Gossamer Tapestry

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

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Screened Porch

Leon and I have been working on our screened porch for a long time now- longer than I've been blogging. It had fallen into disrepair. The screen panels needed to be replaced, and all of the paint need to be stripped and redone. Tow of the paint stripping jobs in particular were very diifficult.

The ceiling is beadboard. It's really hard to get all the paint out ouf the little channels that the beading forms.

The chimney was such a horrible task that I've left it during the entire 20 years that I've lived in this house. There were many layers of thick paint on it. The previous owners had decided on avocado green as the outermost layer. Leon did most of the stripping. I think it looks great back in the natural brick.

Last weekend we painted the floor a light terracotta, thereby finishing the project. Even though it has been in process, we have really come to enjoy eating out there in the summertime. Dinner on the porch while we watch the firelflies blinking on the lawn is one of the things that I really enjoy about living here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Full Weekend

Ichiban Eggplant and Roma Tomatoes

It was such a full weekend that I never got to the Fen. That's pretty surprising at this time of the year. Things at home had me tied down. We spent a lot of time working on the screened porch. That project has been underway for a bunch of years now- and we just about finished up. I'll give it a whole blog post later in the week.

The vegetable garden is producing full tilt at the moment, and I spent a lot of the weekend putting food by. I froze three pints of eggplant and two of beans. I dried a bunch of Roma tomatoes, and went to the farm stand for corn. I got four pints of bicolored sweet corn in the freezer. I'm feeling very virtuous right now.

Sweet Corn!

It wasn't all indoor stuff, however. As I mentioned recently, we have 300 swamp metalmark larvae in the lab right now. That's a lot of mouths to feed. I collected a bit of swamp thistle, which is the caterpillar food plant.

Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum)

Swamp thistle is a biennial. It grows a rosette the first year, and in the second year it blooms, sets seed, and dies. I collect the first year rosettes to feed the caterpillars. I get them from a mowed area on the edge of a bike path just up the street from my house.

The bike path. The thistle is mostly on the right side.

First year thistle rosette

Summer is definitely passing by. I saw a lot of fall wildflowers. Sunflowers were abundant, but there were some other, more interesting fall flowers.

Tall White Lettuce (Prenanthes alba)

One of the Fireweeds (Epilobium sp.)

I even saw zigzag goldenrod, which Andy and Adam were discussing with me last weekend. I took a picture so they can see what it looks like.

Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis)

After digging up one of the thistles, I felt a tickling sensation on my left wrist. A mating pair of stick insects had climbed aboard.

Northern Walking Stick (Diapheromera femorata)

You can see the much smaller male on the lower left of the female.

The problem with very full weekends is that Monday always seems to come around particularly quickly.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Whole Lot of Butterfly Conservation

I suppose that after getting the new lab facility for butterfly breeding there's really no excuse for not breeding lots of rare butterflies. That has been happening all summer long, and I'm pretty pleased with the results.

Here Vincent and Jay are feeding silver-bordered fritillary caterpillars. This year, over 1,300 of them hatched from eggs that we collected in the lab. They are starting to pupate now. We will be trying to start a new population of this species up in McHenry County. Assuming we get the final permit, we will be trying to start a second population on a prairie restoration project in southwest Cook County. There are only two large populations of this species left in Illinois

Cages with silver-bordered fritillary larvae feeding on violet leaves

Gorgone Checkerspot Caterpillars Heading in to Hibernation

We're growing two types of checkerspot butterflies this year: the Gorgone Checkerspot and the Baltimore Checkerspot. Both species spend the winter as caterpillars. We have 555 Gorgone Checkerspot caterpillars and 1758 Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars. The caterpillars have stopped eating and are preparing to hibernate. Most of them will spend the winter on the museum roof. Next week, we will be releasing a bunch of the Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars to let them spend the winter in the wild. We are using them to create a new population on the grounds of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Long time readers will know that the most seriously imperiled species that we are working with is a little butterfly called the Swamp Metalmark. It's at significant risk of becoming extinct within my lifetime. We have struggled trying to breed enough in the lab to start a new population here in Illinois where it went extinct in the 1980s. The female in the cup above has been laying eggs for nearly a month now. We have a record 300+ caterpillars. The most that we have ever had prior to this year is 140. I will be holding my breath until we can get a lot of adults out of this species.

