Gossamer Tapestry

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Road to Nowhere

State Highway 361 in Dixie County, Florida is a cool place. It was built decades ago at the behest of corrupt state officials as a landing strip for small airplanes running drugs into this country. It's our in the middle of nowhere along the Gulf Coast. The road runs for about 6 miles through scrub and sand, ending in a huge salt marsh. Apparently it's no longer much used for drug running, something I kept reminding myself as I went out there blacklighting late Sunday night. I did feel somewhat vulnerable by myself in such an isolated spot late at night. I also didn't get anything in to the sheet.

S-banded Tiger Beetle (Cicindela trifasciata)

A whole bunch of species of tiger beetles can be found in this spot. Unfortunately, it's too late in the season for most species. Still, I got some nice photos of the S-banded Tiger Beetle (Cicindela trifasciata) when I went back on Monday. It was interesting getting to see this somewhat notorious collecting spot.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Adventures in the Wilds of Pure Florida

My long-planned travel has begun. Getting ready for the travel has taken me away from a lot of blogging activities. I've been directly chastised by UrSpo for my lack of posts. Mea culpa. I won't be lacking for interesting subject material in the coming weeks.

Greetings from Gainesville Florida. One segment of my regular readers should find this picture of the red Jeep and black Lab to be an instant giveaway regarding how I spent my day yesterday. Before I came down to Florida, I emailed FC and asked him if he'd be amenable to showing me a bit of his part of the world. We made plans to meet at Cedar Key Scrub and look for insects.

Cedar Key Scrub is a beautiful place, with lots of interesting plants and animals. We even got to see the rare Florida Scrub Jay. FC's photo came out much better than mine, so you can go see a good shot of it there. FC said that we were just a bit past the peak for fall wildflowers, but there was still lots to see.

Blazing Star (Liatris sp.)


I was especially impressed with the blazing stars. There looked to be a couple of different species, and they were completely different from the ones that we have at home in Illinois. I also wanted to make sure that I got a photo of the Coontie, Florida's native cycad for Leon. FC has promised seeds and instructions. Great, now we can have seedlings from a second species of cycad all over the house.

Band-winged Grasshopper awaiting identification.

Bird grasshopper (Schistocerca) I'm pretty sure this is S. rubiginosa.

Eastern Lubber (Romalea microptera)
Our walk began with the temperature cool and dew still in the grass. We didn't see many insects at first, but eventually tings warmed up. There were tons of grasshoppers. I had hoped to see beetles- and they too put in appearances.

A flower longhorn beetle (Typocerus sp.)

Actually Strangalia sexnotata.  Thanks, Ted.

One of the Dynastine scarabs

Of course, the beetles that I wanted most to see were tiger beetles. It was fairly late in the walk before they showed, but I was not disappointed. This form of the Festive Tiger Beetle is a new subspecies for me. Sadly, my images are only so-so.

Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris scutellaris)
As good as the insect viewing was during the trip, the herps were the truly memorable wildlife of the day. I guess that's not surprising, I was getting the full Pure Florida treatment here. I got a great photo of a toad.


Late in the walk, FC leat Bear trail his leash and run up ahead a few feet to wait in the shade for us to catch up. At one point Bear was about 20 feet ahead of me, with FC close behind. I let out a yelp. Bear had walked just inches from a diamondback rattlesnake, with FC passing not much further away from it. FC restrained Bear to keep him out of harm's way, and we both got some photos of the snake.

Florida Diamondback (Crotalus adamanteus)

I'll get you- and your big moose of a dog, too!

We kind of got lost during our hike. At least that's what FC said. I did at one point wonder if the hike was just more appealing than the honey-do list that Mrs. FC might have had waiting for him back home. We agreed to hike for a couple of hours and were out for over twice that. FC is a great guy, and I couldn't have asked for a better guide to this little slice of Floridian wonder.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Metalmark Mania

Long-time readers know that I've been blunting my sword on attempts to breed the endangered Swamp Metalmark in the lab for quite some time now. We're trying again, though I have no idea how it will work. We were very successful in getting eggs this season. Our 3 females yielded over 325 eggs. That's more than twice as many as we have ever gotten before. We reared them through the end of the summer, and experienced a fair bit of attrition. Sadly, that's nothing new.

Larvae usually grow to about 5 mm in length before they begin hibernation. A few weeks back, we began transferring them outdoors, to potted host plants that we had enclosed in cages. In the picture above, you can see two variations on this method that we are trying. Some of the larvae are on plants are in a sunken tub, others on plants in a pot that's in a mesh bag. At this point, about all we can do is sprinkle some Parmesan before the altar of the FSM and hope for the best.

