Gossamer Tapestry

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

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Arizona So Far

I am into the second phase of the Arizona trip right now, and the word of the week is monsoon. The monsoon rains have been very strong this year. It’s a mixed blessing. On one hand the desert is beautifully lush at the moment. There’s lots to see- at least while the sun is out. But it’s been raining a lot.

Mt. Lemmon with approaching rain

On Friday night, Leon and I flew down from Chicago and met up with our friends Michael and David from Phoenix. For Phase 1 of the trip, we hung out together staying at a nice B&B in downtown Tucson. Saturday we drove up Mt. Lemmon in the rain. It was fun, but the views were nonexistent. We tried one brief hike and got caught in a sudden downpour for our efforts. Saturday night we enjoyed a Mexican meal and conversation with fellow blogger Homer. Meeting other bloggers is an aspect of blogging that is very new to me. Homer is every bit as witty and charming in person as he is on his blog. I’m glad that we met.

Tucson Mountain Park

Mammillaria sp.

Sunday was beautiful. We attempted to drive up Kitt Peak, however Saturday’s rains caused a rockslide that closed the roads. So instead, the four of us went for a walk in Tucson Mountain Park. The desert is incredible after all of the rain that has been falling. I’ve never seen so many Mammilaria cacti in bloom together before. After the walk, we bid goodbye to our Phoenix friends. Leon and I then enjoyed a second walk in Tucson Mountain Park, hiking up to a small pass that overlooks part of the city. I then got Leon on a plane back to Chicago and hung out at the airport to await the start of Phase 2 of the trip with the arrival of my collecting buddy John.

Trimerotropis grasshopper in Tucson Mountain Park

The motley crüe in Tucson Mountain Park.
L-R: Michael, Leon, Me, David

Monday, John and I went to French Joe Canyon, our favorite collecting spot in the Whetstone Mountains. Alas, it was cloudy there and little was out. So we departed early and headed to our main goal of the day: Wilcox Playa and tiger beetles.

Wilcox Playa. The light sandy area on the left was teeming with
abundant and diverse tiger beetles.

Wilcox Playa is a mostly dry lakebed that sits at the north end of Sulphur Springs Valley. I’m not sure why, but there are three tiger beetles- two subspecies and one full species- that are found there and nowhere else. There is also a tremendous species diversity overall there. We saw a total of eight species, including one of the endemics. Alas, no tiger beetle photos. It was so hot that they were very active and just too fast to photograph.

The view down canyon in beautiful Madeira Canyon

The view up canyon in beautiful Madeira Canyon. Uh oh.

Today we attempted to climb into the Santa Rita Mountains at Madeira Canyon. There were clouds over the mountains when we set out. These got thicker and thicker as we approached. The rain started just after we got there. We moved down instead of up, moving away as the rain caught up with us. Bu lunchtime we left for another location, but the rain eventually found us there as well. We drove back to Tucson in a blinding thunderstorm. The up side? This afternoon, I’ve been able to update my blog. Tomorrow evening we begin phase three of the trip with the beginning of the conference.

Metallic wood boring beetle (Buprestidae) in Madeira Canyon.
Hippomelas planicosta

Neumogenia poetica, one of my favorite Arizona moths.
I usually see it at black light- the gold scales on the forewing
are beautifully reflective and it glows.

Sleeping antlion

The rain is coming
The rain is coming
The (ant)lion sleeps today...
(Apologies to The Weavers)

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Feeling SASI

California Gulch, just a few miles north of Mexico. A prime collecting spot.

Tomorrow evening, I will be heading off to the wilds of Arizona for my annual entomology conference. The conference is sponsored by the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute (SASI). It’s called the Invertebrates in Captivity Conference (affectionately referred to as Bugs in Bondage). It’s attended by folks who run isectariums and live butterfly exhibits, as well as people who just enjoy entomology. I hope to blog my way through the whole conference.

The conference opens with the "Bugs in Bondage BBQ"

This year, my trip should be particularly fun. Leon is going to accompany me for the first weekend. We will be meeting up with UrSpo and his partner for the weekend, and also have plans to meet fellow blogger (and archaeologist extraordinaire) Homer. I have to be a good boy and keep the collecting obsession to a minimum during that part of the trip. My companions for the weekend are all non-entomologists.

A tiger beetle. If I'm lucky, I'll see nearly a dozen species next week.

