March 30, 2015

Florida's Pine Rocklands and a Lovely Moth

Normally, moths are a few levels below my radar, probably because I don't stay up very late, and there are way too many of them. Birds, butterflies, and plants seem to get most of my attention when I'm outside. But Bill and I recently spent a few days in south Florida and had a very interesting moth encounter.

We spent quite a bit of time in the rare pine rockland habitat in and near Everglades National Park. It is characterized by slash pine, saw palmetto, and a variety of low to medium height shrubs and small trees. The soil is very thin, on top of coral-derived limestone. Here is what this habitat looks like:

We were looking to find and photograph unusual butterflies that are restricted to this habitat and we have had a fair amount of success in the past.

So we set out from the car and soon spotted what looked like a small to medium sized, dark butterfly to the left of the trail. It looked like it could be laying eggs, bouncing from leaf to leaf. We  managed to get our binoculars on it and saw that it was an incredibly bright iridescent blue, with a black and white checkered border and red near the head. With the sun behind us and the insect hovering for a few seconds over the vegetation, we had a stunning view. I  recognized that strange feeling I get when I know that I have absolutely no idea what I'm looking at. It was flying like a butterfly but looked like no butterfly I've ever seen. It was moving way too quickly (and we were way too slow) for either of us to get a photograph, and soon it flew off into the trees, out of sight. Bill and I looked at each other; clearly neither of us knew what we had just seen.

I googled every which way I could to try to identify this critter but didn't find anything that matched. It really bothered me that I couldn't find something seemingly so distinctive. It even occurred to me (very briefly!) that it was a teeny spy drone like in the movies. That's when I knew I REALLY needed to find out what it was!

The next day we went back to the same spot and I caught a few more glimpses of it, but this time it was just speeding around its territory, and I mean speeding--think Eastern Buckmoth! A bit more googling finally turned up the answer--a day-flying moth called the Faithful Beauty. What a great name!

Although we never got close to getting a photo, photographer Alan Chin-Yee was kind enough to give me permission to use his image from the Moth Photographers Group website; this is one of the best pictures of the Faithful Beauty on the internet. I can understand why there aren't very many!

©Alan Chin-Yee
Once I figured out what it was and saw photos of its caterpillar on the internet, a few bells rang in my head. I recalled that the Faithful Beauty caterpillar is the wild red critter on the cover of Dave Wagner's book:

(Dave is a keynote speaker at this summer's Mothapalooza event--should be great fun and there might be a few places left.)

I also realized that we had seen this moth before, speeding down a trail on a previous visit to Florida. We just couldn't see the blue color on that encounter, just a zooming black insect with white spots.

From what I've been able to read, its caterpillar feeds on plants in the spurge and dogbane families, both of which have milky sap and contain compounds that are toxic, The theory is that the brilliant colors of the larval and adult Faithful Beauty signal that toxicity to potential predators. Florida vegetation is pretty unfamiliar to me, and the only plant I found that had milky sap was this one:

I don't know its identity, and I didn't find any caterpillars on it, but it was the plant on which the Faithful Beauty appeared to be laying eggs. (My search also yielded an itchy dermatitis on my hands and neck that lasted a week and a half--the price I paid for my curiosity!)

Apparently the Faithful Beauty isn't all that rare in its pine rockland habitat, but that habitat is critically reduced thanks to the encroachment of development in the Miami/Homestead metropolitan area. Several other insects are restricted to this habitat type and are seriously declining as their habitat vanishes. Here are just a few that we've seen:

Bartram's scrub-hairstreak:

Florida leafwing:

Florida duskywing, with the spots on its forewings looking like tiny constellations:

Here are some other butterflies that may be seen in or near pine rocklands, but are not restricted to this habitat.They are much more common than those above but are favorites of mine!

Zebra Longwing or Zebra Heliconian
Julia Heliconian

Palamedes Swallowtail
Life would be diminished if these beautiful and interesting creatures were to be lost due to destruction of their habitat. More information about the critical nature of pine rockland can be found at links here and here.