Archive for the 'Butterfly' Category

Sparkles in the Grass

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Every third year there is an open day at the Big Sand Dunes Nature Preserve along the Mississippi River near Muscatine, Iowa. We look forward to this field day because it is a rare habitat protected by two large companies.

This year among the lovely species we photographed was a large population of American Copper butterflies (Lycaena phlaeas americana). They flitted through the prairie and over the sand dunes like sparkly orange and black sequins. Some writers describe what we called bright orange as “bright iridescent red”. The border of the forewing is also described as dark brown. Our cameras recorded them as almost black.

With wingspans of 1 to 1.3 inches (3-3.5 cm) are sometimes spread when perched. We watched for those who were sunning in the grass. Sometimes they fold their wings above their bodies and are camouflaged by the gray speckled appearance of the hind underwings. The light seemed to come through the forewing of the one just above.

Males, in particular, are active butterflies darting from their perches in hopes that the passing insects are females. Some of them stopped long enough to compose interesting images. They may be found all summer as there are multiple hatches into the fall.

Some writers think that the American Copper may have been introduced from Europe because females lay their eggs on plants that were introduced early in settlement. The American Copper is similar to a European species. It is a bit smaller than other North American Copper species.

Whatever its origins, it is a beautiful small butterfly that provides delight in home garden or prairie expanse. It certainly was a pleasure for all those attending the field day. Now we have to wait until 2018 for the next field day on this special habitat. The preserve changes over time and those who attend are eager to see the next chapter in its story.

Snout Butterfly

Monday, August 4th, 2014

Snout Butterfly

Linda spotted the Snout Butterfly (Libytheana carinenta) tasting the guard rail along the end of a boardwalk across a pond yesterday. It was working up and down where people like to lean to watch tadpoles, dragonflies and sometimes water snakes. She had just made two images when it flew over to land on her camera. It spent the next 25 minutes exploring and sucking in the salts while exploring the nooks and crannies of her camera, lens and tripod. We have encountered butterflies who stopped for a quick sip on a camera and then moved on. This one stayed.

Snout Butterfly

Bob had the pleasure of photographing it as it did what is called ‘puddling’ on the camera equipment rather than the ground or a puddle. It did fly down to the pond surface one time, landing on some algae to take a quick drink and return to the tasty tripod. In the top image it has its proboscis in a crevice in the metal that holds an external flash. In the bottom image the proboscis is in a crevice on the screw that tightens the lens foot clamp on the tripod head.

Snout Butterfly

Snout Butterflies are also called American Snouts or Common Snouts. They are members of a small group of butterflies that are mostly sub-tropical and tropical. Their snouts are palps extending from the front of their heads.  This allows them to look like leaves on short stems when their leaf-like wings are folded to camouflage in foliage. Their wing tops are quite colorful – orange, white, black and brown. The two palps are just visible on this image.

Butterflies with pale eyes, like the Snout, appear to have dark spots that face the viewer no matter what angle it is seen. These are called pseudopupils.  Butterflies have thousands of narrow photoreceptors, each with its lens. Those photoreceptors not pointed straight at the viewer reflect light and the ones directly facing are dark because they are absorbing light. There is a good article about butterfly eyes in the Winter 2000 issue of American Butterflies magazine. Snout Butterflies were among the examples used.

This specimen was not intimidated by us. Linda turned the tripod and the tripod head, as needed, to align the wings perpendicular to the 70-200mm lens and parallel with the sensor in Bob’s camera. It just rode around as if it was on a carnival ride, continuing to suck up what it craved. It is pleasant to have willing subjects.

Butterflies in the Grass

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

The Iowa Prairie Conference was this last weekend at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. The fieldtrips were an important part of this well run and productive meeting. Among the many things we saw and photographed on the prairies were several butterflies. We went to three hill prairies on steep sided bluffs and a valley wet prairie with three trout streams, as well as enjoying the prairies on the Luther campus.

