Gossamer Tapestry

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

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The High Season

Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia) Photo: M. Reuter

It's been a year of significant progress and learning for the butterfly restoration project. Yesterday, I realized how much I have had to change my thinking about this work. If you ask me what the busy time of the year for this project is, my answer has traditionally been, without hesitation, July. That's the time of year that most of the important prairie species are flying. And, true to form, this July was pretty busy. Now I'm finding that September is also a very busy month for this project.

Purplish Copper (Lycaena helloides) Photo: T. Peterson

This past week, we brought two species into the lab for breeding. On Friday, we went to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The lab grounds are home to a rare wetland species called the purplish copper. We were delighted to be able to collect both breeding females and bits of wing tissue form a fairly large population series for DNA analysis. This was exciting because we have not been able to find any coppers there for several years now. This year, inexplicably, they're back. We have females beginning to lay eggs in the lab right now.

One of the things that I really like about working at Fermi is that the memorandum of understanding that allows me to do this work expressly states that I do not require time on the particle accelerator beam.

Sand prairie in the Kankakee River Valley

Yesterday two volunteers and an intern accompanied Vincent and me out to the Kankakee River Valley in Indiana. Our quarry was the regal fritillary, another species tthat's in serious trouble. It formerly ranged from Colorado to the East Coast. Today, outside of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, only two remaining populations remain east of the Mississippi.

One of the recent lessons regarding the regal is the narrow window of time that one has to collect founder stock. The butterfly first appears in late June. They spend most of July feeding and mating, then they aestivate (a kind of summer hibernation) until September. We have been unable to coax the females to lay eggs before tis time, and it's hard to keep them alive in the lab for that long. By the third or fourth week in September, they're done laying eggs. This year, we hit it just about right and were done with collecting in about 45 minutes.

Butterflies puddling: Pearl Crescents (orange), Alfalfa Butterflies (yellow),
Cloudless Sulphur (the single yellow butterfly at the top).

The quick completion of our task allowed us to enjoy the area for a while. The soil is very sandy, and is from Lake Michigan. Apparently, thus part of the Midwest was not ice covered during the last glaciation. There was good insect diversity- we saw seval speceeis of grasshoppers,three species of tiger beetles, and a species of velvet ant. Velvet ants are types of wasp with wingless females. In many species, the females are covered with fine down that resembles velvet. They pack a powerful sting, but as they can't fly, it's easy to avoid that. They run very rapidly however, and I was unable to get a decent photo.

More puddling: Pearl Crescents (orange), Viceroy (large orange),
Meadow Fritillary (left side second from top)

Much easier to photograph were the clouds of butterflies puddling. It had rained heavily the previous day, and male butterflies were observed by the thousands drinking from the still-damp soil. This behavior is thought to replenish the sodium lost when the male transfers sperm to the female. We saw 13 different species of butterflies puddling.

Red-spotted Purple (Liminitis astyanax)

Coming soon: lots of field releases, and a visit to Portland and Seattle to observe lab rearing of Oregon Silverspots. This species is a close relative to the Regal Fritillary and has very similar biology. I meant it when I said this is a busy time of year for butterfly restoration.

Butterflies seen puddling:

Alfalfa Butterfly, Pearl Crescent, Eastern Comma, Viceroy,
Cloudless Sulphur, American Lady, Red-spotted Purple, Buckeye,
Cabbage White, Painted Lady, Eastern tailed Blue, Peck's Skipper,
Meadow Fritillary

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At 18:46, Blogger Ur-spo said...

lovely butterflies, i liked the red spotted purple the most.

At 21:16, Anonymous Beetles In The Bush said...

What tiger beetles did you see?

I returned to the Sand Prairie I wrote about last month and found two more species of tiger beetle there, including the one I was really after (Cicindela scutellaris). That makes 5 species we've documented at the site. Other notables were a hognose snake and butterfly pea in bloom - you'll see pics eventually.

I just love sand prairies! ted

At 21:36, Blogger Doug Taron said...

Spo- Thanks, it is a pretty one.

Ted- Nothing really exciting. Just C. repandra, C. formosa, and C. punctulata. Too funny- I was just on your blog and returned here to find that you had left a comment. Nice loess hills post. I love sand prairies, too.

At 10:02, Blogger robin andrea said...

I was thinking just the other day that I never see dark blue butterflies. What a beautiful creature.

At 10:32, Anonymous Jyoti said...

Beautiful shots..Love the butterfly puddling images!

At 12:02, Blogger Kathiesbirds said...

doug, these are all so pretty. I especially like the red spotted purple. I think some butterflies look like stained glass on the wing.

At 17:13, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your doing some great work Doug.

Such a variety of colours you have discussed here.

At 17:27, Blogger cedrorum said...

Great pictures. I've never heard of puddling. I would not have guessed that they were drinking from the damp soil. Fascinating.

At 14:36, Blogger Dave Coulter said...

Excellent photos, Doug. That Kankakee River area is amazing.

At 15:21, Blogger H Oh said...

You are so very lucky, did you know that?

At 10:36, Blogger Gallicissa said...

Great post Doug!
That Red-spotted Purple is absolutely gorgeous. I tied to compare your shots to see whether the one posted at http://behindthebins.wordpress.com
could be named but I failed. May be you could. Could it be Fritillary of sorts?

At 23:44, Blogger Kathiesbirds said...

Okay Doug, I have a yellow butterfly over on my blog that I IDed as some kind of sulpher. Can you come over and verify or straighten me out? Thanks.

At 09:45, Blogger Texas Travelers said...

I will have to read this post several time to absorb all.

Great stuff.

Thanks for the visit and ID.


At 11:04, Blogger Doug Taron said...

Robin- There are several butterflies with a dark blue color pattern- but I don't think that any are found by you. The pipevine swallowtail has a similar color pattern, and it's found in California, but I don't think it's common as far north as you are.

Jyoti- Thanks. I felt very lucky to be out when there was so much puddling going on. The desities of butterflies were more like what I'm used to seeing in the tropics

Kathie - The very similar pipevine swallowtail is common in your part of the world. The Arizona subspecies of Red-spotted Purple is found in wet areas. I've seen it very close to you in Box Canyon.

Roy - Thanks. This is the part of my work that means the most to me.

cedrorum - I'm a bit surprised that you haven't heard of puddling before. I'm sure you've seen it, you spend lots of time out in the field.

Dave- I LOVE the Kankakee Sands area. It is amazing.

Heather- I do feel very lucky.

Gallicissa - Thanks. The butterfly that you are asking about is an angle wing (Genus Polygonia). I think it's an Eastern Comma (P. comma, but the most defining characteristic is hidden on the underside of the wings.

Kathie- You got the ID correct. It's a Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae).

Troy - Thanks.


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