Up Close

If you want to take good butterfly photos, sometimes you have to get really close.

Male pearl crescents and unidentified bees.


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Evening Clouds Through a Short Telephoto Lens

We had an intense thunderstorm tonight, and the clouds were something to see afterwards.  Take a look.

I used a 105 mm macro lens–essentially a short telephoto.  The sky was blue in places, but I concentrated mostly on the dark clouds. 

I did a little bit of lightening and increasing the contrast on these photos.  But I kind of like the dark feel to them.

The Microsoft picture manager software has an “auto-correct” function for this photo which I used.  I am not sure what it does, but I liked the results.  The original was much darker.

Sweet dreams.


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Hanging Out by the Swamp Milkweed

Big Creek State Park is an artificial lake in Polk County Iowa.  On the north side of the lake is a little used boat access–mostly used by people with canoes and kayaks.  The boat ramp is gravel mixed with mud, and the gravel stays sort of damp.  That makes it a great area for butterflies to visit and do mud-puddling activity.  In addition, there are a couple of small patches of swamp milkweed, which also attract butterflies and other pollinators.

Swamp milkweed is a beautiful flower, and it is hard to take a bad picture of an insect on it.  This is the common cabbage white.

In my experience, while swamp milkweed is attractive to butterflies, it is also attractive to some nice large wasps like this sand wasp, Bembix americana.

This common buckeye was more attracted to the damp gravel.

So was this Eastern tiger swallowtail.

But the milkweed brought in this dun skipper.

The only downside is the slight odor of the mud, which is now my perfume.  A little touch of algae, and maybe a little touch of carrion as well.

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Photos from Yesterday and Today

I was able to spend a few hours out in nature this weekend and pretty much enjoyed myself.

First I went to Marietta Sand Prairie in Marshall County, looking for butterflies.  I saw a few.  Nothing rare–meadow fritillaries, viceroy, orange sulfurs, summer azures.  My efforts to photograph them were stymied by deer flies, however.

Deer flies bite, but they are pretty slow about it.  Mostly they fly around my head and cause me to hit myself until I get a headache.  I did not get bit, but I did get chased out of a part of the prairie where I wanted to search.  While I hate the little pests they do have the most magnificent eyes.

I also was visited by a horse fly, here on my shoe.  Somehow I avoided getting bit by it as well.

In the sand blowout area I found this robberfly with a small bee as prey.

Today near the Des Moines River I found several small clumps of dogbane blooming.  From past experience I know this flower to be great at attracting all kinds of flower loving insects.  I was not disappointed.

There were a number of silver-spotted skippers visiting the flowers.  I liked this head-on view.

I spent a lot of time with this particular viceroy.  I got clear views of it but was a little hampered by the wind blowing the flower.


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Butterfly Forecast for Central Iowa–June, 2020

May gave us wet, cool weather following a late spring. We had a few warm days with a surprising number of butterflies, but most days had few on the wing. I expect that to change pretty soon as the season progresses and the days get longer. June is a great month for butterflies, and during the first week or so I will often see two or three first of the year butterflies each time I go out.
In addition to the great flights of new butterflies, June also brings blooms of flowers that are very good at attracting butterflies–milkweeds, dogbane, and purple coneflowers.
The silver-spotted skipper has several broods and can be found most of the summer. They can be pretty numerous in June. They are strong fliers and are easily recognized once you have seen them. They seem to me like little flying fireplugs, hopping around from flower to flower, often landing underneath the flower and extending the proboscis up to get the drink. Common checkered skipper, common sootywing, least skipper, tawny-edged skipper, and Peck’s skipper are all widespread and can be found most of the summer. Watch for any of them on milkweeds or dogbane, or along the edges of gravel roads and trails. Most butterflies engage in a behavior called “mudding” or “mud puddling”, in which they drink water from damp sand. It has been reported that ninety percent of the individuals mudding will be males, and that males do his to collect minerals that they pass along to the females during mating.
Skippers can be frustrating to identify at any time, but three that you might see in June can be especially difficult. Little glassywing, dun, and crossline skippers all can be seen now, sometimes together on the same plant. There are subtle differences, but you have to see the butterflies at the right angle in order to tell them apart.

