Thursday, May 10, 2018

Any Questions?

After my presentation to the Austin Butterfly Forum last month, I opened the floor to questions from the membership. Three questions stood out, and I would like to share them here, along with perhaps more refined answers than I gave at the time. Meanwhile, I am always happy to entertain questions from my readers. Ask away!

© Mike Quinn

Q: You mentioned finding all these species new to your area. How do you figure that out, and how do you decide whether to make that public?
Answer: I do not always know whether I have something significant or worthy of reporting, but I like to err on the side of a possible new discovery. Making an observation public helps in the verification process because more eyes, and often better-informed individuals, are looking at it. If someone shames you for posting a "common" species that you identified as something more rare, then that is on them, not you. If you are not posting [to iNaturalist or for example], then you are not contributing to our collective knowledge. Everyone makes mistakes, and if you are not, then you are not learning, as well as not contributing. There is always a risk of looking stupid, but it is never wrong to put something out there (I then shared my own misidentification of a Mexican Silverspot butterfly that turned out to be much more exciting and significant than posting what I thought at the time was "merely" a Gulf Fritillary). While I normally have a better-than-average idea of what is supposed to occur where, I am as vulnerable as the next person to making mistakes or incorrect assumptions. It bruises your ego for a bit, but everyone is more informed in the long run.

Alpine butterflies are feeling the heat of global warming

Q: Have you noticed a decline in insect populations, and if so what do you attribute that to? Do you think global warming is having an impact?
Answer: Where I live we see great fluctuations in insect abundance and diversity from one year to the next, usually related to the amount of precipitation we receive, or lack thereof. The extreme swings of the weather pendulum seem to be something rather new, and would tend to lend credence to the idea that climate change is a real phenomenon. We are seeing more southerly species appearing in Colorado that we have not seen previously, or not as frequently. There have been scientific studies that show pretty conclusively that alpine species are dwindling in numbers as their high elevation habitat becomes too hot and inhospitable. I think there is no question that global warming is having an impact. Those whose occupations are in the fossil fuel industry may have another opinion.

Who you discover things with is at least as important as what you discover
© Mike Quinn

Q: What would you say is the most exciting place you have ever lived, or traveled to, for insects?
Answer: That is a something of an unfair question [I was addressing folks in Austin, Texas and thought maybe that location was the answer he was looking for], but....I'm not sure that I can point to a particular geographic place. I think for me it is a matter of specific experiences, isolated encounters with animals that leave the most vivid impressions and that I can recall most intensely. It is not always an insect that figures into the picture, either. A couple days ago when we were at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory and we came across a coral snake, very suddenly, right in the middle of the road. Before we traveled here I had contemplated what kinds of potentially dangerous creatures we might stumble upon, and a coral snake was not even on my radar. I don't see snakes very often, anywhere, let alone one so colorful and venomous. That got my adrenaline pumping, and I will not soon forget the experience. The short answer is that I can find wonderful creatures anywhere, from my backyard to a southern swamp. Yes, some places may be more exotic than others, but they are all what you make of them.

Please feel free to share your own questions in comments and I will periodically make a blog post to answer them.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Fun With Austin Butterfly Forum

It was my honor to be invited to give a presentation and participate in "bug walks" with the Austin Butterfly Forum in Texas from April 22-24. Special thanks to Mike Quinn for extending the invitation, and to Dan and Linda Hardy for hosting Heidi and myself at their lovely home. We were fortunate to have agreeable weather there, though we left Colorado Springs with snow on the ground and returned to more flurries.

Austin Butterfly Forum members by a pond at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

The turnout for all of the scheduled events was impressive considering that we were looking for insects rather than birds. The Sunday outing included people who drove from as far as Houston to spend about half a day with us. The Monday evening meeting, held at the Zilker Botanical Garden, was likewise well attended, and select ABF members furnished refreshments. You do not go hungry or without entertainment in Austin, at least if the ABF has anything to say about it. Let us start from the beginning, though.

