26 December 2010

Life and Death of a Queen - In One Day

Anyone that has followed my blog for awhile knows that we have a TON of Queen butterflies in my yard.  It has a lot to do with all of the milkweed species we have, and our warm Arizona weather.

This has afforded me the opportunity to take great close-ups of Queen caterpillarsQueen pupa, and the butterflies themselves.

One warm December day last weekend I had two great opportunities.  The first was to watch an adult Queen "warm up" as the day progressed.  The latter was the emergence of a new adult from its chrysalis.

The morning started around 40 degrees, and warmed to the mid 70's by afternoon - plenty warm enough to get the Queen moving.  But before that it sat motionless on a low shrub, allowing for some spectacular close-ups.

Queen Butterfly Close-up of Head

I didn't quite get the depth of field I wanted in the head shot above, but it is still a nice close-up.  However, this wing shot below turned out much better - you can see individual scales with great detail.  Be sure to click on it for a full size view.
Queen Butterfly Close-up Of Wings

Now for part two of the story - the chrysalis.

Queen Butterfly in Chrysalis
We'd noticed a couple of chrysalis in early to mid November and had wondered how they'd handle the cold winter.  We had a couple of nights around 24 degrees in Maricopa, and the daytime highs were in the low 60's for quite awhile - not quite warm enough to trigger the metamorphosis. 

But a string of warm weather - lows in the 40s and highs in the 70s, was enough to trigger one successful emergence - which we missed.  A few days later we noticed the second chrysalis was turning dark- a sign the butterfly inside was almost ready.

You can see the butterfly's wings wrapped up tightly inside the chrysalis, with the white spots standing out and some hint of orange.

There is also some indication of its head towards the bottom.

When the sun moved to the point where it was shining directly onto the butterfly, it sprang into action and started working its way out.

Queen Butterfly Emerging From Chrysalis

Queen Butterfly Emerging From Chrysalis

Unfortunately, the sun only shined on it for about 90 minutes before the shade of a nearby house engulfed the butterfly.  Without that energy, it started to slow down and stopped - unable to fully extract itself.

I wasn't sure whether to intervene or let nature takes it course.  I thought that maybe there was a slim chance that the next day, when the sun shined again, it would be able to complete its extraction.

In retrospect, it was silly to think it could survive half extracted.  When I checked it the next day, it was dead and already shriveling up.  I'm not certain why it ultimately failed, but I suspect if it had another hour or two of warm sun it would have made it.

23 December 2010

Inca Doves

During my recent search for the Baikal Teal at Gilbert Water Ranch, I also spent a few minutes looking for the Ruddy Ground-Doves that had been reported recently.  They'd been reported to be mixing with the much more common Inca Doves that can almost always be located with a bit of searching.

While I didn't find the Ruddy Ground-Doves, I did find a group of those Inca Doves, and as usual, they were quite photogenic.

Inca Dove
Inca Doves usually congregate in small groups (4 to 15 seems typical, though I have seen a singular Inca in my neighborhood).  They are much smaller than other common doves (such as Mourning, Eurasian-collared, and White-winged), and have a 'scaled' pattern as is evident in the photo above.

Inca Doves are common in the southern third of the USA west of the Mississippi.  While they are easily identifiable compared to the doves I mentioned above, there are two species of Ground-Doves that may present an identification challenge.  The Inca's range overlaps with the similar Common Ground-Dove, which can most easily be distinguished from Inca Doves by the dark spots on its scapulars.

You may be wondering about the Ruddy Ground-Dove I mentioned above.  It is quite similar to the Common Ground-Dove, but is rare in the USA, generally only seen in the desert southwest.  It has an unpatterned breast, distinguishing it from the Common Ground-Dove.

19 December 2010

More Praying Mantis

OK, I know it has only been a little over a month since my last Mantis post, but I thought that this Mediterranean Mantis (Iris oratoria) posed in my front yard so nicely for me that I should return the favor and post it on the web.

What is unique about this mantis is how brown it is. Most of the other Mediterranean's I've seen are various shades of green. The kind folks at identified this as a female.

While this photo is not as captivating as some of those from my previous Mantis post, it is a nice view of the full body all generally in focus. Additionally, you can see that it is a 'back of the head' shot. Those famous compound eyes give an impression of pupils (called pseudopupils) looking back at me.

Be sure to click the photo for the full-sized image.

16 December 2010

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Black-crowned Night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), like many herons, are very fun to observe. They are large and easy to see, roost in colonies, and can be observed at water's edge foraging for fish, frogs, and insects.

Black-crowned Night-heron
Male Black-crowned Night-heron getting ready to roost for the day
Night-herons are so-named because they often forage at night, though they are sometimes active at dawn and dusk.