The three most common swallowtails–black, giant, and eastern tiger, all have good numbers in June and can be seen all month long.  Zebra and pipevine swallowtails are mostly only found in the south east or south west corners of the state.

Cabbage whites along with clouded and orange sulfurs will soon become the most common butterflies to be seen.

The two most common gossamer-winged butterflies will be the summer azure and the eastern tailed-blue.  Both are quite small, but are likely to be present in large numbers.  You should not need to look too hard to find these.  Bronze copper, American copper, and gray copper are a little more difficult to find, but are quite beautiful when seen.  The gray copper is fairly large and can be found in good numbers in the habitats where it is found–moist prairies.  It does not seem to roam too much, so you won’t see it at all unless you are near those habitats.  Although most are pretty rare, hairstreaks can often be found by checking the blooms of milkweeds.  Butterfly milkweed and common milkweed are great for finding the hairstreaks.  The flowers have nectar that is highly attractive to the hairstreaks, but which also encourages them to stay on the flowers for an extended period of time.

Brushfoot butterflies also make quite a showing in June. Watch for silvery checkerspot in wooded areas (although they can be anywhere). Pearl crescents are quite common in more open areas. Gorgone checkerspots can be found in areas with good prairie.
Any place that has willow trees should be good for viceroys. Red spotted purples can usually be found near woodland areas. Great spangled fritillaries can be found in a variety of habitats and are often a backyard butterfly.
Anytime from late June to early July is a good time to look for regal fritillaries. You need to look at a good prairie to find them, and you might only see them from a distance. They can cover a lot of territory in a short period of time. They can be found in a number of prairies in central Iowa, including Doolittle, Liska-Stanek, Neal Smith Wildlife refuge, Rolling Thunder, Medora, and a bunch of others. If you have never been to a prairie in Iowa it is worth your time, but wear long pants, sturdy shoes, and check yourself for ticks afterword. Also, take plenty of water.
There are several butterflies that are gray or brown and mostly inconspicuously colored, and which spend most of their time on the ground or at least under the vegetation. These include the northern pearly-eye, the common wood nymph, and the little wood satyr. They have a tendency to fly down into the weeds when startled, making them difficult to view or to photograph. Still, they can be quite charming. The little wood satyr sort of jumps or twitches when mildly startled, as if getting ready to fly.
Of course, American ladies, painted ladies, and red admirals can become quite common during the early summer. If you are fortunate enough to have a yard you will almost certainly have red admirals. During the long days of summer red admirals will be very active just before sunset, basking on tree trunks, sidewalks, and patios. They will sit at a particular spot for a while, then race off in hot pursuit of another red admiral that gets too close. They provide a great form of entertainment that is not curtailed due to social distancing concerns.
Get out when you can and enjoy the butterflies.

Harlan Ratcliff

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On a Misty Day

When I moved into my house a little more than a year ago, there were some flowers planted alongside it.  Bleeding hearts!  One of my favorites.

They were getting ready to bloom this spring, then we got a late freeze and snow.  I wasn’t too optimistic that they would recover but they were starting to when we got another late freeze.

But they have bounced back and they look as robust as ever.

We’ve had a misty morning today and that makes great conditions to take photos of the flowers.

I took some photos which I liked, but I thought I would go back and try to take photos of the rain on the vegetation. 

After a lot of playing around and lots of bad shots I got this one that I kind of like:

Starting to feel a little less socially isolated…

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Getting outside

Yesterday I went to Elk Rock State Park in Marion County, IA to look for butterflies.  I only saw a few–three Henry’s elfins, an eastern comma, a cabbage white, and a red admiral.  Kind of slow, but we had a late snow event that wiped out a lot of the early ones.

It was nice to get out and smell the wild flowers and the forest and–well, there are some equestrian trails there.

I got lots of photos of a single butterfly.  This is one of the previously mentioned elfins.

Maybe not rare, but certainly rarely seen in Iowa.

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What you might have seen at Day of Insects…

Every year for over a decade Nathan Brockman, M.J. Hatfield, Anita Westphal, and a host of other people have worked really hard to put on an event at Reiman Gardens called Day of Insects.  It is a great event for folks like me who are interested in issues related to the conservation and biological diversity of insects.  This year it was cancelled due to COVID-19 response.  We were all terribly disappointed because I think everyone who goes to it (in recent years it has grown to over 100 participants) does it because it is so much fun.  It was scheduled to occur today.

