Gossamer Tapestry

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

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dune and Swale

In Northwest Indiana, at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, you can find a remarkable ecosystem. Over the last 10,000-20,000 years, the Lake Michigan shoreline has been gradually receding. As the lake recedes, the sand dunes become stabilized by a shifting sequence of vegetative changes known as primary succession. What begins as a sandy community of grasses becomes a wooded ecosystem. The dune ridges remain as gently hills running parallel to the lakeshore. The swales between them remain wet, at least during parts of the year. The dunes and swales are home to a remarkable community of plants and animals.

Today Leon and I visited with John and Jane, longtime friends from the prairie restoration movement; Laurel, a longtime friend from prairie restoration who now works at the Field Museum. Our guide was Paul from the Indiana field office of The Nature Conservancy and steward of the two sites that we toured.

Robin's Plantain (Erigeron pulcehllus) on a wooded dune

Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) and Prairie Phlox (Phlox pilosa)

We had come in search of two species: The endangered Karner Blue butterfly, and Yellow Ladyslipper orchids. It was cloudy, and even sprinkled a bit as we arrived. But the plant viewing was so amazing that we didn't mind. Besides, the weather forecast was for clearing around lunchtime.

Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium calceolus)

It didn't take us long to find our first ladyslippers. This is an amazing orchid. It's reasonably large (the pouches are over an inch long. Although a rare plant globally, it's extremely common in the dune and swale ecosystems in Indiana. We saw thousands of blooming plants during our travels today. Some were individaul sprigs. Others small clumps.

A clump of ladyslippers

At times, there were large patches with hundreds of blooms in them.

Part of a huge patch of orchids

As we walked further, we had to traverse numerous swales. It was a day of wet feet (and ticks...but let's not dwell on unpleasantries here).

One of the swales where we got our feet wet

Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor)

At last, it the skies began to lighten. No butterfiles initially, but we did start seeing some other insects.

A bird dropping moth in the family Noctuidae

A net-winged beetle (Calopteron reticulatum)

Finally the sun broke through. Would be see Karners? Yes we would- almost immediately once the sun broke out.

Male Karner Blue (Lyciades melissa samuelis) basking

Karener Blue caterpillars feed on leaves of the lupines that are so abundant in the dune and swale ecosystems. It has vanished from over 90% of its range and was declared an endangered species by the fedreal government in 1992.

Male Karner Blue, underside
This one embiggens well

Such satisfaction. Endnagered butterflies. Rare orchids. Other fabulous plants and animals. What more could we possibly have wanted? I was thrilled. I would have gone home happy. I got to get another good look at another very rare butterfly.

Dusted Skipper (Atrytonopsis hianna)

The Dusted Skipper is a very rare species that lives in sandy areas. I am aware of only two populations in Illinois. They are a bit more abundant in northwest Indiana, but still a rare species. These posed for photos.

This was definitely a day to savor. I spent time with friends that I don't see often enough. We visited beautiful, rich and rare habitats and saw and photographed lots of rare plants and animals. Our day ended with pleasant conversation at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Atlas Moth

A couple of months ago Will posted a photo of a huge moth on his blog. Just the other day, Mark emailed me a copy of the same photo. In both cases, I was queried regarding the moth's identity. This morning, a very nice specimen emerged in the Butterfly Haven. I got a decent photo, so I thought I'd turn this into a blog post.

The Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas) is from Southeast Asia. By some measures, it's the biggest moth in the world. In this case biggest could mean biggest wingspan (up to 12") or largest wing area. There are several species of moths with very long tails that are longer than Atlas Moths. The one in this photo is medium sized. In part that's because it's a male. Female butterflies and moths are often larger than the males. Butterflies and moths that are produced by farms tend to be smaller than their wild-caught counterparts. We have occasionally had individuals as large as the one pictured on Will's blog, but that's unusual.

Atlas moths are from the family Saturniidae, the giant silk moths. Another member of that family, the Luna Moth (Actias luna), is much more familiar to folks in this country. Atlas Moth caterpillars eat a variety of leaves, including citrus and willow leaves. The adults are typical giant silk moths in that they don't eat at all. These species build up huge fat reserves (note how plump the body is in the photo). The adult phase is entirely about reproduction- they mate and lay eggs. So complete is their lack of feeding that adults don't even have functional mouthparts.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorial Day Weekend

I really enjoyed the long weekend. I got in a lot of my favorite things: gardening, Fen and time with friends. Saturday we did a fair bit of work around the yard. On Sunday, we went out to the Fen. It was hazy, but otherwise beautiful. The oak leaves are just expanding and still a fairly yellowish green. I wanted to take a picture of a columbine. Walt posted a picture of a garden columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) on his blog recently and I wanted to post our wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) as a comparison.

Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

The six-spotted tiger beetles are having a very good year this year. They are everywhere (no complaints here).

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)

Each spring, we see Sulphur-winged Arphia grasshoppers on our hill prairies. These belong to the band-winged grasshoppers, a group that is more common out west. Members of this family typically have brightly-colored wings that flash when they fly up. True to it's name, the Sulphur-winged Arphia flashes vivid yellow when it flies. I have never been able to get a good photo. On Sunday, one posed for me.

Sulphur-winged Arphia (Arphia sulphurea)

On Monday, Elgin hosted the annual Fox-Trot Race. Part of the race is along the banks of the Fox Rive. Leon ran again this year, and I had my traditional brunch.

Go Leon!

I made fontina-bacon foccaccia, sour cream coffee cake, and jam cake. The jam cake is a new recipe acquired from Ur-Spo. I used home made Blackberry jam in mine. I have a lot of jam at the moment , this is a great way to use it up.

Ur-Spo's Blackberry Jan Cake

Serving suggestion from Ur-Spo: "Frost with jam, whiped cream, or fluffy frosting. Or have it withoug any topping like my men."

I prefer mine lightly dusted with powdered sugar.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tiger Hunting in Chicago

Montrose Point in Chicago is an unexpected location. It sits at the south end of one of the major city beaches on Lake Michigan. The point extends into the lake, making it a migrant trap for birds. Such a diversity of migrating bird life has been encountered here that it has been nicknamed The Magic Hedge.

Some years ago, sprigs of native (and very rare) dune grass began appearing in the sand along the lake. A bit of protection from trampling was offered, and grass began expanding into patches that allowed the wind to re-sculpt the sand dunes that would have originally been found here. Almost by magic, other dune plant species began appearing. Eventually, a stewardship team assembled and began active restoration and management of the site. They have added some appropriate plant species, however most of the biological diversity has returned on its own.

What have returned on their own are tiger beetles. They have returned in huge numbers. I went out last Thursday to do a survey. I only found one species, the bronzed tiger beetle (Cicindela repandra), however this species is present in almost staggering numbers. There are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of individuals on just a couple of acres of land. Despite their abundance and accessibility, they are very wary and difficult to photograph. I did manage to get off a couple of decent shots.

I'm thrilled and amazed that I can find tigers in such an urbanized setting.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bioblitz- The Afterparty

Because the weather was so uncooperative for the official bioblitz, and because Sunday was such a beautiful day, I decided to go out to Bluff Spring Fen and do my own version. Mainly I wanted to get some pictures of the late spring flora. It did not disappoint.

The plant that the Fen is most famous for, the small white ladyslipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum) , was in full bloom.

We have two species of puccoon at the Fen. Fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum) lives in our driest habitats.

Hoary puccoon (Lithosperum canescens) likes more mesic situations. Here Haploa caterpillars (probably Haploa lecontii) chow down. Next month, they will turn into white moths that are abundant at the Fen.

Golden alexandars (Zizia aurea) and heart-leaved golden alexandars (Zizia aptera) differ in both the shape of the leaves and the habitat. Golden alexandars can be found in many places, whereas heart-leaved golden alexandars live in dry settings.

Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) is actually a sedge. It's fluffy seed heads are dotted all over wet areas at this time of year.

Wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) is beginning to bloom in the Fen's woodland.

We can't have a bioblitz, even an unofficial one, without animals. This pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos) was not cooperating, but I managed to get one good shot anyway.

I would never have noticed this robin's (Turdus migratorius) nest if the robin hadn't flown out and started yelling at me. I'm not sure how drawing a potential predator's attention will help your eggs to survive. Fortunatley for her, I was only a potential predator.

Yeah, I know, cute, cute, cute. Vertebrates get all the good press.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bioblitz- Day 2: Slow Recovery

Day 2 of the BioBlitz dawned gray and cloudy, despite the promise of sunshine. Yes, we even got a bit more rain. I really feel sorry for the organizers. It's very obvious that a lot of work went into the preparation for this event. The species counts were very low relative to what they should have been. Terrestrial insects were particularly hard hit- you just don't see things like butterflies, dragonflies and tiger beetles in this sort of weather. Even the fish surveys were hampered- the water levels were just too high.

