Late summer is not the greatest time for watching birds in our area. It is too early for most fall migrants and winter birds, and many of the summer visitors are gone by now.
To me, the most exciting thing about this time of year is looking for Pygmy Blue butterflies. These tiny orange and blue creatures can be seen in our neck of the woods in August and September. You can find them flying low around light green Russian Thistle plants — also known as tumbleweeds.
According to my research, the Western Pygmy Blues are the second smallest butterflies in the world. The diameter across both forewings ranges from about half to three-quarters of an inch. Think of the size of a dime — T-I-N-Y! How wonderful that we can see them here in Turlock.
Although I have lived in the San Joaquin Valley my entire life, I did not know these wee butterflies existed until about 10 years ago. My husband Oly and I first discovered them at Rooster Ranch, a shooting club along the Merced River near Hatfield Park. They were flying around some low growing plants. We first thought they were flies of some sort. Upon closer inspection, we realized they were actually butterflies.
Later I learned that Russian Thistles are a host plant for the tiny caterpillars of this species. Native host plants include Saltbush. I have yet to see the larval form, but the adults can be found in or near patches of tumbleweeds. You may see them fluttering around, or perching on a plant, if you are lucky — and patient.
The Pygmy Blue butterflies seem to also feed on the miniature yellow flowers of the Russian Thistle plants. This makes perfect sense — tiny little flowers for tiny little butterflies.
Along with the Pygmy Blues, I often see pretty blue damselflies and green shield bugs. It is not unusual to see cabbage white butterflies or black and white checkered skippers, as well. If a tumbleweed has aphids, there may be ladybugs on it.
So I invite you to seek out the nearest tumbleweed patch. Take your kids or grandkids, or your neighbor, and go on a little butterfly adventure. (Pun intended.) I think you will be glad you did.