Gossamer Tapestry

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

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Cool Luchtime Happening

The weather here has sucked for about a week now. Late this morning the sun came out, so I decided to take a lunchtime stroll around the pond behind the museum. As I approached the pond, about 20 feet away from me a huge redtail hawk swooped out of a tree and nailed a mallard sitting right on the edge of the pond. It's so cool to be exactly in the right place at the right time to be able to witness something like that.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Feeling Meme

Being new to blogging, I'm just getting used to some of the terminology. Apparently a meme is a series of questions that gets passed around from blog to blog and people compare their answers. Ur-Spo is a friend who blogs at Spo-Reflections and has recently created the Feeling Meme. Reading the questions of the meme, it's pretty obvious that we're dealing with a psychiatrist here (...so, Douglas, how do you feel about that?). Well, here's my stab at the "feeling meme.:

The most joyful I have ever felt. October 1999 at the grand opening of the museum. My dad and brother flew in from Massachusetts to attend the festivities. My partner came into the city for it, and we were also joined by my friend Rebecca. A lot of friends and acquaintances from Chicago drifted in and out throughout the day. I was just over 2 years into my career change, pleased with what had transpired, feeling very much that I had made the correct decision, and sharing the moment with friends and family.

The most angry I have ever felt. Several years ago, we had a temporary employee in my department. She was trouble from the word go. Always getting into arguments with staff. Making wildly unreasonable demands. I was not her direct supervisor, but rather her boss’ supervisor. In a disagreement that she had with her boss, she wrote a memo to the president of the museum (my boss) claiming that the project had been very poorly managed by her boss and myself. She claimed that when confronted by her about this I had become very defensive. She had actually not said a single word to me about her concerns with the project. That she would lie about me to my boss infuriated me. Two weeks later, she had a shouting match with a museum visitor in a public space. The visitor was angry enough to find out whom to write to complain about it. Appropriate action was taken on my part.

The most at peace I have ever felt. Early mornings over tea while camped above treeline in the High Sierra wilderness. There’s something peaceful about the stillness of that time of day combined with the stark beauty of the landscape. Oddly enough, one of these "most at peace" times for me occurred on September 11, 2001. It would be four days before I would hike back to civilization and learn of the attacks on New York and Washington.

The most shocked I have ever felt. When in high school, the dad of one of my classmates was murdered by her mother. If I recall correctly, a kitchen knife was used. I’d known this classmate fairly well, and had even recently been to a party at their house.

The most embarrassed I have ever felt. No way. There’s no way that I’m going there in a public Internet forum.

The most sad I have ever felt. My mother’s unexpected death in an auto accident. 'Nuff said.

The most frightened I have ever felt. Airplane ride from the West Coast to Chicago. Somewhere near Denver we encountered really heavy turbulence. The plane would dive, engines straining heavily, then labor to climb back upwards. We would abruptly drop vertically, and pitch sharply from side to side. I was terrified. It only lasted about 10 minutes.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Bluff Spring Fen

Bluff Spring Fen

If I have any single professional touchstone, any one particular thing that I consider my life’s work, it’s Bluff Spring Fen. Bluff Spring Fen (or just The Fen) is a roughly 100-acre nature preserve near my home in Elgin, Illinois. My life partner and I have headed up the stewardship team there since the early 1980s.

A fen is a rare type of wetland. Fens form where clay lenses in the soil force underground aquifers to the surface. The rock that these aquifers flow through is limestone, which, by rock standards, is relatively soluble in water. When the water emerges from the ground as springs and seeps, it is mineral rich and highly alkaline. This unusual set of environmental conditions is home to many rare plants and animals with special, though poorly understood, adaptations that allow them to survive there. Over a dozen endangered species can be found at Bluff Spring Fen.

Alkaline Springs

Fens are very rare ecosystems in Illinois. Only about 250 acres remain in the state today. Although it is this rare wetland type that gives the preserve its name, only about 40 of the 100 acres in the preserve is actually fen. Nonetheless, Bluff Spring Fen, along with Lake in the Hills Fen and Boone Creek Fen, is one of the three "big" fens remaining in Illinois today. The rest are scattered in parcels of anywhere from a half to about 10 acres. Most, including the three largest, are located in the watershed of the Fox River, which flows about a mile and a half downstream from Bluff Spring Fen.

