A Little Island Biogeography

Review_Islands_map

ISLANDS have fascinated people for a very long time. Think of creation myths like Turtle Island or the numerous accounts of catastrophic floods. Think of Odysseus’s misadventures among the Aegean Islands. Think of the vikings who discovered and settled Iceland and wrote the sagas. Think of William Shakespeare and the magical island of The Tempest. Think of Herman Melville and the grim, volcanic islands recounted in The Encantadas or Robert Louis Stevenson and the buccaneers and buried gold stashed inside the covers of Treasure Island. Here’s a list that could go on and on, yet, even curtailed, it’s an island list redolent of mystery and adventure.

Many early scientists, explorers, and naturalists expressed a penchant for islands, some as ardently as the storytellers. Most preeminent being Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin. Wallace collected insects and birds among the islands of the Malay Archipelago, wondering what might explain their distributions and variations. Darwin puzzled through similar oddities encountered on the many islands he visited during the five-year voyage of the Beagle, resulting…eventually…in his theory of natural selection. During the century and a half since Wallace and Darwin, numerous scientists have focused their research upon the natural laboratories that are islands—Ernst Mayr, E. O. Wilson, and Peter and Rosemary Grant to name but a few. The big story of island biogeography, its rich history and relevance to modern times, has been masterfully told by David Quammen in his magisterial book, The Song of the Dodo.

Biogeographers study the distribution of plants and animals—which species live where, and why—bringing to prominence the role geography plays in the process of evolution. Island biogeographers study the same thing, only with a focus on the more restrictive and clarifying setting of islands, delineating the special role isolation plays in the formation of new species.

Two main factors influence the formation of new species on islands: location and size. If an island is small or close to the mainland nothing too extraordinary happens. On the other hand, if an island is large or distant enough from other land masses so that vagrant species arrive only with great irregularity over great spans of time speciation is more likely to occur among the plants and animals that happen to make it to the island and that survive to establish populations. Extinction plays a role as well. As evolution’s unavoidable shadow, extinction reduces and subtracts and trims island diversity, this permanent negation creates an absence that new species might fill.


Pale Lichen Moth
Pale Lichen Moth
In August, I had the privilege to visit Mallard Island, an island of some renown on Rainy Lake in Minnesota, a mile or so from the Canadian border. The island is a lance-shaped skelf of bedrock, one and a half acres in size (an area roughly equal to that of a football field), covered in pine and lichen and moss. The island’s notability can be credited to Ernest Oberholtzer (1884 – 1977), who occupied the island for some forty years beginning in the 1920s. During those four decades, Oberholtzer constructed a number eccentric dwellings and outbuildings upon the island, built various stone walls, bridges, and gardens, amassed a library of more than 10,000 books, and helped protect a vast amount of wilderness, work that led directly to the establishment of Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. And, near the end of his life, he created the Oberholtzer Foundation in order to preserve the rugged and secluded charm of his beloved island—and bring forward his conservationist legacy.

As member of a small group of people invited to stay on the island for one of the Oberholtzer Foundation program weeks, I arrived Sunday afternoon ready for six days of intense reading, new conversations, and an abundance of time out-of-doors. The focus of this week’s program, as laid out by the organizers, was on art and science. The purpose, and our purpose in participating, was to expand our views, to strengthen our resolve, to collaborate across the distances and differences, all with an eye to the economic and environmental struggles that we all are facing and which will only intensify in the years to come as human populations increase and resources dwindle.

Now, according to some people, powerful spirits inhabit Mallard Island. Inanimate objects like books are said to leap into your hands as if in magical apprehension of your wants or shortcomings. And while I do my best to respect the angels and demons encountered by others, I have to say right off that I’m a skeptic in my own sphere, content enough with the wonder-filled world as it is, finding any superadded spirit world unnecessary. Nonetheless, I’ll admit it can seem uncanny, in such a sweeping assemblage, to immediately find a book that is extraordinarily apt and directive. For instance, as soon as I had the opportunity to look at books I happened upon a copy of Shan Walshe’s Plants of Quetico and the Ontario Shield. “There are occasions when luck goes farther than wisdom” I’d read recently, and this is true. Thus I allowed my luck to direct my activities for the week. For the next few days I would unburden myself of the role of writer, turn truant from the island’s other books (as best I could), try my hand at some botany, conduct a little island biogeography.

