In Awe of the Blue Morpho

Since I retired I started doing a little bit of volunteer work at Reiman Gardens in Ames, Iowa. I am a butterfly wing docent, which basically means I let people into and out of the butterfly wing, and prevent butterflies from escaping. It’s a fun thing to do. It gets me out of the house, and I interact with a lot of people, some of whom are old friends and some who I have just met. If I volunteer for a fairly quite time (in terms of the human visitors), sometimes I will be in the wing with only the butterflies for company. That is a good thing because I love taking photos of butterflies.

I have taken lots of photos of many different species. However, I have found one species to be particularly awesome and would like to talk about it here.

This is the common blue morpho, Morpho peleides. It is native to forests of Central and South America. It is quite large–larger than any of the butterflies native to Iowa. The wing span is listed as five to eight inches. If you visit the butterfly wing on a sunny day you will see them flying along the pathway. What you see is usually just flashes of blue–it is easy to lose track of them when they land.

The upper side of the wings are bright blue, and the shade of blue changes with the angle of the wings to the sun, so in flight they seem to flash.

When they land they close their wings almost immediately and seem to be a completely different butterfly.

I did a post a few years back about how butterflies hear with a small structure called the Vogel’s organ. This is a tympanic membrane–an “ear” located in the wings of the butterflies. One of the papers cited involved research with the blue morpho, and at the time I thought I might like to take some photos of this butterfly to locate the organ. I did not have access to the butterfly at the time, but I do now thanks to my volunteer position. This is what it looks like:

I added the red line to point it out. This organ is quite large and fairly easy to find on the blue morpho.

Something I have noticed about blue morphos that seems pretty amazing is their ability to land on and stick to clean glass surfaces. Of course, flies can do this, but you normally don’t think about butterflies doing it. This seems to be a fairly common behavior of blue morphos in the butterfly wing. I have seen a few other butterflies stick to the glass, but not for the length of time that the morphos do. When you think about an insect as big as a deck of cards sticking to a smooth glass surface it is pretty amazing.

Maybe they have to stick to leaves with waxy coatings in the forest. They can stick to the glass with no apparent effort for five or ten minutes (and probably more). It seems like an amazing ability.

I took some photos of the feet, and this was the best I got so far. Maybe I will try to take a photo from the other side of the glass to see if there is some special structure.

This butterfly is pretty special and I feel like I am just scratching the surface on it.

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I Break for Butterflies

Today I had an errand to run, but as I was going to my garage I saw a butterfly. So I went back into the house to get my camera, and took a few photos.

This is a red-spotted purple. It is not a rare butterfly, but it was a first-of-the-year for this species for me. Most years I would have seen them by July if not late June. For some reason I had not run in to it yet this year.

I have taken better pictures of the species, and this one is older and more faded than I usually see them. But I felt a strong obligation to get this photo, and I was glad that I did.

Some itches you just have to scratch.

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More Insects

Summer allows me to get out, sometimes for just a few minutes a day and sometimes for much longer. The critters that are out are not too rare, but can be quite spectacular never the less.

These cabbage white butterflies were mudding on the canoe access at Big Creek State Park.

The same location has a small patch of swamp milkweed which this monarch is visiting. For several years this location has produced spectacular blooms of this common wildflower. This year the flowers are much smaller and sparser than in the past, due to some combination of excessive vegetation management or early summer drought.

The Ledges State Park near Boone, Iowa has a sizable population of ebony jewelwing damselflies.

My back yard wildflower/weed patch continues to get better. Silver spotted skippers have been hanging around all summer, and they are quite entertaining.

This longhorn bee looks like Melissodes bimaculatus, but I can’t be sure.

Gorgone checkerspots are normally sort of rare, but they have been hanging around my back yard all summer. I have yet to find eggs or caterpillars on the black-eyed Susan plants, but I understand that they are a host plant.

Summer keeps sliding away…

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A Tiny Moth

Yesterday I found this tiny moth on the yarrow flowers in my back yard.

It seems to be a clearwing moth, possibly in the genus Carmenta. Moths in that genus are typically leaf miners. It seemed very wasp-like in flight.

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So I went to a BioBlitz…

The Nahant Marsh Education Center, in cooperation with a number of other organizations conducted a bioblitz last weekend in the Illiniwek Forest Preserve in Hampton, Illinois last weekend. The idea behind a bioblitz is that a bunch of people who have specialized knowledge in different groups of living things get together and try to identify as many species as possible within a limited period of time–usually 24 hours. Often it is open to the public as an educational opportunity.

So you have botanists mixing with dragonfly specialists, butterfliers, birders, fungi hunters, and a bunch of others all roaming through nature and making lists of what they see. Many are taking advantage of relatively new technology like iNaturalist.

I came armed with old technology–the 1939 Fieldbook of Illinois Land Snails by Frank Collins Baker. My contributions were meager–I identified one snail and two slugs, along with four butterflies (it was cloudy and rainy) and two damselflies. When I got home and downloaded my photos, I discovered that I had missed a snail.

The slug is Deroceras laeve, and is about an inch long. Just below the head of the slug is a full grown adult snail shell, probably containing the living animal. There are a number that it could be, maybe in the genus Gastrocopta. But I didn’t even see it until I downloaded the photo. It can’t really be identified without looking at other angles.

The event was quite a bit of fun, and I plan to attend similar events in the future as other groups host them. There is a learning curve to being a participant, and I think I can figure out ways to be better prepared to make a larger contribution.

