Gossamer Tapestry

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

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Another Adventure at Willcox Playa

Greetings from Tucson. I arrived Friday night. Saturday I headed on down to Willcox Playa, but not before a very pleasant breakfast with Adam and Andy at the B Line. The weather was interesting- a mix of clouds and sun. I dodged thunderstorms all the way out to Willcox. Although I spent much of the afternoon wondering if my time would be cut short by rain, it wasn't and the weather ended up helping the photography.

Aridlands Tiger Beetle (Ellipsoptera marutha)

I've never seen the playa so full of water. Numbers of tiger beetles were not overly impressive. As is often the case there, most of the individuals that I saw were the Aridlands Tiger Beetle (Ellipsoptera marutha). I've already got some reasonably good images, but I spent the first 45 minutes or so wandering around and snapping a few photos. As I have gained more experience with these beetles, I've come to realize that this is a pretty skittish species. The really gooshy mud that they like to land on also makes my typical technique- crawling on my belly to approach them- highly undesirable.

Aridlands Tiger Beetle (Ellipsoptera marutha)
Red Morph

I did get a look at one of the red color morphs of marutha. I've blogged about color variation in that species before, but I've never gotten a photo of the red form. I was pleased to be able to get close enough to shoot a couple of acceptable frames. Just as I was about to move on from that individual, a mating pair of green morph marutha darted out from under a clump of vegetation. Like a flash the red morph, obviously a male, pounced on the mating pair. For about the next five minutes, the trio of tigers lurched about as the red male tried to dislodge the green one. So intent were they on the struggle that I was able to approach very close to them for photography. In the end, the green male prevailed.

The struggle to breed:
Two male
Ellipsoptera marutha wrestle over a female

Shortly thereafter, clouds began covering the sun with a bit greater frequency. A beautiful Arizona monsoon thunderstorm was crossing the desert a couple of miles west of me. I quickly discovered that the softer light was extremely conducive to photography. The diminished glare rendered it easier to avoid harsh reflections from the metallic elytra of the beetles. The tiger beetles were easier to approach than they would be in full sun. I quickly got a pretty good shot of a Western Red-bellied Tiger Beetle (Cicindelidia sedecimpunctata).

Western Red-bellied Tiger Beetle (Cicindelidia sedecimpunctata)

As the clouds thickened a bit, a pretty green tiger beetle landed rather close to me. I was able to crouch down without scaring it. The mud in that area was not quite as wet and squishy as elsewhere on the playa, so I was able to try my technique of laying flat and inching my way closer to the beetle with my camera extended at arms length in front of me. The stars must have been aligned, because I was able to bring my camera within a foot of the beetle and get a nice series of photos. So intent was I on the approach and the composition of the pictures that I didn't even realize until got up to review them on my camera that my subject was not E. marutha.

Glittering Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha fulgoris)

The Glittering Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha fulgoris) lives in wet, salty mud in the arid Southwest. Subspecies erronea is found at Willcox Playa and nowhere else in the world. I had gotten the front of my tee shirt crusted with salty mud, but it was worth it.

I capped off my day cooling off in Cobban's pool with a glass of wine. This may have been my best visit ever to Willcox Playa.

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Media Madness

Today we released 30 Regal Fritillaries at Paintbrush Prairie in Markham. The story has been picked up in a bunch of spots on the media, including the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Tonight, airing this evening on Channel 11. More links to follow

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

IBCM IV - Oregon Zoo

Racks of Oregon Silverspot Caterpillars at the Oregon Zoo

It's hard to believe that it has been a full year since the series of Imperiled Butterfly Conservation and Management workshops began in Toledo. I've just returned a couple of weeks ago from the fourth installment at the Oregon Zoo in Portland.

Feeding Larvae

We're already pretty familiar with the butterfly conservation lab at the Oregon Zoo. Vincent and I visited a couple of years ago for some really great training from these folks. Since then our butterfly rearing has been far more successful. These scenes are very familiar to us. The first day of the conference involved lectures and a tour of the zoo. Sadly, I was not able to reconnect with my best penguin friend in the world.

