot and catch shots of these creatures, even the big ones, can be a challenge to the bird photographer akin to trying to capture hummingbirds at double speed. But if you are quick, it can be done.

I saw butterfly photographers out there using the same sort of mega lenses we birders use, with good reason. A skipper for example can be as small as 1 ¼ inch. There were also people with small point-n-shoots using them like close up lenses, working within a foot of their prize. It can work, but I found that like birding, giving the subject some space will keep them in one place longer. I chose to use my 28-300mm zoom to give me more latitude and the ability to hand hold rather than dragging around a tripod. Consider both options, but don't run out and buy new equipment. The frugal photographer will always wisely use what they have and make it work.

When concentrating on finding the right settings, I learned my normal methods when photographing birds won’t work. A faster shutter speed alone is not going to help either. You need to keep your depth of field range wide. I took to turning up my ISO up to 800 when chasing these winged bullets, even in bright sunlight. This gave me apertures of f/14 – f/32 depending on lighting conditions with shutter speeds of 1/250 sec. or higher. The deeper area of focus combined with a fast shutter helped. A muted flash, one with a filter over it, is also helpful. As I wrote when discussing hummingbird photography, you often have to have a flash to stop action when chasing fast moving objects.

Practice Time at Falcon Lake

Two Barred Flasher at Falcon Lake
Two Barred Flasher at Falcon Lake | Source
Circle of Monarchs at Falcon Lake
Circle of Monarchs at Falcon Lake | Source
Queen at Falcon Lake
Queen at Falcon Lake | Source

Getting Started

Like birding, it helps to get into their environment with someone to show you the ropes. Lucky for me, when I went to practice before the festival, I ran into groups of butterfly enthusiasts who were as friendly as birders and happy to give advice.

At Falcon Lake State Park, I lucked into a group on the hunt for a recently reported rarity, the Frosted Flasher. I was shown a picture of it out of their butterfly guide. It had a two and a half-inch wingspan and tailless; the wings are black with no white spots. The upperside wing bases are iridescent blue. The underside of the hindwing has a frosted white margin and white fringe. I was tempted to say I had seen it before, but couldn’t say where or when. Later, I found I was mistaking it for a Two-barred Flasher. Over my primer in butterflies, that wouldn’t be the only time I mistook two close looking butterflies for the other.

We didn’t find the Frosted Flasher in our hour’s search, but we did see Queens and mating Monarchs, Skippers and lots of Sulphurs and Crescents. They showed me the difference between a Queen and a Soldier by looking at the underside. The Queen is spotted with mostly the same color in its wings. The Soldier has a lighter colored larger hindwing.

Some butterflies, like Swallow-tails, Sulphurs and Whites are big and easy to find. Others require some careful hunting. They can look like a knife edge on a flower seen head on, but then they open tiny wings to show vibrant color. Some don’t seem to ever open their wings when perched. As such, the guides only show their underside. The upper and undersides of butterflies are not the same, so identifying them can be done either open winged or closed if you have a good guide.

Unlike birds, some butterflies are very very close to identical. There can be tiny differences such as a spot or bar in a specific place, so it is best to not rush into identification if you are a novice. Get a good guide, but also get confirmation before telling all your friends you found something rare.

Butterfly Gallery

Giant Swallowtail of the Swallowtail family. The largest butterflies.
Giant Swallowtail of the Swallowtail family. The largest butterflies. | Source
Great Southern White of the pierids family.
Great Southern White of the pierids family. | Source
Cloudless Giant Sulphur also of the Pierids family
Cloudless Giant Sulphur also of the Pierids family | Source
Gray Hairstreak, a Glossamer-Winged Butterfly, subfamily Lycaeninae
Gray Hairstreak, a Glossamer-Winged Butterfly, subfamily Lycaeninae | Source
Blue Metalmark of the Riodinidae family
Blue Metalmark of the Riodinidae family | Source
White Striped Longtail Skipper of the Hesperiidaee family and Pyrginae subfamily.
White Striped Longtail Skipper of the Hesperiidaee family and Pyrginae subfamily. | Source
Zebra Butterfly, a long wing of the Heliconiidae family
Zebra Butterfly, a long wing of the Heliconiidae family | Source
Bill Clark and the Harris Hawk
Bill Clark and the Harris Hawk | Source
Vesta Cresent of the Nymphalidae family
Vesta Cresent of the Nymphalidae family | Source
Obscure Skipper of the Hesperiidae family
Obscure Skipper of the Hesperiidae family | Source
Mexican Bluewing of the Nymphalidae family
Mexican Bluewing of the Nymphalidae family | Source

Registration and Orientation

Registration started on October 30th with badge pick-up and an orientation talk after a great buffet spread made by members of the American Culinary Federation Texas Chefs Association (they would be serving all the food for the event). The Festival is a fundraiser for their scholarship programs.