Gorgone Checkerspot

This Gorgone Checkerspot (Chlosyne gorgone) was patrolling the ridgetop at the mile-long Solitaire Ridge, a hill prairie. It was worth the climb to get to see him. He would not sit for a sideview to verify his identification but a knowledgeable butterfly person was able to get downhill and look at the underside of his wings with binoculars. The Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis) is quite similar.

Solitaire Ridge

Many people (the light colored specks along the incline) made the trek up the steep bluff. We took a slightly easier route along an old road/track up the wooded flank of the bluff to the top of the ridge. The valley below and cliff crown along the ridgetop were spectacular sights and a reminder that the Midwest has rugged areas.

Summer Azures

At the trout stream prairie a friend spotted these two Eastern Tailed-blues (Everes comyntas) mating down in the grass.  They stayed long enough for us to get a couple of images after she had finished making hers. Because of the sun’s angle and some shadows we used an external flash with a Rogue flashbender to direct a bit of fill light into the scene.

After the conference we made a stop at a nearby wildlife management area tucked in the hills where Baltimore Checkerspots had been found the week before. Years ago we had photographed some Baltimore Checkerspot larva while on an Iowa Native Plant Society fieldtrip at the same spot. We only found two adults: a dead one and a this tattered but very much alive one nectaring on Swamp Milkweed.  Another reminder that important species may be short lived but still have important niches to fill in a healthy ecosystem.

Baltimore Checkerspot

Prairies are determined by what lives there – plants and animals. Some are flat, some are rolling and some seem to go straight up when the soil and conditions are right to support the species that make a prairie.


Day of Insects 2013

Sunday, April 7th, 2013

Yesterday we attended the 5th Annual Day of Insects at Reiman Gardens in Ames, IA. This yearly gathering of bug enthusiasts, researchers and naturalists is one of short topical presentations, long breaks for visiting and a bit of time to enjoy the Butterfly Wing and indoor gardens.

With only a small point and press camera in a pocket and little time to wait for the perfect butterfly, we did not photograph much. These sat still several times.  Both are longwings. The one above is probably a Doris Longwing (Heleconius doris). They are long lived for a butterfly so are popular in tropical butterfly exhibits. Longwings are found in Central and South America.

This one is probably a Sara Longwing (Heliconius sara). Longwing butterfly species have many similar wing patterns and colors.

The 15 presentations were as diverse as nature itself. From tiny parasites on wasps to government regulations on agricultural pests, the discovery of an Ozark dragonfly species  on a northern Iowa river to changing fire management strategies, citizen scientists monitoring water insects to assess streams to observing the lives and companions of digger bees under a porch, there was much to learn. We also enjoyed the insights and images of several photographers.

The most important concept presented was the idea that climate change is a meta-disturbance. As weather patterns change the disturbances are greater and more complex than often realized. The disturbance becomes a long term environmental influence rather than a passing event.

Flying Colors

Friday, April 27th, 2012

We mentioned butterflies in yesterday’s post. As well as the Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta) which have been very abundant this year, the preserve we visited was well supplied with American Coppers (Lycaena phlaeas) and a few Juniper Hairstreaks (Callophrys grneus) among the species flitting over the yellow flowers.

The American Coppers (above) were very bright. The top of their wings is described as brown with copper trim in most guide books. We saw some whose brown was almost black. The contrast against yellow flowers where they were nectaring was striking. The native American Coppers live in the far north and alpine tundra. The ancesters of the ones we see in the Midwest are thought to have immigrated in hay brought from Europe in colonial times. They like sandy dry areas like this preserve.

We saw a few Juniper Hairstreaks (another inhabitant of dry sandy areas) like this somewhat worn individual. The remaining green scales were on the wings’ underside was irridescent. The jagged white line edged in brown is another identifier. The green scales are said to be camouflage when they perch in red cedar trees, the larval food. When several Juniper Hairstreaks meet they often engage in the spiral flight similar to Red Admirals. These minature tornado swirls of color happen and cease within a few seconds.

Spring flowers and some insects came early this year. It is a wonderful time to see the color.

