Thursday, September 30, 2010

Confusing names

One would do well to look sharp while traveling the back roads of Adams and Scioto Counties, as rarities are everywhere. This year southern Ohio has been "invaded" by dime-sized yellow butterflies, the Eurema lisa . Normally it is counted good fortune to see two or three each summer, but this has been a banner year.

Little Yellow nectaring on Stiff Aster.

Yellow and purple are commonly used colors in nature, one finds various yellow butterflies along most country roads. And purple asters are certainly not unusual... yet both these southern species are highly sought-after in Ohio, and worth a second look.

Note the short "stiff" leaves on this aster, known from the roadsides of Shawnee forest, they make the Stiff Aster, Ionactis linariifolius a stand-out among the endless ranks of asters. At least 33 species of Asters are known in Ohio, but this rarity is strictly a southern specialist.

OH, the vagaries of names. Generally butterfly common names are standards one can rely upon, and Latin is the gold standard for plants as common names are frequently confusing. These lovely rarities seem to be bent on breaking all the rules.

Several common names are listed for this plant: Flax-leaf Aster, Flaxleaf Whitetop Aster, and in Ohio we prefer- Stiff Aster. Unfortunately the Latin name is nearly as confusing as the common name. Asters are no longer called "asters" in the botanical world, most have been regrouped to Symphyotrichums, but this little beauty is Ionactis.

And in a rare case of confusion in the butterfly world, there are two commonly used names for the Eurema lisa : Little Yellow or Little Sulphur butterfly. Since Eurema is the "Yellow" genus, many prefer "Little Yellow".

As Shakespeare noted: a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. And so, enjoy nature and realize the names may help us categorize the plants and butterflies, but do not impact upon their beauty.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Fly Away Home

Lady Bug, Lady Bug, fly away home,
your house is on fire and your children alone.

It is a strange little nursery rhyme, remembered from my youth. It didn't made a lot of sense to me then, and it certainly doesn't ring any truer now. First of all, they are not bugs but rather beetles. Generally classified as "Lady Bird Beetles," the Coccinellidea, they are not in danger of loosing their families to fire. However, our native Lady Bird Beetles are in grave danger of being out-competed by invasive Asian members of their own family.

Thirteen Spotted-Lady Bird Beetle photo by Dale Zutavern

As native Lady Beetles become more difficult to find, this interesting photo documents a rare local species. Studies by the good folks at Cornell University and O.S.U. are trying to assess which native Lady Bird Beetles are present and just how they are being impacted by the non-native species.

Most species of Lady Bird Beetles aggressively feed on aphids and mealy-bugs and are welcomed by gardeners and farmers alike as "beneficial insects." And if a few are good, more must be better, right? So, some Asian imports were originally welcomed to our country.
"Come on in, eat up, ladies and gents."
Until, too late we realized... our native beetles (the ones that don't try to hibernate in your home during the winter) were being impacted by the intense competition for food.


Even in their larva form (often called an "Alligator") they are major consumers of insect pests. Unfortunately most gardeners don't recognize this "pre-beetle." Instead these colorful red-and-black foragers are blasted with chemical powders or sprays, before they are able to feed on the garden pests they so ably consume.

And while we searched for beetles in Adams County, the only candidate found was this unusual "Twenty-spotted Lady Bird Beetle", an interesting cousin who feeds on leaf molds. Although it is about half the size of the Lady Beetles we commonly note, it stands out of the crowd with its odd white-and-black color scheme.
... ...
After several days of collecting, only three Lady Beetles were documented- two of them being the larger non-native varieties. Have all our "Lady Bugs" flown?
While I am personally not a huge fan of collecting, I do encourage you to take good photos of any of your local Lady Beetles and share information with researchers. We may be too late to save Ohio's native insects, but perhaps we will think twice before we import more non-native insects into our ecosystems.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Beetle Mania

Lest you think that the remaining Beatles, Ringo and Paul, have let themselves completely go-

please meet Dr. Charlie Staines and John Howard.
Charlie is afiliated with the Smithsonian, specializing Coleoptera, or Beetles. While on a collecting trip in southern Ohio, he generously allowed John Howard and me to tag along and literally beat a few bushes in a quest for Adams County's micro-fauna.
Now before you decide beetles are not your bag, I might remind you that one in every four species on this earth- IS A BEETLE! They comprise a tremendous part of the food chain, and with out them, I suspect life on earth would certainly not exist as we know it.

