Thursday, September 30, 2010

Backyard Diptera

Lately I have been blogging a lot about butterflies, but those are not the only insects I have come across. Over the course of the summer, I saw a nice variety of flies in the backyard, and now that is is autumn, I am seeing a slightly different set of species. Flies are as Diptera, a large and diverse insect order that includes midges, gnats, crane flies, mosquitos, bee and wasp mimics, and a variety of other forms. Some of them, like mosquitos, no-see-ums, greenheads, and deer flies can be nasty biters. Many others are benign and perform useful services like preying on other insect pests, breaking down decayed material, or pollinating flowers. Here are a few that I have seen in the last week.

The first is a green bottle fly, a type of blow fly. This is in the genus Lucilia, probably L. sericata. It is consistent with that common species's features, anyway. A few other species have similar characteristics. I posted one of these back in June.

The second is a syrphid, Eristalis dimidiata. I have photographed other Syrphidae in the yard, including Toxomerus marginatus and Sericomyia sp. Earlier in the summer, another species in the genus, E. transversa, was very common in the yard. I only started seeing the E. dimidiata recently.

The last is an Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus). The bushy antennae and large palps suggest that this individual is a male. These mosquitos were introduced accidentally to North America in a shipment of tires in the 1980s. Their range is mostly in the southeast, but it extends northward at least as far as New Jersey. In my backyard, these are the only mosquitos I see (and feel) with any regularity. It may be just a subjective impression, but they seem to have a nastier bite than a lot of other mosquitos.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Winter Finch Forecast for 2010-2011

Purple Finch / USFWS Photo

Ron Pittaway, a respected Canadian ornithologist, recently released his winter finch forecast for the upcoming winter. It has already bounced around a few birding listserves; that link points to the version on eBird. The forecast will eventually be posted on the Ontario Field Ornithologists website, where you can see an archive of forecasts from past years. Pittaway's forecasts are written primarily for birders in Ontario, but they are useful for birders in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic U.S. as well.

Most migratory songbird species, such as wood warblers and thrushes, migrate south each winter because their primary food sources (invertebrates) are not available during northern winters. Other species, such as cardinals and chickadees, tend to stay where they are since their food sources are usually not disrupted. A small group of boreal species, mostly finches, migrates south in some years but not in others. These migrations, known as irruptions, are triggered by year-to-year changes in the seed crops of conifers, birches, aspens, and mountain-ashes in the boreal forest.

Which bird species will irrupt in a given year can be predicted on the basis of which seed crops are abundant and which are scarce. Here are a few species that may migrate south this winter:
Purple Finch: This finch winters in the north when the majority of deciduous and coniferous seed crops are abundant, which is not the case this year. Most Purple Finches will migrate south of Ontario this fall. A few may frequent feeders in southern Ontario. Purple Finch numbers have declined significantly in recent decades due in part to a decrease of spruce budworm outbreaks since the 1980s (Leckie and Cadman in Atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario 2007).

Common Redpoll: Redpolls should irrupt into southern Canada and the northern United States this winter. The Common Redpoll's breeding range in Ontario is mainly in the Hudson Bay Lowlands from the Manitoba border southeast to southern James Bay (Leckie and Pittaway in Atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario 2007). Redpolls in winter are a birch seed specialist and movements are linked in part to the size of the birch crop. The white birch crop is poor across much of northern Canada. Another indicator of an upcoming irruption was a good redpoll breeding season in 2010 with double and possibly triple broods reported in Quebec. High breeding success also was reported in Yukon. Samuel Denault of McGill University has shown that redpoll movements at Tadoussac, Quebec, are more related to reproductive success than to tree seed crops in the boreal forest. Redpolls will be attracted to the good birch seed crops on native white birch and European white birch in southern Ontario and to weedy fields. They should be frequent this winter at feeders offering nyger and black oil sunflower seeds. Watch for the larger, darker and browner "Greater" Common Redpolls (rostrata subspecies) in the flocks. It is reliably identified by its larger size and proportionally longer thicker bill and longer tail in direct comparison with "Southern" Common Redpolls (nominate flammea subspecies).

