Gossamer Tapestry

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

Thursday, February 18, 2010

That Florida Chill

We have been in Florida for a week now. Our annual visit to Key West has traditionally taken place in mid to late January. People kept telling us that the weather would be warmer if we would visit just a couple of weeks later- so this year we did. It's as cold as I have ever experienced here- but that's still way warmer than Chicago, and we're having a very good time.

Last Friday, we stayed close to Miami in the morning, as we were picking our friend Michael up wt the airport at noon. We decided that Key Biscayne would be the ideal way to stay close to the city while getting to experience a bit of nature. We climbed the lighthouse, watched birds along the beach, and wandered through the scrub.

Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus)
Because one good tern deserves another

The park is maintained in part through private donations. Some famous, not famous, and infamous donors are remembered on bricks lining the walkway.

Famous Donors

Even though the weather was a bit chilly, we managed to see a few insects.

A tree hopper (Membracidae)
Especially for Bug Girl
Update: Umbonia crassicorns. Thanks, Ted

Just offshore lies Stiltsville, a group of buildings on pilings that plays a role in several Carl Hiaasen novels, including Stormy Weather.


We collected Michael from the airport and ventured down to the Everglades for a stroll at the Royal Palm area. There is a nice boardwalk that leads out into the sloughs.

Slough at the Royal Palm Area at Everglades National Park

The wildlife is rather habituated to humans in this area- so getting close photos is easy.

White Ibis (Eudocimus albus)

American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)

Green Heron (Butorides virescens)

Saturday morning it was off to Fairchild Gardens, still one of our favorite places in Miami. When I blogged about the place last year, somebody asked me if I had seen Atala butterflies. My response then was no, however this year we saw both an adult and a bunch of larvae.

Atala (Eumaeus atala)

The Atala was once nearly extinct in Florida. Widespread plantings of its host plants (cycads, including the native Florida Coontie) have resulted in a dramatic comeback of this spectacular butterfly.

Atala larva on Coontie

After Fairchild Gardens, it was on to the Overseas Highway and Key West where we were to meet up with fellow bloggers UrSpo and Will along with a bunch of other friends. More to follow.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

My Anti Valentine

Numerous blog friends have expressed disdain for this holiday. This is for them.

Valentine Greetings from
2122 N Clark St. Chicago, IL

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Sunday, February 07, 2010

My Top 10 Insect Moments of 2009

I did one of these last year, and have been meaning to post someting similar for 2009. Looking back, it was a great year for working with insects! My top 10 insect moments are:

10. Watching blowflies and carrion beetles help decompose a deer carcass.

9. Checking out Becker's White during the spring bloom at Anza Borrego State Park in California.

8. Witnessing Allegheny Mound Ants and Edward's Haristreaks in Michigan and releasing Karner Blue butterflies in Ohio during the Imperiled Butterfly Conservation and Management workshop hosted by the Toledo Zoo.

7. Tiger hunting in the City of Chicago.

6. Photographing Karner Blues and Dusted Skippers in the dunes and swales of northwest Indiana.

5. Photographing the endangered Miami Blue at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.

4. Getting much better photographs of tiger beetles at Willcox Playa.

3. Photographing grasshoppers and tiger beetles (and a diamondback rattlesnake!) with FC in the wilds of Pure Florida.

2. Doing a whole lot of butterfly conservation.

1. Photographing Raja Brooks Birdwings, and a whole bunch of other exotic insects, in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Camembert on a Winter Saturday

What better way to spend a very cold winter weekend than by making cheese? I love the fact that even a fairly involved cheese like Camembert has such simple ingredients: milk, bacterial culture, mold culture, rennet, and salt. I've previously blogged about the milk that I use for this cheese. This milk requires planning ahead, as it's only available every other week. I order the milk on a Monday, and pick it up a week later. Then I need to keep it in the fridge until the following weekend, because the process takes too long to do in the evening when I get home from work. It's about 8 hours start to finish- though this is mostly long periods of letting it sit, interspersed with brief bouts of activity.

The bacterial and mold cultures do a lot of complex things to the milk (including imparting a lot of the good flavors that will be present in the cheese). I use two species of mold in my Camembert, Pennicillium candidum and Geotrichum candidum. Together these will help form the rind, particularly the white, powdery coating on the outside of the cheese. The rennet is a solution of enzymes, that include a mixture of enzymes that degrade proteins. They clip the long molecular chains of casein, the primary protein in milk. When this happens, the casein transforms from a fairly spherical form to a more linear chain. These chains do not stay in solution well, but form a gel-like semi-solid network. That's the curd. The milk in the photo above has already been converted into curd.

Traditionally, rennet was a mixture of digestive enzymes obtained from the lining of a cow's stomach. I use rennet obtained from a fungal source, so my cheese is OK for vegetarians.

When the curd first forms, it's a single custard-like mass in the pot. I use a long knife to cut it into cubes. Most recipes then involve a period of very gentle stirring. As the curds are stirred, the shrink and give of liquid- that's the whey.The curd cubes become progressively less fragile through this process.

When the curds are ready, I let them sit for a few minutes and settle to the bottom of the pot. This lets me pour a lot of the whey off of them. I ladle the curds into plastic molds. The molds have open tops and bottoms, and small holes all over the sides. As the curds sit in the mold, more liquid is given off and drains awhey (sorry). The curds knit together into a solid mass. For five hours, my role in the process is to flip the molds over hourly. At the end of this time, the rounds of unripe cheese are unmolded, lightly salted, and moved into a wine chiller for aging.

I had my first ever molding failure on this batch. The upper right round of cheese fell apart during the first flip. It will still be good, but I won't serve it to guests (more for me!). This cheese will be ready in about 4 weeks. I wish I had been able to start this batch two weeks earlier in the milk purchasing cycle. Unfortunately, I will not have any home made cheese ready to take with me when I go down to Florida late next week.