Duskywing skipper caterpillar in leaf "sandwich"

Heidi and I arrived early afternoon on April 21, and Mike Quinn whisked us off for some vittles at Threadgill's, an Austin landmark packed with music memorabilia of rock and country genres. The weather was humid with intermittent drizzle, but we went to visit the Zilker Botanical Garden anyway. This lush park is full of all manner of native and exotic plants, landscaped in a manner that was bird- and bug-friendly. We found several caterpillars, true bugs, beetles, and butterflies despite the overcast skies.

She's in there....tarantula burrow

We then went next door to the Austin Nature and Science Center and the Zilker Nature Preserve behind it. We quickly spotted a Diamondback Watersnake digesting a recent meal on an island in a small pond. One of the naturalists who was leaving for the day described a vireo nest in the preserve, and sure enough we were able to locate that, too, but not before finding a tarantula in her silk-lined lair. The vireo nest looked like it was holding a recently-hatched Brown-headed Cowbird, much to our disappointment.

Yellow-crowned Night-heron along Colorado River

By now we were killing time until the famous bat flight from beneath the Congress Avenue bridge in downtown Austin. Walking along the river we found a few more birds, including a Yellow-crowned Night-heron stalking the shady shore. After a quick bite at Freebirds World Burrito, we were ready to witness the spectacle of over 500,000 Brazilian Free-tailed Bats exiting their haunts from beneath the bridge. We were not disappointed.

Bats exiting from under the bridge. © Mike Quinn

About twenty minutes after sunset, they started streaming from the southern end of the bridge, followed eventually by others farther north. Please go see it for yourself, from both the bridge and from a boat or kayak. There are even commercial boat cruises specifically for this purpose.

Something has our attention at Brackenridge Field Laboratory
© Mike Quinn

Sunday morning we convened with other members of Austin Butterfly Forum at Brackenridge Field Laboratory. Several buildings, greenhouses, and uncovered water tanks occupy the property, but there are also acres of undeveloped property that we prowled for insects. The most startling and exciting organism we encountered was a coral snake, right on a paved path.

Coral snake at Brackenridge Field Lab

After a pizza lunch delivery, we toured the insect collection, a sizeable holding of preserved specimens. They had just received a donation of butterfly and moth specimens that have yet to be integrated into the larger collection. Lastly, we looked in on a greenhouse containing live tropical longwing butterflies (Heliconius and related genera). It was much like the commercial butterfly houses one pays to visit, but with a scientific purpose to analyze genetic lineages in these insects. Some specimens were easily recognizable as a particular species, but others were obvious hybrids.

Captive Heliconius sp. at Brackenridge Field Lab

After lunch, Heidi and I retired to our host's home, where I explored a greenbelt ravine behind their property. The "hill country" is crossed by streams that erode the limestone rock that gives the landscape its topography. Live oak is the dominant tree, but there is a good diversity of vegetation. It is a distinctly arid habitat, but southerly enough in latitude to get animals like anole lizards and, unfortunately, fire ants.

Anole lizard

Monday morning found us strolling along the Barton Creek Greenbelt Trail, west from the Barton Springs Municipal Pool, a popular swimming hole. There were plenty of butterflies and other insects to be seen, including the ever-present Southern Dogface, Pipevine Swallowtail, and Gulf Fritillary. We did manage a splendid White-striped Longtail skipper, which was only the second specimen I'd ever seen.

White-striped Longtail skipper at Barton Creek

We were eventually able to access the nearly dry creekbed, where Heidi spied a local rarity: a Filigree Skimmer dragonfly.

Filigree Skimmer along Barton Creek

There were a handful of other dragonflies, and many damselflies, too. Heidi also pointed out a couple of Six-spotted Fishing Spiders waiting in ambush at the edge of one of the puddles now making up Barton Creek.

