Gossamer Tapestry

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

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Serendipity and Two Checkerspot Butterflies

Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton)

Lately, winters at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum find lots of caterpillars on the museum roof. Many of the species that we are breeding for conservation purposes overwinter as caterpillars. They need to experience the full effects of winter cold in order to complete their development. Carrying caterpillars over the winter has proved to be the trickiest aspect of our butterfly breeding activities. A couple of years ago, we learned a new technique form the Portland Zoo in Oregon that involves holding the larvae outdoors under inverted terracotta pots.

Terracotta pots for wintering caterpillars of an endangered butterfly
(Taylor's Checkerspot) at the Oregon Zoo

The larvae themselves are in plastic containers. We loosely crumple paper towels, place the towels and larvae in the containers, and snap the lids on. The whole affair goes under the terracotta flower pot.

Yogurt container, crumpled paper towel, and caterpillars

Two butterflies that we are currently working with are related species called the Baltimore Checkerspot and the Gorgone Checkerspot. Lat year, we did a trial run of keeping Gorgone checkerspots on the roof under pots. It worked so well that we decided to scale it up with both of these species this year. Last week, we woke up the caterpillars.

Gorgone Checkerspot (Chlosyne gorgone)
Photo: Tom Poklen

We has spectacular success with the Gorgones. Over 80% of the larvae survived the winter. They're now in the lab, munching away on their host plant, which is showy sunflower.

Gorgone Checkerspot Larvae
Wake up sleepyheads!

Gorgone Checkerspot Larva

The story with the Baltimores was not so good. Pot after pot yielded dead larvae. All looked perfect, except they were mummified and hard as tiny rocks. Same conditions, closely related species, completely different results.

Dead Baltimore Checkerspot Larvae

Here's where the serendipity comes in. We place our flower pots on wooden pallets on the museum roof. At some point last winter, one cup of larvae fell out of the pot. It was later found under the pallet. It got less protection from the elements, and the paper towel in the cup was soaked with water. Nearly half of the Baltimore Checkerspot larvae in that cup survuved- the only ones from over 1,200 that went on the roof to do so. Unlike Gorgone Checkerspots that live in dry sandy or gravelly prairies, Baltimore Checkerspots are wetland butterflies. Conditions that are fine for Gorgones turn out to be too dry for Baltimores. If the cup had not fallen under the pallet, we never would have known how to fix this problem.

Robin and Vincent feeding Gorgone Checkerspot and Regal Fritillary larvae

In June, the Gorgone Checkerpots will be used to start a new population at the Nachusa Grasslands. The handful of Baltimores will be released at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab. They will (we hope) join individuals that were released there as caterpillars last fall.

Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia) larva

In related butterfly conservation news, our Regal Fritillary caterpillars continue to grow and thrive. We are on track for releasing large numbers at the Indian Boundary Prairies this coming June.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Yellow Violets

Yellow Violet (Viola pennsylvanica)

I had heard of yellow violets long before I saw one. I found them fascinating. I remember being vaguely jealous of my college friend Kathy who knew where they grew near her home town in Vermont. We have a nice population at the Fen. I thought of her when I took this photo.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Putting the Spring in Bluff Spring Fen

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

It's marsh marigold time at the Fen. In a good year, the watercourses are all lined with vivid yellow. This is proving to be a good year, and the effects are spectacular.

Saturday was a Fen workday. While most of the crew was pulling garlic mustard, Kevin and I continued an experiment that has been going on for a few years. We are trying to re-vegetate the bare peat soil of a badly degraded seep by transplanting native sedges that have grown up onto a gravel spit that was bulldozed out into one corner of the Fen. I blogged about it last year. Our results are being very successful. The transplants settle in for the first year, then begin to spread rapidly through vegetative growth. This success is motivating us to continue the experiment.

Carex trichocarpa
Two years ago, this seepage slope was mostly bare peat soil

Spring is in evidence all around the Fen. I am pleased that some of our trout lilies have become sufficiently established to begin blooming.

Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum)

Migrant birds are returning.

