Gossamer Tapestry

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

Sunday, March 30, 2008


When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11)

After working with soft cheeses, mozzarellas and hard cow cheeses, I began the next phase of my life as a cheese maker today. Camembert is one of the most basic of the mold-ripened cheese to make. It’s the first step down the road to perdition more complex cheeses- the Bries, the blues, and the stinky stuff like Limburger. If all goes well, it will be my first cheese to develop a rind.

Adding mold to milk that has been ripened with a bacterial culture

The recipe that I used calls for not one but two different kinds of white mold. Pennicillium candidum provides the white powdery surface characteristic of cheeses like Brie. Geotrichum candidum is supposed to help prevent the skin from slipping off of mold ripened cheeses. Since I’m a complete noob here, I thought I’d take the more cautious route and include both.

The curds gave a great clean break. I'm just about to cut them here.

The process begins as it does for other cheeses I’ve made. I heated 2 gallons milk and inoculated it with a culture of starter bacteria. In this case, It’s a new kind of starter (Flora Danica) but used just like a regular mesophilic culture. Next I added some of the mixed molds. The molds come in little foil pouches, just like yeast. You add them to a quart of water in a sprayer bottle the night before you begin making the cheese. Then the rennet went in.

These curds were very easy to work with. They held together well, then sank below the surface (as shown here), making the whey easy to pour off.

I’m pleased to say that I got a very nice clean break from this cheese. The curds cut up beautifully and shrank nicely in an expanding pot of whey. Placing the curds in the mold was a bit different than what I’ve experienced before. All of the molded cheeses that I have tried before are pressed. Not so with these guys. They just settle into the molds under their own weight. You create a mold sandwich. Layer one is a cheese board. I don’t have any at the moment, so I improvised with a foam plate. Layer 2 is a cheese mat. I used sushi mats. Layer 3 is the mold itself, which you fill with curds before addling layers 4 and 5, another cheese mat and foam plate.

The start of a mold sandwich. The curds willl be ladled in next.

The molds site for an hour and then get flipped. All the while, they continue to release whey and compress. The curds knit together into a single, solid mass. You flip them several times, incubating an hour in between each flip.

Before the first flip. You can tell that the molds haven't been flipped yet because there's no imprint from the cheese mat on the surface of the curds. Between the molds hangs draining goat cheese that I made last night.

After the final flip, the cheeses are unmolded and sprinkled with salt. After it dissolves, they are sprayed very lightly with the mold mixture that’s in the sprayer bottle. There will be a couple more minor steps this week, but mostly it’s now down to aging for a couple of months.

Unmolded, salted, spritzed with white mold and ready for aging

I’ve been writing this blog entry as I have been making the cheese. At this point, my biggest surprise is how easy this one has been. Hard cheese involves a lot of very fussy temperature control. Mostly done in a sink full of warm water. In many cases you have to increase the temperature by a degree or two a minute over a half hour or 45 minutes. It’s my least favorite aspect of cheese making, so I enjoy not having to worry about that here. Having been through the whole process, the Bible verse that I chose to lead in on now seems really hyperdramatic. This was way easier than I expected. At least so far.

I’ll blog about the results later this spring.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Beetle, Beetle Burning Bright

Sidewalk Tiger Beetle (Cicindela puncticolis) in Michigan

For most of my life, my bug interests have started and ended with butterflies. This began changing in the late 1990s when I started going to the Invertebrates in Captivity Conference and hanging out with a lot of cool entomologists with much broader interests. I’ve become hooked on several other groups. For some reason, I’m particularly taken with tiger beetles. Over at Niches, Wayne posted some beautiful photos of the six-spotted tiger beetle. That’s a common species here in Illinois, and for many years it was the only one that I was familiar with. It was the first species that I collected about three years ago. Since that time, I have been having a blast both collecting and photographing tiger beetles.

Big Sand Tiger Beetle (Cicindela formosa) in Michigan

Tiger beetles seem particularly fond of open areas without a lot of vegetation. Many like sandy and muddy areas, though there are plenty of exceptions to this. I always look for them when I am along a beach or a shoreline. I’ve now seen a total of four species at Bluff Spring Fen.

Sutured Tiger Beetle (Cicindela suturalis) on a beach in Puerto Rico

My Lifelist is now up to 22 species. Leon has exhibited a lot of patience with my newfound obsession. He became aware of the degree of my interest in 2005, the year I began paying attention to the group. We took a vacation to his high school reunion in southwest Oregon, then drove up to visit friends on the Olympic Peninsula. That was an excellent trip from a tiger beetle standpoint. We saw four species, including representatives from riverbanks, sand dunes, and in alpine areas.

