Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Okay, this post departs from all my normal topics (unless we pull in Emily Dickinson's famous poem, "Hope is the thing with feathers..."). I've been thinking about hope, considering it, tasting it, turning it over.

For a long time I haven't let myself hope for anything. It seems an illusory, fraudulent wisp. It teases. It cheats. It doesn't look squarely at life. It rarely materializes. Better to stay with something solid. Better to stay centered on bedrock amidst the tumult of living, and let the daily tides wash past without hoping for any particular outcome. I tell myself, just breathe. Just stay with the flow of events, emotions, thoughts. Yes, the whole political scene in this country has gone to hell. Yes, species are winking out. Yes, close friends depart. Just breathe, just stay with it.

The downside: I'm feeling worn. Living without hope also erodes joy.

Today a powerful surge of hope welled up, and it didn't feel fraudulent. It felt charged with light and with healing.

My sister sent word of new research on MS (multiple sclerosis) which shows real promise of repairing the ravages of the disease by repairing the myelin sheath around the affected nerves. (My sister is among the many who are dealing with MS.) Click here for a link to that research.

Today's hope feels qualitatively different. It makes me think that we need to refine our language naming "hope." One name for the kind of hope at which we grasp––illusory, cruel, deceptive, fraudulent. And another name for the hope that surges up of its own volition and transforms us with an inner healing, coming as it does from the light at our core.

"Hope is the thing with feathers...."
(Acrylic of Sandhill Crane by Narca)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Fate of Sir Poopsalot

The greater Portal-Rodeo community will no doubt be delighted to learn that our famous tame Gambel's Quail, Sir Poopsalot, who lived the good life in Portal before hurling himself into someone's window, has been given to Gene Cardiff, a museum ornithologist. Gene is taking Sir Poopsalot to California, where he will become not just a specimen in a tray, but a full-fledged museum mount! That is a fitting conclusion to a short but celebrated life.

This Gambel's Quail is a stand-in for Sir Poopsalot. Think of him as an Elvis impersonator.

You should be able to visit Sir Poopsalot at the San Bernardino County Museum before too long (although they may not know him by that name!).

Monday, August 22, 2011

Huachuca Canyon with WFO

Our immersion in Huachuca Canyon, emerald-green and moist in this monsoon season, was a balm. One of the morning field trips at the Western Field Ornithologists' annual meeting explored this beautiful canyon, which is less often visited than neighboring Garden and Sawmill Canyons. Tony Battiste and Adam Searcy ably led the group.

At the mouth of Huachuca Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains
(All photos by Narca)

Some of the out-of-state folks had never seen an Elegant Trogon, so that species was a big highlight, as were a couple of juvenile Gray Hawks begging frequently and chasing after harried parents.

Immature Gray Hawk in Huachuca Canyon

Mary Gustafson pointed out a field mark on the young Gray Hawk that I hadn't been aware of: look at the tail bands. Those bands become increasingly thicker toward the end of the tail. This mark, Mary says, is reliable for separating young Grays from young Broad-wings.

Elegant Trogon male in Huachuca Canyon

A charming Canyon Tree Frog swam across the stream where it crossed the road. I don't see this amphibian very often. Its eyelids gleamed with glints of gold and copper.

Canyon Tree Frog in Huachuca Canyon

Overall the migrants still seemed low in number, but we did see a number of the resident "trophy" species of southeast Arizona: Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Hepatic Tanager. I saw a Violet-crowned Hummingbird, which appeared to be mobbing something at the back of an oak tree. They will mob Northern Pygmy-Owls, but if an owl was present, it didn't show.

A fair-sized Black Bear in Huachuca Canyon

The decision of how far to walk upcanyon was made for us: a big cinnamon-shaded Black Bear was lapping up berries at the side of the road and was loathe to abandon his feasting spot.

Out on the grasslands, singing Cassin's and Botteri's Sparrows gave everyone great views; a Greater Roadrunner was sunning in a clump of yuccas; and a gorgeous Painted Grasshopper added a burst of color to the scene.

A sunning roadrunner exposes the black bases of its back feathers to soak up more sun.

