Tonight I’m just sharing some photos of a few lovely Lycaenid butterflies that I had the pleasure of photographing this season. The Lycaenidae family is the second largest family of butterflies, with about 6,000 species worldwide. The highlight was the bountiful season that the juniper hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus) had. Prior to this year, I had only seen one or two in a season, usually without my macro rig with me. In a few trips to the glades in Jefferson County this spring, Casey and I had at least two dozen individuals. They are not usually cooperative, but we worked pretty hard to get something.
Miguel and I were offered a very special treat back in April when our new friends and gracious hosts, Rick and Jill, offered to show us a very unique and amazing animal, the Illinois chorus frog (Pseudacris illinoensis). The Illinois chorus frog is a species of study for Rick and his students, who are hard at work trying to document the life history and ecological details of this species of conservation concern. Existing in only a handful of counties scattered across Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas, this frog is classified as G3, meaning it is vulnerable to extinction. The primary forces causing the decline of this species is land development, primarily from agriculture.
The Illinois chorus frog requires sandy wetlands. These types of areas are being lost due to drainage efforts for agriculture. The scattered remnants of these habitats are increasingly becoming isolated, likely limiting geneflow between pocketed populations.
The natural history of this species is incredible. Due to the quick draining nature of their preferred sandy habitat, these frogs spend 90% of their lives below ground. Their breeding season typically begins in February, where they take advantage of water from icy thaws and early spring rains to breed in ephemeral pools. By May, the frogs have buried themselves in underground tunnels that they dig with muscular forearms. Unlike most other frog species that spend large amounts of time in subterranean environments, the Illinois chorus frog is known to feed, eating worms and small invertebrates.
Organizations like the University of Illinois, Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Heartland Conservancy are doing a lot of work in a number of places to discover more about their ecological needs and protecting and managing habitat these frogs need.
Another great thing Rick and Jill showed us were Illinois chorus frog tadpoles that were in artificial breeding “ponds” that were setup for them. As the hundreds of tadpoles we saw suggest, they were doing really well here.
I’m still excited about being able to see and photograph these wonderful frogs and hope to visit them again during an early spring.
Ever since seeing the photo of Disonycha discoidea in Arthur Evans’ “Beetles of Eastern North America,” I have been wanting to find and photograph this gorgeous Chrysomelid. I have looked for years for this species around St. Louis and southeastern Missouri, and even planted one of its host plants, Passiflora incarnata, in our yard hoping to possibly attract them.
Just a couple weeks ago, my friend, Pete, posted a bunch of picks from his botany trip to southern Illinois on Facebook. As I perused through his collection of fascinating plants he found, I stopped at a photo of several beetles that were on a grape vine. In this photo was a single D. discoidea. Getting a little upset, I messaged Pete to see if he could tell me exactly where he had found this. He was at Giant City State Park and because of smartphone technology, he forwarded me his geotagged photo and I had access to exactly where he had taken the picture.
However, I knew this was a big risk and I didn’t get my hopes up. First, Pete had taken his photo approximately a week before Sarah and I took the 2.5 hour drive south. In addition, the beetle he photographed was on a grapevine, not their typical host plant. Was this just an accidental occurrence of this beetle or could they use grapes as an alternative host? Nothing in the literature suggested that this occurred with this species; apparently, it is monophagous and only uses members of the Passiflora to feed.
We decided it was worth the drive. Giant City State Park is a high quality area and I knew that if we struck out we wouldn’t have to try hard to find something else of interest. We found Pete’s spot of original find pretty easily and started searching. After a couple hours of looking as hard as we could among the grape and poison ivy we decided we weren’t going to find the species there. Utilizing smartphone technology again, I thought it might be a good idea to look for Passiflora plants that had been documented in iNaturalist within the park. My phone signal was pretty poor, so we drove to one of the highest points we could find and I found a single spot that had these plants documented.
These plants were found in a poor scrub prairie habitat along with blackberry and even more poison ivy. We started looking, finding and searching between 50 and 100 of these short plants. We looked very closely and I had a chance to try my DIY collapsible beat sheets that I made over the winter. No luck. I couldn’t believe it. I really thought we had a good chance. We knew the species had been found in the park and here we were within a sizeable population of the host plants. You’ve seen the photos already, so obviously we found our target. And, of course, insect finder extraordinaire, Sarah, was the one to find the beetle on a ragged, half-eaten P. incarnata plant. I immediately got to work photographing from a safe distance. One of the reasons they call them flea beetles is that they will jump great distances upon being disturbed. Ultimately, we found four individuals all on the same plant. Thankfully, this species is quite large for a flea beetle and I didn’t need to get too close that higher magnifications would require.