Taylor's Checkerspot Habitat

Days two and three of the conference involved field trips. (Yay!! always the best part!) We visited one of the few remaining sites for Taylor's Checkerspot. After hearing about how awful the spring weather has been in the Pacific Northwest, we were thrilled to have a beautiful sunny day for our visit. I was a bit surprised at the site. In Illinois, very rare butterfly species are almost invariably found on sites with high-quality native vegetation communities. This site was dominated by an invasive grass and ox-eye daisy, a Eurasian plant.

Salt-spray Meadow Right on the Coast Just South of Newport

In the afternoon, conference organizers put us to work. We visited a salt-spray meadow, home to the federally endangered Oregon Silverspot. Conference participants helped release silverspot larvae and planted both host plants (violets) and a variety of nectar-producing plants to support the butterfly.

Nathan and I Release Oregon Silverspot Caterpillars

We spent the second night of the conference in Newport, a beach town on the Oregon coast. We had some free time late in the afternoon. I was excited to go down to the dunes to try to photograph the Pacific Coast Tiger Beetle. Unfortunately, the weather got cool and foggy. I was pleasantly surprised to find and photograph a single Oregon Tiger Beetle. Tony found a freshly-dead Pacific Coast Tiger Beetle, but , unfortunately, that was the only one that we saw.

Oregon Tiger Beetle (Cicindela oregona)

Dinner was at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport. It was a nice surprise. I had not heard of it, and it's a delightful aquarium. I recommend it. I especially enjoyed the numerous tanks of jellies that they displayed. The evening's lecture as by Scott Hoffman Black, CEO of the Xerces Society.

Display of Jellies at the Oregon Coast Aquarium

Thursday involved a visit to NRCS, the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Eugene. This is a totally cool place. They grow all kinds of plants for conservation and restoration purposes, and they do it on an agricultural scale. They had all kinds of really cool farm equipment that had been modified to harvest seed from plants that are not agricultural crops. I was especially impressed with their arrangement for large-scale cultivation of violets for seed production. We could really use something like that here in Illinois.

Agricultural-scale Cultivation of Viola adunca

After lunch, we proceeded to a site where Fender's Blue, another endangered species, is being managed. Here again, I was surprised at the dominance of non-native plant species like tall oat grass, ox-eye daisy, and cow vetch.

Kincaid's Lupine, host plant of Fender's Blue

By this time, the participants were getting a bit giddy. Brian did an imitation of the Green Man. Tony, from the Henry Doerly Zoo in Omaha, did his usual death-defying number by handling a velvet ant. Velvet ants are wingless wasps with a potent sting that gives them the nickname "cow killers."

The Green Man

Tony Courts Death (Again!) by Holding a Velvet Ant

Since the crew obviously needed a bit of calming down, we had dinner at the brew pub at the Grand Lodge Hotel. The dinner speaker was Robert Pyle, author of many books including the Audubon Field Guide to Butterflies of North America. He autographed his book The Butterflies of Cascadia.

The next, and final, installment of IBCM isn't until June 2011. We're hosting at The Nature Museum, and the bar has been set pretty high. I'm looking forward to it.

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Monday, July 05, 2010

Bilateral Gynandromorph of the Regal Fritillary

We have been having great success in the lab with our Regal Fritillaries. More on that soon. Today we got quite a surprise from a Regal that just emerged from its chrysalis. Regal Fritillaries are sexually dimorphic. There are two rows of spots on the upper surface of the hindwings. In the males, the outer row is orange. In females, both rows are white.

The right half of the individual in this picture is male and the left half is female. The shapes of the two hindwings are subtly different. Even the body is split in half this way- the right half has a single male clasper. Bilateral gyandromorphy, while rare, is not unheard of in butterflies. It probably goes unnoticed (at least by people) most of the time, because when the males and females share the same color pattern, the effect is quite subtle. This individual is likely sterile- unfortunate when you are trying to rear as many adults as possible in order to establish a new population.

