Gossamer Tapestry

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

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hot! Hot! Hot!

My habañero peppers only produce ripe fruit about one year in three. This was a good year. Many more to come- I foresee much salsa in my future.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Misty Savanna

Black Oak Sand Savanna with Showy Goldenrod

Last week, Vincent and I had to go up to the conference center at Illinois Beach State Park to make a presentation to the board of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. We were (successfully) seeking approval for a permit to release Silver-bordered Fritillaries onto the nature preserve at Gensburg-Markham Prairie (something that is now done). I have made presentations to this board before, and in common with my previous experiences I found something that sounds very bureaucratic is actually a reasonably pleasant process.

Ecotone between the Oak Savanna and a Swale

After our presentation at the meeting, Vincent and I went off for a walk into the park. Illinois Beach is a very large (4,160 acres) remnant of native Lake Michigan shoreline. Vincent had never been to this park before, and I enjoyed introducing him to this amazing spot. The day was cloudy and misty, and had a decidedly melancholic autumnal feel to it.

The Dead River

The park is a dune and swale complex. The Dead River occupies one of the swales. It gets its name because it is usually separated from Lake Michigan by a sand bar. Periodically, pressure in the river builds up, and the water overflows the sand bar and empties into the lake.

Sky Blue Aster

We were treated to an array of autumn wildflowers as we walked. Illinois Beach State Park is in my top five natural areas in Illinois that I recommend visiting.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why it's Hard to Photograph Tiger Beetles at Willcox Playa

Way back in July on my trip to Arizona, I visited Willcox Playa to photograph tiger beetles. In some respects it's easy. There is a lot of species abundance, and there is a boatload of individuals. Even in a bad year like 2009, I saw and photographed 5 different species of tigers. On the other hand, conditions at Willcox conspire to make photography difficult. I didn't fully understand this until earlier this year when I took my best tiger photo ever at Bluff Spring Fen here in Illinois. Here it is:

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata) - embiggens well

There's a lot to like about the image. It's nearly all in focus, so much so that you can see the texture of the elytra. Also, it can be enlarged considerably without losing focus. Why was I able to get such a nice shot? Simple, really. I took this picture on a fairly cool, overcast day. There were two benefits: I could move in very close to the beetle without scaring it away, and the diffuse light reduces specular (mirror-like) reflections from the shiny elytra.

At Willcox Playa, none of these problems is minimized, and they all work against you. For one thing, the temperatures at the playa are almost always hot. It's an old saline lakebed with lots of white sand. This year when I arrived, temperatures were already in the mid 90s at 9:00AM. Forget the discomfort factor, the high temperatures has the beetles' metabolisms so high that they are very skittish. It's hard to get anywhere near them. Among the most flighty species there is the Black Sky Tiger Beetle (Cicindela nigrocoerulea).

Black Sky Tiger Beetle (Cicindela nigrocoerulea)

The photo above was taken with the zoom at full extension. With the zoom way out, it's hard to keep the camera still and focused on a really small target like a tiger beetle. Moreover, the photo is heavily cropped and enlarged, which further reduces clarity of the image.

White-lined Tiger Beetle (Cicindela lemniscata)

The brilliant sunshine at Willcox also enhances reflections off of shiny subjects like tiger beetles. Even for species that you can get closer to, the bright reflections can interfere with a good photo. I was able to get reasonably close to the White-lined Tiger Beetle in the image above, however most of the photos that I took of it were not usable because of the very bright specular reflections of of the eyes and the elytra. I'm not really complaining. The challenges of getting good images of tiger beetles is one of the things that I find fun about photographing them.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Media Madness

The Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune is running a story on our efforts to introduce Baltimore Checkerspots to a restored wet prairie at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia.


Saturday, September 12, 2009


A whole bunch of the caterpillars in the lab have shut down for the winter. We have been expecting this, as both the Gorgone and Baltimore Checkerspots overwinter as caterpillars of about this stage. They have been caged with fresh leaves, and have stopped eating them over the last couple of weeks. Instead, the caterpillars just sit in small groups on the tops of the cages not moving much. Time to put them into their winter quarters.

The larvae are placed with crumpled paper towels in small plastic food cups. Over time, they will work their way into the folds of the paper towels. Some caterpillars will even silk the folds of the towels together. The cups go on a terra cotta sauceer, and a terra cotta pot is inverted ovet the top.

