Gossamer Tapestry

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

Friday, November 30, 2007

Vamonos a Mexico

Monarch coated branches in the El Rosario reserve
Michoacán, Mexico

I haven't been posting much this week. I'm scarecly back from Ecuador, and I'm getting ready to leave town again. Next Tuesday, I'll be heading down to Morelia, the capitol of Michoacán, Mexico. It's the site of the famed monarch butterfly wintering roosts. I'll be participating in a trinational meeting (Canada, US, and Mexico) to develop a conservation flyway program for the monarch. I've been trying to simultaneously play catchup from my previous trip, and prepare for my coming one. I'm giving a talk at this meeting, and prepping for that is taking lots of time at the moment. I should be able to blog from Mexico, and plan to take lots of photos. The ones here are from a trip in March of 2001, and I'm not at all happy with how they turned out. Plus, they're *sniff* film. I'm hoping that my digital camera serves me well on this adventure. I'll try to get one final post on Ecuador out before I leave town.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007


Rio Mindo

My first evening in Midno, Ecuador. Qindeopugo, the lodge where I am staying, backs up onto the Rio Mindo. The daylight is beginning to fail, and the entire cloud forest is taking on the blue cast of twilight. The night sounds are beginning, and the persistent rush of the river is blending into a din of frog cronking and katydid whirring. The frogs’ calls are a constant and varied backdrop to the night sounds. There is lots of species diversity. Some of the loudest calls come from remarkably tiny frogs.

Up the hill, a pootoo’s eerie call can be heard. It sounds like a cross between a whippoorwill, to which it’s related, and an owl. A real owl silently swoops out of the forest and lands on the sign in front of the lodge. This turns out to be his regular territory- but I never manage to get a photo despite repeated visits of said owl to said spot.

Tiny tree snail

Way up at the top of the valley black lighting is beginning. We are too far away to hear the muffled hum of the generator as Mark, Martin, and Wayne set the lights up. I have an invitation to attend, but the half-hour’s van ride each way dissuades me. Instead I decide to go for a night walk up the dirt road. I’m with Nancy, Laurie and Eddie from the Houston Museum of Natural History’s butterfly exhibit, and Lea from the Museum of Science in Boston.

We turn on our headlamps and head out into the gloaming. Playing our lights over the vegetation, we find the tinier creatures of the cloud forest scattered here and there in the grasses. Four groups seem especially well represented: walking sticks, katydids, leaf beetles and spiders. I’m especially interested in the leaf, or chrysomelid, beetles. I think of my friend John from Denver who is a chrysomelid expert. He is also the person turned me on to beetles, a group that I had minimal interest in before he began teaching me about them. John used to work with the Houston folks. His name comes up frequently. We all agree that he would love to be part of this trip. Alas, he remains in Denver this time.

A leaf beetle by night (Asphaera nobilitata)

Another leaf beetle. This one's in the genus Zygogramma.
Edit:  Calligrapha fulvipes

We walk very slowly up the road. The night sounds are punctuated by occasional human voices. "Got another walking stick over here." "Hey, this katydid’s shedding." "What is that spider eating?" Ahead of us, the Southern Cross twinkles on the horizon, while behind us a distant thunderstorm silently flickers on the hillsides. I will pass this way tomorrow on my morning run and discover that we have taken over an hour to wander 100 yards.

We saw a lot of walking sticks on our night hike.

What's that spider harvestman eating? Mr. Cricket comes to dinner.

Predator becomes victim. This spider was atacked by a fungus.

Polka dots are part of this season's line of evening wear.
Agriacris magnifica

Back at camp, still more insects have come to the light around the lodge. My room is a tiny space under the eves- I can barely stand up right next to the wall. I have left the light on, and the skylight at my right shoulder is covered with moths and beetles- my own private blacklighting event. I fall asleep to the gentle patter of insect bodies pelting the skylight even after I turn off the light. I am truly in my element. I am in the tropics.

Back at the lodge, an Automeris moth has come to the lights.
My katydid is bigger than your katydid.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Festival of Moths - Blacklighting Adventures in Mindo, Ecuador

The setup. You can see one mercury vapor light behind the sheet and another at the left hand side. Behind and towards the left hand edge of the sheet is a fluorescent black light tube.

I am a recent convert to black lighting, and I’ve been craving a real tropical experience with it. Black lighting is a process for attracting nocturnal insects for observation, collecting, or photography. A sheet is suspended so that it hangs down with the lower edge draping onto the ground. Fluorescent black lights or mercury vapor lights are then placed in front of the sheet. Night-flying insects are drawn in and land on the sheet or on the nearby ground. I had a go of it in Costa Rica last winter. Unfortunately, February on the Costa Rican Pacific coast is a very dry time of year, and I attracted little.

My Ecuadorian experience was much more rewarding. A couple of the guys attending the conference are going on to the Amazon afterwards and brought black lighting equipment with them. They borrowed a gasoline-powered generator from our host in Ecuador, and good times ensued.

