Arthur’s Aquarium

I have written a number of entries that I call “The History of the Butterfly” on this blog, and on my other website.  Oarisma poweshiek, the Poweshiek skipper, is an endangered butterfly that was discovered in Grinnell, Iowa, and described by Henry W. Parker.  Henry was a published author and poet, and a professor at what was then called Iowa College (now called Grinnell College).  I have read many of the books and articles that Henry wrote.  Then I read a book written by his wife, Helen Fitch Parker.  It was quite obvious to me, after reading Rambles After Land Shells, that Helen was the true naturalist in the family.


One of the books that she wrote was known from only one copy, found in the Ohio State University Library.  I had contemplated driving the five hundred odd miles to get there, and look at it myself, and maybe even scan it.  But I don’t have to, because it is now available on Google Books.  I waited for this book with anticipation (I was aware that it was on the list of books for them to scan, because I had inquired with a librarian there regarding the possibility of me scanning it).

It is a short book, intended to be read to young children.  It exceeded my expectations. Here are my some of my thoughts about it.

First, Helen was a talented writer and naturalist.  Without having drawings or photographs, Helen is able to describe caddisflies, dragonfly nymphs, fish, and snails in a manner that is informative, technically accurate, and simple.

In this book and Rambles After Land Shells, she mentions Dr. Louis Agassiz.  I think she was a student of his.  In fact, I think she tried to sneak the description of a new-to-science terrestrial snail past him by using her future brother-in-law to do the dirty work.  Her reference to Dr. Agassiz in this book only reinforces my belief in my conspiracy theory.

She had what we would consider a racist comment about eating an alligator tail in a short passage.  I think it was just a common prejudice of the times.

In her final section about baby birds, she mentions the flight of swallows and passenger pigeons.  The first big population crash of the passenger pigeon happened about the same time this book was published.

She mentions a “dragonfly pupa”, and classifies the insect as a member of the neuroptera.  We would call the stage a nymph today, and classify them as odonata.  However, I think she used the correct terminology and classification for the time.

She also dealt with the subject of failure in an easy and natural way.  Arthur built an aquarium, but it leaked.  He learned from the experience and built one that did not leak.  Some of Arthur’s pets died from mistreatment, and some ate the others.  The whole experience was treated in a “learn from your mistakes” approach.

This book, like Rambles After Land Shells, was full of religious instruction.  We don’t teach natural history in churches anymore, nor is it taught in science classes like it should be. And that is a shame.

Helen Parker was a first rate naturalist.  She deserves to be remembered.


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Dragonfly Activity

Cherry-faced meadowhawks, Sympterum internum, were flying in tandem over the mud of a small drainage ditch yesterday.  There were four or five pairs in this small area and a couple of solitary males.


The same species is very common this year, and exhibiting similar behavior over the wet areas of my reconstructed prairie.

Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, by Dennis Paulson, states that they often drop eggs “persistently at one spot, and usually collecting in clusters.”


Today I went back, hoping to find the same activity, and possibly to photograph some eggs.  I found no pairs, and only a couple of solitary males.


I looked around in the mud, hoping to find some eggs.  I didn’t.  But then, I don’t really know what they would look like, either.

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My life has been full of stress lately.  My wife has been sick, and I have spent more time driving around on errands than I ever care to again.  The other day I had a few minutes, and I was able to lie down to get some rest.  But I was so mentally unsettled that I had to get up and walk around.  The only thing I could think to do was to take my camera outside and take some pictures.


Fortunately, the weather was perfect.


This harvestman is Leiobunum vittatum.


The situation has not changed, but somehow I feel better.



Photography is like music.  Sometimes just the act of doing it can give you great comfort.



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Why does the Monarch Hide its Eyes?

I have been taking photographs of butterflies for a long time, and I have some photos that I consider pretty good.  However, I have had a hard time getting photos that I really like of monarchs.  I think I figured out why, but that only posed another question.


Monarchs have a series of white spots on a black background that break up their profile, and hide their eyes.


My definition of a good butterfly photograph usually starts with the eyes being in focus.  Here the eye is in focus, but you don’t really notice it.


And another shot–the eye is clearly in focus, but not obvious to look at.

