Gossamer Tapestry

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

Friday, January 30, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Ever. Glades.

Woohoo, I'm in Florida. It was sunny and warm out, at least for part of the day. Leon and I got into Miami in the wee hours this morning. We've spent the whole day at the Everglades. First stop: Mahogany Hammock. Hardwood hammocks are beautiful, but difficult to photograph. They're so densely wooded the the frame just fills with random green foliage. Still, they contain some cool stuff.

Mahogany tree in Mahogany Hammock

I had much more luck photographing things inside of the hammock than I did with panoramas.

Morning Glory

I saw numerous strangler figs. These are curious trees that germinate when their seed land (usually coated with bird poop) on the branches of other trees. They grow both down to the ground and up towards the sky, using the tree as a prop. Eventually they encircle the trunk of the host tree girdling (and killing) it. The host tree then decays inside the strangler fig, leaving it to reproduce and begin the cycle anew. And you thought that plants were peaceful, docile organisms.

Strangler Fig

There were other interesting denizens of Mahogany Hammock.

Barred Owl

We weren't seeing many insects, just a few dragonflies and a couple of zebra longwing butterflies. In search of more wildlife, we went the rest of the way down the road to Park Headquarters at Flamingo. And did we ever find some good stuff.

There were saltwater crocodiles lolling in the water.

White Pelican, winter plumage

An amazing abundance of waterfowl turned out.

You tramp, you look like a chorus girl!

We even got some close views of Roseate Spoonbills. Our day ended much chillier than it began. There was a frontal passage early this afternoon. We took our final hike through the pine rocklands at Long Pine Key, where we saw lots of interesting plants.

Pine Rockland Ecosystem

Acacia pinetorum

Lobelia sp.

Coontie - Zamia floridana

Ruellia sp.

I's wonderful to be out of winter for a bit. For more skywatch, go here.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Media Madness

There's a really nice story about the Butterfly Haven in today's Chicago Tribune. As is very typical of such stories, they don't get the chrysalis stage quite right. A butterfly does not "weave" its chrysalis. They chrysalis forms under the skin of the caterpillar. When the butterfly pupates, the skin splits open, revealing the chrysalis underneath.

Even better than the story is a really cool video that they shot of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. You are hearing Vincent on the voice over. Amusing story about the video. The reporter and photographer/videographer arrived in early afternoon a couple of weeks ago. The photographer said that their editor wanted him to get video of a butterfly actually emerging from the chrysalis. That can be a tough assignment, because it's really hard to tell exactly when the butterfly will emerge. We told him his best bet would be early in the morning, so he came back the next day.

The butterflies cooperated beautifully and we had great footage of 2 butterflies emerging and he was on his way in 45 minutes. While waiting for the butterflies to emerge, we were making small talk. He mentioned growing up in a really small town in New England that I wouldn't have heard of. I asked him which one, and he said Manchester-by-the -Sea in Massachusetts- my old home town (pop. around 6,000). We had gone to the same high school and even had a couple of the same teachers, albeit 21 years apart.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Midwinter Bleus

Penicillium roqueforti

It's a bracing 8°F out this afternoon. We've had the ground piled up with snow for all but a couple of days since early December. My trip to Key West is coming very soon, but in the mean time, what better way to chase away the midwinter blues than by making a midwinter bleu. This is my first attempt ever at a blue cheese.

Penicillium roqueforti is the name of the mold that gives the blue color to the veining in these cheeses. It comes from the cheese supply house as a powder in a foil envelope, much the way yeast does. The powder is finer than yeast and dark black. It goes in the warmed milk right at the start of the process.

For the most part, this was similar to making Camembert, which I have now done a bunch of times. The ripening, rennetting, curd cutting and draining is all pretty similar. I actually did most of that last weekend. A lot of folks think that the blue mold is injected into the cheese. It often looks so, with the blue veining following very linear channels through the interior of the cheese. That's not what's really hapening, though. P. roqueforti needs oxygen to grow. The cheese maker pokes holes through the cheese to allow oxygen inside. The mold only grows in the channels. I did the hole poking today, using a kebab skewer. The cheese will need my attention periodically, and won't be ready to eat until sometime after Labor Day.