In the Phoenix area, the best spot to find Black-crowned Night-herons is the Gilbert WAter Ranch and Riparian Preserve, where 10-15 or more form a colony.
Black-crowned Night-heron
Male Black-crowned Night-heron

Black-crowned Night-herons are generally easy to distinguish from other Herons.  First, the males coloration is quite unique.  They are also generally stockier than other herons.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron
Juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron with yellowish tinge to the bill
In some locations their range overlaps with the Yellow-crowned Night-heron, and in those locations the juveniles can be difficult to distinguish, with bill color being the best field mark.  Ironically, the Black-crowned juveniles have yellowish bills, and the Yellow-crowned juveniles have dark blackish/gray bills.

Yellow-crowned juveniles are also a bit darker, but that can be hard to judge without having them side-by-side for comparison.

From a photographic perspective, these herons are great subjects, however their red eyes often look 'empty' with no sign of the pupils.  Probably some sort of red-eye effect like in humans, but since their eyes are already red, the pupils just wash out with the rest of the eye.

12 December 2010

Bird Grasshoppers

I'm catching up on identifying creatures in some of my older photos, and came across this stunning grasshopper:
Bird Grasshopper

Its coloration made me think it was a nymph, but its size had me wondering whether it was some sort of lime-green adult I had not seen before.  Of course, I turned to, and it seems those assumptions were correct on both counts.  The experts there identified it as a nearly mature nymph, a female Schistocerca of some sort.

Schistocerca species are collectively known as 'bird grasshoppers', apparently due to their size.  The likely species here is Schistocerca shoshone, though as is the case with many insects, it is not known with certainty.

Be sure to check out the eyes and antenna on the full sized image.  The eyes look like caraway seeds seen in sausage.

Anyway, the photo above was taken in June 2009, and it makes me wish it were summer already.  But I really can't complain - here in the low desert insect activity only slows a bit in winter, and bird activity stays exciting with lots of vagrant over-wintering species.   As an example, last weekend I spotted 4 butterfly species in my front yard, and the rare Baikal Teal up in Gilbert.  Not bad for December!

09 December 2010

Hawaiian Beet Webworm Moth...In Arizona!

Moths can be fascinating creatures, but are often casually dismissed by observers as nighttime nuisances (or garden invaders when their caterpillars are considered). Some moths have striking colors or interesting patterns, such as the Io Moth and some can even mimic hummingbirds, such as the White-lined Sphinx Moth.

This moth is relatively drab by comparison - the Hawaiian Beet Webworm.
Hawaiian Beet Webworm Moth

The Hawaiian Beet Webworm Moth can be found through much of North America, from Ontario to Florida, and even here in Arizona.  They cannot overwinter in the northern areas of the region, so only expect to see them late in the season after they've had time to migrate northward.

In fact, this moth can be found in many warmer areas of the world, including Hawaii.

The caterpillars can be considered pests of some leafy green crops, like spinach.  Though I've had trouble determining what host plants exist near my yard that it would be enjoying.  Perhaps a neighbor's garden?

05 December 2010

Watch Your Back - Assassin Bugs Are Everywhere!

Assassin bugs are yet another fascinating insect that inhabits most of the planet (over 3000 species, in fact!).  They are considered beneficial insects because they typically leave humans alone and often prey on bugs that we find objectionable, such as aphids.

This Assassin Bug for the genus Zelus, identified by its red eyes, was doing just that - feeding on a copious amount of aphids in my Pink Mulhy grass.

Assassin Bug, Zelus species

Measuring about an inch, these insects often go unnoticed.  The key identifying feature of the Assassin is the proboscis, the special mouth part that curls under it in the photo above.  This mouth part can be used to impale prey and inject a toxic saliva. The bug is further empowered by its sticky forelegs.

Assassin Bug, Zelus species
Assassin bugs are known to stalk their prey, and even mimic the sounds of other insects.  One of their most interesting behavior is lightly plucking spider webs, hoping to draw the spider out thinking that it has caught something in its web.

The photo below is of the same species on a Blackfoot Daisy from about a month ago. 

Read more about Assassin Bugs at livescience.

Assassin Bug, Zelus species

04 December 2010

Rare Baikal Teal in Arizona

On December 2, Gary Nunn located a male Baikal Teal at the Gilbert Water Ranch and Riparian Preserve in the metro Phoenix area - Gilbert, AZ. This news was quickly reported to many of the birding email lists and rare bird alerts, and birders from across the region have converged at GWR to catch a glimpse.

I saw the Baikal Teal this morning on Pond 6, along with a group of probably 20 - 30 other birders.

Baikal Teal

The Baikal Teal breeds in Siberia and winters in Korea, Japan, and eastern China.  The bird is occasionally seen in Alaska, and a handful of records exist from British Columbia south to northern California.  Inland records have usually been dismissed as escaped captive birds.

