Exactly five years to the day after I found my first Fragile Forktail damselfy (Ischnura posita) in the back yard, this morning I found another one: After looking through the archives of this site, it certainly seems that May is the month for these little guys. Nearly every year it seems I'm posting a mention or a photo of them in this month, and very rarely in any other. Now if only I could regain my steady hands from a couple of years ago; most of my recent photos are much blurrier than they should be. Sigh...
One of my favorite Florida native plants is White Indigoberry (Randia aculeata). It forms very dense shrubs that can be trimmed up to look like small trees with effort (and luck). The flowers and fruit are both white (hence the White in the common name), and when you break the fruits open, they're very dark purple inside (hence the "Indigo"). The leaves are shiny, and in the spring, when they're flowering, they can attract tons of pollinators. I've seen several species of butterfly slurping down the nectar, a couple of different flower flies (Syrphidae), and of course, the omnipresent honey bee (Apis mellifera). Right now, it's flowering, and the bees are taking their work very seriously:So, too, are the spiders: I suppose it's appropriate that these spiny-backed orbweavers are tending to the sometimes spiny White Indigoberry.
Well, I don't know whether "they're back" is the right way to put it. After all, I'm the one who's back. After being buried under my desk for the past couple of weeks, I was finally able to poke my head outside my office with my camera one afternoon this week. And, despite it being a blustery afternoon (they always are—morning is the only consistently good time for butterfly and wildflower photography), one of the pictures I took got most of the beast in focus! (Click on the image for the full-size version; the one on my screen looks fuzzy. It's not, I promise!)
On what was probably the last cool morning of the spring here in south Florida, a Little Blue Dragonlet was resting on the Bahama Senna along my driveway:Its body was covered in dew, too cold to move, so it was much more still than these guys usually are when I get this close with the macro lens. You can even see traces of condensation on its right forewing, outlining some of the intricate venation of a dragonfly wing.
One of the challenges of insect photography is depth of field. The focal plane of any camera is flat. Insects are three dimensional. To represent a three-dimensional object in two dimensions requires considerable ingenuity on the part of a lens designer, and considerable work on the part of the photographer. One solution is to take multiple images and stack them, focusing on different parts of the insect in each frame. Here's an example of a Blue Dasher, where I was able to get two images with sufficient alignment and sufficiently different focal areas that the resulting image gets most of the bug in sharp focus. Unfortunately, I didn't get a midrange focus, so the tail of the creature is sharp, as are the eyes, but there's an area of soft focus halfway down the back:Still, it's a much better image than a single-frame capture would allow. I use a many-years-old version of Photoshop (CS4), but I imagine the process is similar in almost any photo-processing software. Step one: take a few pictures at different focus points: Step two: align the images. In Photoshop, this is done by copy-pasting one image onto the other, selecting both layers, then choosing Edit-->Auto-align layers. As long as the previous step (the shooting of the images in the field) was a success, the images should be fairly roughly aligned already. In this case, the software can align them pretty well. I haven't yet figured out how to rescue a poorly aligned set of images, but it might be possible to place them manually with good precision. Step three: stack the images. In Photoshop, choose Edit-->Auto-blend layers. Here again, as long as your previous step (the auto-align) was reasonably successful, the stack will be as well. Of course, if your subject has moved slightly, turning its head or shifting a wing, the resulting stacked image will have "ghosts" in it and will have to be discarded. Step four: save as one image (not a layered file), then you can adjust the colors and highlights, etc., as you normally would. (If you're clever, you might have adjusted the images before aligning and stacking, but I'm rarely that clever. Plus, if you have 5 or 6 images to blend, that's a lot of processing that I'd prefer to do in one step on the final, stacked image.) And that's "all" there is to it!
This morning was nice and calm and I decided to wander around and see what I could find in the garden. Found a few large Atala caterpillars munching on my coontie out back. They're very hard to take a good photo of, because depth of field is such a problem. Coontie are low-growing plants, so it's difficult to maneuver a tripod into position, so the "traditional" digital answer to this problem (aligning and stacking multiple exposures taken with slightly different focus points) is much harder to achieve. So the best I've been able to do is hold as still as possible, try to align the axes of the lens with those of the subject, and hope for the best. Here's a passable image, probably the best I've managed despite having the photo op literally 15 feet from my back door whenever I feel like it:After I was done frustrating myself with this subject in the back yard, I wandered around to the font, where I found this lovely Gulf Fritillary butterfly resting on the Bahama Senna: Unlike the ones flying up high in the passionvine out back, this one was very still. I suspect it was freshly emerged and still drying its wings; they're not normally this quiescent in the bright morning sunlight. The native plant society might not think too much of my garden, but the native insects appear to enjoy it anyway!
