Rickard’s Notes on LRGV Checkered-Skippers

Mike Rickard did his usual great job of making difficult species ID sensible today on Facebook, in this case distinguishing between Desert Checkered-skipper and White Checkered-skipper, which cause me no end of consternation when I visit the Lower Rio Grande Valley.  Here’s his analysis:

“A brief primer on some checkered skippers. Desert Checkered-Skippers have a white dot at the forewing tip that White Checkered-Skippers lack; Desert Checkered-Skippers also have a large white spot on the forewing that’s missing on the White Checkered-Skippers, and Desert Checkered-Skippers have a pair of black dots on the hindwing underside. Photos today at the National Butterfly Center.”

Desert Checkered-skipper showing the white dot at the forewing tip and the large white spot in the middle of the dorsal forewing (both lacking in White Checkered-skipper)

Desert Checkered-skipper showing the white dot at the forewing tip and the large white spot in the middle of the dorsal forewing (both lacking in White Checkered-skipper)

By comparison, these features are lacking on White Checkered-skipper

By comparison, these features are lacking on White Checkered-skipper

On the underside, Desert Checkered-skipper has these two black dots lacking on White Checkered-skipper.

On the underside, Desert Checkered-skipper has these two black dots lacking on White Checkered-skipper.

Thanks a million, Mike!

Evolutionary Novelty in a Butterfly Wing Pattern through Enhancer Shuffling

An interesting new paper from PLOS-Biology on evolution of wing patterns.


    Evolutionary Novelty in a Butterfly Wing Pattern through Enhancer Shuffling, Richard Wallbank et al.  Published: January 15, 2016.


    Author’s summary:

    >  Butterflies show an amazing diversity of patterns on their wings. In fact, most of the 18,000 species of butterfly can be distinguished on the basis of their wing pattern. Much of this diversity is thought to arise through novel switches in the genome that turn genes on in new contexts during wing development, thereby producing new patterns. Here we study a set of switches that control the expression of optix, a gene that places red patches onto the wings of Heliconius butterflies. We show that two patterning switches —one that produces red rays on the hindwing and the other a red patch on the base of the forewing —are located adjacent to one another in the genome. These switches have each evolved just once among a group of 16 species but have then been repeatedly shared between species by hybridisation and introgression. Despite the fact that they are now part of a common pattern in the Amazon basin, these two pattern components actually arose in completely different species before being brought together through hybridisation. In addition, recombination among these switches has produced new combinations of patterns within species. Such sharing of genetic variation is one way in which mimicry can evolve, whereby patterns are shared between species to send a common signal to predators. Our work suggests a new mechanism for generating evolutionary novelty, by shuffling these genetic switches among lineages and within species. <<

    Click Wallbank et al 2016. PLOS Biology: Evolutionary Novelty in a Butterfly Wing Pattern through Enhancer Shuffling to read the full paper

    Only in Britain ….



    Exclusive from Selfridges, apparently (and only 1 in stock!):  “For those who need something a little different on their wrist, the Lepidoptera watch  is the perfect accessory. Featuring a printed sketch of a of a moth on the dial, this watch has an alloy case and a soft leather wrist strap. The epitome of understated style”

    2016 Update of PA Butterfly Atlas

    [still image -- hyperlinks from the map are disabled]

    [still image — hyperlinks from the map are disabled]

    Once again David Wright has updated his fine Atlas of Pennsylvania Butterflies, the 15th such edition since the project begain in 1995.  Drawing a host of sources — historical and contemporary, listed at the back of the report, and updated from 2015 sightings — the distribution maps for each species in the PA butterfly fauna offer readers a very compact and approachable way to easily see where a given butterfly occurs (or has occurred) in PA.  Along the way it offers an object lesson biogeography, as having the distribution data presented this way — colored in for counties where there are verified records — clearly shows the habitat barriers for many of the state’s species.

    Readers should remember, however, that historic sightings don’t necessarily indicate the continuing presence of species.  The map for Regal Fritillary, for example, shows more than half of PA counties with sightings; this is a sad reminder that habitat for this iconic prairie species has practically vanished in modern times.

    Introducing the report, David writes on PALepsOdes:

    >>Attached is the latest edition of the Atlas of Pennsylvania Butterflies, including new county records documented in 2015. Beginning with the inception of the atlas in 1995, we have logged 2256 new county records. This averages to a rate of slightly more than 100 per year. In the last two decades many gaps in species’ ranges have been filled-in. Yet there are still challenges and reasons for continued field work, such as monitoring range shifts and species status within previously known ranges.