They set up on two consecutive nights. The first was on a ridge line at about 5,000’ above the town of Mindo. The other was along the Mindo River about 1000’ lower. The habitat in both cases is cloud forest. We got substantially different stuff at both locations. I offer the following festival of moth photos as a small sampling of what we saw.

Night 1: Black Lighting at Sachatamia Lodge. November 14, 2007.

Satyrniidae. This species had about an 8" wingspan.
Added 3/12:
Rhescyntis hippodamia

Automeris sp.

The moth with headlights. The bright white spots are not luminescent like a firefly, but they did glow brilliantly under the black light. Could the scales contain a fluorescent compound? Edited 7/20/16 Dysschema marginalis

A tiger moth that mimics clearwing butterflies. The wings were completely transparent. Clearwing butterflies are toxic (the larvae eat nightshades). I don't know whether the moth is also toxic (Müllerian mimicry) or tasty (Batesian mimicry). Hyalurga urioides

This moth confused me. It's a dead ringer for certain kinds of metalmark butterfly, but it's clearly a moth. Some sort of mimicry?
(Edited 7/14  Erateina sp.)

Since we're going on about mimicry, I thought I''d include one photo of a leaf mimic. There were many species of moths on the sheet that looked like leaves.

There were several species of beautiful red moths. I'm pretty sure that most of them were tiger moths (Edited 7/14 
Hyperthaema orbicularis).

Another beautiful red and black moth.

A study in 8's
(Edited 7/14 Pantherodes unciaria- a Geometrid)

This moth was tiny. The wingspan was only about 1/2".

Nope, it's not photoshopped. Those really are the colors. I love the tropics.
Heterochroma viridipicta

Blacklighting along Rio Mindo. November 15, 2007. There was much more at the sheet along the river. Unfortunately, the generator ran out of gas fairly early in the evening, so the festivities were cut short.

I'm pretty sure this is in the family Uraniidae (Nope. Sematuridae). Many species in this family are diurnal and look like swallowtail butterflies. This one came to lights.  Homidiana canace

Unfortunately, you can only get a glimpse of the beautiful bright yellow hindwings on this species. Probably a noctuid. Edit: Bathyra sagata

There were numerous species of wasp moths (Cteneuchinae) that came to the sheet on both nights. I managed to use my headlamp and flash to get several examples after the generator ran out of gas.

(Edited 7/14 Loxophlebia nomia)

(Edited 7/14 Sarosa sp.)

(Edited 7/14 Cosmosoma sp.)

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Quito and Beyond

Quito, Ecuador

As you have probably surmised by now, I indeed made it to Quito, and on to the cloud forest town of Mindo. Internet access was difficult from Mindo, and the schedule of conference events was quite full, so I have been unable to do much blogging. It was a great trip, and I’ll fill in the details over the next few posts. I’m writing this one on the plane from Quito to Miami.

The gondola

Páramo. Note the tussock grasses in the foreground.

On Monday morning, we flew from Guyaquil to Quito. We spent the day in Quito, and did a couple of touristy things. My favorite was a trip by cable car up to high elevation, about 13,000’, where we got to walk in the páramo vegetation. Páramo is a high-elevation grassland dominated by tussock grasses and cushion The weather was mostly overcast. We saw only a few birds and a couple of white butterflies in the páramo.

A cushion plant in the Asteraceae

Another cushion plant

A high-altitude lupine

Returning to Quito, we visited a couple of churches, and were joined at dinner by many of the other conference attendees. The church architecture was marvelous. I especially liked the stained glass, and gargoyles depicting Ecuador’s fauna. Turtles, monkeys, and iguanas were included among the animals depicted. The amazing, vivid picture of the torments of Hell (in a no-photo zone) demonstrated the softer side of organized religion, and reminded me of why I’ll continue to give it a pass.

Monkey and jaguar gargoyles on the Basilica.
Unfortunately, the iguanas did not turn out well. They were cool.

Jesus raises LAzarus from the dead.
Stained glass at the Basilica.

On Tuesday the group continued on to Mindo. The road wound out of Quito, through the mountains, down into increasingly lush cloud forest vegetation, and on to the town of Mindo. We crossed the Equator along the way, and stopped briefly at the museum facility there. The museum was interesting enough, however I must confess that I getting out of Quito and beginning to see the wonders of the Ecuadorian tropics that really had my attention at that point.

Doug has his first bi-hemispheric experience.

On the road to Mindo

The formal meeting part of the trip began after lunch on Tuesday. I’m not going to blog about the formal part of the meeting. I suspect that most of my readers will be more interested in the flora and fauna of Ecuador than about topics like international chrysalis pricing structures or the latest on USDA regulations governing butterfly exhibits. Let’s just say that there’s a lot of diverse and interesting things happening in butterfly exhibitions around the world.

Tropical weevil welcomes you to Mindo. Bienvenidos!

