Gossamer Tapestry

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

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Gone Fishin'

I'm in Mackinaw City, Michigan as I write this. Leon and I are taking a long weekend (Friday through Monday) driving around Lake Michigan. We're going counterclockwise. I'm gettring lots of good pictures, and I'll post something mors substantial soon.


Monday, June 25, 2007

Yet Another Weedy Enemy

Summers at Bluff Spring Fen mean lots of weed control. There are many invasive species that would overrun the preserve given half a chance. This year, we have discovered a new problem: a large stand of nodding thistle at the far east end of the preserve. The thistles are not in an area that we are actively managing. Still we worry that the light, fluffy seeds will blow into important parts of the preserve, so Leon and I went out over the weekend to do battle.

Nodding Thistle

The thistles are insidious. Even if you cut them down, the flowers can still complete their development and produce viable seed. So we go through the stand, cutting and bagging all of the flower heads. These get thrown into a pond that was created decades ago as part of a gravel mining operation. Then we go back and cut down the stalks, which can produce more blooms. Finally spritz the cut edge of the stem with herbicide, which will kill the roots.

Strangalia solitaria

While engaged in thistle control, I found a beautiful flower-feeding longhorn beetle called Strangalia solitaria. It took me a moment to recognize it, because it’s superficially similar to a related species, Typocerus octonoatus, that is common on site. I managed to get a nice shot of a Typocerus for comparison. Note that the end of the abdomen tapers much more in Strangalia than it does in Typocerus.

Typocerus octonotatus

While out and about, I also got some shots of a nice buprestid beetle. Tropical buprestids can be larger than my thumb, and beautifully metallic. They are among the most beautiful insects in the world. I’m happy that I got its photo. This is a species that I collected along railroad tracks lasts year. I don’t know what it is, nor do I have a good key to local buprestids. Now I can post the picture on my favorite online insect identification site. Perhaps I’ll get an ID.

The mystery buprestid
Update: the mystery buprestid is Acmaeodera pulchella

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Road Trip!

On Tuesday and Wednesday, my department did our second annual retreat and campout. It's a combination departmental bonding experience/learning opportunity/collecting trip. We collect both live animals for display in the museum and specimens for our collections. This year's trip was to the Kankakee River about an hour and a half south of Chicago.

We started out at Mazon Creek, a famous fossil collecting site. The fossils there are interesting, because a lot of soft-bodied creatures were preserved. Unfortunately we fared poorly at this site. Most of the things that we collected were specimens and unopened concretions that others had previously discarded in the parking lot. We did collect a few nice beetles and some freshwater mussels nearby, but on the whole not much. It's not very scenic, either, so nobody did much photography.

The Biology Department. L-R: Vincent, Stephanie, Sarah, Steve, moi, John, Celeste and Jamie

Things began looking up at lunch. We have developed a habit of finding rather funky lunch spots. This outing's was the Polka Dot Drive-In, full of 1950s nostalgia and located on old Route 66. We got our kicks over burgers and malts and did the obligatory group photo.

The mighty Kankakee
Photo: Vincent

After lunch, we hit the river. The south bank of the Kankakee River is dotted with designated hunting areas. The group split up according to interest. Some of us birded, others ran a seine net for fish, others gathered and photographed freshwater mussels, and still others collected insects. The fishing was especially productive, and we gathered a number of minnow and darter species to display in our live animal tank that depicts a healthy Illinois waterway.

Would this sunfish like to come live at the Museum?
Photo: Vincent

The mussel and insect hunting also went well. I found a couple of beautiful eyed-elator click beetles, and our malacologist found about a dozen species of mussel. Several were threatened species, which we photographed and returned to the river.

Stephanie, me, and Celeste check out the mussels

Black Sandshell. An Illinois threatened species
Photos: Vincent

Dinner was a glorious barbecued excess. We camped among the cicadas. Fortunately, they quieted down as the sun set. As the cicadas were tuning down, we set up a black light for nocturnal moths and beetles. For the most part the black lighting was pretty uninspired, until a B-52 bomber plowed into the sheet. Our visitor was actually a rather amazing insect called a dobsonfly. The beautiful wing patterns and formidable jaws show up very well in Steve's picture. Unfortunatly, there's nothing to provide a sense of scale. The fully extened wingspan of this individual was between 6 and 7 inches.

