Butterfly Bucket: White-striped Long Tail Skipper

Butterfly Bucket time. Anna at the Transmutational Garden hosts this event each month. This month she is highlighting the Gulf Fritillary.

I did see some monarchs. I had to check with BugGuide because I had my doubts. Soldiers are far more likely for this time of year.

But, I decided to put some skippers into my bucket instead. Many were flying around the pond a couple of weeks ago before the great devastation (don’t ask). Most were very shy and not wasting a moment. My picture taking turned into a fool’s errand — a lot of sweat for a lot of meaningless blurs. I decided to just call it a comedy and let it go. Of course, not soon after, I found this fellow enjoying a calm sip at the blue sage party.

white-striped longtail skipper
white-striped longtail skipper

Skipper faces are always so cute! It must be the big eyes. The tail is very long. The white stripe is bright. Unmistakable. Except when doing an internet search. Beware: there is another butterfly called the long-tailed skipper. But its tail is much shorter and it doesn’t have the white stripe.

white-striped longtail skipper3 aug 2015
white-striped longtail skipper

They live year round in South Texas, Arizona and other places closer to the equator but some years groups will fly up to our area (Central Texas) for a summer vacation. The host plants are legumes.

Nature’s Notes: Painted Lady PSA

Before beginning, you might be interested in checking out Michelle’s Rambling Woods. Michelle hosts Nature Notes each Tuesday. This week she has a special post about insect songs.

Painted Lady sipping sage nectar
Painted Lady sipping sage nectar

I love seeing how particular plants go in and out of fashion for wildlife. A couple of weeks ago everyone was partying at the mistflower. Today? The mistflowers are ghost towns. All dried up. Nothing to see but dust devils and a passing tumble-weed.

This week the blue sage is where it’s at. Spotted in the crowd were some of those disreputable Painted Ladies you sometimes hear about.

Trigger Warning: Orange Butterflies Ahead

Though the problem is usually left unspoken, amateur butterfly lovers are frequently afflicted by something known in the business as Orange Butterfly Anxiety Syndrome (OBAS). Locals be advised, the CDC has isolated Texas as a prime epicentre for this problem since hundreds of resident butterfly species happen to be coloured orange.

Symptoms include a clenched jaw, shortness of breath, generalized anxiety and a compulsive need to search through butterfly identification guides. Should symptoms persist or get worse be aware that margaritas can sometimes dull the pain.

Luckily, I’ve been vaccinated against this particular orange butterfly. Turn back now if necessary but if you are feeling brave please allow me to be your guide. Together we can face any monster — no matter how orange she may appear.

(Full disclosure — I am not a professional.)

The opening photo shows a Painted Lady. They are extremely common butterflies across the continent and are often used in classrooms to demonstrate the process of metamorphosis. If you gently touch her front legs with an extended finger, she will almost always hop up. Free living jewellery. People who wear lab coats will tell you it is a reflex action but I prefer to imagine they are simply being sociable.

Painted Lady or American Painted Lady?

The Painted Lady is easily confused with the American Painted Butterfly but if the wings are open there is a quick and dirty field mark to look for:

The American Painted Lady has an extra white spot on the open wing …

wing spot on american painted lady
American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

See how the Painted Lady below is missing that white spot …

painted lady3 aug 2015
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Closed Wings?

If the wings are closed look at the big circles on the bottom wing. This is not as reliable as the white spot mark but it can be helpful.

  • Several peacock circles? Painted Lady
  • Only a couple? American Painted Lady
  • Are the spots clearly blue? West Coast Painted Lady

What?!? Wait-a-minute, just how many Painted Ladies are out there? Breathe. Relax. As far as I know, there are only three here in Texas though they do have a cousin, Vanessa kershawi, living in Australia.

Note: I have oversimplified as these butterflies have winter and summer forms. The summer forms are much more brightly coloured. So much so that the regular Painted Lady’s spots might appear as blue as the West Coast Lady’s. But let us cut our losses. The American Painted Lady still has that extra white spot and fewer peacock circles.