Boreal Long-lipped Tiger Beetle (Cicindela longilabris) in the High Sierra

Last fall, while we were backpacking in the Sierras, it was Leon who first noticed the boreal long-lipped tiger beetles running around on an alpine slope that we were climbing. This is a particularly beautiful species, especially the green western populations. I was especially pleased that I was able to get some good photos.

Tiger beetles are hard both to photograph and to catch. They are voracious predators. When pursuing prey, most species run rapidly over the ground, and intersperse bursts of running with short flights. When alarmed, they fly off rapidly. They are powerful fliers and very wary. This challenge is particularly acute in warm weather when their metabolism (and therefore activity) is high. Nowhere is this feature more difficult than at Wilcox Playa.

Wilcox Playa

Wilcox Playa is a (mostly) dry lakebed in southeast Arizona. During the summer monsoon season it’s glaringly bright and hot. It’s also an amazing place to see tiger beetles. When I was there last August, we saw eight species. At Wilcox, the beetles are both abundant and species diverse. There are at least one species ant two subspecies of beetle that are endemic to the one small valley that the playa sits in.

Arid Lands Tiger Beetle (Cicindela marutha)

Most of the individuals that we saw were the beautiful arid-land tiger beetle. At one point, I noticed that one in my collecting jar had similar colors but a completely different wing pattern. It was the Sulfur Springs Valley subspecies of the glittering tiger beetle.

Glittering Tiger Beetle (Cicindela fulgoris erronea)

Unfortunately, the weather was so hot and the beetles so active that I was unable to get any photos. Even the flightless grass runner tiger beetle was hard to catch. I’ll be back next summer. I vow to succeed with the photography.

Grass Runner Tiger Beetle (Cicindela debilis)


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Signs of Spring in Chicago - Take 2

There was a lot of snowmelt today. Still, by the time sunset rolled around, there was still plenty of white ground. Imagine my surprise this afternoon when I discovered that spring is arriving, snowstorm or not. You just can't keep a good season down.

Snow crocus, living up to their name

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Springtime in Chicago

Elgin, Illinois. March 22, 8 AM

Springtime had arrived in Chicago. Everyone is so excited to throw off the shackles of winter, and see the trees budding and the flowers blooming. Tonight, the Easter Bunny will load up his magic sleigh with toys for all the good little boys and girls around the world. Or am I getting confused here?

Today is Spring into Action Day at the Nature MUseum. We're celebrating spring's arrival with lots of special activities. The hand-on outside prairie management demonstration isn't happening this time around.



Sunday, March 16, 2008

Great questions from south of the Mason-Dixon Line

Bluff Spring Fen

My recent post about Gladstone Fen prompted some of great questions from a couple of my good ol' boy readers (though I think Valown is a transplant to the South and may not be eligible for good ol' boy status. But then I'm about as Yankee as you can get, so I know little of these matters).

From North Carolina, Valown asks:
I've read that Fens are usually wet. What normally keeps them clear of shrubs and trees? I would think fire. But you would have to have a cycle that would include a dry period. Is that true, and is fire suppression the culprit there for these areas being overgrown? If you've covered this already in another post point me in that direction.
You're right, it is fire that keeps things open. I did a post on this about 2 months before you started coming by the Tapestry. You can see it here. Fens are not just usually wet, they are by definition wetlands. Because their saturated soils are fed by groundwater, they never really dry out, either. On the other hand, the soil doesn't need to be dry to support a fire- just the vegetation. As you can see in the photo above, the herbaceous layer in the wetland is very dense. The dried sedge stalks support fire very well. Remember my dramatic photos of the cattails burning with 40-foot high flames last spring? They were in standing water. We have previously had fire in still-frozen wetlands burn down to the ice line. It's all quite effective as a management tool.

From Pure Florida, FC wonders:
So, is this fen a natural feature?
It seems to take a lot of management and removal of invasive trees to maintain it.
Are the trees nonnative?
The fen is a natural feature. It's been around since the end of the last ice age. We know that the areas where we are removing trees from were open wetland rather than woodland because the soil in that area is saturated peat rather than loam. You can often tell areas where trees have invatded an open wetland follwoing fire suppression. The soil can't support the weight of many of the trees and they topple over. Sometimes this results in J-shaped trees. The base slowly falls over and the crown growth keeps curving upwards (sorry, no pics of that). So although many of the tree species here are native to this region, they are native invasives that that displace the fen ecosystem as a result of fire suppression.