A periodic cicada. Part of the musical background for our campsite.
Photo: Vincent

Female dobsonfly. The males' jaws are even bigger.
Photo: Steve

Morning brought a hearty outdoor breakfast (we hadn't eaten enough the previous night), and more fish, mussels and insects. We caught a number of ebony jewelwing damselflies for release into the butterfly exhibit. One of our hikes brought us through a flowery area where we found four different species of longhorn beetles feeding on the blossoms. The trip as a whole also brought me the realization of how fortunate I am to have such a committed and talented staff working for me.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Pieces of Eight

I have been tagged for a meme by Dr. Benton Quest. It's simple: List 8 things about yourself.

1. I drive a 2004 Honda Civic hybrid.

2. The only president of the US that I have seen in person was John Kennedy. It was the summer before he died. I was 5.

3. I did not see the Pacific Ocean until I was 28.

4. My first view of said Ocean was in Lima, Peru.

5. I can't stand Blue Cheese. This is unfortunate, because it looks really fun to make.

6. Despite having grown up where lobster is abundant and (relatively) cheap, I have never eaten it. Allergic.

7. I don't understand the appeal of graphic novels.

8. If I could live anywhere in the US, it would be in southeast Arizona.


Monday, June 18, 2007

More Coleopteran Goodness

Aster novae-angliae. Blooming in mid-June?

I did my butterfly monitoring route at the Fen today. I brought my camera with me because of something that happened last week. My favorite butterfly is out in force right now. Last week, I saw a really cool aberration. It was a female entirely lacking the yellow spots on the forewing. Naturally I didn’t have a camera with me at the time. And naturally that particular individual was nowhere to be seen on today’s trip. But I did see good stuff. Two important wetland species that I’m monitoring (the eyed brown and Baltimore checkerspot) are having really good flights this year. And I saw two mulberrywing skippers already. That’s a really rare fen species here, and I’m glad to see the population doing well. Today’s total butterfly tally: 20 species, 167 individuals in 1.5 hr. Those are very good numbers with this protocol. I also observed one really odd bit of phenology. A New England aster was in full bloom on Saturday. Plants of the Chicago Region lists blooming dates from 27 July to 20 October, yet this plant was in full bloom on 16 June- outrageous.

Baytele suturalis on prairie coreopsis

Because I had my camera with me, I was prepared for other opportunities. I have been envious of late, as other folks who are blogging about nature have posted some really nice photos of longhorn beetles, a favorite group of mine. Well, I can stop feeling left out. Here is Baytele suturalis, a beautiful little red longhorn that, as an adult, sits on flowers and eats pollen. The larvae bore into dead twigs of oak and hickory.

Baytele suturalis on ox-eye daisy

Oh, and while we’re at it, here’s a clerid beetle.

Trichodes nuttallii on ox-eye daisy

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Loving vs. Virginia Anniversary

This week marked the 40th anniversary of an important Supreme Court decision. Loving vs. Virginia was the landmark case that struck down anti-miscegenation laws in the US and allowed inter-racial couples to marry in all 50 states. Now, 40 years later, the country is involved in a similar discussion about same-sex marriage. Mildred Loving, one of the plaintiffs in the case, has prepared a beautiful piece in response to the anniversary. It's too eloquent not to share in its entirety.

Loving for All

By Mildred Loving*

Prepared for Delivery on June 12, 2007,
The 40th Anniversary of the Loving vs. Virginia Announcement

When my late husband, Richard, and I got married in Washington, DC in 1958, it wasn't to make a political statement or start a fight. We were in love, and we wanted to be married.

We didn't get married in Washington because we wanted to marry there. We did it there because the government wouldn't allow us to marry back home in Virginia where we grew up, where we met, where we fell in love, and where we wanted to be together and build our family. You see, I am a woman of color and Richard was white, and at that time people believed it was okay to keep us from marrying because of their ideas of who should marry whom.

When Richard and I came back to our home in Virginia, happily married, we had no intention of battling over the law. We made a commitment to each other in our love and lives, and now had the legal commitment, called marriage, to match. Isn't that what marriage is?

