Butterflies

Usually, butterflies are hard to photograph. They are wary creatures, and when you turn the big eye of your camera at them, they take off, flying erratically away.

But this week, I’ve been lucky to get some photos of butterflies I’ve never shot before — in some cases, I’ve never heard of before.

This Weidemeyer’s Admiral has seen better days.

Case in point is the Weidemeyer’s Admirial. I’ve probably seen it before, but never actually identified it. Turns out that Admirals are an entire group of butterflies.

Weidemeyer’s Admiral on rock next to a stream.

Weidemeyer’s Admirals like stream habitats, which is exactly where I found this one. It fits, then, that they eat stream side plants like willows, aspen, serviceberry, chokecherry, and cottonwoods.

Western Tiger Swallowtail

Western Tiger Swallowtails also like streams, but also venture into open grasslands. Their caterpillars eat the leaves of trees and shrubs like cottonwood, birch alder, chokecherry, willows and wild plum. The adults, like many butterflies, drink nectar. https://amylaw.blog/2018/07/18/swallowtail-butterflies/

Common wood-nymph

Common wood-nymphs are butterflies of the open country, where their caterpillars eat grasses. I didn’t know any caterpillars ate grasses! https://amylaw.blog/2018/08/08/butterflies-galore/

I would dearly love to meet an uncommon wood-nymph.

Monarch on milkweed.
Monarch with bee on milkweed.

I posted about Monarch caterpillars a few weeks ago. https://amylaw.blog/2020/06/15/monarch-caterpillers/ We never actually found the chrysalis for the caterpillars, but we may have seen the butterflies themselves. We’ve had a couple of them hanging around our milkweed patch, eating nectar and otherwise getting ready to migrate north.https://amylaw.blog/2018/07/04/monarch-butterfly-migration/

Waved Sphinx moth

Finally, this is a waved sphinx moth that landed on our porch. You know it’s a moth and not a butterfly because the wings are held horizontal, not vertical as butterflies do most of the time. The white dot on it’s wing helps identify it as a waved sphinx. It’s caterpillar eats the leaves of tress, but the adult doesn’t eat at all. It lives to mate, and lay eggs.

Websites I used to gather information about these butterflies and moths include: https://coloradofrontrangebutterflies.com/butterfly-families and https://www.insectidentification.org/insects-by-type-and-region.asp?thisState=Colorado&thisType=Butterfly%20or%20Moth

Spider catching a wasp for a meal

I went for a hike today — perhaps not the best choice, because a lot of people have the day off due to corona virus, and a lot of people have the day off due to Independence Day tomorrow. By the time I arrived at the trail head at 7:45, the parking lot was full. It was like rush hour with people, bicycles and dogs going up and down the trail. I’m glad that people are enjoying the outdoors in this stressful time, but there were lots of us on the trail.

But everybody was polite, and happy to be outside. We all huffed and puffed our way up the trail, pulling our masks up to cover our faces, even though we were outside. It was good to be on the trail.

As always, I had my trusty camera along, and found a number of interesting thing to photograph. One of the things I found was a beautiful spider’s web, with the spider sitting outside the entrance to the den. Very cool.

Trigger Warning: If you don’t like spiders, you may want to just skip the rest of the blog post, because the photos may be a little creepy.

Spider is to the far right of the photo, at the entrance to the den. The web stretches all the way across the photo.

While I was getting my camera out, I realized that the spider was right in the entrance to it’s lair.

A little blurry, but the spider is in the center of the shot, with the wasp just to the left of the long light streak. Notice that the rock is in focus — the wasp and the spider are blurry because they are moving so fast.

I looked through my viewfinder, and realized that the spider was moving like lightning to the outer portion of the web. There was a wasp caught in it!

The spider ran out and tapped the wasp. But the wasp’s stinger is point towards the spider.

Wasp rolls away, still caught by the web.

The wasp was able to avoid getting caught by the spider, but was still tangled in the web.

The spider danced around the wasp faster than the camera could catch the images. I assume that, although the wasp was snagged in the web, it could still sting the spider.

The spider lunged for the wasp as the wasp finally makes its escape.

The spider was left with nothing.

And so it went back to waiting patiently at the opening of it’s den.

Monarch Caterpillers!

For years, my husband and I have nurtured milkweed in the lost corners of our yard. “Remember the Monarchs!” we chant, as we carefully work around the tall milk-sap plants.

While Monarch butterflies eat nectar from a bunch of different plants, the caterpillars eat only milkweed as they grow. The milky sap of Milkweeds is toxic to most animals, but not to Monarchs. In fact, in’s all that Monarch caterpillars eat. What’s more, the Monarch caterpillars incorporate the toxins into their own bodies, and use it as a chemical deterrent against predators.