Realizing full well that most island biogeography happens on oceanic islands not islands on freshwater lakes, I didn’t expect to discover any endemic species or any vast differences among these small islands. Rather I expected them to be similar and express only subtle differences. Separated by less than a mile of water from the mainland, having strong “land communication” to use Wallace’s term, the flora and fauna should be nearly identical across the islands and representative of the fire-dependent, northern forest ecosystems that covers much of the Canadian Shield. However, some small variations could be expected, reflecting the happenstance of slight differences in physical shape, human habitation and use, and microclimates.

I took photographs. I made lists. I mapped the flowers as if I were a bee. My entomological surveys consisted of two nights of mothing and various incidental encounters with other insects. My botanical surveys consisted of daily excursions and rambles: a hike on Crow Island, from tail-feathers to beak; fishing the circumference of Gull Island, noting the trees and shoreline vegetation; an east-to-west ramble the length of Mallard Island, pen in hand; an afternoon exploring Hawk Island; a paddle into the long, marshy bay of Grassy Island; a boat ride to Blind Bay in Canadian waters (thanks to the generosity of fellow naturalist Mary Lysne); ending the week with a second trip to Crow Island.


Scarlet-winged Lichen Moth
Scarlet-winged Lichen Moth
Midway through the week, on Wednesday afternoon, I visited Hawk Island. To get there I waded the narrow channel separating it from Mallard Island, shoes in hand, camera slung over my shoulder. Barefooted, I could feel the ridges and recesses in the bedrock. The stone underlying the islands had formed many millions of years ago. Those original rock strata had been broken, turned on edge, and scoured by glaciers. Only the stars overhead at night were older.

Once across the channel, the only way onto the island was up a steep rock face, so I climbed and entered the woods. My transect of exploration sliced across the middle of the island. Reaching the abrupt cliffs that define the south edge of this island (a pattern interestingly repeated on the other islands), I veered and puzzled my way to the eastern tip, where the bare rock thins and dips beneath deep lake water the color of iced-tea. From there I worked back. A few flowers on the wave-beaten rocks, Hedge Nettle and Grass-leaved Goldenrod, before the Jack Pine and Reindeer Lichen and mosses thickened as I climbed inland. In a small, mossy clearing, I came upon a beaver skull missing the bottom jaw, turned to reveal the upper teeth. The clean, white bone of the skull brightened the forest floor. Here was a reminder that there existed a time element to this timelessness; islands come and go; species evolve and go extinct.

On hands and knees I inched as close as I could to a shiny, brassy-green soldier fly that had perched on a blueberry leaf. After it flew, I sat back. A few deep breaths. A few hearty exhalations, sighs of satisfaction and gratitude for this time, for this place. Then I moved on, continuing this fine-scale perusal of the surroundings. I smiled at pixie-cup lichens so small that a single drop of rain would overfill one. I shook my head in wonder at the clubmosses so perfectly replicating the form of trees on a miniature scale. I made my way across a seemingly stochastic quilt of vegetation, and yet I knew that it wasn’t purely random, but patterned in subtle ways. Eventually I reached the edge of the forest where the bedrock drops away. Time to return to the other island. Though before I left, taking a final glance back, the forest produced a parting surprise, a ghost plant, a small clump of Indian Pipe.

Even as I began to learn the names and recognize certain patterns of occurrence, I was humbled by the sheer abundance and complexity of these small islands. Goethe once wrote of Rome that “the immensity of the place has a quieting effect. In other places one has to search for the important points of interest; here they crowd in on one in profusion… One would need a thousand styluses to write with. What can one do here with a single pen?” Wild, unbounded nature, not urban complexity, confronts one here and leaves one the task of organizing its subtle immensity into the simplicity of a few paragraphs. How does one write a long, slender island into an essay? A splinter of schist, a sliver of seed must be forced into a simple sentence that proceeds: noun, verb, stop. Or elaborated, the serendipitous occurrences of flower and insect and observer intersecting at a moment in time on an island gets written into a sinuous sentence, full of detours and wrong turnings, break downs and bad luck, or simple exuberance, the description going all out, on and on, forming a widening interior, fattening the page, where eventually the reader walks out of the forest and finds the shore at land’s end.