Hoary Redpoll: The breeding population in northern Ontario is the most southerly in the world (Leckie and Pittaway in Atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario 2007). Careful checking of redpoll flocks should produce a few Hoary Redpolls. There are two subspecies. Most Hoaries seen in southern Canada and northern United States are "Southern" Hoary Redpolls (exilipes subspecies). During the last large redpoll irruption in 2007/2008, several "Hornemann's" Hoary Redpolls (nominate hornemanni subspecies) were found and supported by photographs. Hornemann's Redpoll was previously regarded as a great rarity south of the Arctic, but it may be more frequent than formerly believed. Hornemann's is most reliably identified by its much larger size in direct comparison with flammea Common Redpolls or exilipes Hoary Redpoll. Note that white birds loom larger than life among darker birds and size illusions are possible.

Red-breasted Nuthatch: This nuthatch is a conifer seed specialist when it winters in the north, thus its movements are triggered by the same crops as the boreal winter finches. The southward movement, which began in the summer, signaled the generally poor cone crops on spruces, balsam fir and white pine in the mixed coniferous/deciduous forest region across Ontario and in Atlantic Canada, New York and New England States. Red-breasted Nuthatches will be very scarce this winter in central Ontario such as Algonquin Park. White spruce crops are excellent in the northern half of the boreal forest, but it is uncertain how many Red-breasted Nuthatches will winter that far north.
Most other species are unlikely to come south because they have abundant food sources somewhere in the boreal forest. See the full forecast for comments on the rest of the irruptive species. The species comments are informative, even for birds that will not come south. Past forecasts usually included some notes on boreal raptors as well, but those seem to be left out this year.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Monarchs in Cape May

When I was in Cape May last week, the Monarch migration was not quite as spectacular as a week or two earlier, when thousands were counted as they left Cape May Point. Besides an apparent reduction in numbers, the Monarchs had to compete for my attention with the eleventy-billion Common Buckeyes around the state park, as well as numerous other species. Still, there were plenty of Monarchs around Cape May's gardens and natural areas.

This Monarch went deep into a flower to find some nectar.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Other Butterflies from around Cape May

Common Buckeyes certainly lived up to their name when I was in Cape May last week. A lot of other butterfly species were also busy nectaring in the same areas as the buckeyes. Here are a few of them, starting with a Red Admiral photographed at Higbee Beach. In Mariposa Road, Robert Pyle argues for calling this species "Red Admirable" instead of "Red Admiral" to avoid confusion with the true admirals, a separate group of butterfly species from genus Vanessa. Under either name, the species is beautiful and certainly admirable.

Another Vanessa butterfly, American Lady, was also active in good numbers. This one was photographed at the state park.

I saw a few Mourning Cloaks at the state park. The day after I photographed this one, I saw a Mourning Cloak around the same group of plants. I am not sure if it was the same individual.

The skipper I saw most frequently was the Fiery Skipper. This species has a few variations. While most are bright orange, some can be very dark, as in the photo below. The undersides of Fiery Skipper wings are spotted, almost as if they have a pox.

I also saw a few Gray Hairstreaks around Cape May. This individual was photographed at Brigantine, but I saw a few in the state park as well.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Snowy Egrets Around Cape May

Snowy Egrets are a constant presence along New Jersey's coast. I have seen them in every month from March through November, and eBird's database says that they have been recorded in the state during December through February by others. It is a good thing to have them around for so long because Snowy Egrets are very charismatic birds.

The feathers on their heads and backs sometimes stand up, giving the bird a ruffled appearance.

Larger herons like Great Egret and Great Blue Heron use a hunting strategy that involves standing still and patiently waiting for prey to come within striking distance. Unlike them, Snowy Egrets forage actively. They stir up mud as they walk in the hope of flushing any prey that might be hiding there.