Not long after our wedding, we were awakened in the middle of the night in our own bedroom by deputy sheriffs and actually arrested for the "crime" of marrying the wrong kind of person. Our marriage certificate was hanging on the wall above the bed. The state prosecuted Richard and me, and after we were found guilty, the judge declared: ""Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." He sentenced us to a year in prison, but offered to suspend the sentence if we left our home in Virginia for 25 years exile.

We left, and got a lawyer. Richard and I had to fight, but still were not fighting for a cause. We were fighting for our love.

Though it turned out we had to fight, happily Richard and I didn't have to fight alone. Thanks to groups like the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, and so many good people around the country willing to speak up, we took our case for the freedom to marry all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, "The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men," a "basic civil right."

My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God's plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation's fears and prejudices have given way, and today's young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry.

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the "wrong kind of person" for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people's religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people's civil rights.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about.

Hat Tip: Ed Brayton

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Media Madness

Chicago area readers can catch me on tonight's Channel 2 news at 10:00. I'll try to post a web link tomorrow. The premise of the interview was why we aren't seeing cicadas everywhere. What I did NOT say was that I have mentioned that their distribution would be patchy in every interview that I have given since March, and that tidbit of information has not actually appeared in any article or broadcast. Sigh.

Update: You can see the video clip of the interview here. Click on the link that says Cicadas.


Monday, June 11, 2007

My Favorite Butterfly

I've known the Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) since childhood. There was a sizeable colony next to my paternal Grandmother's house in Massachusetts. Growing up, I was attracted to the beauty of the vivid red and yellow spots set off by a rich, velvety black. One of the first things that I learned about Bluff Spring Fen was that it was home to a colony of this species. This was on my first visit in March of 1982, and I immediately wanted to go back later to see it flying.


In addition to being a very beautiful butterfly, The Baltimore is noteworthy for its interesting life cycle. This has helped maintain my fascination as an adult. For many years, the common wisdom was that Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) was the exclusive caterpillar host plant. A nice simple story- but too simple, it turns out. After taking many twists and turns, my understanding of the life cycle has settled on a pattern that I am reasonably confident of.

Baltimore Checkerspot eggs on a turtlehead leaf

At Bluff Spring Fen, female Baltimore Checkerspots lay their eggs on two speacies of plants: Turtlehead and Mullein Foxglove (Seymaria macrophylla). The larvae hatch in mid late July, spin webs on the stems of the host plants and feed communally for the rest of the summer. In early fall, they migrate to the base of the plants where they overwinter.

A web containing young Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars on Mullein Foxglove

In Spring, the young checkerspot larvae become active again. Most migrate away from the plant that they spent the previous summer on. As with many youngsters, they become a bit less fussy about what they eat as they get older. We have found them feeding on about a half-dozen plant species at the Fen. Most, like penstemon and swamp betony, are in the snapdragon family, as are turtlehead and mullein foxglove. They will use a few unrealted plant species, such as valerian and even seedlings of ash trees.

Older Baltimore Checkerspot larva. This one is posing on horsetail. It's actually eating swamp betony, the curly-leved plant in the background.

Sometime in late May or early June, the caterpillar wanders off of its food plant, spins a button of silk on a stick or leaf, and hangs upside down from it. After a while, its skin splits, reavealing the developing pupa or chrysalis underneath. The adult butterfly develops beneath the skin of the chrysalis. Eventually the skin splits, and the adult emerges to complete the life cycle.

Baltimore checkerspot larva, and the pupa that formed from it

Here in Illinois, the Baltimore checkerspot is an uncommon species. It is relegated to fens and sedge meadows where its host plants grow. Twently years of butterfly monitoring at Bluff Spring Fen has revealed a population that has apparently increased in size. Last Sunday I counted 36 individuals in an hour. The number will probably be even higher on my next census. It's a very healthy population.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

A Few Changes

I've made a few minor changes to my blog template. My blogroll is growing, which mainly means that I am meeting a whole bunch of interesting new folks online. I've subdivided the blogroll into sections. Let me know if you want to be placed in a different section. I've also started adding tags to my postings. This was prompted by several newer readers who have indicated interest in my cheesemaking activities and want to check out my other cheesemaking posts. Cheesemaking is currently the only tag that I have applied to all appropriate older posts. Bit by bit I'll go back and tag the other stuff in the archives.

