BETSY BLANEY,Associated Press
LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — Researchers are looking into whether two rare nature sightings in West Texas — including a butterfly spotted in the U.S. for the first time — could indicate other hidden populations in the remote Davis Mountains devastated in 2011 by massive wildfires.
A climate researcher found a spotless comma butterfly in late May about 1,000 miles away from its normal range near Mexico City. Another spotter found two nests of long-eared owls — a species seen in Texas but not known to nest there.
Experts aren’t sure whether changing climate or other factors prompted the butterfly and the owls to find refuge in the state’s Trans Pecos region. But it’s possible the owls are long-time residents to the mountains — discovered only because wildfires spanning thousands of acres thinned out foliage that kept the birds under cover.
“The Davis Mountains are just a special place,” said Rich Kostecke, associate science director for the Nature Conservancy of Texas. “When you protect the habitats you just provide that opportunity, certainly maintain the rare species. This may be a place new species show up because of the habitat.”
The North American Butterfly Association confirmed a spotless comma had been seen in late May by West Texas climate researcher Cathryn Hoyt.
Hoyt, who directs studies at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute at Fort Davis, said she made the discovery while studying pollinators of rare plants in the mountains, about 200 miles southeast of El Paso. She is not sure if there is an unknown spotless comma population in the region or if what she saw was a lone butterfly blown north from its usual range.
The top of the wings of the butterfly, known in science circles as Polygonia haroldii, are orange and the underside is a darker brown.
“So how it got up here we don’t know,” she said, adding that the climate in the two spots is similar.
The owls were recently found in nests by researchers working within the 30,000-acre Nature Conservancy of Texas preserve. As many as four chicks were found in one nest and two were found in the other, Kostecke said.
While the species’ population is not imperiled, Kostecke said the discovery is significant because the crow-sized owls usually leave Texas by the winter or spring to nest in the Northern Plains, Dakotas, Rocky Mountains and Canada.
Kostecke said a conservancy member spotted them while doing bird surveys to monitor the effects of the ongoing drought and large wildfires near Fort Davis two years ago.
The owls, known scientifically as Asio otus, could have been there for years and become more visible as the fire thinned out foliage on tree branches, Kostecke said.
“You might see them in the winter and you get into the spring and they disappear,” Kostecke said. “The potential exciting aspect of this, if conditions remain good, we could actually have a population breeding in Texas, which would be fairly noteworthy.”
On the Net:
Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute: http://cdri.org
The Nature Conservancy of Texas: http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/texas/index.htm