May is the month the butterflies in my yard really get going. It's not hard to see why many people speculate that there's a link between the little yellow butterflies in the sulphur family and the word butter-fly itself. Here's a buttery yellow Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole) ovipositing on its preferred plant, Spanish Needles (Bidens pilosa):Yes, it looks kind of like it's actually depositing an ant, but it isn't. It's laying an egg! And now that the rainy season appears to have kicked in, I'm expecting a lot more insect life to come a-visitin'.
The first question I ask myself when I see a small orange butterfly in the Skipper family is "What reason does it give me to think this is anything other than a Fiery Skipper?" Most of the time, the answer is none. The reason is that this butterfly is a well-adapted generalist that thrives on a very common plant beloved (rightly or wrongly) by homeowners across the country: grass.1 This makes it a very common butterfly, with a wide distribution: it occurs from coast to coast in the southern part of the country (one of the first documented times I saw one was on a visit to the Page Museum, aka the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles), and from the midwest to the east coast it occurs relatively far north as well, even reaching the Great Lakes. Skippers are a large group of smallish butterflies with large bodies relative to their wing size (when perched, the tail end of the abdomen usually sticks out past the wings, whereas most other butterflies have wings, rather than body, tailmost). They often perch with their hindwings held low and their forewings held at a forty-five degree angle, reminding me of the tails of a jet fighter. (This perching posture differentiates most grass skippers from another group of skippers called the "spreadwing" skippers like Horace's Duskywing, which perch with their wings, well, "spread.") There are three small orange skippers in my area that I need to consider whenever I see one: Fiery (by far the most common and widespread, spotted), Whirlabout (less common, also spotted), and Sachem (more common north of us, white spots instead of black). Among these three, the Fiery and the Whirlabout are the most confusing, as they have very similar dark spots on their orange wings. The best ID mark I know is easier to spot in photographs than in the field, at least for me: on Fiery, the trailing edge of both the forewing AND the hindwing are scalloped, while on Whirlabout, ONLY the forewing is scalloped; the hindwing has a "smooth" border. Despite their close visual resemblance, though, Fiery and Whirlabout skippers are not very closely related. The Fiery is the only member of its genus in North America; all of its close cousins are in South America (15 to 20 species in total). Whirlabout, on the other hand, is one of many "polite" skippers, so called not because they say please and thank you but because they appear "polished" or "refined" (from the latin politus) compared to most grass skippers. Hylephila phileus translates to "woods-loving," which is about as far from an accurate description as it's possible to get in describing this urban (or urbane) lawnlover; it seems to delight in sunny open spaces rather than close dark forests. Here are a couple of recent pictures of this lovely little butterfly: References Cech, R. and G. Tudor. 2005. Butterflies of the East Coast: an observing guide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Glassberg, J. 2012. A Swift guide to butterflies of North America. Sunstreak.