Below: Four large peacock spots. Painted Lady or West Coast Lady? –shrug– and –who cares really–

painted lady 4 aug 2015


Below: American Painted Lady showing two large peacock circles.

photo courtesy Patrick Coin, Wikipedia creative commons
Closed wings of the American Painted Lady photo courtesy Patrick Coin, Wikipedia Creative Commons


Fine print: I could be wrong about anything or everything. Corrections are welcome.

Shell Oil and Deer Park

Photo Roy Luck, Flikr. Creative Commons.
Photo Roy Luck, Flikr. Creative Commons.

In the news today: the Shell Oil facility in Deer Park admits it accidentally released 326,166 pounds of butadiene last Sunday.

Somehow this number did not exceed TCEQ levels.

It looks like most news agencies aren’t reporting the accident. So does this lack of reporting mean the accident isn’t important or newsworthy?

Lies Within Lies

Like me, you might wonder, how could an accidental release of more than 300 000 pounds of a known toxin not exceed a safety limit?

It’s simple: TCEQ’s butadiene limit is one of the worst in the country — maybe the world. It is 60 times less protective than the EPA’s and 340 times less protective than California’s. It wasn’t always this weak. Back in 2007, when fracking started to boom, people were becoming alarmed by resulting air pollution so TCEQ revisited its guidelines. If you think the agency did that to protect ordinary people, you would be mistaken. Instead, TCEQ loosened protection for 45 dangerous chemicals including butadiene so businesses could be protected from complaints.

Toxicity of Butadiene

So, maybe butadiene isn’t all that toxic? After all, Shell’s spokesperson did say with a straight face, “To the best of our knowledge, there were no adverse impacts on the community.”

Let me clear the air on that one. Butadiene is a known carcinogen. Even The American Petroleum Institute (the lobbyist for benzene producers) admitted as early as 1948 that the only “absolutely safe” dose was zero.

But we don’t have to take their word on that one.

In 2008, the University of Texas School of Public Health found a strong link between butadiene and children’s cancers in East Houston where the Shell plant is located.

In fact, study after study after study has been done. Most admit there does seem to be a link. Most note that cancers in areas with the worst air pollution (like East Houston) have been on the rise since 1990. All of those studies think more study needs to be done. I haven’t found any that say we need to stop polluting the air and our children.

Identifying a true cancer cluster is tricky. Because statistics. But in June, 2015 DSHS released a report describing “statistically significant results” for several cancers in East Houston where the largest air polluters in that city are located.

So how can Ray Fisher suggest Shell is unaware of any harm done? Because cancer takes time to form and causation is difficult to prove in court.

 Old Dirty Habits

This refinery has a history of violating the Clean Air Act.

June 1997: An explosion at the plant was so massive it could be heard and felt as far away as 25 miles. Residents living nearby were advised to remain inside their homes. Shell agreed to a $350,000 out of court settlement. 

2003-2008: Environment Texas found 1,000 separate violations of Shell’s pollution permit.

July 2013: In negotiations with the EPA, Shell agreed to spend $115 million to update the plant and stop flaring. It agreed to put in a $1 million monitoring system to check the benzene levels along its fence which borders a school. Shell also agreed to a $2.6 million fine. In exchange, the EPA would say Shell was not ‘guilty’ but only ‘alleged’ to have made Clean Air Act violations.

January 2015: In a civil case, Shell agreed to pay a $900,000 penalty for ‘alleged’ violations of the Clean Air Act

What can we do?

Spread the news. Support the people of East Houston. Let them know they aren’t alone. I saw one kickstarter was raising money for people diagnosed with cancer. Let your elected representatives know you care. Etc. I am sure you can think of even better ideas. While we are at it ….

arcticfoxSo even in a populated area, Shell has a history of flagrantly violating environmental law. Right now, Shell is in one of the most isolated areas of the planet — the Arctic — drilling for oil. Even though experts say there is a 75% chance of a spill and 0% technology for cleaning spilled oil from ice pack. Every other oil company has stated the conditions are too risky. At this point, it is only an exploratory drilling though. To continue, Shell will need permission from President Obama to continue. Please consider signing one of the petitions circulating. You can find one here.