Sunday, July 31, 2011

Color Variation in a Butterfly

I snapped this pic while talking with my neighbor because the butterfly was close and appeared to be different. When I uploaded it to my computer, I found that this female Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) was laying eggs, and was indeed different. Seen from below, as in the photo, she has a tan area of her hindwing which would normally be black. The forewing appears to have a tan area too, but it's blurred by her movement.

I've now spent the better part of the day searching for other photos of aberrantly colored butterflies, without much success. I've also searched the internet from information on this phenomenon. As nearly as I can decipher from a number of websites, the condition is called hypomelanism, a partial lack of the dark pigment, melanin, which should be present.

I posted it on BugGuide to get some feedback on the unusual coloration. BugGuide is a fascinating website that provides a catalog of insect photos & forum for topics, including identification. Submit a photo of the insect you'd like more information about, as I did on my BugGuide page. Other registered users can submit their comment or identification below your photo. Registration is free (donations accepted). Submit photos of the insect only. Forget about artistic composition, just crop away.

BugGuide member Kelly Fiegle had better luck than I did in finding other examples of Pipevine Swallowtails with similar tan on the wings or at least, less black. Kelly found three photos which I will link to, since all are copyright restricted. The first is a beautiful shot of a female Pipevine Swallowtail from Florida with slightly reduced color in the same area of the hindwing as my female. The second photo, from Texas, is a worn individual, but is her age enough to explain the reduced color of the hindwing cell as well as the lack of orange in the hindwing spots? The third photo of another worn individual, has a similar area of reduced color.

Genetic color variation? Fading caused by to unknown conditions? I have no idea. But I'm proud to say that of the 5 billion images on the photo sharing site Flickr, mine is the only insect photo tagged with "amelanism."

You might also like:
Royal Catchfly and Pipevine Swallowtail
   Pipevine Swallowtail, by Yvonne         Pipevine     Pipevine
Royal Catchfly                        Leaping Lepidopterists                        Botanical Arsenic         Pipe Dream  

Thursday, July 28, 2011

When Animals Attack— Plastic

Ever wonder if those plastic owls that are supposed to scare birds away from buildings actually work?

Chunk and I saw a test of this Batesian mimicry strategy on an evening walk this week.
The Cooper's Hawk on the fence (just left of the small tree in the photo) screams at the plastic owl, attached to the fence near the gate (right of the tree). The apathetic owl does not respond. The hawk screams again, from the fence and then from above in a large oak. The owl, unflappable as always, is silent. 
Enraged, the hawk attacks! At this point, Chunk wants a piece of the action, and yanks the leash so hard, my camera sails into the street—note the blurry photo. With the dog barking hysterically and me running after the camera, the hawk flip-flops away. Serene on his throne, the plastic owl remains.

The next morning I had breakfast out on the patio with my camera (it survived the crash). I noticed a flurry of bird calls. The crows were crowing, the jays were jaying, and the grackles were grackling. And no wonder! A Cooper's Hawk—perhaps the same one—was perched on the girder of the nearby water tower. 

The crows gave him the same treatment he had given the owl the evening before, but Cooper's was not so cool-headed.
He dashed away after his tormentors, but they had a pretty good lead. The neighborhood was quiet again.

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Coopers Hawk flew in my back door
Red-tailed Hawk on water tower
Whoo's Awake?


Sunday, July 24, 2011

New Helper in the Garden; A Guest Post by Chunk

It's a good thing I came along, because Anne really needs help in this garden. Case in point…

She put some wonderful, smelly fruit in the compost pile. I had to get it out. Then I ate it.

Ahh! It's nice to cool down after working in the sun.

She doesn't know much about her pond. These things are delicious!

So are the stems. But my BFF Lily and I ate most of them.

They say muskrats like them too. I'd really like to meet a muskrat.

She lets that water spray everywhere!

Luckily, I'm here to attack it.

I know there's a rodent in this yard somewhere. (Thanks, Dawn Huczek, for your great photo!)

Why don't you let me handle the little critter that my way, hmmm?

She does appreciate me though. After a hard day on the beach, she helps me dry off.

But I can do that myself too.
Now for a well-deserved rest…

Monday, July 18, 2011

Royal Catchfly catches a Butterfly

It's not always easy to get advice on growing a native plant species. Since I'm crazy about hummingbirds, I searched for Missouri natives that specialize in hummingbirds for pollination. Royal Catchfly (Silene regia) is one of the most spectacular. I wrote about its spring-blooming cousin, Fire Pink (Silene virginica) in May this year, but Royal Catchfly is taller and blooms for a longer time. The earliest my catchflies have ever bloomed is June 29. All these photos were taken this week.

According to Ozark Wildflowers, by Don Kurz, they are found in the Ozarks on the borders of glades and prairies, although they're considered endangered in the rest of the state. That could mean it likes alkaline soils because of all that karst topography in the Ozarks. I was told the plant likes moisture and sharp drainage. Hmm… Not a common combination in my clay soil. I dig an extra deep hole, add crushed limestone, and hope for the best. But wait a minute, what's that near the top left bloom?

It's a hummingbird plant, right? What's that gorgeous blue?

I guess butterflies don't read the books.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fruits of Summer

Indian Cherry, Rhamnus caroliniana, is a shrub or small tree of dry, rocky glades, but it's also found near streams. It has a patchy distribution, show in the US Geological Survey map below. In Missouri, it's found south of the Missouri River, mostly in the Ozarks.
Range of Indian Cherry, USGS

The photo above was taken just a week ago. Now some of the fruit is beginning to turn red. The "Indian" part of it's name may be related to it medicinal use by Native Americans. According to Don Kurz in Trees of Missouri, they used it to induce vomiting. It's surprising how many plants were used as emetics in traditional medicine. I really don't get that.

