it’s feeling fallish

We spent a beautiful morning walking along the St. Croix river at Afton State Park recently, and I noticed that it seems more like fall weather now, and a lot less like summer. What a difference a couple of weeks makes in the climate here.

The beach along the Minnesota side of the St. Croix river is deserted…just the way I like it. There are a few warblers around, geese are flocking up in preparation for migration, and the last of the summer wildflowers are holding onto their blooms, just a little longer.
A somewhat bedraggled Great Spangled Fritillary was foraging on the Sneezeweed flowers — just about the only wildflowers left along this shoreline of the river. This is one of the largest, and longest lived butterflies here in MN. It mates in June but doesn’t lay eggs until August and September, somewhere near a patch of violets, on which its larvae will feed in the spring.
Cedar Waxwings were acting like flycatchers as they perched and then sallied out to catch whatever insects were flying by their perch.
And the ever-present and numerous Canada Geese are now gathering in large flocks to prepare for migration. Here they come downriver right at us…
They fly so closely together you would think their wings would get in the way of each other. In fact, so close that two birds on the right side of the photo look like one bird with four wings!
Nothing symbolizes fall in Minnesota like these flights of Canada Geese.
Fall may be my favorite season, even though it leads into my most dreaded season of bitter winter. But I love the fall weather and color as the landscape begins to glow.

Blooms in the backyard

In the Minnesota backyard, some of the summer blooms are in their full glory, particularly the purple coneflower. Butterflies and bees are drawn to these flowers…

A Great Spangled Fritillary stopped by…
And examined each of the disk flowers in the flower head intensively.
I caught the approach of one of the honeybees buzzing the coneflowers.
And was able to zero in on the bee when it landed.
Even the Goldfinches were checking on the flower heads, I suppose to see if they had made any seed yet. But these flowers have just opened up in the last few days.

A hike in a Sierra meadow

There are lots of trails to explore in the Lake Tahoe basin, and we took the grandkids on a “walk” from their cabin on Fallen Leaf lake all the way to a swimming beach on Lake Tahoe — an almost 7 mile hike. Naturally, there were a number of stops to rest and swim at places along the way, and there was a promise of ice cream at the end of the hike, and that’s all it took to get the kids there.

The water of Fallen Leaf lake is as clear as that of Lake Tahoe, but right now the water near shore is more of a greenish color due to all the pine pollen accumulating there. If the glaciers that created it had continued to carve their path from the Glen Alpine valley, this lake would simply be a bay of Lake Tahoe.
The trail along the east side of the lake wanders through countless meadows and stands of Jeffrey pine (the one that has a scent of vanilla wafting from the cracks in its bark). The tall meadow lupine was in full bloom.
Another blue-purple flower that I thought was forget-me-not turned out to be Pacific Hound’s Tongue, so named for the shape of its basal leaves that resemble a dog’s tongue. The flowers were loaded with small Two-banded Checkered Skipper butterflies feasting on nectar.
Juncos are already far along in their nesting cycle, feeding their rapidly growing chicks.
A Red-breasted Sapsucker checked us out as we walked under him on our trek by the salmon run on Taylor Creek. I wonder if this is the same bird we saw here in April at this spot?
White-headed Woodpeckers are somewhat common in the pine forest here in the Tahoe basin. This female was feeding chicks in the nest (on her left) and not at all shy about us walking near her.

Flowers of the desert

Although we have been a little early in some places and a little late in others, we still have seen some of the spring wildflower show as we travel.

One of the most exotic flowers we saw were on this claret cup cactus, actually an endangered species found only at the intersection of Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico — which is exactly where we were when we saw it. The plant puts out brilliant scarlet flowers on cylindrical stems that mound together into a cactus clump.
The color of the flowers suggests it might be pollinated by hummingbirds, although the shape of the flower is wrong. However, the “flower” is actually the outer sepals and petals combined, and the nectar reward for the hummingbird pollinators is in the central chamber surrounded by hundreds of thready stamens.
Cylindrical flowers of the Ocotillo are the more typical hummingbird floral type, but a number of other birds enjoy these flowers for their nectar, as well as the insects they attract.
Why bother probing into the flower for nectar when you can just rip the flower off the stem and eat the whole thing, as this male Pyrrhuloxia is doing?
Looking for insects on unopened Ocotillo buds? A male Gila Woodpecker might enjoy both a nectar and an insect reward from these flowers.
A female Rufous Hummingbird foraged on a bunch of Penstemon flowers in the early morning at Cave Creek ranch in Portal Arizona.
A Clear-wing Moth and Pygmy Blue butterfly foraged on the bush lupine right outside our room at Cave Creek ranch in Portal Arizona. This plant had so many flowers and apparently so much nectar, it was constantly moving with the all the butterflies and bees swarming on it.
The Southern California deserts didn’t receive enough rain this year to produce much of a wildflower show, but the Desert Agave still bloomed here, along with many Ocotillo plants, giving this desert in Anza Borrego State Park some color. The Agave plants only send up one flower spike in their lifetime, as tall as the plant’s energy resources will allow, to attract bats to pollinate them.

look-alikes (and not)

The Grass Lake slough at Snail Lake regional park is teeming with butterflies, especially Monarchs, which may be congregating here for their southward migration.  The Monarchs especially seem to like the meadow blazing star and don’t even mind sharing it with a lot of other butterflies, bees, etc.

