Gossamer Tapestry

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

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The October Dance

Pride goeth during the Fall - Butternut Squash from the garden

Today, we're having a change in the weather. It's been cloudy and blustery all day. We have had a couple of showers of sleet. Tonight light snow and a low of 29° F are predicted. Therefore, today we:

• Drained and coiled the hoses
• Brought in the houseplants
• Took the chair cushions in off of the screened porch and put them into storage
• Picked all the remining vegetables in the garden, including all the squash in the photo above, a bunch of green tomatoes and red peppers, a tiny bit of basil and, amazingly, enough green beans for one more meal.

Bring it on, winter!!

Unrelated: I made 4 rounds of camembert today.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

SkyWatch - Sunny Side up. Autumn Skies and Eggs

Autumn on the Prairie - Bluff Spring Fen - 12 October 2008

The girls have been busy - Swamp Metalmark Eggs

Current egg count: 165 212 325

More Skywatch at the Usual Spot.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Media Madness

Usually, it's about my day job, but not this time. On Sunday, the Daily Herald ran a story about an upcoming event at Bluff Spring Fen.

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Monday, October 20, 2008


Today was supposed to be a beautiful sunny autumn day. I was excited because I was to visit the Hennepin Wetlands today. Hennepin is river bottomland along the Illinois River. It's formerly agricultural land that has been re-created as wetland.

I'm usually a bit disappointed when confronted with such a project. Not today. My guides from The Wetlands Initiative showed me around a huge (more than 2,000 acres) site that is becoming a rather impressive wetland dominated by native species. The purpose of my visit was to evaluate the site's potential for butterfly introductions. The answer is a qualified yes, and I suspect that we'll try to add something in the next couple of years.

In addition to a variety of native habitats (wet prairies, sand prairies, oak woodlands), I got to see some nice bird life. Northern Harriers and Shoveler Ducks were new species for me. I even got to see white pelicans (too far away for a photo). We got a bit wet (OK, a lot wet) while out evaluating the site. It's always good when the only thing disappointing about this sort of visit is the weather.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Media Madness

The news that I mentioned yesterday has been picked up by the Chicago Tribune. Enjoy the Barry White reference.

Go ahead, Spo. You know you wanna say it.

Update: Now there's video, too.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Circle Closes

It's a girl! Actually, it's two girls, so far. The Swamp Metalmark project continues to push ever further into uncharted territory. I recently posted the first photos we've ever gotten of the chrysalis of this species. Last week, adult butterflies began emerging. Progress was slow at first, just as pupations were. Things have picked up rapidly this week. We're now up to ten adults. Yesterday the first two females emerged.

Way back last summer, we collected gravid females up in Wisconsin. I have seen a lot of courtship activity in the flight cage, but no actual mating. It is not unusual for us not to observe any mating at all, even when it happens. I'm pretty sure that the female have now mated. We won't know for sure until we get fertile eggs out of them. Still, if my hunch is correct, it means that for the first time ever, we have succeeded in getting the metalmarks to complete a full life cycle in the lab, returning to the stage that we collected in the wild.

There's still lots of work to be done. We hope to get lots and lots of eggs out of these girls, and will rear the larvae in the lab. In about a month, we'll set them outside to overwinter in special cages. I will blog all the gory details.

Side Note: It's not unusual in butterflies to have the males emerge from their chrysalides sooner than the females do. We had eight males emerge before we got a single female. I expect that the last of the adults to emerge in this generation will be similarly skewed towards females. We have a dozen pupae yet to emerge, and more larvae on the way.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Hurricane Season: August-November 1979

This is the third year that I have been blogging on National Coming Out Day, and I provide another installment of my recollections here.

I moved to the Chicago area in late June of 1979 to begin pursuing my doctorate from the Department of Biochemistry at Northwestern. As I have previously mentioned, part of my decision to come to Chicago involved the fact that I needed to come out here. I had struggled with life in the closet enough to know that it wasn’t a winning proposition. By the time I arrived in town, I was completely committed to starting the process.

