MARBLE FALLS, Texas - If you want to get in touch with nature without roughing it, keep an eye out for orange and black in this Hill Country area.
The colors mean the monarch butterflies are back, taking a break on their southbound journey to Mexico.In nature, as in life, there are no guarantees. But the vanguard of the winged migrants usually arrives in Texas in late September and early October, with peak migration in mid-October.
Unless the butterflies rest in a greenbelt or garden near you, Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge near Austin is a fairly reliable place for seeing them.
On Oct. 11, preceding National Wildlife Refuge Week (Oct. 12-19), Balcones plans a butterfly celebration among the day's activities. There will be an opportunity for visitors to catch monarchs in nets and tag them at Doeskin Ranch, near Balcones' headquarters.
The tags are used to monitor the migration. "They're like Social Security numbers," says Rob Iski, an outdoor recreation planner at the refuge.
Migrating monarchs travel 300 to 400 miles daily with tailwinds.
"It's weather-dependent how far they can go," says Mr. Iski.
If the creatures hit a headwind, they rest and refuel with nectar from flowers.
Those who witness the migration are seeing something unusual. Because of the monarch's relatively short lifespan, "it's five or six generations making this annual cycle," says Mr. Iski. Those insects that start the trip are not those that finish it. The route and urge to travel are instinctive in each flier.
The 22,000-acre Balcones is one of five national wildlife refuges (two in Kansas, one each in Iowa and Florida) that make up the Monarch Butterfly Sister Protected Area Network. The coalition works on habitat preservation, research, public outreach and more. (Some monarchs spend winter in Florida and California.)
The Balcones refuge, which Mr. Iski says may see monarchs into November, has increased the likelihood of the stopovers by planting milkweed outside its headquarters. If you visit, you might be welcomed by monarch chrysalides (butterfly cocoons) hanging near the entrance.
"We just had no idea we were in this spot" for monarch migration, says refuge manager Deborah Holle.
When the weather cooperates, Ms. Holle says, thousands of monarchs flit about the refuge's flowers throughout the day, drinking nectar for their long migration to Mexico.
"At other times," she says, "the wind carries them high overhead and they don't stop at Balcones to nectar. Rather, we see them flying and gliding as spots of orange and black on their way south to their overwintering sites."
There's plenty to see if monarchs are scarce when you visit, or if you want to see the refuge at other times of year. Trails at Warbler Vista, part of the refuge, offer beautiful views. Shin Oak Observation Deck has a gazebo prime for watching birds, especially painted buntings in spring. They're one of about 200 species recorded at the refuge.
"We've actually had birds nesting near the deck," Ms. Holle says.
Information cards around the gazebo show visitors what they're seeing or might see: northern cardinal, black-capped vireo, yellow-breasted chat.
The Doeskin Ranch portion of Balcones is central to its kickoff for National Wildlife Refuge Week. In addition to the possibility of netting monarchs, nature walks and a photography workshop are planned.
Butterflies to birds and beyond, it all has a goal.
"If you can't get people to see wildlife, how are they going to love it?" Ms. Holle asks.
Getting thereTo reach Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge from Dallas, take I-35E South toward Waco to I-35. Exit 256 (Chandler Road/FM 1431) and turn right. Proceed for several miles. If you want to go to the reserve headquarters first (open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), don't turn at the first refuge sign you see, which will be Warbler Vista. Keep going up the road until you see the rust-colored gates on your right.
National Wildlife Refuge WeekThe kickoff event is from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 11 at the refuge's Doeskin Ranch on RR 1174. Groups must register. Most activities are free. Call Rob Iski at 512-339-9432, ext. 70.
More informationEven if you can't make it to Balcones, you can monitor monarchs from your back yard. Contact Monarch Watch ( ) for tagging kits.
The Dallas County Lepidopterists' Society takes trips to see a variety of butterflies in North Texas. Contact: .