Swamp Metalmark

In general, I'm really pleased with our progress this year. For those of you keeping a tally, we have been working with 3,852 caterpillars so far this summer. We have had only one significant failure. In late June I stayed up until 3:00 AM collecting females of a rare prairie moth. It's a species we have never worked with before- and we got zero eggs (but at least we learned how not to collect eggs from this species). The fun isn't over. The first week in September, we will be collecting female regal fritillaries and trying to carry caterpillars from that species over the winter.

Regal Fritillary (photo: Ron Panzer)

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I can't believe that I've been blogging for three years already. My first post went up three years ago yesterday. So much has changed in those past three years, but I'm still really enjoying blogging.

One of the highlights of the past year was being a "Featured Blog" on the Nature Blogging Network. One of my responses in that interview seems particularly true today:
Becoming part of the nature blogging community has been the single most rewarding aspect of blogging.
I've enjoyed the experience, the writing, and the photography. I only wish that my writing had improved as much as my photography. I guess it's a lot easier to get a better camera than to get a better brain. It's hard to believe that a year ago I had only met four fellow bloggers: Tony, Homer, Sandy and Kathie. Oh, and UrSpo, but I knew him before I started blogging. In fact, he's the one to blame for getting me started on all this.

Over the past year, I've met a bunch more bloggers. It's hard to believe that it's only been a year since I first met Will and his partner Fritz in person. I've seen them several times since then and I feel like we have been friends forever. I met Rodger and Mark on my trip to the Pacific Northwest last September. I spent a delightful evening with Thingfish23 and family when I was in Florida last winter. Dave came to visit me at the Fen last spring. Cobban and his partner Ray stopped in at the Museum in June, then had me out to their place while I was in Arizona.

I'm still amazed at how rewarding blogging has been. I look forward to another year of butterfly conservation, travel, invertebrate macrophotography and cheesemaking. I also hope to meet more of you for the first time and to see some of you again. It's been an adventure, and the connections that I have made through blogging have enriched my life more than I can express. Thank you all.

Update: Crap. I knew if I listed the bloggers I had met this year that I'd leave somebody out. One of my blogging friends was this year's guest speaker at the annual Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Workshop. Sorry, Ted.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Prairie Adventure with Andy and Adam

About three weeks ago, I went on my annual Arizona trek. Part of my plans involved meeting up with Homer and heading down to Bisbee to visit Cobban and his partner Ray. As is his wont, in advance of my arrival, Homer did a poll on his blog to determine what dessert he should whip up for the occasion (lemon cupcakes. They were delicious).

The day before my departure for Arizona, an email appeared in my inbox:
My name is Andy; I'm an acquaintance of Homer Thiel and I found your blog through my huzbin Adam via Homer. Apparently you know Ray and Cobben as well? Crazy.

My family has an old 400 acre place in southwest Wisconsin in the driftless area that we've been gradually restoring to tall-grass prairie and oak savanna for the last 25 years or so.
Amazing! Fascinating! The very next day. we decided to get together on my first night in Arizona. In another amazing coincidence, they lived 3 houses away from the B&B where I was staying (cue Twilight Zone music...). We spent the evening taking and drinking wine (Rodger will find a theme here). They were both delightful folks, and very much kindred spirits.

This past weekend, Adam and Andy were up in Wisconsin on their prairie. Yesterday, Leon and I headed on up to see the place and meet Andy's parents, who own the property. Tom and Eva are every bit a nice as their son (apples not falling far from the tree and all that), and we had a delightful day. The 400 acres is most impressive.

