Even in a poor year…

The butterfly sights in Bear Creek are worth waiting for, even in a season that has been damaged by extremely early emergents, late hard freezes, and the wettest July on record, including a couple very heavy rains in Bear Creek. Here are a few beauties. First, Polites mystic, the mystic skipper. I feel pretty mystical when I find one.mystic

Not to be confused with Ochlodes sylvanoides, the sylvan skipper. These look similar, but note the very black “stigma” on the mystic skipper. The sylvan’s stigma is brown, and less imposing.sylvanoides

This is the banded hairstreak, Satyrium calanus. It was one of only two species of Lycaenidae, or gossamer winged butterflies, I saw all day. I love his six-point stance, like a linebacker.calanus

The other Lycaenid was the tailed copper, Lycaena arota. This one is taking nectar from Eriogonum (wild buckwheat) flowers.arota.png

And last for today, a police car moth (one of the better named species!), Gnophaela vermiculata.vermiculata.png

Bear Creek, reprise

It’s a poor summer for butterflies in Bear Creek, but here’s Speyeria aphrodite, a big female, on the flowers of Monarda fistulosa.DSC03919

And one of the true rarities in El Paso County: Nymphalis californica, the California tortoiseshell butterfly, my third record in 30 years.DSC03911.jpg

Spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) is setting fruit.DSC03917.jpg

And I told you once before, but I’m telling you again, the wild raspberries are going fast. Get ’em while they’re ripe!DSC03914.jpg

A Note on Aspen Ecology

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In 2004, the Catamount Biological Field Station published a research brief by Peter Marchand and Anne Havemann (http://www.catamountcenter.org/research-and-projects/research-briefs/phellinus-tremulae-and-nest-cavity-resources-in-the-upper-montane-forests-of-the-pikes-peak-region/) that reported that aspen tree holes are strongly favored over conifers in terms of nesting sites for birds. In a survey of montane breeding birds they found 14 cavity-nesting insectivorous bird species (29 pairs), all but two of which nested in aspen tree holes, even when conifer tree holes were available. They further discovered that 87.5% of the tree holes studied were visibly infected by Phellinus tremulae, a heart rot fungus that seems to be transmitted from tree to tree by birds, bats, and probably insects. This led Peter Marchand to embark on a separate study of the significance of Phellinus on the health of aspen stands at and around the Catamount Field Station. Marchand’s study was apparently never published, but the upshot was fascinating to me.

It all starts with an aspen tree hole, into which Phellinus fungus is introduced, probably by woodpecker beaks that have previously probed and hammered infected tree holes.

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http://www.featheredphotography.com/blog/2014/06/04/williamsons-sapsuckers-and-the-glory-hole-aspen/ Photo by Ron Dudley

The fungus makes the tree easier to excavate as time goes on, so tree hole inhabitants can find nesting spaces. The presence of hungry birds reduces the numbers of moth larvae that feed on aspen leaves. This is good for the aspen!

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Thus, aspen, indirectly, seem to benefit from having heart rot fungus to make the tree holes livable. Of course, too much fungus would threaten the whole aspen stand. But having some trees infected is apparently beneficial to the degree that they attract the insectivorous birds. Balance is everything. The 2004 study found that about 12% infection by heart rot fungus provides an adequate number of tree holes to host hungry birds to provide protection for the aspen stand.

Benefiting from a parasitic fungus seems unusual to me. It would be like finding that athlete’s foot attracts a beneficial microbe, so humans would maintain a significant infection rate to gain the benefit. Are there parallels in our species? I mean, we have mutualists galore. But what about “beneficial” parasites?

The first feedback loop is a simple relationship between aspen and the herbivores that defoliate and damage it. As moths increase, aspen decrease. Bad for the aspen!

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But, with the introduction of the Phellinus fungus, aspen find an indirect benefit due to the increase in tree holes and their nesting birds, which depress moth populations. Good for the aspen!

Second

Remember that the decrease in moths creates an increase in aspen. It might seem that since the nesting birds positively affect the aspen, they would positively affect the fungus, the tree holes, and themselves. So what prevents a runaway, reinforcing loop for the tree-hole-nesting birds? I imagine, predators:

Final

This balancing set of effects seems to create a dynamic advantage to all species involved, and maintains ecosystem health.

Horsemint

Monarda fistulosa, or horsemint, is almost as a good a butterfly flower as dogbane. But by my records, Monarda has 787 visitors of 33 species, while dogbane still holds the record with 2868 visitors and 78 species. This butterfly is an Aphrodite silverspot. Note that the viewer can see both upper and lower surfaces, which makes this a great, if not good, photo.

