Gossamer Tapestry

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

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Questions in Dixie

I'm in South Carolina.  I'll blog more later about the travel and my impressions of the state.  One thing that I noticed right away is that the population boom of Red Admirals that we have at home does not extend to this part of the country.  Oh, sure, I've seen a few Red Admirals- but they have gotten lost in the hoards of thousands and thousands of Question Marks.

 I'm not familiar enough with this region to know whether this abundance is unusual, but it has the feel of a population boom to me.  This species is abundant far out of proportion with other species at the moment.  Dirt roads in the area ar filled with thousands of individuals puddling in the gravel.

I'm seeing a lot of other cool stuff as well.  More to come!

This American Lady was lost in the hige crowd of Question Marks

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A bit more on the Admiral Invasion

A lot of folks have been asking follow-up questions regarding the Red Admiral population boom.  Is it happening because of the mild winter or the freakishly warm weather we had in March?  Might it be a sign of global climate change? 

Red Admirals, along with a whole bunch of other butterfly species,  started showing up extremely early this year.  I had seen one by the third week of March.  That early arrival is almost certainly a result of the early warm weather.  I'm not so sure about the huge numbers being a result of the mild winter and hot spring, however.

This is an American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis).  It's a close relative of the Red Admiral- they are both in the same genus.  And like the Red Admiral, it started appearing very early.  I've been seeing them for weeks on the grounds of the Nature Museum in Chicago, where this one was photographed.  This species has not, however, undergone a population boom.  Numbers are very typical of what I have seen in in other years- just a few weeks ahead of schedule.  Whatever is happening to cause the large numbers of Red Admirals seems, at least for the moment, to be particular to that species.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Admiral Invasion

Depending on where you live, you may or may not be experiencing a huge invasion of Red Admiral butterflies.  I have gotten reports from friends and colleagues in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, upstate New York and Ontario confirming the influx.  On the other hand, I was in eastern Massachusetts just a week ago and saw none, so it hadn't made it that far east.  They are migrating up from their wintering grounds in the deep South.  The mild winter and warm spring are probably responsible for their early arrival, and may or may not be responsible for the huge numbers.  This species is well known to undergo occasional population booms. 

Yesterday I went out to Bluff Spring Fen.  With temperatures hovering around 60, it was on the cool side for butterfly activity.  Bright sunshine, however, allowed them to warm up via basking and the admiral invasion was much in evidence.

Nettles (Urtica dioica) at Bluff Spring Fen
There were scores of butterflies in this open area. 
Red admiral caterpillars eat plants in the nettle family.  We have several large patches of stinging nettles at the Fen.  There were dozens and dozens of admirals flying in the patches.  I saw numerous females laying eggs.

Given the cool temperatures and abundance of individual butterflies, I thought that I maght have an especially easy time with photography. My hopes that the butterflies would be more sluggish and approachable were not to be realized.  I got photos of butterflies on bad backgrounds.

I got shots of bad specimens.

I did manage to get a couple of photos that I was reasonably happy with.  I saw a couple of other species out and about yesterday, as well.  There were a bunch of clouded and orange sulphurs.

The real story continues to be the admirals.  I don't know how long it will last, but I've never this species undergo such a huge population explosion.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Brown County Camping Trip- With Butterflies

Our beautiful home away from home

Two weekends ago, Leon and I took a long weekend and headed south to Brown County, Indiana for some camping. It was a trip down memory lane. We used to go camping there on a regular basis with the gay and lesbian outing club- but we haven't been back since the late 1980s. We drove down on Saturday morning, arriving just in time for the requisite lunch at Nashville House, a country-style restaurant that features amazing yeast raised, deep fried biscuits with apple butter. Health food it isn't.

Leon with Flowering Dogwood

Rattlesnake Master (Goodyeara pubescens)
An orchid whose foliage is much prettier than its flowers

The weather was uneven during the trip. Although the drive down was cloudy, we began out hike in beautiful sunshine with temperatures in the mid 60s. The trees were not yet leafed out, but the dogwoods and redbuds were in full bloom, as were many wildflowers. It was splendid. We began seeing butterflies as soon as we parked the car.

Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus)

Juvenal's Duskywing (Erynnis juvenalis)

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)

We camped near a pretty stream. Dinner was pasta with pesto and Raspberry Newtons. Sometime during the night, I was awakened by the flicker of what I at first thought was somebody approaching the tent with a flashlight. The rumble of thunder followed moments later. It rained with thunder for the rest of the night and for much of Sunday morning. We ended up in the tent until about 11 waiting out the rain.

Pretty Stream

A gloomy, rainy Sunday morning

During our late breakfast the sun emerged. Our camping site was was quite beautiful. In addition to the stream, we were treated to a profusion of spring wildflowers, including all 3 colors of violets.

Purple Violets

White Violets

Yellow Violets

Sunday afternoon, we left our backpacks in camp and took a day hike. It ended up to be a bonanza of both butterflies and wildflowers. We saw several clumps of dramatic scarlet fire pinks.

Fire Pinks! (Silene virinica)

Before departing Chicago, I made a shopping list of early spring butterflies that I had hoped to photograph on this trip. Chief among them were Henry's Elfins and Falcate Orangetips. Although I only got a brief glimpse of the elfin, the orangetips put on quite a show.

Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea)
Only the males have bright orange wing tips.

Orangetips are hard to photograph, as they land infrequently- and then only fleetingly. I wasn't pleased with even the best image of a male that I was able to get. I got luckier with a female. They are far less frequently seen then the males- this was the first time I had ever encountered a female of this species. She was being intensely courted by a male- who she was rejecting by raising her abdomen. So intent were they on the courtship display that I was able to approach closely for a crisp photo.

Female Falcate Orangetip
Translation of her raised abdomen:
Buzz off, creep!

Sunday night dinner was an old camping favorite- a pasta and cheese dish nicknamed aquarium gravel due to its appearance. Monday we enjoyed a leisurely drive back home. It was a wonderful weekend that included opportunities to see a total of 17 butterfly species.

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