Gossamer Tapestry

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

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It's the Milk, Stupid

I just finished another batch of Camembert. I've now done enough of these to know that they are consistently coming out well. Some of my earliest efforts were delicious and developed the surface mold well- but the interior was excessively runny, sometimes to the point of being nearly liquid. My more recent efforts have been especially successful.

The improvements that I have enjoyed recently are clearly a result of the milk I've been using. Friend, fellow blogger, and tea connoisseur extraordinaire UrSpo sometimes refers to especially high end tea as being made from tender young leaves plucked by virgins at 3 AM by the light of the full moon. My current milk supply has a similar feel to it. It's raw milk- whole milk that has been neither Pasteurized nor homogenized. The cream rises to the top of the containers that it's stored in. The dairy cattle are Gurnsey Guernsey cows that are raised organically on an Amish farm in Wisconsin (I need to determine if saying organic is redundant if you identify the farm as Amish).

Most store-bought milk is from Holsteins. Gurnsey Guernsey milk has a much higher butterfat content that Holstein milk, and gives the cheese a particularly rich texture, flavor, and yellow color. I noticed one other difference when I made my most recent cheese. The whey is less clear than I am used to. Sometimes this can mean poor separation of curds and whey, but the curds were excellent this time.

With my latest batch of Camembert, I learned that the changed appearance of the whey reflects an additional benefit of this milk. By reheating the whey after I've poured it off of the curds, I obtained a very nice yield of ricotta (literally "recooked") cheese. I'm so happy to have this new, reliable source of raw milk!


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Media Madness (Gay Edition)

Woohoo, I've been profiled in the Windy City Times. It's part of their Earth Day coverage. It's an honor to be sharing the spotlight with Deb Shore, who is both someone who is doing really important work, and a personal friend.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Spring Hymenoptera

Some of the most conspicuous insects at the Fen last weekend were bees and ants. In the recently burned over areas, the ant mounds become very visible. The ants, of course, were largely unharmed by the fire because they are safely underground. In a prairie fire, the soil temperature changes little just a couple of centimeters below the surface.

I'm pretty sure that these ants are in the genus Formica. They were very active in the warm temperatures on Saturday.

Meanwhile, willows are producing abundant pollen at the moment. The bees really like it. There were hundreds of bees from several species all over this black willow, though they were hard to photograph.

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It's Aliiiive!

Remember that horror film? You know the one I'm talking about. Right at the end of the movie, we all think the monster's finally dead. The hero turns his back for just a second, and the monster re-animates and attacks in one last attempt at mayhem before finally being vanquished.

So, it's supposed to snow again this morning. Friday's high temperature is supposed to be in the low 80s. I love living in a continental climate.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009


It's the beginning of blooming season for the spring ephemerals at Bluff Spring Fen. Spring ephmerals are some of the most familiar spring woodland wildflowers. They get their name from their fleeting appearance in the ecosystem. They emerge and bloom early in the spring, before the trees leaf out. They are taking advantage of the much sunnier conditions on the woodland floor than they will encounter later in the year. By midsummer, most have long finished blooming and setting seeds, their foliage dies back, and they won't be seen again until the following spring.

Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)

Rue Anemone is interesting because it's one of the longest-blooming spring ephemrals at the Fen. In some years it shows up as early as the end of March. In June, you can still find it blooming underneath the foliage of other plants that come up around it. We started upt with about 25 plants that were rescued from a housing development construction site back in the late 1980s. Today we have hundreds of plants scattered across our oak woodlands. The flowers are white to pale pink. The one in this photo is much pinker than typical.

Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata)

Toothworts are another of the earliest spring wildflowers to bloom at Bluff Spring Fen. Like most of the spring ephemerals, this species was completely absent from out site in the early 1980s when management began. The woods at the Fen were very heavly grazed, probably by dairy cattle, and have required a lot of TLC to begin bringing them back to health. Like the Rue Anemone, this species is spreading, and we now have scatterd clumps that get a bit bigger each year. I really would like this species to become more abundant at the Fen, because it's an important early nectar source for Juvenal's Duskywing skippers. I really would like this butterfly to be more abundant in our woodlands.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

Hepaticas are frequently the earliest woodland wildflower to bloom at the Fen. They range from white to blue. Ours were all rescued from the same housing development where we got our Papaipema cerina caterpillars. Unilke the Rue Anemone and Toothwort, Hepaticas spread mainly by seed rather than by rhizomes. Because of this, they have been slower to expand than some of our other transplanted species. This year, we are seeing some significant increases in the number of blooming plants for the first time. They seem to be particularly happy on north-facing slopes.

Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

Dutchmans Breeches may be my favorite of the spring ephemerals at Bluff Spring Fen. This species is one of the few that was hanging on in our woods. I think there were about 5 plants all in the same patch when we started managing the site. It's another species that spreads mainly by seed. We have had some luck moving seed around to new locations, however progress has been very slow. I'm seeing a few more seedlings this year than I have previously. Perhaps we will eventually have a healthy population.

As I have mentioned in previous years' posts, in a really healthy oak woodland, the spring wildflower display can be spectacular. It will be a long time befire Bluff Spring Fen has the kind of show that you can see someplace like Trout Park or Messenger Woods. I may not live long enough to see it. Still, we have most of the species diversity on site, and the populations are slowly but inexorably expanding.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

They're Baaaack

Last night, Ted left a comment on one of my posts.
Rejoice - tiger beetle season is almost upon us!
Ted's such a smart man:

Cicindela duodecimguttata
Bluff Spring Fen 11 April 2009

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Some Thoughts on Butterfly Nets

I got my very first butterfly net from the Easter Bunny when I was 6. With the impending Easter holiday, and my recent gift of a net to my niece for her fourth birthday, I find myself thinking about butterfly nets. My first net came with a little yellow plastic cage for keeping butterflies in. I remember Chilmark Girl and I catching a cabbage white in our next door neighbor's back yard and putting it in the cage. It got out in less than 10 seconds. We never used the cage again, but the net (or one of its many successors) was a frequent companion throughout childhood.

I think that a net is a great gift for a child, and offer the following butterfly net gift giving guide for consideration:

1. Don't buy a toy. A real butterfly net is not terribly expensive (currently less than $15), and much more durable and useful than something that you can get in a toy store. This is even more true today than when I was a kid. I recently saw a toy net in which the wire rim for the net bag was bent into the shape of a butterfly. Yuck! I would hate to try to actually catch something with it. I was in college before I got my first real net. I distinctly remember thinking, "wow, it's a tool, not a toy."

2. It's easy to find good nets. One of the reasons that we used toy nets as kids was that it was really hard to find a supplier for the real thing. The Internet has changed all that. You can by butterfly nets online from suppliers like BioQuip and Carolina Biolgical Supply.

3. For kids, a 12" or 15" net hoop is best. Any larger will be too big and difficult for them to use. Pick a net with a wooden rather than a metal handle. That way, if the handle is too long for the child to use comfortably, you can cut it down to size.

4. Buy an extra net bag. Up to a point, you can mend tears. But sooner or later it will rip completely apart after it's been dragged through brambles while still wet from catching frogs or fish instead of butterflies.

5. Buy a field guide to go with the net. My favorite for beginners (both kids and adults) is still the Golden Guide to Butterflies and Moths.

6. Go butterfly hunting with the gift's recipient. That's the surest way to have your gift really help to get them interested in the natural world.


Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Consistency of Springtime in Chicago


Hepatica acutiloba




Actually much more dramatic at home where we got about 3" of wet, wind-driven snow Sunday night and early Monday. It didn't fall until after dark, it was dark when I left the house, and it had all melted by the time I got home, so this is the best I could do. It's been running 10-15° below normal for about 3 weeks now. I could use some real spring.


Monday, April 06, 2009

Carrion - It's What's for Dinner

Deer carcass remains. Note the relatively intact hoof in the lower midsection.

Last fall and winter, FC posted a whole series of photos documenting the decomposition of a dead deer. Things work a bit differently here up in the Arctic wastelands of Illinois. A deer that died over the winter got covered by snow. The cold temperatures meant that decay by both bacterial and insect processes was slowed. The coyotes definitely got in on the decomposition event, but they are far less relentless than the bugs (both insect and microbial). The result was that parts of the carcass became somewhat freeze dried over the winter.
I've been watching this carcass over the past couple of weeks as it has emerged from the snow.

