She-Bear, Dorothea, and the Loafers

August 23, 2020

By Steven J. Cary

At this late stage of summer there are plenty of butterfly tales to tell. Some of them might even be true. I’ll let the protagonists tell a couple of the better stories, then you can decide.

First, outstanding birder, butterflyer, and professional guide Raymond VanBuskirk recently found a butterfly that was a lifer for him, as it would be for most of us: Ursine Giant-Skipper (Megathymus ursus). He tells the story like this:

“At 11:20 AM on August 7, 2020 just down slope from the Clanton Canyon Tank, in the Peloncillo Mountains of Southwest New Mexico, Jodhan Fine, Saunders Drukker, and I discovered a female Ursine Giant Skipper. She was flying rapidly in repetitive cycles around an area of about 100 sq. ft. in transitional habitat from yucca grasslands to mixed oak and Chihuahua Pine forest. . . . . Skies were light overcast. We first noted her large size (easily 3″ in length) and her rapid, audible flight. As she flipped passed us her wings made a soft cracking sound, reminiscent of some grasshopper species. Her wings were black, with large orange panels in the forewing, visible during flight. Even in flight her frosty blueish sheen and glowing white antennae were apparent. She rarely landed but when she did it was for less than 4 seconds in order to deposit a small whitish egg, with one reddish-brown splotch, on a yucca leaf. I obtained photos of her and her egg. . . What an amazing find! I’ve wanted to see this bear of a bug for many years.”

A female Ursine Giant-Skipper (Megathymus ursus ursus) admires her work; Clanton Canyon, Peloncillo Mountains, Hidalgo Co., NM; August 7, 2020. (Photo by Raymond VanBuskirk).

Johdan Fine managed to shoot a brief video of the ‘she-bear’ flying around in her oak/pine/grassland habitat. From that video I extracted a frame that shows her underside between flaps. Thank you, Mr. Fine, for this:

A female Ursine Giant-Skipper (Megathymus ursus ursus) circling through her habitat; Clanton Canyon, Peloncillo Mountains, Hidalgo Co., NM; August 7, 2020. (Photo by Johdan Fine)

To underscore what Raymond and his colleagues accomplished, I add only that I have seen this butterfly once in 40 years. On July 20, 1986, Richard Holland and I made the hot, steep, sweaty ascent to the summit of Guadalupe Peak, in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas. We finished the uphill slog and walked guardedly toward the summit. We hoped to encounter a cool hilltopper, but we had no cover on the exposed approach. Suddenly, a skipper the size of a small bird vaulted off the ground and careened away; we were the startled ones. “That,” said Dick, “was Megathymus ursus.” It’s a vivid memory, but woefully lacking in details about the butterfly. Pictures are worth oceans of words, so KUDOS to Raymond and his crew for adding so much to our knowledge of this elusive beast!


The second story revolves around Northwestern Fritillary (Speyeria hesperis) which has populations in all New Mexico’s major mountains. In Northern New Mexico, its gray-blue eyes quickly separate it from the amber-eyed Great Spangled (Speyeria cybele) and Aphrodite (Speyeria aphrodite) fritillaries. Below is a photo by Andy Warren, which he swears he did not pose by hand (believe him or not!), illustrating the difference between blue-eyed Northwestern (left) and amber-eyed Aphrodite in the field.

Northwestern Fritillary (left) and Aphrodite Fritillary (right); Trinchera Pass, Colfax Co., NM; July 14, 2013. (Photo by Andy Warren)

Interestingly, this eye color rule-of-thumb seems not to apply in Southern New Mexico. In the Sandia and Manzano mountains, for example, what we have for decades called ‘Dorothea’s’ Northwestern Fritillary (Speyeria hesperis dorothea) actually has tan or amber eyes, not gray-blue. So, one might wonder, are these even Northwesterns? Maybe they are Aphrodites or maybe a novel species. In his Swift Guide 2nd edition, Jeff Glassberg speculated that when this group gets more study “they may prove to be a separate species.”   

Fortunately, more study is forthcoming. My Colorado friend and colleague, Mike Fisher, continues his quest to understand the fritillaries in the southern Rockies, including New Mexico, and he has undertaken the challenge to investigate ‘Dorothea’s’ Northwestern Fritillary. I had provided Mike with photographs featuring this butterfly’s puzzling tan eyes, taken back in July 2018 in Fourth of July Canyon in the Manzano Mountains. Now, Mike said the next step would be to collect several live females from which he could gather eggs and rear them into adults. Each female probably mates with two males on average, so collectively the hundreds of eggs from six females when reared to adulthood would produce a large and genetically-mixed sample of individuals. At least that’s my understanding. Eventually that should help Mike pin down what Speyeria . . . dorothea really is.