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Another Day in the Prairie

I went to Medora Prairie this morning, and did what I do–wandered around with a camera trying to find butterflies. And I found some.

One of the first butterflies I saw was this coral hairstreak. It was a first-of-the year of this species for me, although coral hairstreaks are nearing the end of their annual flight period.

This was a gray hairstreak. Unlike the coral hairstreaks, these will be around all summer long–they have multiple generations each year.

Common wood nymphs were extremely abundant on the prairie, but they are difficult to photograph. They typically land on the ground and it is difficult to get an unobstructed view of them. The wood nymphs in the prairie look pretty much completely black in the bright sun.

This common wood nymph was in the poison ivy in the bushes along the trail. The lighter gray or brown wood nymphs can be found throughout Iowa but I seldom see them in the prairie. I wonder if there are two subspecies of these butterflies, but the sources I have do not seem to mention that as a possibility.

The star of the show is the regal fritillary. It can be frustrating to watch them fly by without landing, which they do a lot. Today I got lucky and had one land on some butterfly milkweed close by, then spent some time. I was able to get several close up shots of the same butterfly.

This is what the place looks like. There are several rolling hills with prairie plants. Sort of a magical place.

But it is pretty hot on the prairie. I brought a chair and sat in the shade for quite some time with a cool drink. The only sound of “civilization” I heard was a gas engine revving up off in the distance. It could have been a chain saw, but it sounded more like a weed-whacker to me.

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Chasing Butterflies

Lately I have filled some of my days with some butterfly chases. I get out the door fairly early (for a retiree) and drive to some natural area in search of butterflies. Last week I went to Marietta Sand Prairie State preserve in Marshall County, Iowa. I was looking for American Coppers and found them in some abundance there.

Even with the large number of them there they were difficult to photograph. They weren’t getting nectar from flowers. They were mostly perching on the low vegetation near the ground and dorsal basking. But they did not bask long–just a few seconds. By the time I would locate a butterfly and get close enough for a good photo it would be warm enough to fly off. So my attempts at photography did have some frustration.

I also checked out the common milkweed for skippers and hairstreaks. I only found one hairstreak–a banded hairstreak, and no skippers. But the banded hairstreak was very cooperative and posed for a number of photos for me.

Yesterday I visited a different location–Holst State Forest in Fraser, Iowa and saw banded hairstreaks in a different setting. Instead of sipping nectar on a flower they were chasing each other around. That behavior is next to impossible to photograph but is typical for hairstreaks. They perch, then when one flies by a chase ensues. They fly in tight circles that sort of take a spiral pattern.

Then they go back to their perches.

This behavior is obviously related to mating, but I think what I saw was males chasing other males rather than males chasing females. I am not sure, however.

I am completely enjoying this year’s butterfly season.

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I Roto-tilled my Lawn…

Last year I roto-tilled a small portion of my back yard and planted a mixture of native prairie seeds. Prairie plants are slow to establish, and I only started in May of last year, so I mostly had kind of a weedy-looking patch of uncut grasses, overgrown dandelions, birdfoot trefoil (which had already been in the lawn) and crown vetch (likewise). By the end of the summer I had some partridge pea and black-eyed Susan growing, but not much else as far as the natives are concerned.

This year I added some potted prairie plants. Until recently it had not looked like much. But in the last week or so, it is really starting to kick in. I now have purple cone flowers that are almost blooming, spiderwort that is blooming (it only blooms in the morning) black-eyed Susan, and butterfly milkweed. Others will come along soon, I am sure.

And, I have a good collection of pollinators and other bugs.

Today was the first time I have seen a banded hairstreak in my back yard.

And the first time for a gorgone checkerspot. That is normally considered a prairie obligate butterfly.

I also had this carder bee, pulling the hairs of of prairie sage. It uses this material in its nest.

You can see where it has been.

And of course, it gives me an opportunity to just play around with the camera. This is a pearl crescent butterfly.

My neighbors have been tolerant of what I am doing. Hopefully we can start to see some better results soon.

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Today in the Garden

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I Love Milkweed!

We have sixteen species of milkweed here in Iowa. Some are quite rare and are a special treat to find. Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca is not rare, and is found in a lot of our degraded habitats. It often grows in large clusters. Common milkweed is in full bloom right now. The flowers are pretty–found in round clusters coming off the stems of the plant. If you get close to them, and especially where a number of plants are concentrated you will detect an intoxicating sweet magical odor from the flowers.

Monarch butterflies use common milkweed as caterpillar host plants, so people often associate milkweeds with monarchs. But milkweed flowers are very attractive to all kinds of butterflies, and to pollinators of all kinds. A photographer who finds common milkweed near any kind of good habitat can have a field day taking closeup pictures.

On the left, hovering next to the flower is a snowberry clearwing moth. A milkweed longhorn beetle can be seen on the stem.

The two-spotted skipper (the tan butterfly with the white belly) is quite rare here, and was found at a state park in Warren County. The darker one is a dun skipper, I think, although there are at least two other species that are similar enough that it could be one of them.

This bee fly remained in flight the entire time I watched it, although it hovers so well that I could get several photographs.

I don’t see mourning cloaks all that often, and when I see them they are usually not on flowers. This was quite a treat.

For the next week or so you might find me wading in the tall weeds next to the milkweed. If you look close, you will probably also see a goofy grin on my face.

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