Brambles’ Affinity for Fire

June 1, 2020

Dear New Mexico Butterfly Fans,

Bramble Hairstreak (Callophrys affinis) nectars at flowers of Fendler’s Buckbrush (Ceanthus fendleri) in the Zuni Mountains of Cibola County, NM. (Photo by S.J. Cary, taken on May 29, 2020.

Long-time botanist friend of mine, Chick Keller, recently photographed a butterfly, emailed the pic to me and asked what it was. After glancing at the spectacular green wings atop a yellow flower, I told him: “This is Callophrys affinis, Canyon Green Hairstreak or Western Green Hairstreak.” Apparently my reply was not as clear as I intended because he soon got back to me: “How do you tell a western from a bramble?” To that I relied, rather lamely, that those were all names for the same butterfly.

Bramble Hairstreak has gone by multiple names, Latin and English, over the past few decades, as reflected in field guides of different regions and different vintages. “Bramble Hairstreak” is a sprawling, complicated group of similar-looking critters. Scientists are still struggling to make sense of which are full species, which are merely subspecies, and which is which. If scientists aren’t consistent about taxonomy and nomenclature, then we can’t realistically expect the common English names to be clear either.

Chick said there were quite a few Bramble Hairstreaks on the Jemez Mountains trail where he got his photograph and I believed him. It was the third or fourth Bramble picture I had been asked about from the Jemez Mountains since early May. It made sense to me that there would be a lot of them because of all the thousands of acres that forest fires have burned in the Jemez over past two decades.

Resurgence of wildfire over the past 20 years in New Mexico’s montane landscapes has reinvigorated natural plant communities and food webs which evolved with fire but had gone without it for decades. Admittedly, those wildfires pose stiff challenges for us humans, nor are they perfect replicas of the fires that prevailed in our landscapes previously. Nevertheless, those burns are helping to regenerate native plant communities and food chains that are not merely fire-tolerant, not merely fire-adapted, but truly fire-dependent.

Bramble Hairstreak exemplifies that fire dependency because its caterpillars eat one of those fire-dependent plants: Fendler’s Buckbrush (Ceanothus fenderli; Rhamnaceae). Fendler’s Buckbrush is a modest, prostrate, white-flowered shrub, a popular forage for deer (hence the English name). It inhabits ponderosa pine savanna openings and may survive for, say 30 years. All that time it produces seeds which tumble to the ground in autumn. Covered with a waxy coating that repel water, buckbrush seeds are not tempted to germination. Unable to sprout, they accumulate in the litter and soil around the plant for years, perhaps decades, even as the parent plant may senesce or be shaded out by forest succession.

What does it take to germinate buckbrush seeds? It takes a fire warm enough to melt the paraffin coating, but not hot enough to kill the seeds, what foresters call a “cool” ground fire – maybe 200 degrees F. After the waxy coating is gone, the next wet season triggers germination of hidden banks of stored buckbrush seeds. Naturalist Terry Foxx* explained that this plant sprouts prolifically after fires from seeds that accumulated in soils. I suspect this is what has happened in the Jemez Mountains. Maybe my botanist friend, Chick, will get back to me on the current extent of Fendler’s Buckbrush in the Jemez.

Late-stage larva of Bramble Hairstreak on stem of Winged Buckwheat. Seen on Burnt Mesa at Bandelier National Monument. (Photo by S.J. Cary. Taken on July 17, 1990)

A second plant that seems to be in that “fire-climax” category is Winged Buckwheat (Eriogonum alatum; Polygonaceae). It is a slender, sparsely foliated, biennial forb that grows up to four feet tall in the same habitats as Fendler’s Buckbrush. During the 1990 Los Alamos Butterfly Count (now the Dorothy Hoard Memorial Count), we found Bramble Hairstreak caterpillars chewing on Winged Buckwheat, confirming that plant species as a larval host, too.

Fire has consequences, good and bad, but so does the absence of fire. During the 1990s, my colleague Dick Holland and I were concerned about the dearth of Bramble Hairstreaks in the Lincoln National Forest of Sacramento Mountains complex in south-central New Mexico, where there had been many decades of generally successful wildfire suppression. There were a handful of older Bramble records in around 1961-1978 from New Mexico State University’s Montgomery Biological Research Station north of Ruidoso, so we knew it had once been there. Between the two of us, however, we could not find any. Upon revisiting the site of the NMSU research station in about 1999 we found no Brambles and no Buckbrush, so we presumed that colony had been extirpated by ongoing plant succession and lack of fire.** We did not find it anywhere else in those mountains either and we were concerned that it might simply have vanished because its host buckbrush had become rare due to rampant and unabated forest succession. I’ll leave the rest of that story for another time, as former radio personality Paul Harvey might have teased.