Painted Lichen Moth
Painted Lichen Moth
On Thursday, after some morning reading—sonnets by Conrad Aiken, a natural history of worm-lions by Morton Wheeler—I took oars from the rack on the side of the library and headed off on a return visit to Crow Island. I rowed past Japanese House on the westernmost tip of Mallard Island, then past Fawn Island, rounding the westernmost tip of Crow, doubling back into a small bay, beaching the boat at the landing, snug in a thicket of sweet gale. Once on land, I worked my way up to the sunlit outcroppings, hoping to find and photograph a Dragonhunter, a large dragonfly I’d seen flying and landing on the waterside ledges just the day before. When no dragonfly materialized, I fell into surveying the plants.

All week I’d stepped carefully around bumble bees nectaring on oregano that grew in thick patches in and out of the rock gardens on Mallard Island. Several times I stopped for a closer look at the handsome workers. Tri-colored Bumble Bees (Bombus ternarius), attractive yellow, orange and black bumble bees, are small, not much different in size than a honey bee, though fuzzier. Their abundance indicated a thriving population, with perhaps a number of hives located nearby. Now, as I prepared to leave, a very large bumble bee, much larger than the workers observed on the other island though patterned the same, buzzed by me and landed on the ground. It, also, had arrived on the island looking for something. I watched the bee as it searched about the pine needles and duff. It started to dig, disappearing into the dirt. How curious. My first thought was that it had entered a hive…but when no other bumble bees came or went, I realized that wasn’t correct. Then I remembered the abundance of bumble bees from the other island—the hidden hives—the workers working the oregano flowers, had succeeded in producing queens, the goal of their summer labors. Though it seemed early in the year, with next year’s summer certainly a long way off, this queen was likely searching out a hibernaculum, a safe place to wait out the winter and dream bumble bee dreams.

Here was a being adept at finding its way about the world. Another kind of island biogeographer in fact, locating suitable sites for hives, mapping the flowers. The shooting stars, which the other residents and I had witnessed in the night sky this week, were not more wondrous than this, nor more rare. To see this, to think about this had something to do with presence and absence…of leaving and longing to come back.


Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth
Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth
In the end, I realized that I would be returning home to my own small island of house & family. The small city lot on which our house sits surrounded by so many groomed and lawn-care-tended plots is certainly a kind of island refuge for insects and weeds. And the city parks and college natural lands that I often visit, while not islands surrounded by water, are engulfed by vast acreages of agricultural and urban/industrial development (for many plants and animals a far more treacherous crossing than water) making them islands as well. In fact, our increasingly fragmented landscapes make islands everywhere. Which is the very reason the science of island biogeography plays an increasingly important role in wildlife conservation and preservation.


A quick note about the following list: The first and most obvious caveat is that the list is not complete; I missed and overlooked many species, nor did I survey each island equally, nor did I include animals and insects. Secondly, links are provided for photo observations that have been submitted to iNaturalist.org, a crowd-sourced species identification system and database. If you notice something that’s been misidentified please let me know.

MallardIsland_Smithsonian_profile

Review Islands Flora

TREES & SHRUBS
Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) *
Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) *
Black Spruce (Picea mariana)
Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)
White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) *
Common Juniper (Juniperus communis) *
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
Alder (Alnus sp.)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.)
Velvetleaf Blueberry (Vaccinium myrtilloides) *
Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)
Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta)
Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) *
Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)
Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) ‡
Sweet Gale (Myrica gale) ‡
Bebb’s Willow (Salix bebbiana)