Poking holes in the cheese

Something that doesn't have to wait until after Labor Day is the Camembert that I made before Christmas from raw Gurnsey milk. It's ready now- and absolutely delicious. It's very rich and a beautiful color. I'm very pleased with both the snowy white exterior (courtesy of the white mold) and the rich, creamy yellow of the interior (courtesy of the high butterfat content of Gurnsey milk). This one was my best cheese to date.



Tuesday, January 20, 2009

In Case You Missed This Part...

"We will restore science to its rightful place..."
President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address

Not just a pro-science sentiment, but a recognition that things have been not quite right on that front.

I watched. I was a mess. The day after the election, I was walking around the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago, feeling crushed by the passage of Proposition 8 in California. Everyone around me was ebullient. I wasn't and I felt like it showed. I wondered if people thought I was a McCain supporter. Ugh. Today, I'm happy to be able to join in the celebratory mood.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

My 10 Insect Moments of 2008

A great idea put forward on the Nature Blogging Network site. They have put out the call for members to recap their top 10 nature posts of 2008. I decided to challenge myself by being a bit more specific than that. Here are my favorite 10 insect posts from last year.

10. Photographing tiger beetles at Wilcox Playa

9. Standing in fresh snow and collecting Cicindela lengi on the same day

8. Learning winter care for butterflies in Seattle and Portland

7. Breeding Purplish Coppers

6. Black lighting in Madera Canyon

5. Collecting and photographing Cicindela suturalis in Puerto Rico

4. Finding the Lichen Grasshopper in Arizona

3. Putting Regal Fritillary larvae to bed for the winter

2. Finding a new population of eastern red-bellied tiger beetles, and later learning that they are a threatened species

1. Successfully breeding Swamp Metalmarks in the lab


The Bonfires of Winter

Brush clearing is a typical winter activity for prairie restoration groups in the Chicago area. Others have blogged about it. We have come out of our bitterly cold spell of late last week (meaning it has gotten into the teens). Still, yesterday's stiff southwest breeze resulted in a wind chill of -3° F and had the Bluff Spring Fen folks in agreement about one thing. Whatever we did on our work day, it would have to involve a bonfire. We had a good one, too. Between the fire and the exertion, we stayed nice and toasty all day. Plus, we accomplished a lot.

The bonfires of winter exemplify one aspect of prairie restoration that I really like. In our modern world we often go from heated (or air conditioned) car to heated (or air conditioned) office, eat strawberries in January, and generally lack a fullness in awareness of the seasons. Prairie work is a great way to connect with the ebb and flow rhythm of nature through the year.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Skywatch Friday- The Frigid Edition

The scene shown is this photo from last Sunday isn't really terribly cold- it's in the mid 20s. The thin clouds veiling the sun are ushering in some truly frigid temperatures, however. As I type this it's -21° F (-30°C) out. It has not been above 0°F (-18°C) in about 36 hours. We will get above zero later today. I hope you are warm wherever you are.

Visit the rest of Skywatch.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bug Girl on Bug Juice

Cochineal (Dactylopius sp.)

There has been a bit of news, and even some controversy lately about a natural colorant called cochineal. The source of cochineal is the bodies of certain species of scale insects that feed on cactus. When crushed, they release a vivid red dye. A while back, I posted about finding cochineal insects during a hike in the Santa Rosa Mountains of California.

Cochineal is used as a colorant in cosmetics (what do you think was in that Jungle Red nail polish?) and red or pink foods like yogurt, juice drinks, and (my favorite) Campari. Some folks have an allergy to cochineal, and this has prompted the FDA to modify rules about labeling foods containing cochineal. A bit of press has resulted, including a fair bit of misinformation and some excessive hand wringing (It's so wrong, we're eating BUGS!!!). Fortunately, the indefatigable Bug Girl is on the case, with an excellent post that puts things right.