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Sunday, July 04, 2010

She Flies With Her Own Wings

L-R: Leon, Me, Rodger, Mark

Oregon! The fourth installment of the Imperiled Butterfly Conservation and Management workshop was hosted last week by the Oregon Zoo in Portland. Leon is originally from Oregon, so he decided to join me this time around. The plan was to have some fun together, then he would visit family while I did the workshop thing. After the workshop, we connected up again for a bit more fun before returning home.

The first part of the trip was particularly enjoyable because it involved meeting friends that I don't get to see nearly enough. Leon had never met Mark and Rodger before. I was eager to make the introduction as I knew that they would all click. Saturday involved a gross excess of food. We began with beer and enormous burgers, fries and onion rings. Delicious, though I felt guilty afterward. Opting to go with the guilt, we proceeded to a strawberry festival and ate strawberry shortcakes as big as our heads. They were billed as "smalls." We skipped dinner, but engaged in the fine Portland tradition of drinking wine and gossipping about bloggers.

In Forest Park

Sunday was a bit drippy, but that didn't stop the four of us from going for a walk in Forest Park with Mac. Forest Park is a very green place that seemed especially vibrant in the soft rain. The weather did nothing to help the bug watching, though we did see a cool black and yellow millipede.


It was very disappointing to leave Rodger and Mark after our walk, but we knew we would see them again before the end of the trip. Meanwhile we had arranged to meet Leon's college buddy Ron and his wife Sharol on the other side of the Cascade Mountains in the resort town of Sunriver. We had barely crossed the crest of the Cascades when we the emerging sun provided a vivid display of the rain shadow that the mountains create. Descending to the Deschutes River, we were even treated to some interesting insects, as I saw my first ever Cobalt Blue Milkweed Beetle on the river's banks. Equally impressive was the deep gorge of the Crooked River. We peered down the 300 foot cliffs that lined the river.

Crooked River

Sunriver is a on outdoor resort town. It's beautiful, but a bit too managed for my taste. On Monday we headed out with Ron for an adventure that included geology for Leon and entomology for me. The geology came at Fort Rock. It's not a fort, but the remains of a modest volcanic cone. It was a fine introduction to the high desert, and included lots of beautiful wildflowers. There were few insects there, but I did see a new lifer butterfly species- the Square-spotted Blue.

Fort Rock

Desert Monkeyflower (Mimulus sp.)

Square-spotted Blue (Euphilotes battoides)

We proceeded to Summer Lake. The lake has a very wide shoreline with lots of saline areas that result from evaporation of the lake water. It looked to be perfect tiger beetle habitat.

Summer Lake

We did not find many tiger beetles, and almost left without seeing any. Just before giving up, I noticed several large oval patches of mud ringed by salt deposits. These turned out to be the habitat for Williston's Tiger Beetle, another lifer for me.

Microhabitat of Cicindela willistoni

Williston's Tiger Beetle (Cicindela willistoni)

Tuesday brought more geology as we visited the Newbury Crater. It's part of a relatively recent eruption dating just 1300 years ago. Leon was fascinated by the bits of volcanic glass that crunched underfoot as we walked the Obsidian Trail. We also checked out the Lava Cast Forest. Hot lava flowed into a forest about 6,000 years ago, and left casts of both standing and fallen trees. It was amazing to realize that the lava had preserved a fairly detailed record of the trees in this ancient forest. I got another lifer insect here- the Ribbed Pine Borer, a longhorn beetle.

Leon on the Obsidian Trail

Cast of a Fallen Tree in Lava Cast Forest

Ribbed Pine Borer (Rhagium inquisitor)

A took quick goodbye to Ron and Sharol followed, and we returned to Portland to connect up with the IBCM participants.

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Thursday, July 01, 2010

Success with the Silver-bordered Fritillary

This Silver-bordered Fritillary was photographed earlier today at Gensburg-Markham Prairie. It is the offspring (or, perhaps, grand-offspring) of Silver-bordered Fritillaries that were reared at the Nature Museum last summer and released at Gensburg-Markham Prairie last September. We have the beginnings of a new population of this regionally imperiled species.