Gossamer Tapestry

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

Friday, February 27, 2009

Desert Bloom

Sand Verbena blooms near Borrego Springs

I spent the end of last week in southern California. The Institute for Museum and Library Services presented a forum as part of their Connecting to Collections series. This installment focused on the challenge of maintaining living collections. It was very informative, and it took place in San Diego, a lovely city that I always enjoy visiting.

The conference was Thursday and Friday, so I took advantage of the weekend and spent Saturday in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. If you have never visited Anza Borrego, you are really missing something. It's a huge park- the size of many counties here in Illinois. It contains fine examples of relatively pristine Colorado Desert. Leon and I hiked there last November.


The desert is amazing when it's in full bloom. I was a bit early for that, but I did get to see some of the first hints of the spring floral show. Just outside of Borrego Springs, there was a stunning display, seen at the top of the post. Sand Verbena dominated, but there were other interesting flowers, as well.

Sand Verbena (Abronia Villosa)

Dunes Evening Primrose (Oenothera deltoides)

Brown-eyed Primrose (Camissonia claviformis)

Wild Heliotrope (Phacelia distans)

My journey took me on to the San Felipe Creek. I like visiting that spot, because I frequently see Becker's Whites flitting along the canyon walls. I've been disappointed on my last few visits, however this time I was able to connect. I got to see (and photograph) a few insect species in flowers along the creek here. I even got a peek at a Sonoran Blue, an amazing, gorgeous insect. Sadly, it would not land so there's no photo.

San Felipe Creek

Becker's White (Pontia beckerii)

Hemipteran on Bladderpod (Isomeris arborea)

Elegant Blister Beetle (Eupompha elegans)

I very briefly headed partway up the Banner Grade, hoping to spend some time in chaparral. It was too cold- in fact I think there was a fair bit of snow up at Julian. I was not interested in a winter experience here, so I opted to stay in the desert and headed over towards Ocotillo Wells. There were lots more wildflowers. I even got to see a desert lily in bloom.

Mojave Poppy (Eschscholzia glyptosperma)

Desert Chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana)

Desert Dandelion (Malcothrix glabrata)

Desert Lily (Hesperocallis undulata)

It was hard to return to winter in Chicago. We did have some magnificent thunderstorms last night. Perhaps spring will be a bit more timely in its arrival than it was last year.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why Andrew Sullivan is wrong about debating evolution

Yesterday, I posted a link to a disagreement that I had with Andrew Sullivan. Several people have commented and emailed me regarding the desirability of such debates. I'm sympathetic to the impulse to favor debates. Science is all about transparency- what could be more transparent than a debate of the issue? In this case, things are not as simple as they might first appear.

As he usually does, Andrew lays out his case with clarity:
I'm a firm believer that debate exposes the flimsiness of arguments, and debate is always preferable to mere stigmatizing.
The problem is that this position presupposes that both parties enter into the debate in good faith. This issue resides in the political agenda of the creationist side of the debate. They are looking for the legitimacy that our society accords science while circumventing the normal processes of obtaining it. The creationists have been unable to produce work that stands up to the process of peer review, so they seek out the forum of a public debate instead. Not only is peer review the standard for vetting modern science, it stands in contrast to public debates, which are a notably poor forum for such evaluation. The approach that the creationist camp takes to these debates illustrates why.

In a creationism/evolution debate, there is an asymmetry of information. All of the evidence rests on the side of science- creationism has no evidence of it's own. Indeed, how could it? Being based on faith and on the supernatural, creationism isn't actually testable. In a debate, creationism is therefore relegated to attempting to point out shortcomings in the theory of evolution.

Therein lies the problem. It's very easy to phrase a critique of a scientific theory. Even when the critique is clearly off base and easily refutable, it typically takes a lot more words and time to present the refutation than it does to present the initial critique. The creationist approach also takes advantage of the fact that lines of evidence from many different disciplines converge in pointing to the theory of evolution. In a debate, a critique of some aspect of the fossil record can be coupled with a critique of molecular evidence and followed up with a critique of carbon dating techniques- all from vastly different branches of science and all delivered within a minute or two. At this point, it doesn't matter whether there is any validity to the creationist arguments or not. The debater on the evolution side of the argument can not, within the time he or she has been allotted to speak, get through all of the refutations. It's a common technique that has come to be called the "Gish gallop," named after Duane Gish the founder of the Creation Research Institute.

The payoff for the creationist side? They get to claim peer status with scientists, often of considerable reputation, and can often claim victory- even when their arguments are entirely without merit. That works for them, because in the end, their aims are really political rather than scientific. If public debate of the sort proposed by creationists were truly of value for sorting out scientific controversies, it would be more widely used for exactly that purpose. Andrew Sullivan comes from a background of history, philosophy, and politics. In these fields oral debate is a much more widely-used tool for resolving disputes, mainly because it's more effective. It's a pattern that has been revealed time and again around the issue of evolution. I'd love to find out if Andrew feels it would be mere stigmatizing if Charlie Brown finally told Lucy van Pelt what she could do with her damn football.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Dissenting Daily

Woohoo, I'm a Dissent of the Day on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish.


