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Butterfly bonanza at Mission Trails Regional Park

By Audrey F. Baker

Eighty percent of our region’s rainfall occurs between December and March, bringing an annual average of around 10 inches.

The series of winter rains that began in mid-December and peaked with the deluge of Feb 27, has brought copious spring growth to Mission Trails Regional Park. Trail Guide Bill Edwards recently described our lush and green environs as “a frenzy of new growth.”

The San Diego River’s branches and pools remain luxurious with mosses and algae. Park-wide, blooms are bountiful and new growth aggressive.

Who is better suited to welcome the opulence of flowerings than the park’s butterflies?

Acmon Blue

Butterflies fall into two superfamilies — true butterflies (Papilionoidea) and skippers (Hesperiodidea), and are testament to the diverse and imaginative creativity of Mother Nature. Similar to birds, male butterflies are more colorful.

The diminutive ¾- to 1-inch Acmon Blue (Plebejus acmon) occupies a wide-range of coastal foothill habitats, boasting a long flight period (February–November) and many broods. In its early broods, females show blue. Later, female offspring are predominantly brown.

Males consistently delight park visitors with velvety-blue fore- and hindwings that display narrow black margins accentuated with white fringe. The hindwings are further embellished by an orange band above its margins. In the closed-wing position, an Acmon male masks its iridescent blue, showing only white with black spots and orange hindwing banding.

In the butterfly world, plants divide into two simple groups — food/host plants for caterpillars, and nectar plants for the adults.

Bramble Hairstreak

In the Acmon’s sphere, deerweed (and related species), locoweed, and California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) host their caterpillars. Buckwheat additionally provides energy for the grownups to meet their singular butterfly goal, reproduction. (Duties associated with meeting, mating and making are demanding.) Find this “blue” amid roadside weeds with patchy open dirt areas.

Responding to the lack of parental supervision characteristic of butterflies, Acmon Blue caterpillars have developed a mutualist relationship with ants. Ants afford the larvae protection and are compensated by harvesting the honeydew their growing charges exude.

Our sage and chaparral communities are enlivened by the Mormon metalmark (Apodemia mormo). Also buckwheat enthusiasts, “MMs” employ Eriogonum for both food and nectar. The ¾- to 1 ¼-inch aerialists are a kaleidoscope of orange, black, brown and white, and have huge green eyes. The eggs are flattened pink spheres that mature into purple.

From March to November, Mormon metalmarks can be viewed profiling potential mates. Close, long observations can also be gained as they indulgently nectar on butterweed.

Funeral Duskywing

Their caterpillars have an interesting adaptation. As night feeders, restful days are spent sheltered in leaves tied by silk.

Representing the other superfamily of butterflies, the skippers, the energetic funereal duskywing (Erynnis funeralis) is a frisky, rapid flying, bouncing butterfly with a heavier body build and wide head. It also displays another hallmark that separates its kind from the true butterflies – less coloring.

At 1- to 1¾-inches, the funereal bears a dark, somber coloration. Hindwings display a white edge against almost black wings, broken by translucent spots and brown patches at mid forewings, producing a dusty appearance.

This spread-wing is very watchable, perching with its wings fully extended. Varied habitat choices and many broods allow frequent viewing from February to October.

The lifecycle begins on deerweed (Lotus scoparius) and pea family members (Fabaceae) and evolves into favorite nectaring choices of sunflowers, yerba santa and black sage (Salvia mellifera). Find it in open or disturbed areas, or sipping moisture and minerals from moist mud.

Mormon Metalmark (Photos by Gerry Tietje)

Like time, butterflies are fleeting. The bramble hairstreak (Callophrys dumetorum) exemplifies the adage. A denizen of coastal sage scrub and chaparral to the desert’s edge, it debuts in February and bids adieu at April’s end. Its flight-time is coordinated with the bloom of its food plants, deerweed, wild lilac (Cenaothus), and the duo-acting (food and nectar plant) buckwheat.

Producing one brood annually, the species overwinters as pupas, hiding in leaf litter at the base of its food plants.

Iridescent bright lime-green wings, balanced with medium brown, give a camouflage effect when poised on a plant.

The bramble is definitely calendar conscious. Described as the “emerald jewel,” its populations fittingly peak around St. Patrick’s Day. They often frequent trailside plants. To view the 7/8- to 1 1/8-inch “green hairstreak” this season, you’ll have to scramble to see the bramble!

Mission Trails Regional Park is home to over 150 butterfly species. We wish you happy year-long sightings.

—Audrey F. Baker is trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park. Check the MTRP events calendar published here or at mtrp.org or call 619-668-3281 for more information on the park’s free trail guide-led nature walks and opportunities to learn more about natural Southern California. Special walks can be arranged for any club, group, business or school by contacting Ranger Chris Axtmann at 619-668-2746 or at caxtmann@mtrp.org.

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