Thursday, May 06, 2010

May 2010-BioBlitz: Wildflowers, Butterflies & Moths Galore

Have you noticed the plethora of tiny yellow butterflies that are fluttering en masse over the 'weedy' or grassy areas in your neighborhood? Take a serious look at the median strips between the highways you travel every day on your way to and from work....if you carefully observe the seemingly empty space, you will see an amazing migratory event occurring before your eyes. We all know about the Monarch, but there are over 38 species of semi- or migratory butterflies in South Florida! The tiny (less an inch wingspan) Dainty Yellow (Nathalis iole) is one semi-migratory species. You will see them congregating in areas where the ubiquitous wildflower Spanish Needles (Bidens alba), its host plant, flourishes. The miniscule wildflower Fogfruit (Phyla nodiflora) and small pink Mexican Clover (Richardia species) grow rampant in these areas and are some of the diminutive nectar sources for this tiny butterfly. Dainty Yellows disperse northward, but are not true migrants. This photo was taken at Hillsboro Pineland last year, nectaring on the invasive exotic flower Wedelia (Sphagneticola trilobata).

On the other hand, you could be seeing Barred Yellows (Eurema daira), which is not much bigger than the Dainty. They are a true migratory species, and they are also on the move now. Their host plants, Pencil Flower (Stylosanthes hamata) and Joint Vetches (Aeschynmene species) also grow in these disturbed sites, along roadways, in abandoned lots and natural areas.

As UF lepidopterist Thomas Walker exclaimed in his 1991 paper, "81.2 million butterflies between Gainesville and Okeechobee (an area of 51,600 Km2) would scarcely be noticeable...." Nor are they any more noticeable between Okeechobee and Fort Lauderdale! Certainly not at highway can't safely slow down on the highway, but you can observe the median at the traffic light. There is always something to see!
Along with wishing that the incredible fragrant inflorescences of our palms were not cut down by mad-hackers in the landscape business, I wish that the median strips between highways were allowed to flourish with the array of wildflowers that grow there. This is one of many issues being addressed by the Imperiled Butterfly Working Group. I remember calling FDOT thirty-some years ago asking them to please not cut the wildflowers growing along the turnpike, because as soon as they did, the majesty of butterflies disappeared. Their response was that people complained about snakes and rats, so they cut the habitat down. How inane...where do they think those animals went? To the backyards of the people who complained about seeing them, of course!

Wildflowers are a-bloom now that spring has finally arrived. Take a walk and look for the subtle beauty of these rare and delicate flowers sprouting along the roadways. I have seen our state flower, Coreopsis, the brilliant Narrow-Leaved Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) shown here, the ill-named but pretty little-flowered Toadflax (Linearis canadensis), Water Dropwort (Oxypolis filiformis) and Oakleaf Fleabane (Erigeron quercifolius) and many others!

These wildflowers have miraculously survived massive condo and retail developments, and the concretization of the land, all in the name of civilization. To quote Thoreau: "If a man [or woman] walks in the woods for the love of them half of each day, he is danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off these woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen."

One of the most exciting things to occur was the 2010 BioBlitz at Biscayne National Park, in conjunction with National Geographic Society (NGS), April 30-May 1. Think of it as a huge 24-hour "Nature Nerd Festival"! Over two hundred scientists in many fields from all over converged on the park and canvassed every habitat, nook and cranny, to document every species in any taxon that could be found. When we left, the count was over 800 species, with reports still being compiled by NGS.
This is Sea Oxeye Daisy, a beautiful coastal plant that sometimes colonizes in semi-urban areas as well as on beaches. This lovely specimen was photographed on Elliott Key.
There were marine biologists, diving to record corals, nudibranchs, fish, crustaceans and marine mammals. There were ornithologists, netting and banding birds (including Painted Buntings!) There were botanists, lepidopterists, entomologists, herpetologists and mycologists. There were students and volunteers, as well as school groups in the afternoon to learn about science. There were people studying the lichens, ants, beetles, trees and flowers!

This is one of our biggest native moths, the Black Witch (Ascalapha odorata), joining the BioBlitz crew at the data collection center. She was a very 'good witch' blessing our day.

Each morning we were up well before the sun in order to travel to our respective assigned sites. One of the most abundant creatures was the mosquito, so I was glad that I brought mosquito suits for our crew: Here are Alana and I dressed to the hilt for a day's surveying, wearing the field biologists favorite fragrance, Eau d'Deet...sometimes you just have to wear it....Advice to the wise: spray your clothes, not your skin.

I was honored to spend the days with some very special friends: Charlie Covell, the moth curator at the University of Florida's McGuire Center, and author of one of the best field guides on moths and someone who has shared many stories about the atala 'back in the day'; Marc Minno, who has published several excellent field guides and gardening for butterfly books; Alana Edwards, president of the Palm Beach Atala Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association and accomplished photographer; and Suzanne Koptur, master botanist and professor at Florida International University who specializes in pollinator insects. It was delightful to spend so much time with them.
Highlights to the field surveys included this gorgeous moth that Charlie named the Faithful Beauty (Composia fidelissima). He was with us at the time and told us the story while Alana took the picture as it nectared on Sea Rocket. The moth's hostplant is called Devil's Potato (Echites umbellata), a lovely white flowered rare native plant.

Here's Charlie and I checking out the "Insects du Noir", the night's bounty of insects that were trapped with his night lights, for identification in the labs.

To read more about the BioBlitz, and see more photographs visit the websites for National Geographic Society and Biscayne National Park.

The good news is that I have been invited back to Butterfly Days this year, September 25-26, 2010, at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens...more on that later!

In the meantime, keep your eyes open for those migrants: birds AND butterflies!

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