Gossamer Tapestry

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Dinner and Boxing Day Birds

Christmas Day was a new venture for our family. Rather than doing the holiday at my Dad’s, Christmas dinner as at Chilmark Girl’s place, with dessert later at my brother’s. CG made dinner, which was also non-traditional: rack of lamb and some (for us) new vegetables, including an amazing cauliflower gratin. I participated in the appetizer, which was a fruit compote- raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, apricots and bananas- in raspberry coulis with tangerine sorbet. I made the sorbet. The entire meal was wonderful and memorable.

White Beach

Salt marsh behind White Beach

Today, Leon and I participated in a tradition of our own- a drive around Cape and with birding. We started at White and Black Beach. The weather was beautiful- sunny and in the mid 40’s. Unfortunately, good weather keeps the ducks further off shore and out of view. Still, the day held some real pleasures.

Eastern Point Lighthouse and breakwater

Navigational beacon at the end of the breakwater

Black-backed gull (Larus marinus) on the breakwater

Purple sandpipers (Calidris maritima)

The weather was so nice, that we were able to walk the breakwater at Eastern Point in Gloucester. The breakwater is about a quarter mile long, and connects the lighthouse at Eastern Point with a small navigational light at the entrance to Gloucester Harbor. In previous years either the weather was too cold, or the waves were crashing over the breakwater. Today it was only us and the birds. We saw mostly gulls, but there was a flock of about 60 purple sandpipers flying about and landing on the rocks of the breakwater. I managed to get a few pictures.

Roadside birders on Eastern Point. What are they seeing?

The real treat of the day came as we left Eastern Point. Passing a small pond, we noticed a group of birders lining the road with spotting scopes trained on a group of gulls out on the pond ice. I rolled the window down and asked if this was a Christmas Bird Count, or if they were seeing something special. It turns out that there was a slaty-backed gull from Asia out in the flock. It was the first-ever record of this species in Massachusetts. We were invited to look through a spotting scope and got pictures through it. My birding friends will be jealous of this one.

Slaty-backed gull (Larus schistisagus)
The characteristic pink legs are visible in this picture.

We continued our circumnavigation of the Cape through Rockport and on to Essex. The only noteworthy sighting was a hooded merganser in a salt marsh in Rockport. Lunch was fried clams in Essex. For a day when the conditions were not the best for duck viewing, we had an amazing experience.

Slaty-backed gull (Larus schistisagus)

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Minus Tide

White Beach

With apologies for title theft from the Dharma Bums. Leon and I are in my hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts to spend Christmas with my family. The beach is a 10-minute walk from Dad's house. Today, we had the lowest tide that I have ever observed there, so we went for a walk. The culprit, as usual, was a full moon. The new moon will have a similar effect, but this was really an outrageously low tide.

Moonrise over Kettle Cove. Source of the very low tide.

We walked along the rocks, which were covered with bladderwrack (Fucus sp.), making them very slippery. I went down fairly hard once. We poked around the tide pools. Tide pools in southern New England are pretty boring. We don't see the interesting invertebrates that Bev, Robin Andrea, and Dave have recently posted. The algae does make the rocks brightly colored, and we did see a few things like slipper shells.

Danger! Very slippery Fucus-covered rocks!

Orange algae on the tidepool rocks contrasts with green algae on a
slipper shell (Crepidula fornicata). Aren't scientific names fun?

The low tide followed an extremely high tide last night. This combination left lots of beach to walk on. You could almost forget that just above the high tide line there's a foot and a half of snow on the ground. The contrast made for some interesting snowy coast scenes. I spent a lot of time here as a kid, swimming, fishing, and mucking around in the same tide pools that I now consider boring.

Snow on Fisherman's Rocks. I caught a whole bunch of
Atlantic mackerel there when I was a kid.

We walked over to the next inlet, Kettle Cove. At dead low tide, a sandbar often forms in the middle of the cove. You can wade out to it through waist-deep water. Today, the sandbar filled the entire cove. You could have waded to it through water that was no more than ankle deep (though utterfly frigid).

Kettle Cove. The lowest tide I have ever seen there.

Light and camera batteries began failing so we returned to the car. Sunset suggested that the weather tomorrow should be nice- "red sky at night, sailors' delight."

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Winter Weekend

I'm realizing that this is my first post in over a month that isn't about some exotic locale. It was a pleasant winter weekend. Saturday night was the annual Sagittarius Party. It was very snowy on Saturday, so attendance was light. I again made mole inspired turkey. I also brought tortilla chips and tomatillo salsa that was a gift from Mark and Rodger.

Sagittarians are easily identified by their purple plumage

Sunday we shoveled. It was such a beautiful day that we decied that a stroll out at the Fen was in order.

Winter Fen scenes

This week, a major hydrology/earthmoving activity will begin at the Fen. It's in a very degraded area that I have not photographed. Pictures and additional explanation forthcoming.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Pilgrim's Progress

I was at the monarch butterfly reserve at Cerro Pelón in Mexico on Saturday. Predictably, I'm at a loss for words. For those of you who do not know, the generation of monarchs that flies east of the Rockies in late summer migrates to Mexico. This is virtually the entire population from that region. They winter in fir forests high in the mountains west of Mexico City. To date, 12 sites have been discovered, each only tiny area in extent. The butterflies cluster together by the tens of millions. There were estimated to be over 50 million monarchs in Cerro Pelón on Saturday.