Red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

I mentioned recently that the 12-spotted tiger beetles are out now. I keep trying for a better photo. I'm making incremental progress, but I'm not yet where I want to be with that species.

Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela duodecimguttata)

While tiger hunting, I ran into the Fen's other common species. It was a bit earlier than I was expecting.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)

Overall, it's shaping up as a fine spring at the Fen.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sunday at the Indiana Dunes

Dune Face

On Sunday, just before heading out the door, I posted "Doug is off to the Indiana Dunes" as my Facebook status. A friend in New England expressed surprised that Indiana would have sand dunes, so I decided to take a bunch of photos and blog about the trip. To me, the surprising part about the Dunes is not that they exist in Indiana, but that so much of them has been preserved among the steel mills of Gary and on the doorstep of Chicago.

The Chicago skyline is dimly visible on the horizon

The occasion for our visit was our friend Michael. He had been driven to Dearborn, Michigan to run in a marathon the day before. He and the two friends who drove him out there plant to stop off at the Dunes on their way home. Leon and I decided to meet up with them.

L-R: Kevin, Iva, and Michael
Michael is doing pretty well for the day after running a marathon

There was construction at the park and we couldn't get into the nature trails via my usual route, so we started on the beach.

On the Beach

Duneland ecological succession is the natural process of conversion of shoreline to woodland. You can spend several millenia on the beach watching it happen, or move inland to view successively older vegetation. Beach grasses stabilize the sand. Smaller trees take root. As they grow, they shade out the grasses, which are replaced by a new community of plants under the trees. Each change in the vegetation changes the landscape and sets the stage for its own exit as other species take over. It was here at the Indiana Dunes in the early 1900s that Henry Chandler Cowles developed the theory of ecological succession. Over a century later, it remains a cornerstone of ecological theory.

Prairie Grasses Stabilize a Sand Dune

Further back, the dunes are cloaked with rich woodland. Some of the spring wildflowers were beginning to bloom.

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

Hairy White Violet (Viola incognita)

We were looking for the Olympia Marblewing, a beautiful early spring butterfly that lives in sandy habitats. The weather was a bit cooler and cloudier than was forecast, so the butterfly was a no show. Its host plant, Sand Cress, was putting on a show. I have a feeling that had we been there on Saturday we would have seen the butterfly.

Sand Cress (Arabis lyrata)

We did see other wildlife. Migrating birds included Brown Creepers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Eastern Towhee. All were difficult to photograph. I got a recognizable image only of the Towhee.

Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

The hike ended with a visit to an interdunal pond and a stroll through some fine oak woods. The woods are being managed to help support endangered Karner Blue butterflies that live at the Dunes.

Interdunal Pond

Managed Oak Woodland

A wonderful day was capped off with a delicious dinner (dessert: red velvet cake). Congratulations to Michael for successfully completing his first marathon.

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Thursday, April 08, 2010


It was April, 2003. Leon's elderly cat had died about six months before, and he had decided that, a suitable period of mourning having elapsed, he would bring a new kitty into his life. I went with him to the animal shelter- mostly for moral support.

While Leon was doing some serious kitty shopping, I wandered around looking at some of the caged cats and poking my finger into a cage here and there to stroke a appreciative nose. One cage contained a very handsome grayish tabby with brown ears. I stroked his nose for a moment. Apparently this kitty was lonely, because when I withdrew my finger, he stuck his paw out of the cage at me in a gesture that could only mean "please, don't stop." Leon did not end up finding a suitable cat that day. I fell in love.

I asked for an interview with the cat. Leon came with me into the kitty interview room. The cat was very friendly. He loved being petted. He purred. He sat in our laps- but made it quite clear that he was more interested in me. About two weeks after he came home with us he figured out who the real feline pushover in the house is and became Leon's cat, though he always remained very affectionate with me.

About 2 1/2 years ago, Cinnamon began losing weight. A trip to the vet revealed that he was in the early stages of kidney failure. We have kept him going by feeding him a (very expensive) special renal diet. He stabilized on the diet, however the kidney failure eventually caught up with him. Cinnamon died last night.