One of the things that makes Bluff Spring Fen special is that it is actually a mosaic of different habitats. Botanists recognize a good six or seven different subtypes of fen and wetland within the confines of the preserve. The stewardship team tends to manage these wetland habitats as a unit.

The diversity does not stop there. Bluff Spring Fen is also home to several unusual upland plant and animal communities. The fen is ringed with a series of glacial hills called kames (Scrabble players take note of a great 4-letter word using a k). These are deposits of limestone gravel that formed as the glaciers were receding 10 to 12 thousand years ago. These hills are extremely well drained, and are home to drought adapted plant communities called gravel hill prairies. In drier years, to walk from a kame into the fen is to go from knee high vegetation to grass that is taller than your head within a span of about 15 feet. Like the fen plants, the hill prairie plants are also specialized, and some of the Fen’s endangered species are plants from the gravel hill prairies.

Gravel Hill Prairie

A third major division of the plant communities at Bluff Spring Fen is the oak dominated communities, variously called woodlands or savannas, depending on the amount of tree cover. The plants that grow under the trees are much more shade tolerant than most of the other species on this site. They include many familiar spring wildflowers like trilliums and bloodroots. Most of the oak savannas in Illinois have been destroyed. Indeed, the oaks themselves were the only remaining part of the savannas at Bluff Spring fen until the late 1980s when we started restoring them. Today, a thriving plant community grows beneath the oak trees, but the plants are there almost entirely due to our seeding efforts.

Oak Woodland

The fourth and final major plant community at Bluff Spring Fen is mesic prairie. Mesic means neither really wet nor really dry, but in the middle of the moisture gradient. Less than 1/10 of 1% of the original mesic prairie in Illinois survives today. Sadly, the mesic prairie at Bluff Spring Fen is no exception. All of it was converted to farmland sometime before the 1930s. We have done a lot of work to attempt to recreate the mesic prairie, and about 15 acres that was formerly farmland and pasture is now a native plant matrix that, like prairie, is dominated by grasses. You don’t have to be a trained botanist to see that it isn’t yet really prairie. Still the management team at the fen hopes that by continuing our management practices (particularly burning and seeding with native species), over time the land will come to resemble a real mesic prairie.

Mesic Prairie Restoration

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Thursday, August 24, 2006


On Saturday, my partner and I will celebrate our third wedding anniversary. On August 26, 2003 we were formally and legally married in Victoria, British Columbia. I thought that I would take the opportunity that this event presents to deviate a bit from my usual entomology and ecosystems maunderings and write a bit more personally.

The ceremony took place on a rocky shore overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and we could see the Olympic Mountains in Washington on the horizon. The ceremony was performed by the Canadian equivalent of a justice of the peace, called a marriage commissioner. I loved that: this person is someone who "commits" marriage. It was not a long ceremony. We read poems by Whitman, and I read a piece from Stephanie Mills" In Service of the Wild comparing acts of ecological restoration (something that my partner and I have done together the whole time we have been coupled) and the love that people have for one another. The poem that we read jointly, from Leaves of Grass, reflects the fact that we have been bound together not only by our love for each other, but by our love for the prairie:

The prairie grass dividing
Its special odor breathing
I demand of it
The spiritual corresponding
Demand the most copious and close
Companionship of men

Afterwards, the friends who served as our witnesses joined us for high tea at the Empress Hotel in Victoria. I offer that detail for those who feel that I have insufficient points on my gay card.

When we first married, many people asked us if we felt "different" now that we had tied the knot. We usually respond in the negative- that we have, in fact, been married for a long time now, and this was just a formality. I’ve been amused by a lot of the rhetoric coming from the gay right about the value of marriage as a social engineering project to "settle down" gay men into stable relationships. It’s particularly ironic to me that we, two left of center gay guys, came together into a stable relationship out of our love for one another. We have maintained it in part through our own senses of personal responsibility (a characteristic erroneously claimed by the political right as their own exclusively). At the same time, a bunch of gay folks on the right politically are pushing the government to step in and function in a way that, in other situations, they decry as "the nanny state." We did just fine for around two decades before tying the knot, thank you, and settling ourselves down was not among our goals when we married.

We married because we wanted to. We married because we (finally) could. Above all, we married because we love each other. Unfortunately, we did not marry to get any of the legal benefits because, alas, Illinois shows no sign of moving towards recognizing our marriage. And as for the federal government- well, with global warming, I don’t see signs of Hell freezing over any time soon.