On Sunday evening, SpoCo head back up to Phoenix and I will put Leon on a plane back to Chicago. I will also meet up with my collecting buddy John from Colorado for a few days of intensive collecting. We plan to visit French Joe Canyon (home of amazing beetles) and Wilcox (home to several endemic species of tiger beetles). I’d also like to spend one day up in the Santa Rita Mountains, where bears did terrible things to me last year. Well, OK, it was just one bear. But it was an uncomfortably close encounter. I wish I had been blogging back then so I could have posted about scaring a bear away with my butterfly net.

Me helping with the trivia contest. The beverage is essential to this task.

The conference begins on Wednesday. There will be field trips, lectures, blacklighting, workshops and other assorted conference events. I’ll be helping again with the now annual trivia contest. If you have any good entomological trivia questions, send ‘em my way. I plan on bringing lots of live insects home with me for display here at the Nature Museum. My shopping list so far includes sunburst diving beetles, lynx spiders, water scorpions, and possibly even some more ants. I return to Chicago a week from next Monday.

One of Arizona's finest. A sunburst diving beetle (Thermonectus marmoratus)

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Monday, July 23, 2007

The Swamp Metalmark: My Butterfly Romance

Swamp Metalmark 7/18/07

Just before I moved to Chicago in 1979, I checked the maps in my Golden Guide to Butterflies to see which new species I might encounter in the Chicago area. Two jumped out at me: the Olympia Marblewing and the Swamp Metalmark. As it turns out, these are both rare species regionally, restricted to very specialized habitats. Within a couple of years of arriving in Chicago, I had jumped on the South Shore Line train to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and seen dozens of Olympia Marblewings. The metalmark remained a mystery, however.

Olympia Marblewing

In the winter of 1983, I attended my first Illinois Prairie Conference up in Crystal Lake. One of the optional breakout sessions was on prairie butterflies, presented by Wayne Shennum. How could I not attend? There, I learned two important things. First, it was possible to learn to identify skippers, a task I set about immediately. Second, Swamp Metalmarks live in fens, and there are historical records of Swamp Metalmarks from Bluff Spring Fen, the site I had been helping to manage for the previous two years. My notes from that part of the talk are peppered with exclamation points.

Bluff Spring Fen. The pink flowers in the foreground are Swamp Thistle,
caterpillar food plant for the Swap Metalmark

Ten years ago, when I made the jump from the biotech industry to the museum world, I insisted on one thing during my job interview: that I be able to use the new facility to develop a research program for the conservation and restoration of local butterflies. The then president at the museum shared my views on the matter. In 2001, we received a Leader Award from BP for the purpose of developing such a program. Since the mid 1980s, the time I figured out that the metalmark had been extirpated from the Fen, I had wanted to restore the species there. Now was my chance. And so, in 2001, I actually got to see my first living swamp metalmarks at Dundee Fen in Wisconsin. More importantly, I brought 6 females back to Illinois with me.

Me collecting metalmarks at Dundee Fen in 2001

Our initial efforts at restoration have been slow. Most years I see nothing at all. Occasionally I find a larva on swamp thistle early in the spring. Last year I saw one adult. These efforts have been hampered by the fact that the Wisconsin populations are very small, and there is little material to work with. This year, there is renewed hope.

In June, a member of my staff went to the McGuire Center for Lepedoptera Research and Conservation in Gainesville, Florida to learn some of their breeding techniques. We have already applied these to one species, with great success so far. This week, I went to the Riverendge Nature Center in Wisconsin and returned with four gravid female Metalmarks.

The fen at Riveredge Nature Center

As of this writing, we have over 70 eggs, and could easily end up with over 100. This is the largest amount of stock that we have ever had to work with. My goal is to attempt full breeding of this species in the lab, with the ultimate goal of releasing not the larvae that these eggs will hatch into, but their progeny. If they will successfully breed in the lab, I can expand the number that I have to work with into the hundreds or even the thousands. These large numbers will allow both for more robust restoration efforts, and for the possibility of restoration on more than one site.

Swamp Metalmark caterpillar

My love affair with this butterfly has endured for decades, and has had its ups and downs. I have not always been rewarded, and at times my love feels unrequited. Still, the Swamp Metalmark is the most endangered species of butterfly that I am working with, even though it is not recognized as endangered at the federal level. If there is one part of my life’s work that I want to live on long after I do, this is it.

Update: The egg count is now over 100. Some of the adult butterflies have died (not surprising at this point), others are still laying eggs. Unfortunately, one appears not to have laid eggs at all. Did I manage to snag the rare un-mated female? Oh, well, we're getting lots of eggs. Yay!

