EITs and the Butterfly

Sometime in the winter of 2002-2003 I was invited to a meeting of Iowa’s insect conservation enthusiasts at the home of Dennis Schlicht.   I remember the meeting well.  One topic that was discussed was the apparent disappearance of many of Iowa’s prairie obligate butterflies, including the Poweshiek skipper.  One thing that was not discussed, but which occupied my mind was an AP report about two civilians whose bodies were discovered in Afghanistan, who had been murdered and tortured while in the custody of the United States.

After the meeting, I was left with the feeling that I should do something about both problems.  Maybe a letter to the editor of the Des Moines Register?

But then President Bush was forced to respond to the results.  He ordered an investigation, and came out with a statement that of course the United States does not torture its detainees, and of course the United States does not torture people.

That was good.  I did not have to write a letter.

I downloaded a Congressional Report the other day…


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Is the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Accurately Tracking Fish Kills?

The Iowa Department of Natural Sources has a database of documented fish kills on its web site.  The database can be found here.  It has information about a number of documented fish kills, including conclusions about what killed them, going back to 1995.  I ran across the database the other day, and wondered if we were somehow doing better in now than in the past.  It looks like there are a lot fewer fish kills now than in the past.  1995 had 35 documented fish kills, 2011 had 25, and 2013 only had six.  Only one fish kill is recorded for 2014.

Are we doing better, or is the documentation worse?  Unfortunately, I am afraid the answer is that the documentation is worse.  I did a quick Google search and found a number of fish kills in 2014.  Maybe they are just slow recording them.

But fish kills that occurred in 2013 should all be documented by now.  Unfortunately, a quick search found a number of reports about fish kills, often referring to an IDNR source for the report, and these reports are not documented on the fish kill database.

Here are some links to reports about fish kills which occurred in 2013 and which do not seem to be documented in the current database.



and here.

Why is this important?  Well, these reports are used to evaluate water quality standards for Iowa, and false results give false evaluations.

Please get it right.

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What Killed the Turtles?

The USGS National Wildlife Health Center has a website that lists wildlife mortality reports.  If large numbers of animals die and are reported, they are documented here.

There is a report of a mortality event involving turtles–64 snapping, painted, and Blandings turtles were found dead between May 22 and May 26, 2014 at Dunbar Slough Wildlife Management Area in Greene County, Iowa.  The cause of death was listed as emaciation, which I believe means that they appeared to be in poor health prior to dying, but the exact cause of death is unknown.


So what caused this large number of turtles to die?  I can only speculate.  However, Dunbar Slough is surrounded by agricultural areas.  There are leased agricultural areas within the wildlife management area.

Modern agriculture uses very toxic pesticides.  In Iowa, we continue to use neonicotinoids that other nations and groups have banned.  Insecticides, herbicides, nematocides, and fungicides are routinely applied.  We don’t track what was applied or how much was applied.

I like turtles.  I don’t like to see them killed off.


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Might be Mites

Back near the end of October I had the occasion to split some firewood, and ran across some ants within one of the logs I split.


I am not an ant expert, but I think that the species is Camponotus pennsylvanicus, the eastern black carpenter ant.  The white things are larva being tended (on an emergency basis because I destroyed their home) by workers.


There were a number of winged individuals.  I am not sure whether they were males or females, but I think they were males–females seem to have a wider head.


Some individuals had some little red things on them.  They sort of look like mites, but I am not entirely sure that is what they are.  It is just that I can’t think of what else they could be.

I have seen mites on other insects, and they are not too uncommon, but I could not find anything on the internet about mites infesting carpenter ants.


I had several photos, but I was not able to find any clear enough to see legs or any other features to prove what they are.


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A Biodiversity “Big Year”

Birders have something they call a “Big Year.”  As I understand the concept, a birder sets a challenge to him or herself, to identify as many birds as they can within a particular geographical area within a year.  Sometimes they get competitive and a number of birders do the same geographical area (maybe the continental United States or a particular state) during the same year and compare notes.  Sometimes it is just an individual challenge.

Robert Michael Pyle extended to concept to butterflies in his book Mariposa Road.

