Sunday, May 13, 2018

Samples from the insect book

I've been mentioning for a couple of years now that Cheryl and I were working on a little book of Arkansas insects. It was a lot longer process than we imagined, but it is now out, and we think the designer did a very nice job arranging the pictures on the page and wrapping the text around them. There was so much build-up for the book that I was afraid readers would find it a huge anticlimax, but from what I hear people seem to be enjoying the book, so that is a relief.

I'm including here both sides of a prepublication card advertising the book, and a couple of examples of pages of the book. I hope the pictures I took of the pages in the book will be sharp enough and the text legible enough that you can get some idea of the book.

In the process of going through the thousands of pictures we have taken of insects over the past fifteen years, I noticed that we have pictures of virtually every species of butterfly that occurs in Arkansas (well, that includes borrowing a few from friends), so now I am thinking of trying to do a guide to the identification of Arkansas butterflies. That should keep me busy for a while.

Monday, April 2, 2018

100 Arkansas Insects

 The way we like to proceed is thus. When the weather is good, we pack our close-focusing binoculars, our macro cameras, a picnic lunch, and take off for the countryside. We're looking for birds and snakes and anything moving, but especially insects. Cheryl with her sharp eyes spots everything, and I with my lack of shame wriggle up on my belly to get close, and we both take pictures, especially if the particular creature we see is demonstrating its amazing behavior. Then we come home and download our pictures and see whose were best that day.

The last few cold dreary winters (and they seem to be getting colder and drearier) when there weren't any insects out, for something to do I began trying to gather some of our thousands of pictures together into books, with catchy titles like A Field Guide to the Tachinid, Syrphid, and Asilid Flies of Northeast Arkansas.  And then I started on a more conventional book, growing out of classes we taught for several years at the Arkansas Audubon Society adult workshops. After a minimal amount of class work, we would go outside (this was everyone's favorite part) and go walking, and when someone saw an interesting insect, we would stop and talk about it, then continue on till someone spotted another insect. So I started working on a book like that, trying to follow that pattern. I would put down our best pictures of our favorite insects and say a little something about each one. Cheryl read these and did the research to fact-check them, and modified them for clarity. Then we combined our best pictures, and it turned out that almost exactly 50% are Cheryl's and 50% are mine. We ended up with something we imagined might be publishable.

I don't remember how long ago it was I mentioned in this blog that I was contemplating starting a book to be called, I think I may have said, 50 Arkansas Insects.  If you remember, I put into this blog a few sample views and write-ups, and asked my readers if they thought the idea looked promising.  I got favorable responses from you, and the book went to 75, and then to 100 common insects, and it was so much fun I might have gone to 500 or a thousand, but decided I had better stop where it was still possible some publisher might be interested.

Well we found a very elegant small press in Little Rock, Et alia Press. We read up about them and the kinds of things they were interested in publishing, and it included an interest in the environment, and I wrote to them with my idea of a book aimed at a popular audience in which I would try to make insects so interesting that people would be friendlier and more tolerant of them. They thought the book was a good idea, so it was time to work on it seriously.

It was a very long process, and coming down the final stretch we have been working night and day on it, the designer of the book working with us on the photographs, the editor going over the MS with a fine-toothed comb. But it is finally finished, and the book will be out in May.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Trying to catch up

A lot of things I've been wanting to mention here, but one thing or another came up, and I didn't get around to it.

For example, last spring when we were in Tucson we were at the beginning of a trail in our favorite Saguaro East National Park when we snapped a picture of a rather scruffy juvenile road runner. Then last month (we had gone out to spend Thanksgiving with our son and his family) when we went to exactly the same place, there was an adult roadrunner in all its mature glory, which again allowed us to snap it. Of course we can't prove it's the same one...

Going back much earlier in the year:  The western population of Whooping Cranes that summer at Wood Buffalo National Park, and then migrate in winter down to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, was thought to be vulnerable to some disaster which could wipe out the entire population, so for  several years there has been an effort to develop a separate eastern population in Wisconsin as a backup. These were captive-reared at first, then led on their first migration to a winter spot in Florida by ultra-light aircraft. After they had learned the way, it was hoped that new generations of captive-reared cranes woud follow the older cranes to the migration spot. This is a very complicated endeavor, and the cranes don't always cooperate. Last winter for example two young males, one much younger than the other, became buddies, and refused to follow any adult cranes, taking off on their own. They wandered around a bit, and then decided to winter in north-east Arkansas. We heard that they were hanging out in some wet fields about forty minutes from our house, and went looking for them.

 We located them and told Game and Fish we would try to keep an eye on them. This was of course a great pleasure and we went down a couple of times as week. It was impossible to stop taking pictures of them.

They spent almost all their time within a few feet of each other.

Here is the older one, with his purer white feathers. You can see all the electronic equipment he is wearing which gives a constant account of his whereabouts.

The younger one still has his juvenile plumage. These pictures were taken in early February.