Consider if you will the Weevil, a smallish beetle making a living among the flower buds. There are many unique habitats, as there are types of beetles. We became adept at turning leaves, scouring open ground, and dipping into streams.

Earnestly in search of Ladybugs, or more properly- Lady Bird Beetles, I searched for their food sources: aphids. We found several species of beetles hiding in the leaf axils, but "Lady Birds" were rarely found.

Once we spotted a Soldier Beetle (AKA: Pennsylvania Leather-wing), but we were second in line...

as it had already been "collected" by a Wheel Bug. These Assassin Bugs can give a nasty bite, so we left him in charge of curating the unfortunate Soldier Beetle on his own. I think Charlie's pinning board may have been a better way to go, than becoming the Assassin bug's slurpee.

Su and Charlie Staines, Entomolgist at Large
Are entomologists all books, nets and collecting vials? Heavens no! Sue and Charlie were great fun in the field, eager to share adventure and knowledge, and their combined knowledge was vast. Lady Birds, Lightening Bugs (actually beetles), Flea Beetles, Tiger Beetles... these names only begin to touch upon the species we witnessed. Stay tuned for more information on those Lady Bird Beetles.
Footnote: The famous scientist J.B.S. Haldane, when ask what he had learned of God through his studies of science, responded, "He must be [sic]... inordinately fond of beetles."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Truly Blue

Whether it is faded denim, the big skies of Texas, a cobalt colored Kingfisher or the twinkling eyes of a loved one, blue will always in style. These last days of summer are a prime time for scouting out a few of the best shades of blue found within the Gentian family.

Soapwort Gentian, Gentiana saponaria

This Soapwort Gentian is a major find. Listed as Probably Extirpated in Michigan and Endangered in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, it was well worth the trip to the Oak Openings.
One alias is "Harvestbells," fitting enough as its bloom-time corresponds with our recent harvest moon. This rare species was found in a wet sedge meadow, a regular hot-bed of biodiversity, which hosts numerous rarities- like Spotted Turtles and Frosted Elfin butterflies.

Lesser Fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis procera

Springville Marsh, just outside of Carey Ohio, boasts a readily accessible population of this wet-footed species. Take your tripod and camera along and you should be able to score excellent photos from the boardwalk.



Lesser Fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis procera - take two.

Sorting gentians may take more than I bargained for. It seems the Fringed Gentians, Lesser and Greater, are tough to sort out. And while the lower photo has obviously less "fringe," it is still the same species (G. procera) as the Springville Marsh gentian.
Let's leave all that work to the botanists. Our energies are better used to compare "cornflower" to "delft" blues. Just to savor a fall day, especially in the favor of these radiant blue blossoms, is enough for me.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Border Patrol for Silver-bordered Frits

What could be more exciting than a "life" butterfly for a little girl who followed around the boys in the neighborhood chasing after insects? Check this one out guys: it is pretty much an Ohio rarity!

...................................... Click on photo to enlarge

The Silver-bordered Fritillary is the smallest of the fritillaries with silver spots on the underwings. They are members of the brush-foot family of butterflies, which means they have shortened front legs like a preying mantis, or T-Rex, if you will. But fritillaries restrict their diet to nectar as adults and strictly violets as caterpillars.

In fact, it is the rarity of the host plant that accounts for the rarity of this species. You see, Silver-border Frits only like Northern Bog Violets, Viola nephrophylla, which in turn only like wet places. And since we have been terribly fond of draining our wet places, we have a real shortage of bog violets - and Silver-bordered butterflies.

Spreading its wings to a maximum of two inches, Silver-border Frits have a distinctive white edging. Size wise, and color wise, it would be easy to mistake this rarity for a common Meadow Fritillary- but a thorough scan of the border tells the whole story.
We are looking at winged gold!

......................... Photo by Su Snyder
Silvery Crescentspot and Pearl Crescent
There are several other confusing species among these golden wings of summer. Also in the two-inch-and-under category is the deeper shaded Silvery Crescentspot (left). They are members of the brush-foots too, and are in the same genus as the Checkerspots. For quick identification, I look for several round open cells in the spots on the hind wing. This is when a careful study of the dorsal edge makes all the difference!

The smaller butterfly to the right is our gold standard of measurement, the Pearl Crescent. Stretching out at 1-1.5 inches, Ohio's most common butterfly feeds on asters as a larva, and nectars at flowers as an adult.