Six-spotted Fishing Spider on Barton Creek

The riparian trees are full of birds, and we got to see a White-eyed Vireo collecting spider silk to line its nest. Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, and Great-tailed Grackles were among the most obvious birds here and within Austin as a whole, at least during our brief visit.

White-eyed Vireo along Barton Creek Greenbelt Trail

Between lunch and dinner I did a bit of exploring in Dan and Linda Hardy's backyard, which is mostly wild, native vegetation and the occasional deliberately installed plant, like "Antelope Horns," a type of milkweed. As luck would have it, it was in partial bloom, and crowded with three Gray Hairstreak butterflies and one gorgeous green Juniper Hairstreak.

Juniper Hairstreak with Gray Hairstreak behind it

A Springtime Darner dragonfly eluded my attempts to get its picture, and the large, red paper wasps were almost equally good at hiding as they hunted for other insects. I was, however, able to repay our host's hospitality, at least in part, by recording the first Banded Hairstreak butterfly in his yard. I hope he has since been able to find one for himself.

Banded Hairstreak

My after dinner presentation "Beyond Birds: the Joys of Bugwatching" was apparently well received, and afterwards I signed copies of the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America for several appreciative folks.

Wait, there's more....

Enjoying Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
© Mike Quinn

Tuesday morning found us at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, an epic tribute to Texas flora on 284 acres. There is an ongoing invertebrate survey that has, to date, recorded 93 species of butterflies alone at the site. All wildlife is welcome, and our particular visit coincided with the presence of fledgling Great Horned Owls right at the entrance to the whole park.

Great Horned Owl chick at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

After lunch, before our departing flight, Mike took us to Hornsby Bend, a wastewater treatment and research facility that includes large retention ponds frequented by birds and other wildlife. We saw many shorebirds there, as well as Painted Bunting and, finally, a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers as we were exiting. It was a fine conclusion to an exciting, memory-filled trip. Thanks again to everyone who made it possible.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Hornsby Bend

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Take a "Sidewalk Safari"

The Rock Island Trail, Colorado Springs, CO

Back in 1962, the Beach Boys took us on a "Surfin' Safari." I want to take you on a "sidewalk safari." Spring is the ideal time to do just that: look for insects and spiders and related creatures on sidewalks and bike paths and other such pedestrian-speed rights of way.

Woodlice are common on sidewalks

At this time of year, temperatures are still relatively cool, especially in the morning hours, so cold-blooded creatures are looking for places they can bask to rev up their internal engines. A concrete or asphalt surface also heats up faster than the soil, so simply laying out on such a substrate is going to warm you up a lot faster, too.

A "billbug," a type of weevil

You might think that your particular neighborhood would be a poor place to do this exercise, but I cannot tell you how many times I have found surprising specimens in even the most urban situations. When I lived and worked in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1990s, I would routinely find underwing moths, sphinx moths, grasshoppers, even dragonflies on the sidewalk or on the exterior walls of buildings. I even found a Red Bat once. A Silver-haired Bat another time, and Big Brown Bats several times.

Ooooh, some other kind of weevil

The more suburban or rural, the more likely you are to encounter wildlife, of course, but it can be well worth it to traverse any avenue. Bike trails are perhaps best because you can go for miles and miles, and because they are often routed through forests or along the banks of rivers or streams. The wilder the habitat the better.

A basking female Green-striped Grasshopper soakin' up some rays

One of the unfortunate aspects of a sidewalk safari is that you inevitably come across dead creatures that have been stepped on, sometimes deliberately, or run over by bicyclists. The carnage that results from our high-impact locomotion is probably grossly underestimated, but it rarely seems to diminish insect abundance. Diversity may suffer a little more, though. It would be interesting to line a bike path or sidewalk with pitfall traps and see what drops in. It might make a great study for a graduate student (hint, hint).

A running crab spider, Thanatus sp.

Take along your magnifying glass. Substitute binoculars if you fancy birds or mammals more than you do six- and eight-legged organisms. Bring your camera or just use your phone. Wildflowers, also known as weeds in some regions, often line hard surface trails or sprout from the cracks between slabs of cement, or from seams in the asphalt.

