Category Archives: Insects

When the days get hot and the birds go to hide, many birders turn to the study of butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies. Their vivid colors and intricate patterns can be quite fascinating. With the help of binoculars and spotting scopes, you can get close enough for a good view without scaring off the subject.

The Death of Planet Earth

NASA 'Epic' Earth image

NASA Captures “EPIC” Earth Image
(click on photos to enlarge)

Has mankind really driven the planet to the edge of a catastrophic crash of life? Is greed blinding us to what is right in front of our faces? Some would say maybe these claims are a little too reactionary.  Okay, so a bit of Florida gets wet, and maybe some people will have to move inland. Can’t science just come up with new technologies to solve the dilemmas we face? Does industry just need to develop a practical and economical electric car? What would happen if we just did “business as usual”? The claims of doom are a bit extreme and, if we accept them at face value, they are really inconvenient to living our lives. What is science telling us about what is happening right now, what we face in the very near future, and what can be done to avoid it?

Earth really is exceptional. From our naturalist point of view, this planet’s life is unimaginably beautiful and breath-takingly diverse. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that Earth’s abundance and diversity is disappearing. There is a point at which this decline becomes mass extinction, and that point is much closer than you may think. Our own survival is indeed inextricably tied to the health of our world. If we expect science to save us, then we need to listen to what science is telling us.  Continue reading

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Anza-Borrego Super-Bloom

The wildflowers north of Borrego Springs

The wildflowers north of Borrego Springs

Just when you think you understand things a little, along comes an event that puts you in your place! The rainfall here on the west coast of the United States in 2017 has been a bit odd. Very welcome, to be sure, but a bit odd. We greatly exceeded expected rainfall this winter and spring. From Washington down to northern California, experts declared an official end to a drought that lasted about a decade. This refilled reservoirs and lakes in that region  to capacity.

In southern California, the rain didn’t erase that long drought as completely, but it still had staggering effects locally. One factor that makes the rain so odd is that it occurred completely outside the Pacific oscillation cycle. The El Nino and La Nina events govern these oscillations. These rains at Anza-Borrego State Park produced a huge wildflower super-bloom. That greatly benefited White-lined Sphinx moths and their predators. Continue reading

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Deep Creek Dragonflies

Gray Sanddragon lifting off

Gray Sanddragon lifting off

When summer hits the doldrums set in after the migrants have flown north. Many of us then chase butterflies and odonata (dragonflies and damselflies, or “odes”). Odes are particularly fun because they make such great photography subjects with their wild colors, spiky appendages and weird shapes. Even the names are awesome! The only bird names that can even compete are mostly hummingbirds…

Recent reports of some first county record dragonflies in San Bernardino County took us up to Deep Creek. The United States Forest Service administers to this unit of the San Bernardino National Forest. Tom Benson discovered Bison Snaketails and Western River Cruisers on this relatively pristine creek in the San Bernardino Mountains. Tulare County previously had the southern-most records of Bison Snaketail. This find significantly extends the known range of that species. Likewise, the southern-most known range of Western River Cruiser was up in Kern and Inyo counties. These two species belong to the clubtail family. Clubtails have oddly bulging tail segments and brilliant colors, making them some of the weirdest-looking dragonflies in California. Continue reading

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Filigree Skimmer 3rd record in CA

Skimmer-Filigree-2015-08-30-042

Filigree Skimmer face on

When the dog days of summer become the birding doldrums, some birders turn to other flying creatures. The most accessible of these are butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies, all of which require binoculars with excellent close focus. It was unusual recently that a birder birding San Timoteo Creek in Redlands, Riverside County, CA discovered a pair of Filigree Skimmer dragonflies (Pseudoleon superbus). As the species has only recorded twice before in California, we went to take a look. Continue reading

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Variegated Meadowhawks

The Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum) is a large North American dragonfly. Typically, Variegated Meadowhawks range across Canada from British Columbia to Ontario, and most of the U.S. from California to Florida. Averaging 1.5 – 2 inches in length with a wingspan of 2.5 – 3 inches, scientists classify Variegated Meadowhawks as medium-sized dragonflies. These highly migratory dragonflies sometimes turn up on Caribbean Islands and even in eastern Asia. Typically, they often cruise over dry land as often as in the vicinity of ponds and streams. Variegated Meadowhawks are “sally hunters”. That means they launch on feeding sorties, and return to the same spot, much like a Western Wood-Pewee. Thus, sally-hunting makes these dragonflies much easier to photograph than many subjects. And well worth it. Continue reading