Next posting, back to bugs and slugs.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Madrean Woodland Near Sycamore Canyon, Arizona


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Desert Delights

I love the desert. The last week in July I did my annual conference/collecting trip in southern Arizona. The conference, sponsored by the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute, is called The Invertebrates in Captivity Conference. It’s IICC for short, but affectionately known as Bugs In Bondage by many of the attendees. It takes place in Rio Rico, just north of Nogales on the Mexican border. It’s partly a typical professional conference with lectures, commercial displays and workshops. This conference also includes lots of fields trips, many with collecting opportunities. Lots of people at the conference collect live critters to bring back to zoos and museums around the country where they will become part of public displays. We also go black lighting to collect nocturnal insects. I’ll probably blog about that in more detail some time- it’s lots of fun.

This year, I attended a field trip to Sycamore Canyon. It’s located very close to Mexico- in fact the canyon terminates at the international border. There are several very interesting ecosystems there and a whole bunch of plant and animal species that just barely make it into the US from Mexico. One of my treasure this year was a little butterfly called the Cingo Skipperling . It only rarely makes it north of the border, though it’s more common in Mexico. The book Buterflies of Southeast Arizona describes it as one of the scarcest American species in collections because of its small size and erratic habits. I have two from Sycamore. They were collected a hundred yards and several years apart.

Typically, I go down to Arizona a few days before the conference to knock around Arizona on my own. This year was no exception. I started out by visiting with some friends in Phoenix. I also took two really nice collecting hikes. One was in the Santa Rita Mountains. I was seeking a species of grasshopper found nowhere else in the world. Alas, it was not to be, though I did collect several specimens of a species, new to me, called Leprus intermedius. It has blue wings and is very beautiful. That hike was noteworthy because during my descent, I had an unexpected encounter with a bear. No biologists were harmed during the encounter.

My other hike was to French Joe Canyon. It’s a beautiful spot in the Whetstone Mountains southeast of Tucson. I have always felt that calling this spot a canyon is a bit of a stretch. Most of the hike is along an arroyo through the desert. At the end, the trail winds up into a small valley in the Whetstones. But I love the spot. The scenery is absoloutely beautiful and the collecting unparalleled. The two main species that I go to see there are Gyascutus caelata and Dendrobias mandibularis. They are both beautiful beetles. Gyascutus are two inches long, bullet shaped, and a metallic dark purple-green with yellow markings. Underneath, they have lots of metallic purple. They adults eat pollen out of the acacia flowers that grow along the trail. They fly with an alarmingly loud buzzing sound, probably mimetic of carpenter bees. Dendrobias are longhorned beetles with beautiful yellow and black markings. I find them feeding on sap flows on the stems of desert broom bushes.

One of my favorite parts of going to the desert is exemplified by French Joe Canyon. As you hike in, the noise of vehicles on the highway diminishes as you venture deeper and deeper into the wilds of the desert. Human evidence diminsihes to a minimum, and one is left with the opportunity to wander alone with ones thoughts to observe and enjoy the bounty of life that can be found there. The silence can be profound, with noise reduced to the crunch of your boots on the trail, the wind in your ears, and the occasional punctuation of the call of a bird or the buzz of a beetle or a grasshopper. It’s a place to reconnect and re-center. Returning there always feels like going home to me.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Death Happens

Working in a museum, I get lots of phone calls from a random assortment of people on a random assortment of subjects. One repeated theme that comes up in my phone calls is "what can I do?" In general this particular question is asked because the caller has seen something- a caterpillar, a bird’s nest, an interesting frog- that piques his or her interest. Generally, what the caller is meaning is how can they help this individual animal to survive. This week alone I have gotten six (!) calls that replay this theme. Twin assumptions seem to be at work here. The first is that nothing in nature can survive without some sort of help from humans. The second is that it would be tragic or unnatural if the animal in question were not to survive.

I believe that this situation is an illustration of how disconnected many people today are from the natural world. In conversation with people concerned about backyard wildlife (at least with those whose aim is not to kill it), I frequently come away with the feeling that many of them are viewing the wildlife similarly to their own pets, most of which would survive poorly in the wild. Particularly with insects, which are the subject of most questions directed to me, the simple fact of the matter is that only a tiny fraction survives to adulthood. Far from being tragic or unnatural, death is the norm and the natural work is full of it.