Captive birds are supposed to be banded and have their hallaxes (hind toes) clipped.  Photos of this bird by others have shown no banding or clipping.  This does not confirm this to be a wild bird, but it helps add to the possibility that it is.

The Baikal Teal was once quite common in Asia, but suffered huge population declines in the mid 1900's.  It was thought to have been reduced from millions to 40,000.  However, it has been enjoying a steady and rapid rebound, with an estimated population of 500,000.  Along with that, it was reported that for the first time ever in 2009, two Baikal Teals were reported in Washington, perhaps adding more ammunition to the theory that this species recovery is leading to more vagrants in the USA.

It will be interesting to see if this record is accepted or not.  Based on past actions,  many believe the record will not be accepted, despite no evidence that the bird is an escapee.  Oftentimes in situations like these, it takes a second sighting in another year to prove a pattern, at which time the original record is retroactively accepted.

Baikal Teal
Regardless of whether this record is accepted, just take the time to enjoy it while it stays.   If you are looking for it, like other teals it is a dabbling forager, so it will often have its head submerged making it difficult to identify.  While I observed it, despite there being 200+ Green-winged Teals at the GWR, this bird didn't really care or congregate with them.  I heard another comment the same on Friday.  It seemed to be a bit of a loaner, or perhaps more accurately a 'free spirit', only loosely associating with other ducks.  It would stay put while other groups of teals would swim pasts.  While I observed it, it actually remained fairly close to a loose group of Northern Pintails.

Also, be sure to check out the Arizona Field Ornothologist site for many better photos and an interesting discussion of this bird.

02 December 2010

White Checkered-Skipper

When I go hiking or visit natural areas, I've never really actively sought out butterflies like I have birds. I don't keep a "life list" like I do with birds, and I don't spend the same amount of time studying field marks or determining the proper micro-habitats.

That said, I never pass up a butterfly, especially when I have my camera.  In early November I happened to spot a white skipper in my front yard, snapped a few photos, and lo and behold, it is was a White Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus albscens), my 50th butterfly species photographed. 

This is actually a quite common butterfly across the desert southwest USA. However, there is a slight chance that it is a Common Checked-Skipper (Pyrgus communis).

These small skippers are easily overlooked, and can be difficult to identify.  The Common lives in most of the USA and is, in fact, common.  The White, as I saw, looks identical to the Common, and can only be separated through dissection.  But it is believed that the White is the only species in the low desert, so given my location I am assuming it was the White Checked-Skipper.

30 November 2010

technorati post


Please ignore this post - a requirement of technorati.

28 November 2010

Inquisitive Spiders

The jumping spider at left is from the genus Habronattus, and was spotted on a twig of a Mexican Blood Flower.  Measuring about 1/3 of an inch, it is tiny and inconspicuous, but don't let that fool you.

All jumping spiders have excellent eyesight to aid them in hunting.  And as their name suggests, they have great jumping abilities, allowing them to leap many times their body length.

However, their most interesting behavior may be how they react to humans.  Jumping spiders, when approached by a human, tend to stay put and observe.  They can often be handled, and make excellent macro photography subjects if you find an especially tame one.

This "tameness" is unique among spiders and most insects.  And the image of being tame and inquisitive is further enhanced by their 'facial features', which appear to impart expressions (see photo below for an example).

Spiders, like many "bugs", consist of thousands of species worldwide. In fact, jumping spiders (family Salticidae) alone contain over 5000 species. When you factor in regional and seasonal variances, it becomes quite a challenge to identify species.

Jumping spiders in general can be loosely identified by the arrangement of their eyes - all in a row, with their middle eyes substantially larger.  Behaviorally, they are hunters, so you will not see them with or in a web.  They do spin silk to "tether" themselves when jumping.

Habronattus coecatus, public domain image from wikipedia

And be sure to check out my other Macro photos.

26 November 2010

Bug Guide

I wanted to take a moment and pass along an excellent site that I use extensively in trying to identify insects of all types - is free to use, and allows anyone to submit photos of insects - unidentified or identified. So many experts use the site that it isn't uncommon to identify a mystery bug within an hour or two.

In fact, BugGuide encourages everyone to submit identifiable photos to help build their collection. You'd be surprised about how little is known about many species of insects, and getting confirmed sitings in new locations, at previously unheard of dates, or performing previously unknown behaviors adds to the collective knowledge.

So check out and submit a few photos!

21 November 2010

Orb Weaver Spiders

Some of the most interesting spiders are the Orb Weavers - and lucky for us they are some of the most pervasive. Nearly 3000 species exist, and you can find orb weavers on every continent (except Antarctica).

