Thursday, July 31, 2014

Great bird

A really great photo of an oyster catcher on Palm island by Peter Pearson.  Another beach nesting bird that needs some solitude to successfully nest.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Re: [Westernvancnature] Pipevine Swallowtail‏

Female pipevine swallowtail [photo by Bill Dunson]
Female pipevine swallowtail [photo by Bill Dunson]

Pipevine swallowtail/dorsal & ventral views [photos by Bob Perkins]

Very nice story and photos Bob (see email below).

I just happened to come across a female pipevine myself today and enclose two photos of the same butterfly taken 30 minutes apart.  Look how different they appear.  I wonder why Bob's female showed no blue on the hindwing- was it possibly an artifact of the angle and lighting due to the iridescence of the coloring? Or do they sometimes lack the intense blue of the males?  Or is it lost by wear and tear?  

For those who rely only on Glassberg's book you will note on plate 1 that he shows a male pipevine but does not give the sex or indicate a female pattern.  Males lack the row of large white dots around the rear portion of the open hindwings.

If you have tried to photograph pipevines you may have found that they flap almost constantly, so getting a shot of the spread wing configuration is difficult.

Remember that this species is distasteful due to chemicals retained from the caterpillars feeding on toxic pipevines.  A group of "black and blue" swallowtails (such as the female black tiger), red spotted purple and female Diana fritillary apparently mimic the pipevine so as to discourage predation by birds.

Bill Dunson

From: "Bob Perkins"
To: "Westernvancnature"
Sent: Sunday, July 20, 2014 4:13:21 PM
Subject: Pipevine Swallowtail

Because female pipevine swallowtails (Battus philenor) are so plain on the dorsal side that one might wonder if he or she was seeing a worn specimen of a different dark swallowtail. Fortunately, the pattern on the ventral side is clearly definitive. Because a pipevine gave me the opportunity this morning, I took enough photos to get dorsal and ventral views. Enjoy!


Bob Perkins
Woodlawn, Virginia
Historian and General Outdoorsman

Sea turtles in Hawaii

Here are some more awesome photos of green sea turtles in Hawaii.  It is amazing how they show little fear of divers.

My son is vacationing there and is sending me these amazing pictures.

Of course we are getting some green turtles nesting along the SW FL coast now but we do not have the water clarity to see these views offshore in the Gulf.


Sea turtle on beach

Josh Dunson and girlfriend with sea turtle
on beach in Hawaii July 2014
Here is another instance of a sea turtle asleep on a beach in Hawaii.  This is my grandson Josh Dunson and his girl friend from Salt Lake City.

This seems to be a male green turtle.

Amazing that they can be so trusting there compared to Florida!  Or does that mean that it is more dangerous in the ocean?

Bill Dunson

The Bird Diaper- a Solution to the Messy Porch Problem

Barn swallows babies
We would all like to be friends to the birds and enjoy their company.  However when a barn swallow builds a nest on your porch you will be tested to the limit by the resultant mess of mud and poop.

We recently had a wonderful nest of four baby barn swallows on our front porch and were debating how to cope with the mess.  I solved the poop problem by placing a rectangle of brown paper immediately under the nest with some rocks holding it in place.  It turns out that the adults rarely defecate on the porch but the little ones put their rear ends up over the edge of the nest and let fly.  Since the mess falls directly down onto the paper below the problem is solved.  

Barn swallow nest and diaper below on porch
When the babies are quite young the adults remove fecal material from the nest.  But when older the baby birds themselves defecate over the edge of the nest.  This is actually quite a neat evolutionary solution to the issue of how to keep the nest clean.   Birds that fouled their own nest must have had more diseases and were selected against.  So babies are hatched with the knowledge of how to go to the potty over the side of the nest! 

The diaper can be removed and recycled into fertilizer in the garden.  

Bill Dunson 

Summer Butterfly Delights on Purple Cone Flowers

Painted lady on echinacea
There is no greater summer pleasure than watching the "flying flowers", the butterflies.  It is wonderful just to appreciate their beauty, but is also an intellectual challenge to learn their names and their habits.  Of course first you have to plant or find some flowers that provide nectar to attract the butterflies.  Our "pollinator field" planted about two years ago has been very successful, and one of the best flowers for butterflies in this field is the purple cone flower or echinacea.  Here are five butterflies for you to learn that were found on echinacea.

