Winging It

For business or pleasure, here comes the Great Butterfly Chase

As far as greenery goes, the backyard of Jim Blackburn and Garland Kerr will never be a candidate for a Better Homes and Gardens feature. Branches are brushed aside on the entry path, past an antique gate to a less-than-carefully landscaped plot of overgrown vegetation. Worse yet, close inspection of the leaves shows ample evidence of infestation. Parts of the plants are chewed up, while that bane of beautiful foliage -- the caterpillar -- is everywhere.

And Blackburn and Kerr couldn't be happier. That's because they don't keep just a garden, they keep a butterfly garden. To butterfly gardeners, caterpillars are a sign that they are doing something right.

Houston architect and part-time butterfly gardener Charles Tapley puts it this way: "Gardeners are like fishermen -- full of promise." With caterpillars comes the promise of butterflies.

Tapley says butterflies respond quickly to new gardens.
Carlin Deguerin
Tapley says butterflies respond quickly to new gardens.
Tapley says butterflies respond quickly to new gardens.
Carlin Deguerin
Tapley says butterflies respond quickly to new gardens.

While most Houstonians head to nurseries for insecticides to protect their flowers and plants, butterfly gardeners aim to attract "pests" that will lay eggs and produce larvae, which will consume leaves and otherwise make themselves at home.

This crop will blossom into airborne creatures with colors as vivid as any flower, but the purpose goes beyond that. Tapley explains that the gardens help combat the effects of development in the region that wipes out the natural habitats of butterflies. These ardently tended, untamed gardens nestled in the heart of the city serve as the oases that keep people like David Henderson busy.

Standing around in the hot Houston summer sun getting eaten by mosquitoes doesn't usually rank high on the list -- except for butterfly enthusiasts like David Henderson. The biology teacher at Collins High School in Klein ISD has been leading butterfly counts for two years. And mid-summer is the prime counting period, because that's when the sun makes them the most active.

Henderson's love of nature began with bird-watching in his youth. The transition came when P.D. Hulce, past president of the Houston Audubon Society, suggested that he join in a butterfly count. "As a teacher, most of my free time is in the summer when school is out," Henderson says, "but summer is not a great time for birding."

A San Antonio native, Henderson figured the search for butterflies would be a tame tour of flower gardens and other obvious places. Instead, that first count took him into the harsh wilds of the bottomlands along the Trinity River. In the humid, boggy conditions, he discovered the secret world of butterflies feasting on the sap of trees and other nutrients.

"I had always been intrigued by butterflies because of their beauty, but I had no idea how much you could learn about your environment from watching them." Henderson says it's the "thrill of the hunt" that keeps him going.

"The excitement of seeing rare species, and being able to observe them in their natural habitat without disturbing the ecosystem, is very satisfying," Henderson says. The learning curve for beginners is huge, mostly because the other counters are so helpful and the amount of information so plentiful, he explains.

Some of that quick understanding comes in the common names for butterflies, which can be as colorful as the creatures themselves. They are usually based on identifying features, often the wing markings. Lepidopterists might recognize a species as Dynamine dyonis; amateur counters know it as the Blue-Eyed Greenwing.

Counts can include the Polygonia interrogationis -- the Question Mark -- as well as the California Sisters. Punkers might relate to the Great Purple Hairstreak; seniors would accept the Gray Hairstreak. To the uninitiated, the Ship Channel would seem to be fertile ground for the Brazilian Skipper, while the hazy air of refinery row appears to be ripe for the likes of Cloudless Sulphur, Little Metalmark or the Scalloped Sootywing.

Over the years, regional counts, even those involving only a handful of participants, typically have yielded sightings of hundreds of butterflies of 40 or so species. The counts are focused on 15-mile radius areas, and the counters may rely on close-focus binoculars -- even opera glasses -- to spot different species. Henderson says the only requirements are curiosity and keen eyes.

"Butterflies are today's 'canary in the mineshaft' because they are extremely sensitive to changes in the environment," Henderson explains. Changes are reflected in the counts. Massive flooding from Tropical Storm Allison, for instance, can wipe out ground-dwelling populations like the Satyr and Pearly Eyes, which feed and lay their larvae on low-lying greenery and cane in woodland areas. Henderson recalls that even on the day of the flood he and his wife spotted a few species, such as a Checkered White and a Tiger Swallowtail, which feed on flowering trees and higher climbing vines and so were not affected at all by the rising waters.

But there is a paradox. Any patch of green, a weed lot or roadside ditch, can support a species of butterfly. So the counter's challenge is to record where each species is seen and differences from the previous year. Henderson, saying the counting effort is highly organized, bristled at the notion that the mobility of butterflies could cause the same one to be logged multiple times in one count.

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