In spite of this incredibly cool adaptation, Monarch populations have been declining for decades — between 50-90% loss since 1991. Habitat loss has been a major problem in the United States, especially with the introduction of herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans so that herbicides can be sprayed on them to get rid of milkweed growing between the rows. In Mexico, where they overwinter in just a few select spots in upland forests, they are vulnerable to illegal logging operations, cold snaps and hurricanes. Car strikes are also a surprising big killer of Monarchs in Mexico — up to 200,000 killed in just two locations near their over-wintering spots! Monarch Butterfly Migration

There’s not a lot we can do to alleviate these problems. But we can grow milkweed to give as many Monarchs as possible a good start in life. Through the years, we’d been rewarded with a few Monarch butterflies. But no caterpillars.

And lately, we’ve become aware that the decision to grow milkweed is itself a trade-off — native milkweed is attractive to European honeybees, but it can be a deadly trap for them, too. Bees and Butterflies.

Bees are already having a hard time from colony collapse disorder, where the bees just disappear. After years of research, nobody knows why. It’s a major problem with honey bees, one that’s not getting better. I was beginning to feel that if the Monarchs weren’t using the milkweed, we should rip out the it and replace it with something more bee-friendly.

And then, for a real treat …

… my husband found two tiny yellow, white and black caterpillars happily gnawing on our milkweed.

Maybe the milkweed will stay after all.

Hummer in Blue Spruce Tree

After an intense fast moving rainstorm yesterday, I happened to look out my front window to see something I’d never before seen — a female broad-tailed hummingbird zipping among the branches of our blue spruce.

Although she stopped at the end of new spruce buds momentarily, she never stayed in any one place for very long. Between the low light, and her constant movement, the photos are not the quality I usually like to put up here. But her behavior was so unusual, I decided to go ahead and post them.

The thing is, I have no idea what she was going after. At first I thought maybe she was getting some sap from the newly opened blue spruce buds.

But when I went out to confirm my hunch after she left, there wasn’t anything there — no sap, no water droplets, no tiny insects. Just newly opened blue spruce buds.

I’ll keep watching that blue spruce and see if she comes back.

New Friends

We’ve had some new friends in the yard this week!

A charming flock of chipping sparrows stopped by! I don’t remember seeing them before, but I suspect that is merely a reflection on my lack of recognition.

Their name comes from the “chip! chip!” sound they make, which is the entirety of their song.

Chipping sparrow with a rust brown head and white and black eye-brow streaks. Males and females look alike.

Imagine a dozen of these little guys bobbing around in our rather dandelion-infested back yard, looking for food. I couldn’t get a good group shot because they were so far down in the grass, except when they’d hop up for a moment. It was like avian popcorn!

Chipping sparrows eat mostly seeds, but will take insects, especially in breeding season or when feeding their chicks. My husband has vowed never to dig up another dandelion so that these little chippies always have plenty to eat. He is always looking out for wildlife.

Chipping sparrow with its beak full of dandelion seeds.

They are migrating to the mountains, where they’ll nest and raise their families in open grassy forests from the ponderosa pine to the tundra.

Once the little ones have fledged, they’ll feed up on seeds before heading back to southern Texas and Mexico.

They are welcome in our yard to eat dandelion seeds anytime.

Nectar Eaters on a Cool Spring Day

It’s a cool May day, and that has made animals cold and hungry.

White-lined sphinx moths are big, with flat triangular wings and a “white” line running from behind their heads to the corners of their wings.

My husband and I found a white-lined sphinx moth on the sidewalk as we were out walking the dogs this morning, slowly beating its wings as it tried to warm up. Once he gets airborne, he’ll be looking for nectar.

You can see a hint of pink on the body. If he were to open his wings, it would be a large pink wing patch.

And we saw our first hummingbirds! As usual, we heard their ringing zip first. Only the males make this sound. It is produced by special tail feathers. The males are heading into the high country to stake out territory before the females arrive.Spring storm brings cold, wet; hummers come to feeder

Male broadtailed hummingbirds have a red “gorget” or throat feathers. The feathers on their backs are iridescent green.

The problem for both these animals is that the very hard freeze we had a month ago killed a lot of early flowers.

We’ll have more flowers soon, but they need food NOW. I’m doing what I can to help by putting out my hummingbird feeders — 1 part sugar to 4 parts water, NO red food coloring — poured into hummingbird feeders that have been cleaned with boiling water. Hummers in Snowstorm

Hang in there nectar eaters! More flowers are on the way!