The painted lady is well named and is an amazing  kaleidoscope of colors. You just have to learn to tell it from its sibling species the American lady, which has larger eye spots on the outside of the hind wing.

Black female tiger swallowtail
Everyone knows the yellow tiger swallowtail, but this black tiger female is confusing.  It is one of the "black and blue" butterflies which apparently mimic the toxic pipevine swallowtail.  It can also be confused with the spicebush and black swallowtails, the female Diana fritillary and the red spotted purple.  So if it confuses the predatory birds, it confuses humans also!  But isn't it amazing that female tiger swallowtails come in two color morphs, yellow and black, but that males are only yellow?  

Orange sulphur on echinacea
The orange sulphur can very easily be confused with its sibling species the clouded sulphur; the presence of a white morph makes it even more difficult.  These two may interbreed, further complicating the picture.  Talk about evolution in action!  It  helps a lot to get photos of the sulphurs to sort these and other species out later with the help of reference books, and experts available on line.

The fritillaries are another confusing group.  This great spangled fritillary has a distinctive light band extending around the edge of the hind wing between the silver spots.  But depending on where you are, you have to also consider Aphrodite, meadow, Gulf and variegated fritillaries.  
Great spangled fritillary

The ultimate in difficulty of identification for butterflies are the skippers, which except for a few species such as the silver spotted and mangrove skippers, are not that distinctive.  They tend to be brown and gray with various spot patterns.  But if you can learn your locally common species first, you will enjoy the subtle beauty of these little gems.  Here is a female sachem skipper; note the unusual pattern of markings on her forewing.

Female sachem skipper
The most practical way to make progress in learning the butterflies is to start with the 10 most common species in your area.  This may be a bit hard at first but the effort in learning  the common species pays off since you are able to begin to see patterns in nature that were otherwise invisible to you. 

Bill Dunson

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Four babies fill the nest‏

Barn swallow babies with mom in nest

The barn swallow nest on our front porch is filled to capacity with four bouncing babies so Mom has to perch on one side to feed them.

I solved the poop problem by putting a piece of cardboard on the floor beneath.  So when the babies deposit their business over the edge of the nest it does not hit the porch but the "diaper" beneath.

It won't be long now until they fly away but we have enjoyed watching them.


Should you plant Crocosmia as a hummingbird flower?‏

Occasionally you have the opportunity to get a new flower for your garden and you wonder if it will provide nectar for your hummingbirds.  We discovered a beautiful red tubular flower from S Africa called crocosmia in a friend's garden and planted some in our VA garden.  It seemed ideal for hummingbirds and they do visit it, but less often than they search the flowers of nearby native coral honeysuckle.  A closer inspection of the flower reveals why it may not be ideal for hummingbirds.

The crocosmia flower is curved, possibly in a co-evolutionary development with the curved bill shape of sunbirds that feed on its nectar.   Sunbirds are convergent on hummingbirds but not closely related to them  ( ).  A flower in our FL gardens from S Africa, the Cape honeysuckle, is similarly strongly curved and defeats the attempts of our N American birds to drink nectar from the corolla tube.  Instead our birds, such as orchard orioles, and some bees have learned to bite through the base of the flower and steal the nectar.

The bill of our only eastern N American hummingbird is only very slightly curved and thus better adapted for relatively straight red tubular flowers from eastern N America such as coral honeysuckle and cardinal flower.
So when you are shopping for flowers to plant to feed your yard hummingbirds, carefully consider the shape as well as color to determine whether they are likely to be suitable.  In this case, native species are far more likely to be acceptable since they have evolved in concert with the native hummingbirds.  But if an exotic flower is red, has a relatively straight corolla tube of the proper length , and delivers sufficient nectar of high sugar concentration, it may be a better way to feed hummingbirds than by artificial sugar water.

