Chasing, Commas

It is sunny and windy today.  About a half-dozen eastern commas are visiting the fallen apples, along with a host of other insects.

Eastern commas cannot resist the juices of the fermenting apples.

When they find it they sit and drink.

When they are searching for it they stagger around like drunken sailors until they do find it.

They go all in for the task at hand.

Then they bask briefly in the sun.

Other butterflies seen recently include this sachem.

And this gray hairstreak, which I saw on my recent trip to Pennsylvania.

It seems ready for winter, bundled up with a hairy sweater.

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More Bug Watching

Thistles are spectacular for their ability to attract butterflies and other pollinators.  When the thistles are at their peak, they attract not only the largest, most beautiful butterflies, but also the smaller skippers and bees, wasps, and flies of all kinds.

The thistles are past their peak now though.  Two out of three have already started their transformation into wind-dispersed seed heads.  But the flowers that remain continue to attract pollinators.  With our recent irruption and migration of painted ladies I was noticing several thistle flowers that contained more than one butterfly and or bee.

I took several photos Saturday that had multiple pollinators.  When I looked at my photos, though, my attention was drawn to the ants under the flower.  I enlarged the picture and could see that there were aphids there as well.  So Sunday I went back to the same flower to photograph the ants and the aphids.

Aphids are polymorphic–they can have more than one form throughout the growing season.  They have incomplete metamorphosis–there is no pupal stage and the juveniles resemble the adults.  Some of these forms may end up as winged adults, and some may end up as wingless adults.  Still, I am not sure I understand completely what is going on here.  Some of the aphids may end up being transported to the ant nest for the winter–or not.  It does happen with some species, but I don’t know that it is happening here.

There does seem to be pretty good variation within the aphids.  I think they are all the same species (but I don’t know that for sure).

I find them interesting, although I don’t totally understand what is going on.

A whole world of partially understood interactions.


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A Pleasant Morning

I went to an Iowa Prairie Network event today, at the Lomp Lengeling Farms near Collins, Iowa.  Parts of the farm, including a small but diverse prairie remnant and some degraded savanna are being managed in order to aid the original biological diversity.

It was a fairly laid-back event, and I wandered around and took photos and might have even learned a few things.

It was cloudy and even a little rainy, but I saw this familiar bluet perched in the grass.

I am not sure which true bug this was, but I liked its weird looks.

Leatherwing beetles were pretty common, including this on on a great blue lobelia.

I found this striped blister beetle on a small patch of bare ground.

It is late in the year and butterfly numbers are down.  With the cloudy weather and sprinkles of rain it was surprising to see butterflies at all, although I did see several, including this eastern tailed-blue.

I never get tired of the spectacular colors of syrphid flies.

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When Butterfly Photography is Easy

Butterfly photography is often a challenge.  It can be difficult to get close enough to an individual to get a good shot.  If you scare it away, it will be a while before you get close to another one.

Not today, though.

We are in the middle of a massive irruption and migration of painted lady butterflies.  It is easy to get close to them, and if I happen to scare one off another one will land on the same flower or one nearby within less than a minute.

So I played around a little bit.  I tried to get unusual angles, and views of these butterflies that are not normally seen.

I used flash and a slow shutter speed, trying to get detail in the foreground with the butterfly, but still have a fairly bright background.

I tried some different things, and liked some of the results.

The butterflies could not have been more cooperative.

I haven’t had as much fun taking pictures as I had tonight.  Not for quite a while, anyway.

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A Big Painted Lady Migration

Here in Iowa we are having a big painted lady migration event.  The numbers we are seeing probably happen less than once a decade.  We do have a pretty good scientist that keeps track of such things–Dr. Royce Bitzer has a web site on the migration patterns of several Vanessa species.

I am seeing painted ladies all over the place–covering the flowers and resting in the grass.  Watch the sky and they can be seen flying by.

Often they are in competition for the same flower.

They visit about any flower they can find.  I counted 57 individuals in a little over half an hour today.  Most days this summer I have seen less than 10 butterflies of any species in about the same time.

The migration of painted ladies is probably not as well known as that of monarchs.  Most years we have far fewer than we have now.

Monarchs will be migrating through here soon.  Right now, though, they are overwhelmed by the painted ladies.