But what to do? I didn’t know how to come out. It wasn’t something that there was a how-to manual for, especially that long ago. I did spend part of that summer in the HO section of the university library, being generally unimpressed with what I was reading. I was pretty sure that I wasn't interested in being a flamboyant party boy. That decision undoubtedly served me well- although nobody had yet heard of AIDS, 1979 would later prove to be a very dangerous time. I remember wondering a lot where I fit in. It was pretty clear that I felt outcast in the straight world. Was there room for me anywhere in the gay life?

In August of that summer, I was reading the classified ads in The Reader, Chicago’s local alternative paper. There was an ad by an organization called the Mattachine Society advertising a discussion group for gay men the following Tuesday. Mattachine, I would later learn, was a very early gay rights organization that dates back to the early 1950s.

I went. I still remember the evening vividly, down to what I wore (my green alligator shirt). The discussion was warm, sometimes goofy, and only a little bit political. The men ranged widely in age and in personality. There were overtly queeeny types (still quite scary to me that early in my own process) and guys who I felt that I might have met even in my old home town. I remember the frisson of first seeing unrelated men kissing socially. I also remember seeing my reflection in the window of the El car on my way home and wondering if I was somehow different now.

I would return to the discussion groups faithfully each week for several years. Those guys did so much to calm me down about the whole process. Many were important examples to me of how one could be out and proud and lead a rich and productive life. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

The summer of 1979 was one of great change for me. I felt very alone for much of that summer. I was far from home and the people I knew and loved. I was living in a large city for the first time. It was the summer that I would gradually grow accustomed to being on my own. Perhaps because I missed the ocean, I remember thinking at one point that it’s when hurricanes make landfall and come into contact with people that they dissipate. I spent that summer by myself, feeling far out at sea like a hurricane-- gathering strength.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Nitey Nite

Shh! We've just put 850 Regal Fritillary caterpillars to bed for the winter. They are all in the Larva Lounge, our new refrigerator that's just for caterpillar cold storage. What does a Regal Fritillary bed look like?

Fritillary Caterpillars on a Yurt

We start by placing the caterpillars on yurts- bits of corrugated cardboard. The larvae settle down in the grooves of the corrugation.

Toledo Cage Insert.
It's a plastic tube sliced near the top. A thin sheet of organza silk is stretched over the bottom piece, and the top piece reattached with acrylic glue.

The yurts are placed on Toledo cage inserts. These were invented at the Toledo Zoo (Go Mudhens!) as a way of storing caterpillars in a refrigerator without having them dessicate.

Toledo Cage awaiting lid

The Toledo cage is completed by placing the insert, with yourts, inside of a pint canning jar, and adding water to about 1/3 the height of the insert. Another sheet of organza is stretched over the top of the jar, and the lid band screwed down. The idea is to keep the caterpillars in the jar and out of the water, but to keep plenty of water around. Refrigerators dry things out very quickly, and this kills caterpillars.

Over the winter, we'll check the larvae weekly, looking for mold and dessication. If we see mold, everything will go into a fresh, clean setup. If we see dessication, we'll wake the caterpillars up and give them a drink of water before putting them back to bed (see, it's just like trying to get kids to sleep through the night).

Next spring, we'll wake the caterpillars up and rear them on to adulthood. Then we'll release this endangered species onto a site in southwest Cook County to establish a new population.

Regal Fritillaries
Photo: Ron Panzer

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Purplish Coppers

Things are really happening in the conservation breeding lab at the moment. In addition to the Silver-bordered Fritillaries, Regal Fritillaries, and Swamp Metalmarks, we're breeding Purplish Coppers. We have been attempting to do a restoration project with this species for three years now. The problem is the population from which we planned to take founder stock. This once thriving population crashed unexpectedly two years ago. We saw no individuals whatsoever for either of the last two seasons.

Purplish Copper Caterpillar

About a month ago, we got a call from a contact at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, site of the population in question. The coppers were flying again in some numbers. We rushed out to the site and collected six females. They settled into teir eyy-laying cages for a day or two, then began laying eggs like mad. the eggs have hatched, and we now have 282 caterpillars, grwing rapidly. I expect adults within the next three weeks. We will be starting a new population up in Lake County, near the Wisconsin border.

Update: The first of our adult swamp metalmarrks has emerged. We have nearly two dozen more pupae that will emerge over the next week or so. This is only the sedond adult that we have ever produced in my lab. I like this photo because it really shows why they are called metalmarks.

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