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Wandering Skippers

Wandering Skipper 2

Wandering Skipper nectaring on Heliotrope Flowers

The Wandering Skipper (Panoquina errans) is a small butterfly that lives only in coastal saltmarsh. They range from Santa Barbara County, California south to northern coastal Baja and the Sea of Cortez. Their range is a narrow band close to the ocean. This is because this butterfly’s larval food plant, saltgrass, only lives in coastal salt marsh. Wandering Skippers fly in late summer and fall, usually in two broods.

Finding Wandering Skipper

As it happens, one of the largest Wandering Skipper colonies is right here in Orange County at Upper Newport Bay. References said that they were present in the highest density in the vicinity of Big Canyon. So we started to look for them in late July. They weren’t easy to find! It wasn’t until August that we found a single individual, nectaring on the tiny purple flowers of European Seaheath (Frankenia pulverulenta). We went back several weeks later and found a fair few more of them, again feeding on the Seaheath. Continue reading

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Blue-eyed Darners

Blue-eyed Darner in flight

Blue-eyed Darner in flight

Blue-eyed Darners (Rhionaeschna multicolor) are common throughout California. This dragonfly is a mosaic darner. This mosaic darner family contains at least 10 species, all of relatively similar size and coloration. Hence, mosaic darners are often quite hard to tell apart. The family gets its name from the beautiful pattern of coloration on the abdominal segments. The broad distribution of Blue-eyed Darners extends from central Canada south, across most of the United States and all the way down to Panama in Central America. Furthermore, the completely blue eyes and absence of a black line dividing the face distinguish Blue-eyed Darner from all other members of the family. They also differ in the shape of the abdominal appendages. Continue reading

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Hairstreak Butterflies

Hairstreaks high-jacked us on a recent birding trip to Big Bear in the San Bernardino Mountains! Hairstreak butterflies are found in a variety of habitats here in southern California.

Gray Hairstreaks

Gray Hairstreak 2

Gray Hairstreak, nectaring

On this trip, we found two species: the common Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) and the rarer Great Purple Hairstreak (Atlides halesus). Gray Hairstreaks are one of the most widespread butterflies in North America, native to all lower 48 states, southern Canada and northern Mexico. Like most hairstreaks, the Gray tends to fold its wings when landing. Recognize this butterfly by the light gray coloration, prominent orange rectangle on the underside of the hind wing, and a line of dark spots on both fore and hind wings.

Little hair-like extensions of the hind wing rear margins form the “hairs” that give these butterflies their name. On Gray Hairstreaks, the hair is fairly prominent; it is much less so on some other members of the family, like the Elfins or the Hedgerow Hairstreak. Continue reading

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Salton Sea Dragonflies

Roseate Skimmer female at Salton Sea

Female Roseate Skimmers are common Salton Sea dragonflies

We took a trip to look for Salton Sea dragonflies and birds during the first week of August. Stop and think about that: the Salton Sea in August! Are we nuts?! Probably, but there are some things you can only find there in the summer, and the Salton Sea seems to always be good for odes (dragonflies and damselflies).

Mindful of the fact that it can easily top out over 120°F there in the summer, we took a lot of sunscreen and water, started well before dawn, and planned on leaving early. By 7:30 it was unpleasantly hot; by 8:30 it was sweltering. But we were finding birds and bugs so it was all good. We had the company of our good friend, Bob Miller, a local birding and odes expert who lives in Brawley, and who knows where to find everything worth seeing in terms of local wildlife at the Salton Sea. Continue reading

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Getting Close to Bugs

Painted Lady - getting close

Painted Lady

The old saying goes “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” But we who  study butterflies, dragonflies, or other small creatures, know that many other things need proximity. Getting close looks at and/or photographing them requires optics that let you see these beauties in enough detail. That means being able to focus at very short distances. On the Optics4Birding website, a binocular’s close focus distance must be less than 8 feet to be considered close-focusing. I photographed these butterflies with a lens that allows close focus as well. All these images are full frame. I have not cropped the photos, only resized them to fit our page format. The Painted Lady (above) was feeding on nectar from these flowers. Continue reading

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