2022 September at the National Butterfly Center

Large Orange Sulphur - Phoebis agarithe
Large Orange Sulphurs were just one of many butterfly species that visit the National Butterfly Center, where nearly every planting provides them with sustenance.
Black-Crested Titmouse - Baeolophus atricristatus
Typical among the various members of the Titmouse clan, Black-Crested Titmouse behaves at feeders like a thief; snatching a morsel, and quickly retreating to some nearby hidden perch to hammer open the seeds it loves.

During the last week in September 2022, it was my pleasure to spend several days with friends and visiting wildlife at the National Butterfly Center in Mission Texas. I spent several restful days at this sanctuary enjoying the birds and butterflies.

I’m no butterfly specialist. While it requires patients to photograph butterflies, much like it does for birds, but as fast as birds can be with their rapid and unpredictable movements, these winged beauties take it to a whole new level. Even when perched on a flower, their position is constantly changing, often denying a desirable angle to capture a worthy image. But here, on these hallowed grounds, butterflies are the main attraction. To miss out on an opportunity to enjoy these amazing insects would be a mistake. I didn’t capture as many species as there surely were here, but I was able to get four of them, though it was only a small sample of the array that visited here.

The staff here, led by my friend Stephanie Lopez, work diligently to provide a diverse array of flowering plants to sustain the butterflies, both resident and migrants. Whether it is in the trees, the shrubs, the vines, or the ground cover, all efforts to assure the health of the flora, helps keep the butterflies in good shape.

Those things that keep the bugs healthy, will also benefit the birds. And birds, after all, are the primary quarry I seek. This far upstream from the Gulf of Mexico may not be quite the hotspot for migrating birds that South Padre Island is, but they surely get a share. I get a lot of enjoyment from meeting the resident birds, and few places are as much fun for these meetings as is the National Butterfly Center.

Twice a day, once in the morning, and again in the early afternoon, Stephanie and her team put out food for both birds and butterflies. The butterflies get a sweet beer syrup soaked into log stations scattered throughout the compound. Those species fond of these sweetened offerings, such as the Tawny Emperor, will park themselves on these two or three-inch diameter, three-foot log stations and dine at length in the man-made nectar soaked into the wood. Other species will pay shorter visits, and seem to prefer the bounty of flowers scattered through the grounds.

The birds get fed at a large wonderfully arranged area in the southeastern corner of the property, where hummingbird feeders are hung, and seed offerings are placed in strategic locations. My favorite aspect of the bird-feeding station is the photographer-friendly arrangement of table-and-bench seating behind a roped off barrier. I’ve found that sitting quietly at one of the benches allows wonderful access to the birds as they work to gather those strategically placed seed offerings, or exploit the water at the drip rock at the back of the feeding area. Unlike several other places I’ve visited in the region, where photography is a low-priority after-thought, here is a well-planned arena for both man and beast to enjoy.

Eastern Screech-Owl - Megascops asio
Eastern Screech-Owls haunt the grounds at the National Butterfly Center, but they don’t always show themselves. Several times, I walked past this location without seeing the bird. I was grateful it finally popped up to say hello.

During most of the day, the resident White-Winged Doves are content to perch in the high canopy of nearby trees or on power lines. But they soon begin a descent to the lower canopy around the feeding station after the morning and afternoon replenishments. I find it fun to watch as they overcome their natural shyness, and inch their way to the food source. It takes about a half hour for them to transition slowly down from their high stations, into the surrounding low branches, before finally reaching the food locations. They keep watch from their low perches for 10-20 minutes before one or two descend and land on the seed locations. Soon thereafter, a flood of doves drop in and a feeding frenzy ensues.

A Black-Crested Titmouse or two will drop in to steal a sunflower seed, retreat to a nearby hidden place to hammer open the shell, then return after a few minutes for another round. Orioles will sip from the hummingbird feeders, or sample citrus if it is offered. Cardinals, chachalacas, Green Jays, and grackles will take turns gathering seeds, and Woodpeckers occasionally stop by for a snack. Sometimes a curious wren may pop in for a visit. Though I didn’t see them on this tour, Clay-Colored Thrushes may drop by to do a little shopping of their own. If a raptor buzzes the area, everyone scatters, only to return after the ‘all-clear’ condition has been met.

The National Butterfly Center is privately owned and operated, and independent of any government agency. Given the recent wave of craziness by those who wage war with the environment, a whole new level of vigilance has been required of my friends here. I applaud their courage and commitment to a righteous cause. Preserving what little is left of natural habitat is a noble quest. Especially in a land where those applying pressure to decimate wild areas to turn a dollar’s profit are ruthless in their quest.

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