Mud puddling

Butterflies, so goes the common wisdom, like flowers, so if you want to attract them you plant flowers that they will like. But butterfly enthusiasts point out that some butterflies prefer “mud puddling”: they are attracted to mud puddles, and like to hang out there.

Carol and I went for a walk in Purisima Creek Redwoods preserve. In places the trail was still damp and even muddy, and in one such place, on a boundary between chaparral and Douglas fir forest, I saw an Echo Blue fluttering along. The trail wasn’t exactly muddy, but I guess it was damp enough, for the insect would light every now and then, put its wings up, and bask.

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When I got too close, it unfolded its wings, revealing its attractive bright blue upper surfaces, and flew quickly away, staying close to the trail. I never once saw it go near a flower; so simple observation happened to disprove a stereotype generated by common wisdom. On the other hand, sometimes common wisdom is right. A little further down the trail, a Variable Checkerspot was energetically seeking out flowers.

Variable Checkerspot

Drama in the portable toilet

Several us went out to Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area on Saturday to look for birds. We did see some fabulous birds, but the highlight of the trip for me was seeing a Black Widow spider capturing a wasp of some kind, and wrap it in spider silk, and slowly kill it. This all took place inside one of the portable toilets, just below the urinal. Had anybody seen several of us standing around and looking in the door of a portable toilet for five or ten minutes, I suppose they would have thought us odd. But it was a riveting drama, well worth watching.

Emily, who was with us, has posted a series of photos showing the whole process; my favorite of this series of photos is here.

I spent a little time trying to track down what kind of wasp the Black Widow was preying on. The best I could do was to say with certainty that this insect was in the order Hymenoptera; with somewhat less certainty, I’m willing to say the insect was in family Vespidae. But is it a paper wasp, a hornet, or a yellowjacket? I have neither the patience nor the expertise to answer that question.

Monarchs

Ed, whom we met through Sacred Harp singing, is a docent at Natural Bridges State Park, where migrating Monarch butterflies spend several months in the winter. Months ago he had offered to show us the Monarchs, and today we took him up on his offer.

Many of the Monarchs roost near the visitor center, down in a hollow where Blue Gum Eucalyptus trees grow. We walked into the grove at 11:40; the sun was well down into the hollow, and the temperature was rising into the mid-50s F. I looked up, and saw dozens of Monarchs soaring about twenty feet above me. Many more were roosting in the trees, and in the ivy growing up the trees.

Monarch Butterflies roosting in ivy

Ed pointed out three large clusters of Monarchs, on three nearby Eucalyptus branches. He had a scope, which he focused on one of the clusters of Monarchs. The scope took in about half the cluster, and it was a spectacular sight: I counted well over a hundred butterflies roosting, all closely packed together. They were mostly showing the dull orange of the undersides of their wings, but every once in a while one would spread its wings, making a momentary spot of vivid bright orange.

Male and female Monarch

The park has a collection of dead Monarchs, and using two dead insects Ed showed us the difference in the wing patterns of the male and female Monarchs: males have a distinct black spot on each hindwing; females have heavier black veining on their wings.

Monarch caterpillar

Near the visitor’s center, there’s a small butterfly garden, with two different species of milkweed growing. The caterpillars of Monarch butterflies will eat only milkweed. Sure enough, there were two caterpillars feeding on one of the milkweed plants.

It was a pretty fabulous way to spend a morning.

Info about visiting Natural Bridges State Park and the Monarchs here.

“Nature, red in tooth and claw”

The old time Universalists were fond of saying that “God is love.” That statement may be true, but not in any sentimental sappy sense. Many years ago, Tennyson pointed out that he who might place trust in the belief that “God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law” needed to remember that “Nature, red in tooth and claw … shriek’d against his creed.”

On our walk today, Abs and I saw a butterfly that had lost much of its left hindwing, and a part of its left forewing. We speculated that perhaps a bird or other predator had attacked the butterfly, and somehow it had gotten away, and was still flying:

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Living things need to eat, and as often as not they eat other living things in order to stay alive. And this is true of you, too, O human being who think yourself an apex predator: there are plenty of microorganisms and parasites and biting insects who feed on you.

“Humble bee”

Abs and I went for a walk in Great Meadows in Concord, Mass. We spent some time looking at native pollinators, of which my favorite was a bumble bee (Bombus sp.) working the blossoms on Purple Loosestrife and goldenrod:

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It reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem about bumble bees, called “The Humble Bee.” When I got home I looked up the poem; it wasn’t as good as I had remembered, but I did like the fourth stanza, which captures something of the flavor of a warm July day in New England:

Hot midsummer’s petted crone,
Sweet to me thy drowsy tune,
Telling of countless sunny hours,
Long days, and solid banks of flowers,
Of gulfs of sweetness without bound
In Indian wildernesses found,
Of Syrian peace, immortal leisure,
Firmest cheer and bird-like pleasure….

Geneva, Ohio, to Rensselaer, N.Y.

