Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How do you keep up?

A run of beautiful weather, so the last three days we have gone somewhere every day, and so many new things are coming out there's no time to write them down, or keep them straight. Plus there are interesting things going on around the house. For instance, a very handsome paper wasp, Polistes exclamans, has started a nest on the kitchen window frame. So far its just three or four wispy cells, but they already have eggs in them. It will be fun to watch it develop over the summer. Here's a picture of a nest made by this species last year. They are so trim and alert they make me think of armed F-16's waiting on the flight deck.

Here is the new nest.

We have in the back yard a little patch of spring cress for the Falcate Orangetips, and this year they are laying lots of eggs on the flower heads. If the eggs don't all get predated, I will try to follow the progress of the caterpillars.

On the 24th of March (last Saturday) we went to one of our favorite places, the W. E. Brewer Scatter Creek WMA. It's in the middle of Crowley's Ridge about 30 miles north of us in Greene County. The WMA is divided into four or five separate parts, each with different habitat, topography, vegetation, and all of it terrific for insects. When we first discovered it, we went to one part that we entered from highway 141 just north of Beech Grove.  It had high ridge trails and wide creek valleys and so many special robber flies and butterflies that we kept going there, and it was years before it occurred to us to try another part of the WMA. That part was on the south side of highway 34, and it was totally different, much more open with abandoned quarries and highly eroded loess soil giving a miniature Grand Canyon landscape. We found a whole new set of special robber flies and dragonflies, and, in the quarries, some very nice tiger beetles. Last year when we started studying the grasshoppers, we found a low wetland area there that teemed with grasshoppers in great variety. Then at the end of last season we tried a third area, farther up 141 from the first area, and it again was quite different, a high valley of mixed meadow and woodlands which looked very promising (we wrote about it in an earlier blog where we talked about finding the egg scars of periodic cicadas). We were looking forward to exploring it further this year, so that in fact is where we went this past Saturday.

It had really come to life since the last visit. There were many new-for-the-season butterflies, Pearl Crescent, Common Buckeye, Sleepy Duskywing, Wild Indigo Duskywing, Pepper and Salt Skipper. There were a lot of dragonflies out, some new for the season like Blue Corporal, with the lovely Latin name of Ladona deplanata (I imagine her as a spy on the Orient Express), and Common Whitetail, along with those that had already been out for a while like Variegated Meadowhawk, Slender Baskettail, and Common Green Darner (we managed to get a shot of the latter mating).

We're thinking that at some distant time we might try to learn the bees (there are so many hundreds of species it is pretty daunting), so we are tentatively beginning to photograph a few. This time we saw some very neat long-horned bees.

Green-striped Grasshoppers were everywhere, and I am getting pretty tired of finding them. Surely it is time for some new species to come along.

We looked up from our concentration and noticed the sky in the northwest had grown black. It was quite pretty against the newly green fields. But this area of the Ridge is such a tornado and straight-line-wind catcher that when the weather threatens we get out quick.

Sunday we went to another new (to us) part of Scatter Creek WMA, on the east side of the Ridge near the town of Gainseville, which featured a raised bog and some interesting plants. It had the usual dozens of Green-striped Grasshoppers. A new dragonfly was out, a teneral Ashy Clubtail, the first of the clubtails we have seen this year. It was so fresh it had not opened its wings all the way out yet. Cheryl picked up a stick that had some mushrooms growing on it, and when she turned them over to see the underside she could see some tiny rough-textured things walking around on them. We tried to make them into diminutive fungus beetles, but when she took a picture of them, and blew the picture up, we saw they were actually enormous (relatively speaking) Springtails, perhaps Pogonognathellus flavescens, which gets up to a quarter of an inch (most springtails are 1-3 mm).