Our host, Marianna Trevino-Wright, explained the state of butterfly populations and a led the safety discussion. Since Hurricane Patricia had come through, all things that sting and bite had been driven out into the open, so if a trip listed protective boots we were told to make sure to use them. We then saw a slide show to see the more common species we could be finding during tours.

So many beautiful species. I’m surprised I was able to sleep thinking about all the butterflies to see the next day.

Festival Starts – Coastal Specialties Tour

The festival offered many trips around the area to see butterflies. I was staying in Falcon Lake and was regularly visiting the butterfly garden there. I regularly visited Estero Llano State Park too. So I jumped for what I thought would be a good rounded tour to find butterflies away from my home base locations. That turned out to be the Coastal Specialties Tour. It was one of the more adventurous tours. One where snake protective footwear was mandatory. It was led by Dan Jones, highly regarded locally for his ability to find rare and elusive butterflies, birds, and dragonflies. Our other tour guide was Javierde Leo’n, a local naturalist specializing in plants and insects, including more recently butterflies.

We started at Resaca De La Palma State Park, part of the World Birding Center. Outside the park we were detoured off butterfly hunting for a special treat. As luck would have it, we met William (Bill) Clark banding birds outside the park. Our guide knew him and he graciously offered to show us his recent catch. When he asked how many birders were in the group, about three quarters of the group raised hands. Out of a protective tube, he pulled a juvenile Harris hawk, not quite done molting. When he asked who would like to hold the hawk, it was all I could do not to scream out ME ME ME!!.

I stepped up and was shown how to hold the bird while he explained what information he gathered during banding. Before we left, he banded the bird, photographed it, recorded his observations and then released it. I was surprised at how well the hawk was taking the handling, but Mr. Clark said they don't fuss. Others do though. William S. Clark is one of the world's leading authorities on raptor identification and taxonomy. He co-authored a hawk guide for Peterson Field Guides as well as others for raptors around the world. In birding terms, that’s a rock star.

Ok, back to butterflies.

From where we stopped just before the entrance, we walked into the park taking note of all we found. I was in a group of mostly knowledge butterfly hunters. When someone found something of note they would call out the find. The novices in the group then hurried over see what they pointed out. Lots of camera’s and good binoculars were in the group with names like Canon, Nikon and Zeiss Vortex and Swarovski. Those with small cameras took their shots quickly and then moved so the next could get their chance.

At the visitor’s center, we combed through a large butterfly garden. The butterflies were pretty easy to find. There were Sulphurs and Whites, a few Swallowtails; mostly the Giant Swallowtail was seen. I learned to tell the Sulphurs apart by their spot patterns or lack of spots. In the gardens, the Sickle-winged Skipper was the most prominent. It is a brownish butterfly with brown blotched wings that curled like bent paper. This was also where we saw the most metal marks. My favorite was the Blue metalmark, a brilliant silvery blue butterfly with tiny black stripes and a white fringe edge to its wings.

Into the Ebony trail, we found an area liberally baited with butterfly food, a mixture of sugar mixed with a locally grown fruit pureed. There was plenty to see including Mexican blue-wings, Red Admirals and Tawny Emperors. It was a very enjoyable easy going stop for beginners. Later things got messy.

Butterflyers in the Wilds

Hazards of butterfly hunting
Hazards of butterfly hunting | Source
Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area. the road to the point.
Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area. the road to the point. | Source
Getting the tiny things, such as very cool looking caterpillars.
Getting the tiny things, such as very cool looking caterpillars. | Source
Close up of Caterpillar
Close up of Caterpillar | Source

Adventure comes with Hazards

They did say to bring boots against snakes and that there would be mud. We didn’t see any of the above until getting to our next stop. We drove off to the coast to find the smiley face. The smiley face turned out to be a road marker. Someone had painted an old water buoy yellow and added a smiley face. Our stop was a turn-off just before that on the other side of the road around the back of the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area.