I only meant to take another picture of the crane foraging, and inadvertently caught it just as it accidentally stepped on a meadowlark hidden in the grass. Both birds jumped out of their skins.

There is a sad ending. The younger crane formed a bad habit of feeding in ditches alongside the road, and he was killed by a truck. The other one made it back to Wisconsin and is now living "in a wonderful marsh." We will wait to see if he comes back to Arkansas for the winter.

In a previous post I wrote about the plants we systematically added to our yard to attract various species of butterflies to breed here. I mentioned in that post that we did not do the same thing to attract moths into our yard, but that just because of the diversity of plants we had, we ended up by attracting numbers of moth species as well, which we only realize when we discover their caterpillars. Here (trying not to be too boring about it), are a dozen (we could easily show three or four more dozen). These are all moth caterpillars (they may not always look like it) from our garden.


1. Saddleback Caterpillar
2. Io Caterpillar
3. Snowberry Clearwing
4. Eastern Tent Caterpillar.
5. Milkweed Tussock Caterpillar
6. The Laugher
7. Spiny Oak-Slug
8. White-spotted Prominent
9. Unicorn Caterpillar
10. White Furcula
1l. Curve-lined Owlet
12. Tersa Sphinx Moth

Just for fun, I will add on to the end of my next blog twelve more moth caterpillars found in our yard, and keep doing this on further blogs until I can't find anymore.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Our Night-blooming Cereus

A friend gave it to us in a pot, a stalk about a yard tall, some tall leathery leaves. We set it in the pot on the ground next to a fence, so the awkwardly tall thing could lean against it without toppling over. We thought maybe it was dead, but then saw some new leaves appearing.  We were rather interested. The great botanical artist Margaret Mee, who specialized in painting the rare plants of the Amazon Basin, had painted a close relative. Both plants had in common that they only bloomed once during the season, and that bloom lasted only one day, or night rather, since as the name said, it was night blooming.

That plant in the Amazon had to time everything very carefully. It had to bloom on just the right day to send out its fragrance when the moth that pollinated it was present, and the moth drinking from its nectar had to get its pollen on its furry breast and take it to another plant blooming on just that night also. The connection missed by only a dozen hours, and the plant's whole season was wasted.

The painter had to be there too, or her season was wasted as well. She prepared carefully, with professional botanists (her paintings often went to the botanical museum) keeping an eye out to tell her when things were starting to move. She hired a fisherman to take her out at the appropriate moment. The plant bloomed hanging from trees over water, so she needed just the right boat with a flat top to its cabin that she could sit on while she did the painting, a boat big enough to carry all her equipment and with a suitable berth for her to sleep in while she waited for the moment. That was always the hardest part, getting the fisherman to believe she was really going all that way just to paint a flower that would only come out that one night, and the fisherman had to be reliable enough to get her there on time (she wouldn't pay till afterward, so he wouldn't get totally drunk and disappear before they went, but would have to wait until after when she gave him the money). The fishermen worried that she had some scam she was working, drug smuggling or something like that that would get them all in trouble. And once she convinced him she was legit and he realized that she was serious, then when they got out to that remote place, and got up late at night, with a beautiful moon and a beautiful fragrance from the flower, the fisherman suddenly grew amorous, which was why she also always carried a pistol in the pocket of her painting smock

We weren't sure we would get a flower from ours, but in fact we did get one that first season, and then it was over with. It had happened a bit too fast for us. So we really looked forward to it the next year.  Meantime the plant sat glumly through the winter in our storeroom waiting for it to be summer again.

The next summer we put it out again, and it perked up again. But it didn't produce a flower. Maybe it only flowers every other year, we speculated. Or maybe only once in its life like a century plant?

It went through another gloomy winter, forgotten in our messy storeroom. Summer came again (this summer), and when we decided it was warm enough, we put it out again leaned against the fence (it had hardly changed in size or appearance, only the leathery old leaves greened up a bit once it was out in the sun). Then from out of nowhere three little brown twiggy things appeared. Buds?

But just about that time, it was going to be our grandson's first birthday, and we decided this was too important to miss. Now, the long drive out to Arizona, and the long drive back, was beginning to wear on us, so this time we decided to fly out, and that decision also turned out to be important. We stayed out there for about ten days, then flew back. We got home after dark, slept the night away, wandered out into the yard the next morning, and found the three little brown twiggy things had grown to three enormous buds just on the point of popping open. In fact we thought it would open that night. If we had taken the car out to Arizona we would still have been on the road with another day to go on our return.

 We waited until about nine o'clock that evening and went out, but nothing seemed to have changed. Maybe this wasn't the night. We checked again at ten o'clock, and this time the flowers were opening before our eyes, and the fragrance was apparent from several feet away.