FLOWERS & Other Plants
Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) ‡
Field Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis)
Northern Bugleweed (Lycopus uniflorus)
Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)
Dotted Knotweed (Persicaria punctata)
Water Smartweed (Persicaria amphibia)
Crested Arrowhead (Sagittaria cristata)
Marsh Skullcap (Scutellaria galericulata)
Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata)
Swamp Candles (Lysimachia terrestris) ‡
Floating Bur-reed (Sparganium fluctuans)
Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora)
Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta)
Common Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)
Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)
Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
Silverleaf Cinquefoil (Potentilla argentea)
Marsh Woundwort (Stachys palustris)
Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare)
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) ‡
Pale Corydalis (Capnoides sempervirens)
Canada Hawkweed (Hieracium umbellatum)
Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera tesselata)

GRASSES, SEDGES, and RUSHES
Slender Rush (Juncus tenuis)
Woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus)
Bur-reeds (Sparganium)

FERNS, MOSSES and CLUBMOSSES
Spinulose Wood Fern (Dryopteris carthusiana)
Rusty Woodsia (Woodsia ilvensis)
Wood Horsetail (Equisetum sylvaticum) *
Rock Spikemoss (Selaginella rupestris) *
True Mosses (Bryopsida)
Ostrich-plume Moss (Ptilium crista-castrensis)
Prickly Tree Clubmoss (Dendrolycopodium dendroideum) *

LICHENS
British Soldier Lichen (Cladonia cristatella)
Common Powderhorn (Cladonia coniocraea)
Gray Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia rangiferina)
Mealy Pixie Cup (Cladonia chlorophaea)
Red-fruited Pixie Cup (Cladonia pleurota)
Speckled Shield Lichens (Punctelia sp.)
Rock Tripes (Umbilicaria sp.)

* Fire-dependent indicator species
‡ Inland Lake with Boulder Shore indicator species

    Books referenced:

MacArthur, R. H. and E. O. Wilson. The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton Landmarks in Biology Edition. 2001
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Field Guide to the Native Plant Communities of Minnesota: the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province. Ecological Land Classification Program, Minnesota County Biological Survey, and Natural Heritage and Nongame Research Program. MNDNR Saint Paul, MN. 2003.
Quammen, David. The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions. Scribner. 1996.
Walshe, Shan. Plants of Quetico and the Ontario Shield. University of Toronto Press. 1980.

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Mothing

Blurry Chocolate Angle
Blurry Chocolate Angle

“Chancing to take a memorable walk by moonlight some years ago, I resolved to take more such walks, and make acquaintance with another side of Nature.” – Henry David Thoreau

The mothing began without intention, the frontdoor light left on by chance. Going out well after dark with the dog, I noticed several moths on the side of the house near the light and had the wherewithal to capture several of them. Thereafter, following this serendipitous beginning, the light was left on deliberately, becoming something of a nightly ritual throughout the autumn months.

Not long after the mothing commenced, I purchased a copy of Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard by John Himmelman. I enjoyed this book immensely, reading it cover-to-cover in a matter of days. Himmelmann does a really great job of passing along his enthusiasm for moths. The line drawings, the mini-biographies of Lepidopterists and other mothing folk, the seasonal presentation of the mothing year, and the color plates provided the thorough introduction to this group of insects that I needed. And it was in this book, in its discussion of mothing equipment, that I came upon the suggestion of using a bug-zapper as a mothing light.

Now, the bug zapper is truly a repugnant invention. The one and only insect pest it purports to annihilate, the mosquito, is not attracted to light. What smokes and settles in a heap beneath the powered-up machine is a wide variety of beneficial insects, non-biting midges and moths making up a large percentage of the kills. The fact that they are marketed nowadays with chemical lures to attract mosquitoes I take to be an admission of their ineffectualness. In my opinion, bug zappers should be banned and taken off the market. A consequence of their ineffectualness, however, is that used ones are available very cheap. And, using a few simple tools and some electrical tape, the high-voltage grid can be disarmed and the remaining UV light repurposed as a moth light.

This new set up, the now-benign bug zapper hung at the top of our white garage door, provided a marked increase in the attendance of moths. Once or twice a week, if the weather cooperated, I’d set up the light, turn it on, and wait. I’d go out at dusk and then a number of times after that, eventually turning the light off at some point well after midnight to let the moths go about their business…and not rouse too much curiosity about my behavior among our neighbors.

