Butterflies have been held in reverence and high esteem for millennia, enshrined by the ancient Greeks in the mythical love affair between Cupid/Eros and Psyche the butterfly goddess. According to Greek mythology, Psyche was a beautiful maiden who fell in love with Eros/Cupid. Cupid’s mother, Aphrodite, was jealous of Psyche’s beauty and tried to keep the lovers apart. Eventually, however, Aphrodite realized that Cupid and Psyche were destined to be together and so Zeus made Psyche immortal. Psyche is also the Greek word for “soul” and “butterfly.” Although the original Greek story has been lost to history, the mythology of Cupid and Psyche was preserved in the book Metamorphoses written in the 2nd century CE by Platonicus. The Greek story of Eros and Psyche is known from at least the 4th century BCE and was a popular subject in Greek and Roman art. The word for butterfly in formal Greek is psyche, thought to be the soul of the dead. Ancient Greeks also named the butterfly scolex (“worm”), while the chrysalis – which is the next stage of metamorphosis from a caterpillar – was called nekydallon, meaning “the shell of the dead”. The metamorphosis of the butterfly inspired many to use butterflies as a symbol of the soul’s exit from the body. Thus, the myth of Psyche concomitantly signifies soul and butterfly. It has come to mean the story of the soul coupled with divine Eros, but which must nevertheless endure tribulations before achieving immortality. Psyche, a mortal woman, was released from death by Zeus, the father of the gods, who took pity on her and granted her immortality. Psyche’s mythological imagery in ancient art is represented with butterfly wings, amply depicted in pottery as well. Freed from death, the body of the soul could fly freely, soaring, departing from the shackles of the chrysalis. I thought this lovely Greek story would be the perfect introduction to a review of beautiful butterflies.
Little Petroglyph Canyon contains many petroglyphs of animals which is appropriate I suppose since it was likely a hunting camp in the fall. The canyon was an ideal site since the infrequent rain storms flood the canyon leaving water in concave bedrock pools covered by the loose sand and gravel of the canyon floor. Deer, antelope, and desert or mountain bighorn sheep were hunted with spears, bow and arrows. Rabbit was the most common game. Other small animals such as marmots, ground squirrels, and porcupines were also caught using noose snares and nets. Birds such as grouse, ducks, and other waterfowl were hunted by the Northern Paiute, who also collected duck eggs for eating. The Owens Valley Paiute did not do as much bird hunting. This is a remarkable collection of Native American art, encapsulating centuries of knowledge into simple drawings. Northern Paiute people call those writings on the rock etsatubono, which means, literally, “Coyote writings.” But this suggests not so much that the people believe that Coyote wrote them, as it is reference to their age. In Paiute traditions and legends, the animal people were put into this world before human beings. So the reference to Coyote writings is intended to suggest that those writings and images are ancient, and were made by the first creation. Like all great art, they are approachable in terms of content but each image is intertwined with myths, stories and culture extending back for millennia. There is no simple answer to what they mean, only endless variations on the names and stories.
Since the Covid virus pandemic, I have been sheltering at home like everyone else. Fortunately the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve has re-opened and I go almost every day. I had been going since December, recording the spring changes of birds and plants but the Coronovirus put all of that on hold for a while. It has been a repetitive comfort to me to have a beautiful place to walk each morning with an ever changing cast of beautiful birds. One constant and always welcome bird companion has been the tiny Verdin who are resident at the bird preserve. The Verdin is a very small bird. At 4.5 in (11 cm) in length, it rivals the American bushtit as one of the smallest passerines in North America and it is smaller than many hummingbirds. At the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, Verdin the most common bird, rarely seen but almost always heard. It is most easily detected by its surprisingly loud calls, which sound like “cheep” followed by a pause the another “cheep”. These tiny birds are difficult to photograph, rather like shooting skeet or pinball. The tiny birds are quick and athletic, jumping from branch to branch sideways, up and down. You need a hair-trigger on the shutter, shoot first and check your focus and framing later, you will not get a second chance. Since I have collected quite a number of photographs of my avian friends the Verdin, I decided to make a post of it.
Like the rest of the world, for the past several months I have been preoccupied with the pandemic, resulting in a loss of concentration and writers block. A great diversion for me during these trying times has been a local bird watching area, the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve. Each morning I cast the worries of the world aside and walk for a few hours with my camera, photographing birds and interesting plants. I have accumulated quite a nice number of photos and I thought they would make a good series of posts. I find it interesting that while I have written extensively about my travels, It has taken a pandemic to make me really see the attractions in my own backyard, so to speak. Over the years I have often traveled to riparian areas near rivers and lakes to observe birds but over the past few years more and more trips centered on wastewater treatment ponds. Due to clean water legislation in the US, these ponds have become ubiquitous and provide really great birding opportunities in most areas. I thought I would spend a little time exploring ecological wastewater treatment, particularly since cholera was a recurring pandemic of the 19th century, and then describe the plants and animals associated with these areas. Interestingly, one of the foremost tenets of modern treatment ponds is to utilize local native plants. Thus these facilities are not only a great place to see birds but also provide a unique presentation of often unusual or endangered native plant communities. This post is meant as an introduction to the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve while future posts will focus on specific plants, animals, birds and bugs.