Indian Cherry is also known as Carolina Buckthorn, even though it has no thorns. Wikipedia says its fruit ripens in summer, Dave Tylka, in Native Landscaping for Wildlife and People, says fall. This is the first time my little tree has fruit, so I'll let you know.

Pipevine fruit

Here's a mysterious fruit! My pipevine, Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia macrophylla, is 5 or 6 years old and it's also bearing fruit for the first time. I haven't been able to find anything about the fruit, except that like the rest of the plant, the fruit is poisonous. Pipevine blossoms are pollinated by tiny flies that get temporarily trapped in the weird little flower, so who knows? Perhaps some of the flies that pollinated my pawpaw tree performed the same service for the pipevine. Of course, I grow pipevine for the butterflies it attracts, not the poisonous products. I've written about the vine and the fascinating butterfly in earlier posts.

But wait! there's more! Not only have my Pawpaw (see previous post), Indian Cherry, and Dutchman's Pipevine borne fruit for the first time this year, my Golden Currant, Ribes odoratumhas joined in! There are four members of the Ribes genus native to Missouri, two gooseberries and two currants, but unlike its cousins, this shrub has no thorns. I wrote about Golden Currant's pollinators and fragrance this spring. It's fruit is ripe right now.

Golden Currant

Productivity in my small native plant landscape is pretty gratifying—a bit like my blog, which is now 1 year old! 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

I Got Paw Paws!

I've been watching the pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) for fruit pretty carefully—and hey! I got pawpaws! I didn't really expect to get fruit because this tree is "self-incompatible," meaning that the pollen of one flower cannot fertilize the ovary of another bloom on the same tree. In order to produce the fruit I've been waiting for, the bloom needs pollen from another unrelated pawpaw. Now I have only one tree, and the nearest one I can find is on the campus of the nearby community college, approximately 1,500 feet away.

How can pollen possibly travel that distance? It hitchhikes on a fly. This spring I got photos of what I believe are fruit flies on the blossom of my pawpaw…
but can we expect a 2.5 millimeter fly to travel 457 meters to find another tree's bloom? Well, either a fruit fly has no trouble flying almost 183 thousand times its body length, and has the power to smell a blossom 0.3 miles away, or—more likely—there's a closer pawpaw that the flies aren't telling me about.

I've blogged about my pawpaw tree and its pollinators in May and the how the Zebra Swallowtail uses it as a host play last July. Yes, I'm a little obsessed with it. I'm dreaming about tasting the ripe fruit in the fall, which I'm told tastes like a lemony banana. True, the squirrels will probably get it long before I do, but I can dream can't I?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Bringing Conservation Home

It started with a great idea and a colossal winter creeper vine (Euonymus fortunei).

Some time in the late 80s I started growing antique roses. Well, I saw this fabulous photo of a climbing rose called 'Seagull' romping through the tree tops in an English garden. I ordered it from specialty nursery in California. I planted it on the downhill (eastern) side of my huge silver maple in the front yard. Shortly afterwards, I received a note from the nursery saying that they did not send me 'Seagull,' but 'Rambling Rector.' This isn't too unusual with antique rose varieties. I don't know even today what difference there is between the two. Both have thousands upon thousands of small, white, fragrant, semi-double blooms that appear once a year, from mid-May to early June. True to its rambling nature, 'Rambling Rector' threw its long canes around the maple's trunk climbing ever higher. There were setbacks of frost or falling maple limbs but the plant always recovered, leaping into my neighbors sweet gums, and heading towards my front door.

You're supposed to prune ramblers by removing the oldest canes after the bloom. Let's just say that whoever came up with the idea of putting yard waste into paper bags never pruned a climbing rose. The canes are often 10 feet long—up to 20—and then there are those bloodthirsty thorns! The plant of course uses thorns to latch onto limbs and climb. They probably discourage cows and woolly mammoths too.

A victim of my own gardening success, I've worn out the pruners, jeans, gloves, and lacerated my scalp trying to control this plant. Most years, my enthusiasm for the charming blossoms

was overwhelmed by cowardice, and the plant went unpruned.

Enter, St. Louis Audubon.  SLAS is piloting a program called "Bringing Conservation Home" to encourage homeowners to include in their landscape plants that are native to the area, and help sustain native wildlife and I was lucky to be invited to be a part of it. Dave Tylka, author of  Native Landscaping for Wildlife and People, and Mitch Leachman, Executive Director of St. Louis Audubon Society  head up the team, but like me, most of us are interested amateurs. We visit the homes of gardeners who invite us, provide an inventory of plants in the landscape, and offer suggestions for landscaping that will improve their habitat.

I already have a good portion of my yard devoted to native plants, but there's more to it than that; namely, fighting those invasive, exotic plants. I hacked and sprayed my bush honeysuckle some time ago, but there's another villain in the picture: winter creeper (Euonymus fortunei). I knew winter creeper was non-native, but I didn't realize the harm it can do as it smothers the landscape. All the qualities that make it a useful ground cover also make it destructive to the environment: vigor, tolerance of a wide variety of  conditions, and the ability to form an evergreen mat of foliage to shade out competitors.

I also wasn't aware that, like English ivy (Hedera helix), winter creeper matures, blooms, and forms seeds only when it able to climb high enough to reach good light. Take a second look at my first photo. See the green vine? And the sneaky bush honeysuckle at lower center, buried within the monster rose?

So I got motivated. I tried just removing the winter creeper.

Pole pruner, loppers, leather gloves are all worse for the wear. I almost lost my shorts to the thorns, and in the front yard, that's a problem. I looked like I'd just boxed six rounds with a buzz saw and lost.
At last, I threw in the towel. I hired someone to remove the vines, rose and all. Now I've got a huge new space to fill with native plants that hopefully will be attractive all year long.