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!
You find some funny things when you start reviewing your photo files looking for images to delete (file sizes are big these days!). So the other day I posted a photo sequence of a
Lasioglossum bee [UPDATE: chalcid wasp] lying in wait inside a flower to surprise a Cassius Blue butterfly in the act of taking a drink. In case you missed it, here's one of the images:
Another image I took that day was one that I hadn't even considered posting. It was a typical throw-away image of a Martial Scrub-Hairstreak nectaring so deep behind a flower cluster that you couldn't even see its head. It was both underexposed and (at first glance) uninteresting. Here's a crop of the main subject, with a bit of Photoshop processing to try to bring out some detail in the badly exposed image (shooting darkish wings against a brightly sunlit white wall isn't easy):
Normally I discard these underexposed images without even a second thought, but for some reason right before I hit "delete" my eye was drawn to the left of the image. I decided right away to save this one despite its rather poor technical quality because it was such an interesting and serendipitous capture of insect behavior:
There's another (maybe even the same one as in my previous post!) bee waiting in line for this flower!
Here's the full size detail of the bee; just enough to see that it is indeed a bee, and most likely in the genus Lasioglossum[UPDATE:wasp in the family Chalcidoidae].
If I'd been trying, I'd probably have had to spend hours and hours, and I still might not have been able to get even this nice an image of this tiny bee in flight. I'm amazed by the people who can take good images of flying bees insects.
Birds love it. Bees love it. Maybe even educated fleas love it. But butterflies probably love it the most. What is it? Why, butterfly sage, of course. I've written before about the merits of this plant variously known as butterfly sage, blood berry, bonbon rond, guérit-tout, gout tea, Curaçao bush, and more. All these names, and many more, according to Dan Austin, refer to this Florida-native shrub with the shaggy leaves, white flower heads, and red fruits, Cordia globosa. Mockingbirds are so partial to the abundant red berries and its densely branching habit that pairs will stake them out as nesting places and defend them against all comers. (The berries aren't particularly ornamental, though, because they're so small.) Honeybees are on the flowers from dawn till dusk. And even though it's not a larval host plant for any butterfly that I know of, it's one of the best butterfly nectar plants around, particularly for the smaller butterflies like the Fiery Skipper and the smaller blues and hairstreaks. In my yard, the following species have been seen on it (hit the links to recent photos for some species; the other species listed are ones for which I'm confident that I had photos before the hard-drive crash of Thanksgiving 2014):
halictid bees in the genus Lasioglossum chalcid wasps in the family Chalcidae, which seem to enjoy crawling around inside small flowers like Richardia, Lantana, and Cordia. Of course, when butterfly meets wasp, there's sometimes a bit of a standoff.
And that's what I found just the other day in the photo sequence below. In this first shot, the butterfly (a Cassius Blue) has just landed on the flower head and hasn't yet probed it. The wasp appears to be playing a game of hide and seek, or perhaps peekaboo:
The first shot was taken about two seconds before the second and third ones, which were taken at "the same time" according to my camera's info. If you look closely at the sequence of photos, you can see the butterfly backing away between the second and third shot after almost getting a proboscis full of wasp! I didn't get close enough to verify through the lens, but I'm pretty sure the wasp has a self-satisfied smirk on its face.
And, in case you were wondering about the Cole Porter reference that started this post, here's a picture of a pair of Cassius Blues enjoying the convenience of the butterfly sage plant in one of the most fundamental of ways:
Austin, D. 2006. Florida Ethnobotany. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis.