The contrasting black legs and yellow feet are a reliable field mark for this species. Watch a Snowy Egret in action, and you will see plenty of those yellow feet. Immature birds, though, might not show quite as much contrast as adults since the backs of their legs are often yellow.

All of these photos were taken on an evening at Cape May Meadows with the exception of the last two, which were taken during the birding by boat cruise and at Brigantine, respectively.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Common Buckeyes in Cape May

I was in Cape May for a few days this week. There were a few potential life birds that I was hoping to see; of those I saw one, a King Eider that has been hanging around the Concrete Ship. The weather conditions were less favorable for migration than I had hoped, so there was not a lot of warbler activity. What were active in big numbers were butterflies. I expected a lot Monarchs, since I have experienced Monarch migration there in the past and people have been talking about them. What came as a surprise was the number of Common Buckeyes. I have never seen so many at once, even in Cape May. Here are a few photos of them.

Bonset was especially popular as a nectar plant. A few times I saw about a dozen Common Buckeyes clustered on the same plant.

A few had chunks missing from their wings. The missing pieces tended to be around the eye spots, which could be a result of birds being confused about where the butterfly's head is.


Friday, September 24, 2010

Loose Feathers #257

Common Tern Preening / USFWS

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Oil Spill
  • An independent study concluded that BP's well spewed between 56,000 and 68,000 barrels per day, for a total of 4.4 million barrels of oil released into the water. This makes it the largest marine oil spill.
Environment and biodiversity
  • A search for lost frogs found three amphibian species that had not been seen in decades. They are the Cave Splayfoot Salamander (Chiropterotriton Mosaueri) in Mexico, Mount Nimba Reed Frog (Hyperolius Nimbae) in Ivory Coast, and Omaniundu Reed Frog (Hyperolius sankuruensis) from the Congo.
  • A newly discovered spider species, Darwin's bark spider (Caerostris darwini), spins the world's largest and strongest known web. The webs span rivers and can catch up to 30 insects at once.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review: Bayshore Summer by Pete Dunne

A few months ago, I received Pete Dunne's latest book, Bayshore Summer: Finding Eden in a Most Unlikely Place. Bayshore Summer is the second book of what is planned as a four-part series taking readers through the seasons in different parts of the continent. The first book in the series was published in 2009 as Prairie Spring. (I have not read Prairie Spring, so I cannot compare the two.) I meant to read and review this while it was still summer here, but it ended up getting pushed back to the beginning of fall.

The "bayshore" in the book's title refers to the northern shore of Delaware Bay, specifically Cumberland County, New Jersey. Devoting the summer book of the series to New Jersey's coast makes sense since the shore may well be the best known of New Jersey's natural geographic features outside of the state. Cape May is famous as a birding destination. Yet Cumberland County remains comparatively obscure since it has neither the ocean front of the state's northern coastal counties, the casinos of Atlantic City, nor the birding prestige of Cape May. Despite my tardiness in reading the book, I was eager to see what Dunne had to say about this area because it has quickly become one of my favorite parts of the state since I first birded there in 2009.

Unlike many of Dunne's other writings, Bayshore Summer is not primarily about birds or birding. Birds are included in the book, as one might expect from Dunne. One chapter deals with the amazing spring spectacle of Red Knots and other shorebirds around Delaware Bay. Others reference the late summer migrations of shorebirds and swallows or mention birds in passing. However, Dunne's main theme is the broader environmental context of Cumberland County and how a changing environment affects wildlife and the county's traditional industries, mainly farming and fishing. Along the way, he introduces the reader to the history and culture of Cumberland County.

Each chapter of Bayshore Summer describes a different aspect of life along the the state's bayshore. One of the first things a visitor would notice is the prominence of the fishing industry, particularly around the old fishing towns of Mauricetown, Heislerville, and Bivalve. It should be no surprise, then, that Dunne devotes a few chapters to a few chapters to fishing, both sport and commercial fishing. During the summer, the main catch for commercial fishermen is blue crab; other fish and shellfish predominate in other seasons. Ecological changes in the bay have weakened local fish populations to such an extent that local commercial fishermen are struggling to keep their businesses afloat.

