Thursday, January 19, 2012

Beginning (with some trepidation) an insect blog

If the writer should at all appear to have induced any of his readers to pay more ready attention to the wonders of the Creation, too frequently overlooked as common occurrences . . . his purpose will be fully answered. But if he should not have been successful in any of these his intentions, yet there remains this consolation behind, that these his pursuits, by keeping the body and mind employed, have . . . contributed to much health and cheerfulness of spirits, even to old age.
Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selbourne

Here in the northeast corner of Arkansas, along Crowley's Ridge, winter is seldom severe. Still, for an insect lover, the middle of winter (when most insects are in diapause) can be a depressing time. You can only devote so much of your attention to planning the coming season's campaign, or trying to memorize field marks from the insect field guides, or checking endlessly over your photos from past years. At last you find yourself dozing off and nearly crashing into the keyboard.

But I'm spoiled living here in the MidSouth. By the end of February Spring will already be a sort of damp smell in the air, and by March the major groups of insects will be in full swing. We can even push the season a little bit right now. A couple of days ago we had a sunny day with a temperature approaching 60 and went to an old quarry north of here. Quarries are always good in cool weather, sheltered, and sort of focusing what warmth from the sun there is.

We were looking for grasshoppers. Last summer you see we decided to learn something about grasshoppers, that we had never paid much attention to before. I can only learn things by total immersion, so I more or less spent all day every day working on this, and by the end of the summer had found and photographed about fifty species (I'm guessing Arkansas has about 75 species). Some of my IDs are a bit dodgy, but it's a start. Part of my strategy was, that I had often seen grasshoppers in mid winter, and when in December or January I was desperate to see a living insect, they would be my escape valve.

Sure enough at the quarry we turned up a few American Bird Grasshoppers, plus a Scudder's Short-winged Grasshopper. I'm sure both species are out every month of the year. Cheryl with her sharp eyes also noticed the mud puddles at our feet seemed to have little rafts of dark seeds or dust, but when we looked close, they were Podura aquatica, the very common springtails that look like the Michelin Tire Man.

Then she turned over a bit of wood and there was the slenderest millipede I have ever seen, very different from any other millipede species I know of.

Today we had another sunny day, though not so warm, low fifties. We went to the prairie at the Jonesboro Nature Center, which last summer was terrific for grasshoppers, and easily found 8-10 American Bird Grasshoppers. They kept flying away from us time after time, but I finally got one to pose. At close to four inches long it is one of our most spectacular insects.

And there it is, the first grasshopper picture of the year. I plan to complete my grasshopper project this year, and the season has now officially begun.

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