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Giants in Trees

West Oak Park in Mills County Iowa is a great place to observe butterflies.  It has a pretty diverse butterfly fauna, but one species really makes it special.  Giant Swallowtails, Papilia cresphontes can be found here in good numbers.

The butterfly is large–the largest butterfly in the United States.  It flies slowly and deliberately through the trees.  West Oak Park is a tall bluff of loess, with a somewhat degraded prairie on top.  The woodlands grow on the sides of the bluff, so when the giant swallowtails are flying in the tree canopies they are also at about eye level.

I saw one of the giant swallowtail caterpillars.  They are quite spectacular and colorful, also, in sort of a bird dropping way.

If you touch the back end of the caterpillar it will rear up its head and extrude these small appendages.  It has been suggested that they are some kind of odor producing glands (although I did not smell anything).  Another suggestion is that they mimic the forked tongue of a snake.

Maybe.  Interesting to see, at the least.

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Recent Activity.

As summer slips past some critters are at the peak of their activity.  I have been doing a lot of travelling, but have still been able to get a few photos in here and there.

I saw this eastern tailed-blue about a week ago at Waubonsie State Park in extreme southwestern Iowa.


I also saw this female zabulon skipper (above) and the orange sulfur (below) at the same park.


I went the other direction, and got a photo of a spicebush swallowtail in California, Pennsylvania.

This weekend I was back at home, and found this crane fly.

This small wasp, a Cerceris species was in the ditch alongside our property.

Finally, I saw this female eastern tiger swallowtail on some thistle in our back yard.

Eastern tiger swallowtails have two distinct morphs expressed by the females.  One has the normal bright yellow color with black markings.  The other one is dark black.  This particular individual was somewhere in between.

Summer is close to ending, and I will miss the photo opportunities when it is gone.

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Butterfly Faces

Sometimes when you get up close and personal with butterflies you see some things that are surprising.  Butterflies can be unusual creatures, but have you really taken a close look at them?

Check out the spots on the eyes of this great spangled fritillary.

Are those horns or tusks on this gray hairstreak?

No special structures on this eastern tiger swallowtail, but it seems to bring a special intensity to its activity.

Is this common sootywing styling with a long mustache?

What about the eyelashes on this fiery skipper?  Now they have to be fake.

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A Song for Linda

I like to compare photography to music.  It is something I do which gives me emotional release.  I like to produce a great photo, but what I really love is the process of taking that photo.

There are kindred spirits out there–people who do the same thing and get the same pleasure out of it.  Iowa has been lucky enough to have a pair of photographers, a husband and wife team of Robert and Linda Scarth, who seem to be able to find that same wavelength.

Their lovely website can be found here.

Linda died about a month ago from a rapid encounter with cancer.  Robert and the rest of his family had a celebration of her life at Wikiup Hill Nature Center near Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  I went a few hours early and wondered around the local natural areas.  I could feel the same music from nature that she felt (maybe it is more appropriate to say they because the two always were a team).  So here are some photos I took yesterday–I call them my song for Linda.

So if I faltered a little, I am sorry.  It is only through the tears.

Linda was such a lovely person and had a huge positive impact on most of the local natural groups.  So long, Linda.

Carry on Robert.  Sorry for your loss.  Sorry for our loss.


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The Dance of Life

Butterflies have a little dance they do prior to mating (or sometimes prior to not mating).  It often includes shimmering, shaking, and flying around in circling chases.  I saw two silver-spotted skippers in the dance this morning.

They started in the Monarda.  Silver spotted skippers almost have a buzz when they fly.  If one flies past your ear you will hear it.  But flopping around in the weeds there was a definite noise–not quite a buzz, but definitely a rustle.

They flew for a short distance–a foot or so–within the vegetation.  They rustled for a few seconds, then flew some more.

Then the flew into a tree, out of range of my camera.  A few seconds later I saw them fly higher, into a different tree where I lost sight of them.

Other creatures were doing their own life dance.  I witnessed several species of dragonfly flying low over the backwater at Saylorville Reservoir.

This is an eastern amberwing.

Tiny frogs, smaller than the nail of my pinky finger were hopping on the mud and resting on the weeds.  This is a cricket frog.

Blue vervain seemed strangely devoid of pollinators.  Then the sun popped out from behind a cloud and several butterflies, like this common buckeye showed up.

This male fiery skipper shows the flame-like markings that give the butterfly its common name.

Life dances on.  If you are lucky you can witness it.

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