Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Spring at Last

It's been a very long and difficult winter here in the Midwest.  Spring has finally started to put in an appearance.

Skunk Cabbage!
The Chicago area's first spring flower has come into bloom.

Sandhill Cranes!

The spring bird migration is well underway.


My front yard has burst into bloom.  Now I await the year's first butterfly

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Friday, January 10, 2014

Table Mountain

Table Mountain rises to an elevation of over 3,500 feet right at the edge of urban Cape Town.  Protected as a national park, it is a popular hiking destination.  The flat summit is accessed either through one of a variety of trails or via a cable car.  Leon and I planned to hike up and then return by cable car.  We chose one of the more popular routes and ascended via Platteklip Gorge.

The Trailhead

We were most fortunate with the weather throughout our South Africa trip, and this day was no exception- though the weather was on the warm side.  Our hike took us through some stunningly beautiful coastal fynbos.  I was becoming accustomed to seeing geraniums grow wild in their native habitat.  On this day we would also see gladioli and proteas- and a host of other plants that I could not recognize at all.  I continued to marvel at the incredible beauty of fynbos, and quickly found it becoming one of my all-time favorite ecosystems.

Fynbos on Table Mountain

Geranium (Pelargonium)



Plattenklip Gorge is visible from the trailhead as a narrow notch in the steep escarpment near the summit.  The trail switchbacks up the mountainside, narrowing sharply as it passes through the gorge.  We welcomed several pauses in the cool shade provided by the cliffs that line the gorge.  Butterflies were plentiful but frustrating on this trip.  On the hike up I saw at least a dozen different species.  None were landing, as the very warm air was keeping them all extremely active.

Plattenklip Gorge as seen from the trailhead

View from the gorge

As its name implies Table Mountain is flat at the summit.  The vegetation is surprisingly different from the slopes below.  Gone are the lush shrublands of proteas and other beautiful flowering plants.  The ground is rocky, the vegetation short and sparse.  Bright blue lizards scampered over the rocks.

Summit of Table Mountain

Greetings from the Welcoming Committee

The views out over Cape Town and the Atlantic Ocean are inspiring, and the challenge of the steep climb up allows one to arrive with a sense of having earned the views.

It was at the summit that I was able to- with difficulty- snap a few butterfly photos.  I saw only one Protea Orange, a beautiful member of the lycaenid family whose caterpillars feed on the eponymous plants.

Protea Orange (Capys alphaeus)

After spending a couple of hours at the summit, it was time to return.  At this point we discovered the downside of visiting this popular spot on a gorgeous weekend day.  We had to wait nearly two hours to catch the cable car back down.  Still, the trip was most worthwhile.  I'd gladly make the hike again, though I would probably do so during the week.

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Journey to Cape Town

I've neglected my blog for a long time- but I really want to do a few posts about my recent trip to Cape Town.  I was originally scheduled for a conference.  The conference was cancelled, but Leon and I have long wanted to see South Africa, so off we went.

The flight is reaaaaallly long.  We went via London with a travel time of 23 hours.  We arrived in Cape Town at 7 in the morning on a gorgeous sunny day. We checked into our hotel, and rather than napping to releive jet lag, we jumped right into our rented powder blue Fiat and headed east along the coast of False Bay.

There are spots to pull of of the road for whale viewing.  We didn't see any whales, but we did get a great introduction to fynbos (FEN-bows), the predominant native ecosystem in this part of South Africa.

A coupl1e of cool things about fynbos:  it's one of the most botanically diverse ecosystems on the planet and many of the plants are very familiar house and garden plants.  We saw tons of varieties of geraniums (actually pelargoniums) growing in their native habitats.

Of course there were also butterflies.  We didn't see many on this day. but I did get photos of the Burnished Opal, a South African specialty.

We spet the afternoon driving along the coast, strolling on the rocky shore and enjoying the sunshine, flora, and fauna.  It was an auspicious start to the trip.  Leon was even reasonably patient with me as I learned to drive on the left.

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Desert Butterflies

Leon and i have been doing a fair bit of hiking here in southern California this week.  On Wednesday we ventured down to Anza Borrego State Park.  I was happy that Leon suggested Plum Canyon for our hike, because I've seen several species of butterflies that I'd like to photograph there.

The trail winds up a wash with lots of desert apricot bushes, which give the canyon its name.  There were lots of mint flowers in bloom.  I had been hoping to see Great Purple Hairstreaks and the winter color form of Leda Ministreak.  I saw lots of species of butterflies there- about 15.  The first one that paused long enough to be photographed were a bunch of American Snout butterflies.