On a bloggy note, two conference participants approached me separately about my blog. They had done Google searches trying to get weather forecasts for Mindo. Apparently, Gossamer Tapestry was one of the things that their searches turned up. Hi Cynthia and Wayne!

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Guyaquil Cathedral

This was the view from my hotel window this morning.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Greetings from Guyaquil

WTF??? Doug isn't supposed to be in Guyaquil. Doug's supposed to be in the mountains up in Quito. Apparently an Iberia Airlines jet went off the runway at Quito on Friday. The airport was closed, but I managed to get a flight to Guyaquil, which is on the coast. Tomorrow morning I will have an early flight to Quito, and the adventure will resume. Yesterday it was (briefly) looking as though the trip might not happen at all. This has been the case on 3 of my 4 trips to Peru and Ecuador, so I wasn't too worried. Still, I'm glad to be here and looking forward to what the rest of the week will bring.

It was dark when we arrived. I've just been to a bar with some of the conference participants. No photos tonight.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

It's Not Just a Job...

Sometimes the netting starts peeling off of the windows in your butterfly exhibit. Butterflies begin blundering behind the netting where they die and pile up. Yuck. What to do? Break out the climbing equipment.

John. Horticulturist acrobat extraordinaire.

I never realized that rock climbing skills acquired earlier in life would end up being job skills. I'm very aware at the moment that it's good to be boss.

On belay.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

ICBES...and Light Blogging

Quito, Ecuador

I'll be attending a conference called ICBES next week. ICBES is the International Congress of Butterfly Exhibitors and Suppliers. The conference has typically been hosted by a butterfly supplier, and this year the host is Heliconius Butterfly Works from Ecuador. We have worked with Heliconius for a number of years now, and I'm looking forward to the conference.

On Sunday, I'll fly from Chicago, to Miami, and on to Quito, Ecuador. I'll be in Quito Sunday night and Monday. Monday I'll go on two pre-conference tours: Quito by day and Quito by Night. Apparently, Quito by day includes a cable car ride to a high vantage point overlooking the city.

Mindo, Ecuador

On Tuesday, the conference attendees will travel from Quito to Mindo in the cloud forest. We'll be making a fairly leisrurely trip to Mido, and will make several stops along the way. Tuesday afternoon the conference proper will begin. We will have a number of presentations concerning issues facing the butterfly production and display industries, as well as numerous discussions of our respective roles in conservation. I already know the community of butterfly exhibitors in North America pretty well. This will be my first opportunity to meet many of my European compatriots. In addition to the conference itself, we will have a number of opportunities to spend some time in the jungle. We even have an evening black lighting event scheduled. I'm hoping for a much better experience black lighting in Mindo than I had on my trip to Costa Rica, where black lighting at the height of the dry season is underwhelming.

I'll have my laptop and digital camera with me for the trip. I don't know how much blogging I'll be able to do from Ecuador. That will depend on how easily I can gain internet access. At the very least, I'll have some great stuff to show when I return. Next week may or may not be light (or even no) blogging from me. I hope to be in touch. Otherwise, I'll be posting and commenting again when I return.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Muir's Grasshopper

A friend (and insect photographer extraordinaire) named Marla recently gave me a copy of My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir. Last night I read Muir's charming description of a grasshopper:
"Up on the mountains he comes on excursions, how high I don’t know, but at least as far and high as Yosemite tourists.. I was much interested with the hearty enjoyment of the one that danced and sang for me on the Dome this afternoon."
Hmm…if it's "dancing and singing" it's definitely an Oedipodine or band-winged grasshopper. There were three common species in the high country early this fall when I visted the Sierras:

Trimerotropis verruculatus

Cratypedes neglectus

Circotettix maculatus

Muir goes on and gives a few more clues to the identity of the mystery hopper:

"He seemed brimful of glad, hilarious energy, manifested by springing into the air to a height of 20 or thirty feet, then diving and springing up again and making a sharp musical rattle just as the lowest point in the descent was reached. Up and down a dozen times or so he danced and sang, then alighted to rest, then up and at it again…

…A fine sermon the little fellow danced for me on the Dome, a likely place to look for serrmons in stones, but not for grasshopper sermons."

The description implies a species that does a lengthy, conspicuous display flight with much noisy crepeation (wing snapping). The habitat is bare rock rather than woodland or meadow, and the entry is dated July 20, 1869. While not 100% conclusive, these characteristics strongly suggest Circotettix maculatus. I found this species abundant in the Sierras, and Muir’s description nails them. I find it very satisfying to be able to read his description and make the identification nearly 140 years after the observation.

C. maculatus

The other two species have both been associated with common names: the Crackling Forest Grasshopper (T. verruculatus) and the Pronotal Range Grasshopper (C. neglectus). There is no such association with C. maculatus. Perhaps we should let Muir have a say in this species and refer to it as the Dancing Grasshopper.

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