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.

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