Luckily, I had been in recent contact with two eager field assistants: Ornithologist Hira Walker and her budding Lepidopterist daughter, Brooke (age 5). Hira and Brooke had been exploring Fourth of July Canyon this summer and they had been emailing me photos of fritillaries and other butterflies that Brooke had caught, seeking help with IDs. Furthermore, Hira had approached me for ideas for getting Brooke involved in more “hands-on” butterfly projects. So, long story short, they were ideal partners for me in carrying out the field part of Mike’s fritillary project.

Masked and socially distanced, the three of us converged on Fourth of July Canyon in late July. Brooke’s net-swinging skills were formidable and, with her help, we gathered up seven healthy females (see photo below). I slipped them into carefully prepared waxed paper envelopes and then into an ice chest to chill so they would not injure themselves trying to escape. Over the next 24 hours, I allowed them to siphon hummingbird juice from a soaked paper towel, then packaged them carefully into a small box, which I nestled into a bubblewrap-cushioned shipping box. I hand-carried the box to FedEx for priority overnight delivery to Mike’s colleague, Art, in Los Angeles. Mike said they all arrived safely and egg production had begun. Now Brooke, Hira and I have to wait to see what comes of this effort. It would be nice to know what that fritillary is, one way or the other. Inquiring minds want to know!

Brooke Harper holds a female ‘Dorothea’s’ Northwest Fritillary she caught on July 29, 2020, at Fourth of July Canyon. (Photo by Hira Walker)

One day before Hira, Brooke and I converged upon Fourth of July Canyon to collect fritillaries, Hira told me via email that she had seen an intriguing “swarm” of butterflies under a willow shrub along the Rio Cebolla in the Jemez Mountains. So last but not least, here is her story:

Hi Everyone! First, I would like to thank Steve for inviting me and my daughter, Brooke, to share an exciting discovery that we made about the relationship between sap-sipping butterflies and a sap-eating woodpecker. Secondly, I would like to disclose that Brooke is obsessed with butterflies and this discovery would not have been made without her unflagging desire to find, capture, and study them.

In attempting to supply Brooke with enough butterflies to satiate her curiosity, we have spent much of this spring and summer exploring New Mexico’s mountains (8 mountain ranges at last count) and searching the usual places where one can find large numbers — kaleidoscopes — of butterflies. We scoured wet meadows of nectar-filled flowers and we examined damp soils along stream banks where puddling butterflies drink water and extract minerals. We didn’t know, however, that there was another place where we could have been looking for butterflies.

On July 26, as Brooke was busy capturing Great Spangled and Aphrodite fritillaries nectaring on cutleaf coneflowers and Parry’s thistle growing along the streambank, we noticed a swarm of butterflies under a Bebb Willow shrub. Intrigued, we investigated further, finding that the butterflies consisted of mostly Mourning Cloaks (upwards of 20 individuals at any one time) and also several species of commas. They were feeding on sap oozing from numerous holes in the willow stems, which were being drilled by a pair of Red-naped Sapsuckers and, from what we could tell, at least one of their young! As their name implies, sapsuckers are woodpeckers in the genus Sphyrapicus that drill through the outer bark of woody plants to create shallow sap wells that exude either phloem or xylem sap that the woodpeckers then feed on. There are four species of sapsuckers in the US, two of which regularly breed in New Mexico — the Red-naped, discussed here, and the Williamson’s.

Brooke and I had already noted that sap was an important food source for Mourning Cloaks, especially females coming out of hibernation on warm late-winter days, when a female surprised us by flying over our heads on February 18. Since then, we have learned that sap also can be a valuable food source — when other food sources are scarce, for instance — for other butterflies, such as anglewings, tortoiseshells, admirals, and wood nymphs. Incidentally, this is also true for hummingbirds, like Broad-billed and Rufous. But, when we thought of sap, we imagined it dripping from plant injuries induced by disease or insects. We had not considered sap oozing from sapsucker wells. Nor did we imagine that these wells would draw such a large gathering of butterflies.

Mourning Cloak, Hoary Comma, and Green Comma sip willow sap along the Rio Cebolla, Jemez Mountains, New Mexico; July 26, 2020. (Photo by Hira Walker)

During our observations that day and on two subsequent occasions, we found a cumulative total of six butterfly species feeding at the wells: Mourning Cloak, Weidemeyer’s Admiral, Question Mark, and Hoary, Green, and Satyr commas. The Weidemeyer’s Admiral was seen making a bee-line — or should I say, butterfly-line — straight to the wells from about 40 feet way. Finding all four of New Mexico’s ‘punctuation’ butterflies was quite a surprise as these species tend to segregate by elevation and habitat. Other animals that fed from the wells included the sapsuckers themselves, ever-present flies of various sizes and species, and a Southwestern Red Squirrel. It is no wonder that sapsuckers are considered keystone species! Their nest cavities are used by a number of other animals and, as we have now seen, so are their sap wells.