The Orb Weaver above, called a Western Spotted Orb Weaver (Neoscona oaxacensis) has been hanging out in our front yard near a light.  Like many orb weavers, it spins a new web each day after consuming the old web.  It is amazing to see the speed and agility of the spider as it spins the web.

The Western Spotted Orb Weaver's coloration and patterns are known to vary quite a bit. The one above is quite pale, while the one below has a very vivid pattern.

As always, be sure to click on the photos for a full size view. And for fans of macro photos, check out Macro Mondays, where people of many skill levels and interests contribute macro photos.

I've also created a new label for my macros posted here. Be sure to check it out and catch up on past macros.

15 November 2010

Praying Mantis (Mantid)

When I talk to friends and family who have never lived in Arizona, or in some cases never even visited, they are always surprised at what I tell them.

  • Yes, almost 2/3 of the state is mountains.
  • Yes, you can actually ski in Arizona (most years).
  • Yes, we have mosquitoes even in the desert.
  • And the list goes on.

Preying Mantis (Mantid)
One of more surprising insects to take up residence in Arizona (I should say surprising to out-of-state'ers) is the Praying Mantis.

Praying Mantis are more accurately called Mantids, from the family Mantidae.  20 species of Mantids live in the USA and Canada, and over 2000 worldwide. 

Aside from the Mediterranean mantis, Iris oratoria, I'm not sure if other species are around in my yard.  Regardless, I am happy to have them.  They are known to be voracious predators and generally beneficial for suburban landscapes and gardens.

They are harmless to humans, and fun to watch.  In fact, many homeowners and gardeners around the world purchase eggs and adults to populate their gardens. The only downside is that they do not differentiate between what humans consider harmful and helpful insects.

Spotting praying mantis can be difficult since they blend in so well and can hold still and stalk very effectively.  Many are colored green to brown, looking like foliage and sticks.  They often stay perfectly still hoping for some insect prey to wonder by.

I've seen Mantids in most vegetation in our yard, ranging from my mesquite tree, to rose bushes, to Mexican Hat flowers, and even on my Saguaro.  If you are looking for Mantids in your yard, many people recommend checking near porch lights or coach lights in the August and September timeframe, when males may fly in and and take up post waiting for prey.

Preying Mantis (Mantid) Egg DepositOne other tell-tale sign of mantids in your yard is the hard egg encasements they leave behind (see photo of Mediterranean mantis, Iris oratoria eggs found in my yard).  These eggs are deposited on hard surfaces - walls, trellis, sturdy branches, and even the sides of cactus.

As many as four dozen mantis eggs may be inside, so take care not to disturb.
Preying Mantis (Mantid)

12 November 2010

Kiowa Dancer

About a month ago Dr. Pierre Deviche led a dragonfly walk at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.  Pierre has rapidly become a regional expert in dragonflies, and it was a great experience to attend.

The highlight of the walk was a Kiowa Dancer damselfly, Argia immunda.  The Kiowa Dancer is relatively rare in Arizona, and in fact is generally only found in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Southeast Arizona.

Kiowa Dancer Damselfly
Kiowa Dancer
The damselfly was captured by net and held up (though not very still).

Damselflies, like dragonflies, are members of the group Odonata.  Damselflies are much more slender and often less conspicuous.  Their eyes are more spherical, and their resting posture is significantly different than dragonflies.  For those looking to learn more about the differences, I found this blog with an excellent post comparing damselflies to dragonflies.

As for the Kiowa, the blue/violet tail tip is one of the initial diagnostics. And actually, more accurately that long thin tail is the abdomen, which is generally described as consisting of 10 segments. In this case, segments 8-10 are the blue/violet. Segment 7 generally is black in the Kiowa. The Kiowa dancer generally has a good amount of violet on its head and thorax as well. Females tend to be more highly variable in color according to and Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West.

08 November 2010

Western Pygmy-Blue - Encore

The Western Pygmy-Blue's (Brephidium exile) are performing very nicely at the moment, with a dozen or more taking up evening and nighttime residence in our Pink Mulhy Grass.

As a follow up to last week's Western Pygmy-Blue Butterfly article, here is a portrait of one.  Be sure to click on it for a full sized view.

Western Pygmy-Blue Butterfly
Again, that stick it is sitting on is actually a blade of grass, just to give you an idea of how tiny this butterfly is.  This photo was shot with a Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro, at its closest point where it could still focus.

As always, the photo is available for purchase on

05 November 2010

Western Pygmy-Blue Butterfly

One of my favorite butterflies of the southwest is the Western Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium exile), the smallest butterfly found in the USA. This butterfly is so small that most people don't even realize it is a butterfly at all.

Its tiny-ness and abundance make it a wonderful subject for photography, if not a frustrating one.