    PS – I have a handful of printed hard copies of the atlas. Send me an email, if you wish to receive one in the mail.<<  [Wripenn AT aol /DOT/com]

    Click on the link in the first paragraph or on ATLAS to view the Atlas.





    Pining for Butterflies

    Q:  Who is the author of this quote?

    “I love butterflies. I have some on display at my house. I sound like such a lame ass, but I think they’re one of the most beautiful things on the planet.”

    If your answer was Art Shapiro, Bob Pyle, or Jeff Glassberg (well, I guessed you’d have eliminated Jeff because of the “display(ed) at my house” business), you were wrong.

    A:  Actor Chris Pine, best known so far from the Star Trek franchise reboot.  In a February 2016 interview with Cosmopolitan magazine, in addition to his love affair with butterflies Pine opines on spray tans, superheroes, and the manly way to douse oneself with perfume (it is Cosmo, after all).

    Going where no butterflies have gone before.

    Going where no butterflies have gone before.

    Kjell Sandved dies at 93

    One version of Sandved's butterfly alphabet

    From today’s Washington Post.  Who can forget Kjell’s butterfly alphabets?

    Sunday January 17, 2016 12:01 AM

    (c) 2016, The Washington Post.

    Kjell Sandved, a Norwegian publisher who found a second career as a nature photographer for the Smithsonian Institution, capturing closely observed images of butterflies, plants and other forms of life, which he published in a series of books, died Dec. 20 at his home in Washington. He was 93.

    He had dementia, said Barbara Badian, a friend and business associate.

    Sandved, whose first name was pronounced “Shell,” was a man of singular vision who never did things by half-measure. After compiling and publishing two single-volume encyclopedias on music and art – each more than 1,000 pages in length – he set about compiling another encyclopedia devoted to the natural world.

    He was at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in 1960, looking through a cigar box containing a collection of butterflies, when he noticed the letter “F” in the wing of one specimen. He took a photograph, put it above his desk and soon became consumed with curiosity.

    “Not even a calligrapher could have improved on its beauty,” Sandved later wrote. “My mind was made up. I was going to search for the entire alphabet.”

    And so began a decades-long search, as he wondered what else he might see in the wing patterns of the nearly 20,000 species of butterflies across the globe.

    Abandoning plans for a comprehensive encyclopedia on nature, Sandved stayed in Washington as a volunteer at the museum. He redirected his career toward nature photography, teaching himself the craft by trial and error.

    “Before I came here, I really wasn’t interested in photography,” he told a Smithsonian employee publication in the 1980s. “Why, I didn’t even know how to use a camera!”

    After two years, he was hired to help assemble and photograph exhibits. Two years after that, Sandved became the Museum of Natural History’s first full-time nature photographer. For nearly three decades, he traveled the world for the museum.

    “He has old friends everywhere,” a 1987 Smithsonian magazine article noted. “Walk down a street with him in Anchorage, or Tokyo, or Oslo, or Des Moines, and someone is sure to wave and shout, ‘Hi, Kjell!’ ”

    He visited more than 30 countries, climbing across ice fields, walking through deserts and crawling on jungle floors to capture such diverse forms of life as piranhas in the Amazon, penguins in Antarctica and white tigers in India.

    Sandved worked alongside the country’s leading researchers on insects, plants and marine life. He photographed archaeological excavations in the Middle East, coral reefs in the Pacific and the world’s largest flower, the three-foot-wide Rafflesia arnoldii, in Sumatra. Once, while photographing orchids, he looked down and saw a viper inches from his face. It was perfectly formed in the shape of the letter Q, and Sandved got his photo before stepping away from danger.

    Yet, through it all, his overarching interest remained the delicate world of butterflies and moths. He devised ways to take pictures through microscopes and built other equipment from spare parts, including specialized lights and underwater platforms.

    He became an authority on all things lepidopterous and spent thousands of hours in the field hoping to capture the beauty of butterflies with his cameras. It was best to go out early in the morning, and he learned to approach them slowly, walking straight ahead. Any lateral movement would drive them away. He was proud that he never killed or damaged a butterfly in his many years of photographing them.

    In 1975, Sandved produced his first “Butterfly Alphabet” poster, with all 26 letters – and the numbers 1 through 9 – represented in the varied hues of butterfly wings. Over the years, more than 1 million copies were sold.

    From 1973 to 2004, Sandved published nine books of nature photography, including four on butterflies and others on shells, rain forests, leaves and tree bark. During his years at the Smithsonian, he also produced many educational films on nature and animal behavior.

    “Nothing is more important,” he said in 1999, “than to teach children that nature is not something that should be trampled on, uprooted or cleared for cement buildings.”