The number of flowers present on meadow blazing star is one reason that butterflies congregate on it. The fact that it provides a lot of nectar at a time (late August) when butterflies are migrating is another.

Plenty of nectar to go around for Painted Ladies (also migrating by the thousands in late summer), Monarchs, bumblebees, honeybees, and a few stray beetles.  The orange, black, and white pattern of the Painted Lady is similar to that of Monarchs, but they are not mimics and the two are easily distinguished from one another.

But one of the many Monarch butterflies I photographed wasn’t a Monarch, but a Monarch mimic, the Viceroy, and these two unrelated species ARE difficult to tell apart.  Can you spot the difference(s)?

Both species exhibit the bold orange and black pattern on the wings as well as the pattern of white dots on the black head and thorax of the insect. 

The biggest difference in coloration of the two species is the bold black horizontal (sort of) stripe on the hind wing of the Viceroy, seen from above or below.  The thick black lines on the hind wing of the Viceroy are similar to those of a female Monarch but are much bolder than the male Monarch’s, which also has a distinctive dot on each hind wing.  In addition, Viceroy butterflies are smaller in size, only about 2/3 the size of a Monarch.

But where Monarch caterpillars grow up eating milkweeds containing poisonous cardiac glycosides which they sequester in their bodies (and wings), Viceroy caterpillars eat willow, poplar, and cottonwoods — not at all poisonous. Bird predators find Monarch butterflies extremely distasteful and will regurgitate or spit them out. Viceroy butterflies that most closely resemble their poisonous cousins in coloration are better protected from predation, and thus, the mimics survive to reproduce.

And then there are these two, apparently dissimilar butterflies, flitting around the same plants, often displacing each other from the same flowers.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail comes in two colors: yellow and black, and black.

Not at all look-alikes, in fact, color-wise, they couldn’t look more different, except for the pattern of white dots around the margin of the wings and the distinctive iridescent blue splashes of color on the back end of the hind wings.  So, what’s going on here?

Male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies are almost always yellow with black stripes.  Females on the other hand vary between yellow morphs and black morphs.  And, the black morph is more commonly found in the southeastern U.S. where a similar-colored, poisonous and unpalatable Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly occurs.  These are the “look-alike” models for the Tiger Swallowtail (and other Swallowtail butterfly species) to copy.  Interestingly, the proportion of female black morphs of the Tiger Swallowtail is higher in southern populations because of genetic (sex-linked) process that makes black morph females produce mostly black morph females, and yellow females produce mostly yellow females!

Bottom line:  you have to look closely when identifying a butterfly, because it might be a mimic!

Comparison of three common swallowtail butterfly mimics and their model, the Pipevine Swallowtail. From butterfliesathome.com

it’s not always a perfect fit

While waiting for the hummingbirds to show up to have their photos taken last week, I got plenty of time to watch some insect pollinators in action.  Some plants are obviously not fussy about what or how many pollinators they attract, so they put out a vast array of flowers — like a buffet table.

Black-eyed Susans and Purple Coneflower put their pollen and nectar up for grabs on the tiny disc flowers at the center of the flower. All comers are welcome to partake here — in this case, a Tiger Swallowtail was dipping its long proboscis carefully into each of the tiny openings of the disc flowers.

But some plants are fussier about which pollinator they cater to and which they can physically exclude.  It was amusing to watch several different bee species work the plants with tubular flowers, especially the ones with deep necks, like Salvia and Bee Balm.

A slender honeybee fits just perfectly into the deep corolla of a Salvia plant, as it crawls down to the base where the nectar is located.  Bumblebees would not fit here.

Both honeybees (above) and common eastern bumblebees (in this photo) “flock” to the Hyssop plants in great numbers.  But you notice that the while honeybee’s head fills the flower opening, the bumblebee’s head is too big, and it must rely on a long tongue to reach the nectar at the base.

Sometimes smaller is better, as far as pollination of the flower is concerned, because the smaller honeybee does a better job of contacting the flower’s reproductive parts and transferring pollen from one flower to the next.

Lobelia flowers were a perfect fit for the smaller worker bumblebees, but that didn’t keep larger-bodied bumblebees from trying to get its nectar.

Look what happens when this medium-sized bumblebee tries to get into the Lobelia flower.