A spectacularly-marked Painted Grasshopper

As always, the WFO meeting was great fun. About 180 people attended, and both field trips and the science sessions were excellent. The annual meetings are renowned for the appearances of great rarities, with so many skilled field biologists scouring an area, and this was no exception. An Aztec Thrush wowed Homer Hansen's group in Garden Canyon.

Next meeting: Petaluma, California. Go! You'll love it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Portal, Late Summer

We've had a full week! Many friends who know the Sky Islands choose the late monsoon season to visit, when hummingbirds are streaming south, nectar-feeding bats cluster around the feeders, and masses of clouds keep the temperatures just about perfect. (Of course the gnats find the temperature perfect too!)

South Fork, singed trees and all, has been the site of much trogon activity this week! (Photos by Narca)

Diminutive Buff-breasted Flycatcher along the Herb Martyr Road

Jon Dunn, our good friend of several decades (!––How can it have been so long?), is in town with his WINGS group, and yesterday I joined them for a fine day in the field. We wandered down Herb Martyr Road, where flash floods the day before had brought new debris across the road, and had also cut a new trench at the Crystal Cave wash, though it was manageable in the big van with its high clearance. After Herb Martyr and a stop at Southwest Research Station for the hummingbird show, we continued to the barricades at East Turkey Creek––the current site for anyone undertaking The Great Mexican Chickadee Quest. The higher Chiricahuas are still closed due to danger from the big Horseshoe Two burn and associated flash flooding.

The day brought many highlights:

We did find a Mexican Chickadee, albeit only one, and not terribly cooperative. Today Jon and friends will make a second try for better looks at The Chickadee. The Chiricahuas are the only accessible locale in the States to find this prize. They also live in a mountain range in the bootheel of New Mexico, but that is on private land and access is difficult, even on the very rare occasions when permission can be obtained.

One of the fledgling Northern Goshawks was broadcasting his wish for a meal. Jon spotted the bird in a pine not far away, and several enjoyed scope views of the youngster before he moved higher up the ridge.

Montezuma Quail covey (Detail from watercolor by Narca)

Returning, one of our folks spotted a male Montezuma Quail, standing stockstill on a rock, not 20 feet from the road. From inside the van, we scrutinized the place until several more of these cryptic birds revealed themselves. It was a family group––a gorgeous pair of adults with about six half-grown chicks in tow.

Acorn Woodpecker at Jackie's feeders in Paradise

After a stop at Jackie and Winston's feeders in Paradise (Juniper Titmouse––yes!), we headed back to Portal. Along the way, a richly-colored Blacktail Rattlesnake decided that the big white van was definitely suspect, and a shower of sound cascaded from its rattles as we photographed the beauty.

Black-tailed Rattlesnake decides that the van isn't trustworthy.

The evening finale brought great views of a little Western Screech Owl and the swooping mass of nectar-feeding bats that visit our hummingbird feeders each night at this time of year. The nearly full moon illumined drifts of cloud in the deep night sky.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Those Challenging Satyrs

If a group of butterflies comprises 2400 species, we can expect some identification challenges! In the Spanish Pyrenees, I found plenty.

The upper Hecho Valley is rife with puzzling satyrs.

Satyrs are a subfamily of nymphalids, or brush-footed butterflies. These are the pearly-eyes, the wood nymphs, the heaths, the arctics, the alpines. Most of them haunt shady woodlands or alpine fellfields. Tropical satyrs like Pierella can be spectacular.

Great Banded Grayling (Kanetisa circe)

The first Great Banded Grayling I saw looked so much like a big admiral that I initially skipped over the satyrs in trying to identify it. Like many of the other local butterflies, it was nectaring on Pyrenean Eryngo.

Okay, let's try some browns.

The Meadow Brown seems pretty straightforward––although in the Land of Satyrs, that's no guarantee I got it right! We had previously seen it in Poland as well.

Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)

This Large Wall Brown doesn't quite match the field guide pictures, but it's close. A big part of the problem is that many species are variable across their large ranges. Very focused local field guides are hugely helpful, where they exist.

Large Wall Brown (Lasiommata maera)

The heaths are lovely small satyrs. Dusky and Pearly Heaths are similar. I'm basing this ID on the very indistinct eyespot on the forewing, even though most Pearly Heaths sport a wider white flash on the hindwing. Their larvae feed on grasses.