Vagabond Crambus Moth
Vagabond Crambus Moth

My daughter took to helping me (any excuse to stay up late…right!) and became very adept at catching the moths. Most of the moths were small and could be captured in vials. After capture, the moths went into the refrigerator for the night. In the morning, once the sun was up, they were photographed and released. Usually, the refrigerated moths would sit for some time while they warmed up, allowing me to take dozens of photos. The smaller the moth the less time you have—the ratio of surface area to body volume playing a part in how fast they warmed. The micro moths flew almost as soon as I popped the top on the plastic vial, so I don’t have many successful photos of these tiny moths. My daughter also enjoys all the curious names that moths have been given, as do I. Here’s a sampling: The Wedgeling, The Asteroid, The Deceptive Snout, The Ambiguous Moth, Blurry Chocolate Angle, Hitched Arches, The White Speck.

Our shiny Peterson Guide to moths, purchased in 2012 and barely used, was finally getting some use. At first, with little knowledge whatsoever about moths, the number and variety was simply bewildering. It had taken me several years to get familiar with the hundred or so local dragonflies, the local moths, on the other hand, numbered in the thousands! Himmelman’s book provided an in. And two online resources, bugguide.net and the moth photographers website, provided the added information and assistance needed to begin making identifications of some of the moths. A look at all the moths captured (nearly 250 photos) can be had by visiting my Flickr site and looking at the moth set. Many remain unidentified, and many have question marks appended to tentative identifications, so please feel free to leave corrections or identification suggestions.

Wavy-Lined Heterocampa Moth
Wavy-Lined Heterocampa Moth

A third excellent online resource is the Butterflies and Moths of North America website (BAMONA). The BAMONA website checklist for Rice County lists (at the time of this post) only eleven species. Over a period of three months, late in the year, missing the spring species and many of the summer species, I collected and photographed well over seventy different kinds of moths just in our driveway. Eventually, as time permits, I’ll submit my sightings to BAMONA. That there is a long way to go in documenting the moths of Rice County can be demonstrated by looking at the numbers of species for a better surveyed county. For instance, Wright County, northwest of Rice County, has 280 species on its list.

So, with more work to do and more discoveries to make, I’m looking forward to spring, and the commencement of a new mothing season. I’m also hoping to graduate to the more traditional white sheet this spring. And, if time permits, maybe try some other locations around the state. Who knows, I might even organize a mothing event for National Moth Week, July 19 – 27, 2014. Yes, there’s a national moth week…how cool is that!

White-lined Sphinx Moth
White-lined Sphinx Moth

Resources & Links

David Beadle & Seabrooke Leckie. Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012.

John Himmelman. Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard. Down East Books. 2002.

Moth Photographers Group

bugguide.net

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Wasp Mimic Moth

This moth was encountered in 2010 alongside the Cannon Valley Bike Trail near the Anderson Center in Red Wing. It is a striking moth, no wonder I stopped that day to take a photo of it. Only recently did I have the opportunity to track down an ID with the help of my two most trustworthy guides: Stephen A. Marshall’s magisterial book Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity; and the indispensable website bugguide.net. What I figured out was that this moth was a Grape Root Borer Moth (Vitacea polistiformis) a spot-on mimic of the Northern Paper Wasp (Polistes fuscatus). [Note also the mimicry imbedded in its scientific name.]

I continue to be fascinated by mimicry; it’s an interesting thought experiment to figure out how this must happen. First off, I guarantee the wasp being mimicked here would make a severe and memorable snack. Second, the sting of such an experience is obviously enough to steer birds and other predators from venturing another bite at anything resembling this wasp for the rest of their lives. The result ends up being in a kind of evolutionary syllogism:

  1. Wasps sting.
  2. This moth looks like a wasp.
  3. Therefore, this moth probably stings and I’ll leave it alone.

The mimics, the beneficiaries of this logic, are selected and fashioned by their survival, their color and patterning refined generation after generation. That process seems fairly straight forward. But what astonishes, I think, is the vividness and accuracy of the results.