When we were transferring the larvae outside, we missed a few. Eleven larvae went on to pupate. That's OK. Last year we got a bunch of adults and failed to get any mating. Even playing Barry White didn't help. We got a moderate amount of egg laying, but all of the eggs were infertile. This year, we will use this opportunity to try a couple of other tricks to achieve mating in captivity. No, we won't use scented candles, but we are going to use a more ventilated cage and increase airflow to stir the pheromones up a bit better. We'll also cage the males alone for a few days before we introduce females to the cage.

Today the first adult emerged. It's a male. This isn't surprising, males usually emerge a bit before the females. Alright mister, you know what's expected of you.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day - The Butterfly Effect

Happy Blog Action Day. This year’s topic is climate change.

Will butterflies be affected by global climate change? Of course they will- there’s growing evidence that some species are already being affected. There are several types of changes that can be anticipated in response to a warmer climate. Species’ ranges could shift pole-ward. Alpine species could shift their ranges to higher elevations, and species found at low elevations near mountains could become alpine species. Phenology- the timing of events that happen annually- might also change. Some species might begin flying earlier in the spring. The appearance of a larger number of generations annually is also a possibility.

Silver-bordered Fritillary

As with so many things involving butterfly study, the first evidence of shifting range patterns appears to have been reported in Great Britain (the Brits typically rock in terms of appreciation for and study of butterflies). As of 2007, the British group Butterfly Conservation was reporting range expansion of 15 species, and attributed this to climate change. In the late 1990’s I thought that we were seeing something similar here in Illinois. A southern species called the fiery skipper migrates into this area late in the summer. They typically don’t arrive in great numbers, and some years they don’t show up much at all. In the late nineties, they began showing up routinely in larger numbers and on more northern Illinois butterfly monitoring sites. Was this an early indicator of climate change? This observation, which repeated over four years, did not persist and numbers eventually returned to their former levels. More recently, evidence has been published (subscription required) documenting a range expansion of the Sachem Skipper as a result of warmer winters.

Here in the Midwest, we may be seeing examples of species’ ranges retreating northward. We are at the southern edge of the ranges of the Silvery Blue and the Silver-bordered Fritillary. The blue may have recently become extinct in Illinois. The fritillary, which is faring poorly across much of the southern edge of its range, is the subject of some significant conservation efforts here at work.

Silvery Blue

Perhaps the species with the most frustrating outlook are some of the alpine groups. Rare species like the Uncompahgre fritillary live near the tops of mountains. In a warming world, they have only so far that they can move up before their only available habitat vanishes like a puddle evaporating in the hot sun.

I’m not a climatologist. About the only thing that I can do to evaluate the various claims is to try to determine where a particular claim falls on the consensus/contentious continuum. I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that we will lose species- perhaps a great number of them- as climate change continues to unfold. This represents a source of great sadness to me, and is part of the motivation for my working in conservation. What can you do? Specifically with regard to butterflies, some of the most important things folks can do include supporting local ecological restoration activities. If you’re feeling really ambitious, there are a number of citizen-science projects around the country where folks can go out and count butterflies near where they live. The data collected help guide a lot of conservation decisions.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Then & Now Meme

This one is from UrSpo. I liked it, and so I have stolen it.

Then ~ October 1989
1. Age: 31.
2. Romantic Status: Coupled.
3. Occupation: Research Biochemist for a biotechnology company.
4. Fun night out: Dinner out with my partner.
5. My BFFs: Gary and Gary
6. I spent way too much time: I don’t regret much about how I spent time then. That was the last year that I really liked biotech.
7. I spent not enough time: Interacting with the gay community. I felt rather isolated back then.
8. I wanted to be when I grew up: well known in my field of study
9. Biggest concern: Whether my relationship would be viable in the long run.
10.What my biggest concern should have been: Whether my relationship would be viable in the long run.
11. Where did I live: Elgin, IL
12. Dumbest thing I did that year: Not get it about how resource allocation really worked in my company.
13. If I could go back now and talk to myself I would say: There’s an emerging technology called phage display. Check it out. Also, have you ever considered learning how to make your own cheese?