Carrion beetle crawling over the deer hoof

On Saturday, we had very nice weather and Leon and I were out at the Fen. Even though the temperatures were only in the low 50s, carrion-feeding insects were in evidence around the deer remains. Blowflies in the genus Calliphora are often the first insects to arrive at a carcass. They become active very early in the spring. There were only two that were present at this carcass. Blowflies seem to prefer a carcass that it in the very early stages of decomposition. They lay their eggs in the tissues that are still soft- eyes and other mucosal tissue- and the result is often a large and very active mass of writhing maggots. That will not happen with this deer- the decomposition is too far along.

A large blowfly (probably genus Calliphora) at the carcass

A much smaller blowfly. I'm not much of a dipterist, so I'm not sure
whether these two flies are the same species or not.

I was very surprised to see not one but two species of carrion beetles (Silphidae) at the carcass, in some numbers. These beetles tend to show up somewhat later in the decay process. My surprise was that they were out this early. It's yet another sign of spring: the trees are budding, the flowers are blooming, the carrion is decaying.

Carrion beetle (Oiceoptoma inaequale)

Carrion beetle (Oiceoptoma noveboracense)

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Rice Pilaf

Kathie asked me for this recipe in a comment the other day. This, like so many of my recipes, is from my Mom. I've altered it pretty extensively- Mom certainly would not have put garlic in it.


1/2 stick butter (health food!)
1 can low sodium chicken stock
1/2 cup white wine (I usually use Pinot Grigio)
about 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup white rice
1 tsp salt
1 handful of golden raisins

Sautée onion and garlic in butter, just until the onion becomes translucent. Add the rice and continue to sautée while stirring gently until the butter begins to foam up between the grains of rice. Measure the chicken stock into a measuring cup and add enough water to bring the volume to 2 cups. Add the stock, the wine, the salt and the raisins. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender. Last time I made it, I chopped up a couple of dried apricots and added them with the raisins. It came out very nice. Although I have not tried it, I'll bet that you could make a very nice vegetarian version by substituting vegetable stock for the chicken stock.


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Stone Soup Lab

Remember the old folk tale about stone soup? A hungry traveler comes to a village. Asking for food, he finds none. He decides that he will make stone soup, and with great ceremony sets up a boiling cauldron of water with a stone in it. Intrigued, the villagers one by one bring a few additions to the soup, until they have assembled a fine stew on which everyone feasts. It's a wonderful story of cooperation and making do with bits and snippets that are laying about. I've had a similar experience at work lately.

This is the room where we have been breeding our endangered butterflies. The photo was taken on February 27th. We had a lot of success last year, but the situation is far from ideal. One of the significant problems is the carpeted floor. Carpeting is a great place to harbor mold and bacterial spores, which can devastate growing caterpillars. We had a bit of grant money that could help the situation, and decided to rip up the carpeting and have a poured epoxy floor installed. That was the entire extent of the original plan.

Here's the new floor. Doesn't it look great? Robin, our intern, mentioned that she had a bunch of paint with mold inhibitors that would go well with the floor. That was great news, especially the mold inhibitors part. But we were just getting started.

One of our facilities staff mentioned that just behind the far wall were water lines and a drainpipe. There was a recently decommissioned stainless steel sink in the Museum kitchen upstairs. Would we like it installed in the room? My jaw dropped. Sinks in the Museum are a very precious commodity, and it's generally both difficult and extremely costly to have one installed. This is something that it would have never even occurred to me to wish for here. Cost to us: $0.

The room got painted and the sink got installed in less than 2 weeks. We were able to get some new wire shelving (easy to disinfect) and moved into the new lab about a week and a half ago.

We aren't completely done. The other side of the wall behind the wire shelves is a public corridor in the Museum. We will eventually have a window installed in the wall so that visitors can watch the endangered species breeding activities. Last week, the refrigerator with the regal fritallary caterpillars got transferred into the lab, and our caterpillars moved into their new home.

Stone soup, anyone?

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