In Selvi’s Backyard

May 6, 2021

By Steven J. Cary

First, I sincerely tip my hat to all of you who have reached back and told me how much you enjoy reading this blog. My last post was probably a bit of a downer, but your feedback, whether thumbs-up or thumbs-down, delivered via email, PEEC comment, or in person, is a real upper for me. It tells me are you are reading and that makes the whole endeavor worth the effort. Butterflies and butterflyers will experience high times and low times and everything in between. Such is life. Despite dry, cool, windy, dusty conditions, you are still going outside, seeing butterflies and sharing your experiences. The least I can do is write about it; I suppose that is the itch I must scratch.

Second, Waterwise Gardening LLC recently has had for sale some Asclepias tuberosa (Butterflyweed) that appears to be our native, high elevation variety. Its flowers are yellow-gold in color, not brilliant orange like it is back East. They call it Asclepias tuberosa ‘Pure Gold’ (Pure Gold Orange Butterfly Weed) and sell 2″ pots for $5.95. I purchased three and they are very small, just emerging from dormancy, but they grow a little each day and I look forward to planting them in a few weeks.

Elaine Halbedel, of Silver City, reported decent butterfly numbers and diversity near the top of the Black Range, for example in Railroad Canyon, and in the Pinos Altos Mountains of Grant County, where several duskywings showed well. Farther south, Las Crucians are accustomed to hot and dry, so C.J. Goin and Judy Lazarus Yellon continued to get out in April, take photos, and submit them to BAMONA. Elaine’s recent sojourn in the Organ Mountains on April 30, however, produced zilch over 8 miles of trail (ouch). Farther north, many of our regular spring species, including Southwestern Orangetip and Spring White have been sighted, for example in Selvi’s Los Alamos garden (see more below) and elsewhere. Now we’re into Spring Azures, Mountain Checkered-skippers, Short-tailed Skippers, and Western Green Hairstreaks. If not in good numbers, they are at least present and accounted for. That is no small comfort as, apparently, we careen toward a potential climate (and ecology) apocalypse.

Southwestern Orangetip male (Anthocharis thoosa) Los Alamos, Los Alamos Co., NM; April 7, 2021. (Photo by Selvi Viswanathan)

There have been some pleasant surprises spring, too. Rebecca Gracey and Joe Schelling found Gold-Headed Scallopwing west of Socorro. For that Chihuahuan Desert species this is a northward range extension, a first for Socorro County, and maybe a hint as to how some species, following their hostplants, of course, may adapt to warmer, drier conditions. Then Rene and Christyna Laubach found Desert Marble in Bandelier National Monument, on the Sandoval County side. Yes, Desert Marble is a critter of well-studied southwest New Mexico, but also of our less-well-known northwest quadrant. Its eastern limit has been vaguely defined by the Taos Plateau, but why is it not also east of the Jemez Mountains on the Pajarito Plateau? Thankfully, Rene and Christyna have put that riddle to bed. Now I wonder if/when it will be found in Los Alamos and Santa Fe counties, which have similar habitats only a few miles away. Sounds like a good project for next spring! You can see their photos by going to BAMONA and searching for those species.

My own recent week of April 20 with Marcy and friends in and around the Bears Ears in southeastern Utah, west of Blanding, was delightful in many ways: landscape, weather, camping, and socializing. In terms of butterflies, however, it was a familiar result; they were few, and far between. The most pleasant surprise was several Yucca Giant-Skipper, probably Four Corners subspecies Megathymus yuccae navajo, flying noisy circles around each other along the bottom of Road Canyon. Overall we saw 6 or 7 early spring butterfly species, most in low numbers. Mourning Cloaks may have been most numerous, but that was no surprise given the time of year and the ribbons of willow along canyon watercourses. Setting that species aside, I found it curious that caterpillar hostplants for the butterflies I saw included a deep-rooted tree (Gambel Oak for Rocky Mountain Duskywing), a parasite on a deep-rooted tree (mistletoe on juniper for Great Purple Hairstreak), a water-storing yucca (the giant skipper), and a drought-tolerant shrub (Fourwing Saltbush for Saltbush Sootywing), but I saw zero butterflies that were hosted by forbs or grasses. Might the growth form (i.e., root system) of its larval hostplant guide or constrain how each butterfly species navigates a drought? It makes a person wonder. Or maybe I just need a new contact lens prescription.