Restored prairie on dry hillside

The family has obviously put a lot of work into their restoration. The oldest sections are reverting very well to native vegetation. The newest are, well, new, but I'm sure they will come along just fine. The wetlands, currently pink with Joe Pye weed are especially impressive. The farm is in the driftless area, so it's quite hilly. The underlying rock is sandstone rather than the limestone that I'm more accustomed to.

Driftless Area - This hill wasn't flattened by the last glacier

View from the sandstone bluffs on one of the hills

Wet prairie with Joe Pye Weed

We were invited to dinner- and stayed, even though this meant not getting home until 11:30 last night. The late afternoon view from the deck where we dined (photo below) faded into a night of flickering candles and fireflies, accompanied by good food and conversation. Our new friendships have been such an unexpected and pleasant surprise.

View from the table at the start of dinner

L-R: Doug, Adam, Andy, Leon

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Late Summer at the Fen

Summer is definitely moving along. The late summer flora is getting into full swing out at the fen. We're starting to see the goldenrods and asters in bloom. The yellow flowers in the photo above are wingstem, a species that we did not have at the Fen until we began seeding it. Today it's abundant in some of our savannas and degraded wetlands.

Stiff White Aster (Solidago ptarmicoides)

Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

Ironweed (Veronia fasciculata)

We have several other plant species that are conspicuous at this time of year whose presence is mostly or entirely a result of our seeding efforts. The upland stiff aster required little effort on our part beyond throwing some seed around. Rattlesnake master was more stubborn. We have been trying to encourage it for over a decade now. It is finally showing up- we may even be able to collect seed on site this year. There were about a half dozen ironweed plants when I first started working out at the Fen, all in an inaccessible part of the preserve. Today this species is expanding in may of our restored areas, and its striking dark purple blooms are readily visible and avidly visited by insects.

Speaking of insects, the dragonflies are putting on a spectacular show at the moment.

Calico Pennant (Celithemis lisa)

Common Whitetail (Platythemis lydia)

Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis)
Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicolis)

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Gregor Mendel meets the Aridlands Tiger Beetle

In Arizona a couple of weeks back, I had a lot of fun photographing the Aridlands Tiger Beetles (Cicindela marutha). I first encountered this species three years ago when visiting Willcox Playa with my collecting buddy John. We were astonished at the diversity and abundance of tiger beetles on the playa, though there was a bit less diversity than we first thought. Most of the C. marutha that we encountered were bright green, however a few were coppery red. We initially thought them a separate species.

The color variants of C. marutha are well known. From Pearson's Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada:
Bright green individuals are most common in the southern parts of its range, and bright rusty-red individuals are more common in the northern parts of its range, but both forms occur together in many areas.
Willcox Playa is in the south of the species' range, so no surprise that we are seeing mostly green color forms (morphs). What we observed, however, is that there are actually three color morphs of C. marutha on Willcox Playa. Some of the green individuals are the clear, bright green shown in the top photo. A smaller number of the green individuals are a brassy yellow-green.

I had wanted to get photos of all three color morphs during my recent visit, and I was only partly successful. Here is the brassy yellow-green color:

This is not just a feature of the angle from which you are viewing the beetle, some of the green beetles really are yellower than others. Unfortunately, I was not able to get a photo of a red beetle. It's far and away the least common of the three colors. In 2007, when we saw huge numbers of C. marutha, I managed to see three or four individuals, and collected one. Last year there were fewer C. marutha and I saw only one red one. This year, there were even fewer tiger beetles and I didn't see a single red form, hence no photo. Here is a picture of a pinned red specimen:

All of this leads into my hypothesis. Most likely, the elytral color is determined genetically. The simplest explanation of the observation of three colors with a common, relatively rare, and very rare form is inheritance involving two co-dominant alleles. Much as crossing a red flower with a white flower will produce pink offspring, crossing a green C. marutha with a red one produces the yellow-green offspring. Green individuals are homozygous for (have two copies of) the green allele, red individuals are homozygous for the red allele, and yellow-green individuals are heterozygous- they have one copy of each allele. The distribution of colors in the population suggests that at Willcox Playa, the red allele is rarer than the green allele.