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Light Blogging

I know, I haven't been posting much the last couple of weeks. It's the height of field season. That's going really well. We now have females of the highly endangered swamp metalmark butterfly in the lab laying eggs. So we're having success, but it's keeping me very busy. Plus we're scrambling to prepare a big grant application that's due next week, though it's nowhere near as big as the one Rodger slaved over last spring. A week from tomorrow I leave for Tucson where I will meet up with UrSpo and Someone, and will get to meet Homer.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Happy Anniversary to Me

In the comment thread to the post below, I replied to a comment from Pablo by saying:

The opportunity to do this particular kind of work was my main motivation for taking the Museum job.

My comment reminded my that my first day on the job here was July 13, 1997. Today is my 10th anniversary here. It's been quite a decade. I remember being very apprehensive when I first took the position, in no small measure because it included a hefty pay cut. I kept wondering how long it would take me to really seriously wonder if I had made the right decision to leave the biotechnology industry. Apparently that number is greater than 10 years. After a decade, I still feel like I have the job that I was born to do, and it gives me a great deal of pleasure to share my work with my fellow bloggers.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Egg Man Redux

Silver-bordered Fritillary (not my photo)

Last fall, I blogged a couple of times about the butterfly restoration work that I'm doing, and some of the frustrations that I was having with it. One of the species that we are working with, the silver-bordered fritillary (Boloria selene) is common in parts of its range, but a very uncommon species of wet prairies in Illinois.

Collecting site in Grundy County

This summer, we're already off to a better start than last year. We were unable to obtain any breeding stock for the silver-bordered fritillary until the very end of the season, even though we made a half dozen trips to the collecting site in Grundy County. Last week, Vincent and I went back out to Grundy County and got a half dozen gravid females with lettle difficulty, a full 2 months earlier than last year.

Egg laying cages under lights in lab

For the past week, the butterflies have been confined in egg laying cages under lights in our lab. To maximize egg production, the lights are on for an hour and off for an hour, 24 hours a day. We have over 100 eggs from each butterfly, and they began hatching today.

If you look closely, you can see the eggs on the screen. The Q-Tip is soaked in Fierce Melon Gatorade and will provide food for the butterfly while she's laying eggs.

Because of the problems that we had last year, we sent Vincent down to the McGuire Center for Lepedoptera Research at the University of Florida at Gainesville to imporve our rearing techniques. He returned with great information about how to improve our rearing. If all goesw well, about 100 adults from this generation will be released at GLacial Park in McHenry County about a month from now.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Upcoming Lecture - Colony Collapse Disorder in Honeybees

No, I'm not the speaker- but it looks to be a really good lecture that Chicago area readers might be interested in:

Next Thursday July 19th, the Notebaert Nature Museum will host a lecture about colony collapse disorder. It will be held in the McCormick Room at 5:30 pm. The lecture will be presented by Ken Haller, President of the Illinois Beekeepers Association. Carol Line of the Chicago Botanic Garden has provided a bibliography for people who might want to do further research. Michael Thompson of the Chicago Honey Co-op will also be in attendance. Michael is bringing an observation hive that will demonstrate a working bee colony. He hopes to have a queen bee that night. If you are interested in attending, please RSVP at 773-755-5191, ext 1 or email RSVP@naturemuseum.org.
Registration deadline is Friday, July 13.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Bounty of Summer

As the height of summer is upon us, the vegetable garden takes more attention- but at this time of year it’s producing in a big way. So far, I’ve had lots of radishes and lettuce. The radishes have been done for a while, but lettuce production continues well into the season this year. I’m currently growing 4 varieties of lettuce. You can see them in rows on the left and right sides of the garden. On the left side are (L-R) speckled, rouge d’hiver, and Amish deertongue. To the right is green oakleaf. The rouge d’hiver is from seed that I have been growing and saving for years now. It’s a very nice red romaine. The seed is good for a couple of years, and I got an excellent crop last year, so I’m going to allow the speckled to go to seed this year. In the back of my house, I’m growing a second bit of Amish deertongue with the intent of letting it bolt and set seed as well. The oakleaf was a bit of a disappointment- flabby and watery. There is no shortage of interesting varieties of lettuce to grow, so I don’t plan on replanting that one.

