Birds to Butterflies

I started birding in 1970 when birders were few in number and occasionally subjected to attempted ridicule by the ignorant. Since then our numbers have grown greatly and we are accepted almost everywhere. (Today, chambers of commerce and visitors bureaus seek us out!) However, since the 1990s a schism has developed within our ranks: butterflying.

This is not a massive divide, but it does separate those of us who have “discovered” butterflies (as if they didn’t exist before the 1990s) and those who refuse to look at them. Many fellow birders continue to resist, with varying degrees of success, the allure of these scaled beauties. I understand their concerns. Indeed, I shared them until 1997 when I finally succumbed to butterflying. After learning to identify birds with some facility, entering the world of butterflies often results in a significant (not to mention disquieting) feeling of ignorance. Also, many butterflies are surprisingly small, and birding binoculars have historically not focused close enough to effectively watch them. However, more and more of us have made the switch, especially given that many modern bins focus much closer than before. 

Here is how I came to bite the bullet. From 1974 until I moved to Texas in 2001, my birding home was Cape May, NJ, a justly famous place to watch birds, especially during migration. (In early 2010, I returned to Cape May.) In Autumn, these mass movements typically coincide with cold fronts and northwest winds. However, after a couple days of southerly breezes, the birds vanish and butterflies become “magically” apparent. (They were there all along, of course, but our collective attention was so focused elsewhere!) During one such spell of unwanted “delightful weather” a birding friend started showing me butterflies. I was stunned by their beauty and variety. (Yes, as an experienced naturalist, I shouldn’t have been amazed, but I was!) I soon realized what marvelous creatures butterflies are, and how much I had missed by failing (okay, refusing) to notice them. I kept recalling all those summers when, as a teacher, I traveled around North and Central America watching birds. If only I had also been watching butterflies! In fact, one of my motivations for moving to the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Teas was its outstanding butterflies. For example, all of Great Britain has about 60 species of butterflies; Cape May County, NJ, has 108 species; The Valley has well over 300 species. And Mexico has many, many more!

Fortunately, a number of my fellow naturalists preceded me into butterflying, so I was able to learn from them. I also knew enough to become familiar with the easy ones before trying to decipher the LBJs (little brown jobs). Soon I was identifying American Ladies, Hackberry Emperors, Red Admirals, Silver-Spotted Skippers, Red-spotted Purples, and American Snouts. Well, having photographed birds for years, I bought a macro lens and started shooting butterflies. This infused both my butterflying and nature photography with renewed enthusiasm. Having lived in The Valley, I came to know the likes of Blue and Fatal Metalmarks, Queens and Soldiers, Empress Leilias, Great Southern Whites, Julia and Zebra Heliconians, Giant Swallowtails, Mexican Bluewings, and the smallest butterfly in North America if not the world, the Western Pygmy-Blue. During a trip to Mexico, I was delighted with Malachites, Gray Crackers, Anna’s Eighty-Eights, Dingy Purplewings, Blue-eyed Sailors, Many-banded Daggerwings, and Blue Morphos (to mention just a few).

These days, I’m hard pressed to say whether I enjoy birding or butterflying more. Fortunately, it’s easy to combine the two. In fact, not only does The Valley host The Texas Butterfly Festival every October (in Mission), but many of our nation's “birding” festivals now include butterfly programs and field trips. (Perhaps foreshadowing the next wave in wildlife watching is Weslaco’s Dragonfly Days festival held each May.)

One advantage of these festivals is the chance to spend time in workshops and in the field with nationally known naturalists who enjoy sharing their expertise. (For those of us who lead these trips, workshops, and other programs, one of the pleasures of festivals is visiting with friends we know from festivals around the country.)

So grab a pair of close focus binoculars, head to a known butterfly location like The Valley or Cape May, and join the fun. Yes, you may experience some frustration early on, but the rewards will more than out weigh them. And don’t forget to sign up for a nature festival.

Mike Hannisian