One would assume this is a defensive mechanism–a predator might attempt to strike the monarch and miss the eye and head.  But what predator? Monarchs are toxic to birds.  Most insect predators would be too small.  Maybe defense against lizards?  Lizards would not be a big issue here in the north, but might be further south.

I looked at my other butterfly photographs to see which ones have similar spots.  Soldiers and queens, the other milkweed butterflies, have spots that are similar.  Viceroys, red-spotted purples, white admirals, spicebush swallowtails, and black swallowtails all have white spots which might disrupt the coloration and hide the eye, but to a much lesser extent than the monarch.

Typically, brushfoot butterflies have an eye color that is the same as the ground color of the butterfly.  For example, the mourning cloak:


And the red admiral:



And the common buckeye:



The major exception I found was the little wood satyr, which has black eyes on a brown body.

Skippers and gossamer wing butterflies tend to have black eyes.

Here is a coral hairstreak:


The western pygmy-blue has blue-gray eyes, but they match the ground color of the butterfly:


Of course, some butterflies like hairstreaks have eyespots on their wings, which can divert predators (thought to be mainly jumping spiders) from their heads.

Why do monarchs and other milkweed butterflies hide their eyes?  What particular predator is this a defense against?  Let me know if you know.


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Late Season Butterflies

Monarchs are back!


They are showing up in pretty good numbers, also.  Concerns about the status of the monarch are well founded, but they are having a really good year this year.


The other late season butterflies are having a terrible year–probably knocked out by the very heavy rains we have had.  Last year there was not a monarch to be found.  This year, they outnumber the other butterflies at least ten to one.  But the other butterflies are few and far between.

I did find this battered and beaten great spangled fritillary.



I’m feeling a little battered and beaten myself lately.


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When to use flash, and when to not use flash

Butterfly photography requires a certain amount of stealth.  I use a single-focal length macro lens–105 mm, and slowly get as close to the butterfly as I can.  In bright sun, I use an aperture of f/16 and a shutter speed of 1/250 sec, at ASA 100.  Here is a photo I took of a pearl crescent with those settings.



Ideally you have the sun to your back.  But when you are stalking the butterflies, that does not always happen.  It can help to use a little fill flash–keeping it simple, I use the pop-up flash on my camera.  That changes the aperture to f/22 and the shutter speed to 1/200.  I always use the manual settings so I have complete control.

If I used more flash, or if the background were farther away, the background would go dark.  With this photo, that is not really an issue.


A little bit of flash really helps this photograph.

I found a pair of little yellows, mating while hanging upside-down under a leaf.  Here is what the photo looks like using the fill flash.


The photo is clear, you can easily see details of the scales and the eyes, and even little hairs on the leaves.


Without the flash you lose some of the sharpness and detail, but you get more of a sense that the butterflies are underneath the leaf.  In this instance, the natural light photo is much better.

At least, that is the way I see it.


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Blowing in the Wind

The biggest problem I had with taking this photo of a pearl crescent, Phyciodes theros, was the wind.  The wind moved the subject into and out of focus.  So I held the flower by the stem, and focused by moving the camera in and out.  I used a little bit of fill flash to get this shot.


But the wind helped a little bit, also.  Pearl crescents have a tendency to rest with their wings out horizontally, and the underside is more difficult to photograph.


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Here’s Looking at You, Kid

I ran across this fellow on our log pile.  This is a very small jumping spider–unidentified as of yet.



Taken with a macro lens and extension tubes–if you put it on a penny, it would not cover Lincoln’s head.

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Why They Call Them Brushfoot Butterflies

This is a male pearl crescent, Phyciodes tharos.


Butterflies are insects, and insects have six legs, right?  But this one only seems to have four.

Pearl crescents belong to a family of butterflies, Nymphalidae or nymphalids.  The group is also referred to as “brushfoot butterflies.”  The front pair of legs in this family is greatly reduced in size and the hairs remind some people of brushes.


The right leg can be seen just below the eye.


See it now?  Not much good for walking.

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The Other Color

A couple of days ago I posted a photograph of a female eastern tiger swallowtail.  I should have been a little more specific in my description–it was the yellow form.

Eastern tiger swallowtails have two different forms (or morphs) of females–one is yellow and black, as are all males of the species.  The other form is all black, like the one shown here.


It can look very black, or stripes can appear, depending on how the light hits it.

Scientists explain it in terms of mimicry.

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