    Kjell Bloch Sandved was born Oct. 20, 1922, in Strandebarm, Norway. He was 4 when his father, a doctor, died. After his mother remarried, the family moved to a town not far from Oslo.

    Sandved studied electrical engineering at the University of Oslo and became fluent in six languages. He founded a publishing house in 1948, the year his first book, “The World of Music,” appeared. Seven years later, he published “The World of Art.”

    The books had exceptionally high production standards, with elaborate illustrations, burnished leather bindings and covers made with a veneer of African mahogany. He lived for years off the royalties of the books, which were translated into several languages.

    During his tenure at the Smithsonian, Sandved lectured widely on animal behavior. He was featured in a 1983 Smithsonian documentary, and for many years he traveled around the country as part of the Smithsonian Associates program, showing his photographs and films. He retired in 1992.

    Sandved’s work has been displayed at the Museum of Natural History and other museums and has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines. The Dixie Chicks used his photography for the cover art of “Fly,” their 1999 album.

    Sandved never married and had no immediate survivors. In later years, he launched a company, Butterfly Alphabet, that distributes butterfly posters, cards and related items. For years, he had been at work on a book of photographs of spiders.

    “Most people have no idea how many beautiful things are out there for them to see,” Sandved told Maine’s Bangor Daily News in 2005. “There is a line in a Theodore Roethke poem that says, ‘All finite things reveal infinitude.’ Those are words to live by.”

    2015: The Butterfly Year in Review


    My trusty field pack festooned with state park and butterfly site passes from my end of the year trip to Texas for the biennial Butterfly Festival in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Most of the sites there are open for paying visitors only.

    The flight season for 2015 will likely go down in lep history for the mid-Atlantic as a middling year, known best for its huge hole in the middle of summer, when a lot of expected species just never showed up in any quantity (or at all) and the grand finale of being overrun by Ocola Skippers at the tail end of the season.  Here’s my somewhat biased take on the regional butterfly season (and a few personal asides) in 2015.

    2015 APR 18 Ap Grizzled Sk_VA-Alleghany-Covington_pic by Matt Orsie 1

    Appalachian Grizzled Skipper on dandelion in Alleghany Co VA [2015 APR 18, photo by Matt Orsie]

    APRIL — It was a slow start to the season in 2015 for most species; all of the anglewings were delayed in emergence and none of them — Mourning Cloak, Eastern Comma, Question Mark, Red Admiral, both Ladies — showed up as early as they usually do, and none of them showed up in the kinds of numbers we typically expect the rest of the year.  Partly I think this can be attributed to a series of late hard freezes and inclement weather, which also seems to have knocked down the numbers of most whites and sulphurs.  Happy exceptions were Falcate Orangetip and especially Olympia Marble, which began showing up on south- and west-facing shale barren slopes in Allegany Co. by mid-April (APR 13 for me). I suspect Olympia Marble flies even earlier than this most years in the warm microclimate these habitats provide, it’s just that we lepsters don’t usually venture out to their preferred spots early enough.  Highlight locally for me of this month was a chance sighting of Milbert’s Tortoishesell, also in Allegany Co., that eluded capture by both net and camera.

    April also saw me on my first extended foray of the season, the first leg of which began on a trip near Covington VA organized by Mike Smith to a known habitat for Appalachian Grizzled Skipper, a species I believe is now lost to the MD butterfly fauna.  This proved a very productive trip with abundant sightings of fresh skippers, a life butterfly for me as well as an elfin trifecta of Eastern Pine, Brown, and Henry’s Elfins and numerous puddle parties of Dreamy and Sleepy Duskywings.  I headed south from Covington to a conference in Oak Ridge TN, after which I explored a number of areas near Chattanooga for a couple of successful chases for my life Giant Yucca-skippers, as well as Gemmed Satyr and Goatweed Leafwing.

    2015 May 20 Pepper and Salt Skipper MD-Frederick Co-Gambrill SP 1

    A surprising Pepper and Salt Skipper in Frederick Co MD, basking on a black cohosh leaf. Note the strongly checkered fringes on the wings [2015 May 20, photo by REB]

    MAY — I had my first observations in several decades of West Virginia White on Mother’s Day weekend in Garrett Co. MD, flying in relatively undisturbed habitats along forest streams and rivers.  My search in the same habitat for Dusky Azure turned up nothing, but will probably be a target for next year.  I spent more time on the Eastern Shore in early May than in most previous years, adding new locations for Cobweb Skipper and Dusted Skipper, but also finding a new site for our regionally rare Frosted Elfin.  Appalachian Azures flew well in 2015, and on a hunt for this species in a couple of known habitats near Frederick MD I ran across a previously unknown colony of Pepper-and-Salt Skippers, long thought to have been extirpated east of panhandle.