Goodhue CountyJune 30, 2010
Goodhue County
June 30, 2010
Hennipen CountyAugust 18, 2012
Hennipen County
August 18, 2012

Take a look for yourself; I’ve posted the photo of the moth as well as the wasp it mimics. If you look closely at the wings of this moth, a member of the day-flying, clear-winged moth family (Sesiidae), the large, see-through cells of the hind wings are visible as windows or gaps. Interestingly, this family of moths has not just one but many wasp mimics.

Finally, the caterpillar form of this moth is a pest to cultivated grape vines, hence its common name, Grape Root Borer.

Sand Dunes State Forest

Azure Bluet (Enallagma aspersum)Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge June 30, 2012
Azure Bluet (Enallagma aspersum)
Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge
June 30, 2012

One afternoon this last summer, while the rest of my family went boating and water skiing at my brother-in-law’s cabin on Elk Lake, I had the opportunity to visit a few wildlife refuges south of the lake scattered throughout the Sand Dunes State Forest. The dunes, that give this area its name and make it a rather unique ecosystem, were deposited at the shore of a large glacial lake. Like most dune ecosystems, this area of sandy prairie and oak savannah is extremely fragile and very little of it, if any, remains entirely intact. Still, some big efforts have been made, and are still being made, to set aside and restore large tracts of land. Having never visited any of these refuges before, I was eager to explore them.

Driving south from Elk Lake, I couldn’t help but note some similarities between this landscape and the tall-grass aspen parkland in northwest Minnesota where I had spent some time the previous summer. The possibility of discovering a remnant population of Red-veined Meadowhawks (Sympetrum madidum) suddenly fired my imagination. As I stepped from the car to explore a parcel of restored prairie, just upslope from the St Francis River, a golden-hued meadowhawk flew past me and my pulse raced as I inched toward the small bush where it had landed. For a few moments longer, fancy held the upper hand, while I allowed this dragonfly to be a female Red-veined Meadowhawk, but I finally had to concede to reality, allowing it to be a young female Variegated Meadowhawk—a look alike in some ways, but far less of a surprise, especially given the vast numbers of this species observed during spring migration earlier this year. This particular dragonfly had to be the offspring of that earlier generation of migrants. A little ways off, sharing the top of a small tree with a Halloween Pennant, another migrant made an appearance, a Red Saddlebags (Tramea onusta).

My next stop was the Uncas Dunes Scientific and Natural Area. This SNA was established in 1989, following the rediscovery of the Uncas Skipper (Hesperia uncas) in 1983, a butterfly rarity that had been found in this vicinity two decades earlier, in 1961, but had been, assumedly, extirpated at some point after that. This apparently is the case once more as I can find no record of the butterfly after the late eighties. The last record I was able to locate is an online photograph of a pinned specimen, a female collected on June 29, 1989, at the Elk River Dunes. This specimen along with another from 1967 are held at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, (Gainesville, FL, USA). This segregated population, a possible relic from the post-glacial thermal maximum (ca. 8000-4000 B.P.) when major vegetation zones shifted well east of their present positions, is located many hundreds of miles east of nearest populations in South Dakota. I was visiting at the right time of year—who knows, maybe I’d get lucky…

Not more than twenty or thirty yards into the southeast unit of the SNA, I interrupted a thread-waisted wasp as it was carrying its anesthetized caterpillar back to its burrow. The startled wasp (most likely Ammophila procera given the large size of the wasp and the large size of the prey) abandoned her caterpillar and flew a few feet away where she plopped down on the sand, splayed out flat as if to hide. The caterpillar, larva of the speckled green fruitworm moth (Orthosia hibisci), lay in the middle of the trail alive but unable to move. It was very large, longer and many times heavier than the wasp. I watched for a while, taking a few photographs, but the wasp made no move to reclaim the caterpillar. However, when I returned after my walk, the caterpillar was gone, no doubt sealed carefully underground and dotted with a soon to hatch egg. Howard Ensign Evans summed it up well in Wasp Farm, “I don’t know of anything more exciting than to see a large Ammophila running over the ground with a huge caterpillar slung beneath her and then to follow her to her nest and watch the proceedings.” I had forfeited the most interesting part, being bent on finding butterflies, but still it was exciting just to have encountered this wasp.