For an idea of the size of this butterfly, consider the "pinky" fingernail of the average mail adult. The Kaufman field guide, as great as it is, actually overstates the size of this butterfly.
Western Pygmy-Blue Butterfly

One of my favorite photos gives excellent perspective - the photo below is one on a blade of grass.

Western Pygmy-Blue Butterfly

If you want to spot one of these, check around Russian Thistle (aka tumbleweed), salt bush, and many types of ornamental grasses native to the southwest.

Lastly, this Western Pygmy-Blue was spotted at San Pedro in early September this year.
Western Pygmy-Blue Butterfly

02 November 2010

Gulf Fritillary Caterpillars

Gulf Fritillary butterflies are some of the most striking seen in the Arizona low desert - and some of the easiest to attract. Simply plant a passion flower vine (Passiflora species) of any sort - native or otherwise, and it is almost guaranteed that you'll have Gulf Fritillary's flapping around it within a couple of weeks (provided it is not the middle of winter).

Gulf Fritillary Caterpillar
Gulf Fritillary Larva
The Gulf Fritillary loves passion flower vines so much because it is the food source for their larvae (see Growing Success in Desert Butterfly Gardening). This is one of those circumstances where planting the larval food source of the species is more likely to attract it than planting adult food sources. 

They love passion flowers so much that it is common for so many caterpillars to hatch that they literally eat the vine until no leaves remain, ultimately killing the vine.  Passifloras generally do quite well in the Phoenix and Tucson areas, but they are not cheap.  For the good of the plant and for the good of future Gulf Fritillary generations, gardeners often have to selectively remove caterpillars to keep the plant alive.

Gulf Fritillary Butterfly
Gulf Fritillary Adult

29 October 2010

Brown Garden Snail

4.5 years ago our yard was just a dirt pad. Since then, we've planted well over a hundred different native and arid adapted plants, trees, cacti, and succulents. As those plants have grown up we've watched the array of birds, insects, and other animals that visit our yard exponentially increase.

Brown Garden Snail
A week or so ago I discovered a new creature for our yard - a European Brown Garden Snail, - Helix aspersa.

Snails are very interesting creatures to watch.  They are most active at night and in damp conditions, yet this snail managed to find a place to live in our desert backyard.   They have an adaption that allows them to seal themselves off in their shell to minimize moisture loss.

The above snail was in fact "home" inside its shell, but after having been tormented by our daughter, I decided to leave it alone and simply get a photo of its shell.

26 October 2010

More Queen Caterpillars

The Queen Butterflies are continuing to reproduce prolifically in my backyard. They are particularly drawn to lay eggs on a Mexican Blood Flower (Asclepias currasavica) that is generally in full sun. This plant is barely hanging in there after getting eaten by numerous caterpillars for months.

The funny thing is we have three more Mexican Blood Flowers and three Pine-leaf Milkweeds in a less sunny location, and while the butterflies will feed on the nectar, they don't seem to lay eggs in that less sunny location.

The caterpillar below was one of 5 on the plant currently. I've documented the Queens of Maricopa previously - see the series Queen Butterfly, which shows adults, larvae, and chrysalis.
Queen Butterfly Caterpillar

22 October 2010

Mexican Amberwing

This year the hot weather seemed to hang on much longer than normal, with low 100's right up through the end of September. As tedious as the weather was, it allowed for some great late season dragonfly activity.

On an October 2 excursion to Boyce Thompson Arboretum, there were many species of dragonflies and damselflies active. None were more prolific than the beautiful Mexican Amberwings (Perithemis intensa), which numbers in the dozens, if not hundreds, at Ayer Lake.

Mexican Amberwing Dragonfly
Mexican Amberwing Dragonfly

Like butterflies, adult dragonflies only live for a couple of weeks, and often display worn and torn wings, as the one above shows.

In most of Arizona, the Mexican Amberwing is the prominent amberwing, especially in central Arizona around Phoenix.  The Eastern and Slough Amberwing is seen in the SE corner of AZ, though.

The photo below show another Mexican Amberwing, focused on the wings.  This provides an excellent look at the wings and vein structure.

Mexican Amberwing Dragonfly
Mexican Amberwing Wing Structure

For those interested in identifying dragonflies in the southwest, I have two book recommendations.  The first is a starter book that is small enough to be taken to the field.  Common Dragonflies of the Southwest, by Kathy Biggs.

The second is much more comprehensive, and highly recommended for any amateur or professional naturalist.  Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West, by Dennis Paulson

19 October 2010

Pipevine Swallowtail

Few butterflies rival the size and beauty of swallowtails, and the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) is no exception. Common to much of the southern USA, it really stands out in the Arizona low deserts. When casual gardeners and hikers ask "what was that large black butterfly?", it is almost always the Pipevine Swallowtail.