After a bit, Leon called over to me that he had found a blue.  Turns out it was a Great Purple Hairstreak.  The good news is that it cooperates as a photographic subject.  The bad news is that it wasn't a good specimen.  It was the only individual we saw all day.

A few minutes later I managed to find a Leda Ministreak.  It was also the only one that I saw- but also a reasonable cooperative subject, and in this case a good specimen.

Plum Canyon is like a wild botanical garden with lots of cacti and other types of attractive plants.


We saw interesting insects other than butterflies, too.  This Tarantula Hawk (Pepsis sp.) preys on live tarantulas.  It stings them, drags the papalyzed spiders back to its burrow and lays eggs in them.  The developing wasp larvae feed on the internal organs of the tarantulas.  Befitting a species with such large prey, the was is huge and has a fearsome sting.  I gave this one a wide berth.  I don't think I have ever seen one in California before, though they are quite common in Arizona.

We finished the hike fairly early.  This was good, because I wanted to visit San Felipe Creek.  Becker's whites fly there, though I don't see them every year.  I have previously gotten one bad photo, and wanted to do better.  I was fortunate.  There were more Becker's Whites flying at the creek than I have ever seen at the same time before.  It was a very satisfying end to the day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Queens Among the Palms

The summer has rushed by.  I just noticed that it's still May at Gossamer Tapestry, and figure that I should change that.  A whole lot has happened over the summer, but right now I'm enjoying the weather in sunny southern California.  Yesterday Leon and I took a hike at Palm Canyon.IT was a lovely day with brillian sunshine and mild temperatures. 

The hummingbird feeder at the trail head was very active.  I felt lucky to get a couple of in-focus shots.  Even at feeders, I find hummingbirds very difficult to photograph. 

The dense palm groves give the area a distinctly tropical feel.  At the same time, you can tell that we are near the solstice at a relatively high latitude.  Even early in the afternoon, the shadows are quite long.

I always enjoy seeing plants that I associate with cooler, wetter climates in the desert oases, like these maidenhair ferns. 

I had told Leon that I was hoping to be able to do at least a bit of insect photography on the hike.There isn't much diversity at this time of the year, but I wasn't disappointed.  I always see Queen butterflies here, but have somehow never managed to get a decent digital image.  I was pleased to see some good specimens today. 

There were also many variegated meadowhawks flying about..There will be much more hiking later in the trip. 

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Carolina in my Mind

I'm just back from a long weekend in the Deep South.  I flew into Atlanta, and spent some time in Georgia, which I have only been in briefly, and South Carolina and Alabama, which I have never visited before.  I first went east to South Carolina.  Day 1 involved insect collecting and photography in Sumter National Forest, where I ran into the population explosion of Question Mark butterflies that I recently blogged about.

Along the banks of the Saluda River, I saw lots of cool bugs, including tiger beetles and southern butterflies, including this Sleepy Orange and Clouded Skipper.  On sweetgum roots that had eroded out of the river bank, I saw a buprestid beetle in the genus Chrysobothris. 

Day 2 in South Carolina I ventured north into the mountains.  My first stop was at Cesar's Head, where I hiked for a couple of hours through the woods during rhododendron time. 

There were lots of spring wildflowers still inbloom, including somepink azaleas and handsome red trilliums.  I also got to see some striped pipsissewa, a favorite woodland plant from my childhood in New England.

My afternoon hike was at Table Mountain.  The rhododendrons had gone by there, but the mountain laurels were in full bloom.

The trail meandered up a watercourse that was punctuated with small waterfalls.  There wasn't much insect life to photograph, but it was still a beautiful day of hiking in the mountains.

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Questions in Dixie

I'm in South Carolina.  I'll blog more later about the travel and my impressions of the state.  One thing that I noticed right away is that the population boom of Red Admirals that we have at home does not extend to this part of the country.  Oh, sure, I've seen a few Red Admirals- but they have gotten lost in the hoards of thousands and thousands of Question Marks.

 I'm not familiar enough with this region to know whether this abundance is unusual, but it has the feel of a population boom to me.  This species is abundant far out of proportion with other species at the moment.  Dirt roads in the area ar filled with thousands of individuals puddling in the gravel.

I'm seeing a lot of other cool stuff as well.  More to come!

This American Lady was lost in the hige crowd of Question Marks

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