Of course I awakened late. First of all, I hadn’t gotten into the motel room until 11:30 the previous night. Second of all, the time I awakened might seem late in the Eastern time zone but in the Pacific time zone I got up at six o’clock. When I finally got to Erie Bluffs State Park, it was half an hour before noon.

Erie Bluffs State Park, the largest undeveloped stretch of Lake Erie lake front in Pennsylvania, is mostly fields and woodlands. There is a boat launch, and there’s a tiny beach at the mouth of Elk Creek.

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But, as I say, it’s mostly fields and woodlands. I walked down through the woods to the shore. The trees were mostly maples and oaks, with some nut trees and sassafras — typical woodlands of the middle Appalachian region, and very similar to the woodlands I got used to growing up in eastern Massachusetts on the eastern edge of the hills of central New England. The woods felt familiar, more familiar than the town I grew up in which has been so altered by development and gentrification, and so many of the woodlands built up with very expensive houses, that it no longer feels like the town I once knew. But there were still surprises in the woodlands of Erie Bluffs. I came across a downed tree covered with some kind of insect I had never seen before, coming out of its larval stage to its adult stage.

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There wasn’t much to see at the shores of Lake Erie except people on personal watercraft bouncing over the chop raised by the northeast wind. I got tired of their buzzing, and the faint stench of two-cycle engine, and head back up the bluffs to the fields. The eastern fields at Erie Bluffs cultivated, with what I think was an annual rye grass, some kind of seed-bearing grass that probably provides good foraging for migrating birds. The western field is not cultivated, and it was filled with birds: Field Sparrows, Blackburnian Warblers, Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles, and many more birds took advantage of the ecotone, the edge zone between the woodlands biome and the field biome.

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Then, all too soon, it was time to go. I started driving east, and kept driving east.

After dark, I stopped at a rest area somewhere in upper New York state. By that time, there was little traffic on the highway, and few people in the rest area. Just one other person was waiting for coffee at Starbucks, and she and I got into a conversation with the two workers at Starbucks. I asked the workers if they got time and a half for the holiday, and they said they did. But, they said, no benefits. I told them I thought Starbucks had good benefits, but they said they were actually employed by the company that runs the rest area, a company which pays minimum wage, provides not benefits, and does not allow them to take tips. The other customer and I commiserated with them. She — the other customer — said she drove that stretch of highway regularly, because one of her children was involved with Circus Smirkus. We both said we love to drive, and we both agreed that the best time to drive was after dinner, after the crazy drivers got off the road. When I left, I told one of the workers that I wasn’t leaving a tip, because that wasn’t allowed, but it looks like I left some money on the counter by mistake so they better keep it.

Avoca, Iowa, to Joliet, Ill.

I was sleepy today, and had to stop twice in rest areas to take long naps. I tend to drive myself pretty hard at work, even when I’m on sabbatical, and I suspect my body is constantly putting out a little adrenalin to keep me moving fast. Now I’ve been away from work long enough that the adrenalin has stopped, and it makes me sleepy. Because of the naps, I got in late tonight, so this will be a short post.

In the middle of the day I stopped for a walk at the Kuehn Conservation Area in Dallas County, Iowa, three and a half miles along well-graded gravel roads from the interstate. A cold front had gone through last night, with thunder and lightning, and the day was cool and gray; the grass was wet, and the sky still threatened showers. There was not another car in the parking lot. I walked around the upland meadows, looking and listening to the birds, all from the eastern half of the continent — no more Chestnut-backed Chickadees, now there were Black-capped Chickadees; no more Scrub Jays, now there were Blue Jays; no more Western Bluebirds, but rather Eastern Bluebirds.

I walked down a wooded bluff into the Bear Creek valley. The rolling grasslands near the creek were damp and unbelievably green to an eye which has become accustomed to dry, drought-ridden California. You could see the humidity in the air, turning everything a faint blue.

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But what really captured my attention were the variety and number of butterflies. I must have seen ten different species (not that I could say what species they were, but they were so obviously different), and a great many individuals: flittering through the grass, basking on the mud or gravel, dodging in and out of the brush in the woods, sitting half hidden in the leaves.

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The rest of the drive was uneventful. I drove, it rained off and on, I stopped in Grinnell, Iowa, to find Chinese food and a bookstore, I drove some more, took another nap, it rained, and slowly it got dark. I knew when I was getting close to Chicagoland because there were more buildings, more cars, more people. I have now left behind the lightly settled western two-thirds of the United States, and entered the busy, crowded, bustling eastern third of the country.

Water striders

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This afternoon, I went walking up Purisima Creek Trail, off Higgins Canyon Road in Half Moon Bay. Purisima Creek flows down through a canyon in which grow Coastal Redwoods. It’s a perennial stream, but at this time of year the water is only a few inches deep. I was curious to see if I could find any organisms living in the creek.