Bill Dunson 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Plant It and the Bugs Will Come

Wildflower field - Dunson farm
Two years ago with the help of NRCS we planted five acres of native N American wildflowers with the purpose of enhancing the habitat for pollinators.  This field is now nearing its peak of flowering and the bugs are coming to sample the nectar from the thousands of flowers.

Just as an example two of those beautiful but confusing yellow 
Orange sulpher nectaring on butterfly weed
butterflies have been common in 
this field, the orange sulphur and the sleepy orange.  But butterflies are not just looking for nectar.  I found one silver spotted skipper on our front porch nearby that was obtaining sodium salts and other needed metabolic wastes by drinking fluid from a bird dropping!  This may seem bizarre but nectar as a food is deficient in some substances.  Talk about empty calories!
Sleepy orange butterfly

Other interesting insects are also present on plants in this field. Elderberries have come in as volunteer plants and have attracted one of their spectacular pests which is the elderberry borer.  Its larvae live in the plant stems and roots and it apparently picks up toxins from the elderberry and uses these to protect itself from predators.  It advertises its toxicity by bright warning colors.  This is one of the so-called long horn beetles, which really have long antennae not horns.  
Elderberry borer
There are also dragonflies in the field which might surprise you since they need water to lay their eggs and for the larvae to develop.  The female widow skimmer is feeding in this terrestrial habitat while the males hang out at nearby ponds protecting their territories and mating with females which periodically visit the ponds.  The females can thus avoid some competition for food with the males.

Female widow skimmer
So our created wildflower meadow is a busy microcosm of insect  life and provides a great lesson on the inter-relationships of life and our ability to improve habitats by changing the plant species present.

Bill Dunson

Silver spotted skipper drinks from bird poop

Friday, July 4, 2014

Charlotte County takes steps to reduce environmental protections

On Tuesday, June 24, 2014, the Charlotte County Commissioners voted to approve changes to the environmental protections provided in the current county Comprehensive Plan.  According to the Lemon Bay Conservancy, "The proposal will remove protections and will allow changes to density restrictions that will potentially increase development in sensitive portions of the coastal high hazard area and intrude into wetlands."
These changes have been forwarded to the state and will return to the commissioners for a final vote.  The conservancy is asking all concerned stakeholders to email the BCC  at to oppose the removal of these protections. A description of the changes are detailed below.

Wetlands Are at Risk in Charlotte County

June 20, 2014
By:  Percy Angelo
The Charlotte County Commissioners are considering a major rewrite of their Comprehensive Plan which would eliminate most County measures to protect wetlands.
The proposal eliminates County protections based on an argument that state and federal rules are sufficient.  In fact, however, state and federal rules allow the destruction of wetlands and their replacement in “mitigation banks.”  There are no mitigation banks in Charlotte County, the closest is on Little Pine Island in Lee County, so that wetlands destroyed in Charlotte are not replaced in Charlotte.
Many members are familiar with the efforts to permit the Lemon Bay Cove project along Beach Road on Sandpiper Key, on the way to Manasota Key.  That project would destroy the mangrove wetlands along Beach Road and replace them with wetlands on Little Pine Island.  The project has already been permitted by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and is being reviewed by the US Army Corps of Engineers.  LBC filed objections to permitting before both of those agencies.
The current County wetland Comprehensive Plan provisions would classify wetlands connected to especially valuable waters such as aquatic preserves or Outstanding Florida Waters and would require additional showings of need before allowing their destruction.  This is the regulatory protection which is proposed for deletion by the County and, if left in place, would otherwise provide an additional layer of protection for wetlands like those threatened by the Lemon Bay Cove project.
In addition, it appears that the County proposal might even prevent County staff from enforcing wetland protection requirements in SWFWMD and Army Corps permits.  This is worrisome when those agencies are suffering staff cutbacks.  The cutting of mangroves this spring on a Saturday, on the Sarasota portion of Manasota Key was only stopped when County staff intervened after a neighbor’s call to Sarasota Board Chair Christine Robinson.
The current County Comprehensive Plan, called Smart Charlotte 2050, was adopted after much public input in 2010.  The County now argues that the Plan is discouraging development and that relaxations are needed.  Other relaxations proposed include limitations on density increases in the Coastal High Hazard Area, removal of many standards for the program regarding transfer of density units and removal of provisions for protecting natural areas from incompatible uses.
The Charlotte Board of Commissioners will consider the Comprehensive Plan changes on June 24.  If adopted they will be sent to the state for review, then back to the Board for final adoption.  Members are encouraged to let the Commissioners know how they feel.  Commissioner email addresses are on the County website under “Elected officials” or comments can be sent to them at    The proposal can be found at the County website under “Hot Topics,” on the left side of the Home Page.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A strange moth at the Post Office‏