Wildfires are terrible phenomena that destroy many things, but lightning and square miles of fuel make them inevitable: fire is a natural process in our ponderosa pine forests. Their predictable destruction creates new opportunities which infinite nature is fully geared to exploit. Now Bramble Hairstreaks are appearing as fingernail-size, green triangles on sunny shrubs or nearby yellow flowers. They are glistening emeralds when fresh from the chrysalis but they become dusty, gray-brown after flying for a couple weeks. They now are mating, then placing eggs on Fendler’s Buckbrush and Winged Buckwheat. Those eggs will hatch and larvae will munch. If we have decent rains this summer, those youngsters will pupate and ultimately take wing as adults in August.

I hope you get a chance to see one, wherever you are in New Mexico. If you do, please contemplate that wildfire connection.

Steve Cary, Santa Fe

 “You know what you’ll see if you stay home.” – Richard Holland, New Mexico Lepidoptera legend

* Foxx, Teralene S. 2013. Fire Effects on Plants of the Jemez Mountains and the Pajarito Plateau. Published by the Author. 119 pages.

** Toliver, M. E., R. Holland and S, J. Cary. 2001. Distribution of Butterflies in New Mexico (Lepidoptera: Hesperioidea and Papilionoidea). 3rd ed. published by the authors. 450 pages plus tables.

Gimme a Simius

Dear New Mexico Butterfly aficionados, fans, students, adherents, gardeners, photographers, wranglers, busters, etc.,

Perhaps it’s how I am dealing with the COVID stay-safe-at-home-forever conundrum, but I am working to get my next book out to the public via the internet. Butterflies of New Mexico will expand on my 2009 Butterfly Landscapes of New Mexico, adding more detailed information, more science, and more photos to flesh out what we know about each of our 300-plus species.

The Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) has graciously agreed to partner with me on that effort by putting the book up as a page on their website. (Three cheers for PEEC, who you should support!) The book is not ready yet, but it’s getting there, still a few weeks needed to iron out the major wrinkles. It will always be a work in progress, with regular updates to accommodate new knowledge that comes along. This will be a fantastic partnership!

Meanwhile, I also seem to be entering the blogosphere, and what better topic for me to bloviate about than New Mexico butterflies? I’ve never blogged before, that I can remember, but Marcy, my lovely spouse, claims that my chatty writing style, which infuriates her in other contexts, will be perfect for blogs. Perhaps I am a long-lost blogger who has finally found his medium. What will I blog about? New Mexico’s butterflies; butterflying adventures (mine and others’); conservation; politics; perhaps some butterfly photography tips (from actual photographers, not just me); tales of bygone butterflyers (were they a wild bunch?). It’s a rather open slate so I invite you to suggest ideas . . . what do you want to hear about?

My blogs will emanate from the PEEC website, but exactly how that happens . . . I am not so sure. This present effort (below) is my first and I intend to add more content as the weeks go by.

I want book and blog to help build and support the New Mexico butterflyer community. Don’t be surprised if I call you to  request an interview that I can blog about . . .

So, here goes . . . Blog Post Number 1: Gimme a Simius

— Steve Cary, Santa Fe

I want to bring to your attention an interesting, semi-local butterfly that is easy to overlook: Simius Roadside-skipper, or Notamblyscirtes simius if you prefer the Latin name.* I photographed it at 9:15am on May 15, 2020, in a fabulous public open space south of Santa Fe: the Galisteo Basin Preserve.

Simius Roadside-skipper (Notamblyscirtes simius) underside. (Photo by S. J. Cary, August 8, 2017).

Several years ago, local bird-, dragonfly- and butterfly-hound Jonathan Batkin brought to my attention that Simius had been reported from Santa Fe County on July 3, 1992, but never before or since. He himself had never seen it, but he sure did want to see it, photograph it, and confirm its continued existence in the County. He reminded me of that worthy goal at least annually, so how could I forget?

New Mexico abounds in roadside-skippers, with nearly a dozen species in the genus Amblyscirtes, including Bronze, Orange-headed, Oslar’s, Common and Cassus. Simius is different in appearance and behaviors. Most roadside-skippers typically perch in drainages or along watercourses, wet or dry, depending. They come to flower nectar, but are small, often gray to brown, easy to overlook, hard to photograph well, and when you see one it tends to look like all the others, sending you running to your field guides. Simius loves flower nectar, too, particularly thistles, but then breaks the mold in a couple ways. First, it has a relatively pale, creamy ventral side. Second, instead of patrolling for mates along canyons, swales, and watercourses, males perch/patrol on hilltops.