This hypothesis would be very easily testable by making crossing individuals with various combinations of the elytral colors in the laboratory. For example, crossing two yellow-green individuals should result in 1/4 of the offspring being green, 1/4 of the offspring being red, and 1/2 of the offspring being yellow-green. If the reality of the inheritance pattern is more complicated than what I described in the hypothesis, then these proportions of offspring will not be observed.

Most of us probably learned this stuff in junior high school biology class, yet somehow I'm always amazed to see visible evidence of Mendalian genetics in the wild.

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Saturday, August 08, 2009

Arizona Before the Conference

Flame Skimmer (Libellula saturata) in Tanque Verde Canyon

I've been back from the annual Bug Conference in Arizona for nearly a week now. The trip was fun, and I'm just now feeling like life is getting back to normal. I wanted to concentrate a lot on my insect photography. Later I realized that I had done so almost to the exclusion of other photography. For example, on my first day in Arizona, Homer and I went down to Bisbee to visit Cobban and Ray. I took a couple of photos of a tiger beetle by their pool, but none of any of them nor of Cobban and Ray's beautiful house. Ah, well.

Filagree Skimmer (Pseudoleon superbus )

Mexican Amberwing (Perithemis intensa)

It has been unusually hot and dry this year, so the insects were not what they have been in previous years. The Sunday before last, I went out to Tanque Verde Canyon and photographed dragonflies. It was brutally hot, and I did not stay terribly long. I brought my usual amount of water, and it was inadequate for the extreme heat. I saw some cool species and collected a couple of interesting Buprestid beetles.

Willcox Playa

On Monday I went back to Willcox Playa to photograph tiger beetles. It was difficult for a variety of reasons. Due to the dry conditions, there were not that many beetles, and very poor species diversity. I had my new, better camera with me, and wanted to get better shots of both the Aridlands Tiger Beetle (Cicindela marutha) and the Black Sky Tiger Beetle (Cicindela nigrocoerulea). I succeeded from the standpoint that I now have better pictures of both of these species, but I'm still not entirely satisfied. There's always next year.

Aridlands Tiger Beetle (Cicindela marutha)

Black Sky Tiger Beetle (Cicindela nigrocoerulea)

On Tuesday of last week, I headed down to Rio Rico, but not before detouring west to Kitt Peak. I wanted to see and try to photograph gorgeous longhorn beetles in the genus Tragidion. I've seen them there before. Alas, the habitat where I had previously seen them had burned recently and was still looking pretty scorched.

Scorched vegetation at Kitt Peak

There was not a lot to see at Kitt Peak this year. I collected a couple of buprestid beetles (Agrilus pulchellus) at the roadside picnic area below the mountain. Part way up the mountain, I got another very pretty Agrilus, black with a bright metallic red head, on mesquite. There were some nice grasshoppers to photograph at the picnic area at the summit.

Slant-faced Grasshopper (Psoloessa texana) at the summit of Kitt Peak

So the insect viewing, photography, and collecting were not as good this year as they have been the past few times I have visited. Still, it was southeast Arizona during the monsoon season, and I can think of nowhere else I would have rather been.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

Zenna Henderson

Shortly after Leon and I began dating in the early 1980s, we discovered that we both shared an interest in science fiction. Leon was much better read than me, and introduced me to a number of new authors. One was a woman named Zenna Henderson. I began reading a compilation of several novellas called Pilgrimage.

One story in particular, called Pottage, really spoke to me. Like the rest of her stories, it involves the People, an alien race who were dispersed across the American Southwest when their spacecraft crashed there. They had strange powers, they could levitate and fly, and were despised and persecuted by the local populace because they were different. Pottage concerns one isolated community of the People who survived by suppressing and denying their true identity and not using any of their special powers. How could a story like that not resonate with a gay man just out of the closet?

