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
I've already mentioned how glad I've been to have the Bahama Sennas I put in last spring (Senna mexicana var. chapmanii). They've attracted my "everyday" sulphur, Cloudless (Phoebis sennae), a nice Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe), and now a new butterfly for the yard (one of the only new insects discovered in this windy, windy November), the Orange-barred Sulphur (Phoebis philea):As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a different butterfly than any of the ones I'd seen before. Its size alone made it stand out; this is Florida's largest sulphur butterfly, even larger than the appropriately named Giant Orange Sulphur (P. agarithe). The cloudless sulphurs I see every day, while not exactly shrimpy, look small compared to this hulking giant. The color also made it stand out. The entire underside (that is, what's visible when it has its wings closed) was "rusty" orange, and the orange was particularly prominent when it was flying. I managed to capture a moderately nonhorrible image of the hindwing orange area, although it's nothing to write
home an entire blog post about:
The orange at the base of the female's hindwing is not the "bar" referred to in the name, though. The orange-barred part of the name comes from the male, which has a thick orange "bar" on the forewing (In case you didn't know, in describing an animal, stripes run vertically, while bars run horizontally.):
According to almost all of my books, the orange-barred sulphur colonized Florida from the West Indies in the late 1920s.1 According to Cech and Tudor, it is less migratory than our other sulphurs (Cloudless being the "typical"—or perhaps extreme, rather than typical—migratory sulphur, occurring over a wide range at various times of the year.)
Like most sulphurs, its larval host plant family (what the caterpillars eat) is the sennas in the genus Cassia (as opposed to the sennas in the genus Senna—plants are awesome!).
The caterpillars of the Orange-barred are highly variable green or yellow, but no matter what basal color they have, they have bold markings that make them quite a bit more colorful than the green-with-a-yellow-racing-stripe Cloudless cats:
However, I have yet to find one on my property; all of the candidate caterpillars I've found have turned out to be early instar cloudless sulphurs; as they grow, they get greener and greener.
Caterpillars of all the sulphurs appear to prefer to eat the flowers, although the leaves will do when there are no flowers present. (And there are rarely flowers present, since there are so many generations of caterpillars, and they all prefer the blossoms, or if those are absent, the buds.)
One gray and overcast morning near the end of October I saw a large moth nectaring from the porterweed and petunia patch out front. I took a terrible video with my phone, then ran inside for my real camera with its real macro lens and ran off thirty shots in hopes of getting something useful for ID purposes. And sure enough, shot number thirty (thank goodness!) was enough to ID it, although it certainly wasn't an aesthetically pleasing portrait of this actually quite lovely moth:The wings in the picture above are blurry with motion; that's because they have to beat very fast to keep this rather fat moth airborne. The large size and the strong wingbeats have given this moth another common name, in addition to the rather "technical" white-lined sphinx: the hummingbird moth. That's not a specific name, though; several other large moths are also known as hummingbird moths. However, if you take the trouble to do an image search, you'll find that this is probably the prettiest of the hummingbird moths. It's fairly widespread, too. The page at BAMONA (that's Butterflies and Moths of North America) mentions that it's found on at least three continents:
Range: Central America north through Mexico and the West Indies to most of the United States and southern Canada. Also occurs in Eurasia and Africa.The reason for that large home range is that it's a generalist: its larvae can feed on many different plants:
Caterpillar Hosts: A great diversity of plants including willow weed (Epilobium), four o'clock (Mirabilis), apple (Malus), evening primrose (Oenothera), elm (Ulmus), grape (Vitis), tomato (Lycopersicon), purslane (Portulaca), and Fuschia [sic].This is the fifth "sphinx" I've found on the property (the previous four being Xylophanes pluto, Erinnyis ello, Manduca sexta, and Enyo lugubris). All of these moths are quite large and very interesting to look at. Actually, this is the sixth sphinx moth I've found, but I don't have a solid ID on the fifth one yet. One of the commenters at bug guide.net thought it was probably Aellopos sp., probably Aellopos tantalus, but the jury's still out: Still and all, large day-flying moths, while nowhere near as common in my yard as their cousins the butterflies, do provide some interest. And these particular moths, the white-lined sphinx, since one of their larval host plants is purslane, give me a reason not to pull up the rather large patches of purslane "weeds" in my beds of golden creeper: The yellow-flowering purslane is probably Portulaca oleracea; I also have a pink-flowering version, Portulaca pilosa, that's quite pretty as well: And I haven't felt the need to get rid of these low-growing "weeds." That really is one of the best parts of gardening for wildlife: you can tolerate weedy species that have redeeming qualities. Cheers! PS—I have no idea where the genus name comes from. In Greek mythology, Hylas was a companion of Herakles, but I haven't been able to find any info about any Hyles. In medieval Latin, hyle was used as a transliteration of the Greek húlē, wood, matter; in another sense, the first matter of the cosmos, from which the four elements arose, according to the doctrines of Empedocles and Aristotle. It isn't immediately apparent why it was applied to this particular genus.
