Yes to Both Questions . . .

Tawny Hackberry butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park, PA
We see fewer and fewer Tawny Emperor butterflies at Raccoon Creek State Park. A recent email from someone who monitors the insects of Pennsylvlania included the Tawny amongst the rare and uncommon butterflies. I hope this is not the future for this brown masterpiece. Most encouraging is the abundance of its hostplant, Hackberries, tree and bushes.

I’ve shared this image with many groups of adults and children. Question #1 usually is, “Is this a moth?” No, it is a butterfly. Prominent head, relatively slender body and antennae (the plural) consisting of a pair of long stems with a club at its end.

Question #2 often expresses curiosity about those antennae. We have 2 eyes, 2 ears, 2 nostrils. Our Tawny has those 2 antennae. What do they do? Robert Michael Pyle’s National Audubon Society Field Guide to Butterflies ( Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) writes that “Antennae are probably used for smelling as well as for touching and orientation.” The antennae seen here are quite long, each with a whitish club. Looking at these antennae, see how their length enables them be aware of what is going on around them.

So ‘Yes’ to both questions. If you have an additional question, “A female or a male?” The answer to that one is . . . it is difficult to tell the sex of a Tawny, unless of course you are another Tawny.


The Dog Days of August

Darner butterfly and grasshopper in spider web photographed by Jeff Zablow at Rector, PA, 8/22/05

What thoughts shoot through your mind when your trail brings you to this? It’s August in Powdermill Refuge in Rector, Pennsylvania (45 minutes southeast of Pittsburgh). You’ve already noted several large webs, all spun here by Black and Yellow Argiope spiders. Webs were notable for their composition. Each seemed to have its own unique design. Some held tiny insects, other webs, web strands, naked.

This web. Oh, look. Location. location, location, as your realtor will tell you. This female Argiope has the Laurel Highlands equivalent of New York’s Madison Avenue & East 57th Street or crossroads in London, Paris, San Francisco, Mumbai or Munich, the last 5 of which I do not yet know.

This early morning view is an eye full, and a little upsetting. Her strong protein fibers have captured and held an Elisa Skimmer (“widely distributed in northern states and Canada, but seldom becomes abundant” – National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders) and a grasshopper I am not able to identify. The grasshopper has been skillfully wrapped around in numerous web threads, the skimmer has not been wrapped. Both are still and surely gone.

Dreamers who aspire to piloting swift jets daydream of flying with the skill of Elisa skimmer. Field and track athletes certainly admire the feats of a grasshopper. All the soaring and jumping . . . stilled by those mighty threads.

What think you of this scene?


NB, I thoroughly admire Argiopes and orb weaver spiders, complicated as these situations can be. Also, that morning, I saw no butterflies in webs. To be honest…Good.

Entry Forbidden

Cattle on Mt. Hermon, Israel photographed by Jeff Zablow, 6/16/08

Winter is all but forgotten. Good. My struggle with Winter 2014 was supported by some excellent, heavily recommended books, written by butterfly notables and other naturalists who long ago had earned their position amongst those of us who savor and seek wildlife conservation. I read Wild America, Mariposa Road and Nabokov’s Butterflies, Chasing Monarchs, Four Wings And A Prayer . . . UPS just delivered Blue Highways yesterday, as I was completing Mariposa Road for the 3rd read.

What adventures they had. How rich and beautiful was much of what they found. All this was so daunting for me, reading how they received the support of legions of friends and admirers wherever they went. They were pointed to potentially rich habitat destinations, increasing their chances of scoring rare, threatened, nearly extirpated butterflies. They were often fed, housed and entertained by those who wanted to share tales, and time and memories with them, in their comfortable homes and in local, sometimes unheralded eateries. So they laughed, and imbibed local beers, and set out on many early morning field assaults with experienced, savvy friends. This can make the rain, the cold, and the missed opportunities a little less annoying.

Well, most of us have not earned such a status, and did not begin those kind of careers early in life. Oh, what must it have been like to do what we do now, when we were in our muscular 20’s?

What  I did not come across in those valued reads was this. A place, the peak of Israel’s Mt. Hermon, that was almost teaming with rare, little known and protected butterflies! See, I held back, but just now could wait no longer, and used the frowned upon exclamation point – because that’s how strongly I feel about what I enjoyed on the mountain.

So yes, I always travel alone, never shoulder to shoulder with someone who shares my gusto for all this, or brings deep gravitas to this field work.

Then, too, those  extraordinary writers did not write about this species of situation: Entry Forbidden. Bloody carnage going on in Syria, the background in this photograph taken in 2008. The Israeli Defense Forces turn away naturalists who want to travel the mountain. Stray rockets, mortars and other ordinance have made this very spot way too dangerous, and with many of the world’s terrorists nearby, any trip to find additional rare species on the wing . . . may, only may be possible in the decades to come.

I will  travel to this Golan region very soon, but can only view Mt. Hermon from its base. Pity.


Counting the Weeks

Nichol Field photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek Park, PA, 7/06
On April 27th, just days ago, I visited this same field at Raccoon Creek State Park, in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Spring growth had not accelerated yet, and almost the entire 100 +/- acres were covered with 3” tall plant stubble. Evidence of planned field husbandry could be seen here and there, most easily noticed were areas of controlled burn.

We are looking at a section of the field during the first week of July. Fast forwarding to that time in this place, how much fun it is to be greeted by American Coppers, Orange Sulphurs, Tiger Swallowtails, Duskywings, Silver-spotted Skippers, Spicebush Swallowtails, while at the same time enjoying the silent company of Apis Mellifera and Bombus Pensylvanicus (honeybees and bumblebees). Unexpected overflights of a larger Darner simulated our pride and sense of well-being when we are lucky enough to spot a US Air Force jet flying near the horizon. Would you look at that, a Monarch!

Adding to the warmth of the day, time and place would be spotting another naturalist headed my way, and could it be? Yes! It’s…………You!

NB, I’ve received my Fuji film, back-up Canon camera, and the first of what I hope are, several airplane tickets. Good to go.