Spotted apatelodes, Independence, VA

Another example of how the naturalist may find something interesting wherever he/she is.  At the post office I noticed this strange moth on the front glass door, obviously attracted by lights the night before.

Thanks to Bob Perkins for identifying it for me.  It is the spotted Apatelodes, Apatelodes torrefacta., a species related to the Old World silk moths and found from S Canada to Florida.

Two things struck me about this moth: first it is very well camouflaged but second it seems to have a defensive pattern as well.  When I picked it up, it raised its abdomen which in conjunction with two eyespots connected by a dark patch plus the raised "body" seem to provide a mimc of a snake or scary critter which birds might shy away from.  

The caterpillar is considered poisonous but not the adult.  The function of the "puffy" leg patches is unclear.  The adult moths do not feed.

So when you are running errands do not forget to watch for critters!

Bill Dunson 

A Naturalist Visits Utah

Rocky Mountains west of Denver
Modern day families are often widely dispersed so visits involve travel to unfamiliar territory and the opportunity to experience very different flora and fauna, in this case a visit to Utah.  The first opportunity to learn about the new habitats comes on the plane.  The somewhat monotonous travel from the east coast across the western plains suddenly changes when the Front Range of the Rockies is reached.  We were traveling in late May so that there was still considerable snow on the peaks.  The lack of trees on lower slopes and valleys except for the river courses was also striking.  
Princess Plume flowers Canyonlands
I accompanied our daughter’s and son’s families to bike the somewhat treacherous 100 mile White Rim trail of Canyonlands National Park.  They needed me to drive a 4-wheel drive truck carrying food, water and camping supplies.  Scenery of Canyonlands National Park is spectacular, with stunning drop-offs into deep canyons, the Colorado and Green Rivers, mesas (islands of beautiiful rock formations) and a harsh desert landscape with a limited biota that is adapted to these dry conditions.  
Cactus flower Canyonlands
We arrived during an unusual period of intense flowering as illustrated by the spectacular Prince's plume and an unusual to us reddish flowered prickly pear cactus.  There were very few birds present in those areas which had no surface water, except for the desert specialist black throated sparrow.  
Sego Lily near Heber, Utah
After our return to Park City, we took a day trip to the dry foothill habitats in the Uinta Mountains where we encountered the Utah state flower, the beautiful sego lily.  It has an underground bulb that was eaten by the Indians and early pioneers.  But you have to be careful what you eat since nearby there was the death camas.   We did not observe the pollinator but the flower has a distinct nectar guide which might attract bees. 
Yellow headed blackbird, Antelope Island
Utah generally receives little rainfall but the heavy snowpack on the mountains melts and runs into the valleys.  So paradoxically there are some famous marshes and lakes that provide habitat for migrating and breeding water birds.  One of our favorite places to view these birds is at Farmington Bay where you can get close to striking yellow headed blackbirds, the males of which are amazing if you have not seen them before.  
Avocet and black necked stilt, Farmington Bay, Utah
Even more bizarre birds, the avocet and black necked stilt, are seen wading in shallow water with their unusually long legs.  The avocet feeds by sweeping its bill side to side, while the stilt picks up items with a shorter bill.  This difference in bill shape and feeding strategy may diminish competition between them.
Black throated sparrow, Canyonlands
So take the opportunity while traveling to distant and strange habitats to enjoy the very different animals and plants.  The experience can stimulate your mind out of its complacency as you see unfamiliar species, try to identify them, and wonder about their place in the cosmos.
Bill Dunson