Gossamer Tapestry

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Books that changed me

This is a cool meme that I got from Spo. Five books that had a profound effect on me. Not necessarily favorites, or great books. I was somehow different after I read each of these books than I had been before.

1. Beautiful Butterflies by J. Moucha (Author) and F. Prochazka (Illustrator). Amazingly, still available used from Amazon. It’s a coffee table book with stunning illustrations of amazing butterflies from around the world. I got it as an eighth birthday present from my great aunt shortly after it came out in 1965. The book contributed to my developing love of butterflies, but had two other profound effects on my life. The most spectacular species were all from far away places, and I immediately began a lifelong romance with travel. I dreamed of seeing several favorites someday, a dream that was recently realized for Morpho cypris in Costa Rica. The book also had numerous species with very strange names. Rather than an easily understood name like Cabbage White, these butterflies had two names, written in italcs in what appeared to be a foreign language. A person’s name appeared after them. This was my first exposure to the names of the some of the great lepidopterists from the age of exploration: Hübner, Bates, Staudinger. But it was more than that- these names had the ring of magic words to them. They haunted me. They were my first introduction to scientific nomenclature.

2. A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch. I discovered Iris Murdoch’s writing at the recommendation of a friend while I was in graduate school. She remains a favorite author, and this is my favorite of her works. It was the first Murdoch novel that I read, and contained a very positive depiction of a gay couple, Simon and Axel. I read it when I was just coming out, and carried the images of a reasonably functional gay couple with me for a long time.

3. The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov. This book was also a recommendation from a friend, this time while I was in college. Not the greatest science fiction novel that I have read by any stretch of the imagination, it was none the less a good read. I had tried and rejected science fiction previously, probably due to an unfortunate first pick (one of Heinlein’s more military works). I had come away from that experience with the impression that scifi stories were just macho paeans to militarism and weapons technology. This book had a real story to it, however, and got me started on a lifelong love of the genre.

4. The Chronicles of Narnia. My introduction to C.S. Lewis. When I was in high school, I went through a 5 year period as a born-again Christian, largely as a result of reading Lewis’ work and discussing it avidly with a group of students from a local theological seminary (Gordon-Conwell) at a nearby Christian coffeehouse. Althouigh I would later reject Biblical literalism (later still Christianity, and later even still theism), my time as a born-again Christian taught me many things, and provided a very safe haven for a deeply closeted and frightened young man.

5. The Borrowers by Mary Norton. I read this book when I was in the second grade. I resonated with the themes of trying to survive as a very small person in a world made for much larger folk and of being somehow different from others. More importantly than that, this was my first experience of a true love of fiction. It's now over 40 years since I read it, and I can still recall vividly the feeling of not wanting the book to end.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 26, 2007

Shampoo from Hell

This is the shampoo provided by the hotel where I was staying in California last week. I love the mysterious brand name ("Enigma"), the reminder that that product contains natural essences, the beautiful botanical illustration of the poison ivy leaf….


Friday, February 16, 2007


So I’m back from Costa Rica, and about to enter one of the busier times in recent memory. I will be giving 8 talks in the next 5 weeks. So if I’m not posting here as much as I usually do, it doesn’t man that anything’s wrong, it’s just that blogging sometimes has to take a back seat to The Rest Of Life. My first talk is tomorrow. I drive up to frigid Madison, Wisconsin to make a presentation about the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network. It’s a program that I run, and it’s something that I should probably devote an entire posting to sometime. Wisconsin is looking to set up a similar network, modelled after ours, and this will help kick off the process. I’m not looking forward to the drive- it’s supposed to snow.

On Tuesday I fly to beautiful southern California. I’m flying in and out of San Diego, but the meeting itself is in Carlsbad. The meeting is about conservation of the Laguna Mountain Skipper (an endangered butterfly). I will be participating in the discussions and giving a talk entitled Genetic Management of Captive Populations. I’m about to submit a paper to the journal Molecular Ecology Notes on this subject, but concerning the Swamp Metalmark rather than the Laguna Mountain Skipper. I’ve deliberately avoided blogging about microsatellite DNA. My readership is small enough as it is.

Friday, I’m back from SoCal and Saturday is the annual winter meeting of the Butterfly Monitoring Network. Yep, another talk. And so it goes, on through mid-March. What to do when you are overextended like this? Overextend yourself even more. Last night I didn’t get to bed until just before midnight because I was off seeing this guy in concert.