The changes were prompted by some growth in the number of people stopping by. My thanks to all. I'm really enjoying interacting with you folks, both the newbies and those who have been around a while.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Cheese and Dragonflies

Hey, it’s an interesting combination- don’t knock it untill you’ve tried it. I’ve been pretty busy at work lately and haven’t had much time to blog. So I missed posting on a couple of things from Memorial Day weekend.

A couple of months ago, I made my first cheddar cheese. These should age from 2 to 6 months before being eaten. I was thinking about trying to be patient and age it for longer, but then I realized that if it hadn’t worked out well, I’d have invested mych more time before being able to make alterations. I’m glad I tried it. The flavor was good, though not as sharp as I’d like. That part was expected. Sharpness develops with age, and I knew I was sacrificing that for quicker feedback.

The texture left a lot to be desired. The cheddar was way to dry and crumbly. Now, I know that a cheddar, particularly a well-aged one, is supposed to be crumbly, but this was too much too soon. The troubleshooting section in my cheesemaking book said that this could be the result of handling the curds too vigorously. Since it was raining the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, I made a second cheddar, taking this into consideration. For now, the two-month aging timetable (or perhaps even a little less) seems about right until this is worked out.

Monroe County, Wisconsin

The next day, I took off for west-central Wisconsin for a little collecting. I had a specific quarry in mind: the Northern Barrens Tiger Beetle (Cicendela patruela), a subspecies endemic to that part of the state. Alas, I was not to find it. But I had a great time collecting and got to see a dragonfly species new to me: the Chalk-fronted Corporal (Libellula julia). It even posed for me.

Chalk-fronted Corporal

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Fen Bugs

The purple coneflowers are just comijng into bloom

Saturday was my first visit to Bluff Spring Fen in a couple of weeks, and the insects have arrived in a big way. I did my first butterfly census route of the year, and recorded 12 species- a healthy diversity for this early in the year. While I was walking my census route I saw lots of other stuff, so I grabbed my camera and went out to record what was there.

There were abundant dragonflies and damselflies everywhere. I saw at least a dozen different species. All were beautiful, and many are common species. One, however, is listed as threatened in the state of Illinois. Bluff Spring Fen is one of only two Illinois sites where you can see the elfin skimmer. At just over an inch and a half wingspan, it’s North America’s smallest dragonfly.

Female (above) and male Calico Pennants (Celithemis elisa)

Pronghorn Clubtail (Gomphus graclinellus)
This is the first photo I've ever made of this species. I was unable to identify it as more than just a clubtail before today.

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicolis) - a study in green

Elfin Skimmer (Nanothemis bellus)

I got some nice caterpillar photos. The monarch seems a bit cliché, but I don’t care. This one was posing so nicely on the milkweed leaf that I had to take it’s picture. The other caterpillar is a Baltimore checkerspot- probably my favorite butterfly in the world. I did see a couple of adults this week. Very early in their flight period, it’s not uncommon to be able to see adults and caterpillars on the same day. The caterpillar here had been feeding on swamp betony, one of the plants that older larvae feed on. I expect to see many more adults over the next few weeks.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton)

Finally, there were tons of beetles around today. I only got pictures of a few species. Two that I’m posting here feed on milkweed. The milkweed longhorn beetle and swamp milkweed leaf beetle both advertise their toxicity by being bright red-orange. Also noteworthy was the reappearance of the clay-colored beetle, after a long absence. It was unintentionally transferred to Bluff Spring Fen during a plant rescue (I’ll blog about that another time). It feeds on only a few plants, including leadplant, a prairie species. Today, I found a half dozen individuals scattered about on various leadplants. I haven’t seen it on site in over ten year. Has it been hanging on at very low levels all this time, or did it recently re-colonize? We may never know.

Milkweed Longhorn Beetle (Tetraopes tetropthalmus)

Swamp Milkweed Beetle (Labidomera clivicollis)

Clay-colored Beetle (Anomoea laticlavia)
Not the best picture, but I'm thrilled that they're back.

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