Hawk Conflict

My husband and I were working the backyard this morning, cleaning up the garden after a long, hard winter. The hacking, digging and trimming were beginning to pay off when both of us heard the unmistakable “Kreeee!” of a red-tailed hawk.

We’ve had a red-tailed hanging around the neighborhood for the last few winters https://amylaw.blog/2018/12/13/red-tailed-hawk/, which I’ve always thought was kinda odd — they are perch hunters of open spaces. But for the past five years or so, we’ve had an overabundance of cotton-tailed rabbits, a favorite prey item of red-taileds. And just this week we found a bunny in the street that had been ripped up by some sort of hawk.

But when my husband and I looked up to spot see the red-tailed, we saw not one, but two hawks careening through the trees. By the time I had grabbed my camera (always withing handy reach) and bolted out the front door, I could only see one of the hawks flying in tight circles above the house.

After snapping a few pics, the hawk began to fly out of range. I lowered my camera and my husband pointed out the other hawk, huddled in a tree across the street.

At first glance, this looked like another red-tailed hawk — speckled belly, and rusty tail feathers. But something about the eyes made me question that identification.

She didn’t like me looking at her (in my defense, I was 20 feet below her), and so she took off. And instantly, I knew she was a Swainson’s hawk.

Not having seen the original altercation, I have no idea what set off the spat between these two birds. It might have been food — Swainson’s also eat rabbits. But even more, they eat ground squirrels, and insects. Or the Swainson’s might have gotten too close to the Red-tailed’s nest.

Once she took flight, she lost no time in heading back to the open spaces she felt most comfortable in.

It will be interesting to see if she stays in the neighborhood. I’ll have to keep an eye out her.

Earth Day

Corona Virus has brought illness, death, and economic devastation.

11/16/2019 Looking east into the South Platte Valley from Green Mountain.
4/22/2020 Looking east into the South Platte Valley from Green Mountain.

Too bad that’s what it takes to show us what clean air looks like.

Maybe we can take this horrible disease and use it as a pivot point to treat the Earth a little nicer. Nature seems to respond positively when we do.

Tegan, the Aspiring Therapy Dog

This is Tegan. (https://amylaw.blog/2017/01/29/puppy-play/ , https://amylaw.blog/2017/02/19/what-went-into-this-mutt/) She loves to go up and say hello to people. Her life-long goal is to be a Pet Therapy dog, but like so many dreams, it’s been put on hold by the coronavirus.

Still, she wants people to be happy, and she knows how hard that is right now. So she and her best friend Zoe are going to demonstrate a very sophisticated technique for keeping their spirits up — playing chase.

She demonstrates basic techniques here with Zoe. Notice that Tegan lets Zoe have a nice lead before she catches her.

Tegan advises that you need to pace yourself with frequent breaks for maximum endurance.

Then, it’s Zoe’s turn to chase Tegan. Again, Tegan is careful to not get very far ahead of Zoe. Most Important Note: The game has to be fun for everybody.

Only quit when everybody has run until their tongues hang out. (Zoe never lets her tongue hang out very far. She doesn’t think it’s a good look for her.)

When everybody is tired and their stress gone, it’s time to go in and have a nap on the couch with your best buddy in the world.

Turkey vultures have returned to Front Range

Some people watch for the first robin of spring. In Capistrano, they look for the return of the swallows. I know it’s spring when the turkey vultures return to the Front Range of Colorado. (https://amylaw.blog/2013/04/08/it-must-be-spring/)

Turkey vultures are big birds — the biggest you are likely to see, with the exception of an eagle or an American white pelican.

You’re not going to mistake a vulture for a pelican. The others are a little more problematic.

They are big, dark bird with translucent (almost see-through) trailing wing feathers, and a red head.

I have the most trouble telling a turkey vulture from bald or golden eagles. Although golden eagles may hold their wings in a slight “V”, most often they hold their wings flat.

A turkey vulture soars with it’s wings in a slight “V”, often called a “dihedral”.

Turkey vultures are also “tippy” when they fly — they are so light that air drafts bounce them around. Eagles are not “tippy”. It’s beneath their dignity.

And neither a bald or nor golden eagle have the translucent trailing wing feathers.

Swainson’s hawks, or a broad-winged hawks are both tippy and fly in a V. But both these hawks have shorter, broader wings, and are smaller. They also often brownish-red and have white markings on their wings or bodies.

You might confuse it with a black vulture, but black vultures just seem smaller overall — shorter wings, much shorter tail, with a dark grey head. Plus, black vultures are limited to the southern US down into South America. I have to travel south if I want to see a black vulture.

It’s been a long, hard winter. I hope you enjoy your first signs of spring, whatever they are!