Get to know your Pearl Crescent well, and if something looks a little too big, or a bit too bright- you'll know it is time to call out the Border Patrol!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Butterflying with Bob

Some speakers/ writers weave magic with their words- and we were treated to one of the best this weekend. The butterfly world's most famous citizen dropped down in Black Swamp territory, and not unlike Santa Claus, he left behind a passel of warm feelings and goodwill.

Robert Michael Pyle, watched butterflies before we even had a term for it- Butterflying.

And for the past 40 odd years he has been helping others learn and enjoy these fascinating creatures. His greatest gift might well be his ability to connect with people. From the smallest child to the veteran "skipper and moth" groupies - Bob relates. We thought he would make a great politician, but he is just too dog-gone sincere.
It was a little cool and cloudy for our field trip, but once we found a Great Spangled Fritillary, Bob put it through the paces... and education and delight meld into one.

Bob talked skippers and conservation with Jan, one of the Kitty Todd Karner Blue monitors. Note he is using a Kaufman guide in this photo, although he wrote the first butterfly guide for Audubon! Each guide has it own merits- and I use both. Kaufman's side-by-side photos rock, while Pyle's has informative narrative on host plants!

Oh egg-heads gather round. Here are the serious B-fliers lapping up knowledge at a Bob Pyle puddle-party.

Bianca Davis, Greg Miller, Linda Romaine, and Darrick, soaking up some plant and butterfly facts from Ohio's own Jim Davidson.

So, my weekend was filled with friends, butterflies and plants as well. I will be spitting out a few of the adventures over the coming days. Until then, "thanks" to the Kaufmans and Black Swamp Bird Observatory for making this weekend possible!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fall Colors

Be sure to schedule a long walk this weekend and enjoy the cooler weather and the fall colors just beginning to show. Look for the Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquafolia leaves spiraling up tree trunks, forming columns of red as if to predict of what is yet to come.

This Eastern Comma butterfly already has "Autumn" written all over it.

Late season or "winter form" Commas will spend the Ohio winter in hibernation and will be one of the earliest butterflies seen in 2011. The fall brood of Commas are lighter in coloration on the hind wing, and the spots look nearly golden. Edges often appear to be trimmed in lavender on the fall form. Size is a good key to this species. Remember, Commas are smaller than the similar Question Marks, if the diagnostic comma shaped mark on the under wing cannot be seen.

A ditch full of Meadow Fritillaries hides an impostor amongst them. The Meadow Frits are evenly golden around the edges, while the Pearl Crescent (centered top of the photo) is slightly smaller and edged in black. Pearl Crescents are one of Ohio's most common butterfly- essentially the gold standard- or "Killdeer" of shorebirds. Get this species down and it is useful for comparing size and color with several other similar species.

New England Aster, one of the showiest of our fall blooming asters.

Fall is also a time for asters, the host plant for the Pearl Crescent. Woodlands and fields are starting boast of the many species of Asters: white, lavender, blues and the stunning purple flowers of the New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. Look closely at its leaves which wrap around, or clasp the stem of this wetland loving plant.


These beautiful fall days won't last for long, so breath deeply the cool night air and savor every color nature has to offer. It can't get much better than this.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bumbling Around

Yesterday was a spectacular example for perfection in fall days. Everybody seemed to be on task. The Grackles were migrating, the fall flowers were blooming and pollinators were working over-time to get the job done.

A roadside seep offered a generous display of Closed Bottle Gentians, Gentiana andrewsii. This is not a flower you'll see with 40 MPH botanizing- unlike the splashy Great Blue Lobelia. For this subdued little number, you'll have to get out of the car!

Closed Bottle Gentian is a wetland obligate; it is most often found by walking along a ditch, or small seep. Usually it well concealed by other foliage, but this unpretentious plant is worth a second look.

Its blue flowers are "closed" at the top, and hence the name of this species. There are other, showier members of the Gentian family, but this one cleverly protects its nectar and really puts it pollinators to work.

Notice how the flower is undulating and vibrating, due to the presence of a bumblebee. It takes one of these full sized native bees to "git-r-done."
Wimpy little European Honey bees need not apply.

Monday, September 13, 2010

In the Wetland Garden-

Last year I put in a new "wetland" garden.

Today I reaped the rewards.

A Giant Swallowtail, Ohio's biggest and brightest butterfly stopped by to nectar on my favorite plant- Great Blue Lobelia, Lobelia syphilitica. The Giants are regulars at our property, but I have never seen a butterfly nectar on Great Blue Lobelia before. What a wonderful discovery, and reward for the time and labor it took to dig out this sunken garden.