A co-worker of mine has observed this phenomenon on a grander scale. She spent some years as a safari guide in Tanzania, and is replete with stories about tourists freaking out over some of the more spectacular acts of predation that they witnessed. Responses were often similar to my telephone questions, except that rather than asking what they can do, these people were asking the guides (often at high volume) "can’t you do something about it?"

I sometimes have to struggle against smugness with my callers. I, of course, am a trained scientist and am supposed to have gotten past that sort of response. Yes, these questions often indicate a significant disconnect from nature. At the same time, I need to be mindful that this approach to the natural world is not entirely a bad thing. At our best, we humans are highly empathetic creatures. I would hate to live in a world were nobody inclined towards empathy for non-human creatures. As with so many things, the key here is perspective.

My standard response is to gently encourage the caller to observe the animals that they have found, and to remember that it is the way of nature that most of them will not survive. Most people are relatively receptive to this approach. A significant fraction of them seem actively relieved that no intervention on their part is necessary. And I remind myself that in this highly urbanized and harried world that we live in, any person reporting that they have found something interesting in the natural world and taken the time to watch it is a victory.


Friday, August 18, 2006

Swamp Metalmarks Arrive

I received a couple dozen swamp metalmark caterpillars via Federal Express this morning. The swamp metalmark is the most endangered butterfly species that you've never heard of. It's one of the most endangered butterflies in North America. It's been extinct in Illinois for a while now, so mine had to come from Wisconsin.

Since about 2001, I've been working on a project trying to bring the species back to Illinois. This butterfly was probably never common anywhere. It lives in a rare type of wetland called a fen. Fens are spring-fed wetlands with alkaline soil and water. For reasons that are poorly understood, this type of environment poses challenges to plant life. Many of the species that you find there are fen specialists, and don't grow in other environments. Caterpillars of swamp metalmarks feed on one such plant called swamp thistle. There are probably only about 250 acres of fen left in the entire state of Illinois.

I first translocated metalmarks to an Illinois fen in 2002. I collected adult females from a fen in Wisconsin. Female butterflies mate shortly after emerging from the chrysalis, so it was no surprise that all of the butterflies that I captured were gravid. They laid eggs on potted swamp thistle in my lab, and in early October of that year, I released the caterpillars onto swamp thistle plants at their new Illinois home. The effort showed limited success. A small colony has established itself on this site, but it doesn't seem to be thriving. I'm hypothesizing that the founder stock did not include enough individuals to produce a robust colony. Unfortunately, even the existing colonies in Wisconsin are too small to support the removal of more than a small number of females.

I believe that the solution to the problem involves breeding one complete generation of butterflies in the lab. With most of the other species that we have bred in my lab, it's possible to produce upwards of 1000 new individuals from a starting generation of about 20. The problem is that this butterfly has only one generation annually and it overwinters as a larva. It's really hard to hold larvae over the winter in the lab without killing them in the refrigerator.

This year, I will try a new trick. There is some evidence that swamp metalmarks can reactivate, at least temporarily, any time there is a warm spell during the winter. This may mean that they do not need to hibernate. I will attempt rearing the caterpillars all the way through in the lab, obtaining a generation of adults some time in midwinter. If I am lucky, these will mate and produce large numbers of offspring. Next summer, if all goes according to plan, I will release second-generation adults into the wild.

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Baby Steps

I have been reluctant to do this. For a while now, it's been my position that the blogging bandwagon seems awfully crowded, and I already have too many things happening in my life. Recently, however, several friends have begun blogging. I've been reading and commenting on their blogs, and I find myself being inexorably sucked into the vortex. And now it's just after hours on a somewhat drizzly Friday afternoon and here I am composing my first posting. I don't know how this will go, nor how often I will be posting, but it's time to dive in.

So why Gossamer Tapestry? I'm a conservation biologist and I do a lot of ecological restoration work. I expect to be talking about that a fair bit here. My specialty is restoration of endangered butterfly species. I have used the expression Gossamer Tapestry in some previous writings to express the richness of the world of butterflies, and it seemed appropriate as a blog title.

So welcome. Scoot your mouse on over and take a peek. Let's see where it goes from here.