I've shared my life with a total of about 8 cats. All were different, and all were much loved. Cinnamon was very special. I've only had one other cat that I would place in that category, and he has been gone for 20 years now. The sensation that the house feels very empty will fade and other cats will come into my life, but Cinnamon will always retain a very special place in my heart.

Good kitty. Bye.

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Great Awakening

Female Regal Fritillary
Photo: Ron Panzer

We have been working with Regal Fritillary conservation for several years now. This beautiful butterfly, about the size of a monarch, is in deep trouble over the eastern 2/3 of it's range (which runs from eastern Colorado and Nebraska all the way to the east coast. They are listed as a Threatened or Endangered species by most states east of the Mississippi river, including Illinois where they are Threatened. We have had some success in establishing it near Markham, southwest of Chicago. For that project, we released newborn caterpillars.

One challenge to working with regals is their life history. The adults begin flying in late June. In late July, they estivate for about a month. Only when they emerge from their midsummer nap do the females begin laying eggs- usually in the last week in August into September. The eggs hattch in late September, at which time the caterpillars eat their eggshells and immediately go into hibernation. This means that in order to raise regals in the lab, we need to do something to carry fragile, tiny larvae over the winter.

We have struggled a lot with this process. Early on, we lost hundreds of caterpillars to a bacterial outbreak. Since then, we have developed much better protocols for lab hygiene, and have gotten much better about raising all kinds of caterpillars.

Last year, we tried to carry our regals over the winter in special cages stored in a refrigerator. Periodically during the winter we would wake them up and give them a drink of water. Although we were experiencing a lot of death over the winter, it looked like we would have enough survivors to move forward. Unfortunately, what had started out as a gradual but steady decline over most of the winter accelerated rapidly over the last two weeks of March, and we had a 0% survival rate.

This year, we tried something different and put them in covered cages outside on the Museum roof. Our goal was to give them the full impact of winter cold. It worked!

Spring has been progressing nicely in Chicago. There are lots of violets (the caterpillar food plant) in bloom around the region, so yesterday we began to wake the caterpillars up. We removed them from the rooftop cages and placed them on bits of wet filter paper for a drink. Not unexpectedly, we had quite a bit of mortality. Some cages contained nothing but dead caterpillars.

Dead Regal Fritillary Larvae

Other cages ahoowed much more hopeful signs. We recovered just under 250 regal fritillary larvae that were still active and moving. After a quick drink, they were moved onto violet leaves.

Regal Fritillary Larve on wet filter paper
The green bits are frass (caterpillar poop), which indicates that they are feeding

Regal Fritillary larvae chow down on a violet leaf

The larvae are currently on violet leaves with wet filter paper in petri dishes. Over the next couple of days, we will move them to individual paper cups, where it will be easier to keep them clean. With good care, we hope to have adults in June. We will release them at the Indian Boudary Prairies southwest of Chicago.

Bins of petri dishes with regal fritillary caterpillars

And thus begins the 2010 butterfly conservation season.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Happy Easter

Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

Bloodroot (Sangunaria canadensis)

For the first time in about 3 years, we're actually having a nice spring here in Chicago. There has been ample warmth and sunshine. Today was gorgeous, and Leon and I took an Easter morning walk at Bluff Spring Fen. In addition to the very familiar spring wildflowers like Bloodroot and Hepatica, we saw some more unusual species, like Early Buttercup and Whitlow Cress.

Early Buttercup (Ranunculus fascicularis)

Whitlow Cress (Draba reptans)

I especially like the Whitlow cress, because it's so tiny. The entire plant in the photo could be covered with a dime- with room to spare.

There were other important signs of spring at the Fen today, as well.

Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela duodecimguttata)

After we returned from the Fen, we had our friend Michael over for a traditional Easter dinner of ham, squash, and rice pilaf. Michael brought over a special Easter bread that he made, and we had home-made raspberry ice cream for dessert. What made the meal especially fun is that it was in the 70's this afternoon, so we ate out on the screened porch.

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