Mountains of the Transvolcanic Belt

Wild marigolds

The trip began from the conference hotel in Morelia. We spent the morning driving through the beautiful mountains of the Transvolcanic Belt to get to the sanctuary near the city of Zitácuaro. It was a sunny day that included several photo stops. I enjoyed seeing a variety of blooming plants, including the wild ancestor of cultivated marigolds.

Doug, very much not in his natural habitat

We got to Cerro Pelón and headed up to the sanctuary on horseback. Horses are something that I have absolutely no experience with. I had previously been on a horse exactly once. Someone helped me into the saddle and I sat like a sack of potatoes while the horse walked about 100 yards. Not so this time. We rode for about an hour and fifteen minutes and gained a couple thousand feet in elevation getting up to the grove of trees with the butterflies. I even had to steer. My 8-year old minder was clearly much more adept with horses than I was. Thankfully, he was very patient with me.

Approaching the monarch-covered trees

At last we came to the butterflies. It was a warm sunny day when we arrived, and there was a surprising amount of flight activity. Describing this is impossible. These photos don't even begin to do it justice. When you stand among acres and acres of trees where all of the branches are being weighted down with tens of millions of monarch butterflies, you realize that you are witnessing one of the epic phenomena of nature. We were all spontaneously speaking in hushed voices. A member of our party observed, "it's like being in church." I recall my first visit to a monarch sancuary in 2002. I had the feeling that I was somehow different for having witnessed it- that I had in some way had a religious experience. It was much the same this time. Everyone should see this once before they die. Few ever will.

Monarchs everywhere

Pendulous clusters of roosting monarchs

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Salutaciones de Morelia

Greetings from Morelia. I've been here two days and haven't been out of the hotel yet. The meeting has been exhausting. I'm still processing my response to the whole thing- I'll try to do a post about my take on the status of the monarch butterfly later. My perceptions and some of what is being discussed here do not entirely match up, though I am learning that some aspects of the situation are worse than I previously appreciated.

The weather has definitely been nicer than at home. I left in a blinding snowstorm. One result of that is that I got into Morelia at 4 Wednesday morning. The meeting started at 9 AM. Yuk. Tonight, a group of us are going out to dinner. Saturday is the trip to the monarch sanctuary. I'll be sure to take lots of pictures.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Watch out for that....Tree

The last morning of my time in Mindo there were outside activities planned. I opted for the jungle hike and zipline trip. It was my best jungle experience of the trip.

The hike followed the sendero between the ridgetop lodge and the river. I had been partway down the trail a couple of times already and new that it crossed some pretty nice secondary forest. There were lots of butterflies, especially a group of brown butterflies known as satyrids.

Satyrid butterflies courting

Pedaliodes peucestas, a huge South American genus of Satyrids
with dozens of confusingly similar species

Descending lower into the forest, the canopy became more dense. Beautiful clearwing butterflies were fairly frequent. At one point, we passed a branch that had fallen from the canopy. An epiphytic orchid in full bloom was thus brought into view. We passed several orchid species. At one point the trail crossed a small stream where a helicopter damselfly had set up territory.

A clearwing butterfly

Tropical orchid (Catteleya?) on a fallen branch
A bit of canopy visible on the jungle floor

Polythore gigantea

Further down the trail, somebody had placed a dam across a small stream creating a jungle pool. Pretty, but clearly artificial. The only thing that I saw in the pool were a couple of goldfish. We did se lots of leaf beetles on this part of the trip. They included some of the most specitaular beetles that I saw on the entire trip- with the exception of the giant dynastine beetle on rotten fruit at the beginning of the sendero.

The jungle pool

Leaf beetle

More leaf beetle (Platyphora)

Still more leaf beetle (Aspicela bourcieri)

Dynastine (Rhinoceros) beetle on banana

The trail passed a rope swing that someone had set up. The entire party took turns playing George of the Jungle. Mucho fun. Most of the party continues on to the zip lines. A few of us hung back, however. Nancy, Caspar, Laurie, Eddie and I took a detour on our own and waited 45 minutes for the rest of the party to return. It was a welcome diversion. The smaller group meant that we could see a lot more stuff. We had two genuine botanists in this group- Nancy is even a tropical botanist. We spent our time botanizing and insect watching. I learned a lot, including useful information like the identity of nature’s toilet paper. I can now proceed much more fearlessly on jungle forays.

Doug of the Jungle

A hawkmoth. The gorgeous hot-pink hindwings are just barely visible in this photo. 
(Adhemarius sexoculata)

Don't touch! This tussock moth larva has urticating (stinging) hairs

Even the leafhoppers were pretty on this walk

A metallic blue staphylinid beetle

Later, back at Rio Mindo, we saw a bunch more beautiful tropical butterflies. It was a great trip. Someday I’ll return to Mindo.

Daggerwing butterfly (Marpesia corinna)

Quick, what's the square root of 7921? Diaethria neglecta has the answer.

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