Our relatively wet 2017 was an opportunity to explore grassy habitats south of Santa Fe and keep an eye open for Simius. On August 7, a cool day after some generous late July rains, my spouse Marcy and I drove to the Galisteo Basin Preserve, parked at the Cottonwood Trailhead and walked along their trails through their shortgrass prairie. We saw little for three hours and, disappointed, were almost back to the trailhead when we stumbled upon a Simius Roadside-skipper, right on the trail.

I took pictures and, upon returning home, emailed one to Jonathan. He was excited. It would be fun, but inaccurate, to say we camped out at the trailhead that night waiting for dawn, but the very next morning he and I returned to the scene. We climbed the hill in front of the parking area and right away he exclaimed, “Yes, that’s Simius!” or words to that effect. We spent an amazing and pleasant hour or so watching and photographing what might have been 20 or 30 Simius individuals basking, perching, and patrolling about the hill summit and shoulders.

Simius Roadside-skipper (Notamblyscirtes simius) upperside. (Photo by S. J. Cary, August 8, 2017).

That was almost three years ago. Since then, I’ve seen Simius in the Preserve on June 5, 2019, and then again last week, on hilltops every time. I know it’s only a few observations, but they are sufficiently consistent to make me think there is a colony of Simius living at the Preserve. Isn’t that cool? So, I am going out on a limb and inviting you to go there to look for them, too. They fly in two broods per year, once in May-June and their offspring in August, but there was that July 1992 observation, too, so the flight periods are still not fully elucidated. As of mid-May 2020, they may fly for another two weeks. Plus, things are getting pretty dry in this area, so don’t expect to see a lot of them. It might even be best to wait until early August before you go, if we have good monsoon rains. Have I qualified that enough?

Getting there: Park at the Cottonwood Trailhead, walk across the (usually) dry arroyo and walk up the small hill right in front of you. There is no trail, so please tread gently on the very precious plants and soils; choose a gentle angle across the slope and place your feet carefully. As you near the top, look carefully, patiently for hilltopping butterflies. On May 15, hilltoppers included Pahaska Skipper and Fulvia Checkerspot. If it’s middle or late morning and Simius is present, those little, fingernail-size skippers dorsal basking with their dark upperside opening to the sun should be Simius.

I make no promises, but I think you have a good chance to see it. Good luck!

“You know what you’ll see if you stay home.” — Richard Holland, New Mexico Lepidoptera legend

* The peculiar name of the genus is a funny story. This insect was described in 1881 by William Henry Edwards who named it Amblyscirtes simius. Over subsequent decades, researchers gravitated to the view that Simius was not a good fit in the genus Amblyscirtes. After completing his genitalic studies, Dr. John Burns, Curator of Lepidoptera at the Smithsonian Institution, removed simius from Amblyscirtes because of its strikingly different male genitalia, but for various reasons he declined to assign it to any other genus [Burns. 1990. J. Lepid. Soc. 44(1): 18-21]. Two years later, Dr. James Scott [1992. Papilio (n.s.) 6: 160-161] tipped his hat to Burns and listed simius as “Not-‘Amblyscirtes’” but also without formally proposing a new generic name. He later remedied that [Scott 2006] by proposing Notamblyscirtes as the generic name for Simius. That passed muster with the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), so the scientific name for this insect is now Notamblyscirtes simius (W. H. Edwards). Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor?

Staying Safe Around Rattlesnakes

A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake photographed along the Rio Grande. Notice the snake’s triangular head and cat-like eyes. (Photo by Mouser Williams)

By Rachel Landman

Rattlesnakes are a natural and important part of our ecosystem. They are mesopredators, meaning that they are both predator and prey, and fill an important niche in the food web! They help keep our rodent and small mammal populations in check, and in turn are preyed upon by roadrunners, hawks, other snakes, coyotes, bobcats, and foxes. We have ten species of rattlesnake in New Mexico, including two that are found on the Pajarito Plateau.

Familiarizing yourself with these snakes, and learning what to do if you encounter one, can keep you, your family, and our snake populations safe. Leaving the snake be, giving it room, and letting it move along is the best course of action.

Learn to Identify Rattlesnakes:

Becoming familiar with the appearance of rattlesnakes is a great first step. Local wildlife is fun to learn about and this familiarity can help you feel more confident and safe outdoors. Some non-venomous snakes can look a lot like rattlesnakes and will even mimic their behavior as a defense mechanism.