Great Blue Lobelia requires a good deal of moisture; it can occasionally be found growing in roadside ditches. Once thought to be a cure for syphilis, (good luck on that!) I suggest it is better put to use as butterfly bait.

What a wonderful day!

................. ....Whee! ............. (click on photo to enlarge)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Go Bucks!

People often get into a frenzy over their teams this time of year, and I feel the same way about mine.

The Common Buckeye is a southern butterfly that migrates north in favorable years. If their team's scouts arrive early enough in the summer, they will lay eggs and their offspring will infiltrate new territories, until fall's chill. This is strictly a warm weather warrior.

Photo by Jackie Riley
This year has been awesome for Buckeyes. In fact, we have had an absolute infestation of them. Look about the knee high grasses for these spiny-yet-attractive black, blue and orange (whoops, wrong colors there!) caterpillars on plantains or buckhorns. However, if you are a big fan of chem-lawn and strive to keep your "weeds" controled, you won't be seeing any of these fascinating critters.

Photo by Jackie Riley
Their caterpillar also enjoy feeding on plants related to snapdragons. These used to be considered part of the Scrophulariaceae, but genetic testing has proven they are more likely related to Plantaginaceae- the family which includes buckhorn and plantains.
That may be news to us, but I bet the Buckeyes knew all along!

Slender Foxglove, Agalinis tenuifolia
These lovely members of the Geradia (now called Agalinis) genus often host Buckeye caterpillars. One has to admire a butterfly with both good looks and excellent taste in flora.

Photo by Paula Harper
Occasionally, you'll find them perched on a flower head, but you can bet they will not be sharing it. Buckeyes are extremely pugnacious and generally protect their territory with a vengeance. More often you'll find them on open ground, darting about the gravel and dirt.
Man, beast or butterfly shall not enter their domain without a provoking a warning flight from the spotted one.
Photo by Paula Harper
Is it any wonder they named a football team after them?
Look closely at the spines on his legs. Are these to inflect damage to predators, or is there another purpose? Just like a true warrior- he will dispatch the enemy!
Behold the Buckeye: fearless insect fit for battle...
until the weather turns cold.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Miracle of the Flightless Butterfly

Malabar Farm State Park in Ashland County is producing amazing crops this year, not the least of which was this beautiful Variegated Fritillary.

This mid-sized Frit is an unusual find in mid-Ohio, not rare- but definitely considered icing-on-the-cake. Like all fritillary species, their primary host plant is probably violets but their "cats" also feed on Mayapples (Podophyllum peltata) and Moonseed (Menispernum sp.) Variegated Frits have an unusual squared-off appearance to their wings and more color contrast than their smaller cousins the Meadow Fritillaries or the bigger Great Spangled Fritillaries.

Ground zero for "Operation Variegated " is the Horsemen's Picnic area. Malabar has several areas where grass mowing is reduced in order to promote Wildlife Diversity, and the flourish of Variegated Frits found here (five in all) shows that reduced mowing works! This attractive shin-deep lawn of grasses and flowering forbs was alive with butterflies. And many of them appeared to be very freshly emerged!

Jim Davidson, my co-leader for an Ohio Division of Wildlife Diversity field trip points out what we later realized was a recently emerged butterfly. Veteran butterfliers and "newbies" alike stood in awe as we watched this nearly flightless butterfly.
We barely recognized this as a Variegated Frit! None of us had ever seen the underside of these quick flying, elusive butterflies. Soon we realized this youngster was in the process of drying its recently expanded wings. Once a butterflies emerges from its chrysalis it must fill its wings with "fluids" pumped from its engorged body. A close look at this photo confirms the butterfly's abdomen has not yet expelled all the excess liquids. This is an extremely fragile time for a butterfly, as it wings are not yet hardened and the swollen abdomen must also contribute to a lack of flight. What a wonderful process to witness in the wild!
This miracle of a flightless butterfly was brought to you by an un-mowed and chemical free lawn! Wildlife Diversity is a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Orange-ya Glad!

Do you remember the old joke...

"Knock-knock- "
"Who's there?"
And after repeating this three times the answer becomes-
"Orange you glad I didn't say apple?"

The Weedpicker took a well deserved break from the caterpillar farm today and struck out to Lorain with some "birdy" friends in search for a rare "orange" bird, the Cinnamon Teal.