Monday, February 16, 2009

First Skunk Cabbage

Symplocarpus foetidus

Sunday's walk out at the Fen revealed the year's first blooming plant. The skunk cabbage is beginning to put in an appearance. It's always the first plant in flower. A couple of years back, I blogged about its interesting life history. This is a pretty minimal sign of spring- this is the only one that we found in flower. Real spring is still weeks away.

Last night, I kicked Homer's ass in Lexulous. Tonight it's not going nearly so well, though I'm managing to stay in the game so far.

Tomorrow I pack. Again. I'm going to a forum about living collections sponsored by the Institute for Library and Museum Services. They are paying for the travel, and I get to go to San Diego. Sigh. Actually, San Diego is one of my favorite places to visit, and I'm really looking forward to the forum. I'm not flying back to Chicago until Sunday afternoon, as I plan to spend the weekend in the desert.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Overseas Highway

Card Sound Road

I'm back in the cold, snowy Midwest this morning, savoring the memories of my recent trip. The trip has become a tradition, as we have been visiting the Keys at this time of year for a decade now. One of my favorite parts continues to be the ride down. Rather than opting to fly from Miami, we rent a car and drive down the Overseas Highway.

Card Sound Bridge

There are two routes from the mainland onto the Keys. We almost never opt for US 1, preferring the charm of Card Sound Road. The road takes you through a fairly degraded section of the Everglades (lots of invasive Australian pine (Casuarina equisetifolia) and Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius). But soon enough, you come to Card Sound Bridge and the amazingly blue waters of the sound. Suddenly, you're on Key Largo.

Key Largo is both my most and least favorite of the Keys. The west end is very developed with T-Shirt and dive shops, hotels, and fast food restaurants. It always reminds me of Route 28 on Cape Cod. Card Sound Road dumps you off onto the east end of the Key, however, for the pleasure of driving through 10 miles of nearly pristine hardwood hammock, the finest remaining stand in the Keys. It's a glimpse of what the island chain looked like before it was developed.

Hardwood Hammock on Key Largo

West of Key Largo, the road slips into a familiar rhythm: island, channel, island, channel. Signs post the names of each Key and we read them off like the litany of saints: Plantation Key, Upper Matecumbey Key, Grassy Key.

Approaching Long Key

The parallel lines of power cables and Mr Flagler's Overseas Railroad are constant companions as we head ever westward. We see vacation homes and people fishing from the bridges. The many seabirds include terns, gulls, pelicans and cormorants. If we are lucky, we see a frigate bird soaring overhead (no luck with that on this trip).

Vacation Homes

Remains of the Overseas Railroad
Sections of the bridge near the shorelines have been knocked down, keeping folks off of the main span.

The trip is punctuated by the Seven Mile Bridge just west of the town of Marathon. This year we stopped just before crossing at the Seven Mile Grill, a restaurant that several folks have recommended to us. Their grouper sandwich was amazing.

Seven Mile Grill

Heading west on Seven Mile Bridge

Traveling Overseas Highway always gets me more fully into holiday mode. The journey represents a departure from the mainland, but also a departure from the cares of life back home. I always fell a strong sense of the freedom of the open road when I drive it, heightened by awareness that we will be greeted at the end by good friends that we do not see often enough.

Note: I do the driving on this trip. With the exception of the Key Largo Hammock and Seven Mile Grill pictures, all of the photos in this post are Leon's.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Windley Key

Hammock at Windley Key

I am in Ft. Lauderdale right now. Leon is safely back in Chicago. We drove from Key West to Miami yesterday. There was a bit of extra time, so we decided to visit a spot we have never explored before: Fossil Reef State Park at Windley Key. A lot of the land that makes up the Keys consists of fossilized coral reefs. The fossil reefs at the park are especially visible because this area was used as a quarry by Mr. Flagler in the early 1900s when he was creating the Overseas Railroad that ran the length of the island chain.

Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba)

We chose the Hammock Trail to explore. The guide at the visitor center was very pleasant and hlpful, offering us a trail guide to take with us. It contained a lot of tree identification. I was hoping to learn to identify more of the hammock trees. I've heard many of their names- Pigeon Plum, Jamaican Dogwood, White Stopper- and feel hopeless about identifying most of them. Gumbo Limbo is easy because of its peeling reddish bark. I have also learned to identify Poisonwood. This is paretly out of necessity, as it's a relative of poison ivy and has similar consequences, and partly because it's a distinctive species. I was pleased to learn to identify a shrub called wild coffee (Psycotria nervosa), and the mastic tree (Sideroxylon foetidissimum). I'll confess that I'm still sufficiently confused by the tree species in the hardwood hammock ecosystem that I don't yet feel att home there, even though it's an ecosystem that I really love visiting.

Bagworm Pupa

There were some opportunities for insect photography, but not much time. We saw some striking bagworm cocoons and lots of Eastern Pondwawk dragonflies.

Yet another Eastern Pondhawk

There were a whole bunch of Whitecrossed Seed bugs wandering (and mating) on the sterile sand inside of one of the areas that had been quarried.

