Gossamer Tapestry

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

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Random Bits from Thanksgiving Week

I've been getting caught up from all of my travels. Unfortunately, I did not quite succeed before we plunged headlong into the holiday season.

Nearly a year ago, I blogged about my first attempt to make blue cheese. What I never said later was that it was a complete bust. A couple of weeks after I started it, it had become nasty and slimy. A few months later, I tried again, with much better results. This time I used the good milk (raw milk from Guernsey cattle), and that made all the difference. I opened the first of two wheels for Thanksgiving and was pleased with the results. The cheese still needs a bit of work. The humidity in the cave was a bit too low while I aged it. I think that I can easily fix that. The flavor is surprisingly good, so I'm optimistic for future attempts at this cheese. I started another batch last weekend.

Last weekend we also had our annual seed mixing party. This year, we did not gather quite so many species, and a lot of the seeds were already cleaned, so we finished very quickly.

Thanksgiving was to have been a quiet affair for just Leon and I. At his request, we had ham instead of turkey. The day before Thanksgiving, Adam posted on his Facebook page that he and his partner Andy would be flying from Tucson to O'Hare the next morning and driving up to their farm in Wisconsin. This would take them a mere 2 minutes from our house. We had them over for pie (and some of the blue cheese). Although they were not able to stay nearly as long as we would have liked, it was great to get to see them both. Two minutes after they left, I realized that we should have gotten a photo.

The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally the day we put up our outdoor holiday lights'

Both yesterday and today have been very beautiful. We went for a walk at the Fen this afternoon. We took a bag of seeds from the seed mixing party with us and scattered some prairie goodness around. Tomorrow, off to visit Gary and Gary Lee's farm to get some manure for the vegetable garden.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Jungle Strawberries. With Tea.

The closeout of the Malaysian trip was a day and a half in the Cameron Highlands. They are north of Penang on the mainland peninsula. Because they are at a higher elevation (about 6,500'), the climate is pleasantly cool and less steamy than it was at sea level in Penang. The cool moist climate is perfect for agriculture. The Cameron Highlands are especially known for growing strawberries and tea. Our hotel in the highlands was called Strawberry Park. More about the tea later.

We had arrived around 8:00 at night. Some folks went out black lighting that night. It was raining so I opted to stay in. Rain usually kills black lighting very thoroughly, and I couldn't see driving an hour each way to have nothing come into the sheet. Although the experience wasn't great, reports are that it ended up being pretty good. I keep being startled by the many ways in which the tropics differ from what I am used to. I did get up early and wander around the hotel grounds before sunup. It turns out that the lights of the hotel turned it into a Malaysian version of a magic gas station, so I had a pretty good time.

Jungle trail- butterfly paradise

After breakfast, we piled into the bus and drove downhill through increasingly lush rain forest. Our goal was a mountain stream. We wandered up the banks of the stream enjoying a tropical riot of butterflies and beetles.

Tropical Skipper

The Penang butterfly house employs a bunch of folks from this part of the country to collect small number of female butterflies to use as breeding stock. They were waiting along the stream for us as guides. Several of them had obviously used the old collector's trick of peeing in the damp sand on the stream banks. Dozens of tropical butterflies flew in and began sipping salts from the sand. I got to see a Green Dragontail. I've been aware of them since I was a little boy and have always wanted to see one. I got just a fleeting glimpse and no photo- but that was enough.

A Jezebel Sulphur (Delias sp.)

Black and White Helen Swallowtail (Papilio nephelus)

Blue Triangle (Graphium sarpedon)

Not all of the beautiful insects here were butterflies (Cicindela aurulenta)

Lunch was in a small river village, and consisted of the now familiar Chinese food, including lots of seafood. After lunch, we stopped at a highland produce market.

There was lots of stuff for sale in addition to fruits and vegetables. The cut flowers were particularly colorful, though there were some questionable identifications.

Liatris- from the prairies of North America to Malaysia
But it definitely isn't lavender

And here we come to the part of the post that is especially for tea connoisseur extraordinaire UrSpo. It was now about 4:00 in the afternoon- tea time. What better way to spend it than at a tea plantation? We had the opportunity to stroll among the tea bushes, then had tea and scones with jam and cream at the tea shop. A delightful close to the afternoon.

Tea Plantation

Tea (Camellia sinensis)

Evening represented my really dumb move of the trip. We went black lighting, and it was very good. I left my camera in the hotel room. Therefore, I can only tell you about the stag beetle with the huge mandibles, or the inchworm moth that was the size of a swallowtail butterfly, or the riotously yellow and hot pink colored tiger moth that looked like a candy wrapper. They were pretty cool.