George Strait gives a hell of a good show. For me the high point was his take on Folsom Prison Blues, performed during the encore. He really rocked it out.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Blogging in the Tropics

The lizard on the veranda

Blogging from the tropics is tough. I walk out on the veranda, fire up the laptop, and something invariably comes along to distract me. For about a day we had a Jesus Christ lizard hanging out with us. These lizards get their name because they can skitter across small pools and streams, apparently walking over the water. Last night, while downloading pictures from my digital camera, I was joined by a most curious creature called a hammerhead fly. Its eyes sit out at the ends of outrageously long stalks. I don’t know what purpose they serve. A quick Google search turns up nothing useful. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that it’s more a result of sexual selective pressures than a feature that offers a direct survival advantage. They’re still pretty cool.

Hammerhead fly

The last few days have offered a couple of additional tours. We took a snorkeling and sunset dinner cruise on a sailboat on Wednesday. As part of that we saw several whales and a pod of dolphins. The scenery was delightful, and the snorkeling super. John and Michael purchased an underwater camera, however it’s film rather than digital, so we do not have underwater photos to post. Dinner on the boat was some of the most delicious fish that I’ve had down here.

View from the sailboat

Our fellow snorkelers

We'd like to believe that the humback whale sighting was more than just a fluke.

Evening view of shore

Sunset from the boat

On Thursday, we went to Manuel Antonio National Park. A guide approached us and offered his services. My initial response was to be lukewarm to the idea, but we hired him and it proved to be well worthwhile. Through him we found longtailed and tentmaker bats, lots of birds and lizards, a bunch of two- and three-toed sloths, and a troop of coatimundi. He had a spotting scope and it was really interesting to be able to take photos through the scope.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Yellow-naped woodpecker

Tentmaker bats

Long-tailed bats

Male three-toed sloth

Coatimundi getting out of Dodge

One of the things that he told us about was something completely new to me. Here in the tropics, there are nocturnal cicadas. They have bizarre filigreed structures growing from their abdomens. After he showed them to us, I began noticing their sounds within the jungle night chorus that begins around sundown each day.

Nocturnal Cicada

The trip is winding down. Sop and Someone leave for San Jose later this afternoon. Unfortunately, Spo has been unwell for the last 36 hours or so and it’s really slowed him down. Leon is also under the weather- in his case it may be sunstroke from too much body surfing at the beach Thursday afternoon. He seems well on the mend at the moment. Tomorrow John and Michael will accompany us on the journey back to Chicago. I’m not looking forward to the return trip. I think that, at heart, I’m a creature of the tropics. Unfortunately, I don’t think that Leon would ever live here, so tomorrow it’s back to winter for me.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


The Rainmaker preserve

Yesterday’s trip was to a private rainforest preserve called Rainmaker. It was one of the best guided rainforest experiences that I have ever had. We started seeing cool stuff very quickly on the tour. Our guide Saul was very knowledgeable. We found a green and black poison dart frog almost immediately. The trail wound through the bottom of a river canyon. Then we climbed the side of the canyon and walked though the canopy on a series of suspension bridges.

Poison dart frog

The main thing from an insect standpoint that I wanted to see was helicopter damselflies, however I got an even better surprise later in the trip. Helicopter damselflies are the largest member of the dragonfly and damselfly family. They measure up to 7" across, and typically have brightly colored spots at the wing tips. I had mentioned wanting to see them, and Ur-Spo was the person who made the first sighting. I have no pictures from this trip. They are just about impossible to photograph on the wing, and look unexciting when at rest. This photo is from my first Costa Rica adventure in 2004.

Megaloprepus caerulatus, a helicopter damselfly. Sorry, it's the best I could do for a photo.

Our guide was excellent at finding unexpected things. He noticed a hummingbird leaving its nest, and we had the opportunity to peek inside and see the tiny chick. It was about the size of my thumbnail.

Hummingbird chick

We saw a lot of leafcutter ants. These guys cut bits of leaves off of plants and carry them back to their underground nests. Periodically you can see lines of ants carrying bits of leaves like parasols over the forest floor. The ants grind the leaves up, and impregnated with a kind of fungus, which then grows in the decaying leaves. Once they are done with them, the ants carry the used leaves and fungus back up to the surface where they create impressively large middens.