This October, just in time for Halloween, I've had sightings of two different orange and black butterflies known as crescents: Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) and Phaon Crescent (Phyciodes phaon). I've written about the Pearl Crescent before, but here are this month's pictures: The upper side, at least, is orange and black. The under side is more brown and cream than black: The Phaon Crescent looks remarkably similar; the main difference is that one of the bands of orange in the upper wings in Pearl is cream-colored in Phaon: There are plenty of orange-and-black butterflies in this part of the world, of course (Monarch, Queen, Gulf Fritillary), but these two are kind of fun, and they've been underrepresented on this website for the past few years. Both Pearl Crescent and Phaon Crescent are "weedy" butterflies. By this I don't mean that they are as common as weeds. They're actually, at least in my yard, somewhat rare. By "weedy" I mean that their larvae eat weeds. Phaon caterpillars eat the leaves of a ground cover known variously as carpetweed, turkey tangle fog fruit, frog fruit, mat grass. Its taxonomic name is Phyla nodiflora. It's fairly pretty: There's a decent-sized patch of it in the weedy front lawn of the house across the street from me (the one vacant house on the block). For an amazing life-cycle write-up of the Phaon Crescent, check out this page from MOSI outside. The look-alike butterfly, Pearl Crescent, eats the leaves of flowers in one of the largest families of flowering plants, the Asteraceae. The most common weed in south Florida? Bidens alba, in the Asteraceae. What I'm trying to say is both butterflies have their larval host plants in my neighborhood, so I can't decide which butterfly I'm looking at by simple probability. I have to look closely at each one to be sure I know which is which. Hopefully the little lesson above will help you figure yours out as well. Oh, did I mention? These are rather small butterflies; their wingspan is at most 1-1/4 inches. Yes, you do have to look rather closely. Etymology Phyciodes presumably comes from the Greek phykos, meaning (in a somewhat convoluted way) painted. The word actually means seaweed, but it also referred to the products made from it, among which one of the principal ones was cosmetics, rouge. (Seaweeds can be brown and red, right?) Tharos might be related to the Greek tharsos, courage, or it might be a reference to the ancient Sardinian city of Tharros, but it's not clear that's what Drury had in mind when he named this species back in 1773 (he called it Papilio tharos). Phaon, of course, was the handsomest man in the world, although he didn't start out that way. One day this old and unhandsome boatman from Mytilene had the good fortune to ferry the goddess of love, Aphrodite herself, from Lesbos to somewhere in Asia Minor. She was disguised as an old crone. Phaon, it is said, would accept no money for the fare. As recompense, Aphrodite gave him an ointment (it's supposed to have contained myrrh—those of you who remember Monty Python's Life of Brian know how some people feel about myrrh) to use that turned him young and handsome. After his transformation, he captured the heart of Sappho, it is said (no mean feat, that), but apparently grew weary of her charms, prompting her to drown herself. His end was no less predictable: Aelian reports (in Varia Historia) that he was slain by a husband he was cuckolding. As you can imagine, the story of Phaon was rather popular, being told by, among the ancients, Aelian, Ovid (Heroides xv, the epistle from Sappho to Phaon, translated by Alexander Pope), and Lucian. It was also illustrated on vases: I've always loved Greek vases, but the 7500-pound offering price on that one is a bit rich for my blood. The story was also depicted in paintings (this one by the unofficial semi-official painter of Napoleonic France, Jacques-Louis David): So the Pearl Crescent might translate as courageous painted butterfly, while the Phaon Crescent would be the beautiful painted ferryman. Go figure!
The senna plants I put in this spring have been paying dividends for the last couple of months already. A nearly constant population of Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) butterflies has been present, both adults and caterpillars, although the former are quite a bit more difficult to photograph than the latter. Still, I've managed a few decent shots. This month (October, for those of you who aren't reading this the instant I post it) these plants brought in a new species to the yard: Sleepy Orange, Eurema nicippe. I knew it wasn't a Cloudless Sulphur right away, because it was quite a bit smaller, and the upper side (visible only in flight) was bright orange. It nearly always has its wings folded when it lands, though, so the only images I have are of the yellow undersides: The brown patches on the wings indicate that this is a female. A good clue to its being an orange and not another kind of yellow or sulphur is that there are only two orange butterflies in this butterfly family: tailed orange and sleepy orange. As long as you see the orange wings in flight, you've got a 50-50 chance of identifying it right away. And the tailed orange has a very different wing shape, so... About as easy an ID as they come. Here's the other side of this beautiful butterfly: The "sleepy" in the name comes from the marking that looks like a "closed eye" in the forewing. Very few internet commentators give an illustration of this, at least those who work from live insects, because it's very difficult to get a good photo of this butterfly with its wings open. But if you do manage it (and I haven't), or you just use specimen photos, you can see the two spots that do indeed suggest closed eyes, at least to those with a little imagination: And apparently John Henry Comstock, the godfather of entomology in America, gave this species the first part of its common name based on that character.Butterflies and Skippers of Ohio (1992).'>1 I'm not sure when the common name changed from Comstock's original Sleepy Yellow to the current Sleepy Orange, but it helps easily distinguish it from the other Eurema species: if you see orange, you know it's not one of the "yellow" yellows. Here's the picture of it from Comstock's How to Know the Butterflies: It's surprising how many different guides don't show winter and summer forms when they're different, or female and male; for Sleepy Orange, there's quite a difference, so you'd need to show all four forms to really help your reader. The yellow on the summer form is "clean," with the various black markings showing up in stark contrast to the brilliance of the ground color. Minno and Minno (1999) illustrate this species (and most other species) quite well, with two male and two female specimens, one for each form (click the picture if you'd like to see the caption at legible size): Like several of the oranges and sulphurs, Sleepy Oranges enjoy both the flowers and the leaves of many kinds of cassias; mine is Senna mexicana, var. chapmanii, native to Florida and the West Indies. When it blooms (when the caterpillars leave it alone long enough for it to do so!), it has a pretty yellow flower. I saw one the other day, but it was so windy I wasn't able to get a picture of it. Here's one from April instead: Enjoy! References Cech, R. and G. Tudor. 2005. Butterflies of the East Coast: an observing guide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Comstock, J. and Comstock, A. 1904. How to Know the Butterflies. New York: Appleton. Minno, M. and Minno, M. 1999. Florida Butterfly Gardening: A complete guide to attracting, identifying, and enjoying butterflies of the lower South. Gainesville: U of Florida P.