My bus was following another with Dan Jones in the lead. He had scouted the area earlier in the week. That bus headed down into the park road and almost immediately got stuck in a muddy washout. No problem. We had strong guys; guys with cameras and binoculars hanging around their necks as they pushed the van back up to the main road. It took three tries, but they got it done.

We then walked down the park road out to a point near a shallow marsh where Willets and other shore birds hung out. The butterflies were plentiful all along the road flanked with weeds, grasses, and local wildflowers. It was beautiful flat land, mostly untouched and wild. As I enjoyed the view, my mind kept telling me there had to be hundreds of snakes in all that thick cover. I’ve mentioned my poor attitude toward snakes before in other articles. It comes from having been bitten as a child (rattle snake). So, I mostly stayed to the sides of the road rather than venturing into the brush and grasses. Many of the other seasoned butterflyers took off into the brush and flowers without a care.

As we came closer to the point, we had to walk up into the low brush to get to the area Dan said had all the best butterflies. I was working my way there somewhat behind the group. We had stretched out into a long ragged line. I followed the trail the others had made assuming any snakes had long since been chased off. The farther I went I found soft mud, spongy sticky stuff, kind of like potter’s clay. I was sinking three to four inches in places. I did the quick step trying to keep from sinking too deep. Then down I went.

My right foot sunk into the mud half way to my knee. When I tried to raise it, my boot came halfway off. I then went wobbly and fell to my hands and knees. It took a bit to get my boot back on before I could stand again. Too bad there wasn’t a picture of this; me down on my knees twisting around to get that boot back on without falling over on my tail. I pulled myself to more solid ground and then made it to my feet. I tried to work my way forward again, but just found more deep mud at every turn. There was no way I was going to make it, so I blazed my own trail through the brush back to the road settling for the tiny skippers and hairstreaks near solid ground.

It helped my pride some that I wasn’t the only one to decide against heading into the mire. Before getting back on the bus, I pulled out my apple knife and had to cut the mud off my boots. I was later told it was a rite of passage to lose your boot in the mud and then step into a mire in just socks. I’m going to be grateful for only going through half that.

Our last stop was a Palo Alto Battlefield visitor’s center. We were told it had significance in the Mexican American War. It was primarily a restroom stop with a short visit to their butterfly gardens. It was another good place to find tiny skippers, metalmarks and a Great Southern White.

Final Word

There were many more opportunities to see butterflies through many tours on other days. The Coastal Specialties tour was just a sample of what can be experienced during the festival. Butterfly hunting with a group was great fun for this beginner. There was so much to see and take in. By the time we were done, I could tell a number of butterflies by sight and could recognize nine of the different species groups easily. I had also learned new observation skills; how to watch for tiny darting things and following them to a perch for identification and pictures.

The tiny ones were the hardest, but also the most rewarding finds. On the trail in Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area we spotted one, an obscure skipper, a perfectly named little greenish brown most people would never have noticed. Yet, I found myself falling in love with these tiny ones that remind me of a fighter jet in design with big dark eyes.

  • The photographer in me left pumped when it was over. This was a fantastic trip. My new camera settings worked out great. Post processing required only minimal adjustments. I found and photographed around 40 butterfly species along with catapillars, dragonflies, damsel flies and other things moving amongst the flowers.
  • The birder in me was all over it. Where there are butterflies there are also birds. Bonus treats to the trip were the captured Harris Hawk, Ospreys, White-tailed Kites, a distant Belted Kingfisher and a flock of Curved-billed Curlews.
  • The adventurer in me was all over it, except for not being able to keep up with the group and wimping out when I heard something moving under the brush beside the road as I was heading back. No idea what it was, but I gave it a good wide berth.

I plan to continue studying butterflies. My primer in the world of these winged creatures was a great treat I should have tired long ago. Don’t wait until you are over 50 like me to learn more about your interests. My inner naturalist is already itching to do it again.

Happy Birding and Butterfly watching

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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