Butterfly Monitoring

For several years, I’ve been trying to start butterfly monitoring with the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network (IBMN). Everything finally came together this year. Last weekend I did my first butterfly monitoring at Nachusa Grasslands. Butterfly monitoring is, well, counting butterflies by species, in a specific route, throughout the season. During this first year, I need to identify 25 species of butterflies. Forty years ago, I could identify more than that, but I’m a bit rusty.

So, I walk at a regular pace, scanning the area, left and right on the trail, spotting butterflies. As I see one, I identify it and mark it on my field report. When I’m done, I report my data to the database. Sounds easy and straight forward. My first time out, I identified about half. The rest were noted as “unknown butterflies” so I have some learning and growing ahead of me.

The beginning of my butterfly monitoring route at Nachusa Grasslands.

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Things they don’t teach you in butterfly monitoring training:
1- How do you count each Monarch only once? They go here, over there, cross over the trail, and then you wonder, did I already count you?
2- Prairie plants are dense and tall. Those little butterflies can dart across the trail and into the plants and disappear before I can even see the markings or colors.
3- You need to protect yourself from ticks. That means bundling up in insect repellent treated clothing, head to toe, hiking boots, walking stick for uneven ground, binoculars (if i can get them out and focused fast enough) and so much more gear. There must be a simpler way!
4- It is good to know what a species looks like both flying and resting, but what about moving so fast, never resting, and not at an angle to fully see all four wings at once, like in the photos?
5- Back when I knew all the different species, it was because I caught them, put them in a kill jar and mounted them and used a detailed key to identify them. No guessing! I don’t even catch and release for monitoring. New skills are needed.

When my route is done, I have a short 10-15 walk back to the parking lot that allows me time to linger, get out my iPhone for a few photos, as I head to my car and decide if I have enough energy to get my good camera out to capture prairie life.

Bee Balm starting to fade.

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Bee Balm is so named because bees like it, as do other pollinators, like hummingbirds and butterflies. I saw many bumble bees on the bee balm. The bee balm was in various stages of aging, most being past prime for blossoms, but still showing a lot of activity! Some of the bumble bees were so big that they caught my “scanning eyes” as a possible butterfly when I was monitoring, as did some dragonflies.

Milkweed going to seed.

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The milkweed plants had much more variety of life cycle. Some were in full bloom and others, like this one, were beginning to form the seed pods. There are several different milkweed plants at Nachusa and part of my education will be to learn to identify them all, as Monarchs do favor all of them for nectar and laying eggs. I should see much Monarch activity where I see all milkweeds, if I know which plants are milkweeds!

I should get back to butterfly monitoring at least 5 more times this summer, hopefully more. Weather is an issue, as is distance. I chose a location an hour away from my home. I like going there, but it is at least a 3 hour commitment to monitor and I need to leave room in my days and flexibility in my schedule so I can make that trip. Weather has not been helpful this last month. Rain, wind and cloudiness are not good for butterfly sightings. In fact, I have rules to follow: at least 70 degrees, partly cloudy to full sun, little wind to moderate wind, no rain. The last two weeks didn’t give many days to choose from! But I will continue, and try to get more of my own photography adventures in as well. The native grasslands, prairies, offer so many opportunities for interesting captures. I’m looking forward to what I can share in future blogs!

Sunrise June 7 2021 over Houghton Lake

Sunrise on the lake. I’ll be visiting Dad every month this year, and the highlight of every morning is what the sun will do. Color, clouds, timing, brilliance, all can vary and I can’t predict it. In June, it occurs early and I can miss it. Today was not as dramatic, but I really liked it. There were the pastel areas surrounding the sunrise, cloud character, and sun color peeking through the fluffy clouds. The lake is slightly rippled so there is texture in the bottom of the images, and an overall smoothness in the sky as potential rain clouds come into visit us today.

Phlox Triptych

When the phlox bloom in my yard, I know summer is coming. The blooms are tall and rise about four feet high. The color varies from pink to white, sometimes almost purple. For a week or two I watch the colors sway in the breeze. The color splash against the greens of the woodland always cheers me. This year I decided to make a triptych of close ups of three colors of the phlox blooming right now.

2021 Big Snow

Well, the biggest snowfall so far, as weather reports say more is coming. I walked on the plowed streets. Then I walked in the back yard. Each step I took I had to lift my feet high, and then deep into snow that went halfway to my calves. The snow made gorgeous shapes and textures as it filled and covered everything. The late afternoon sun cast shadows on that textured landscape.

Hoar Frost

Much of northern Illinois was covered with heavy frost at the first of the year. Some was Rime Ice, a very thick ice that forms when a fog is present during winter weather. Some was Hoar Frost, ice crystals that form when the temperature is well below freezing and the moisture creates ice crystal growths that resemble thorns or hairs. It was a very cold walk that day when I ventured out to capture images. Eye glass wearers always struggle on those very cold days to keep their glasses clear. But add a mask for COVID and fogging up just won’t stop. As a result, quite a few images captured were not in focus. That didn’t stop me from trying, however! Every branch and twig was covered with Hoar Frost. It was amazing to explore and get up close to see the ice crystals. The weather conditions have to be just right for this phenomenon to appear. And within hours the sun had melted all the crystals. It was a special time to be outside and look at all the ways the ice crystals grew.

Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter December 2020

Astral phenomena are not my speciality, nor do I have equipment to get those really great images. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to capture them, however. The weather in Chicagoland is almost always cloudy on nights of importance. So it was December 20, 2020 for the Winter Solstice and the “Bethlehem Star” as the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter was called. However, on December 21, while there were clouds, there was clear sky. It was very cold, but me, my camera and tripod and my husband ventured out to find a viewing spot. We ended up at Settler’s Hill in Geneva. I climbed up to the top of the hill (a landfill) and set up my tripod. What would come first — the conjunction visible or the cloud front moving in. I knew from an app on my iPad about where to look, but there are so many “lights” in the sky that are not stars or planets! Planes to O’Hare populate the skies. So we watched, and waited. I thought there was a bright light in about the right spot, but it would appear and disappear. Clouds! I finally spotted what I think was the conjunction, at first above the cloud bank, and then a bit later, below the cloud bank. The detail is not good. This is more about effort and challenge. A longer lens, you might see the rings of Saturn like some have captured. In my images, it is more about the ambiance, the sunset color and the relative placement of the conjunction to the horizon. By the end, my fingers were frozen (forgot gloves) and my husband had to light the path down the hill. But I did have fun, up high in the cold, watching a sunset and trying to spot the conjunction.

The Life of a Puffball

Every Fall we have one or two Puffballs in our yard. This year we have seven! They grow into volleyball sized rounds almost overnight, but it takes several weeks for them to “puff” spreading trillions of spores into the air. Puffballs are fungi, specifically Calvatia gigantea. They are edible and quite tasty — if you know the right time to harvest them. Puffball Steaks, thick, found slices, can be sautéed with herbs and are a meal all by themselves.

I photographed the seven Puffballs yesterday, and surprisingly they were each in different life stages. Starting with the pure white globes and moving through the transition from white to speckled to spots to brown, and finally the dark brown, collapsed puffball which has loosed its spores into the air.

Bottlebrush Buckeye

This lovely native bush is in full bloom in early July. The blooms look like the brushes for baby bottles, hence the name. But this species is native to Illinois and its full name is Bottlebrush Buckeye. It spreads out and fills the shaded area. Some branches are low to the ground.