Pipevine Swallowtail
Pipevine Swallowtail
In fact, here in the low deserts, really only the Black Swallowtail is somewhat similar, but easily distinguished by noticeable yellow banding that is absent on the Pipevine Swallowtail. This is not to mention larval food sources - Pipevine Swallowtails exclusively use pipevines, such as Dutchman's Pipe, while Black Swallowtails larval choices are in the parsley family. In fact, low desert gardeners who plant dill or parsley are likely to see the Black Swallowtail up close.

Back to the Pipevine Swallowtail - their larval food choice of pipevine is likely an evolutionary protection against predators. The noxious pipevines result in toxic larvae and adults, which over time predators learn to avoid. This is very similar to how to the Queen butterfly is thought to have adapted to choosing milkweeds.

15 October 2010

Turkey Vultures and Feather Mites

Turkey Vulture Spreading Wings
Turkey Vulture Spreading Wings
I recently heard and read about an interesting Turkey Vulture behavior - spreading wings in the sun as if they are drying them. I couldn't recall ever seeing this, but sure enough, I stumbled across it at Boyce Thompson in early October.

This behavior is very common in cormorants, seen frequently at bodies of water in Arizona.  But cormorants do this to dry their feathers are fishing and swimming in water.  Why would a Turkey Vulture do this?

The theory is that the Turkey Vultures are in fact drying and heating their feathers to ward off feather mites.  Feather mites are actually in themselves very interesting creatures - smart enough to move off of a feather that is about to be molted.  Note that it is also thought to be a means of general thermoregulation, but that doesn't explain why they'd be doing it on 90+ degree mornings in the desert.  Regardless, it was interesting to see this behavior in person. 

12 October 2010

Lowland Leopard Frog

As has been well publicized, around the world many frog species are in decline and are going extinct at an alarming rate (conservatively, 120 species have gone extinct since the 1980's).  In Arizona, this is also the unfortunate trend.  It is thought by many that frogs are more sensitive to climate change, and aren't able to relocate and adapt as quickly as some animals.  Weakened and decreased populations are then much more susceptible to diseases.

Lowland Leopard Frog
Lowland Leopard Frog
Given all of the pessimism around the future of frogs, it was nice to see what appeared to be a native Lowland Leopard Frog, Rana yavapaiensis, at Ayer Lake at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.  

Arizona is currently home to 15 frog species, including treefrogs and true frogs.  3 of those species are non-natives that were introduced to Arizona, and have established breeding populations.  Unfortunately, two of those introduced species present a real threat to native frogs, including thee leopard frogs.  The eastern USA native American Bullfrog is the largest threat.  Being a large frog that eats almost anything aquatic, leopard frogs are often on its dinner plate.  The introduced Rio Grande Leopard Frog also competes in the same habitats, and may be pushing the native Lowland Leopard Frog out.

So enjoy our frogs while you can.  Lets hope that conservation efforts can help mitigate the affects of disease, warming, and non-native introductions.

08 October 2010

Flame Skimmer Dragonfly

This Flame Skimmer (Libellula saturata) was seen in early September at San Pedro National Riparian Conservation Area near one of the ponds by San Pedro House. 

Flame Skimmer Dragonfly
Flame Skimmer
Flame skimmer rivals the Neon Skimmer in terms of over-the-top red/orange color, but the Neon, which is slightly larger, and a brighter red, still wins out.

The Flame Skimmer has a much larger range than the Neon, however, making it a more familiar sight.  Its covers most of the region of the Neon (except for eastern TX and central Oklahoma), and much more of the interior west.

05 October 2010

Digger Wasp

My early September trip to San Pedro yielded a number of interesting bird, insect, and mammal finds. This Digger Wasp (Scolia dubia) was one example of an insect that seemed to be common in San Pedro, but I've never noticed in my backyard.
Digger Wasp on Flower
Digger Wasp

The digger wasp, as one might expect, is known to burrow into soil, often near plants that it feeds on. It covers a wide range of the USA, with Arizona being about the western extent of the range.

01 October 2010

Grow Success in Desert Butterfly Gardening

Gulf Fritillary Butterfly
Gulf Fritillary - A Common Arizona Buttefly
Those new to the Desert Southwest are often surprised to learn that Arizona offers some of the greatest diversity in plant life, animal life, and insect life in the United States. In fact, only Texas rivals Arizona in terms of number of species that can be seen.

While I love to travel to interesting locations in Southern Arizona, it is also very satisfying to attract interesting insects and birds to my backyard. And what better way to take advantage of our inherent diversity than to try to attract some of it to our backyards! In fact, bird and butterfly gardening largely relies on native, drought tolerant plantings that serve to improve habitat and offset some of our homes impact on the natural land.

