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Anita’s Blog – The Art of Matchmaking

Updated: Dec 6, 2023


Black Willow. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The marriage of Mikania scandens and Condica confederata and the art of matchmaking was a bit too long for the title.


Matching insects and other wildlife to their food choices and vice versa is fascinating. It’s also a necessity for those who want to cultivate a wild haven for some of the Valley’s critters – be it butterflies, bobcats, to bats and birds – beginning with the small stuff, like flying insects: beetles, butterflies, moths, flies, ants wasps – yes, all that.


So, what came first, the plants or the wildlife?


This post will not attempt to answer that question, just pique your interest if you’re thinking of adding to your native landscape while the weather is cooler – the perfect time of year for planting in the Rio Grande Valley, which allows greater success for plants and trees to establish.


The more I find to photograph the more appreciation I have for stray plants that seem to present themselves as the land goes from flood and freeze to drought and stifling heat, bringing interesting wildlife with it.


Mikania scandens is the scientific name for climbing hempweed, a vining, flowering plant in the Asteraceae family that is a host plant to The Confederate moth, Condica confederata. In 2019, long before I discovered the moth, I found a pop-up plant wending its way through a black willow, Salix nigra, tree at the edge of the resaca. I kept it because I thought it was talayote, Cynanchum racemosum, a milkweed vine with lovely large heart-shaped leaves and big plump teardrop seed pods nearly four inches long. It wasn’t talayote; it was climbing hempweed and the leaves were just as lovely.


Climbing hempweed, Mikania scandens. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The Confederate moth, Condica confederata. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

By time the Texas Fall Pollinator BioBlitz came along that year, white peacock butterflies, bees and Harrisina coracina moths were storming the flowers like starving jackdaws to fresh kill.

Climbing hempvine is a branching vine popular in butterfly gardens that can cover other vegetation if not curtailed. It also is a host plant for the larvae of the little metalmark butterfly.


Climbing hempweed is certainly a nectar source for Harrisina coracina moths, although the moth’s host plants include sorrelvine, cissus trifoliata AKA (locally) possum grape, marine vine and cow itch vine; peppervine, Ampelopsis arborea; and further north of the Valley, common grape vine, vitis vinifera.


Harrisina coracina moth. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Peppervine, Ampelopsis arborea, is in the grape family. It is often confused with poison ivy. Aggie horticulture at tamu.edu calls it a vigorous plant – interpret that as you may. Newly emerging leaves are purplish-red and change to light and then dark green as they mature. Berries attract birds and large mammals. Here’s why you might want this vine – in small amounts: It is host to mournful sphinx and other species of sphinx moths throughout the eastern half of Texas, according to Weber, J and Weber, L “Native Host Plants for Texas Moths,” a relatively new book you also might want – available at local nature park gift stores or at this link:https://www.tamupress.com/book/9781623499860/native-host-plants-for-texas-moths/


Peppervine, Ampelopsis arborea. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

If you believe opposites attract, you’ll like this: Royal poinciana graphic moth is completely drab looking. It feeds on, not surprisingly, the royal poinciana tree, Delonix regia – often touted as one of the five most beautiful trees in the world. The tree is native to Madagascar and somewhat popular in the Rio Grande Valley. Sadly, it doesn’t often survive a winter with freeze.


Royal Poinciana Graphic Moth. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Royal Poinciana tree, Delonix regia. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Further matchmaking in this Circle of Life from our rich land, Texas ebony, Ebenopsis ebano, plays a big role. Syssphinx blanchardi, or Blanchard’s silkmoth, with a wingspan to three inches, is a moth in the Royal Moth family whose range is southmost Texas, Cameron and Hidalgo counties and Mexico. My first sighting of this awesome moth was September 12, 2023, again on October 10 and I was fortunate the moth showed up on October 22, for the 2023 Texas Pollinator BioBlitz.


Texas Ebony, Ebenopsis ebano. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Syssphinx blanchardi, or Blanchard’s silkmoth. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

BugGuide.net mentions that “Texas ebony is likely the only natural host plant in the U.S., however larvae readily accept a variety of other legumes. The moth is usually uncommon in the Valley but may sometimes appear in good numbers in places like Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Sabal Palm Sanctuary. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined the species was not endangered or threatened. Texas considers this a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN).”


Texas ebony also is a host plant for coyote cloudywing, a butterfly whose range is central Texas on down to Panama and not yet a butterfly in my photo archives.


Circling back to the black willow, Salix nigra, a small flock of groove-billed ani returned to our yard this summer after a ten-year absence and one showed up the other day to entertain me as it hopped around the slender branches of a young black willow. Also called Gulf black willow, swamp willow and Saus, they are a fast-growing short-lived tree that can grow 17 feet tall in one summer and eventually reach heights to 60 feet.


Groove-billed Ani in young Black Willow, Salix nigra. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Black willow trees are usually found near bodies of water. As our resaca dried up in the drought of summer, many black willow trees sprouted along the banks. Black willows are larval hosts to Acadian hairstreak, mourning cloak, viceroy, red-spotted purple, and tiger swallowtail butterflies and are of special value to honeybees. The tree is dioecious: male and female flowers are on separate plants.


Black Willow flower buds. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Mourning Cloak butterfly. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Young stems are very flexible and used in basket making – anyone so inclined is certainly welcome to our young black willows – one stipulation, you have to take the whole tree, which isn’t too difficult; trunks are still only about two inches in diameter. Two such trees are on their way to a Weslaco RV Park to be used as lighted golfcart parade decorations.


Those trees left in the ground are useful for attracting birds and butterflies. I was especially excited to see the ani’s return as it bobbed around the stems, gleaning insects for a hasty photo shoot. Just as I was ready to take another shot, a shadow graced a path over the tree and the ani dived into the lower brush. I raised the camera and managed a couple of unfocused shots of the culprit – a Northern Harrier hawk – not the first sighting this winter.


Less than stellar photo of Northern Harrier. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The groove-billed ani was wise to dip into the dry resaca bed as the threat flew out from the fallow farm field. Northern harriers wintering in the southern part of their range eat rats, mice, shrews and songbirds – whether an ani is considered a songbird, it wasn’t splitting hairs/feathers with the large predator.



North American Least Shrew. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Grooved-billed anis, cuckoos and the greater roadrunner are in the Cuculidae Family. Groove-billed anis and cuckoos are flexible eaters, mostly consisting of insects and small animals but they also eat fruits and seeds. Groove-billed anis will hop along through bushes and small trees and flush out insects and lizards.


Our ani showed itself again after the Northern harrier flew beyond the tree line and spent an enjoyable time pecking around the top of Southern annual saltmarsh aster, Symphyotrichum divaricatum, shrubs the size of small cars. No mention was found as to being host to anything, however, all that lovely dense vegetation and multitude of flowers harbor numerous wildlife from insects to small mammals, feeding insect- and seed-eating birds.


Groove-billed Ani in Southern Annual Saltmarsh Aster. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Known prey of groove-billed anis, according to allaboutbirds.org, include cockroaches, ticks, ants, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, beetles and spiders.


I (and the ani) heard the call of another groove-billed ani on the far bank; it jetted off to join its friend.


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