Lately I have been thinking about doing something similar, but doing it around the theme of biological diversity.  Realistically, I know I won’t have the time to do it for at least two or three years.  Also, in order to keep the task fun and worth doing, I would have to put limits on it.  I would not set out to identify all organisms, but would have to select certain groups.  I would also combine photography with it–I would only count those I had an identify with a photograph.

Here are some thoughts and examples:5-25-140017

Lichens are photogenic, and I love taking pictures of them.  However, I have never been particularly good at identifying them.  I have keys I can do it with, but some of the keys involve cutting a piece of the lichen and dripping a chemical on the tissues.  I could do that, but the process sort of takes the fun out of it.


Mosses, liverworts, and hornworts are also very photogenic.  This is a hornwort, Phaeoceros lavis.  I think I have adequate keys, and can usually identify the plants from photographs.  The keys often require microscopic examination of structures, something which is difficult to do in the field and would require collecting a specimen.  I might be willing to go there, but once again, it takes away from the experience of doing it.


I love butterflies, and of course I would include butterflies like this mourning cloak , Nymphalis antiopa, in the group of creatures I would try to identify.  The problem with butterflies might be that are so much fun that they might steal time away from the other groups.



Terrestrial snails are a group I have a lot of fun with, but they also present some problems. This is a plains snaggletooth, Gastrocopta abbreviata.  One problem with snails is that they are difficult to identify from just one angle.  To identify this snail, you need photographs from several different angles.  Also, there is not a good field guide–there are a number of old field guides that one would need to refer to in order to key them out.  Still, this group might be worth the effort


Flies can be fun, also, but since there are so many, I might have to limit them to particular groups–bee flies or robber flies, for example.  This is a bee fly, Sparnopolius confusus.  This was identified on bugguide–one can find keys for certain groups, but there is a steep learning curve.  Would the exercise be valid if I relied on bugguide to identify the organisms?

This may end up being one of my pipe dreams that never happens.  But it is fun to consider.

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Unfinished Projects

I have a lot of unfinished projects–I work very hard on a particular project for a while, then I have a tendency to neglect that project while I occupy my mind with something else.

I have done some work with Iowa’s terrestrial snails, but it has been on the back burner lately.  This summer, I did get some photos that I like of a particular small snail, which I think is Vallonia parvula.


I haven’t started a project on earthworms yet, although the one in this photo is a pretty neat creature also.


Maybe I should try to finish one of my projects before I start another one.

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Three Habitats

This summer, I was able to attend a bioblitz at the Whiterock Conservancy near Coon Rapids, Iowa.

On one of the field trips we saw three types of habitat typical to Iowa.  We traveled through the first two to find my favorite.  On a hill, surrounded by farmland, we found a prairie remnant.


This was the focus of our visit.  The tallgrass prairie originally covered large areas of Iowa, and it was beautiful.  A patch this size would typically have had a few hundred species of plants, with a very rich fauna.  The tallgrass prairie was a habitat that probably resulted from management by man–the original people of the area would set wild fires that wiped out the forests that might otherwise grow there, given the amount of rain.  There may have also been vast wildfires from natural causes.


We passed through a corn field–this is an extensively managed monoculture.  There is corn (maize) and not much else.  After spending five (almost six) decades in Iowa, I can say that I remember a time when the corn in the fields was planted in wider rows, and that there were more weeds in the rows.  You are not likely to find a plant that is not maize in a cornfield now.


Around the edges of the fields were the grasses–areas that have been mowed, probably cultivated at one time or another, and in general have been heavily managed.  There might be a dozen or two species, mostly grasses but some flowering plants.

Iowa is probably 65% monoculture, either corn or soybeans.  Other agricultural uses would take another 20%.  Two percent is public land.  Prairies are maybe one tenth of one percent.


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Late Season Insects

October in Iowa is beautiful.  Just the time of year when you should be outside in the wet grass taking pictures.  But this year I have been tied up with other obligations.  I have been able to see the magnificent colors and some of the insect life, but not when I had time and a camera.

Yesterday I was able to sneak in a few minutes for myself.



This is a clouded sulfur, Colias philodice.


This small fly is Toxomerus marginatus. 

And the grass was still wet with dew when I took those pictures.  I love it.

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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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