Today we're focusing on butterfly gardening. While butterfly gardening is relatively easy, I’ve found that many new to butterflies get discouraged at some point for a few reasons.

  1. They expect to have many large butterflies, like Monarchs and Swallowtails. The reality is that most butterflies and much smaller and much more inconspicuous.
  2. Gardeners tend to overlook larval food plants. As you’ll see below, some of the best attractants of butterflies are not flowers themselves, but rather the leaves.

This article is going to look at the most commonly recommended desert butterfly plants, some of which I’ll highlight as the “all-stars” of butterfly gardening. But first, a quick lesson in butterflies.

Butterfly Life Cycle

Butterflies begin their lives as small eggs, usually laid on a larval food plant that the specific butterfly prefers. Occasionally, eggs will be laid near a larval food plant, but the theme remains – adult female butterflies seek out a specific plant of family of plants for their eggs.

Eggs hatch and a caterpillar emerges. The caterpillars are often strikingly colored, and may be as much fun to observe as the butterflies themselves! Caterpillars are known as eating machines – they may even eat their egg shell along with the leaves of the larval food plant. Caterpillars may be tiny when they hatch, but as they grow they shed their exoskeleton – sometimes as many as 5 times. Caterpillars take a few weeks to grow to full size before they enter their next stage.  Caterpillars themselves are very interesting to observe, as I showed with these Queen caterpillars.

Caterpillars locate a place to pupate. This may be on the larval food plant, or nearby. The caterpillar sheds its skin and forms a chrysalis – a pupal case that some people call a cocoon. Note, however, that cocoons are unique to moths, not butterflies. The chrysalis can also be strikingly colored and very interesting – especially if viewed with close-focus binoculars or a magnifying glass.

Queen Butterfly Caterpillar or Pupa
After a few days to a couple of weeks, the adult butterfly emerges from the chrysalis. Most adults will only live a couple of weeks, but they make the most of their time and may mate multiple times.

Different butterfly species will be observed at different times of the year. Some butterflies are migratory (like Monarchs), while others simply prefer certain weather conditions. In some cases a given species will emerge and be most prevalent when their larval food plants are at their peak. In Arizona, a good backyard butterfly garden may attract 25 species of butterflies or more throughout the year. It is important to be observant. The tiniest of butterflies are easily overlooked, and many butterflies will be inactive during the majority of our hottest days.

Butterfly vs Moth

Generally speaking, if you see a butterfly or moth like creature flying in the daytime, it is a butterfly. Close inspection will reveal some other general differences. For example, butterfly’s antennae usually have a club-like knob on the ends. As mentioned above, butterfly caterpillars form a pupa, while moth caterpillars spin a silk cocoon. Since moths fly at night, they usually have a hairy body, thought to conserve heat. As with any generalization, there are exceptions.

Butterfly Shapes and Sizes

Western Pygmy Blue
It is highly recommended that the butterfly gardener purchase a butterfly guide, such as the Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America. These guides will provide insight into shapes, sizes, and behaviors of butterflies, and also provide range maps to give you an idea of what to expect. Good guides indicate which plants a species will prefer, and times of year they are most likely to be “in-flight” in adult stage.

That aside, be aware that many southwestern butterflies are very small – some as small as your smallest fingernail like the Western Pygmy Blue shown here. Despite the miniature size of some species, they can be quite colorful, especially when viewed with close-focus binoculars or a magnifying glass. However, we also get our share of very large butterflies as well, including Swallowtails, Queens, Gulf Fritillaries, and even an occasional Monarch. Note that some butterflies take on different postures. Skippers, for example, look much more moth-like than species traditionally identified as butterflies.

The Plants

I’ve become firmly convinced that larval food plants are as important, if not more important, than nectar plants. The larval plants attract adult butterflies to lay eggs. Further, some adult butterfly males “stake out” larval plants hoping to find a female. Not to mention that it is great fun to observe caterpillars and watch a butterfly life cycle.

Queen Butterfly Feeding on Nectar
Queen Feeding on Nectar
A good butterfly garden has a mix of larval food plants and nectar sources. In both cases, it is good to plant multiple plants of a given species. This is especially true of nectar sources, where a mass of a given plant may catch the attention of butterflies.  And note that not all flowers produce nectar, which is where the list below helps.

Your butterfly garden should insure most of the plants are in full sun, or close to full sun. Brightly lit flowers seem to be a strong attractant. However, it is also key to have some shade in and near your garden. Butterflies must regulate their temperatures, and need places to “cool off”.

Other Tips

Some butterflies like to “eat” salts, water, and other minerals from mud, as well. This is a common behavior sometimes called "puddling".  If you have micro-sprayers in your irrigation system, you may wish to make a small clearing where butterflies can come to visit the mud.  As an example, when I dump my daughters wading pool, within seconds I have American Snout butterflies that were "hiding" in my Desert Hackberry show themselves and soak up the water and minerals.

