Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Butterfly trips

We've been busy for old folks.

We decided to take part in the annual Butterfly Count at Grandview Prairie, partly, I admit, because they were having an explosion of Frosted Elfins down there, an uncommon species we had never seen before. Grandview Prairie is in Hempstead Co. in the southwestern corner of the state, a long way down from Jonesboro. So since we were going that far anyway we decided to make a trip out of it. Our friend Ross said he would come feed our cat for four days. We loaded our cooler with enough food and drink for the trip, and we drove to the lodge at De Gray Lake where we had booked a room for our first stop. (I am saying "we" with the tiniest bit of guilt since Cheryl handled all the logistics.)

We got up next morning and drove to Lake Catherine S.P. and climbed to the top of Horseshoe Mountain and walked along the ridgetop glades. It was teeming with small white butterflies that were whizzing by us with great speed. We could see that lots of them had orange tips to their wings which meant that they were Falcate Orange-tips, a common early spring butterfly. But just as many of them did not have orange tips. Now, the female Orange-tip doesn't have orange tips, only the male. So, logically, a certain percentage of these were female Orange-tips. But we were scrutinizing them for something special, and when one of the all-white ones stopped for an instant on a flower (I got a distant shot of it), we saw greenish markings on the underwing sort of resembling in shape Matisse's dancing women.

This is what we had come for. Horseshoe Mountain is famous for being the most dependable place in the state to find the small butterfly with the charming name of Olympia Marble. The butterfly itself is a charmer, and we were hoping to get some decent photographs of it. This is one of those species that only comes out in early spring for a short time, and if you miss it you have to wait till next year for another chance. We had been here a few times before, and the problem we had always found is the same problem we were finding this day: This was a hilltop, and butterflies gather at hilltops in the spring to find mates. There were probably twenty or thirty Olympia Marbles flying around us, and they were probably all males, and the males do not stop till they find a female. And of course if they do not stop, you cannot photograph them.

About one o'clock in the afternoon we stopped at the highest point on the ridge to have lunch, and it was the height of hilltopping. Swallowtails, Mourning Cloaks, Goatweeds, Pearl Crescents, Juvenal's and Sleepy Duskywings, Falcate Orange-tips, and of course, Olympia Marbles, were swirling all around us. And we found an unexpected goodie, an Eastern Pine Elfin. We had seen a Henry's Elfin a few days before, and had the prospect of seeing a Frosted Elfin at Grandview Prairie: A three-elfin spring! But still no nice portraits of Olympia Marble, and we decided we had missed it again, and came back down off the hill.

But in the back of my mind I thought, We had one more chance. The next day we were going to join a walk with the Nature Conservancy up to the top of Trap Mountain. Trap Mountain was only about ten miles away and even higher than Horseshoe Mountain.

Well, we made the long steep climb to the top of Trap Mountain, a beautiful day, amazing views, and at the very top a cedar glade which looked like it had been lifted there from Horseshoe Mountain. We instantly found Olympia Marbles (it was a new location, and a new country record, for the species), and these were a bit more laid back, and were actually stopping to nectar on the flowers, giving us a chance to take their pictures. When they are freshly emerged, they have a pink tint to their wings. This fresh adult seems to be reflecting back the the color of the flowers it is nectaring on.

We ate our lunch with the group, then slipped and stumbled down the steep rocky slope to the bottom, hopped in our car and drove straight down to Hope, where we had booked a motel. The next morning we went across the road to the Walmart parking lot. At one end of it we saw some rough looking characters in old clothes, bearded and pony-tailed, loitering around some dusty vehicles, and concluded they could only be butterfliers going out for a day of chasing butterflies. This was the meeting spot.

We followed in caravan style to the middle of Grandview Prairie, where the leader pointed to the field we had parked in front of, and said he had seen about twenty Frosted Elfins there yesterday. We ambled into the field trying not to look too eager, and soon began seeing the fabled butterfly. That released the pressure, and we could then all concentrate on finding as many butterflies as we could for the rest of the day. I think the Frosted Elfins had gotten pretty battered during the two or three weeks of their flying life, and had pretty much lost their frosting. Anyway (don't tell anyone I said this) they were the drabbest special new rarity I can remember seeing.

We stayed another night in the motel in Hope, because we meant to drive all the way home to northeast Arkansas the next day, a five-hour trip if we did it non-stop, but we were going to wend our way back along remote forest service roads looking for more stuff to round out our four-day trip.

We stopped first at another Nature Conservancy area, Terre Noire Prairie near Arkadelphia, and saw a number of interesting spiders, but nothing special in the way of butterflies. Then we drove straight up highway 7 until we got north of Hot Springs Village, and turned east onto Forest Service Road 132 north of Jessieville. It runs east some thirty miles before reaching highway 9, and is our favorite stretch of forest service road. We have found numbers of special butterflies there over the years, Leonard's Skipper and Linda's Roadside Skipper and Dreamy Duskywing and Silvery Blue among others. At this time of year we stop at every hilltop along the road, and in fact we found a Silvery Blue at our first stop, sharing a delicious coyote scat with some Sleepy Duskywings.

And then something quite unexpected. As we climbed higher and higher up the winding road we came to some flowering wild plum trees. These only bloom for a couple of weeks in spring and often attract interesting butterflies, so we stopped by each tree and searched them carefully, and on the first one Cheryl spotted a flash of orange and blue, and realized it was a Great Purple Hairstreak, a butterfly as fancy as its name. It was high up and while we were still fumbling around trying to get our cameras in position, it flew off forever. We hardly ever see this species, and we have never gotten a chance to photograph one. They are only out for a short time in spring, and then it is usually at the tip top of a flowering plum tree where we can't get at them.