In the early 1990s, this newfangled thing called the Internet was just coming to prominence. I once did a search on her name (no, I didn't Google it. If Google even existed at that time, I wasn't aware of it. I used Yahoo). There wasn't much information. She had lived in Arizona and had been a teacher. No surprises there- both of those aspects of her stories were obviously written from the inside. She was Mormon for part of her life. This background undoubtedly also influenced here themes of alienation. She was also deceased, for about a decade. I believe that she died of cancer, and did so prematurely as she was only in her mid sixties. The minimal information that was available online about her caused me to view her life as rather mysterious.

Nearly three years ago, I began this blog. In my profile, I list Zenna Henderson's People stories as an entry in the Favorite Books section. About a year and a half ago, I received an unexpected email.
I am an occasional reader of Cobban's blog (Lopaka Lounge), and this evening I happened to click on your name after reading your most recent comment. I was so excited to see that you're a fan of Zenna Henderson's works. She will always be Mrs. Henderson to me, as she was my first grade teacher.
I was floored- someone who had actually met her. We have had a small amount of correspondence, and it has been interesting to hear of what she was actually like as a teacher. Last year, just before I went to Arizona, my friend contacted me and suggested that I might look for her grave in St. David's cemetery just outside of Benson.

It was not to happen last year. This year, however, I drove with Homer down to Bisbee to visit with Cobban and his partner Ray. On the way home, we drove right past St. David's Cemetery. As Homer is an archaeologist and avid genealogist, he was happy to stop off and help me find her headstone. I'm very pleased to have been able to pay my respects to someone whose work I admire very much. Thanks, P. for contacting me and sharing your connection with her.

Photo by Homer

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

Magic Gas Stations

Doug has been a bad blogger. I've been busy with my travel, and out of contact with the Internet for long periods of time. I can do email and comment on blogs via iPhone, but I can't put up new blog posts that way. I'm still in Arizona, having a wonderful time at my conference.

I've been hitting the magic gas stations in southeastern Arizona this week, It's fun because there are so many more of them out this way than there are at home.

You want magic? I'll give you magic.

A magic gas station is one that is out in the middle of nowhere, or perhaps on the edge of town. It doesn't have to be a real gas station- a convenience store, motel, or any well lighted establishment that's in a location without a lot of competing light sources will do the trick. Magic gas stations function like very high wattage black or mercury vapor lights. They bring in lots of insects from a long distance and can be great collecting spots.

Wind Scorpion (Solfugidae) at the rest stop on Interstate 19

The magic gas station pictured at the top of this post is in Tubac, Arizona, just 15 or 20 miles north of the Mexican border. The first time that I went there I was actually gassing up my rental car and not specifically looking for insects. A huge longhorn beetle (Lochmaeocles marmorata) landed right on my car. There were no Lochmaeocles this year, but I got a nice series of a close relative called the Mesquite Girdler (Oncideres rhodosticta).

Mesquite Girdler (Oncideres rhodosticta)

Further north along Interstate 19, the Border Patrol checkpoint functions as a magic gas station. Still further north, the outside walls of the bathrooms at the rest area are also good collections spots. Thursday night, I saw a new (for me) species of tiger beetle there. The Sonoran Tiger Beetle (Cicindela wickhami) is one of many species of plants and animals that just barely make it into the US in extreme southeast Arizona from their broader ranges in Mexico.

Sonoran Tiger Beetle (Cicindela wickhami)

I've seen tiger beetles extraordinarily abundant at magic gas stations before. Several years ago I was at a Chevron station in Sunsites, Arizona. The pumps were covered with hundreds of tiny pink White-lined Tiger Beetles (Cicindela lemniscata) interspersed with dozens of much larger green Cicindela punctulata chihuahuae. A spectacular sight, indeed.

White-lined Tiger Beetle (Cicindela lemniscata)

Cicindela punctulata chihuahuae

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