Regarding your second question, most of us here differentiate between restoration and management. Restoration (in this case tree and brush clearing, as well as any activities needed to coax the native plant community along) is very labor intensive. Management typically involves periodic application of prescribed fire and is much less work. At Bluff Spring Fen, where I do most of my stewardship work, the majority of the fen wetlands are now maintained by fire only. This is typically our goal when we restore a bit of land.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Return to Gladstone Fen

On Sunday, Lorna Gladstone had another of her occasional workdays at Gladstone Fen up in McHenry County. I've blogged about this site a few times before, and in the late 1980s I was even the site steward there.

As you can see from the photos, winter still has a fairly good grip on northern Illinois, though there has been considerable snowmelt in the last couple of days. Lorna and her crew have been clearing a hillside seepage slope on the west side of the preserve. This is exciting to me, because back when I first started visiting, this is a portion of the fen that I never thought would receive active management.

Brush pile awaiting the torch

There were existing brush piles already created when we arrived. The days work consisted of burning a couple of them, and moving the remaining piles onto the burning ones. We wanted to minimize fire scars. We also had a couple of chainsaws cutting down some of the larger invasive trees. The rest of the work crew threw this freshly cut brush onto the fires as well.

Two bonfires, no waiting

This part of Gladstone fen was densely shade and filled with impenetrable brush when I first visited it. It's gratifying to see the first steps to converting it to healthy fen. Most of the trees and brush have been removed. The rest are slated to go.

Signs of spring- the first migrating sandhills of the year

Despite the wintry appearance, we got to see some signs of spring. The first flocks of sandhill cranes were migrating overhead.

The work crew

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Puerto Rico and El Yunque Rainforest

The very blue waters of Aruba

The final island that we visited on our Caribbean cruise was Aruba. Like Bonaire, Aruba is a flat, arid island, however it’s much more developed than Bonaire. There is a high-rise hotel district and a large downtown shopping district. We did a package tour that included sailing on a wooden boat and snorkeling. I don’t really feel like I got much of the flavor of that island. But the water was some of the most gorgeous blue that we encountered on the trip.

El Yunque Rainforest

Following Aruba, we had a full day at sea, returning to Puerto Rico early the morning after that. There had been talk of doing some touring together on Puerto Rico, however UrSpo was not feeling well by then, so we bid our companions goodbye at the airport and grabbed our rental car. By late morning we were at El Yunque rainforest.

The stream near the start of our hike

Further downstream, it gets bigger and rockier

El Yunque is very readily accessible from San Juan. We toured the visitor center and then headed off on a jungle hike to La Mina waterfall. I’ve not been to the Greater Antilles before. I was immediately struck with how much greater the biodiversity is on these larger islands. Our walk took us along a tropical stream through very different kinds of rainforest. We got to see lots of endemic plants and birds. A single fallen branch covered with an array of bromeliads and orchids hinted at the species richness high above our heads in the canopy.

Bromeliads and orchids on a fallen branch

Jungle Beauty

I had been hoping to see a Callisto satyr butterfly. This genus is endemic to the Greater Antilles, and includes species on Puerto Rico. Although I would not see one, I was treated to another Caribbean endemic, Dismorpha spio. This is actually an unusual species of sulphur butterfly. I sow several- but always out of reach in the ravine that the stream flowed through. This picture is from the collections where I work. The individuals were collected in the Dominican Republic.

Habitat of Dismorpha spio

Dismorpha spio
Even if I had been able to get close, they perch with their wings closed.

The weather was quite changeable at El Yunque. As we walked through the rainforest, we encountered- surprise- periodic rainfall, some heavier than just a passing shower. The paths and foliage were quite wet for much of the walk. The waterfall was lovely, though I was a bit disappointed by the number of people there.

Rain in the rainforest

La Mina Waterfall

We had lunch at a little concession in the park, then decided to go to a beach on the south shore of the island. Leon knows me well enough to know my ulterior motives. I wanted to see tiger beetles. Remember my shopping list? I got to see (and photograph) two species on the list. They were very active, so photography was difficult. Cicindela trifasciata did not come out really well, but I’m pleased with my image of C. suturalis, which is a Caribbean endemic. Leon was very patient waiting for me while I was having my entomological fun.