Pearly Heath (Coenonympha arcania)

Now we come to the ringlets (which in North America we call the alpines)––genus Erebia, with no fewer than 13 plates in the field guide! In North America we have a hefty 7 species; in Europe, 46 species, plus a wide array of subspecies. That's an astonishing radiation for one genus of butterflies!

I've always liked the alpines, in part because I love the alpine regions where they live. And how lucky is this? The ringlet which allowed the best photography appears to have been a distinctive one, the Piedmont Ringlet, with its very dark under hindwing and bright topside.

A Piedmont Ringlet (Erebia meolans), below shown probing a shoe which must have wandered through something especially delectable.

But the graylings were at the top of the heap for confusing, and especially the choice between Rock or Woodland Grayling. I'm going with Rock Grayling here, based on matches with photos at websites such as www.eurobutterflies.com. The bold white band on the hindwing seems broader and the outer border of that band doesn't mirror the irregularities of the inner border. I welcome comments from lepidopterists!

Rock Grayling (Hipparchia alcyone)

Grayling (Hipparchia semele)

The Grayling is the most widespread of Europe's big Hipparchia satyrs. And it is one that isn't too hard to identify... maybe.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Pyranees Butterfly Sampler

Hiking took Wendi, Leona, Alan and me into various nooks of the upper Hecho Valley, a splendid region of the Pyrenees, and one replete with butterflies and flowers. These public trails wind through sectors of the Parque Natural Valles Occidentales, or Western Valleys Natural Park. 

In three days, we barely sampled the miles of trails that you could walk. All were in excellent condition. One, straight up the road from Hotel Uson and past Boca de Infierno, passes dolmens and other artifacts of prehistoric humanity.

The butterflies were exceptional! Here are a few:

Old World Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) in the upper Hecho Valley
(Photos by Narca)

The Old World Swallowtail is the type species of the genus Papilio––the first one to be described by Linnaeus, who devised the system of classiflying organisms into related groups. Despite the common name, this swallowtail occurs at higher latitudes across the entire Northern Hemisphere, including North America, so it has a classic Holarctic range. Most of its populations are in good shape, although it is a protected species in some countries like Austria, the UK, and India.

Its cousin, the Apollo, is a tail-less swallowtail, closely related to the parnassians of montane North America. They swoop rapidly across the mountain slopes, and I felt lucky when this one deigned to pause briefly on a composite.

Apollo (Parnassius apollo)

The highly prized Apollo is considered threatened by the IUCN. Finland is among the countries declaring it endangered. Its decline is likely due to a combination of factors, including habitat change and––in some areas––over-collecting. Locally, automobiles are a factor, notably in South Tyrol, Italy. Because the few Apollos remaining in Finland and Sweden are restricted to limestone soils, it is thought that acid rain may also have contributed to their decline. Where limestone moderates the effects of acid rain, this beautiful butterfly continues to soar across the mountain meadows.

Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia)

Any real butterfly experts out there, help me out! I think that this is a Heath Fritillary, but frits are subtle beasts, and my field guide is none too clear. If so, it is a species doing well in several parts of Europe, but not in the UK, where it is one of the rarest British butterflies. (After 30 years of conservation efforts, British stewards have seen rebounds at Blean Woods National Nature Reserve.) Its host plants include plantains, speedwells, Common Cow-wheat, foxglove, and toadflax. (Note that in North America we would call these smaller fritillaries checkerspots or crescents, but in Europe they are all called fritillaries.)

A female Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus, a.k.a. O. venatus)

Sunning on a rock is another Palearctic species, which ranges from Europe across Asia to Japan. The Large Skipper is the sole European member of a genus that is more diverse in North America. One of the grass skippers, it is shown here with a leaf of its larval food plant, grass. Like other typical skippers, its caterpillar constructs a leafy shelter by curling a leaf, then stitching it with silk. The young caterpillar hides inside its leaf and feeds.