The green beans are starting to produce. In fact we’re being inundated with them at the moment. So in addition to eating them, I’m freezing a bunch. Yesterday I prepared 4 pints of beans for the freezer. It was a very hot day, so the most unpleasant task was going out into the garden and picking them. The green beans are the ones that are partly trellised in the photo. They were billed as a bush variety. Then it looked like they were actually going to turn out to be pole beans, so we erected the trellis. As it turns out, they’re floppy bush beans. The un-trellised beans are my first attempt to grow a shelling bean, and heirloom variety called bird’s egg. It’s cropping heavily, but won’t be ready for a while. I’m also growing eggplant (Italian and Asian varieties) and peppers (a red bell pepper and an Italian sweet pepper) from seed this year. Me inspiration for all of this growing from seed and heirloom varieties springs from an Ur-Spo (and Someone) Christmas gift certificate from Seed Savers Exchange. Thanks Sposki. If you look carefully next to the beans you will see that the Basil is just about ready to turn into the first batch of pesto for the year.

Behind the garden is part of my raspberry patch. After several years of going raspberry-less, we are getting a bumper crop this year. This pint has been macerated for making raspberry ice cream. Yesterday I whipped up a pie and discovered that Crisco has been reformulated to be trans fat free. So far the raspberry score for the year is 3 1/2 quarts of ice cream, 1 pie and 8 jars of jam. And they are still coming.

Since we’re on the topic of food, the Gouda that I made in early May was ready for testing last week. I think I’m finally getting the hang of making hard cheeses. This one tasted good, but also had a much better texture than previous efforts. It was softer and less crumbly that my previous attempts. An indication that it’s a better cheese than earlier ones: it’s gone already.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Lake Michigan in the distance

Leon and I took Friday and Monday off and set off on an adventure with a goal: to circumnavigate Lake Michigan by car. We loaded up and headed south mid-morning on Friday. The goal was to get through Chicago at the beginning rather than the end of the trip and to avoid the worst of weekend rush traffic. The plan worked reasonably well, and our main problems in town involved getting through the small amount of Dan Ryan Expressway construction that we needed to pass in order to get to Lakeshore Drive. Friday was mostly driving, though we stopped for a late lunch in Douglas/Saugatuck just because we have heard so much about it as a gay resort. Lunch was delicious, but we didn’t really see much in the way of the gay part of the resort. We drove on to the south end of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where we camped for the night.

Several views of Sleeping Bear Dunes

Saturday morning, we spent a lot of time exploring Sleeping Bear Dunes. The sand dunes are spectacular and huge, and the views are beautiful. Unfortunately, the dune vegetation has suffered from quite a bit of exotic species invasion. Still, the scenery was lovely, and I got a couple of great photos of tiger beetles.

Punctured tiger beetle - Cicindela puncticolis

Big Sand Tiger Beetle - Cicindela formosa

Saturday Afternoon we drove on to Mackinaw City. We had a whitefish dinner and planned to go on to Mackinac Island for some exploration the next day. Mackinaw Island harkens back to a more genteel era with its Grand Hotel and formal settings. We arrived via a brief, pleasant high-speed ferry ride on the day of the trip that had the nicest weather. The sunshine made for some beautiful photography of the Mackinac Bridge and some lighthouses. Oh yes, we also bought fudge. Following the recommendation of notorious Michigander Ur-Spo, we shopped at Murdicks.

Mackinac Bridge

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

Quaint lighthose seen from the ferry (for Ur-Spo)

Following our return to Mackinaw City we hopped back in the car and drove across the bridge to the UP and did some hiking in the Hiawatha National Forest. Leon enjoyed the ruins of an old CCC campground, while I collected some beautiful longhorn beetles on cow parsnip flowers. After the hike, we stopped at another set of sand dunes along the north shore of Lake Michigan (much smaller than the Sleeping Bear Dunes) where I caught some examples of another species of tiger beetle. All told on this trip I saw six species.

This view of Portage Bay was mere steps from our tent

The afternoon saw us poking along the North Shore of the Lake. Late in the day, we turned onto a peninsula that jutted south into the lake and found a really nice campground. It sits seven miles down a dirt road on Portage Bay. The campground felt really remote and beautiful. I did some collecting (yep, more tiger beetles) and set up my black light. There were some super moths. While blacklighting, I heard a hissing sound and though I had a short in the light. Nope- thousands of tiny mayfly-like creatures had landed on my sheet. The sound was all of their wings pulsing. I fell asleep to the twinkling of stars and woke to the chattering of red squirrels. Breakfast the following morning was at the unforgettable Sherry’s.

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