Spring Has Sprung

It’s springtime!  Right?  Wherever you are I’m sure you’re looking out the window to glorious sunny days filled with warmth and butterflies. Unless, of course, you are most of my family or friends (Hi Erik!) looking out the window to several inches of snow and mercury in the single digits.

Actually, down here in the City of Angels, it’s been feeling like spring for about a month or so.  I’ve been out in the field almost non-stop in recent weeks, and the butterflies are definitely out stretching their wings.  Non-butterfliers may not realize it, but butterflies have seasons, just like fish and birds.  Some butterflies are on the wing most of the year in southern California but quite a few are restricted to just a few months or even weeks of the year.  Most of my favorites fall into this latter category, and happen to fly in the spring.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the UCLA La Kretz Field Station and was delighted to see the first Sara Orangetip, Anthocharis sara, of the year flitting around the yard.  This delightful little species drifts by so quickly that most casual observers don’t have time to notice the lovely orange wingtips that give them their names.  They fly by so quickly that they’re often, in fact, confused with moths.  

Anthocharis sara, Sara Orangetip.  Photo taken in the Santa Monica Mountains

Anthocharis sara, Sara Orangetip. Photo taken in the Santa Monica Mountains

Sara Orangetip has shown up at almost all of my 25 field study sites over the last 3 weeks.  Today I revisited a sight that was among the first where Sara was flying and saw only a couple of individuals, meaning that this species is quickly coming to the end of its flight season.  If the weather cooperates we may get a partial second brood of this gorgeous springtime bug.  Anyone who is still flying today is frantically looking for a mate or for mustards to lay eggs on, before their offspring hibernate in the pupal stage.

I’m very disappointed, and slightly worried, not to have seen any Sonoran Blues (Philotes sonorensis) so far this year.  This tiny but spectacular member of the Lycaenidae has a tight link to its larval host plant, members of the genus Dudleya.  I’ve seen records that this animal is out and about elsewhere in the southwest, but so far none have shown themselves on my Santa Monicas surveys.  The mountain range is experiencing a loss of Dudleya habitat due to fires, which may be impacting this butterfly as well.  It would be great to have time to survey more comprehensively for this beautiful butterfly but for now I’ll have to hope for incidental sightings during regular survey days.

If there was any doubt at all about whether or not spring had arrived, today’s find put an end to that speculation.  While surveying on the Mishe Mokwe trail I lucked onto the fist checkerspot of the season, the Gabb’s Checkerspot, Chlosyne gabbii.

Gabb's Checkerspot, Chlosyne gabbii.  Photo taken in Santa Monica Mountains.  Ignore the chipped thumbnail.

Gabb’s Checkerspot, Chlosyne gabbii. Photo taken in Santa Monica Mountains. Ignore the chipped thumbnail.

This photo doesn’t do justice to this lovely and well-behaved animal.  I say well-behaved because, like most checkerspots, they readily come to flowers, making them quite easy to observe (and chase.  Ahem).  I spent most of my PhD years chasing close cousins of this species, and several outings chasing this animal in particular.  Seeing one never ceases to bring a smile to my face- I’ve been grinning since about 11:30 this morning knowing that it’s now checkerspot season.

STOP THE PRESS: MAN WINS OWN CONTEST 4OTH YEAR IN A ROW

OK so maybe it isn’t exactly 40 years in a row, but it’s close.

 

My PhD advisor at UC Davis, Dr. Art Shapiro, recently sent around an email announcing the news that many of us wait for, breathlessly, every January- he had seen a Cabbage White butterfly, Pieris rapae, flying while he was out in the field.  Since Art’s earliest days as a professor at Davis he’s sponsored the annual “Butterflies for Beer” contest, open to all.  The much coveted prize, aside from eternal fame and glory, is a pitcher of beer (or the cash equivalent).  The challenge?  Find and capture the first (wild- no cheating by raising it indoors) Cabbage White of the year within the California counties of Yolo, Solano, or Sacramento.  It sounds easy enough but Art seldom loses- legend has it he’s only lost three times in over 40 years, and at least one of those times he was in Argentina the whole month.  When I was in grad school at Davis I tried several times to beat him but honestly I never stood a chance.

 

Distinguished Professor of Evolution and Ecology, Dr. Art Shapiro in the field.

Distinguished Professor of Evolution and Ecology, Dr. Art Shapiro in the field.

Art has always had an interest in the Cabbage White, and in butterfly phenology (the study of life cycles, in particular the timing of significant events) in general.  By carefully observing and recording things like the first flight date of a species Art has documented long-term climatological patterns, previously unknown or unrecorded flight + weather correlations, and changes in how butterflies interact with other aspects of their environment, notably their larval host plants.  I could easily write a dozen posts about the stuff Art has done with his incredible dataset but for now I’ll just link to his website and you can check some of it out for yourself.

 

Regardless of who the winner is, Art sends out an announcement describing the event.  I’ve always loved these narratives describing the weather, the flowers in bloom, the number of junkyard dogs in the vicinity, what kind of sparkling wine the other riders on the bus were drinking…  oh and also how the bug managed to wind up caught in Art’s net.  Here’s an excerpt from this year’s announcement, which started with the headline “SHAPIRO SNAGS CABBAGE WHITE “VERY LATE” BUT GETS AN EARLY RECORD 15 MINUTES LATER”:

I was sufficiently sure today would be the day that I took my net and was prepared to sweep the vegetation with it to kick up any individuals that were sunbathing (“dorsal basking”) in the dilute sunlight in order to raise their body temperature to the level needed for flight.” But that did not prove necessary; the sun came out strongly at 12.11 and the butterfly (a male) took wing spontaneously 19 minutes later. “It was a very easy catch; I suspect he emerged this morning and that was his first flight.” Ten minutes later a second species, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) showed up. It hibernates as an adult and is always an early flier, but this was its first record on the floor of the Sacramento Valley this year—it’s been out about two weeks in the lower Coast Range.

Matt Forister, another of Art’s former students, promptly put together and sent out a graph showing the temporal distribution of Cabbage White first flight dates over the years.  This year’s  catch is the red dot in the image below.  You can see that in the last 40+ years, the first flight date has gotten earlier.

Cabbage White Butterfly first flight dates by year. The red point shows 2015.  Data collected by Art Shapiro, chart by Matt Forister.

Cabbage White Butterfly first flight dates by year. The red point shows 2015. Data collected by Art Shapiro, chart by Matt Forister.

 

Art may win his own contest every year but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t claim the prize!  True to the rules, Art buys himself a pitcher of PBR, a Shapiro lab tradition.  He graciously shares it (and usually a few more, to boot) with his students and their partners, plus assorted hangers on.  I’m sad to have missed it this year!