It doesn't take long to "survey" the yard when you're a backyard naturalist. A few minutes in the morning, as long as you actually get out and do it, can have some interesting results. This morning, as I was grinding through the normal workaday toil, I decided I simply hadn't been outside enough for the day. So I took my camera and wandered around the front and back yards for about five minutes. And in those five minutes I found a butterfly that I'd never seen before! It's another hairstreak, like the very common Mallow and the much less common Martial, but this one is a relatively recent newcomer to Florida, having been definitively established only since the mid-70s: Fulvous Hairstreak. William Chapman Hewitson (1874) bestowed the species name (angelia); said species name is almost certainly behind one of its common names, Angelic Hairstreak. While it's always nice to see new butterflies, especially ones that are rather strikingly handsome, this one brings up some decidedly mixed feelings. Its most common hostplant is the non-native invasive tree species Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius—often written as S. terebinthifolia because, Latin). The plant itself is fairly pretty when it's in fruit, as the huge clusters of tiny red berries against the dark green foliage give it a festive appearance. It was first imported as an ornamental in the 90s—the 1890s1—and, because it thrives in this environment, became very popular. A couple of common names from back in the 50s when it first found widespread cultivation as an ornamental in south Florida were "Florida Holly" and "Christmas Berry." And on the surface, what's not to love? It's fairly pretty, particularly when trimmed up as a specimen rather than allowed to grow to its natural form (basically, a 30-foot sprawling globe), it grows and propagates easily, and it has high wildlife value—the birds love the berries (which allows it to spread easily via seed transport, aka the poop train). But dig a little deeper and you discover that perhaps this plant isn't so nice:Like most hairstreaks, it's a small butterfly, with a wingspan less than one inch. And, like many hairstreaks, it's fairly pretty. Perhaps the combination of those two traits was the reason
- It's a member of the cashew family (Anacardiaceae) and, like its cousins in that family (think poison oak, poison ivy, poison sumac), is a skin irritant. So just trimming it up to look nice can cause sensitive types (like me) to break out into a painful rash.
- It also produces allelopaths, chemical substances that inhibit the growth of other plants in its area. Like a planet, it clears its own orbit.
- Its so easy to grow that it currently dominates over 700,000 acres in Florida, making it the number one invasive plant species in the state.
Given the abundance of Brazilian Peppers in Florida, it is surprising that the Fulvous hairstreak is not one of the state's most prevalent butterflies.It isn't though. This sighting was my first in the fifteen years I've lived in Florida. As Cech and Tudor continue:
While it does often occur in swarming local colonies, the Fulvous is not an everyday sight throughout its range. It poses no visible threat to its hostplant's viability, based on it apparently modest appetite as an herbivore.More's the pity, some might say. Sometimes I don't know whether to admire or curse Nature's whimsy. Beautiful native plants like the Fiddlewood (Citharexlyum fruticosum) get stripped down to twigs by the fiddlewood roller (Epicorsia oedipodalis, a fairly ugly little caterpillar that grows into an even uglier moth), yet the beautiful butterfly that feeds on Brazilian Pepper doesn't even put a dent in that noxious weed. Still, I suppose it's a good thing that I don't see too many of these little butterflies in my yard; it means there aren't too many Brazilian Peppers in my neighborhood. There's also another way of looking at it: there are reports from Cuba of this butterfly feeding on a diverse genus of wildflowers, Salvia, of which I have several different varieties in both front and back yards. If the south Florida hairstreaks feed on Salvia as well, I won't mind having them around at all! References Cech, R. and G. Tudor. 2005. Butterflies of the East Coast: an observing guide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Glassberg, J. 2012. A Swift guide to butterflies of North America. Sunstreak.
I've been focused on other things so far this year, so I haven't been working out in the garden nearly as much. And without being outside as much, I haven't encountered nearly as many animals as I normally do. This weekend, though, I was able to get out in the back yard for a little while, and I found a few insects flying around. One was a moth that I'd never seen before, Slosson's metalmark (Tortyra slossonia). Very flashy, quite small; it was walking around on a typically huge elderberry flower (technically an inflorescence, or collection of flowers) that was about six inches diameter. It was fairly quiescent, which normally makes for a good photographic subject, but the wind was blowing the plant around fairly frequently, making focusing a challenge. Unfortunately, right as the wind started to settle, the moth was flushed by an approaching butterfly, and I never saw it again. Here's the best image I was able to obtain: a brief write-up on the "little brown jobs" common to birding and butterflying.The plant was in shade, so I had to use flash, and the tone of the image is a bit muted compared to the brilliant metallic orange-red of the wing stripes, but the "face" of this little beast is so interesting I had to show a picture of it somehow. I can't wait to meet this guy again and get some more shots! And over on the sunny side of the house, I saw a pair of male little brown butterflies giving each other problems. Neither one wanted to allow the other a place to perch and bask and (perhaps) espy a passing female. But every now and then one would alight for a few seconds and allow a frame or two to be squeezed off. Here's one that worked, well enough to ID the guy as a Horace's Duskywing (Erynnis horatius): If you're curious, you can see a female E. horatius that I found a few years ago in the "courtyard"; that experience prompted