Farming is the other major occupation along the bay, and there are a few major crops. One is salt hay, a species of Spartina grass that grows in high marshes. Landowners let the grass grow naturally and then harvest it in summer. The dried hay has a few uses, including fodder for livestock. Fruit and vegetables are also grown in Cumberland County; tomatoes in particular are a major crop. If you see a tomato marked "Jersey Fresh," chances are that it came from a large farm in South Jersey. A third industry is sand mining, something that Dunne mentions only in passing. (The sand here is suitable for manufacturing glass.) Besides fishing and farming, Dunne spends time with a state wildlife officer and writes about the scourges of light pollution, summer heat and humidity, and blood-sucking insects. No discussion of New Jersey's salt marshes is complete without mention of the amazing variety of blood-sucking insects, the least painful of which are mosquitos.

Whenever possible, Dunne accompanied a practitioner of the county's main industries.In a few cases this meant going out on a day-long fishing trip, in another it meant helping farmers collect hay bales, in another it meant visiting vegetable farms and farmers markets to interview both farm workers (many of whom were Latino immigrants) and customers. Dunne presents his own views and his understanding of scientific and historical knowledge with each theme that he introduces. However, he gives each person that he interviews room to express their own opinions about the challenges facing the area's traditional industries. The resulting narrative is sympathetic to local residents (even deer poachers) but suggests ways that they might be wrong about changes to the bayshore area.

In the course of writing Bayshore Summer, Dunne discovered that a naturalist from the early 20th century had grown up in Cumberland County and is buried in the churchyard at Haleyville. Dallas Lore Sharp in not nearly as well known as John Burroughs or John Muir, but he was respected among the naturalists of his day. Sharp was a prolific writer; oddly enough, his books included a four-part series on the seasons. (You can read the full text of Sharp's The Whole Year Round on Google Books.) Unfortunately Dunne's chapter about the naturalist takes the form of an imagined dialogue between himself and Sharp (the latter in the form of a gesticulating mockingbird). This format does not work nearly as well as the other chapters because the dialogue form puts so much emphasis on Dunne that Sharp gets lost in the process. This is out of character with the other chapters, which give Dunne's interlocutors more space to speak for themselves.

Despite one flawed chapter, Bayshore Summer is an enjoyable and interesting book. It is also a fast read; I read most of it in an afternoon and evening. I think that Bayshore Summer is one of Dunne's best books, at least among the ones I have read. His interviews with local residents are thought-provoking, and his characterization of the local landscape rang true to me, from what I have seen of the area. I would recommend this to anyone who likes Dunne's writing or who wants to know what New Jersey has to offer away from the Turnpike corridor.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Insects on New England Asters

Like goldenrod, New England Asters are a characteristic wildflower of late summer and early fall. They are most commonly found in meadow habitats but are also cultivated and grown in people's gardens. Since many other summer flowers have bloomed and died back at this time of year, asters can be very popular with insects.

I have seen a lot of insect species at this particular plant. As one might expect, there are bees. The bees above are both sweat bees in family Halictidae. The one on the left looks like an Agapostemon sp. (possibly A. virescens). The one on the right looks like something from the tribe Augochlorini. None of my photos of it are clear enough to move it beyond that.

I have also seen mosquitos landing on the flowers. In their case, I'm not sure if they are nectaring or if they are simply resting while they wait for the next warm-blooded creature to walk past.

The flowers are also visited by butterflies. So far I have mainly seen Cabbage Whites flying around them. This one visited the flowers long enough for a few photos. True to character, it kept shifting its position, but this one stayed in the same part of the bush for a few minutes.