‘Navajo’ Yucca Giant-Skipper (Megathymus yuccae navajo) Road Canyon, San Juan Co., UT; April 22, 2021. (Photo by Steve Cary)

Natural habitats in much of New Mexico continue to be severely stressed by drought and our butterflies are mostly dormant, making them hard to find in nature. Meanwhile, many people are watering their home gardens and landscaping. While working in my backyard a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a Juniper Hairstreak at a damp spot, and then a Spring White flew by. In terms of butterfly numbers and diversity, human habitats don’t hold a candle to natural, wild habitats, most of the time. At the moment, however, as dry as it is out there, suburban backyards can be oases of habitat, with sun, shelter, nectar, hostplants, and even butterflies.

Speaking of backyards, I want to introduce and recognize one of New Mexico’s most active and accomplished backyard butterfly photographers: Selvi Viswanathan, of Los Alamos. She and I each fell under the spell of former Los Alamos naturalist Dorothy Hoard. Perhaps 30 years ago, Dorothy initiated a NABA butterfly count for the Los Alamos community (one of the first in New Mexico) and I was happy to participate as an “authority” while she encouraged local participation. Many Los Alamoseños followed Dorothy’s lead and that community developed a very engaged butterfly education, gardening, and photography group. Despite Dorothy’s tragic and untimely passing in 2014, the group remains active thanks in large part to spirited support from the Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC), also called the Los Alamos Nature Center.

Selvi caught Dorothy’s infectious enthusiasm for butterflies in 2005 and soon began to focus her resulting energy and efforts in her own backyard. By 2010 she was constructing her own butterfly gardens, including a special Memorial Garden for her dear mother’s centenary birthday in May of that year. Dorothy helped Selvi write an article about it, which NABA’s Butterfly Gardener published in 2011.

Dorothy Hoard and Selvi Viswanathan, July 7, 2010. (Photo by Mary Carol Williams)

After reading that butterflies like flowers on which they can stand easily while getting nectar, Selvi planted pink and white yarrow, black-eyed Susan and purple coneflower, purple and white Buddleias, showy milkweed, and bee balm. Selvi could tell you in great detail which butterflies visit which flowers, but allow me to summarize: her plantings of daylilies, Jupiter’s beard, and scarlet bugler penstemon regularly attract Tiger Swallowtails and Silver-spotted Skippers, which have long proboscides. Meanwhile, blues and hairstreaks flock to her indigo bush. She is particularly glad to have purple coneflower and bee balm which, in addition to attracting butterflies, also do not require much water compared to black-eyed Susan. Selvi admits to tolerating some weeds like dandelion, white clover, and alfalfa because the blues “love them.” Monarchs like to visit her Chamisa, or rabbitbrush, in late summer and autumn.

Like most butterfly gardeners, Selvi has had mixed results trying to grow her own butterflies by installing butterfly larval host plants in her garden. She has successfully tempted Black Swallowtails to place eggs on Rue, but not on either dill or parsley, which theoretically also work well for that butterfly. Another plus, Mourning Cloak seems to be using her aspen as a host, and last year she observed half a dozen chrysalids — a major success! This year, to encourage Monarch reproduction, Selvi is planting more milkweeds.

Mourning Cloak chrysalis (Nymphalis antiopa) May 24, 2020. (Photo by Selvi Viswanathan)

Along her butterfly gardening journey, Selvi’s observing skills and tools matured. When she found close-focus binoculars to be troublesome, her son Hari, an accomplished nature photographer, suggested she try a camera instead. So in 2010, her husband Nathan bought her a Panasonic Lumix camera. Though neither a professional entomologist nor a professional photographer, Selvi is very outgoing and eager to learn from others. She soon became a frequent contributor to the PEEC butterfly watchers email group, in which members share photos and locations, and solicit identification advice and suggestions.

In 2013, noticing her deepening devotion to butterfly photography, Hari gave her a more professional instrument: a Canon 80d with a 300mm F4 lens and a 1.4x tele-extender. Her photography skills and enthusiasm blossomed accordingly. One result was that editor Jane Hurwitz put one of Selvi’s images on the cover of NABA’s Butterfly Gardener magazine for Fall 2016 (see below).

Selvi’s cover of Butterfly Gardener, Fall 2016.

Last year, Juniper Hairstreak and Gray Hairstreak came to Selvi’s pink yarrows and purple coneflowers, and also spent several hours on black-eyed Susans. Naturally, Selvi was out there coaxing one photo after another. I love Selvi’s resulting shot of Juniper Hairstreak, below. In the long view it is an aesthetically pleasing image that features a small, green, triangle of a butterfly perched on a broad, yellow flower, like the cherry on a hot fudge sundae. Then I can zoom in or crop away most of the flower and still have a remarkably detailed, high-resolution image of the hairstreak itself, showing all the field marks and suitable for inclusion in the Butterflies of New Mexico web pages.