Expecting the Unexpected

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

Checkered Skipper

October brings the expected (Common Checkered-skippers) and the unexpected (a freshly hatched Monarch Butterfly). And then there is the in-between. We have had several immature Ruby-throated Hummingbirds gleaning the late blooming flowers and lapping up the contents of the hummingbird feeder.

Common Checkered-skippers (Pyrgus communis) are described as black and white in the field guides. This one is definately a chestnut brown and white with a gray furcoat on its thorax. It is probably a male because of the amount of white. Females are darker. The Butterflies of Iowa book by Schlict, Downey and Nekola states that flights can occur from late June to the first of October.  This one was photographed yesterday feeding on tiny white asters, just as might be expected. It is probably one of the last of the brood as they do not overwinter in Iowa but will migrate in successive generations come late next Spring.

Monarch Butterfly female

The unexpected is to find a freshly hatched female Monarch Butterfly resting in the flowers beside the house. We could not find her chrysalis in the dense vegetation. She was just finishing pumping up her wings and slowly exercised them in preparation for her long jouney. The forewings are translucent allowing a glimpse of the patterns on the hind wings. October 2 is very late for newly hatched Monarchs. The vangard of those that migrate to the mountains of central Mexico will be arriving by the end of the month in time for The Day of the Dead. They left some time ago and are dealing with the drought in Texas as they make their way South.

Then there is the in-between, not really expected but possible. Immature Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are said to be the last to migrate. We thought all had travelled through when several days ago we received a new visitor.

The tiny hummingbird looked like a shimmery green jewel as she sat with her back to the kitchen window while drinking her fill just at dark tonight.  She would check left and right around the feeder to see if there were any invaders. She has not minded us observing from the kitchen, though she sometimes checks our direction as well. We have seen her beak powdered with pollen when she flew to the feeder. She is eating and drinking for the long trip ahead.

As Autumn settles in, we are already looking forward to their return next Spring.

Banded Hairstreak Observations

Friday, July 8th, 2011

Banded Hairstreak

The Banded Hairstreak (Satyrium calanus) that visited the Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) along the south side of our home was interesting partly because it was missing the club tip on one of its antenna. It was a very pretty butterfly even without one antannae knob.

Antenna are important sensory organs for butterflies, moths and all insects. They detect pheromones which guide individuals to potential mates. The sensors along the antenna also help butterflies locate nectar and other food stuffs. Male butterflies seek and collect minerals necessary for successful mating using their antenna. Females use the sensory information detected by their antenna to select places to lay their eggs.

We wonder at what disadvantage this one was at because it was missing one club. Hairstreaks have fairly large club tips, so they must be important. This one had found our garden and was certainly busy collecting nectar.

As it fed, it rubbed its wings back and forth in typical hairstreak fashion. It looks like someone rubbing his hands in pleasure or anticipation.

Banded Hairstreak tails

The tail end of hairstreaks are also interesting.  The orange ocelli or eyespots and the false antenna (little tails) are meant to confuse predators and protect the head by attracting them to the tail end. This diversion is enhanced by the characteristic wing rubbing. The lines and stripes also contribute to the appearance of legs and a body facing toward the tails. When one sees a bird struck butterfly missing part of a hind wing, the diversion worked.

The origin of the name hairstreak is thought to be reference to the lines and streaks on the hindwings, or because of the hair-like tails. On this one there are also many hair-like cells visible visible near the tails. Close-up photography reveals information and the beauty of small butterflies that are hard to see while they are flitting about their business.

Making an Entrance

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Monarch - Ready to Hatch

By last night the Monarch butterfly inside the chrysalis had darkened with the wing spots visible through the now crystalline case. We hoped it would wait until morning to hatch, but insects live by their own time schedule and this morning we found her still inflating her wings and discarding the extra fluid.

Monarch Butterfly

As she was still inflating, she would sometimes quiver to pump the fluid to her wings. The slow shutter speed and flash allowed the quiver to show in this next somewhat impressionistic image.

Impressionistic Monarch

The ambient light captured the quiver while the flash ‘sharpened’ one brief moment in the action. The wing movement was almost stopped.