It was disturbed whenever other insects wanted to get in on the action – in this case, a Common Eastern Bumble Bee.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Three Moths and a Butterfly

When I posted about insects on goldenrod on Sunday, I did not include this moth because I had not identified it yet. It appears to be a Soft-lined Wave (Scopula inductata), a geometer that flies in late summer and early fall. This individual was nectaring at the goldenrod flowers.

This individual has a slightly different pattern than the first moth, but it also appears to be a Soft-lined Wave.

This moth is a crambid, a member of a family of micromoths that are common in grassy habitats. I think this is a Vagabond Crambus (Agriphila vulgivagella). Like the Soft-lined Wave, this species is active in late summer and early fall.

The final insect is a familiar butterfly species that flies from spring through fall. This is a Cabbage White (Pieris rapae), one of our most common species despite being introduced from Europe. I was lucky that this one landed and sunned itself long enough for me to take a few photos. Usually this species is much more difficult to photograph.

Monday, September 20, 2010

BP Kills Oil Well; Cleanup and Recovery Continues

BP successfully killed the oil well that was leaking for much of the spring and summer. A relief well intercepted the original well shaft, and then the crew aboard a drilling rig (pictured above) pumped cement through the relief well to kill the original well. A pressure test early Sunday morning confirmed that the well was sealed. The failed well will be abandoned once BP finishes its work at the site. The company says that it will devote more attention to oil cleanup now that the well is killed permanently. However, BP also left open the possibility that it would drill a new well to exploit the same oil reservoir that the failed well was supposed to access.

The US government wants oil companies to plug any wells that they have not used in the past five years and will issue new regulations in October to reduce the likelihood of leaks from abandoned wells.

In the meantime, independent scientists have found some of the oil that BP and the government claimed had disappeared. It has settled on the ocean floor in a layer stretching 12 miles in both directions from the failed well.
The Research Vessel Oceanus sailed on Aug. 21 on a mission to figure out what happened to the more than 4 million barrels of oil that gushed into the water. Onboard, Samantha Joye, a professor in the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Georgia, says she suddenly has a pretty good idea about where a lot of it ended up. It's showing up in samples of the seafloor, between the well site and the coast.

"I've collected literally hundreds of sediment cores from the Gulf of Mexico, including around this area. And I've never seen anything like this," she said in an interview via satellite phone from the boat.

Joye describes seeing layers of oily material — in some places more than 2 inches thick — covering the bottom of the seafloor....

It's very clearly a fresh layer. Right below it she finds much more typical seafloor mud. And in that layer, she finds recently dead shrimp, worms and other invertebrates.
There is some possibility that other leaking wells or natural seeps could contribute to the mess, so the UGA scientists will have to test the chemical fingerprint of the oil to determine its source. However, the volume and freshness of the oil suggests that BP's failed well was responsible for it. Scientists from the University of South Florida have also found oil at the bottom of the Gulf, but not in the amounts recorded by Joye and her colleagues. You can read more about the discovery and see photos of the core samples at UGA's Gulf Oil Blog. If past spills are any indication, that toxic oil could be sitting there for a long time. This episode, like several others during the course of the spill and cleanup, should serve as a caution against the optimistic predictions about the spill being offered by the government, BP, and the media. It should also be a reminder that the story is not over just because the well is killed.

The outlook for ecosystems in the Gulf remains uncertain and may not be known for quite some time. Some scientists, particularly ones affiliated with the government, see a relatively quick recovery. This optimistic take is supported by the lack of oil-triggered dead zones – one potential impact – in the areas affected by the spill. (There was a dead zone in the Gulf this summer, but it was the annual one triggered by nutrient runoff from the Mississippi.) However, there are still a variety of ways that oil could affect the Gulf over the long term. Aside from the oil sitting on the bottom of the Gulf, there is still a large amount buried in the beaches or just offshore. That oil could reappear during any storm that churns the sand and waves. Some oil and natural gas remains in underwater plumes.