We then drove over to the southern area of Scatter Creek WMA and down to the wetland and the abandoned quarry at the end of the dirt road. When we walked across the creek at the bottom we noticed on the muddy edges Pepper and Salt Skippers, a kind of Roadside Skipper, were in numbers such as we had never seen before, probably forty on a small beach, when usually five or six in a day would be a good total.  The hundred-yard-or-so walk between the creek and the quarry is deeply rutted with four-wheeler tracks, which at this time are filled with water. The more normal sized Water Springtails covered the water for the whole distance in incalculable numbers, driven by slight winds into deep wind-rows.

At one time the quarry had an enormous colony of Horse Guard wasps (Stictia carolina) which provision their burrows with horse flies to feed their young. The colony had been diminishing the last few years under the onslaught of kudzu from one side, and four-wheelers from all sides. It was also a good site for some special robber flies, and some very nice tiger beetles. Strong rains from winter and spring had washed out the soft loess soil and virtually sluiced out the quarry, so it was now a clean slate. It will be interesting to see if the wasps come back, and the robber flies. We didn't need to worry about the tiger beetles, because they were already back. We saw the pretty little metallic green and coppery Festive Tiger Beetles, and one or two Big Sand Tiger Beetles, and already a few Cow Path Tiger Beetles.

Monday the weather was still clear with 80 degrees forecast, so we left early for the Ozarks, namely to our favorite Harold Alexander WMA, for our second visit of the year. Since the trees were still mainly leafless, the dazzling white of dogwoods, the best show for years, could be seen deep into the woods. There was much hilltopping of butterflies, all common species, but we did see the absolutely last Mourning Cloak of the spring still hanging onto a territory, though probably there wasn't a female left in the world.

And just as Pepper and Salt Skippers were having their best year ever, so was Mournful Thyris, a tiny day-flying moth covered with large white spots. They were landing on the damp roads in numbers we had never seen before. We went to the power-line cut where we had seen the Brown Winter and Mischievous Bird grasshoppers before, and both species were gone without a trace, perhaps their winter season over with. They were of course replaced by dozens of Green-striped Grasshoppers, till I thought about bringing a flyswatter with me next time we took this path. We did however spot a nice Pickerel Frog along the way.

We drove down to the Spring River but the spot we go to with a path along the river was inaccessible because of the high water. We then went to another spot, a boat launch, and walked down the boat ramp seeing much larger than usual numbers of Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetles. At the very bottom, Cheryl spotted a Lesser Sand Cricket (she had found one in this area last year, these two now being the only ones we have ever seen). Though called a sand cricket, or sometimes a pygmy mole cricket, it is actually a grasshopper, and at around 4 mm, must be the smallest grasshopper there is.

So, we didn't see a lot for the day, but it was very pretty, and the day pleasant. Yellow-throated Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher were new birds for the year. Cheryl pointed out and photographed lots of nice wildflowers. Here is Orange Puccoon with Rose Vervain, and Virginia Bluebells.

On the drive home I stopped in the middle of the road so Cheryl could get out and carry a snapping turtle out of harm's way. It was very comical watching it snapping at her, and I'm sorry I didn't take a film of it (as she unfairly did of me on another occasion when I was jumping out of the way of a big snapper). And the final story: When we got home, we found that our box turtles in the back yard had  been quite busy, in their own rather lazy way.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Scales, feathers, fur, chitin

A few days ago, Cheryl noticed the milkweed was coming up. We looked at each other significantly: That meant the Monarchs would arrive any day.

Sunday the 18th the forecast was for partly cloudy and up near eighty. We packed a lunch and went east into Mississippi County to Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge. We started by walking parts of the ring path around the Moist Soils Unit. It's a neat place where rare birds often turn up. It has interesting grasshoppers and dragonflies and special butterflies like Bronze Copper and Broad-winged Skipper. It was too early for most of those, but it was just right to watch spawning Bowfin. We stood on the bank and looked straight down on a number of these "living fossils" rising to the top and gulping air in their big jaws, taking it down into the air bladder that serves as a primitive lung, their long continuous dorsal fin breaking the surface of the water and undulating with a snake's motion. When the eggs hatch in April you can sometimes see the young in a tight group, looking rather like a school of black tadpoles, foraging in shallow overflow water. If you look closely, you can make out the two-foot-long male bowfin just behind them, obscured by being in slightly deeper water, guarding them till they are old enough to take care of themselves.

