Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mourning Cloaks, again

Everybody in Arkansas is talking about the Mourning Cloaks.

I guess I should say, Everybody, in the subset of .01% of Arkansans who notice insects at all, is talking about Mourning Cloaks. I mentioned in an earlier blog seeing an unusual number of beat-up over-wintered Mourning Cloaks out displaying for females in the early early spring. That's the time you normally see them, and then you're lucky if you see another one all summer. But this new generation that the over-wintered ones gave birth to has been unusually present and noticeable. We have one that's almost a pet, feeding daily at a sap drip in one of our oak trees (we didn't notice till we downloaded the pictures we took of him that he was sharing the sap with crowds of fruit flies).

(Who can resist taking pictures of these beauties. I like the checkerboard eyes of the side-view shot.)

This past weekend we went up to Petit Jean State Park for the Spring Meeting of the Arkansas Audubon Society, and walked our favorite Seven Hollows Trail. There were Mourning Cloaks all along the trail, as indeed we had been seeing them everywhere we have been lately. It is quite extraordinary. I suspect it is a combination of the very mild March weather with a decent amount of rain in the early early spring to get all the vegetation going. In fact there are signs of a terrific butterfly season coming (if it doesn't get derailed by what may be a drought shaping up). We noticed, for instance, along the trail, an unusual number of Dainty Sulfurs were already out (often we don't see a one till late in the summer).

Also April 27th along the trail we saw our first Banded Hairstreak of the year, about a week early.

Hairstreaks are tiny, fast-flying, colorful, sometimes tricky to identify, and the majority come out (if they come out at all) in the month of May. They are to butterfliers what warblers are to birders, pretty to see, with always the chance of a rarity. We are due for a good year. We will know in another week if we are going to have one.

We didn't ignore the moths.  Cheryl spotted a big Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth, invisible in the dead leaves until she pointed it out.

And a friend found a dead Io Moth, bright and beautiful, and brought it to us to I guess immortalize in a picture.

We found an elaborately woolly Yellow-haired Dagger Moth caterpillar.

And then we found this moth.

It seemed to us about as ragged and nondescript as a moth could be, a drab example of why I personally only pay attention to large spectacular moths (though I love moth caterpillars). In other words, it was perfect to test out a new field guide we had just purchased, the brand new Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America, by Beadle and Leckie. We have for years been using the 1984 Peterson moth guide by Covell with varying degrees of frustration. It's the old-style guide based on pinned specimens with the forewings raised above their natural position, and looking very little like the moth in life. It was designed for collectors who pinned their own specimens, then looked in the book for a pinned specimen to compare it with. Since we work with photographs of live specimens in their natural resting positions we practically have to stand on our heads and look under an armpit to get one wing in the field guide in the right position to hold up to our picture of a live moth.

Well, in the three decades since the first book, everything has happened. We now have digital cameras. We can point and shoot and get pictures that formerly required a studio and expensive equipment, and collecting (except for biologists) is going out of style, replaced by making photographic records of  live insects in natural postures. We have guides in this format for butterflies, dragonflies, tiger beetles, caterpillars, and finally, the new Peterson moth guide. To be short, we found (fairly easily) that our moth was a Ruby Quaker. It was on a page with only four species on it, in full color, showing the natural resting position, and examples of different color forms. We could not have found it in the old book, where it is located on a black-and-white page of twenty-one obscurely patterned pinned moths.

Both books cover about the same number of species, about 1500 out of the 11,000 species found north of Mexico. A slight disadvantage is, the old book covered the entire east, and the new book covers only the north-east. But the cut-off line for their coverage map is the Missouri-Arkansas border, so I expect we can find most common widespread species (and of course, we can keep our old book on the shelf next to the new one, as backup). The real test will come later this year, when the Underwings come out and I begin my annual struggle trying to identify them.

I'm very fond of Robber Flies, predatory flies with the behavior of falcons, flying up and snatching other flying insects out of the air. I have a Robber Fly web site which is designed to be a field guide (in the new, natural-position, style), and I am constantly trying to add to or improve on my photographs in the site. There is one group of robbers in the genus Machimus, which are all smallish, dark, very similar appearing flies, except that the legs are marked differently. There was one species in the group, Machimus sadyates, that I had never managed to get a good picture of, and suddenly here was one down on the path posing for me. This species is marked by having black femora (the first long joint of the legs) and orange tibiae (the second joint.)

Late last spring we started from scratch trying to learn the Arkansas grasshoppers. We did pretty well, but we missed some of the early spring species, and this year we are trying to find them. Last year we saw a few examples of the Plains Yellow-winged Grasshopper, a species which shows bright yellow wings when it flies, but otherwise is rather nondescript. This year we have seen several, and got some better photographs of them. We found a few on the Seven Hollows Trail.

But what we were really hoping for was another spring species, a very close relative, called the Sulfur-winged Grasshopper, one we had missed last year. According to the books, it looks more or less like the Plains Yellow-winged, except that it has a line of yellow down the middle of the back. When we got almost to the end of the trail we began seeing them, visible from a long distance through binoculars because of that yellow stripe. But they were so shy we couldn't get within twenty feet of them before they flew off into deep grass and disappeared. With all my stalking skills I had no luck getting my camera close till we saw a poor individual which had lost both of its hind legs (they readily let their legs go to get free of a predator, just as  lizards do with their tails). Perhaps that slowed it down enough that I got close to it for a picture. This is so far the best photo I have of a Sulfur-winged Grasshopper. It does at least show the yellow stripe down the back.

At the end of the weekend when we were driving back to Jonesboro, we stopped to eat lunch at Camp Robinson, east of Conway, and parked by the edge of Lake Conway. We noticed the cattails there were full of Cattail Toothpick Grasshoppers. These are comical insects we always enjoy seeing, their bodies long and slim to slip around behind cattail leaves so you can't see them.

We hadn't been there long before we realized some pretty frantic reproductive activity was going on.

A pretty good trip.

Oh yes, we saw some birds and friendly people.

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