In addition to sap, sapsuckers eat insects and other food items (e.g., fruit), which leads one to wonder if the sapsuckers eat butterflies lured in by the sugary, sticky buffet. From what we have seen to date, it doesn’t appear so. We never saw a sapsucker eat a butterfly or any other insect attracted to the wells; the birds seemed disinterested in all other animals present except for us and the squirrel. Actually, on one occasion, a young sapsucker feeding at the wells was startled and scared off when a Mourning Cloak flapped over to its well (providing Brooke and I with a good laugh). For their part, the butterflies seemed somewhat unconcerned with the sapsuckers, but they often vacated the area while the sapsuckers were present.

Where did the butterflies go when they weren’t at the wells? It seems that they loafed about on nearby willows and thinleaf alders. Brooke and I followed the butterflies as they moved to and from the sap wells and realized that they did little else besides rest between feedings. In fact, it seemed that they also rested WHILE feeding. They were so tranquil and stupefied while sipping sap that Brooke could walk up to them and pluck them up with her thumb and forefinger. We can’t say for sure what is going on here to make these guys so sleepy, but we have found one possible explanation. After a little digging online, we learned that phloem sap is a water-based solution that is rich in sugars and contains other solutes such as hormones and minerals. Willow sap, in particular, also has salicin (an alcoholic β-glycoside), which, when consumed by humans at least, is broken down into glucose and salicyl alcohol (and eventually to salicylic acid, an active ingredient of aspirin). So, are these sapsucker sap wells serving up a sugary alcoholic drink to the butterflies? Ahh, it makes sense now why all the butterflies search out the sapsucker wells. Next time you go looking for butterflies, maybe you should do as the butterflies do, and head over to the sapsucker saloon …


Thank you Hira! Thank you Raymond! You have brightened our smoke-filled lives considerably.

As August enters its final week, I hope each of you is finding the butterflies you seek. I look forward to telling more tales next month. Do you have one to share?

Until then, please stay cool and stay safe!

Steve

Storytelling – A Gift of Winter by Terry Foxx

Terry Foxx storytelling with the help of Eli the eagle.
Storyteller Terry Foxx getting help from Eli the eagle.

Winter! Words and images that come to mind are snow falling, chilly temperatures, crisp air, hugging yourself to keep warm.

Winter is a time of bundling up with mittens, boots, and hats to play in the snow or enjoy the out-of-doors.

Winter is a time of year to snuggle down before a fireplace, drink hot chocolate, read a book, and listen to music.

But winter is also a time of year when young and old used to gather together to tell stories. It was a time when people questioned why the world worked the way it did. The ancient ones told stories to explain the mysteries of life, how fire came to be, how animals survive the cold, and how the world was created. Our electronic world has changed this time of community, of coming together to listen and have fun.

This next Saturday, 11:00 AM, at the Nature Center, storytellers Terry Foxx and Kimberly Gotches will bring back the ancient practice of storytelling during the winter. Using wisdom of the ancients and modern-day science, they will explain how fire came into the world and how animals survive the cold in a fun and interactive program for both children and adults.

So how does science explain how animals survive the winter?

How animals survive has been a curiosity since the beginning and still is one of those marvels of nature that challenges scientists. Scientists are finding more and more about the interesting and complex ways animals survive through periods of cold.

Today we understand there are three basic ways animals survive the winter: migration, adaptation, and hibernation. Although we can categorize three basic forms, the survival of any one animal is sometimes a complicated mixture. Let’s explain a little of the science behind these three survival mechanisms and look at examples.

flight by Terry Foxx

Cranes over Bosque del Apache. Photo by Terry Foxx.

Migration

Migration is the movement of animals from one place to another. It can be a short distance to find a warmer niche or long distances to a warmer climate. Migration is stimulated by the changes in day length and temperature.

Some birds fly amazing distances. For example the artic tern nests near the north pole in the summer but in the autumn it flies all the way south to Antarctica, returning north in the spring. That is over 10,000 miles! Amazingly, they find their way to the same place each year. They seem to navigate using the sun moon and stars for direction and have an internal compass for using the Earth’s magnetic field.

A fun place to go in New Mexico is the Bosque del Apache near Socorro. Every year migrating Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, and other birds can be seen in the fields and ponds of the Wildlife Refuge. When you get up early in the morning, you can see thousands of birds waking up and flying off to their feeding grounds. It is a breathtaking experience. On their way to and from the Bosque, the Sandhill Cranes fly along the Rio Grande and White Rock Canyon. You can hear them calling as they fly over White Rock.

A fascinating way to record your observations about when birds appear in the spring and leave in the fall is to join the Nature Center’s on-line birders group (www.peecnature.org, press on the header “Learn.” From the pull down menu go Interest Groups and sign-up.). Someone has already heard cranes heading north—and it is February (we still think it is winter)! Other birds are of particular interest in their coming and going. Nature Center birders anxiously await the first hummingbird signaling summer.