They must make very effective guards. I once found the dried-out head of one by a fishing pier and took it home and soaked off the skin and took the skull, which had now come apart into hundreds of pieces, and spent hours gluing it back together. I remember the big sharp teeth went on forever, rows of teeth, teeth on the tongue, teeth on the palate.

We continued on down the path. There were a few ducks on the far side, shovelers, gadwall, blue-winged teal, ring-billed ducks, a single wigeon. We made sure to check its head color; a European wigeon had been seen in the state recently. There was a lot of emergent vegetation in the central pond we were walking around, and it had dozens of coot in it in two or three big groups, the individuals in each group swimming so close together they were touching each other. When we got close to one group it sped away, feet dragging in the water, wings beating, splashing and making a great fuss. They finally merged into one big flock, where they went along, heads beside heads, like a creche of enormous baby birds, or, inescapably, like black flamingos doing their mass mating dance.

Clouds towered around us, but there was still plenty of sun. However there was not much in the way of insects. A few ordinary butterflies, some Common Green Darner dragon flies (all males, with fresh bright blue abdomens), in one area tiny Orangewing Moths insisted on landing on us and staying with us.

And then Cheryl looked out across the lake: Here it comes, she said, and there was the first Monarch of the year flapping and gliding towards us.

We drove into the reserve past Mallard Lake, keeping to the right and drove to where the road ended at a bridge closed to passage. There was a boat launch there and a big gravel parking lot. We took out our lunch and ate it walking around to see what was there. We were up on the raised road with a stream behind us and a wetland in front of us. While we stood in the middle of the parking lot a tiny mouse came running up the bank towards us, falling all over itself in haste, got right between my boots and cowered down there, refusing to move.

We walked over to the bank it had just scampered up and saw why it was running. There was a very big rat snake there that looked like it had already swallowed all the other rodents in the area. Here it is, just departing when I got too close to it. As far as the mouse was concerned, it was a Florida python, and he was going to stay by us.

In fact when we looked back, he was still sitting in the middle of the parking lot with no intention of moving.

If we are correct in our identification, this is a Fulvous Harvest Mouse, a new species for us. We knew fishermen would soon be coming with their pickups and boat trailers, so we gently nudged the mouse off into the grass.

We drove back by Mallard Lake. The lake is being drawn down for some reason, and there is a wide muddy beach such as we had never seen before, and a single Black-necked Stilt (also unusual there) was feeding along the edge.

We drove back to the main road and parked by the dam spillway, a place we had discovered last year with a little sort of nature trail along the edge, a place with sycamore trees infested with really interesting caterpillars, and shrubbery full of interesting grasshoppers. None of that was there now. We did however find another nice snake, a half-grown Broad-banded Water Snake.

We were again on a gravel parking lot, this one unused and rather overgrown with grass. It was here we found our first and only grasshoppers of the day. They were all Northern Green-striped Grasshoppers, a very common species, nearly the first out in spring, the last to disappear in the late fall.  They were already quite numerous, jumping and flying away from us at practically every step. I was checking each one for anything unusual, and that's when I saw it, the high point of my day: the males of this species often come in a brown phase, and the females are almost entirely green. But suddenly here was a female that had all of its green coloring replaced by a deep red. This seemed very special, and it even sat still and posed for pictures.

I'm surprised I was able to write this much, and show this many pictures, when, taken all in all, it was a pretty quiet day.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sort of interesting

The other day we were at Crowley's Ridge SP walking a trail. The trail bridged a small creek, and when we looked down on the creek we saw something sort of interesting. The creek at that point was perhaps four feet across, maybe four or five inches deep. The rocks under the surface were dotted with dark spots that at first I thought might be pond snails, but when we looked with our binoculars, we could see were mayfly naiads gathering in numbers, presumably preparing to emerge that evening.

