Sunday, August 5, 2012

Hot Springs Village

For many years we have been going down to Hot Springs Village several times a year to spend a few days with our good friends Ivar and Frieda Buch. They have a house on a high point of land overlooking a large lake, and nothing is more beautiful than to sit up by the windows of their guest room watching the shifting light as the sun slowly rises.

Cheryl is a terrific cook and brings most of the food down with us and we have elaborate dinners and socialize during the evening. In the morning after breakfast, they go on about their affairs, and Cheryl and I take off for Lake Catherine SP, or Grandview or Terre Noire prairies or the forest service roads north of the Village and spend the day looking for bugs. Very sadly for us our friends are leaving for Texas to live closer to their children. We drove down this time very conscious that this would be the last time.

But what I mean to write about here is our bug hunting.

The temperature was 107 when we were driving down, and promised to be in three digits every day. We have adopted a new strategy for this kind of weather. What we would normally do is find some road or trail through the woods and meadows, and go walking a few miles, carrying our cameras and close-focusing binoculars and drinks. But now instead we drive till we find a good spot, explore right around it, then get back in the car and go to the next spot. That way, before we get too hot or dry, we are back in the car with air-conditioning and a cooler full of cold drinks.

The first place we went was a Nature Conservancy trail right in the Village. It started at the top of a hill and went down for a mile or so to the Middle Fork of the Saline River (we were in the eastern, Saline County, side of the Village). Instead of parking at the top and walking down, we drove slowly down over the ruts and rocks in our Subaru Forester which goes anywhere. When we came to an old quarry or other interesting looking place, we got out and walked until we got too hot. We live up in the northeast part of the state, and we were hoping down here in what was beginning to be the southwest, we would find some new species of grasshoppers, but the truth is, we are finding grasshopper species to be pretty widely spread, and we were mostly just seeing the species that seem to be common everywhere. What we were seeing that was novel was new-for-the-year species that had just molted into their adult forms. We saw for instance, the Autumn Yellow-winged Grasshopper, and Boll's Grasshopper, both just out for the season. Here is the Autumn Yellow-winged first, and then Boll's. I realize that it you aren't, as I am, besotted by the sight of a grasshopper, you might not notice any difference between them.

When we got down to the Saline and walked the gravelly beach, the aquatic vegetation was streaming with little Clipped-wing Grasshoppers, skinny angular things, quite charming and more of them than we had ever seen before, but again, just something we had seen last year that was freshly out for this year.

But when you are thinking about something else that is the best time for a little serendipity to creep in. It was when I was on my belly trying to get close photographs of the first Boll's we saw, because I hadn't seen one since last year, and I wasn't sure that this wasn't a close relative of Boll's that is one of the new species I was hoping to see. In fact I was so desperate to find this new grasshopper that I was ignoring the intermittent loud buzzing sound I was hearing behind me, and that I was quite certain was a robber fly of some kind. But the truth is, after years of studying Arkansas robber flies, the point of diminishing returns had set in, and there were almost no new species left for me to see.

But at last I turned around, and there was a robber fly I had never seen before in my life. I tried to make it into something familiar, but I could not. By now I could hear the buzzes of two or three of them right in this vicinity. So I took some careful pictures, which I could study later if I was still trying to work out what this was. Here is one of the pictures I took.

By this time I was fairly certain what the species was. My friend Edward Trammel, another bug nut (this is a sad thing to say about humanity, but I can only think of three or four people in all of Arkansas who would drive across the state to see a new fly), had caught one of these a couple of years ago in northwest Arkansas, and when I saw it at the Arthropod Musem I was so enamored of it I had studied it and taken pictures of it. It was Efferia texana. I wrote about the genus Efferia on a recent blog, how the males have silvery hairs on one or more segments of the abdomen, the pattern helping to identify them, and how they differ from other robber flies in having their genitalia bent upward at nearly a right angle to the rest of the abdomen. I remembered that this particular species, Efferia texana, had the last segment silvery, and the genitalia going almost straight out from the end rather than turning sharply upward.

There is something somehow very satisfying about knowing a group of animals so intimately that you can tell in a moment if you see a new species, even if it is nearly identical with some of the common species, or when you see some behavior that you know immediately is something unusual, and in both cases you have a digital camera in hand and you know just what you need to begin recording. It is something going on in the life right near you that you are not missing. That's one of the main points about having these obsessions, grasshoppers, robber flies, tiger beetles: They make your life fuller. I've been noticing lately that the moment I see an interesting insect, I no longer feel the heat, hunger, thirst, my sore shoulder, everything is concentrated on the object hopping or flying ahead of me.

The next morning we were driving back to Jonesboro. We planned to go straight up scenic highway 7 with stops along the Lake Winona and Flatside Wilderness areas, finally arriving at Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge.  We had a long leisurely breakfast with our friends and started out. It was going to be 100 degrees. About lunchtime we began to think our itinerary was too ambitious and cut out Holla Bend. But we had had our fill of pleasures. At one point we stopped at a large meadow on the edge of a small river and it was filled with grasshoppers, and they were so quick and alert, flying from us, leaping, hiding in the tangled grass, that we had real sport trying to sort out the species present, looking for that special one. And then we found a pretty good one, attractively marked, totally unknown to us until we compared our photos with the field guide. It turned out to be the first species we had ever seen in a genus we had been dying to see just because the name was so silly. It was Boopedon. And even better, of the two Boopedon species found anywhere near this part of the country, it wasn't the expected one that enters the state, it was the one that, according to published records, was not found in Arkansas. It was Boopedon gracile, the Graceful Range Grasshopper. So, a new robber fly, a new grasshopper. The trip had more than paid for itself.

Here is Boopedon gracile.

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