    Swallowtails except for Zebra were struggling this spring; no big flights of Appalachian Tiger (or Eastern Tiger for that matter).  Giant Swallowtail, usually picked up by the end of the month somewhere in the upper Potomac drainage, was practically AWOL, as it continued to be for most of the rest of the year, a pattern that seems to becoming the norm these days.  We also missed seeing some of the early irruptions of Red Admiral, Painted and American Ladies, and sulphurs like Cloudless and Sleepy Orange.  Both these pierids would be hard to come by the rest of the year.  Skipper-wise, it was a very early year for Sachem, Indian Skipper, and Hoary Edge, as well as a seeming irruption year for both Northern and Southern Cloudywings.  Carolina Satyr continued its colonization of more MD counties, including the far western ones.

    2015 JUN 28 Hickory HS 4 NJ-Sussex-Whittingham WMA

    Having scrutinized dozens of Banded Hairstreaks over the years for subtle differences that might give a Hickory, it was SO REFRESHING to see very obvious Hickory Hairstreaks like this one.

    JUNE — Early June saw me on another foray out of the area, this time with my friend Beth Johnson.  During the first week of June we visited several butterfly hotspots in Wisconsin, notably Crex Meadows NWR, where we found our target life species of Karner Blue and Mottled Duskywing, and additional lifers of Gorgone Checkerspot, Persius Duskywing, Northern Crescent, and Canadian Swallowtail.  After Beth headed back to DC, I went farther north into MN in an unsuccessful search for bog elfins, frits, and alpines, but did score a great view of one of the ode world’s most-sought species — Ebony Boghaunter — at Sax Zim Bog.

    Locally, it was a good flight year for Harris’ Checkerspot and Silver-bordered Fritillary in MD, and at least for the first brood of Baltimore Checkerspots.  Harvester was seen regularly, although not in the numbers we had it last year.  Long Dash skippers and European Skippers were quite common this year in the right habitats. This continued a trend of seeing good or at least normal flights for most butterflies who are at the southern edge of their range (or at least have distribution centers in New England and Canada) and poor flights for butterflies of more temperate climates, especially southern migrants.

    Tom Stock and I spent the last days of June on the road to northern NJ for hairstreaks, where we saw hundreds of Hickory, Striped, and Banded Hairstreaks flying together with ample opportunity to compare the markings on these confusing ‘streaks.  In the same area we got good looks at Eyed Brown.  We didn’t continue west from here for a sighting of Acadian Hairstreak; Matt Orsie and Barry Marts did, and got this special hairstreak. It’s on my list for next year.

    2015 JUL 9 Clodius Parnassian UT-Utah Co-Alpine Road at North Fork Ridge

    Nemesis no more! Clodius Parnassian on the Alpine Loop in UT. [2015 JUL 9, photo by REB]

    JULY — My own field time was somewhat limited as I began teaching a 5-week summer course on butterfly conservation for the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Natural History Field Studies program at Graduate School USA.  Most of my weekends in July and August were tied up in field trips with the learners, but we had some great sightings and field experiences.

    Before the classes started, in early July, I did head west to Garrett Co. for Aphrodite (but no Atlantis) Fritillaries and Bog Copper (just over the MD border into WV), and then farther west still to Utah for my third lep expedition of 2015.  I spent the better part of a week butterflying and birding in Utah based out of Park City, chalking up my first parnassian (Clodius) and a bushel of new coppers (Ruddy, Blue, Edith’s and Purplish Coppers, among a number of other new blues, whites, and fritillaries).

    Back in MD, it was a good Northern Metalmark year in Green Spring State Forest, but otherwise we were all beginning to notice a marked absence of large numbers of grass skippers, pierids, and even tailed-blues and crescents.  But ours was a minimal dip compared with the coastal Carolinas, which were as depauperate of butterflies in 2015 as most observers could remember.  Monarchs, contrary to the tales of woe from the Midwest, were seen on practically every butterfly walk in the area this summer.  A late-July trip along the Pocomoke River showed a surprisingly robust flight of Palamedes Swallowtail in their only known major breeding spot in MD.

    I don’t think anyone saw King’s Hairstreak regionally in 2015 (although I never made it to the King’s best site in 2015, checking out instead some stands of its host plant, sweetleaf, in a new location in hopes it might be found there).