Monday, March 12, 2012

New Plant Hardiness Zones

The Plant Hardiness Zones have all shifted up about half a zone. When we moved into our house in Jonesboro 37 years ago we were barely clinging to the northern limit of Zone 7. Now we are quite centrally ensconced in it. St. Francis National Forest outside Marianna, where Crowley's Ridge comes to an end as it runs into the Mississippi River, and about 75 miles south of us, is in Zone 8. There, alligators survive the winter, and the long-awaited spring comes about two weeks earlier.

On Tuesday, March 6th, the forecast said it "might" be 70, and it "might" be sunny, though clouding up in the afternoon. We packed a lunch, grabbed our binoculars and cameras, and went. We reached Bear Creek Lake in Lee County about eleven, it was sunny and 62 degrees, but it was warm enough for a handful of Eastern Tiger and Spicebush Swallowtails (both new for us for the season) to be flying along the road. We walked the Nature Trail at Bear Creek Lake, adding a few flower flies and Tachinid flies and Orange Sulphurs and Spring Azures for insects, but the main attraction was the trail itself which went from one fine big specimen tree to another (all with identifying placards), and we noticed how much better in a way we could see the trees at this time when there were no leaves out and they were laid bare.

We continued on down the ridge road (highway 44, a "Scenic Byway") and pulled off at a favorite stop, a trail going down to a creek bottom. A mud puddle there had a small handful (we weren't seeing large numbers of anything) of male butterflies drinking up salts. It included the butterflies we had been seeing plus some of the runtiest Zebra Swallowtails I have ever seen. The first generation of Zebras have much shorter tails than the summer generation, but these virtually had stub tails and the butterflies themselves were not a lot bigger than the Comma/Questionmarks we were also seeing. I can't remember if it was flood or drought when these were caterpillars last fall, but somehow they didn't get much nourishment.

Also at the puddle were a few Juvenal's Duskywings, always the first skippers of the year, and always a sign that the season is really underway. It was 70 degrees now, but rapidly clouding over.

Cheryl was noticing all the wildflowers.

Trillium recurvatum

Dentaria laciniata

Pale Corydalis

Blue Phlox

Wood Violet

Indian Strawberry

We got back in the car and continued on down the road, making stops where it looked interesting. At one stop we saw a black rat snake stretched across a stick that had eaten such a big meal its pattern was stretched and exaggerated.

At another we picked up a long-jawed orb-weaver (Tetragnatha sp.) to examine it.

Cheryl spotted a Cuckoo Bee (Nomada sp.). These are cleptoparasitic bees. This one looks like it is carrying an orange ball of pollen but that is actually part of the flower. These bees have no pollen baskets on their hind legs like law-abiding bees. Some kind of solitary bee might provision a cell with pollen and honey and lay an egg in it, seal it, and fly away. This one comes along, breaks into the cell, puts in its own egg (which will hatch first and eat the other's egg and provisions), then seals the hole back up and flies away.

From time to time we picked up other butterfly species, Gray Hairstreak, American Snout, Mourning Cloak. Finally we got up to ten species, the first two-digit butterfly day of the year. We finished the day with this tiny flower fly (Platycheirus sp.), which, no more than 5 mm long, has larvae that are fierce predators of even tinier insects.

By then the overcast was so dark it was not worth staying any longer and we came home. I checked my records and many of the butterflies we saw down there were indeed out two weeks earlier than I would normally see them up here in Jonesboro. But now I have been so slow getting this blog done (almost a week) nothing seems very early anymore, and at the speed the hardiness zones are moving up to us, it really won't be many years before the alligators and early butterflies are up here with us. Maybe I shouldn't be wishing for an earlier spring every year; maybe it was better back where it used to be.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The First of March

From this date on new things will be coming out every day.