Lots of true bugs out now, like this Small Milkweed Bug

Did I mention that walking is great exercise, too? It is a wonderful distraction from your worries and cares, a great way to commute if you live close enough to your workplace; and what better way to spend your lunch hour? Looking for wild things is also a great conversation-starter, with the police. I'm joking! Hopefully, anyway. Inquiring minds want to know what you are doing, mostly out of curiosity rather than suspicion. Now go, get out from behind your computer monitor already. I promise you will find something cool.

Hey, wait, you dropped something! Oops, too late....

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Book Review: Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Spiders

One resource that has been missing from the recent explosion of spider-related material coming from various publishers has been a book aimed squarely at the average homeowner or gardener with something other than an all-consuming passion for arachnids. "Dr. Eleanor" to the rescue with Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Spiders (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2018. 96 pp.).

Eleanor Spicer Rice, who already has several related titles under her belt, mostly about ants, has teamed up with Chris Buddle to deliver a nicely organized, thoroughly researched book on the spider species that the public most often asks about. You know, the eight-legged critter crawling across the kitchen floor, the infamous "shower spider," and the ones you always see in the (insert shed, basement, garage, or other appropriate venue).

The authors treat their subjects with accuracy, clarity, and brevity, while still managing to cultivate the same sense of fascination in the reader that they, as scientists and writers, have already found for themselves. This is no small feat. There is a dash of humor here and there as well, and they are not above poking fun at themselves. Color photographs, mostly by Sean McCann, complement the lively text and enhance the impact of the book. Whether arachnophobes will reach for it on the bookstore shelf, or over the online vendors remains to be seen. I hope they do.

Even if the book were a complete failure otherwise, it would bear recommending for this passage alone:

"Striped lynx spiders prefer biding their time in agricultural fields. When we plant our crops with only one or two types of plant per field, we humans essentially sow arthropod grocery superstores. In nature, any given species of plant is often mixed in with other plant species and so bugs that like a particular plant species may need to search to find the plansts they like. As a result, only a limited number of bugs can live in an area. It's like living in a town with a gas station-sized grocery store. In our human-planted superstores, however, tons of insects that like our crops can move into the giant all-you-can-eat buffet of a farm, filled with only their favorite foods. These insects become agricultural pests, gobbling up billions of dollars' worth of food we grow for ourselves each year."

Exactly. I have said the same thing myself in my own publications, about how humans are responsible for creating their own insect pests. Further, all the crop plants are equally vulnerable because they have identical genetics. Not so in nature. Watch a butterfly laying eggs. She won't oviposit on every plant; only on those a little weaker in their chemical defenses.

My only quibbles with the book stem mostly from the fact that I am a writer, too. There were a couple of bad word choices, but I see worse errors in other books. There was one implied assertion that is incorrect, however. In the Frequently Asked Questions part of the back matter, one FAQ concerns whether all spiders are venomous. The authors indicate they are. This is not true. Spiders in the family Uloboridae, common in North America, lack venom glands. Lastly, there are some common English names for certain spider species or genera that were apparently created just for this book. There is no such thing as a "Ceiling Spider," even though I would endorse that name for Cheiracanthium species because that is exactly where you encounter them.

Enough nit-picking. The "up sides" of this handy volume are much more numerous. It is a paperback, and of a size that is large enough to not lose easily in a stack of other books, and comfortable to handle for those of us who are all thumbs. Again, the text is a joy to read. Spicer and Buddle manage to give each spider a personality that reflects its biology. This style comes close to anthropomorphism, but I am all in favor of whatever it takes to win more arachnophiles. Spiders need all the friends they can get in Humanland.

One of my measures of the goodness of a book like this is whether it teaches me, a longtime naturalist, something new. This book did that, in spades. I love being surprised with new knowledge, and with that I heartily recommend Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Spiders.