That was really fun and exciting, our once in the year midnight celebration. Then it was over with. The next day the flowers were hanging limply, like the wrinkled balloons the day after our grandson's  party. In a couple of months the pot would be back in the storeroom.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The attraction of caterpillars

When we moved to Arkansas in 1976, we bought a little house outside of Jonesboro. It was on an acre of land, and we bought it because it had about a dozen fairly big trees on it, mainly different kinds of oaks. The rest of the yard was pretty much scraped clean. We began planting flowers on it, both for our pleasure, and to attract butterflies. The butterflies came, so it seemed only fair once they were here that we should also have appropriate plants for them to lay their eggs on and we began, one by one, year by year, adding plants specific to their needs. First we put in maypop, the local passion flower, and immediately got Gulf Fritillary butterflies to lay on them, and soon we saw their prickly red caterpillars on the vines.

And shortly came their near cousin, the Variegated Fritillary, and its caterpillar, just the same as the Gulf, but with a white line running its length.

Next we planted a sassafras tree, to see if we could attract a Spicebush Swallowtail, and sure enough, as soon as the tree was big enough to have a few leaves, we found one of them folded over to hide the snake-headed caterpillar.

And it was easy to plant a bit of parsley or fennel, and we immediately had Black Swallowtails. The early instar caterpillars mimic bird droppings, so nothing will be interested in eating them, and then their later instars pretend to be Monarch caterpillars, which are known to be poisonous from eating milkweed leaves.

We already had a sugarberry tree in the yard, so we already had Hackberry Butterflies, since that was the tree they laid their eggs on. The adult males post themselves around the yard, chasing females, and chasing off rival males.

Their somewhat slug-like caterpillars.

And we also already had winged elm trees in our yard, so we only had to look carefully to see we had Question Marks, with their odd way of stacking their eggs three or four high.

We wanted to have Pipevine Swallowtails breeding in our yard, so we got some pipevine and brought it into the yard in pots, and set the pots down in our back yard preparatory to planting them. Almost immediately a Pipevine Swallowtail appeared in the front yard and began flying in wide circles, coming closer to the pots with each sweep. We hastily planted the pots at the base of a large oak tree and the vines are now high up the tree, and if we search, we can often spot their big sinister looking black caterpillars.

 We planted a cherry tree, and birds spread seeds of it all over the yard, so we now have several, and almost any day you can see the Red-spotted Purples laying their eggs carefully at the tips of the leaves, and their caterpillars are easy to find.

Though they are less common than the Red-spotted Purples, we also get Eastern Tiger Swallowtails laying their eggs on the cherry leaves. Like many swallowtail species, their caterpillars start out by mimicking bird droppings, and later instars then become snake mimics.

We planted spring cress, and that lured tiny Falcate Orangetips into our yard to raise their beautiful caterpillars.

We planted senna to attract the various species of sulphurs, including the Cloudless Sulphur.

One day we were at the Arkansas Folk Center in the middle of the Ozarks and we bought a little pot of rue, which is a food plant for the Giant Swallowtail. We didn't have any appropriate plants in our area, so we brought it home and planted it. We only get Giant Swallowtails in our yard once or twice a year (perhaps because there are no plants of the right kind), and almost instantly a Giant came by and laid two eggs on our rue. The caterpillars gorged on the plant, growing bigger and bigger, and we realized they were going to eat all the rue before they were big enough to make their chrysalises. So we did what any besotted insectophile would do: We made the 300-mile round trip to the Folk Center for another pot of rue. Now to be a little safer, we have planted a wafer ash tree (another Giant Swallowtail food plant, this one much larger) and are waiting to see if it will work.

I haven't even mentioned yet the most obvious one of all: Naturally among our first plantings were milkweed plants, mainly common milkweed and butterfly weed.  On their northern flights the Monarchs would cover the plants with eggs, and the caterpillars would eat the plants right to the ground. The plants would then grow right back up, to be ready for any later Monarchs that were still laying eggs. Now, sadly, there are many fewer Monarchs coming through, and the milkweeds sometimes go untouched.

Well, that's thirteen. There are still many more. Once I started doing this I was surprised myself at how many had slowly accumulated over the years. I didn't get around to mentioning Sleepy Orange (on senna), Red Admiral (on nettle), Goatweed Leafwing (on Goatweed), Silver-spotted Skipper (on  indigo bush), Horace's Duskywing (on oak), Silvery Checkerspot (on black-eyed susans).

I don't believe we have ever planted a plant for the purpose of attracting a specific moth (well, I guess we planted a catalpa tree to attract catalpa hornworms), but if you have a variety of plants, you will get many moth caterpillars anyway. Moths in general can be rather drab (or, as my wife prefers, their beauty is more subtle), but on the other hand, their caterpillars go far beyond the usually rather staid butterfly caterpillars for spectacular patterns and shapes and behaviors and overall screwiness with tufts of hairs going in every direction and weird tendrils sticking up or hanging down. We are having such a banner year for caterpillars this year that I might make my next blog a moth-caterpillar-in-our-garden blog