So what’s up with that coloration? This species exhibits aposematism, also known as warning coloration. This is the same reason that unpalatable or downright toxic species like monarchs and milkweed bugs along with stinging predators like yellowjackets or velvet ants show warning colorations. Disonycha discoidea picks up cyanogenic glycosides from its Passiflora host plant, making it distasteful or toxic to would-be predators. By evolving this aposematism, the insects can advertise this and avoid the predators that would be on the lookout for an easy meal. In the tropics, a group of butterflies known as the heliconiines also acquire these toxic compounds from the larval feeding on Passiflora.
It was great to finally find this target species. The larvae of this species is also quite photogenic. If I find the time to make a return visit this summer, I would love to find a few of them as well.
Today I’m happy to provide a platform for renowned nature photographer and friend, Casey Galvin, to share his words and fantastic landscape photography from lesser known areas between the coasts. This article is exactly my philosophy when it comes to landscape photography – what little I do of that these days. I am much more interested in finding hidden gems without a plane trip or a multiday car ride. This is actually much tougher to do than placing your tripod in the holes dugout by the throngs of photographers chasing the iconic landscape subjects. Casey doesn’t usually present his works in an online format, so prepare yourself for a real treat! What follows are the writings and photographs of Casey.
When one thinks of great landscapes, Missouri and the two other Midwest states, Iowa and Illinois, do not come to mind. With the great American West along with coastal states available to most landscape photographers it is easy to fly over or drive through these three states without a thought of stopping. What makes this area special, most landscape photographers have never taken the time to be here in the Midwest. You make images no one else has, unlike in the western USA. However, because of this anyone who does stop and take the time to explore will find something that most people do not think of photographing. These three states have unique and special geological sites and plenty of water resources (rivers, creek, lakes, world class springs and seepage areas) and open landscapes.
This being the heart of Tallgrass Prairie, there are still remnants left of this rarest of North American biomes. These systems were lost because it is some of the most productive farmland in the world, sand and gravel mining took others and conversion to urban development took the rest. Most people do not understand these grasslands probably because they have never experienced a true prairie. Unfortunately, there are not many large areas that are left untouched, but one can still find several remnants that are 1000 acres or even larger. This is where the buffalo roamed in large herds and in some locations, one can still find these animals ranging freely. The other nice feature for a photographer when visiting these sites is that you will most likely be the only one at that location. I have been on many a prairie for hours and have never seen anyone else.
Like the West, where they get super blooms with the heavy winter rains, as long as the rains are steady, Tallgrass Prairies get super blooms at least once a month in the growing season. These systems are made for hot, dry weather. May brings profusions of paintbrush (Orabanche coccina), in June coneflowers rule (Echinacea pallida or if you are lucky in prairies near the Ozarks, E. paradoxa), in July blazing star (Liatris pycnostachia) takes over. Autumn is dominated by yellow composites, gentians and late Liatris species.
Savanna, another biome type, is usually tied to the prairie. This is the transitional biome between prairie and forest, and here you will find a mix of species from both. I have found that you can get good to great photographs on these lands, but because it does take work, you can develop photographic skills you can use elsewhere in the world. These can be difficult landscapes because of the open space
There are also unique geological features found in this region. The Saint Francois Mountains in SE Missouri are extinct volcanoes and ancient lava flows. Most have been exposed for over one billion years. With its acid soils it make for great plant diversity. When a river or creek flows through one of the lava flows you have what Missouri calls a shut-in (water is restricted or shut-in to a narrower passage due to the slow-to-erode nature of the underlying granite). These are extremely attractive to photograph in all seasons. Unfortunately, some of the more attractive ones are well visited. So unless you’re early or late in the day you may find yourself in large crowds. These are not tall mountains, being eroded for eons, but this is still mountainous country.
In southern Missouri there is also a unique set of monadnocks, an example being Caney Mountain Conservation Area – a remote area was once one of the last bastions for deer and turkey in the eastern USA.
In southern Illinois the Shawnee National Forest with its limestone and sandstone escarpments (Greater and Lesser Shawnee Hills and Ozarks) can make for nice areas to explore photographically. Garden of the Gods is very scenic. Wet weather waterfalls are abundant (yes, Illinois is not flat here). La Rue Pine Hills ecological area not only has tall limestone bluffs. Below them is one of the most floristically rich areas in the Midwest with over 1200+ plant species. According to Robert Mohlenbrock, an authority on the flora of Illinois, the Shawnee NF is more diverse than the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. The area south of the Shawnee Hills also has some of the best southern swamps remaining in North America.