When we think of migration we often think of birds, but other animals also migrate, sometimes not long distances. For example an earthworm can move farther down into the soil below the frost line to survive freezing. They have been found six feet beneath the soil surface (for an earthworm that probably is a really long way!). When the soil warms, they move back up toward the surface.

Insects also migrate. Most well-known is the migration of the Monarch Butterfly. Butterflies can migrate 2500 miles! Those butterflies that live in the East migrate to Mexico and hibernate in oxyamel fir trees. If the butterfly lives west of the Rockies, it heads for Southern California. Monarch butterflies are very important pollinators and are disappearing because of urbanization and agricultural practices. A fun citizen science project is to track the path of the Monarchs.

The Nature Center has an interest group called “Butterfly Watchers.” Sign up on the website www.peecnature.org and follow the directions above. You will learn about different butterflies and you can report when you see a Monarch.

Abert's squirrel with winter ear tassels. Photo by Beth Cortwright
Abert’s squirrel with winter ear tassels. Photo by Beth Cortright.

Adaptation

Adaptation is another way animals survive the winter. To keep warm some animals grow a thicker coat of fur. Examples include coyote, big horn sheep and deer. In some animals, the hairs are hollow, making them more insulating.

As a protective mechanism from predators, the new fur may be white to hide them in the snow. Examples are the Snowshoe Rabbit and Arctic Fox. Other animals gather extra food in the fall and store it. Animals like the fox may eat berries in the summer and small mammals in the winter, changing their food source. Rabbits and deer spend winter looking for moss, twigs, bark. and leaves to eat.

A variety of animals find winter shelter in holes in trees or logs, under rocks or leaves, or underground. These shelters are warmer and animals like mice, raccoons, and squirrels huddle together to stay warm.

Black bear in hibernation.
Sleeping black bear.

Hibernation

Hibernation is a complex and fascinating process. Heart rates drop sometimes as low as 4 four beats per minute and respiration drops to one breath every three to four minutes! Scientists distinguish between true hibernators and those who use torpidity as a mechanism. Regardless, many animals sleep for extended periods of time and spend a lot of time in the late summer and autumn finding food to increase their fat stores within their bodies. True hibernators don’t wake up until spring regardless of the stimuli. Examples of hibernators are chipmunks, ground squirrels, bats, and some mice. They have enough fat reserves to carry them through the winter.

Animals like raccoons and tree squirrels use torpidity to help them survive. Torpidity is a reduction of the metabolism which allows for lower body temperature and oxygen consumption. This is a special, very deep sleep. The animal’s body temperature drops, and its heartbeat and breathing slow down. It uses very little energy. These animals can sleep for weeks at a time and then wake up to eat and defecate. During their wake time they seek out their hidden caches of food collected during the summer and fall.

So what about bears? Are they true hibernators or not? Scientist disagree with terminology. But one thing is for sure, don’t disturb a bear in his sleepy state because he can wake up in an instant, attack, and then go right back to sleep!

We have mostly talked about warm-blooded animals, but cold-blooded animals such as frogs, snakes, and lizards must also survive through winter. They lack internal control over their metabolism. They depend on the warmth of the sun to keep them active. In the winter they would freeze if they did not seek shelter and undergo chemical changes to prevent freezing. They can burrow into the mud or congregate in small caves. Rattlesnakes, for example, congregate in rock crevices to hibernate for the winter. Those spots are known as “snake dens” and they are used every year.

If you want to learn more about how animals survive the winter, here are some books you can find in Mesa Public Library. Some are entertaining stories and others are informative non-fiction.

Hibernation by Anita Ganeri

The Mitten by Jan Brett

Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson

Time to Sleep by Denise Fleming

Animals Hibernating by Pamela Hickman

Do Not Disturb: The Mysteries of Animal Hibernation and Sleep by Margery Facklam

Featured Volunteer: Terry Foxx

Terry Foxx

Teralene (Terry) Foxx is well-known around town as a fire specialist, author, storyteller, teacher, Living Treasure and volunteer. She has volunteered at PEEC for many years and in different capacities, most recently serving as the Board President for the past 19 months. In that role, Terry took PEEC from a mostly-volunteer organization, to hiring several part-time, paid staff members. She also oversaw the initiative to establish the Los Alamos County Nature Center, a public-private partnership between Los Alamos County and PEEC. For personal reasons, Terry has had to reluctantly step down as President. She handed over the reigns to Vice President Felicia Orth, who will serve as Interim President until the next PEEC Board election in October, while Bob Walker has been voted as Vice President. PEEC sat down with Terry to learn more about her full and fascinating career and how she landed at PEEC.

Read more Featured Volunteer: Terry Foxx