Sunday, March 27, 2011

Spring (Butterfly) Beauties

Spring has definitely “sprung” here at the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Many flowers are in bloom, and native butterflies are taking full advantage of the bounty of nectar. We are now up to forty (yes, 40) confirmed butterfly species seen on the grounds. Recent observations have yielded some surprises, including one supposedly rare species of skipper.

The “usual suspects” are here: Pipevine Swallowtail, Giant Swallowtail, Checkered White, Southern Dogface, Sleepy Orange, Dainty Sulphur, Gray Hairstreak (image above), Marine
Blue, Reakirt’s Blue, Fatal Metalmark, Gulf Fritillary, Texan Crescent, American Snout, and Painted Lady. What is new, then? Plenty.

One of the more startling species I spotted a couple weeks ago was a Desert Orangetip, Anthocharis cethura. Just as I focused my camera on it, away it flew. That figures. I haven’t seen one since, either.

Another mild surprise was a Mourning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa (image below). This large, black butterfly with a creamy border is more typical of riparian areas since it feeds on willow in the caterpillar stage. This male specimen was frequenting the bird garden. He perched where he had a good vantage point and darted out after any intruder, especially other butterflies like Pipevine Swallowtails. After a brief chase he returned to the same area he started from. He even alighted on a visitor’s ballcap while I was watching.

The real shockers have come from the skippers in the family Hesperiidae. Sure, the Fiery Skipper, Orange Skipperling, Common Checkered-Skipper, and Eufala Skipper are common enough, but I’ve seen other species that I would not expect here. The first of these was a Sleepy Duskywing, Erynnis brizo, seen on March 4 (image below). This species feeds on oak as a caterpillar, so it really belongs a couple of thousand feet higher in elevation. There it was, though, on a Dalea blossom in the butterfly garden.

The Funereal Duskywing, Erynnis funeralis, is a much more likely species here at the Gardens. I finally spotted one on March 19, but failed to get a picture. This fast-flying skipper is fairly large. Mostly black, it has a blazing white border along the edge of its hind wing which makes it easily identifiable.

Another surprise was an Arizona Powdered-Skipper, Systasea zampa (image above), sitting on a brick in the barrio garden late in the afternoon of March 6. I initially figured it for a Fatal Metalmark, to which it bears superficial resemblance.

The Golden-headed Scallopwing, Staphylus ceos, also resembles a metalmark at first glance.

The most amazing of all the spring skippers was a Violet-clouded Skipper, Lerodea arabus. It is relatively non-descript (see image below), save for a distinct dark brown patch on the underside of its hind wing. Certainly no violet to be seen! You would think that this would be among the more abundant of butterfly species given that the caterpillar feeds on Bermuda grass, barnyard grass, and other weedy plants. Instead, most reference books list it as “rare.”

Last but not least, I added a species by proxy. One of the visitors to the Butterfly Magic greenhouse, Carolyn Vieira, mentioned to me that she also takes pictures of butterflies on the TBG grounds. I told her I had yet to see a Great Purple Hairstreak, Atlides halesus, and as luck would have it she had a picture she took a couple years ago or so. I still expect to see this spectacular butterfly here myself, but it is nice to have an existing record.

The diversity of wildlife to be found at the Tucson Botanical Gardens continues to astound me. Just in cursory observation I’m closing in on 200 species of animals, from arthropods to apes (we Homo sapiens). The wide variety of plants, and the constant watering no doubt provides a literal oasis for all.


  1. Nice account of the butterflies, particularly as it was accompanied by pictures.


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