The following day, was our journey back to Penang in preparation for the return home. We spent the morning winding our way down the mountainside, getting more beautiful views of the Malaysian rain forest. We stopped along a river where hot springs at the water's edge seep into the stream. In addition to the usual stream side insects (such as dragonflies and tiger beetles) male butterflies visit this area to puddle. They are sipping salts that the hot springs deposit. This behavior is thought to help with sperm production.

The real draw here are the dozens of Rajah Brooks' Birdwing butterflies that come to puddle here. This is another species that I have been aware of since childhood and have long wanted to see. Seeing them here in this abundance was definitely the way to go. It was the perfect ending to my visit to the Cameron Highlands.

Rajah Brooks' Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana)

Each of these butterflies has an 8" wingspan.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Miraculous Mangosteen*

*With apologies to Bela Bartok

Six years ago, the New York Times ran a story on an exotic fruit called the mangosteen. The author waxed rhapsodic about the incredible taste of this Asian beauty that was unavailable in the US. I've craved one ever since. My recent trip to Malaysia represented my first opportunity to try them. At the risk of sounding like a 14-year-old girl, OMG, OMG, OMG!

Mangosteens are about the size of tennis balls. The outer skin has a very similar texture and toughness to that of a pomegranate. It's inedible- the delicious part lies hidden within. The blossom scar on the bottom is lobed, and the number of lobes corresponds to the number of segments of the inner fruit. Mangosteens are challenging to eat. The outer, inedible flesh is red, and it's juice stains. The inner fruit is very sticky and juicy, but the whole thing is so incredibly worthwhile that this hardy merits mentioning.

The segments of the inner fruit separate like those of a citrus, which is not even remotely related. The largest, (or occasionally two largest, as in this photo) segment contains a single seed, which is surrounded by a rich, fragrant and flavorful jelly. The smaller segments consist of the jellylike pulp with no seed.

I can't begin to describe the flavor. It's sweet and scented, though not cloying. There is no tartness like one might find in a kiwi, yet there's a bright, refreshing quality to the flavor. And, like the kiwi, it's tempting to describe the flavor as a combination of other fruits- yet in the end, it just tastes like mangosteen. I've waited six years to try this, and it lived up to expectations.

The other interesting fruit that I sampled on my trip was the rambutan, a relative of the lychee. The leathery skin is coated with pliable spines, that aren't at all sharp. The skin is easily ripped open with the fingers.

The white fruit within is about twice the size and the same texture as a peeled grape. There is a single seed within.

Rambutans are much easier to eat than mangosteens. Sweet and juicy, they are delicious in their own right, though they lack the startling complexity of flavor of the latter fruit.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Journey to the Cameron Highlands

The hosting institution for the ICBES conference in Malaysia was Tropical Entomological House. They maintain a beautiful butterfly display in Penang and supply live butterflies to other butterfly displays around the world, including ours. Earlier in the week , we had visited both their public display and their breeding facility. It looked lovely, even in the rain. Our hosts were, nonetheless, a bit disappointed that they had not able to show their facility at it's best due to the weather. They wanted us to return. As someone who runs a similar exhibit, I fully understood the motivation. Saturday morning was beautifully sunny, so we delayed our departure for the post-conference tour of the Cameron Highlands in order to have a better look at the exhibit.

I enjoyed the exhibit for a bit while waiting for my friend BT to show up. I had an ulterior motive. There is a nice population of tiger beetles on the grounds of the Butterfly Farm, and BT had told me I could collect a series. Let's just say that I had a very good time.

Spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela aurulenta)

This was the only species of tiger beetle that I would see on the trip, however I got to see it in several different locations. We departed the Farm for a journey to the mainland peninsula of Malaysia, with the plan of seeing some sites on the way to the Cameron Highlands. Penang is an island, and we departed via the longest bridge in Southeast Asia. It was a glorious day and we were treated to views of the islands dotting the Strait of Penang.

Island in the Strait of Penang

The road runs through an extensive region of oil palm plantations, then enters some beautiful tropical forest near the mountains. We skirted the coast and had lunch at a fishing village. The restaurant where we ate is the upstairs of a facility where fish is unloaded from the boats. Let's just say that the fish was very fresh. I especially enjoyed the pompano and the blood cockles.

Fishing docks viewed from the restaurant

Fisherman about to catch a line and tie his boat up

The fishing village was on a river estuary, surrounded by mangrove forests. There is a beautiful nature reserve with boardwalks though the mangroves. We visited after lunch. There was excellent wildlife viewing, including long-tailed macaques.

Mangrove Forest

Colorful Crab

It's disconcerting to be as unfamiliar with the butterflies as I was here.

Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis)

During the walk through the mangroves, I had a chat with Michael who was part of the hosting team. On the first day of the conference, as I was signing in, he approached me. Asking if I was Doug Taron, he told me that he was a reader of Gossamer Tapestry. Hi, Michael! As I was taking photographs, he asked if I planned to blog about this. I said or course, and had a colleague take a picture of the two of us so i could post it here.

