MISSION, Texas (Reuters Life!) - Armed with binoculars it takes to the bush to spot and identify winged creatures but this is not the common bird watcher -- it’s the butterfly watcher, a relatively rare but fast growing species.
At the North American Butterfly Association’s (NABA) International Butterfly Park in Mission, Texas, butterfly watchers with close focusing binoculars can get within spitting range of their target.
Over 170 species of butterfly have been identified in this tiny tract alone, underscoring the importance of proper habitat for wildlife diversity -- and making the reserve and the surrounding area a huge draw for butterflying enthusiasts.
“That’s a brown longtail,” said Javier DeLeon, an affable naturalist at the 100-acre park that was established in 2002.
“It’s called that because it’s brown and has a long tail. It’s the first one I learned,” he said with a broad grin.
The International Butterfly Park is transforming former farm land into its original state through the re-vegetation of native plant species such as Texas ebony.
Nature enthusiasts realized the potential draw of the area with the four Texas counties along the Lower Rio Grande Valley in southeast Texas home to 300 species of butterflies -- more species than are found in the rest of the United States east of the Mississippi.
Keith Hackland, who runs a nearby bed and breakfast, said interest has really taken off in the past two years.
“In October and November, which is prime time for viewing butterflies here, I am fully booked and it is just butterfliers. And that has only been over the last two years,” he said.
A recent brief visit to the park produced several sightings including queen butterflies which closely resemble monarchs with their black-lined orange wings flecked with white spots.
A two-barred flasher with bright blue on its back and part of its wings was also seen as well as a giant swallowtail.
“The biodiversity that we have here is huge because of the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the dry desert on the other on the fringe of the tropics,” said Dr Sue Sill, a botanist who is the park’s executive director.
Having an expert on hand like DeLeon helps but there are now several illustrated field guides to help identify butterflies -- an indication of the pursuit’s growing popularity.
There are no hard numbers but NABA president Jeffrey Glassberg reckons there are now about 20,000 fairly serious butterfliers in America up from a few dozen just 30 years ago.
“There were maybe 100 field people with nets in the United States before the 1980s. We now have 4,500 members and 33 chapters,” he said by telephone.
What’s the main attraction?
Many American bird watchers have ticked off about all of the feathered species they can hope to see in their region and need a new challenge but there are also other attractions.
“They are like birds but you don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to see them. You can walk right up to them and they are associated with beautiful meadows,” said Glassberg.
“They only fly when it is sunny and warm. You don’t have to deal with the snow and the ice and the rain.”
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