Whitecrossed Seed Bug (Neacoryphus bicrucis)

My overall impression of the area? In general, I've been very impressed with Florida's state park system. The park was clean, the trails were well marked, and the interpretation was of high quality. The park contains important remnants of a fragmented ecosstem, and is well-managed in terms of things like invasive species control. Definitely worth a visit. I know I'll be back.

Welcome Nature Blog Network readers. Thanks to Wren for kindly presenting Gossamer Tapestry os this week's featured blog.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Big Pine Key and the Florida Pine Rocklands

No trip to the Keys would be complete for Leon and me without a visit to the pine rockland ecosystem of Big Pine and No Name Keys. The ecosystem sits on a thin layer of soil over a fossilized coral reef (known as Miami oolith) and lenses of fresh water near the surface. We observed a very similar ecosystem several days earlier at Long Pine Key in the Everglades.

A series of nature trails crisscrosses the island. I've always been impressed with the interpretation along the trails. One sign explains how to distinguish the three species of palm that grow in the park, and we spend much of the walk identifying palm trees.

Palmetto (Serenoa repens)

Palmettos have a recumbent growth habit. The remaining two species grow upright.

Silver Palm (Coccothrinax argentata)

The fronds of silver palms terminate in very thin "fingers."

Thatch Palm (Thrinax morissii)

Thatch palms have less divided fronds.

No Name Key

There are few insects here, though I see a couple of skippers and a few dragonflies. After a bit of a wander, we make our way over to No Name Key for a hike on a fire road through the National Key Deer Refuge. The vegetation is a fairly scrubby hardwood hammock, grading down to buttonwood and mangrove growing in mud flats at the end of the trail.

The mud flats at the end of the trail look like great tiger beetle habitat. Indeed, I encountered S-banded Tiger Beetles (Cicindela trifasciata) in the mud. No collecting- this is a National Wildlife Refuge, after all. Unfortunately this species is very wary, so all of my photos are just blurs. We did photograph some other insects.

Unidentified Skippper. Aak, I don't have a guide with me. ID Later.

Great Southern White (Ascia monuste)
Check out the blue antennae.

We did get to see two of the endangered Key Deer while leaving. We did not get good shots of the one on the trail, but Leon got a nice photo of a buck on the road out of town. They are about the size of a German shepherd, but with much longer legs.

Key Deer
Photo: Leon

Speaking of endangered species, after our hikes on Big Pine Key, we headed north to Bahia Honda Key to see if we could get a look at the endangered Miami Blue butterfly. We saw lots of the host plant (Nickerbean), but looked a long time without seeing blue butterflies.

Miami Blue habitat with nickerbean on Bahia Honda Key

Finally, we saw a single blue butterfly. It never landed close to the trail. I took a distant photo. Through the magic of zoom lens combined with enlargement and cropping in photoshop, I got a good enough picture to identify it at the Miami Blue. It was a fine day in the Keys!

Miami Blue (Hemiargus thomasii)

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Fairchild Gardens

Leon and I have a membership to Fairchild Gardens, a really fine botanical garden in Coral Gables. We first visited because of Leon's interest in cycads. I'll avoid comment on the degree to which his collection takes over the house when he moves it inside for the winter. Fairchild has a huge and diverse collection, and has provided a fair bit of support for research and conservation of the group over the years. For that alone, we decided to support them and become members.

Aside: Yes, I know the photo is a bromeliad and not a cycad. It's my blog, I'll post the picture that I find prettiest as the header.

We were greeted upon our arrival by a flock of white ibis. They're one of the birds that I always enjoy seeing in Florida because they look so tropical to me. As we strolled the grounds, we began encountering a series of huge sculptures by artist Mark di Suervo. They are mammoth installations constructed from I-beams and steel plates. The scale is well matched with the large scale of the gardens, and the rigid, angular forms in vivid primary colors provide an interesting counterpoint to the natural spaces that they are embedded in.

My favorite piece of his was Neruda's gate, named for one of my favorite poets.

Neruda's Gate

I recided a couple of verses from Vienen los Pajaros as I walked through. Then I realized that I had a recording of Canto General on my iPhone and played part of Vegetaciones. I'm not sure that Neruda would have approved of the latter, involving as it does an item that currently embelmizes captialism.

Bottle Palm (Hyophorbe lagenicaulis)

The gardens are, of course, the main event at Fairchild. We strolled to the Florida Keys plantings, and wandered through the planttings that the di Suervo sculputres were set in. I got a lot of response to my posting about the strangler fig the other day, so I took advantage of an opportunity to get a shot of a mature specimen.

Strangler Fig

There was only one plant that required a sign requesting that visitors not pick the fruit. Totally understandable, I was tempted. Can you tell what it is?

The Mystery Fruit

My other great enjoyment from my morning at Fairchild was getting to see, and photograph, some insects. There wasn't a lot out, but I did get a couple of dragonfly shots.

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis)

Unidentified Dragonfly
My references are back in Chicago. I'll get an ID when I get home,
unless one of my readers calls it for me before then.

Monk Skipper (Asbolis capucinus)

This was totally a taste of summer. I highly recommend Fairchild Gardens both as a place to visit, and an institution to support (the latter only if you are already supporting the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, of course).

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