UPDATE: I was just contacted with disappointing news from Campari. They have discontinued using cochineal in Campari for about 2 years now. I think that cochineal is a great natural source of red coloring. Please continue enjoying Campari knowing that it now contains synthetic red coloring obtained from coal tar rather than the natural pigment from cochineal. Carry on.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Snowy Fen

Friday night and Saturday, we got about a foot of snow. The timing was pretty good on this one for several reasons. It didn't mess up my commute. Although it was snowing heavily by the time I went home Friday night, there was almost no traffic. Saturday, we stayed pretty close to home all day, and got to shovel out at our leisure. Mid week, it's expected to plunge into the deep freeze with lows south of -10°F. The thick blanket of snow will provide nice insulation for my garden. Today we went to the Fen for some winter photography.

The picture above demonstates one of the interesting fen features. The springs emerge at a constant 53°F year round. No matter how cold it gets, the areas right around the springs don't freeze.

By the time we left, we were getting peeks at the sun. Florida is in 2 weeks and 4 days!

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Five Greatest Joys in Nature

This comes from Roy in England at The Fenland Walker blog. I wasn't tagged, but this is (gasp) a meme that is actually on topic for this blog. How could I resist?

My five greatest joys in nature:

1. Butterflies


You're shocked, I know. One of the things that I worried about when I switched from the biotech industry to the museum world was that I would stop loving butterflies and simply see them as work. It hasn't been a problem at all. I started to learn to identify butterflies when I was 7. They have been companions in the natural world for almost my entire life.

2. Bluff Spring Fen

If any one thing is my life's work, it's my stewardship at Bluff Spring Fen. I was introduced to the Fen by Leon at the very beginning of our relationship. In addition to being a passion in its own right, it is part of the glue that has bonded us together for many years.

3. The Sea The Sea (heading title for Pablo)


I grew up a 15 minute walk from the Atlantic Ocean. I went through a period of genuine mourning for it when I moved to Chicago 30 years ago. My grief was alleviated by my growing love of the tallgrass prairie and of Bluff Spring Fen. Still, 30 years on I still miss the ocean. I think I miss the rhythm of the tides most of all.

4. El Orden de las Solidades (heading title for TR)


The high plains. The desert. The high Sierra or Rocky Mountains. I'm drawn to the wild and lonley places of the American West. I love the silence and the vastness. I love the awareness of my own insignificance while I'm immersed in the wilderness. I always feel grounded and centered when there.

5. Tiger Beetles

The most recent of my five joys in Nature. I was introduced to them four years ago by my friend John from Colorado. I love them because learning about their biology represents a new intelectual challenge for me as I enter the later phases of middle age. They remind me that I need never stop learning.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

100 Things Meme

It's so hard to keep an insect blog sparkling and appealing during a long Chicago winter. Plus I'm bored- the holidays are over. Key West is still weeks away. The weather is just dull. A meme might liven things up. This one's from a pretty cool blog called Guadalupe Storm Petrel. I found it when I was doing a Google search on island endemic birds. It's a random list of thigs one might do. I've bolded the ones I've actually done.

1. Started my own blog
2. Slept under the stars
3. Played in a band
4. Visited Hawaii
5. Watched a meteor shower
6. Given more than I can afford to charity
7. Been to Disneyland/world
8. Climbed a mountain
9. Held a praying mantis- This is noteworthy?
10. Sung a solo
11. Bungee jumped
12. Visited Paris
13. Watched lightning at sea
14. Taught myself an art from scratch- Cheesemaking!
15. Adopted a child
16. Had food poisoning
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty
18. Grown my own vegetables
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France
20. Slept on an overnight train
21. Had a pillow fight
22. Hitchhiked (sadly, no racy stories)
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill
24. Built a snow fort
25. Held a lamb- Gary Lee or Gary could probably help me achieve this one.
26. Gone skinny dipping- occasionally with others.
27. Run a Marathon- But Leon has. Twice.
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice
29. Seen a total eclipse Two, actually.
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset
31. Hit a home run
32. Been on a cruise - but not until about a year ago.
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person