Rattlesnakes have a triangle-shaped head and cat-like eyes, whereas non-venomous bullsnakes usually have more rounded heads and pupils. Most notably, a rattlesnake will have a blunt rattle at the tip of its tail, and a bullsnake has a long, tapered tail. Bullsnakes can coil their bodies tightly and strike to mimic a rattlesnake and ward off predators, and they might even hiss or shake to make a rattling sound, but it is all bark: bullsnakes aren’t venomous.

Reducing Risk:

Fortunately, we can take a few simple precautions to minimize the chance of a negative encounter with a rattlesnake.

  • Be aware of your surroundings. Look around and ahead of you while out hiking or playing in your yard. Snakes sometimes lay in the sun on rocks or rest in the shade. Look at where you are putting your hands and feet as you hike. At home, you might find snakes in your garden amongst plants or in a wood pile. Wear gloves and inspect the area before placing your hands.
  • Consider trails and timing. Rattlesnakes are most active in the spring and summer months when the weather warms up. In Los Alamos County, they’re usually seen in White Rock Canyon and some hikers choose to avoid these trails during this time of year. Snakes are less common at higher elevations. Explore the Valles Caldera, Cañada Bonita, or trails on Pajarito Mountain if you’d like to avoid snake habitat in the warmer months.
  • Stay alert. Rattlesnakes are sometimes called the gentleman’s viper because they usually give a warning before striking. Hike without headphones so you can hear what’s going on around you. Listen to what a rattle sounds like in this video from our friends at the New Mexico Wildlife Center.
  • Wear appropriate clothing. When out hiking, wearing hiking boots, long socks, and long pants is a good idea. This attire protects you from rolled ankles, sunburn, and scratches from plants, but if a rattlesnake does bite you, having a layer between a snake’s fangs and your skin can interfere with the injection of venom.
  • Keep an eye on kids and pets. Be aware of what your kids and pets are doing on the trail or in the yard. Teach your kids to look for snakes before putting their hands under rocks, logs, or brush; to not approach or touch snakes; and to get an adult if they encounter one.

What To Do If You See a Rattlesnake:

If you see a rattlesnake, stop and give it space and time to move off the trail. (Photo by Craig Martin)

If you notice a snake ahead of you while hiking, stop and give it time to move off the trail. You can try stomping your feet in place if it doesn’t move. Snakes have sensitive scales on their bellies to help them feel vibrations. Knowing that oncoming traffic is on its way might encourage the snake to move off the trail. When it does, give it plenty of space and safely travel around it.

Move away slowly if you are close to a snake when you first notice it. Give the snake room to get away from you and avoid cornering it — the snake doesn’t want to be near you either!

Once you’ve passed the snake safely, tell other trail users you meet about the snake’s whereabouts. That way they can be aware and stay safe, too! You can let them know how to move around it safely, like you did, so they don’t cause the snake or themselves any harm.

If A Rattlesnake Bites You:

We aren’t medical professionals here at PEEC, and encourage you to seek professional help in the event of a snake bite. Go to the hospital or call 911 or Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 and follow their advice. If you are hiking and don’t have cellphone service, have someone in your group or a fellow trail user move to a place where they can get service and call.

The New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center created this helpful brochure on our state’s venomous snakes to help residents identify them and know how to respond if they are ever bitten. If you’d like, you can print it out and keep it in your hiking pack or first aid kit!

Always Remember:

If you do meet a rattlesnake on the trail, give it a wide berth for its protection and yours, but take a minute to appreciate the rattlesnake’s important position in our ecosystem’s food web. It’s hard to be both a predator and prey species, and rattlesnakes do an impressive job of filling this necessary role in the food chain. Snakes keep small mammal populations in check, help control diseases that are carried by rodents, and may even play an important role in dispersing plant seeds!

Rattlesnake encounters are rare, while it’s good to know how to behave if you see one, please don’t let a fear of snakes or other wildlife stop you from getting outside and exploring nature!

Super Sleepers

A black bear mother and cub. (Photo by Jon Phillips)

By Daryl Ratajczak, Wildlife Biologist and Wildlife for You Instructor

The start of spring means that New Mexico’s black bears are starting to come out of their dens after hibernating through the winter! Our state’s bears tend to enter their dens between late October and early December. Generally, they emerge from late March to early May. 

Hibernation is a general term used to describe long periods of inactivity sometimes due to extreme cold, but mostly due to lack of food. To put it simply, animals decide to “sleep” through the winter since food resources are scarce or non-existent.

But given the fact that winter — especially in the northern climates — can last months on end, how can an animal survive the entire winter without eating or drinking? That, my friends, is the crux of this amazing adaptation. And bears do it better than any other animal.