Conveniently, on this day most of the hunting seasons are over with, so we won't have to go out wearing our orange vests. Secondly, and more importantly, all the thousands of acres Game and Fish has set aside and left wild, from now on till the end of the summer will belong to Cheryl and me. The hunters get it all winter (when there aren't any bugs) and the two of us get it all summer. I can't imagine a better system.

And this day was cloudless with the promise of seventy-degree temperatures. We could go south to the southern tip of Crowley's Ridge where it empties into the Mississippi River in Phillips County, or we could go west into the Ozarks to Harold Alexander WMA in Sharp County. If we went to Phillips Co. we would be on about the level of Little Rock which would make a significant climate difference (at that level, alligators survive the winter, and insects and wildflowers come out about two weeks earlier). On the other hand, if we went into the mountains we would get a change of topography, and maybe see some western things.

We decided on the mountains and got up there about eleven and began making stops at all our hotspots, and there was an Eastern Comma here, and an American Bird Grasshopper there, but for the most part, it was barren of life, and we wondered if we had made the right choice. Then we started walking up a powerline right-of-way, a semi-steep slope, rocky ground with low scrubby vegetation, an open stretch between trees soaking up sunshine, and we began to see grasshoppers flying off in all directions The first ones we caught up with were Mischievous Bird Grasshoppers. This is their time of year, I guess, and the first one I saw grasped a dried stalk and stuck out his hind legs in that twig-mimicking maneuver that is so far-fetched I have a hard time believing in it, except every one I see does it.

But there was another grasshopper there that caught most of our attention, the Brown Winter Grasshopper. Now, we just learned the grasshoppers for the first time last year. This year we'll try to learn more about their life histories. The first thing to learn is how they are distributed in the state, and next, what their "flight" period is. I got photographs of Brown Winters in September and October, which I guess could count as "winter." and now I have a date at the first of March. Will they fade out during the summer, or will they turn out to occur year-round, as the American Bird Grasshopper appears to? I'll keep records of occurrence and see if I can find out some of these things. But what I have already learned is that this is a handsome grasshopper, that comes in varied colors, but all very tasteful. Some are pale brown, often with pink accents. These today mainly were almost black.

I don't know about the rest of you, but until I can put a name on something, I don't really see it. Last year we made an effort, and learned to identify and name about fifty species of grasshoppers. I'm sure those grasshoppers were always there, but we never saw them before. This year, as the grasshoppers come out, we are seeing them and recognizing them. A couple of years ago we would have walked up that powerline cut looking, let's say, for early butterflies, and we would have said, There's nothing here.

In fact, there was one other handsome creature there: the well named Splendid Tiger Beetle. The tiger beetle larva sits at the top of a burrow with its huge mandibles cocked open, and grabs any insect that comes by. When winter comes, it seals the top of the burrow and forms a pupa down at the bottom. This new adult tiger beetle we saw, judging by the mud on the top of its head, had just pushed its way out of the burrow and was soaking up some sun before beginning its own murderous career of tearing apart and devouring small insects with its sharp mandibles. We would have missed this too if we hadn't, several years before, spent two or three years learning the Arkansas tiger beetles.

You would have to see how incredibly rich the Harold Alexander WMA is in summer to realize how relatively empty of life it was today, but we were managing to amuse ourselves. We drove on to the nearby Spring River. It was about two o'clock. We had been so absorbed in our searches we had completely forgotten about stopping for lunch. So we had lunch on a bluff overlooking the river, still not seeing much in the way of invertebrates. Then Cheryl found a trout lily blooming, and as we were looking at it, the first Falcate Orange-tip of the year flew up to the flower, and then was chased away by a territorial American Snout. And Cheryl again with her sharp eyes picked out something I certainly would have missed. There was a patch of purple deadnettle in full bloom, several bees visiting it. The pollen of the flowers instead of being yellow was evidently bright orange, as that was the unusual color on the tops of heads of the bees.

Maybe its time we started learning the bees. The problem is, there are hundreds of kinds. But that's also the beauty. You can never run out of insects.