34. Visited the birthplace of my ancestors
35. Seen an Amish community
36. Taught myself a new language
37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied - being gainfully employed for an uninterrupted 25 years helps.
38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person
39. Gone rock climbing - Mostly during grad school. I gave it up. Too many wasp stings. Try injecting yourself with epinephrine while dangling from a rope some time.
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David
41. Sung karaoke
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant
44. Visited Africa
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight- sadly never in a romantic context.
46. Been transported in an ambulance
47. Had my portrait painted I may be cheating a bit here. It was pastels rather than paints. I was 12 at the time.
48. Gone deep sea fishing - but I've fished in the ocean many, many times
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling
52. Kissed in the rain- Um, once was even with a girl.
53. Played in the mud
54. Gone to a drive-in theater
55. Been in a movie- Nope. Not all of us can experience the glamor of being a cowboy zombie.
56. Visited the Great Wall of China
57. Started a business
58. Taken a martial arts class
59. Visited Russia
60. Served at a soup kitchen
61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies
62. Gone whale watching- I've even seen the whales.
63. Got flowers for no reason
64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma -but my blood has been unwelcome for many years.
65. Gone sky diving
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
67. Bounced a check :-(
68. Flown in a helicopter
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy - My stuffed elephant Tuzzy
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial
71. Eaten caviar
72. Pieced a quilt
73. Stood in Times Square- Years ago, it was pretty seedy back then.
74. Toured the Everglades- Does canoeing count?
75. Been fired from a job
76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London- Briefly, from a taxi while driving from the train station to Heathrow.
77. Broken a bone -two, actually. Not at the same time.
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle- The driver was straight, but I still enjoyed hanging on while speeding through town.
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person Edited to add: My Dad and I even had to carry Chilmark Girl back from Bright Angel Point (she was recovering from mono).
80. Published a book- Only a chapter
81. Visited the Vatican
82. Bought a brand new car
83. Walked in Jerusalem
84. Had my picture in the newspaper- yeah, Media Madness and all that. (A lot of the links on that page have expired).
85. Read the entire Bible- not in one sitting, of course.
86. Visited the White House
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating - Trout
88. Had chickenpox
89. Saved someone’s life
90. Sat on a jury- For one afternoon. Then the defendant (an insurance company) settled.
91. Met someone famous
92. Joined a book club
93. Lost a loved one- too many.
94. Had a baby
95. Seen the Alamo in person
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake
97. Been involved in a law suit
98. Owned a cell phone- OMG I just got a new iPhone!!!
99. Been stung by a bee- Once it even resulted in full-blown anaphylactic shock.
100. Ridden an elephant

55/100. Not bad.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Holiday Recap

First things first. Happy birthday, Chilmark Girl!

We took the tree down this afternoon. For me, that’s always meant that the holiday season is officially over. It was a nice season this year. I was more on top of things than I often am. The shopping and wrapping got done with time to spare. I was able to do my share of the baking without feeling rushed (this didn’t allow me to avoid a slightly overdone Sally Lunn bread, however).

Arrgh! Overdone

Christmas was a lot of fun. We did Christmas Eve at Dad’s. The homemade Camembert and homemade Gouda made an appearance. The Camembert was too ripe (and very runny). The Gouda was still too hard and crumbly- though later I had it out much longer before serving it and it both sliced and tasted better. It would be wonderful if all I need to do is let it come closer to room temperature before serving it in order to get a better cheese.

Homage to our grandmother. Photo- David Kinney.

Christmas dinner was at Chilmark Girl’s place. We had rack of lamb (not the most traditional, but when it’s that awesome, who cares). I provided the tangerine sorbet that was part of a recently revived tradition (from my grandmother) of starting the meal with fruit compote. My nephew got Rock Band II as a gift. We spent much of the afternoon playing. That’s my Dad on vocals doing Eye of the Tiger. So wrong on so many levels.

The fun continued after Christmas. Leon and I visited Will and Fritz in New Hampshire. It’s always great to see them. They are wonderful people and very gracious hosts. Who else would come out to greet us wearing red light-up reindeer noses? My niece arrived just before I returned to Chicago.

What will 2009 hold? I hope it will hold more of what 2008 did (at least if we don’t include the economy). There are already travel plans: I’ll be in Florida in about 4 weeks, doing my usual grand tour (the Keys, Naples and then up to Gainesville). I’m back in New England in June, and off for a jaunt to Malaysia in November. Expect to hear more about butterflies and tiger beetles. Happy 2009 to all.

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