Monday, February 27, 2012

Nicocles pictus and Schistocerca damnifica

The other night a large beautiful orange ichneumon came to the light of our kitchen window. According to our Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America by Kaufman and Eric Eaton it was an Ophion species, a parasite on large caterpillars. It was the same as or similar to one we had dealings with a few years ago. We had brought three Black Swallowtail caterpillars in from the garden and raised them, and when they made chrysalises we hung them on the wall of a back room. One morning in spring about the time we expected the butterflies to emerge I came in and saw a hole in the side of each chrysalis, and three of these ichneumons were at the window asking to be let out, which I did after I had shown them to Cheryl. We were a bit annoyed, but also intrigued to learn this little piece of the life history of these insects.

Anyway, the one this night, and a few moths also attracted to the lights, were signs of improving weather. So the next morning we checked the forecast and it was for a cloudless day (heavy winds still) and low sixties. We packed a lunch and for a second time made our 64-mile trip to Village Creek SP. This is the time of year skunks are on the move; we counted seven or eight road kills on the way down. All the flags we passed were straight out heading east. It was the third day this week of steady west winds, seemingly off the desert. Our yard had been water-logged all winter, but now was quickly drying out. The year it seemed was still trying to figure out whether it would be floods or drought, and I had a feeling drought was going to win.

When we got to the park we drove straight up to the high ridge trail and walked out to the best area for finding Nicocles pictus. Robber Flies aren't popular enough to have popular names, but I sort of enjoy learning all the Latin names, and the names help you keep the taxonomy straight, instead of confusing you as popular names often do. We spotted a Nicocles almost at once, about a yard up from the ground on the bud tip of a new young Sweetgum. It was much smaller, maybe 15 mm long, than we remembered the species being, though it was a male, and the males are always smaller. It flew up and came down again with a tiny bee it had just caught.

And then it performed its own special mate-finding trick. The last two segments of the abdomen from the right angle shine up like silver mirrors. This is usually concealed under their folded wings, but when they are at their twig-end post, they repeatedly drop their abdomen down, and the silver tip flashes a come-on to any female in the neighborhood. We spent some time trying to photograph them, but we were awkward I think from not having taken many pictures over the winter, and the beating wind made it almost impossible to hold them in focus and still their motion. But here are some shots that will give you an idea of what we saw.

As we stood back a little bit from the scene, we realized we were in the middle of a lek: There were three Nicocles all within a few feet of each other, all flashing away. Then they did something we had never seen before. One or another would fly out into the open pathway and hang suspended in mid air, hovering, the wings wide apart, and the spots on the dangling abdomen shining for whoever was there to see them.

That was one of our missions for coming down here accomplished.

We also were looking for a particular early grasshopper called the Mischievous Bird Grasshopper, with the Latin name Schistocerca damnifica. It sounded like the first describer of this species had had quite a time with it. That was hard for us to imagine. It was one of the Bird grasshoppers, but instead of being large and dramatically patterned, it was relatively small and drab. We were walking down the trail and had just flushed an American Bird Grasshopper which took off in its powerful flight and landed twenty feet up in a tree. Now this much smaller grasshopper hopped clumsily about two feet and hid under a leaf. That made it easy for me to pick it up so we could examine it more closely.

About the only obvious connection with the larger, gaudier Birds is the eye with its vertical bands. Nevertheless, it had a curious behavior which served to set it apart from the others. We had seen a Mischievous Bird almost in this same place at this time last year. Instead of flying or hopping away from us when we approached, it lined itself up with the bare twig it was perched on, and stuck its hind legs out to each side as if these were small twigs coming off the main twig. Here is a picture we took of it then.

It seemed clever, but a little bit amateurish. As if we should try to hide by standing next to a tree and holding our arms out and arching upwards in the shape of branches. Anyway, coming back to the present day, I let the grasshopper go, and it flew about twenty feet away and landed on a fallen log. I didn't have a nice portrait of the species for my grasshopper album, so I walked over to it to see what I could do. I took this picture of him which I thought would be quite attractive, fitting him in with the undulant grain pattern of the wood, etc., but he had been annoyed enough at me handling him that he had drooled tobacco all over his face, which spoiled the effect.

He waited patiently through all that, then, to my surprise, he began slowly spreading his hind legs out to do his twigs-off-the-branch imitation. Coming off a fallen log, it didn't seem very successful.

We had come particularly to see these two species, so we felt our trip was a success. But we also noted other signs of progress. Several butterflies were out, a Mourning Cloak, a number of "orange jobs" (either Question Mark or Eastern Comma; you can only separate them if they land and give you a look, but most of these kept flying). One finally stopped, and it was an Eastern Comma. We saw another sulphur, probably Orange Sulphur, but after all, it was almost March (I'm writing this on the 27th, but we made the trip on the 26th). And we had seen two Spring Azures, a tiny blue butterfly, famous for coming out early, even flying over snow up north. These had eclosed from their chrysalis probably that day, so they were the first butterflies brand new for the season that we had seen.

We had a final nice sighting just before we pulled out, a tiny beetle with the gory name The Twice Stabbed Lady Beetle, landed on the door of the car.

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