Here we are, 15 or so avid birders looking for a Cinnamon Teal- without a trace of "cinnamon" on it. We found the little traveller, an Ohio rarity, but it was too far out for my camera's focus. And frankly, it pretty well blended in with the other brown and tan birds in fall-plumage. It was certainly not the showiest bird I have "chased" but it was a great deal of fun to find, none-the-less.

Can you find the Monarchs?
While wandering around the impoundment, I noticed Monarch butterflies (another shade of orange) streaming into a shallow area protected from the wind. They must have been drafting-off the north wind for their migration flight across Lake Erie. They gathered, nearly undetectable, in ever-growing groups resting from the flight on dried brush and "weeds".

Each time a new one came into land, a quick flash of wings signaled the location of the "flock". Now scroll back up to the previous photo to see if you can pick out those same closed butterflies on the stems.
THE MOST RECENT Audubon Magazine features a Kenn Kaufman review of R.M. Pyles' new book Mariposa Road (see the side bar photo in this blog) about a butterfly "Big Year." In the article he states, "..monarchs are honking big butterflies, tough and adaptable." And once you see these not-so-delicate creatures flying in from their Lake Erie crossing, you'll understand what he means!

And a Rufous Hummingbird (nearly orange in color) was our last stop of the day. This brilliantly plumed fellow has been visiting a hummingbird feeder near Kidron, Ohio for over a month. Normally a western bird, we are not sure why he is here, unless he just has a powerful urge for "Amish essen".
So, there was my day full of wonderfully "orange" things. Aren't you glad I shared them with you?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Life and Death in Macro

My Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar farm continues to thrive, and the excitement is never ending. My life resembles Alice in Wonderland. A world shrunk down to the macro level...

where even the smallest of the caterpillars, rarely noted with the naked eye, are larger than life.

They feed and grow at a precipitous rate. Shown here molting, or shedding its old skin, and crawling off in a new color and style. Isn't he a big boy now? Only one more instar to go!

Another few days or a week of munching, and they will be ready to go into winter "storage" as chrysalis.
Butterflies, and their larva, are highly dependant on the temperature and weather. Cool, cloudy days slow their metabolic processes and it may take up to 3 weeks or more to grow to maturity. Hot sunny days, like this summer, speed their growth rate. They mature more rapidly and therefore face fewer dangers. This year has been a fantastic butterfly weather- with exceptional numbers and varieties.

Not all of them make it. The smallest of the caterpillars was found dead at the bottom of the enclosure. Death is reality. Most eggs laid never make it to winged maturity; these small creatures are a major player in the food web of life. They are on the bottom.
Left on their own in the wild, they are subject to predation at every stage of life. Insects prey on the eggs and caterpillars, as well as the adult stage. Birds need caterpillars for protein, especially while feeding young. They also succumb to fungal diseases and a host of other maladies. I even suspect fratricide in crowded conditions. It is inevitable to have losses while rearing larva, the major reason I rarely take on a project of this sort. Butterflies face death at every stage in life, but I hate it when it happens on my watch.
As mere human, I have no powers to control life and death, but if I did, we would have more butterflies.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Caterpillars: Up Close

One of the most under appreciated features of a butterfly is their larval form. In fact, most people give very little thought to these miniature eating machines. Their youth is spent gorging away on a specific host plant, shedding 5-7 "instars" before they are ready for the big sleep.

Caterpillars: up close and personal!

The smallest of caterpillars are often quite different from the final instars. This petite .5 inch cat has raise bumps and much lighter coloring than his older sibling who is approaching 2 inchs long. While most butterfly larva are host plant specific, Eastern Black Swallowtail cats are unusual in their ability to use multiple host plants. Most of the plants associated with this species are not even native plants.

Parsley, Dill, Fennel and Queen-Ann's Lace are all non-native plants frequently used as hosts by this species. It has always boggled my mind. What did these butterflies feed upon before European settlers brought these plants to the new world? One guess is
Golden Alexanders, Zizia aurea, and since it is readily available in my yard, it is one of the test components of the "Butterfly Bouquet".

With any luck this will be the end product of our experiment: Eastern Black Swallowtail. If all goes well, we should be able to watch these caterpillars go though various instar changes, until they transform into chrysalis. Will those chrysalis hatch out yet this year? I do not know, nor do I know whether EBS past the winter as eggs, larva or chrysalis. I do know they cannot winter over as adults, but I am eager to learn more. Hope you are too!