Skippers are part of a lepidopteran lineage separate from other butterflies. They differ in having hooked antennae clubs and larger eyes. They have a very sturdy look, with strong wing muscles which support wings that are usually smaller in proportion to the rest of their bodies. Within the skipper family, a basic division is between the grass skippers, like the Large Skipper above, and the spread-winged skippers, like the intriguing Marbled Skipper, pictured below.

Marbled Skipper (Carcharodus lavatherae)

Attractive Marbled Skippers are reminiscent of North American powdered skippers. Their host plants are mints, including Stiff Hedgenettle or Yellow Woundwort (Stachys recta) and Mountain Tea (Sideritis scordioides). Both plants are thought to have medicinal value: they contain antioxidants and also counter inflammation and microbes. Sideritis is used in Greek cuisine. These two plant genera are very closely related, and genetic studies may eventually show that they belong in the same genus. 

Many mysteries in the relations between organisms remain to be unraveled! Taxonomists should have job security for a very long time––for as long as the public values a deep understanding of nature.

Wikipedia gives a list of butterflies of the Iberian Peninsula, including some photos and range maps.

Coming next: those challenging satyrs!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

New Life

A quick flash to Portal, Arizona, before we continue with Spain: This morning's walk up the South Fork road with long-time friends, Chet and Irma, affirmed that new life is thriving there.

Just below the South Fork bridge, a Wild Plum is fruiting. (Some people call this tree a Wild Cherry. Either name works for Prunus americana.) Feasting on those fruits were a family of American Robins and a juvenile Elegant Trogon. It is good news that at least one of the few trogon pairs that attempted to nest this year has successfully raised their chick. Any birders headed up South Fork will enjoy watching this tree, to see what might be attracted to the bounty. It is immediately next to the road, on the creek side, a short distance below the bridge.

Wild Plum (Prunus americana) in fruit
(Photos by Narca)

A mother Coati was attempting to corral her rambunctious kits and lead them away from the bipedal, optic-laden strangers coming up the road. Nursing worked to catch their attention for about 2 seconds, but there was too much world to explore!

They don't herd any better than cats––better just carry them by mouth!

Stash them on a tree trunk.... Maybe they'll stay put there.

For 5 seconds, anyway!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Silver-washed Fritillary

I hadn't anticipated the sheer visual impact of masses of Silver-washed Fritillaries nectaring on masses of dusky purple Pyrenean Eryngo.

A Silver-washed Fritillary, Argynnis paphia, joins a Five-spot Burnet Moth to nectar on Pyrenean Eryngo, Eryngium bourgatii.
(All photos by Narca)

I came home wanting to learn more!

The distinctive silver wash is on the underside of the greenish hind wing, an area that is spotted in most fritillaries. The four stripes on the top forewing of the males are actually androconial scales, or scent glands, used to produce pheromones that females in theory find irresistible. Their courtship flight is spectacular: the female flies in a straight line, while the male performs loop-the-loops around her, showering her in scented scales.

A male Silver-washed Fritillary nectars on Spiny Thistle 
(Carduus acanthoides).
Just one more photo...

Among the largest of European butterflies, these woodland fritillaries are unusual in that the female does not lay her eggs on the larval host plant––various species of violet––but instead places them in crevices in the bark of a nearby tree, usually an old oak. Caterpillar hatchlings consume their egg cases, then spin a silk pad on the tree, attach themselves to it, and go straight into hibernation, deferring their feeding until spring.

With warm March weather, the caterpillars emerge from their crevices and find violets to feed on. When the caterpillar matures it creates a chrysalis, and emerges as an adult about 3 weeks later, in early summer. Their flight period is June through August.

Okay, just one more...

We encountered Silver-washed Fritillaries in good numbers throughout the mountains, both in the Pyrenees and the Guadarramas. Apparently they were in decline in several European countries for a couple of decades, but have been making a comeback in the past 10 to 20 years. Being a powerful flyer, this fritillary is well able to recolonize locales when they again support suitable habitat.

This big, graceful, strong-flying butterfly occurs from Sweden to North Africa, and from Ireland to China and Japan––a classic Palearctic range.

This research has had an added benefit: it solved the identity of another fritillary among the photos––the female Silver-washed Fritillary!

Female Silver-washed Fritillaries lack the striped sex brands on the forewing and aren't as bright an orange.