Friday, October 23, 2009

Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge - Butterfly Count

A nice day trip from The woodlands Texas for the nature lover is Trinity River Wildlife Refuge. It is one of fourteen priority-one bottom-land refuges identified for protection in the Texas Bottom-land Protection Plan.1 This particular protected site has great diversity of birds, butterflies, vegetation and wildlife. This annual event is focused on counting butterflies, as part of the National Wildlife Refuge Week., October 11-17 2009. This year was a good one statistically. There were 44 species and 1368 bugs identified.
Butterfly enthusiasts from the general Houston area participate in the event. Only a few people volunteer each year to help. The Butterfly Enthusiasts of Southeast Texas (BEST)4, local chapter of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), sponsors the event.  Stuart Marcus, Refuge Manager 2 organizes and leads it. Those who assisted him are at various skill levels. All were enthusiastic about participating. Stuart Marcus has been with the Fish and Wildlife Commission for 30 years. He has been assigned to 5 locations, with this being his longest stay - 15 years. This guy knows the refuge very well, including its neighbors. I was impressed with his butterfly expertise and awareness of the preserve's ecology.

From The Woodlands, it took a little less than an hour to reach the town of Dolen, traveling 242 to H59, taking 105 from Cleveland.

All 25000 acres are located in Liberty County, about equidistant between Houston and Beaumont.  There are five public tracts available to the public3, but our little adventure was not a public one. We visited places in the preserve specifically suitable for identifying the diversity and quantity of butterfly species, serving as a comparable benchmark from year to year. These count expeditions also help to measure the relative health of the preserve itself from year to year.

The first stop was in a tall mostly yellow field, full of blooming Golden Rod plants with Ruellas acting as a host for the Buckeye. This field was only our start. I believe we identified some 8 species of butterflies here alone and several species in large abundance!     

This blooming plant is I believe is called a Ruellia, the host for the Buckeye caterpillar, larval stage of the Buckeye butterfly shown below.

The Pearl Crescent was common to see. It added to the delight of spotting traditional well-known butterflies amidst varied other, less familiar species.

On this day, I never saw one single Monarch, and only two were spotted by the group. Maybe they had already migrated or had left to the coast in preparation for migration.

The Common Buckeye was everywhere in the field. We saw many of its caterpillars consuming the Ruellas. We sighted 232 individuals, the largest number of any one species. A better appreciation of the colors on the caterpillar can be derived from the next photo.

In this photo, one can see the beginnings of the colors of the Buckeye which will be evident when it morphs into a butterfly.

Next we went into the deep forest to a long clearing adjacent to the forest edge, where one butterfly species was first spotted in southeast Texas last year. This time we did not find that butterfly, but chances are, it is close by and hopefully thriving in and on the edge of the forest. maybe next year ...
One of my favorites is this gorgeous species, the Red-spotted Purple which we first observed a few yards into the forest at this location.

Everywhere we went the Gulf Fritillary appeared. This male was typical of the newly morphed butterflies in abundance there. The male is much more striking than the female, but both are readily identified in flight. We counted 201 unique sightings this day, second highest count for one species.

We also observed the caterpillar of this Fritillary on its native host, the Passion Flower.

You've seen the Golden Rod plant here in The Woodlands. It is just beginning to bloom on the pond behind my home. In the refuge, these plants are everywhere in open spaces - along the roads and in fields where trees are sparse or not present at all. The butterflies use it as a food source.

This unusual beauty was the only one I saw, but he was a showoff.

Of significance to this preserve, is its rare bat population.5 The Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bat is quite special, so the preserve has taken extraordinary measures to protect its small but now thriving population. These bats typically live in cavities within large tree trunks but took up residence in an old broken down house on the preserve. To protect them from harm, two bat houses were built as shown in this photograph. One is  placed in the shade and the other in the sun to ensure success with this endeavor. Since these bats do not migrate, we were able to view them, because the houses are located near one of our count areas. The refuge is host to many other bats as well.
At the end of the day, we tallied our observations and parted our ways, to gather again  year to repeat the counting process. Additional photographs of this adventure is placed on the this website for your viewing. Some species may not be identified since I have not had time to finish editing the photo captions. I have to do verifications since I am not nearly an expert in the field of butterflies. Nevertheless, I felt this article was a worthwhile presentation to share some remarkable work and care of our natural resources.  
I recommend you visit the web page of the refuge (below) for a more detailed account of what is available there for a day trip from the Houston, Beaumont, Conroe, and surrounding areas. You will not be disappointed.

References and Links
1. Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge
2. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services
3. Directions to the five public areas
4 BEST (Butterfly) Website
Mammals of the Trinity River Wildlife Refuge

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