The first organism I saw was a water strider, probably Aquarius remigis, Common Water Strider; in a half an hour of walking along the creek, I saw dozens of these water striders, in sizes ranging from tiny (I was barely able to see them) up to an inch or so long. They were mostly quite aware of my presence, and if I moved too quickly, or got too close to fast, they would skate away from me over the surface of the water. The only other organism I saw in the stream was a Banana Slug, which had somehow gotten to a rock in the middle of the stream; it was mostly out of the water.

But I didn’t see anything else living in the water. Most of the plants I saw grew on the steep banks at least half a foot from the water, and my guess is that the bottom of the stream bed gets well-scoured when water comes pouring down the creek after winter storms; any plants that manage to take root there in the summer get torn away in winter. Nor did I see any other insects, crustaceans, amphibians, or other animals living in the stream; though I suspect there are other animals in the stream. I did see several hatches of small insects dancing in a cloud a few feet above the stream; did they hatch from the water? do their nymph forms live in the water? I’ve seen California Newts (Taricha torosa) in this area; I would guess some of these newts breed in this stream, the largest stream in the vicinity, and that the tadpoles must therefore live in the stream for a time.

But today, the only organisms I saw in the stream were the water striders.

Photographing butterflies

I took a break from curriculum development on Tuesday and drove down to Pinnacles National Park. Of course I looked at the incredible rock formations for which the park is famous. But as spectacular as the scenery was, the highlight of the trip was watching butterflies in Bear Gulch. In particular, I spent about ten minutes watching one Western Tiger Swallowtail visiting larkspur blossoms. I took a great many photographs of this one butterfly, getting as close as I could. With a photograph, you can capture narrow slices of time: the position the butterfly’s wings take as it balances on a flower; the way it clings to the flower with its legs and arches its head towards a blossom; the moment when the butterfly is just approaching the flower:

Papilio rutulus

But sometimes what sticks in your memory is not what you actually saw, but the photographs of what you saw. After I left Pinnacles, I drove to Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. When I saw butterflies there, I made a point of trying to sketch them in my field notebook rather than just photograph them, like this common butterfly:

Vanessa atalanta

This sketch, as an end product, is not nearly as attractive as a photograph (and I did take a photograph of this insect as well) — it’s not as attractive, but I learned more about butterflies by making this sketch. By comparing my sketch to a field guide, by seeing what I left out, I learned what I don’t see when I look at butterflies. I suspect making less attractive sketches like this does more towards sharpening my powers of observation than does taking a great many very attractive photographs.

Ants

Recently, I stumbled across the AntWeb site, sponsored by the California Academy of Sciences. Once you create a login (and all you have to provide is a username and password, no other info), you have access to tons of photographs of ant specimens, taken through a powerful microscope. Of particular interest to me is the online field guide to California ants, with photos of nearly all of the 270 resident species. The curator of the California pages writes:

“Prominent California ants include seed-harvesting species in the genera Messor, Pheidole and Pogonomyrmex; honeypot ants in the genus Myrmecocystus; a diverse array of species in the genera Camponotus (“carpenter ants”) and Formica; native fire ants (Solenopsis spp.); velvety tree ants (Liometopum spp.); and the introduced Argentine ant (Linepithema humile). This last named species is particularly common in urban and suburban parts of California, where it establishes dense populations and eliminates most native species of ants.”

I’ve always thoughts ants were interesting creatures. Now having looked through dozens of photos of ants I will go further and say that they are beautiful creatures. Even the Argentine ant appears beautiful, in spite of the destruction it does to native arthropods.

I am also fascinated by the written descriptions; these descriptions have their own kind of beauty, which may be found in their economy and laconic precision. Here, for example, is how to identify the Argentine ant — remembering that you will need a powerful binocular microscope to see all these details:

Diagnosis among workers of introduced and commonly intercepted ants in the United States. Antenna 12-segmented. Antennal scape length less than 1.5x head length. Eyes medium to large (greater than 5 facets); do not break outline of head; placed distinctly below midline of face. Antennal sockets and posterior clypeal margin separated by a distance less than the minimum width of antennal scape. Anterior clypeal margin variously produced, but never with one median and two lateral rounded projections. Mandible lacking distinct basal angle. Profile of mesosomal dorsum with two distinct convexities. Dorsum of mesosoma lacking a deep and broad concavity; lacking erect hairs. Promesonotum separated from propodeum by metanotal groove. Propodeum with dorsal surface not distinctly shorter than posterior face; angular, with flat to weakly convex dorsal and posterior faces. Propodeum and petiolar node both lacking a pair of short teeth. Mesopleura and metapleural bulla covered with dense pubescence. Propodeal spiracle bordering posterior margin of propodeal profile. Waist 1-segmented. Petiole upright and not appearing flattened. Gaster armed with ventral slit. Erect hairs lacking from cephalic dorsum (above eye level), pronotum, and gastral tergites 1 and 2. Dull, not shining, and color uniformly light to dark brown. Measurements: head length (HL) 0.56–0.93 mm, head width (HW) 0.53–0.71 mm.”