Michael, Mangroves, and Me

While the mangroves forest seems idyllic, it is exploited as a resource. After lunch we stopped by a charcoal factory that used mangrove wood as a raw material. We were told that the mangrove is sustainably harvested. I have no way of assessing this myself. The boardwalk runs through secondary forest, the primary forest having long ago been cleared for charcoal. The charcoal factory was decidedly low tech, using human labor rather than machinery for most of the operation.

A worker shovels finished charcoal out of a kiln

By now it was late afternoon. It would take us several hours more to travel into the mountains where we would spend the next day. It was dark when we arrived and I fell asleep to the gentle tapping of tropical rain on the window.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

World Travel Update

visited 22 countires (9.77%)

I suppose that since ;ve visited new countries, I should update my travel map. I may be cheating with China. I've only been to Hong Kong, and I never left the airport.

Create your own visited map of The World


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Georgetown, Malaysia

Georgetown Street Scene

The ICBES conferences typically involve a mixture of meetings and touring the local area. On the second day of the Malaysian conference, we visited Georgetown, a moderately big city on the island of Penang. Georgetown is named for King George, who was the British monarch at the time the British established their first Malaysian colony on the island of Penang. Fort Cornwalis was constructed to defend the colony.

We toured the religious district and compared architecture of the various churches, mosques, and temples. One Chinese temple was particularly impressive.

In spite of being in a densely populated city, we were able to observe some nice insect life on our tour.

One of the many Blues that I saw on this trip
Update : Plains Cupid (Chilades pandava)

Dragonfly I loved that fact that we saw a dragon in the Chinese temple
Green Skimmer (Orthetrum sabina)

After our brief tour of the city, we were driven to the outskirts of town to ride a funicular train to the top of Penang Hill. This part reminded me of the gondola ride that ICBES participants took up the mountain outside of Quito two years ago.


There was lots of wildlife to see from the top of the hill, including my first glimpse of a birdwing butterfly in the wild (no photo- it was really just a glimpse.

I apologize for the bad quality of the bird photo. The green fruit pigeon was the coolest bird that I saw on Penang Hill. It was skittish and moved around a lot. There are many species of green fruit pigeons. This one is a pink-necked green pigeon (Treron vernans) Emerald Dove (Chalcophaps indica).

Pink-necked Green Pigeon (Treron vernans)
Emerald Dove (Chalcophaps indica).

The late afternoon sun on the city of Georgetown was a memorable close to the day.

Update: Thanks much to Amila for help with species identifications.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Dispatch From the Spice Islands

I’ve been in Penang for a little less than 36 hours. I’m here for ICBES, the International Congress of Butterfly Exhibitors and Suppliers.

It has been an exciting visit so far. Above is the view from my hotel room. Most of yesterday until mid-afternoon was taken up with various meetings related tot he butterfly display industry. I sneaked out for a few minutes at lunch and walked across the street to the beach. My first-ever view of the Indian Ocean was not terribly inspiring (from our location, you see mostly a blank expanse of sea) but I got a few photos of shorebirds on rocks. Nancy’s field guide to birds of southeast Asia says that this one is a common sandpiper. On the way back in to the meeting, I photographed a huge metallic bee. This species makes the huge carpenter bees that I see around Tucson look like sweat bees.

Common Sandpiper

Big-ass Bee

Just how packed our time is going to be was hinted at by the fact that we did not start doing anything outside the meeting room until nearly 3 in the afternoon. We bundled up into a couple of buses and headed up the road to a spice farm. It was interesting to see the nutmeg and clove trees, but much more interesting was the diverse insect life that we began to encounter almost immediately. There is a stream running through the spice farm, and there were dragonflies everywhere.

A couple of the colorful dragonflies from the spice farm

There were some fascinating grasshoppers.

Another bird grasshopper (Schistocerca)
Similar to what I saw in Florida, only bigger and more colorful

I love the tropics!!!

I could have stayed longer, but the group was loaded back on the bus to visit a batik factory. Then we visited the butterfly farm that is hosting this year’s conference. We saw both the public display area and the area devoted to butterfly production. The host farm is one of our suppliers of butterflies, so it was pleasant to be able to see the facility.

Breeding Room at the Tropical Entomological House (TEH) Butterfly Farm

Lacewing Butterfly (Cethosia) at the TEH butterfly exhibit

Lacewing Butterfly Larvae at the TEH Butterfly Farm

Dinner was at a seafood restaurant that featured a floor show of regional dance. Between the jet lag and a late night I’m pretty shot right now- yet later this afternoon brings the promise of more of Malaysia’s natural beauty. First, it’s downstairs for some more meetings.

Semi-traditional dance (the music was Bollywood soundtrack)

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