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.

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