This bumblebee is too big to fit into the flower opening, while another, smaller worker bumblebee, (below) crawls right in.  And notice how nicely that smaller bee contacts the protruding (white) stigma (the female reproductive part) of the flower as it enters and exits.  No doubt this bee will transfer pollen effectively.

This bee was able to work itself all the way into the flower, so that just the back legs were dangling outside.

Meanwhile, tiny little forget-me-not flowers, with their miniscule central opening, require the services of small bees with slender tongues to reach the chamber with the nectar.  Sweat bees are just the right size, and I found two different species hovering and probing the flowers.

black sweat bee probing forget-me-not flowers

That’s a pretty tiny opening to access this flower for its nectar supply.

Green sweat bees are common in the garden — I hadn’t noticed the black variety before today.  The green one looks well dusted with pollen.  Both species have sleek, almost hairless abdomens, unlike bumblebees and honeybees, but have lots of short hairs on their heads and abdomens, great places to collect pollen as they search flowers for nectar.

Who needs a macro lens (or a telephoto)?

I own a suite of lenses I use for different purposes with my DSLR camera (a Sony a7iii), but when I travel, taking them all along would weigh me down.  The solution!  The new Sony rx10 (Mark 4), a relatively light-weight, fixed lens camera that does it all with a 24-600 mm Zeiss zoom lens — landscapes, telephoto, and unexpectedly wonderful up-close macro photography as well.  OMG, I’m sold.

Look how this camera does 600 mm macro photography…

No crop. I can fill the frame, getting as close as this Painted Lady butterfly will tolerate.

I thought I needed to stand at least 6 feet away, like I would with my DSLR + zoom lens combo, in order to get the camera to focus at 600 mm, but that is not the case.

I’m pretty far away in this shot, but walked closer on each successive shot below with no loss of focus.

New camera, new opportunities.  And next, new vistas, as we journey to South America for some quality time with rare birds and mammals in Brazil.

Roadside gardens

Quite a few years ago now, the city decided our street needed a walking trail, not just a mere sidewalk, along the roadside.  As a consequence, residences lost 10-20 feet of their front yards, and some embellishments like granite boulders or brick walls were added to separate hillsides from walking trails.  Somehow this spurred a roadside gardening movement, and the result is a long boulevard of very attractive gardens which have become a mecca for bees and butterflies.

Roadside garden

Monarch butterfly on Shasta daisy

A female monarch butterfly visiting a patch of Shasta daisy, but there is milkweed nearby as well.

Roadside garden

Daylillies of all colors brighten up the roadside.

Roadside garden

A profusion of pink and purple…

Roadside garden

Hoverflies love the pollen of these Asiatic lillies

Roadside garden

Thank you roadside gardeners for brightening up my morning walk!

Into the rainforest

We left the delightful warm weather in Lima for the steamy jungle in northeastern Peru, where plants thrive, insects diversify to eat them, and birds that eat both the insects and or the plants adopt outlandish colors and decorative feathers to show off.  In other words, we are immersed in DIVERSITY.

Explorama lodge, Amazon river

Explorama lodge on the Amazon river

We headed down the Amazon river about an hour from Iquitos (in northeastern Peru) by motor boat, to Explorama Lodge, where we would stay in non air-conditioned lodging, with cold showers to cool us down after trekking through the steamy jungle. Boat trips out on the river and walks through the rain forest provided opportunities to see some of that diversity.

Passion flower butterfly

Passion flower butterfly

Heliconia flower

Heliconia flowers, a relative of banana, are actually colorful, waxy bracts, in which the actual flowers hide. They advertise their sweet nectar to hummingbirds with bright red and yellow colors.

Scarlet macaw

Scarlet macaw, really up-close, a family pet of river villagers

White-cheeked Jacamar, Explorama lodge, Amazon

The White-chinned Jacamar is shades of iridescent teal and green with a chestnut cap and a white chin of course.

Poison dart frog, Amazon forest

Poison dart frogs are tiny but bright and can be found in the moist forest floor or lower vegetation.

Are you seeing a pattern here of vividly bright colors of tropical flowers and animals?  I wonder why that is?  Your thoughts?

A good omen

I count it as a good omen that the first animal I saw on this trip to Peru was a Monarch butterfly.

Monarch butterfly, Lima, Peru

Monarch butterflies are probably resident year-round here in this equitable climate.  I hope these populations are healthier and more numerous than the ones that migrate to the U.S. from Mexico.

Walking among the high rise buildings and city industry of the Miraflores area of Lima, the only living things to be seen were people and plants.  So when we stumbled across a park dedicated to the fallen defenders of the city during the War of the Pacific between Peru and Chile in 1881, I was delighted to find a few birds in the trees and a few Monarchs nectaring on the Lantana blossoms.

War memorial Park in Miraflores, Lima, Peru

One of many statues in the park commemorating the fallen defenders, some of whom were apparently young children.  Colorful buildings, too.