The continued presence of toxic oil in and around the Gulf is a concern because of its potential effects on wildlife, both commercially valuable animals like shrimp and other species, including endangered species like the Piping Plover or Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle. Oiled animals (both alive and dead) continue to be found; in fact, the numbers of some oiled animals have risen since the well was capped in July. According to the oiled wildlife report for September 17 (pdf), 8030 birds have been collected, of which 5959 were collected dead and 2071 were collected alive; of the latter, 1208 have been released. The oil has also affected 1114 sea turtles (586 of which were collected dead and 284 released), 101 mammals (92 collected dead; 3 released), and 2 other reptiles (1 dead). For a detailed breakdown of the collected birds, see this report (pdf). Updates to the detailed breakdown will be posted each Wednesday on the USFWS website. The ABA's Drew Whelan has an interview with James Van Remsen, an ornithologist at LSU, about the effects of the oil spill on birds and the Gulf Coast ecosystems.

Finally, BP has gone to great lengths to insist that the environmental damage and the health risks to cleanup workers will be minimal. Some of their PR and training materials downplay the risks posed by oil dispersants:
Representatives with BP, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health spoke during the meeting, which took place at Lafourche-branch NAACP official Bertha Shanklin's home.

Susan Shelnutt, a toxicologist with the center, a private consulting firm hired by BP to monitor health and environmental issues related to the spill, showed attendees how the dispersant Corexit contains some of the same chemical properties as everyday household items such as ice-cream bars, children's headache medicine, kitchen cleaners and skin lotion.
Dispersants may share some component chemicals with household products (including ice cream), but just because you would ingest cough syrup or eat a Klondike bar does not mean you would consider gulping down dish detergent, let alone oil dispersants. In the same way, having a few chemicals in common with household cleaners does not mean that dispersants are safe to touch or inhale.

Cleanup workers were exposed to both petroleum and dispersants, and the long range health effects of both are not well known. (There is already at least one disturbing case.) Of course, dispersants may also cause problems for wildlife. Since this was the first spill for which dispersants were applied in such massive amounts, their full effect (on humans or wildlife) has yet to be determined. It is too soon to assume that these chemicals will be benign.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Insects on Goldenrod

The yellow glow of goldenrod is one of the most visible features of meadows in late summer. Since learning that goldenrod does not cause allergies, I have come to appreciate this late summer flower. (Most late summer weed allergies are caused by ragweed rather than goldenrod.) In addition to their cheerful color, they provide food for insects, both as larval host plants and as nectar sources for adults. Yesterday at Griggstown Grasslands Preserve, I found a few insects using the plants. One was the Locust Borer above; while the species's larvae feed on Black Locust trees, adults feed on nectar, especially from goldenrod plants.

There were also bees visiting the flowers for nectar, such as these Common Eastern Bumble Bees.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Red-banded Hairstreak

This is a Red-banded Hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops), one of my favorite species in the hairstreak group. (I also really like Juniper Hairstreaks.) This is a southeastern species; New Jersey is near the northern end of its range in the east. Its larvae feed on wax myrtle, some sumacs, and some oaks. Adults nectar on a variety of flowers.

Hairstreaks cannot compete with the flashy colors of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Red Admirals, or Monarchs. However, they have their own subtle beauty, with small amounts of red, blue, and white blending into the overall gray.

Friday, September 17, 2010

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #134 is online at Birds on the Brain, a general birding blog written by the author of A Birder's Library.