Osorio, R. 2001. A Gardener's Guide to Florida's Native Plants. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
- Atala Blue (Eumaeus atala)
- Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon istapa)
- Martial Scrub-Hairstreak (S. martialis)
- Cassius Blue (Leptotes cassius)
- Ceraunus Blue (Hemiargus ceraunus)
- Horace's Duskywing (Erynnis horatius)
- Fiery Skipper (Hylephila philaeus)
- Monk Skipper (Asbolis capucinus)
- Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
- Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia)
- Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
- Queen (Danaus gallipus)
- Great Southern White (Ascia monuste)
- Little Yellow (Pyrisitia lisa)
- Barred Yellow (Eurema daira)
- Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole)
- Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae)
I haven't seen nearly as many dragonflies in the back yard this summer as I have in years past; I'm not sure why. But it seems that nowadays I have to travel if I'm to see anything like the diversity or abundance of species I'd enjoyed in my back yard for the four years we've been in the new place. So the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend I went to Yamato Scrub, camera in hand, hoping to score an odonate fix. I managed to find quite a few, as well as some lovely little butterflies. As usual, I saw many more than the few who cooperated for the camera. Here are two, one each from the dragonfly and damselfly groups. First, the lovely red dragonfly Tramea onusta, called the Red Saddlebags (there is a Carolina Saddlebags as well; almost indistinguishable except that the black spots on the tail in Red are only on top, whereas in Carolina, the black goes all the way down the sides):And here's a damselfly. This one's a bluet, I suspect Atlantic (Enallagma doubledayi), but I can't rule out Familiar (E. civile) without having the specimen in hand and an argument with specialists: I think the broad bar of blue connecting the "eyespots" (called postocular spots by specialists) on the back of the head argues strongly in favor of Atlantic over Familiar, but it's by no means conclusive. Here's the bit I'm talking about: According to Paulson, who wrote the book on these bad boys, "postocular spots larger in Familiar and without occipital bar, but overlap." Bonus picture: Ceraunus blue butterfly, Hemiargus ceraunus: I love how the blue in the tailspot lights up so brilliantly in the right light. References Paulson, D. R. 2011. Damselflies and Dragonflies of the East. Princeton: Princeton UP.
A couple of years ago as I was just starting out in macro photography I experimented a little bit with depth of field using a beautiful male Citrine Forktail damselfly. Since then I've switched to a new macro lens and taken a lot more photos, but not much has changed. I still love how depth of field can be used to capture different elements of a scene; how it can make for a tack-sharp picture where everything's in focus or highlight just the item of interest and leave the rest blurry (know-it-alls call this this bokeh). Me, I'd like a little less bokeh in my pictures, since I'm usually shooting macro. I dream of a macro lens that might have more than a few millimeters of depth of field. Nonetheless, playing around with it is fun. One weekend morning I was able to sneak up on a couple of different butterflies nectaring on different flowers of the same small plant, Spanish Needles (Bidens alba or B. pilosa depending on which botanist you subscribe to, although the latest edition of Wunderlin and Hansen specify that B. alba is our common weed and B. pilosa is rare). Those of you who aren't on a mobile device should be able to hover your cursor over the image to watch how the narrow depth of field makes the effect of focal point very clear: these two butterflies are only a few inches apart, but they might as well be miles: Those of you who can't hover your cursor will have to click the link in the caption to see the second image, which has the advantage of bringing it up at a larger size, as well. To prove that no butterflies were harmed in the making of this photo experiment, here's a shot of the sulphur departing the scene afterward: If I'd had a wider depth of field, perhaps the darn thing would even have been in focus! And, just for fun, here's the butterfly staring me down with righteous indignation for this gross violation of his privacy:
Some days, you just get lucky. This Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia) just sat patiently on a leaf letting me snap pictures as I walked closer and closer.
The Rambur's Forktail damselfly (Ischnura hastata) is one of the more widespread and common damselflies in my area, and across the southern part of the country, really. Its range even extends into Hawaii, according to the sightings map from Odonata Central: 1 which means wide open lens. Adding flash to that means the pictures were almost solarized. Good thing digital processing is so powerful; you can at least see the action! Here is a bit more about the species, for those who are interested. Like the range map above, this is from Odonata Central:There are a couple of reasons this damselfly has such an extensive range. One is that they are fairly large, dwarfing their relatives, especially the tiny Citrine Forktail (I. hastata) or the equally dainty Everglades Sprite (Nehalennia pallidula). Another reason might very well be that they are badasses! I was sitting on the couch one lazy afternoon while the wife and kids were at the library when I noticed an Everglades Sprite drifting near the doorknob of one of the French doors that lead out onto the pool deck. I ran into my office to get my camera, but by the time I got back, a female Rambur's had taken notice of this Everglades Sprite as well. And here is what ensued! The first two pictures were overexposed because I had left the camera in "bird" mode,
Rambur's Forktail is the most widespread forktail of the New World, ranging as far north as Maine, southward to southern California, Mexico, Central and South America. . . . It also inhabits the Hawaiian Islands, where it was introduced in 1973. . . . As widespread as this species is, surprisingly little has been written about its biology. Both sexes will remain close to the water and although males are not territorial, females are known to be highly predaceous and often cannibalistic. Males often do not release females from the wheel position for several hours, and sometimes as many as seven, to secure their genetic contribution. Red females will sometimes attack males, but more often curl their abdomen downward while fluttering their wings in a refusal display.I bring to your attention the relevant bit from the description above: "females are known to be highly predaceous." As the Everglades Sprites attempting to get their mack on just a few feet away might say, "tell us about it!" References Odonatacentral.org Paulson, D. (2011). Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.