When reading a birding guide for a specific bird, talking to fellow birders or just researching an unknown bird, terminology comes up that can sometimes be confusing and/or unintelligible. Since I write extensively about birds, sometimes a simple definition of a term is not enough and adding it to the post makes the post unnecessarily long. This post is my solution to bird related anatomy and physiology definitions. Field marks are the distinctive stripes, spots, patterns, colors, and highlights that birds have in such abundance and variety. Birds developed these patterns for many reasons, but one way they use some of these markings is to recognize members of their own species. And bird watchers can use them for the same purpose. Generally speaking, there are two categories of field markings, anatomical/anthropomorphic and human clothing references. The comparison of human anatomy, emotions and characteristics is both familiar and time-honored dating at least as far back as the ancient Egyptians. Anthropomorphic comparisons are comforting, familiar and accurate in many instances. When corresponding anatomy is unclear or inaccurate, clothing analogies can sometimes provide more clarity. When all else fails, there are field markings specific to a specific family of birds.
This spring started out as a beautiful time in nature. As I do each year, I decided to focus on the flowers that seem to be everywhere in the spring and in particular on desert flowers at the Ethel M cactus garden. Even though it was rather early, I started at the end of February, hoping to catch the end of winter flowers and the very beginning of the spring flowers. Things were going along very nicely with lots of new flowers each week until the onset of the COVID–19 virus in the beginning of March. As a result of precautions taken against the virus, the garden was closed and I decided to present what I have already photographed. There were many butterflies and bees, I have included them when I could. Despite the tragic nature of this viral outbreak, spring flowers are still beautiful and I thought they might strike a cheerful note in a sea of gloomy news.
Since I spend a fair amount of time in Santa Clarita in California I thought that I would write some posts on good nature viewing locations near Santa Clarita. One of the nearest and also one of the best places for birdwatching, plants/flowers and hiking is Placerita Canyon. Placerita is an east-west running canyon featuring cool, shaded oak groves, a willow and sycamore-lined seasonal stream and numerous other interesting plant and animal communities. Placerita Canyon State Park encompasses oak woodland, chaparral, and riparian plant communties on the north side of the San Gabriel Mountains southeast of the City of Santa Clarita. The park not only serves to conserve a slice of the wild environment but also endeavors to educate the public on the value of undisturbed flora and fauna through wild animal presentations, nature hikes, and self-guided educational trails. Also, if you continue up the canyon, you can enter the San Gabriel Mountains, another great nature location.
Like many people interested in nature, I have a fairly large set of bird feeders in my back yard. Last year was quite eventful for the feeders, I had several clutches of Gambel’s Quail (Callipepla gambelii) born in the bushes scattered around the yard. Gambel’s Quail are skittish birds, living mostly on the ground, they run for cover at even the hint of a surprise. While they have nested in my yard off and on for several years, last year was the first time they visited the feeders. There is plenty of water, feed and shelter in my backyard and the quail apparently liked what they saw. We had at least 3 clutches and possibly as many as 5–6 with the result of many groups of adult, adolescent and baby quail pretty much all summer. Naturally I took photos, as if I was the proud grandfather. Many of the photos were taken in less than ideal light but gradually they grew more trusting and I managed a few flash captures. I thought the photos would make for a nice post so I organized the best ones to present here.
In October of last year, I had the good fortune to visit the Asa Wright Nature Center and Tobago through Caligo Birding Tours. Trinidad and Tabago are blessed with abundant hummingbirds on both Islands, both at Asa Wright on Trinidad and at the home of Newton George on Tabago. Sometimes there are places with many hummingbirds of just one or two species, but my experience on both islands was both large numbers and a good selection of species, depending to some extent on the time of year that I visited. One of the largest and most beautiful hummingbirds that can be reliably found on both islands in all seasons is the White Necked Jacobin. While I have seen them in smaller numbers in Costa Rica, both sexes were nicely represented at Asa Wright. One of the downsides of having a fair number of both hummingbird numbers and species is the problem of “the little green hummingbird”. By this I mean, small green hummingbirds that look very similar, which usually but not always, can be identified by their limited range and/or your location. In some unfortunate locations which include Trinidad and Tobago, there are several small green hummingbirds that look similar, all in the same place. While this creates some difficulties, close observation can usually resolve ambiguities. I have included both flash and natural photographs and the ISO since I believe flash photography reveals additional aspects of hummingbird colors.
I am not an insect guy (entymologist) when it comes to photography but I am someone interested in ecosystems. I mention this because while I sometimes get good pictures of insects, I may not be as accurate as a true “bug guy” with identification, although I do try. In this post I present bees, butterflies and other insects that I saw in Trinidad. It turns out that the photographic equipment necessary for bird photography is equally good for entymology. In any case I obtained some beautiful photographs of bees, butterflies and dragonflies that I thought I would share in this post. The neotropics are an exceptional location for those interested in ecosystems and the links that connect us all with nature. While this collection might not be as long as some of my posts, the photographs are nonetheless beautiful and I hope pertinent to my readers. Augochloropsis is a genus of brilliant metallic, often blue-green, sweat bees in the family Halictidae. There are at least 140 described species in Augochloropsis. The genus Augochloropsis is restricted to the New World, and the vast majority of species of are found in the tropical and subtropical regions. Augochloropsis are classified as polylectic, a term which indicates that these species are broad generalists that collect pollen from multiple families of plants.