Now ~ October 2009
1. Age: 51.
2. Romantic Status: Married. Same guy I was with in ’89. Thanks, Canada!
3. Occupation: Museum Curator.
4. Fun night out: Dinner with friends.
5. My BFFs: I fell very fortunate to have a rich life with friends, and that Gary and Gary from’89 still make the list.
6. I spend way too much time: Chasing funding.
7. I spend not enough time: Concentrating on the tasks at hand. It’s trendy to claim ADD, so I’ll just say that I’m easily distracted.
8. I want to be when I grow up: Well known in my field of study. It seems to be working out much better with this field than the one I was in 20 years ago.
9. Biggest concern: The vicissitudes of aging.
10. What my biggest concern should be: Balancing work with the rest of my life.
11. Where do I live: Elgin, IL.
12. Dumbest thing I have done this year: I’m having trouble coming up with something. Perhaps this means that I don’t take enough chances.
13. What I think I would say to myself in 10 years: Wasn’t that a time?

1. What do I miss most from 1989: The vitality of being 31 and still having most of my life ahead of me.
2. What do I miss least from 1989: Uncertainty about my relationship.
3. What have I accomplished in 20 years that I am most proud of: Participating in the significant advancement of the ecological integrity of Bluff Spring Fen.
4. What have I NOT accomplished in 20 years that I wish I had: I wish I had a more extensive publication record.


Thursday, October 08, 2009

Some New Travel Adventures

Tea Plantation in the Cameron Highlands

The open road is once again calling. I have two trips coming up. The second installment of the Imperiled Butterfly Conservation and Management workshop will be held the last week in October in beautiful Gainesville, Florida. I enjoy the Gainesville area a lot, though it's been several years since I've been up that way. I'll be there starting the 24th, and should have a couple of days to run around looking at bugs and such before the workshop starts. There's a possibility that I may even get to meet FC in person while I'm out that way.

My big upcoming trip begins November 1. That's when I leave to attend the bi-annual International Congress of Butterfly Exhibitors and Suppliers. Two years ago I blogged a fair bit from the last Congress in Ecuador. I'm looking forward to the conference for many reasons. I've never been to Asia before, so this will be extremely new territory for me. The conference is in Panang, and I will be making a three day trip to the rainforests of the Cameron Highlands as part of the trip. Butterflies! Black lighting! Tiger Beetles! Many adventures await. I don't know what Internet connectivity will be like there, so I may be posting (relatively) live, or it may have to wait until I get home.


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Mysteries of the Cheese Cave

My blog friend Will went to a cheese making workshop in southern New Hampshire last night. It sounds like it was very well done- Will certainly seems to have had a good time. It occurred to me that I haven't blogged about making cheese in ages. It's not that I haven't been making cheese- I've turned out a whole bunch of Camembert over the summer. I guess that it's just more fun to blog about learning to make cheese than it is to blog about making the same cheese recipe yet again.

My previous postings on cheese making have all been about the cooking part of making cheese. I haven't really talked much about aging it. The picture at the top of the post is my cheese cave. It's actually a wine chiller. You can see the racks for the wine bottles on top of the cave. Leon made plexiglass shelves for me to put the cheese on. You can see four rounds of Camembert, a red wax-covered round of Gouda, a pan of water for humidity, and a thermometer/hygrometer combo.

(Aside: the Gouda is the first that I have tried with my raw cow's milk. It will be a while before it is sufficiently aged to try- I'll probably blog about the results later.)

The cheese cave must control both temperature and humidity for proper aging. The temperature part is easy. The wine chiller maintains a perfect 50°F- just the right temperature for aging both the Camembert and the Gouda. The humidity is trickier. The pan of water helps- but that only brings the relative humidity up to about 60%. The cheese gear in the photo directly above is a very clever system that I got from The Cheesemaker, a supply house in Wisconsin. It does the trick nicely.

In the first stages of their ripening- before I cover them in cheese wrap- the Camembert rounds are placed in the plastic box shown above. The plastic grid sits in the bottom of the box. Any whey given off by the cheese during the aging process is caught in the grid, with the cheese held safely above it so it doesn't sit in a puddle of whey for days on end. The cheese sits directly on the thin mat, which is placed atop the grid. Through trial and error I have found that without the lid (not shown) on the box, the cheese dries out too much and I don't get a good bloom of white mold on the surface. If I snap the lid onto the box, the humidity is too high and I get yucky black mold on the cheese. By placing the lid loosely on top of the box, I have been getting the humidity just right and the Camembert comes out beautifully.

My next challenge: finding a reasonably local source of raw goat's milk.