The drain holes in the pots are plugged with gauze to keep marauding insects out. The whole affair is stored in a shaded area up on the roof of the Nature Museum. Last year, about 70% of the gorgone checkerspot larvae that we placed in these cages survived the winter, and all survivors went on to become adult butterflies. On Friday we placed 512 Gorgone Checkerspot caterpillars and 1256 Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars into these cages. The field season isn't over- but it is winding down.

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Monday, September 07, 2009

The Last Week of Summer

We have had glorious (if a bit cooler than normal) weather for the last week of summer. I've managed to be outdoors a lot- mostly for butterfly releases. Sunday and Monday of last week, we released silver-bordered- fritillary adults and Baltimore Checkerspot larvae. Both events tool place under sunny skies with puffy clouds. That was the meteorological leitmotif for most of the week.

The Chicago Academy of Sciences Biology Department at Paintbrush Prairie

On Wednesday, my entire department visited the Indian Boundary Prairies. The purpose was threefold: to scope out possible release sites for Silver-bordered Fritillaries in a couple of weeks, to check on the Regal Fritillaries that we released as caterpillars a year ago, and to introduce some of the newer members of the department to a fine, high-quality prairie. Our regals have taken! We saw three females. It's so exciting that we are succeeding in establishing a new population of this state-threatened species.

Sand Prairie near the mighty Kankakee River

We want to continue this project, so on Thursday we headed don to Kankakee River country to get more Regal Fritillary females for captive rearing. We succeeded- egg production in the lab has commenced. I also got pictures of the Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris lecontei), a species that I have previously collected but have never photographed.

Two images of Festive Tiger Beetles

Saturday was a Fen workday. Seed collecting was the order of the day. Things began quite foggy and drippy. Eventually the sun came out and we were treated to a fine display of autumn wildflowers.

Foggy Fen- with Argiope spiderweb

Stiff Gentian (Gentianella quinquefolia)

Small Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis procera)

The ladies tresses orchids are putting on quite a show this year. I's not unusual to be able to see dozens as you wander the site. This year it's possible to see hundreds of them.

Nodding Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes cernua)

Labor Day weekend was rounded out with a Sunday afternoon barbecue with friends, and another butterfly release today. Robin's nephew Alex helped.

Alex releases Silver-bordered Fritillaries

It's hard to see summer end, but at least I got to spend much of the last week outside at beautiful locations in near-perfect weather doing butterfly conservation work. Since a week ago yesterday, we have released over 1000 butterflies- with many more to come.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Set My Butterflies Free

Glacial Park on a Sunny Autumn Day

The weather here has been very photogenic lately. I say photogenic rather than nice, because it has felt more like October than late August. It has not cracked 70° in several days, though it's beautifully sunny. We have been doing a bunch of butterfly releases. On Sunday we brought 70 Silver-bordered Fritillaries up to Glacial Park in McHenry County. We have done releases there before, with little success. This year, we opted to try a release in a wetter, sedgier part of the park.

Vincent opens the flight cage.
Welcome oome, Fritillaries!

We tried a different method of transporting the butterflies this time. Instead of placing them in individual containers and chilling them for the trip out, we left them in a flight cage. We just carried the cage out onto the prairie and opened it. I was skeptical- but it worked pretty well. The butterflies began flying immediately, but they didn't leave the area. Most very quickly landed on sunflowers and began feeding. We saw a lot of courtship activity- always a good sign.

These Silver-Bordered Fritillaries flew out of their cage and went
directly over to these flowers to begin feeding.

Yoesterday we headed out to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory to release caterpillars of Baltimore Checkerspots. This is a really gorgeous species that we had not previously worked with. So far, we have been very successful- we have over 1500 caterpillars in the lab. Yesterday, we placed 250 of them out on plants.

Robin Places Balrtimore Checkerspot Caterpillars on Turtlehead

Female Baltimore Checkerspots lay their eggs on Turtlehead, the primary host plant in this part of the country. That's the plant that we put the caterpillars on.

Baltimore Checkerspot Caterpillar on Turtlehead Plant

The caterpillars have just about finished eating for the year. They will spin a communal web near the base of the plant where they will spend the winter.

Baltimore Checkerspot Caterpillars in Communal Web

We kept most of the Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars in the lab. They will be held over the winter on the Museum roof and reared to adulthood in the lab. Next June, we will add the adults to the same release site. Next summer, we hope to see lots of adult Baltimore Checkerspots out on the grounds of Fermi.

Baltimore Checkerspot
We want to see lots of this at Fermi Lab next summer.

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