The trail, crowded by rebarbative banks of poison ivy, shadowed by overarching oaks, led eventually to the SNA. Along the way I was bothered by horseflies and deerflies; actually more than bothered, I was bullied, badgered, and bitten to the point where looking for dragonflies and butterflies became difficult. The flies tried my nose, my eyes, my mouth, and made consistent contact with my blood at the back of my neck. I flinched at the low-buzz of a super-sized horsefly near my right ear and was pleased to see that it was really a Common Eastern Pondhawk flying off with a captured fly. I was doubly pleased when, further along the trail, several Racket-tailed Emeralds decided to tag along and nibble away at the fringes of the deerfly cloud that had amassed about my head. Another insect I was delighted to see, for similar reasons, was the white-bearded and silver-tipped robber fly, Efferia albibarbis. No doubt this large insect predator was dining on the swarm of tabanids and had a gullet full of dissolved horseflies and deerflies, or at least I hoped so.

As I walked out of the SNA, having seen no skippers, I couldn’t help but associate the shotgun-blasted ladyslipper on the scientific and nature area sign near the entrance with the slower, but more methodical violence done to the native flora and fauna of this place as it was developed and farmed over the last 150 years. And I wondered if anyone would ever spot the Uncas Skipper along this trail again.

I did, eventually, track down a few skipper butterflies. First, at a trail head north of Ann Lake, where a quick search of the parking lot and adjacent road ditches along Highway 4 yielded a few Tawny-edged Skippers (Polites themistocles) nectaring at a clump of alfalfa. Not the Uncas Skippers I’d hoped for, but nonetheless a new species for me. And then, a few miles away, in the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, at the canoe access to the St Francis River off Highway 1 about a mile south of Elk Lake, I caught sight of a chocolate-brown Northern Broken-Dash (Wallengrenia egeremet) nectaring on hoary alyssum in the middle of a small expanse of sandy prairie.

In that same expanse of prairie, which the canoe access trail passed through, there were also a lot of dragonflies—Eastern Amberwings, Frosted Whitefaces, Calico Pennants—and a great big surprise of a damselfly—an Azure Bluet (Enallagma aspersum). This was, so far as I knew, only the fourth time this species had been recorded in the state. Strangely the records are widespread: Albert Lea, Duluth, Webster, and now here, near the town of Zimmerman, in central Minnesota. I spent a good amount of time photographing this damsel, a strikingly blue male.

In addition to the time spent contemplating the Azure Bluet, I spent a good deal of time trying to get a good photo of a grass-carrying wasp (Isodontia mexicana) that was nectaring on the prairie flowers. This big wasp was extremely active, rarely staying put or standing still as it rooted around in the radiating white blooms of New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), pollinating like crazy.

White-bearded Robberfly (Efferia albibarbis) Uncas Dunes SNA, Sherburne County June 30, 2012 male
White-bearded Robberfly (Efferia albibarbis)
Uncas Dunes SNA, Sherburne County
June 30, 2012
male

“Because there is so much speed…”

Early RainSwallow Press (1960)
Early Rain
Swallow Press (1960)

Bert Meyers (1928 – 1979) remains one of my favorite poets, and among the handful of poets I turn to again and again. ‘Because there is so much speed’, the first poem in his first book, Early Rain, is perhaps the poem I am most grateful for of all poems I know. If you know his work, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, you owe it to yourself to look him up. Luckily we now have his collected poems, In a Dybbuk’s Raincoat, available in a handsome hardcover edition from the University of New Mexico Press (2007).

Often referred to as a surrealist, his use of metaphor and simile is masterful. Because a lot of the surreal images that he places in his poems draws upon the natural world, he could be considered to be a naturalist as well. In the way William Blake, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Mother Goose might be considered as naturalists. Here’s an example from the sequence poem ‘Postcards’:

“White butterflies in a field

are the frayed handkerchiefs of those

who didn’t finish saying good-bye.”