After a dry beginning to March (and no rain since then, but at least the heat's moderated a bit for the past few days), the odonates have started returning to the yard, just in time for the equinox! One or two of them run into mishaps:but by and large they are still the most formidable airborne insect predators out there. Most of them sprint to safety as I approach, although the Blue Dasher is often more docile, as is a chilly Eastern Pondhawk in the early morning: The smaller and daintier damselflies are generally more approachable with a camera even after the sun has warmed them up a little; after the "chill" of the morning burns off, most of my dragonflies sprint away as I approach. Damselflies, on the other hand, sit still so you can sneak up on them. And, if you look at the bottom of the photo below, other creatures have little difficulty approaching as well. Since I didn't notice the spider until after I'd come inside to view the photos on the screen, I have no idea what kind it is. Presumably a flower spider of some sort; it's quite small, given that the damselfly is no colossus itself. Happy first day of spring!
With my new "monthly inventory" program underway, I'm taking a bit more time in the mornings and at lunch out in the yard, weeding when windy, taking pictures when calm. And one day this month, I found something quite rare: a butterfly that's normally seen (when seen at all) in the Keys or in Cuba! Martial Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon martialis) is an unassuming little guy, like most hairstreaks on the small side. But two curly tails add some visual interest, and the rarity adds even more. Cech and Tudor, authors of the definitive butterfly guide to the East Coast describe its abundance as follows (writing in 2006):
We are aware of comparatively few mainland sightings of Martial since the early 1990s. And not having seen the species north of the Keys ourselves, we cannot confirm its reported association with Nettletree (Trema micranthema) as a mainland hostplant.Another field guide, while not commenting in so many words, restricts its reported range in Florida to south (locally uncommon to locally common) and the Keys (again, locally uncommon to locally common), saying "Best bet is to find good stands of the foodplant. The extensive stands of bay cedar at Cactus Hammock have recently  been destroyed by Hurricane Georges. Hopefully, they will recover." Here are the two meager shots I was able to capture of this rare visitor to my yard, which is completely lacking in its two known hostplants (Bay Cedar [Suriana maritima] and Florida Trema or Nettletree [Trema micrantha]): I don't know whether I'm going to add either of these hostplants in hopes of attracting this rarity to our yard on a more regular basis. Nettle tree is not attractive from an aesthetic point of view, although it is very attractive as a flowering and fruiting tree to all kinds of wildlife; Bay Cedar is prettier, but I don't have an ideal spot in the yard for it—unless I finally do something about a mistake I made four years ago. (That mistake was planting red-tipped cocoplum right up near the sidewalk. It grows too tall for the low shrub I want in that situation. However, Bay Cedar can grow to head height as well, so it's not automatic that I'll want to plug it in.) Nettle tree is a bit of a weedy species; when a site is thinned by fire or hurricane, it's among the first to move in and repopulate the area. And that's a plus for the wildlife, since the insects appreciate the abundant flowers, and the birds and small mammals appreciate the abundant small fruits, but its growth habit is sort of scraggly and leggy at the same time, and it quickly fills in and tries to take over an area. There's a pretty good write-up of it, with many pictures, on backyardnature.net. Here's a picture of it from the closest locale to my yard, Pondhawk Natural Area: For now, I'm content to sit back and let the garden grow, trimming and weeding as necessary; I'm not looking for too much more work. What the future holds in store, we shall see! References Glassberg, J., M. C. Minno, and J. C. Calhoun. 2000. Butterflies through binoculars. New York: Oxford University Press. Cech, R. and G. Tudor. 2005. Butterflies of the East Coast: an observing guide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
The Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) is not the largest butterfly in North America. That distinction goes to the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, at least to the larger females of that species. P. cresphontes, though, is still "noteworthy for its size" (Cech & Tudor). It's also a butterfly that is rather camera shy, at least in my experience. (The only pictures of an adult Giant Swallowtail in my photo files date back to Fern Forest days, back in 2007 or 2008.) Their larvae, however, are considerably less camera shy, and over the years I've noticed (and even written about) the tiny little "bird dropping" caterpillars that were showing up on the wild lime (a good Florida native plant) over in the corner of the yard. (I had thought that it was an out-of-the-way corner but wild lime is such a