Cirsium pitcheri- Pitcher's Thistle

The plant folks were least impacted by the weather, and they saved the day in terms of recording biodiversity. The Indiana Dunes have an amazing plant list, including lots of endangered species. This Pitcher's Thistle is not quite in bloom yet. Not only is it endangered, it's a Great Lakes endemic.

It finally cleared up about an hour and a half before the Blitz ended. Robin and I went back to try to find Karner Blues and Olympia Marblewings. No success on either count. The wind turned off of the lake and the temperature dropped into the 50s.

Things took a turn for the better when I ran into my friends John and Jane. We decided that even though the official species count had ended, we'd go for a walk in Miller Woods and try one more time to see Olympia Marblewings.

John and Jane at the pannes at Miller Woods

We saw no Olympia Marblewings, but we did see some cool stuff. By mid afternoon, it was a beautiful spring day. The leaves on the oak trees are just beginning to unfold.

The damselfly Ishnura verticalis snacks on a small fly

Oak trees greening up around an interdunal pond
There were tons of whirligig beetles in the pond

One disappointment through much of the walk was that although we were traversing excellent tiger beetle habitat, we weren't seeing any. Finaly, as we were trudging through the dunes on the way back to the cars, Big Sand Tiger Beetles (Cicindela formosa) started showing up. I managed to get one of the best tiger beetle photos that I've ever taken. It was a wonderful end to a challenging BioBlitz. I was in bed by 8:15 that night.

Big Sand Tiger Beetle (Cicindela formosa)
This image embiggens well.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

BioBlitz - Day 1: The Underwater Edition

On Friday and Saturday, the Indiana Dunes hosted this year's National Geographic BioBlitz. In a typical bioblitz, scientists converge on a particular area and intensively sample all of the biodiversity that they can find in a 24 hour period. This year, we attempted to demonstrate how few species can turn up on an extremely diverse site when the bioblitz takes place during a torrential rainstorm. The bioblitz began at 12:00 noon on Friay, and the rains began before 1:00. The last rains fell at around 9:00AM on Saturday. We got about 3" of rain in that time.

Drifts of lupine in the savanna at Howes Prairie

The Indiana Dunes is an incredible site, with lots of ecological diversity and many rare species. I was hoping to be able to take some nice digital photos of Olympia Marblewing butterflies (didn't happen). I had signed up for two events. On Saturday afternoon, I was to sample terrestrial insects at Howes Prairie (actually more of a savanna than a prairie). I was pleased with this site assignment, because there is an endangered butterfly called the Karner Blue there. I actually got very cold and wet while finding about a dozen arthropods. Not a dozen species, mind you, a dozen individuals. We found them by turning over logs and looking under bark.

A syrphid fly we found under loose bark on a dead tree

One of two Six-spotted Tiger Beetles that we found

The afternoon's tally included two tiger beetles, a few syrphid flies, some wood roaches, a June beetle, a millipede and a couple of centipedes, all collected under rocks or bark.

Note how wet this tiger beetle is

Finally, the rain became so heavy, we decided to call it quits about an hour early. By this time, I was soaked to the skin in spite of the fact that I was wearing a good Goretex jacket.

Soaked! Photo by Ann

The BioBlitz provided dinner for the scientists. We were so cold and wet, however, that Celeste, Jamie, Robin and I opted to go inside a warm restaurant and have Mexican food (and Margaritas!). Despite being indoors, I shivered for most of the meal.

My blacklighting setup at the Paul Douglas Nature Center

In the evening (8:00 PM-Midnight) I was scheduled for blacklighting at Miller Woods. We opted to set up the black lighting rig on the back of balcony of the Nature Center. This kept us (and my power supply with exposed electrodes) out of the rain. If you don't count tiny midges and gnats, a total of six insects showed up at the sheet: three scarab beetles (2 species), a Geometrid moth and a couple of stoneflies. It was still cold, and my clothes did not have a chance to dry. But we were out of the rain, and the company was good (Melinda even brought cookies!). Because we were in a National Park, we did nbot get to demonstrate a completely authentic black lighting event. Even worse than the bad weather, there was no beer.

Scarab #1 at the sheet

Scarab #2 at the sheet

The Honest Pero (Pero honestaria)- a Geometrid Moth

By 10:30, we decided to call it a night. The rain was still falling steadily, but my sleeping bag was dry, and I had secured one of the bunks in a cabin. I slept the sleep of the dead that night, warm and dry for the first time in over 12 hours.

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