Well we drove the length of the road, and kept coming to clusters of plum trees, and kept seeing Great Purples on them, which kept appearing high up for a few moments before flying away. We saw six in all, an astonishing number for this seldom glimpsed species. Well, even if we didn't get a picture, anyway we had the pleasure of seeing them, I thought philosophically (in the back of my mind thinking there was another week left of plum blossoms, and wondering how I could justify driving all the way down here just for the remote chance of photographing one of these beauties).

As it happened, the next weekend Cheryl had to attend a meeting for a committee she is on, and the meeting was on the western edge of Little Rock, which was halfway there, so Cheryl booked a motel near Hot Springs Village and we drove there after her meeting. Next morning, when it was barely warm enough for insects to begin stirring, we were already on FR 132. Oh, lots of the plum trees had that pink color from a distance meaning they were through blooming for the year, but some of them still had fresh blossoms, and all of the ones with blossoms had Great Purples on them, many with two on them, a couple with four on them, and by the end of the run we had seen about fifteen, more in one day than we had seen in our life put together before. And while many stayed on the very tops of the trees, others came down closer, within reach, and one was so absurdly tame it fed on some fruit juice on Cheryl's hand.

They are surprisingly reticent with their bright colors, and never show all of them at once. This first typical picture shows the long tail plumes with stained-glass-window base, the red and white spots on the body, the brilliant orange abdomen. It doesn't show the upper side of the wings (which can only be seen in flight), a brilliant iridescent blue. The second picture (of an older individual with broken off tails) shows a flash of iridescent turquoise on the underside of the forewing, which is only revealed for an instant just after they land. The third picture shows Cheryl getting a close-up photograph.

Now we (meaning Cheryl) need to plan a trip to see early summer butterflies.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

I'll count this as spring.

Flowers are blooming and birds are singing, and between the days of rain and gloom there are some warm sunny days that we are very grateful for. The other day I was looking at the plum tree in our front yard and saw that the very first flower was blooming. Here's a picture of it with a goldfinch mostly through its change from dull winter greens to bright summer yellow.

Here's the same tree (probably different bird) four days later.

Also the butterflies are starting to appear. Yesterday was fairly warm and sunny, and we went up to Scatter Creek WMA in Greene Co. and walked some of our favorite trails. We saw some half dozen species, mainly Mourning Cloaks (about twenty), which were so abundant last year that everyone remarked on them, and this year they are if anything even more abundant. But there were also bright orange Goatweed Leafwings, and rather yellow Orange Sulphurs and black Juvenal's Duskywings and blue Spring Azures, and white and orange Falcate Orange-tips (they were teeming; we saw 20+).

But best of all we saw Henry's Elfin, best because it is tiny and special and only comes out at this time of year for a brief time and if you miss it, you have missed it until next year. So there is always a bit of relief when you see that this year, anyway, you didn't miss it. They always land with their wings folded straight up, so that you only ever see the underside of them. Here's a picture of the butterfly from the right side, followed by a picture from the left side. On the left side its wing is partly folded over, so you get a glimpse of the interesting coppery color of its upper side.

The spiders, that we are going to try to learn this year, are suddenly coming faster than we can keep up. But here's a particularly interesting one I can share with you.

This is what we saw first, this 3-4 mm long creature walking steadily in a straight line across the driveway.

We had to look very closely to realize that it was not an ant but actually a tiny ant-mimicking jumping spider, and that the antennae it was waving in front of it were in fact its first pair of legs. Its name is Synemosyna formica. Here is a picture of it blown up so you can see it in more detail.

There are the fake antennae stretched out and waving in front. Note the black line going up the inside of the leg, so that what you see is more like a slender black antenna than like a fat leg. Now note the hind end. Most ants in warmer parts of the country don't have a simple abdomen. Instead the abdomen is constricted into two or three bulges, technically called gasters. This spider has two fake gasters. The antennae, the gasters, indicate to me that whatever creatures the spider wishes to fool are very good entomologists, so the mimicry needs to be detailed and exact. Now, why does a spider want to look like an ant? One theory is, ants are full of formic acid, and therefore most things don't want to eat them. A second possibility is, that the spider itself DOES want to eat ants, and its disguise might allow it to cozy up to a juicy real ant and catch it for dinner.

There is another mystery about this spider. Male spiders, when they are fully adult and ready to mate, have palps (the little leg-like things on either side of their mouth) that are swollen at the ends, carrying a lot of complicated sexual apparatus in them. Before mating, the male loads the palps with his sperm, and then uses them to place the sperm inside the female's sexual opening (which is located towards the front of the abdomen on the underside). The mystery here is, the spider in this picture is a subadult. It needs to shed its skin one more time before it is a mature adult, so even if it were a male, it shouldn't have swollen palps yet. But in fact, it is a subadult FEMALE, yet it has these bright red palps that it shows very prominently.

Here is a (not very good) picture showing the palps, which are the right shape for male palps, but don't seem to contain all the complex machinery. When she sheds into adulthood, she won't have these swollen red palps, but very modestly swollen and barely noticeable black palps (adult males have big complicated black palps which they use to wigwag at promising females, showing them their stuff).

Now I could easily explain the purpose behind all these mysteries, but she's really getting annoyed with me following her around, so I'll just let her go and say goodbye.