Because we encourage photographers to capture as many subject positions as appeal, we are inclined to photograph front, side, back, etc. The following image from the back as she hung, still touching the chrysalis with one leg, looks as if she is doing chin-ups in an elegant evening gown with dancing slippers peeking below the hem.


When she was ready to leave she flew to cling to the sheer curtain on the closest, brightest window. We took her outside and placed her on a butterfly milkweed, where she stayed a few minutes and then ventured into the world.

Monarch Caterpillar Chrysalizing

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Monarch Butterfly caterpillar

The Black Swallowtail caterpillar in the earlier post did not survive the process of pupating. It began to shed its skin while hanging from its silken sling and died sometime during the night two days after that post.

However, we saw something this morning that we had not observed before. We got to watch the caterpillar become a chrysalis. We have raised many Monarch caterpillars but had not been around during the actual transformation. It was a fascinating writhing dance while the caterpillar hung glued to the underside vein of a common milkweed leaf.

Monarch Butterfly caterpillarMonarch Butterfly caterpillar

The small Monarch Butterfly caterpillar that we found on June 11 grew rapidly over the week. It shed several times and we saw it eat the skin one of those times.  After its shed it rested for some time and then devoured the skin. There is valuable protein there. The right hand image shows it licking up the last crumbs.

Monarch Butterfly caterpillarMonarch caterpillar chrysalizing

Last night suspended itself in the J position from a leaf that. The leaf flopped against the stem so we removed the leaf and attached it by its tip to the end of one of the sticks that we had near the caterpillar. It chose a leaf rather than a stick for pupating. Usually they will choose a stick. However, several years ago we had an escapee who attached itself to a window sill and hatched to cling to the sheer curtain.

This morning we noticed its head was moving around while the rest was quite still. After breakfast we came to back to see its skin was already pushed up and it was writhing and twisting vigorously. Our lighting was not set up for this occurrence and fill flash did not work. The motion is visible in the right-hand image in the above pair.

Monarch caterpillar chrysalizingMonarch caterpillar chrysalizing

So we had to go to full flash to capture the activity. We rarely use full flash for close-up work but we so surprised and pleased to see the event that we made over 100 flash images of the contortions over 25 minutes. We will experiment with turning those images into a time-lapse sequence. We continued to make occasional images as the morning and the magical transformation progressed. These images show some of the process.

Monarch caterpillar chrysalizingMonarch Caterpillar Chrysalis

It is now after lunch and the chrysalis is now quite well formed. Now we have to wait about 10-14 days for the butterfly to emerge.

Here and Now

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Black Swallowtail caterpillar

One of our guiding principles is that the best place is here and the best time in now. Last night we had the privilege of sharing our approach to photographing small subjects with members of the Quad Cities Photography Club. We called our seminar “Up Close and Personal” because we think photography is a personal, expressive art. It is also one of using what is close at hand to create beautiful images.

And to make those points, a lovely Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) caterpillar came walking up our driveway yesterday morning. It was invited in, provided with a bouquet of tree branches and made comfortable. Caterpillars often wander far from their food plants when looking for a place to pupate. We are not sure where it came from because there are no members of the carrot family close by. It must have been feeding on other plants, though Black Swallowtails are said to prefer carrots, dill, Queen Anne’s lace, etc.

The caterpillar explored the branches for several hours, then selected its spot. When we got home from the seminar, it had spun a fine line to lean against as it attached to the branch. This morning it is getting quieter and starting to change shape. We will attempt to photograph the series of its preparations to pupate. The above image is from its early explorations.

We noticed the caterpillar while fitting a new kayak rack to the van and quickly set up an impromptu tabletop photo studio in the kitchen rather than go upstairs to our little tabletop photo room. The vase with branches was on the corner of the workbench. The out-of-focus vegetation image for background was hung on a cupboard door and the tripod claimed much of the floor in our small kitchen. This way we could easily check on what the caterpillar was doing while continuing to get the van ready for the kayaks.

Our major thesis to the group last night was that interesting and lovely images can be made anytime and anywhere. Just look and you will find. Sometimes the subjects find the photographers.