Juniper Hairstreak on Black-eyed Susan, Los Alamos, NM; July 6, 2020. (Photo by Selvi Viswanathan)
Juniper Hairstreak on Black-eyed Susan, Los Alamos, NM; July 6, 2020. (Photo by Selvi Viswanathan)

Some of us butterfly photographers are content to make the images and enjoy the experience — that has been me for most of my life. Selvi does that and then takes one more step by putting her work out there in the world. She seeks opportunities to show her photos and get feedback. That comes with risks of rejection, of course, but her gardening awards and magazine cover demonstrate that good things can result, too. Several of her images are included in the pages of Butterflies of New Mexico and, as much as I appreciate that she makes her photos available for that purpose, she seems even more appreciative that I find a productive use for them. That, by the way, describes most of you, too. :^)

Selvi is a person of action, a doer, and her many past and ongoing butterfly adventures are too numerous to catalog here, for example, her work with Monarchs in the Los Alamos area. Nevertheless, I hope this brief post provides some insights into her rewarding life among the butterflies — her Crown Jewels, as she calls them — and into her contributions to appreciating and understanding New Mexico butterflies.

Unfailingly modest and gracious, Selvi asked that I express her undying gratitude to Dorothy Hoard for starting her down this path of beauty, personal growth, and discovery. I have helped Selvi from the beginning, too, primarily to identify the butterflies she photographs. One of my most active email correspondents in that regard, she frequently thanks me with butterfly emojis, which always make me smile. Selvi, I can assure you that your focus, eagerness, and gratitude make the process a joy for me, too. 🦋🦋🦋🦋!

Selvi acknowledges additional assistance and guidance from many people and organizations. Notably, gardener Joe Vangese has been her patient garden helper since 1985. She also has a particularly close and productive working relationship with the Pajarito Environmental Education Center, with their various butterfly and pollinator gardens, and with the venerable Natali Steinberg, one of their premier volunteers and their primary garden caretaker. Selvi’s other invaluable butterfly and gardening friends and colleagues include Charles “Chick” Keller, Rozelle Wright, Jenna Stanek, Michelle Altherr, Terry Foxx, Becky Shankland, Esta Lee Albright, Pat Bacha, Jane Hurwitz, the Los Alamos Garden Club, and the New Mexico Garden Club.

Hey! In case you did not recognize it, that was rain that fell on some of you New Mexicans several days ago. Did you notice? I’ll see you out there in the north-central mountains or the eastern plains in a couple weeks — got to give the water time to soak in.

25 thoughts on “In Selvi’s Backyard”

  1. Selvi, my “Nature Girl”
    This article so well written by Steven is a lovely tribute to your work. Who wouldn’t love beautiful .
    You and Dorothy with your beaming smiles seems to be competing with the beauty of the butterflies. Keep clicking
    I am proud of you my friend.

  2. Very well written article. Thank you Steve! I can’t believe my mother went from being intimidated by the camera in 2013 to becoming one of the best butterfly photographers in NM today. Proud of you!

  3. The photo graphs of Selvi Viswanathan was amazing .Her work is highly credited appreciated for the nature lovers like me .Let the almighty make her to explore many more in born talents with in her .I heartfelt wishes today that’s too her mother’s birthday

  4. The photo graphs of Selvi Viswanathan was amazing .Her work is highly credited appreciated for the nature lovers like me .Let the almighty make her to explore many more in born talents with in her .I heartfelt wishes today that’s too her mother’s birthday

  5. Brilliant photographs. The article introduces so many names of butterflies to a person like me ignorant about butterflies who knows nothing more than admiring their beauty. Mrs Selvi Viswanathan’s enthusiasm is an inspiration to youngsters. Loved the blog.

  6. Thank you very much, Mr. Cary, for your detailed write up on the silent efforts of Mrs. Selvi towards preservation of ecology in New Mexico. I consider myself blessed that I stayed at the home of the Viswanathans to have a first hand experience of the Butterfly Garden and the Warblers Pond at their beautiful home in Los Alamos. Also my visit to the PEEC gave me a deep and enlightening insight into the all round conservation work done by the enthusiasts at Los Alamos & New Mexico in general. I am in great awe of the pioneering efforts by Mrs. Selvi .I wish her all the very best in her future innovations too. May her latent talent blossom fully along with her efforts at environment preservation. Wishing you and your wonderful team all the success , Mr. Cary.

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