I had been scheduled to give a talk on “Charismatic Flies.”  Conservationists talk about “charismatic megafauna” which are the large animals with some kind of widespread appeal because their beauty, size, ferocity, or symbolic value.

Insects like butterflies and dragonflies are often charismatic as well.  Flies are usually not considered to be charismatic, but I think that is just because we don’t look closely enough at them.

If you spend some time looking at the early spring wildflowers in Iowa, or the early butterflies, you will probably encounter this bee fly called Bombylius major.  Charismatic?  Look at that cute, furry creature.  How can it not be?

If you look closely on the leaves and stems of giant ragweed in July you might see these tiny flies displaying to each other or to whoever else happens upon them.  This is an obvious visual display, like you might see a peacock do.  This fly is Euaresta festiva.

On common ragweed you might find a fly in the same genus, E. bella.  Cockleburr has another similar species.

We have a lot of bee fly species here in Iowa, but most seem rare or at least are rarely seen.  This one is in the genus Villa.

This fly might be quite rare.  I have only seen it once, at Doolittle Prairie.  It is Myiomyrmica fenestrata.  A number of them were crawling along the stems of plants, looking for all the world like ants.  With their tiny wings I got the impression that they could not fly, and in fact I did not see them fly.  But I don’t know for sure that they can’t.

I don’t know what this tiny fly is.  Maybe a dance fly in the Empididae?  You don’t have to know what something is called to appreciate its beauty.

Mydas flies are large wasp mimics.  We have two species documented for Iowa.  This is Mydas clavatus.  When it flies it sounds like a large, angry wasp.

The eyes of this large robber fly, Promachus vertebratus, are a brilliant green.

Euthycera arcuata is found near water.  It is a parasite or parasitoid of aquatic snails in its larval form.

Sometimes it is not the adult that is charismatic, but the larva.  These larva of the dark-winged fungus gnats (Sclaridae) cluster together when they travel, and act like one organism.  They look like a large garden slug as they travel across a sidewalk.

The star of my little presentation was going to be the long-tail dance fly, Rhamphomyia longicauda.  This is a male.

When these flies mate, the male captures another insect as a nuptial gift.

This is a female.  The male, with his expensive meal, wants to impress the sexiest female out there.  That means one that is fat with eggs.  This skinny little gal might not be the one he chooses.

So she inflates her abdomen with air.  Now, with her artificially enhanced beauty, she is a highly desired female.

I have never been able to see or photograph the lek that these flies form.  I think it happens right around twilight when the flies are very difficult to see.  But there is a photo of it on bugguide.

To all the friends I missed seeing today–hang in there.  Sorry it didn’t happen.  Hopefully I will see you next year.

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Charismatic Flies that Didn’t Make the Cut

I have been going to an event called Day of Insects for several years now, and I just love it.  Some years I have participated as a speaker, and this year is one of those years.  I am talking about “Charismatic Flies.”  Those are flies that are unusual or attractive or have some other characteristic that sets them apart from  other living things.

I sorted through my photos and found some very good ones.  Here are a few that I also find to be charismatic, but that did not quite make the cut.

This is a deer fly in the Crysops genus.  I am not sure of the function of the spectacular eyes.

These crane flies, Gnophomyia tristissima, are mating.  See the yellow dots on each side of the lower fly, and on the right side of the upper?  Those are vestigial wings called “halteres”.  All flies have them.  When I saw these flies mating, the halteres were moving up and down slowly–maybe once per second, and since they are bright yellow they were a very visible, spectacular display.

This is a green long-legged fly, Condylostylus.  They are quite common in Iowa and we seem to have several species.

This is a syrphid fly, maybe Ocyptamus.  They might be found here in Iowa but they are not common.  I found this one in Alabama.

Another one from Alabama is this Diogmites robber fly.

This bee-like robber fly, Laperia sp. was photographed in Minnesota.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I find these creatures to be particularly attractive.

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Moss and Snow

The Ledges State Park, Boone, Ia.

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