Sandpipers along the beach

Cicindela trifasciata

Cicindela suturalis

I really enjoyed Puerto Rico. I’d love to go back and explore the island a bit more. I also enjoyed the cruise experience. I’d probably do a few things differently next time, mainly more independent travel by bicycle or motor scooter. Still, the food, the scenery, and especially the company were without parallel.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Bonaire and the Mysterious Parrot Eclipse


As our cruise adventure headed south out of Dominica, we visited Grenada, Bonaire, and Aruba. Grenada and Aruba were two of the islands that I felt that I got to know the least on the voyage. That’s probably because we did packaged shore excursions on both of those islands. On Grenada, we went sea kayaking.

Remote Beach on Grenada

Red Hemipterans

I enjoyed the kayaking, though I have few pictures. All of our items like day packs and cameras were stored safely on the skiff while we all paddled. I didn’t trust myself not to send my camera into the drink, so I only have a few pictures of the beaches where we stopped. It was very windy that day, which meant that paddling turned out to involve quite the upper body workout. We did see some interesting red seed bugs on the beach in Grenada. As we were returning to town, we encountered a torrential tropical downpour. I actually rather enjoyed that, though I opted not to wander around town on my own before we put out to sea again.

Departing Grenada

We did not get to Bonaire until early the following afternoon. I spent much of the morning on deck, looking at the sea life. There was a surprising amount to see. The bird life included my first ever view of a storm petrel. I only got a brief glimpse, so I neither have a photograph nor an identification of which species of storm petrel I saw. A small pod of dolphins began playing along side of the ship at one point. Some were jumping more than a full body length out of the water.

As we approached Bonaire, we began encountering hundreds of flying fish- something else I’d never seen before. Again, no photos (alas), but I was really surprised at how well they could fly. They could stay aloft for up to 30 seconds and travel the better part of 100 meters. They flapped their winglike fins, and seemed able to steer. I was completely fascinated by them.

Remnant native scrub vegetation on Bonaire

Towering cacti dwarf the thorn trees

Bonaire, only about 20 miles off the Venezuelan coast, proved to be the unexpected surprise of the trip. I opted to rent a bicycle and tool around a bit on my own. Part of my plans involved insect collecting. I hoped to see other wildlife on the trip, as well, though I didn’t think that there was much chance of seeing either of the island’s endemic parrots. They are mostly confined to the national park on the west end of the island- too far away even by bicycle.

Tree snails. Identity unknown, but likely a Bonaire endemic.

Columella hairstreak

I headed west out of town, and was soon wandering among Bonaire’s scrubby vegetation. True to form with the other islands that I visited, there were few insects. It appeared to be the dry season, as many trees like the gumbo limbos had shed their leaves. The tall, columnar cacti were most impressive. I did get to see, and photograph, the huge arborescent milkweed that I had seen throughout the Caribbean, as well as some cool bone-white tree snails that I saw only on Bonaire. Columella hairstreaks are abundant on the island, and posed nicely for me. Despite much searching, I found no evidence of tiger beetles along the mixed sand/coral/mudflat beaches that I visited.

Strange arborescent milkweed. I've not been able to get an ID.

Milkweed flowers. I saw this species on many of the islands we visited.

Even though the milkweed was strange, some of its inhabitants were very familiar.

Coral-littered beach

On my way back to the cruise port, I noticed a nice patch of native vegetation that I detoured off the road to check out. Wile checking out the vegetation, including lots of native cotton plants, I heard a small flock of birds land near me in a leafless gumbo limbo nearby. Bonairean parrots? Looking up, I saw a beautiful oriole. Not parrots, but beautiful, none the less. But wait- it wan’t just an oriole. The birds were a mixed flock. There were also five parrots mixed in with them. Both native species were present. They even allowed me to get close enough to get a photo that, with cropping, shows them off nicely.

What's in that gumbo-limbo tree?

Troupial (Icteris icteris), a resident oriole.

Yellow-necked parrot (above) and Caribbean parakeet (below)

Tired but quite satisfied, I headed back into port. What could possibly cap off this kind of day? Easy. After we departed from port and had dinner, we were treated to beautiful views of the total lunar eclipse out at sea. Others have posted much better photos of it (I learned that you just can’t get a good shot of the moon on the pitching and rolling deck of a ship), but I have some wonderful memories of its copper-red glow just off the coast of South America.

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