Loose Feathers #256

Red Knot (in nonbreeding plumage) / Photo by Gregory Breese (USFWS)

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, September 16, 2010


As I mentioned in my Monarch post, at this time of year Monarchs and Sachems seem to rule the butterfly bush. This Sachem is a male. One of its primary field marks, aside from the season, is the large dark mark on the upperside of its forewing near the base of the wing. I like photographing skippers from this angle because it shows three wing surfaces at the same time: upperside of the left hindwing, underside of the left forewing, and upperside of the right forewing. Since their field marks are subtle, skippers can be difficult to identify, so it helps to be able to see as many wing surfaces as possible.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review: Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year

Over the past half-century, many birders have attempted a big year in the ABA Area (North America north of the U.S.-Mexico border) or in a state, province, or other local area. Still others have read one or more of the memoirs based on these big years. Until 2008, no one had attempted a North American big year for butterflies. Inspired by Peterson and Fisher's Wild America and Kaufman's Kingbird Highway, Robert Michael Pyle set out that year to observe and record as many butterflies as possible. His trip had two additional goals: first to raise awareness and money for the Xerces Society's habitat conservation projects and second to write a book about his big year. This book was recently published as Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year.

A birding big year presents certain constraints. Some birds are easier to see during the breeding season, while others are easier to see during the winter. Migration occurs more or less simultaneously along multiple flyways. Some species have limited ranges or are recorded most reliably in places that are difficult to access because of terrain, security restrictions, or expense. Some species are best seen on pelagic voyages. A birder attempting a big year needs to take all of these factors into account when building a big year schedule and also leave some flexibility to chase rare bird sightings.

As challenging as that might seem, a butterfly year presents additional difficulties. While some species, like Monarchs or Painted Ladies, can be observed for most of the year (especially in warm locations), many butterflies have very short flight dates – some only fly for a week or two. Some have very limited ranges or are only found where one uncommon host plant occurs. Butterfly watching is also more constrained by weather conditions than birding since butterflies are exothermic: if it is cold or rainy, butterflies will not be active. Thus a butterfly watcher's plans for a given location could be foiled by a few days of rain or the disappearance of a host plant. Pyle encountered uncooperative weather and habitat degradation repeatedly during his big year.

Mariposa Road chronicles Pyle's big year from the first butterfly he recorded at his home in Washington state through multiple cross-continent trips to its denouement in Key West. Along the way he travels to places as remote as northern Alaska (in pursuit of alpines, arctics, and sulfurs) and as urbanized as southern California (in search of some range-limited blues and skippers). Since many butterflies reach the northern limit of their range in Florida and Texas, he makes multiple visits to both states to record as many of those species as possible. He even finds time for a week in Oahu and Kauai to search for endemic Hawaiian butterflies.

A big year narrative can risk being a dull catalogue of hits and misses, but Pyle's prose is lively and engaging. Pyle describes not only where he went but also why he went there and why he considered certain butterflies to be "grails." He further enriches the text with background information about the ecology of interesting butterflies and the naturalists who discovered or gave their names to butterfly species. (For example, Hessel's Hairstreak is named for an amateur naturalist who realized a New Jersey population of hairstreaks showed significant, consistent differences with "Olive" Juniper Hairstreaks.) Pyle enlivens the text with stories about the people he met along the way and various mishaps, including car trouble and his unfortunate habit of losing important things.

I am not going to say how many species Pyle recorded, but he seemed to be mostly satisfied with the results. There were some near misses, either because he arrived a week late (or early) or because he was not fast enough with his binoculars or net. But in the end he achieved a respectable species total and raised a substantial sum for the Xerces Society, for whom he also kept a sporadic blog during the big year.

Despite its length (over 500 pages), Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year is a relatively fast read and holds the reader's attention. While I was reading it, I found myself wanting to go out and chase hairstreaks and skippers. I found it helpful to keep a butterfly guide close by (in my case Brock and Kaufman's Butterflies of North America), as many of the rare or western species were unfamiliar to me. The book should appeal to readers who have an interest in butterflies or who enjoy reading big year accounts. It should also appeal to readers who like Pyle's previous work, which includes Chasing Monarchs, in which Pyle followed the southward migration of Monarchs from British Columbia to Mexico, and The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Monarch on Buddleia

I can tell that the year is moving towards fall when the butterflies I see around home are mostly Sachems and Monarchs. This Monarch was nectaring on Buddleia, or butterfly bush, along with a crowd of other Monarchs and an occasional Sachem or Cabbage White.