    2015 Aug 16 Dion Skipper DC-Kenilworth Gardens_Walt Gould

    A surprise Dion Skipper, new DC record, found by Tom Stock and Walt Gould scouting for the DC annual count at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens [2015 Aug 16, photo by Walt Gould]

    AUGUST — The drought of many species continued, including Bronze Copper and Great Purple Hairstreak,   Single Giant Swallowtails were seen at a few locations in the region (including one in its former redoubt of Hoyles’ Mill in Montgomery Co. MD).

    The big story for August was the early and large boom of Ocola Skippers, a condition that persisted until the first frost of autumn.  A rash of single sightings of Long-tailed Skippers late in the month gave us hope of an equally impressive fall explosion of this species, but that never happened.

    The DC NABA annual count, led by Tom Stock centered on the US National Arboretum and Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, gave its best count ever, including DC count’s first Dion Skipper, found a couple days earlier by Tom and Walt Gould as they scouted for the upcoming count.



    One of Matt Orsie's EIGHT Gray Commas from Big Run SP [2015 SEP 7, MD: Garrett Co]

    One of Matt Orsie’s EIGHT Gray Commas from Big Run SP [2015 SEP 7, MD: Garrett Co]

    SEPTEMBER — The highlight really was a lowlight in 2015; Little Yellows seen only twice all year, very few Cloudless Sulphurs, Variegated Fritillaries, Common Buckeyes, and Sleepy Oranges, all of which usually liven up our early falls here.  Not this year.  An exception to the rule proved to be a very strong flight of Gray Commas along the circuit loop through Big Run and Savage River.





    Evan's Skipper in matching Crucita flowers [2015 Nov 5, Santa Ana NWR, photo by REB]

    Evan’s Skipper in matching Crucita flowers [2015 Nov 5, Santa Ana NWR, photo by REB]

    OCTOBER, NOVEMBER — October passed uneventfully, the Brazilian Skippers and Long-tailed Skippers noted just to our south in Norfolk never made it up this way.  A sighting of Bronze Copper sent me scurrying to the Eastern Shore, but by the time I arrived two days later the entire area had been mown to stubble.  So by November I was anxious to be seeing some new butterflies, and joined colleagues Tom Stock, Tom Feild, Jim Brighton, Barry Marts, Dave Czaplak, and Matt Orsie (and a ton of new lep friends) for the Texas Butterfly Festival in early November hosted mostly by the National Butterfly Center in Mission, TX.  Recent rains made conditions right for a number of great new life butterflies (even though I had been here in 2013 in midsummer).  Among the lepidopterological riches were Guava Skipper, Two-barred and Frosted Flashers, Malachite, Silver Emperor, Purple-washed, Evans’ and Obscure Skippers, and a host of new-to-us hairstreaks, including the first documented US record of Shadowed Hairstreak.  Notable checkerspots included the diminutive Elada and the Theona Checkerspot.

    DECEMBER — For me, that was pretty much the end of the butterflying season, although locally field observers reported Cabbage White, Common Checkered-skipper, Orange Sulphur, Clouded Sulphur, anglewings and a few others well into December in record-breaking warmth.  I even had a rather fresh Sachem at Thanksgiving nectaring on early-blooming snowdrops.  Hats off to Matt Orsie for the first butterfly of 2016, a Mourning Cloak on January 3!

    In all, while 2015 was not one of the super lepping years in the mid-Atlantic that will go down in memory, still it was filled with great butterflies, good friends, and wonderful trips to some of America’s most spectacular natural areas.  I hope 2016 follows suit; among my tentative plans are a New England circuit in late May/early June to try to replicate Matt’s success last year with Early Hairstreak, and a possible trip to the southwest and southern California in the spring to see what the rains from El Nino have brought us.  I’ll be teaching again this summer for NHFS, mid-June to mid-July for “Butterflies of Early Summer” and look forward to sharing my passion for these critters with a new group of naturalists.  Fall will see me back in Texas near the Lower Rio Grande Valley, so I’m sure to head back down to Mission and perhaps farther west this time for more tropical and subtropical specialties.  And if I can work it out, some jaunts up and down the Virginia and Carolina coasts for their host of interesting skippers in late summer, including the newly described Crystal Skipper.

    Have a super year yourselves in 2016, and check back on LepLog later in the year for the 2016 calendar of field trips and annual counts, as well as the weekly Lep Field Forecast beginning in April.

    2015 Oct 31 Red-bordered Pixie_Melanis pixie

    Red-bordered Pixies disported in the parking lot at Quinta Mazatlan [TX, Hidalgo Co, November 2015]





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