Complex Biology Made Simple

Instead of starting off by describing the life processes necessary for an animal to hibernate, let’s start by thinking about your car. Say you were to fill up your gas tank to run a test on fuel efficiency. In other words, what’s the optimum rate an engine needs to operate in order to stay running the longest? 

The answer is pretty straightforward: the slower the engine operates, the longer it will take to burn the gas in the tank. For example, a car driving 70 mph down the highway is going to burn through its tank of gas faster than one idling in the driveway, sitting in the parked position.

Voilà!!! You just learned everything you need to know about hibernation!

Much like a car, animals more-or-less have to put their bodies in “Park” so they can survive the winter on their respective tank of gas (fat reserves). Placing their bodies in “park” and idling through the winter, however, is what is truly interesting and amazing.

Hibernating animals need to drastically reduce the amount of energy (gas) they expend. As most of you know, being active and exercising burns up a lot of energy. So the first thing an animal must do when entering hibernation is to stop moving, hence the “sleeping” part.

Here is the issue … all mammals, even when sleeping, must maintain a constant body temperature and must continue to perform basic life functions. Things like breathing and maintaining a heartbeat to keep their blood pumping are just a few of the more important functions, since they keep them alive. It takes a considerable amount of energy, even when sleeping, to maintain these basic bodily functions. This is what makes a hibernator so special.

Hibernators almost completely shut off their bodily functions:

  • Their respiration rate drops to next to nothing.
  • Their heartbeat is barely detectable at only a beat or two per minute.
  • And their body temperature drops to just above freezing.

In more technological terms, their overall metabolism drops 50 percent for roughly every 20°F they lose in body temperature. This means they’re burning half the energy they would if they were only sleeping. When they go into complete “hibernation mode,” their bodies are literally in a frozen coma. Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, is perhaps the most notable hibernator of this sort!

In this nearly-frozen state, they barely expend any energy, but they’re also barely alive. In fact, it takes them quite a bit of time — possibly a day or so — to “wake up”. It’s kinda like trying to start a car that hasn’t been started in a long, long time. It may actually take a while to get it going.

Pretty neat, huh?

And then, there are bears:

A mother black bear in hibernation with her two cubs. (Photo by Daryl Ratajczak)

But wait a minute … aren’t bears hibernators?

Yes and no.

Bears hibernate … but they are not true-hibernators. They are what we call super-hibernators. Or as I like to call them “super sleepers.” Here’s why bears are so extremely special and a phenomenon in the animal world.

When bears hibernate:

  • Their breathing slows to only about a breath per minute.
  • Their heart may beat only about once every 20 seconds.

But this is where it gets interesting …

Their body temperature only drops a smidgen, from roughly 99°F to 92°F. Yet, with only this slight temperature drop, their metabolism has already decreased by 75 percent. They’re literally just sleeping, but barely expending any energy in the process. Because their body temperature is so high and close to normal, they can literally wake up in just a few minutes.

Pregnant females give birth to cubs in the middle of their hibernation, usually from late January to mid-February. The mothers wake up periodically during the rest of hibernation to tend to the cubs, but the newborn cubs stay tucked in close to mom and simply nurse off her the first few months.

Crazy is the fact that although they are sleeping fairly close to how you and I would, they won’t have a need to eat, drink, or poop for up to six months! I could barely make it through the night without doing one of those three! Black bears usually form a fecal plug (kind of like a cork) that keeps them from defecating throughout their slumber.

If humans tried going that long without removing waste, we would die of toxicity from our kidneys not adequately filtering the waste products in our bloodstream.

And craziest of all … bears barely lose any muscle mass, they primarily burn only fat. Bedridden humans, on the other hand, usually lose muscle and bone mass first if they stay in bed too long. Black bears can lose up to 30 percent of their body weight during hibernation!

Now you can see why bears are completely amazing creatures!

The 20 Most Common Birds of Los Alamos County

Article and Photos by Bob Walker

Los Alamos is a wonderful place to see a large variety of bird species. Our four-season weather and our large span of elevations in the county — from the Rio Grande River to the Jemez Mountain peaks — make for a very diverse collection of habitats that appeal to many different birds. You can explore these many different birds using the eBird, which is administered by Cornell Labs. PEEC’s Nature Guide is also a great resource to get started learning about our local birds (and other wildlife!).

Here is a list of the 20 most commonly reported birds in the county over the last 20 years that PEEC has been active in the Los Alamos area. You can see many of these birds at the Los Alamos Nature Center. If you stop by on Wednesday mornings from 10 AM – 12 PM, you can find me in the observation room chatting about birds with our visitors.

Let’s do this as a countdown, starting with #20, and working our way to #1!

Read more The 20 Most Common Birds of Los Alamos County