Leafcutter ants dismembering a hedge

Carrying the leaves back to the nest

Leafcutter ant midden

High in the canopy we crossed from tree to tree on suspension bridges. They sway too much for photography- my pictures are all blurry. Here I got the surprise of a lifetime. We had already seen two species of huge bright blue morpho butterflies. In the canopy I saw a third species, Morpho cypris. I have wanted to see one in person since I received a book from my Aunt Fran called Beautiful Butterflies when I was 8 years old. M. cypris in the book can’t hold a candle to the real thing, however. It’s the most iridescent blue butterfly I have ever seen. When it flaps its wings, it looks like a flashing neon sign. I have waited 41 years to see this insect and it was worth the wait.

On a platform high in the canopy. Saul, our guide, to the left of the tree, my friend Michael to the right.

Morpho cypris

As we were leaving, I got to photograph a butterfly that we keep in the exhibit at my museum: Mechanitis polymnia. This one is a female laying eggs. You can see the two white eggs on the leaf just below her abdomen. A fantastic trip, it made even the second crossing of the World’s Scariest Bridge worthwhile.

Mechanitis polymnia laying eggs

On the train for Reno. Actually, on a minibus crossing the World's Scariest Bridge.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Eagle has Landed....

And my luggage has arrived. More importantly, my entomology equipment is here. The black light is firing up even as I type. I am hoping that I will be motivated to have a late night.

Labels: ,

Monkey Business

Mono Titi

Our accommodations at Manuel Antonio are wonderful, because they back right up against the rain forest. I can step right off of my porch and see cool stuff. This afternoon, a troop of the local squirrel monkeys, an endangered species called the Mono Titi, came noisily through the compound. They are really adorable. This time, I even had my camera.

View of the rain forest from just off of my front porch

This morning, we went to the nearby town of Quepos on the Great Underwear Hunt. While in town, Leon pointed out a HUGE longhorn beetle that had been crushed in the middle of one of the streets. It was useless as a specimen, and I didn’t have my camera. But I feel like I’m now on a mission.

View from near the pool this afternoon. The monkeys were driving the resort owners' cat absolutely crazy.

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Tropical Adventure

Arenál Volcano

It is a sultry night. As I write this, it’s about 80° and humid, even though it’s after 10 at night. I’m listening to a combination of jungle night sounds- crickets, katydids and frogs- and Justin Timberlake wanting his sexyback at the disco up the street. What makes the observation delicious is that it’s now –2° in Chicago. I’m here in the tropics with a combination of delight and extreme frustration. Readers of Ur-Spo’s blog will realize that my part of our vacation party had a great deal of difficulty getting here. Part of the trouble resulted in our luggage being lost. That’s right, I’m here IN THE TROPICS WITHOUT ANY OF MY ENTOMOLOGY EQUIPMENT. They are promising it tomorrow, but we've heard that both yesterday and today. There, I fell better now that this is off my chest.

Volcanic Lake. This is as far as we are allowed to go. The photo was taken right at the edge of the "danger zone." Ooh.

Despite this setback, I’ve been enjoying the trip immensely. Yesterday, we visited the Arenal Volcano. Stunning country- we drove through dry forest, cloud forest and rain forest to get there. The volcano is only marginally active at the moment. We watched (and heard) large, red-hot boulders rolling down the sides of the crater, shattering as they went. They were visible mostly by the puffs of smoke that they left behind as they rolled down the hill. After dark, we could see the glow of the tumbling rocks. Interesting, though not spectacular.

Rock tumbling down the lavva field. If you look closely, you can see a roughly linear series of puffs of smoke that marks the boulder's progress.

We have been seeing some interesting wildlife. Near Arenal, a rare white hawk was close enough to photograph. Even the urban areas have interesting animals. At the hotel in San Jose where we have stayed the past couple of nights, there was a squirrel on the grounds eating the fruits of a cashew tree. I’ve even been able to improvise and see some interesting insects. My LED headlamp was in my carry-on luggage. If I hang it in a tree and shine it on the white back wall of our cabana, I can bring in a few longhorn beetles. It’s late so I’ll keep this short. I’ll close with a special photo for my good and dear friend Ur-Spo. Tomorrow: shopping for clean underwear.

White Hawk

Squirrel feasting on cashew fruits

For my dear friend Ur-Spo. With love.

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Spo and Doug....or Thelma and Louise?

Outskirts of San Jose, Costa Rica. February 2003

Tomorrow I hit the road with friend and fellow blogger Ur-Spo (along with a couple of other friends and our long-suffering spouses). Over the next week, I hope to find the answers to questions like:

Who will get tossed into a volcano?

What will happen if we actually encounter a tarantula (hint: I'll be the one saying Wow! Cool!)

Will Costa Rica ever be the same?

We plan to have laptops and digital cameras with us, so if at all possible will post from the road. Think of us if we don't return.