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Pikes Peak, July 2017

Here’s a pair of arctic blues, Agriades rustica, best friends, on a Potentilla flower.Agriades in cop.jpg

Anarta nigrolunata, a little fuzzy moth, on little blue forget-me-not flowers, and on a rock.DSC03850.jpg

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And Lasionycta dolosa, the most common species in this genus of Hadenine owlet moths on the Pikes Peak tundra. This moth is shown only from Colorado on the Moth Photographers Group, but seems to range from RMNP to the San Juans, with Pikes Peak in the middle. That long left antenna is actually a grass awn. And how about that tiny black beetle?Lasionycta.jpg

Mead’s sulfur, Colias meadii, is one of the most common butterflies of the tundra. The upper side is all dark orange.DSC03817.jpg

Boloria chariclea a lesser fritillary from the tundra, on old-man-of-the-mountain flowers, pretty much all day.Boloria chariclea.jpg

Urban Red Tailed Hawks

Rather than having 15 separate posts on the red tailed hawk nest in our backyard, I have put a photo log here for those who are interested. The parent birds arrived in February and March.

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The nest itself is in the damaged crown of a blue spruce. They began building it in 2016, but didn’t use it last year. This year, in March and April they added to it and began sitting by about the first of May.DSC02537

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Continue reading “Urban Red Tailed Hawks”

Williams Alumni at The Nature Place

What a great week at The Nature Place near Florissant, Colorado. Thanks to all the Williams alumni for being interesting people engaged in studies of geology and natural history. See the post below this one for an update on our rabbit bot fly. But first, here are a few photos. Remember the anicia checkerspot?Anicia checkerspot

And, of course, the blue columbine from above the snowfields on Horseshoe Mountain.Blue columbine

And the 50+ elk across the stream below the cirque.Elk at Horseshoe Mtn

And Parry’s primrose, one of the most photographed flowers in the tundra.Parry' Primrose

And meanwhile, back at the lodge, Caripeta aequaliaria, the red girdle moth, hiding under the eaves.Snowia montanaria

And this little mountain bluebird juvenile on Wilkerson Pass.W bluebird juv

Thanks for a great week! See you all in 2019? If I’m not in a wheelchair.

 

The Female Rabbit Bot Fly

What th—? A Rabbit Bot Fly? Really??

Bot Fly, Cuterebra, family Oestridae, probably a rabbit bot

Today on Shelf Road in Fremont Co., Sam Peck, a veteran Blackhawk helicopter pilot and one of the Nature Place Staff, brought me the most amazing insect I’ve seen in years. Mystified at what it might be, I posted it on Arthropods Colorado Facebook group. Within an hour or two, I had about thirty comments, among which was an identification to genus and family: Alejandro Estrada identified it as a bot fly, genus Cuterebra, family Oestridae. Eric Eaton, entomology generalist who knows almost everything with six legs, further identified it as a rabbit bot, based in part on the red in the eyes. OMG. Then Prof. Boettner from UMass went still further, calling it Cuterebra lepusculi, and female based on the wide gap between the eyes. He verified that only the females have the red eye spots, and said that they fade with time in museum specimens. Unbelievable. They attack mainly cottontail rabbits. Other commenters noted how cute it is, but still others found this revolting, as bot flies are parasites that lay eggs under your skin, where the larvae hatch and cause an inflamed canker that eventually ruptures to allow the hideous (but cute) parasite to fly away. Although this particular specimen was not capable of flight, Prof Boettner assures me that once this thing sits for 24 hours or so, it will fly like its house is on fire, and will lay eggs in rabbit burrows.

Prof. Boettner’s last email on this subject states, “Hi Sam. Say hi to the Williams College gang for me. I should mention that although bots have short lives, females can lay over a thousand eggs in that short 10 day lifespan. And they only need one male and female egg to survive to keep the population stable. Amazing every rabbit isn’t infested. But they waste a lot laid in runways that never get in a host. That is a beauty that you found. One of the larger bots in the world. There is one in New Mexico that has yours beat in size. C. mirabilis. Nearly 2 inch long females! It uses black tailed jackrabbits as a host. And the male of that species has never been seen. So lots of mystery in the bot world.” He is doing DNA studies, and expressed the hope that I might have taken the specimen. Darn. So, maybe Sam Peck will go back up there and find me another one.

Bot Fly, Cuterebra, family Oestridae, probably a rabbit bot

Some viewers thought it might be a sculpture, a model. But it’s the real thing. After that, this moth larva seemed almost pedestrian.DSC03592