Thursday, August 13, 2015

Late summer a great time to expand your butterfly horizons

Late summer a great time to expand your butterfly horizons

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Everybody loves monarch butterflies, don’t they? And for good reason. Monarchs are gorgeous to look at, they live a fascinating life, and they’re super easy to identify. No wonder they’ve been designated “state insect” by Illinois—as well as Alabama, Idaho, Minnesota and Texas. If you appreciate monarchs but haven’t ever developed your capacity to identify other butterflies, late summer is great time to do it.

You could start by clarifying for yourself the difference between monarchs and their smaller look-alikes, viceroys. Experienced observers may be comfortable telling them apart based on size alone, but people who wish to confirm the identity of a viceroy by way of a field mark can do so. Look for an extra black line cutting across the front-to-back black veins on the viceroy’s back wing.

After monarchs, the next most widely recognized butterflies in most of the U.S. are likely tiger swallowtails, thanks to their large size and striking black-on-yellow color scheme. What you may not know is that there’s another color scheme that occurs in a subset of female tiger swallowtails. They are dark all over, although the black “tiger stripes” are still distinguishable, especially on the undersides of their wings.

[Photos by author, top to bottom: viceroy, tiger swallowtail, red admiral.]

These dark form tiger swallowtails are one of five mostly black Illinois butterfly species that have evolved to resemble pipevine swallowtails because pipevine swallowtails are highly unpalatable. (That’s to say eating them—either as caterpillars or adults—causes other animals to throw up.) For most people, distinguishing among members of the pipevine swallowtail mimicry complex, as this group is known, requires a significant amount of practice, as well as a good field guide, and I’m coming around to that.

But before I do, I have one more nominee for a butterfly everyone can know with very little guidance, red admirals. They have been incredibly abundant in Illinois this summer, and were especially noticeable on stands of purple coneflower in June and July.

How do you know when you’re looking at a red admiral? It’s just over half the size of a monarch and mostly black on the upper side, except for a set of red-orange bands that form a rough semi-circle, and some white spots near the front wing tips. The gray and brown markings on the undersides of the wings of a red admiral, which you see when they’re folded, are far less showy, but even there little splashes of blue and red provide the clues needed to identify them.

Now about that field guide. Illinois residents have access to an unparalleled resource as they start—or continue—their butterfly education, “Butterflies of Illinois: A Field Guide,” published by the Illinois Natural History Survey. In addition to color plates and photographs that help with identification, it also contains useful information about when and where to look for various species, as well as discussions of scientific questions of interest to amateur naturalists (such as the pipevine swallowtail mimicry complex). Really, if you’re at all interested in butterflies, or you know someone else who might be, this is the book. It’s most easily purchased by ordering online through the Webstore at the Illinois Natural History Survey, but other options are also included there.

One of the best ways to support butterflies is to plant the native trees and shrubs on which their caterpillars feed. You can buy select native trees and shrubs for fall planting through a sale being conducted by the East Central Illinois Master Naturalists this month. Details through this link:

Thursday, August 06, 2015

A tale of two ponds, plus an invitation to speak on behalf of clean water

A tale of two ponds, plus an invitation to speak on behalf of clean water

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I had occasion to be around two ponds last Saturday. The first is on a friend’s property in Vermilion County, south of Oakwood. It’s deep and cool and clear, surrounded by woods except the edge formed by the dam. Wooden docks provide access to the water for people who have cabins there and it’s a pond people do access, especially for fishing but also to swim.

From that pond we caught largemouth bass one after another and we kept some of the smaller ones for lunch, on the understanding that fewer fish in the population will enable the remaining ones to grow bigger—and what a lunch we had. You really couldn’t ask for more from a pond.

[Author with a largemouth bass that was released. Photo by Susan McIntyre.]

Later the same day, I was walking another friend’s dog for her in a part of southwest Champaign I’m not familiar with, and we found ourselves on a paved path around a pond ringed by houses. This pond is roughly the size of the one I had fished in the morning, but thoroughly different in character. It’s surrounded by manicured lawn that gives way to a bed of uniform, rounded stones at the edge of the water, so no part of it enjoys the benefit of shade from trees or emergent aquatic vegetation. But what really struck me was the presence of little two by six-foot docks—one per house, many with kayaks on or near them.

Why, I wondered?

This pond is so dominated by bright green algae that it’s difficult to imagine anyone would want to fish there, at least at this time of year, and more difficult still to imagine eating fish caught from it. Likewise, swimming seems out of the question whether or not rules allow it.

Such ponds are dominated by algae because fertilizer intended for the surrounding lawns is carried into the water. It would be possible for interested owners of the surrounding property to improve the quality of that water by choosing collectively to stop putting so much fertilizer on their lawns. But there’s no regulatory framework for governing stuff that comes off of lawns, which is called nonpoint source pollution in discourse about water quality.

Fortunately, when it comes to pollution that comes out of a pipe—point source pollution—there is a regulatory framework established by the federal Clean Water Act. It empowers Illinois EPA to uphold the public’s interest in fishable, swimmable streams and lakes. It’s called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).

Weird as it may seem to you if you don’t go around thinking about this stuff, I’ve had the NPDES on my mind lately. That’s because there’s a hearing coming up soon on a draft of an NPDES permit to pollute the Salt Fork River, a river I prize for the paddling and fishing opportunities it offers. The permit is being sought by the company that proposes to open a coal mine southeast of Homer to cover discharges of water associated with the mine.

How can public input matter in this process? It can help ensure the mine site is characterized accurately, especially when people who know the local land and waters are involved. It can also help achieve stricter limits on pollution from the site, as well as better monitoring. The hearing for public comment on the permit will be conducted Wednesday, August 12, beginning at 5:30 pm at the Salt Fork Junior High School in Sidell. Further details about the hearing and how to submit written commentary on the proposed permit are available through the website of the group Stand Up to Coal at