Along the west coast of Iowa and NW Missouri is another unique landform. The Loess Hills made up of windblown dust (loess soil) from the last glaciation. These type of hills are found only in three locations in the world and this being the only one in North America. The plants and animals found here are similar to those found nearly 100 miles west in Kansas and Nebraska. This is another type of tallgrass prairie with disjunct populations of mixed grass prairie species.
Forest covers the southern one-third of Missouri and the Shawnee NF in Illinois. Spring and autumn bring many landscape opportunities especially along the rivers and other water features. Wildflowers abound here through the growing seasons in the forest and in the spring and on rocky glades (opening between the woodlands) throughout the growing season. These are some of the more diverse forests in the country, with several species restricted to the Ozark Plateau. This is also a world class birding area.
Water features are abundant as stated prior. This is one feature that many areas in the country lack. Even in deep droughts, the larger springs still have plenty of output keeping many rivers flowing well deep into the autumn. Every 10 to 20 years there comes a drought where the biggest of rivers have levels that fall enough to be able to walk to some of the islands that are within them, allowing us to get images that might be harder to access without a boat.
I have spent many years studying and exploring these areas, through all four seasons. It is well worth the time to visit and explore.
During my morning walk in our Chesterfield suburban neighborhood this morning, I found quite a fascinating thing! I ran across several groups of periodical cicadas (Magicicada spp.) that had emerged during the night. I estimate that I found approximately 250 of these large hemipterans without leaving the sidewalk!
I am not quite certain about what exactly is going on here. Our next big emergence of these insects is supposed to occur next season in 2024 – the so-called “Brood XIX.” Brood XIX is composed of four species of periodical cicada (Magicicada tredecim, M. tredecassini, M. tredecula, and M. neotredecim) that all follow the 13 year emergence pattern.
Why are we seeing these emerge this year? A couple of possible explanations could account for this. These could be “stragglers,” the term used to describe individuals that emerge in years before or after the bulk of the particular brood. This makes evolutionary sense; if the entire brood emerged all on the same year (emergence of the entire brood within a given location occurs within a couple of weeks) and they are struck with a weather or some other disaster, then this would be a very bad day for the brood. With some individuals emerging a year or two before or after the primary year, then this would obviously be beneficial in hedging their bets.
Another possible explanation is that this could represent a sub-population of Brood XIX that is on a slightly different schedule and may routinely emerge early. This could be due to differences in climate patterns between this one and what the rest of the brood experiences. Brood XIX covers a large area of the southeastern U.S.
Or, could this be the result of some differentiation between emergence patterns between the four species that constitutes Brood XIX? I don’t know but I would love to hear any thoughts from those of you who are more educated and experienced in these things than I am. I will be keeping my ears open during the next several weeks with hope of hearing this rare song.
I was definitely on the lookout for Ferruginous Hawks during our visit to western Kansas last year and we were fortunate to have one fly directly over us as we visited a badlands monument. What I didn’t expect is to be able to see an active nest. This was at a private ranch where we had the opportunity to see and photograph Lesser Prairie Chicken leks. The rancher was understandably weary of getting too close or staying too long, so we took our shots from a good distance from the vehicle windows.
I finally had the opportunity to visit my buddy Jim’s property to check out the nest site of a Great-horned Owl nest. This pair has used this snag for about 5 years to raise their brood and I am disappointed in myself for not visiting sooner. I had no idea how perfect the views into this nest were. You couldn’t ask for a better setup. Unfortunately, I was a bit late this season as well. The chicks fledged within days of my first and only visit. Hopefully next year!
Here are a few from my visit. These were taken in early afternoon so the light was a bit harsh.
I can’t believe it’s been more than a year since this trip and I still have quite a few photos to share. Not much time or gumption to post much lately. Here are some photos of one of the more abundant shorebirds we had on this particular visit – the Semipalmated Sandpiper. It was fun and interesting to see so many individuals up close. You can really see variations in individual plumages at this time of year, as I hope this collection shows
Casey and I hit the roads and trails back in January looking for new waterfalls in the Shawnee Forest area of southern Illinois. January isn’t the prettiest time for waterfalls but finding them is often easier in the winter.
Up first is Burden Falls. Like most of the falls and features in the Shawnee, Burden only flows following significant rainfall. The amount of water flowing over the falls was not the highest it could be, but there was enough flow to be interesting. Here are a few more from this fantastic area.
Next up is Bork Falls.
Last up is Jackson Hole Falls. This incredible two-stage set begins with a long slide that I captures in the panorama below. It then ends in an approximate 40′ drop.