If possible, create two or more areas in your garden focused on butterflies. Given that the list of preferred plant species ranges from trees to groundcovers, and shrubs to grasses, it should be easy to create a yard full of butterfly attractants.

Lastly, use pesticides sparingly, if at all.

Larval Food Plants

Common Name Latin NameButterflies AttractedNotes

Baja Fairy Duster

Calliandra californica

Ceraunus Blue
Marine Blue


Bamboo Muhly

Muhlenbergia dumosa

Orange Skipperling


Black-eyed Susan

Rudbeckia hirta

Bordered Path

Common Sunflower

Helianthus annuus

Bordered Path
some cheekerspots

Excellent bird plant - finches love the seeds

Desert Hackberry

Celtis pallida

American Snout
Empress Leilia

All-star!  Also great bird planting.  Large shrub.

Desert Milkweed

Asclepias subulata


Desert Senna

Senna covesii

Cloudless Sulphur
Sleepy Orange



Anethum graveolens

Black Swallowtail

Parsley is said to work well, too.

Dutchman's Pipe

Aristotochia watsonii

Pipevine Swallowtail

Consider this one carefully - plants are very toxic and flowers smell odd.  Best for acreages and away from children.

Feather Tree

Lysiloma microphylla

Large Orange Sulphur


Fern Acacia

Acacia angustissima

Mexican Yellow
Several skippers



Phyla nodiflora

Phaon Crescent (rare)

ground cover

Golden Dyssodia (aka Golden Fleece)

Dyssodia pentachaeta

Dainty Sulphur



Eysenhardtia orthocarpa

Marine Blue
Southern Dogface

All-star!  Small tree can fit most landscapes

Longpod Senna

Senna leptocarpa

Cloudless Sulphur
Sleepy Orange


Mexican Blood Flower (aka Mexican Milkweed or Mexican Butterfly Weed)

Asclepias currasavica




Passion Flower

Passiflora species

Gulf Fritillary

All-Star!  Perhaps the strongest larval attractant

Pine-lead Milkweed

Asclepias linaria


Small shrub, provides nice texture

Pink Muhly Grass (aka Texas Muhly, Gulf Muhly)

Muhlenbergia capillaris

Western Pygmy Blue

All star!  grass

Side-Oats Grama

Bouteloua curtipendula

Orange Skipperling


Trailing Dalea

Dalea greggi

Southern Dogface

ground cover

Velvet Mesquite

Prosopis velutina

Leda Hairstreak


Nectar Plants

Common Name

Latin Name


Autumn Sage

Salvia greggi

Also a good hummingbird plant

Blackfoot Daisy

Melampodium leucanthum

White flowered nectar source; densely flowered groundocver/low perennial, but relatively short-lived - about 2 years.

Blue Cornflower (aka Bachelor Buttons)

Centaurea cyanus

May be larval food source for some species

Blue Mist

Eupatorium greggi


Butterfly Bush

Buddleia sp.

Can be higher water use

Chocolate Flower

Berlandiera lyrata

Has wonderful choclate fragrance


Echinacea Sp.

Many coneflower species are strong attractants, but require a bit more water than some of teh alternatives


Phyla nodiflora

Golden Dyssodia (aka Golden Fleece)

Dyssodia pentachaeta

All-star - it is also a  larval food source for Dainty Sulphur.


Lantana camara


Mexican Hat

Ratibida columnifera

Moss Verbena

Verbena pulchella

Spreading Fleabane

Erigeron divergens

Trailing Lantana

Lantana montevidensis

All-star! ground cover; blooms almost all year,
providing a nectar source when others are scarce


Verbena Goodingii


Lycium berlandieri

Note that there are other nectar sources and larval food plants that can be grown in the low deserts.  However, the goal of this article was to outline the "top" choices.  This means I selected the best attractants, and those that are relatively easy to grow.  I also have a slight slant towards native plants, which especially makes sense when considering larval food plants - we are attracting native butterflies, after all.  Lastly,
I've tried to avoid any invasive plants, though keep in mind that "invasiveness" can vary depending on your environment.

With all that in mind, a few others that didn't quite make the cut, but would function well supplementing the above include shasta daisies, Mexican sunflower, cosmos, snapdragons, and marigolds.  In fact, even Russian Thistle (yes - the non-native tumbleweed) is an excellent larval food source for Western Pygmy Blues (though I wouldn't recommend growing it on purpose).  So if you have a nearby vacant lot or neighbor that lets their weeds run wild, at least take solace in the fact that those thorny tumbleweeds are providing a food source for some butterflies!