phenomenal grower that it's starting to crowd out the rest of the plants over there, and with all the little thorns it carries, it does a fairly good job of getting all the space it wants!) And their eggs, if you can find them, are even less shy of the camera, although they're so small they're quite difficult to get a good photo of, at least before you purchase a decent macro lens. I like the one in the shot below because, even though it was taken with a "normal" lens, the egg has a nice pearlescent sheen to it: An interesting note about the host plant, Zanthoxylum fagarum: like many other plants in the citrus family (Rutaceae, or rues), it is chemically active. It produces the aromatic "essential oils" that, true to their description, carry the "essence" of the fruit with them. They are "volatiles" as well, which basically means that they are fragrant. Some of these plants in the citrus family also produce toxic chemicals, in this case furanocoumarins, that discourage herbivory. Unless, that is, the herbivore can sequester or detoxify these chemicals somehow. Famous examples of this ability to detoxify chemicals include the Monarch butterfly (which can detoxify the cardenolides in milkweeds) and the heliconians (Julia, Zebra, Gulf Fritillary) that are able to feed on passion vines by detoxifying the various substances found in those plants. These little guys start off life just about as small as you can imagine: Before growing up to be one of the largest butterflies on the continent. And the "orange dog," as the Giant Swallowtail caterpillar is named, is able to detoxify the furanocoumarins found in wild lime, and this presumably confers some survival advantages similar to that of the famous "poisonous" milkweed caterpillars like the Monarch. This chemical defense, combined with the spiny nature of the host plant and the relatively disgusting-looking camouflage it employs (not many birds, at least, are likely to try to eat something that looks like a bird dropping), allows it to pursue its life cycle relatively unmolested in my yard. I say relatively unmolested because, well, this sometimes happens: My guess is that spiders aren't too fazed by the "bird poop" disguise, and if this thomisid (crab spider) was any more fazed by the chemical slurry inside the caterpillar, I don't know about it. Anyway, this week at long last, I found a cooperative adult from these (or nearby) caterpillars, and can at last bring you a picture of a Giant Swallowtail from my own back yard. Since this butterfly was in a shady area on a sunny day, I also learned a thing or two about photography. Here is the first image, taken with my 10-year-old Nikon D70, which I've completely forgotten how to control. I couldn't get the flash to fire so I had to set it to "auto," and it opened my aperture all the way up to f/3.2: Look at how nice and bright green the background is, and how bright (some might say overexposed) the butterfly looks. It's not a bad picture, and I'd probably have stopped right here if it hadn't been for two things: (1) the butterfly was absolutely motionless, allowing me to approach to as close as my macro lens would let me get without batting an eyelash (not that butterflies have eyelashes, but...); and (2) the left forewing ("top" wing) was obscured by some of the foliage. Since I didn't want to muff the next shots, and the butterfly was absolutely unmoving, I ran back inside to get my much newer D7100, which I've been using for the last year and a half. With this camera I was able to manually control the aperture, stopping down to f/16 to increase the depth of field. (Which, based on these images, hardly seems worth having done.) Doing so, however, made the background much, much darker, rendering these photos taken in broad daylight (admittedly, in a shady location) into "night-time" images: Despite the pictures being taken with digital cameras that were manufactured a decade apart (which is about a century in film years), the images are fairly comparable, except for image size (6MP for the D70, 24MP for the D7100). (I have, of course, downsampled them severely for web use.) Throughout this whole photo shoot, the butterfly hardly moved at all. I was able to get within a foot or two of it and take photos to my heart's content as it remained motionless in its bower. Here's a head shot, showing the amazing compound eyes of this large butterfly; you can see the rolled-up proboscis sticking out down below as well: And, last but not least, on the final shot I was able to get the whole butterfly, whose left wing came out from behind the distracting leaves from the first couple of shots: Even this shot, though, isn't perfect. The pose isn't quite as classic, because that darned left forewing is now slightly elevated, disrupting the symmetry of its resting position. Shortly after I left to take pictures elsewhere in my rather small backyard, I looked back over to this corner and the butterfly was gone. PS—according to my butterfly bible (Cech & Tudor's Butterflies of the East Coast: An Observer's Guide), the caterpillars of this species are called orange dogs because their "faces" (anterior ends) resemble a dog's head. You make the call: