Sunday, August 26, 2012

River and glade

I mentioned that the butterflies in our garden, rather scanty this year, were beginning to pick up as the hot weather relented slightly. This included the Gulf Fritillaries, a beautiful subtropical species that some years is abundant, and some years is practically absent. This year they had been present, but in ones and twos. But now we were starting to see more of them, and in fact we now have their caterpillars appearing on the May Pops in our garden, the local Arkansas passion flower, which we planted in the first place to attract them. Gulf frits are not real fritillaries, but close relatives. They are actually closer to Heliconians, the huge tropical group which only lay their eggs on the various tropical passion flowers.

Another butterfly note: After a several-day absence of Longtailed Skippers, a very fresh two-tailed one appeared, which we suspect is a fourth individual. Presumably some local source is producing all of these, perhaps a nearby soybean field. We are so casual now we didn't bother to photograph the new one. Actually, we were just leaving the house when we saw it. We were heading for Batesville where Cheryl was giving a butterfly-gardening talk to the Foothills Plant Society.

She finished her talk about nine in the evening, and rather than drive back to Jonesboro, we went on to Mountain View where we had booked a cabin for two nights at the Folk Center. The next morning we drove up highway 14 to the Spring Creek Rd, and bumped our way down to the Buffalo River. Kids were in school now and the canoe season over with, and we had the beach entirely to ourselves. It was quiet and quite beautiful. We looked with our binoculars down river at the wide beach on the far side just as two turkeys came striding down. With their long legs they resembled some exotic South American bird (as if a North American turkey wasn't exotic enough). They stopped to drink, then flew across, leaving the beach and the river empty. Everything was like that this morning, which is to say, there was not a lot of activity, but as in a Japanese museum, everything was brought out one at a time for us to take our time with and appreciate.

For instance, a very tiny Bell's Roadside Skipper came out and posed for us, perhaps a dull little thing, but we noted the checkered fringes of the wings, the banded abdomen, the jewel-like antennae. Cheryl saw caterpillar droppings on the white sand and looked up at the overhanging sycamore leaves and spotted a Drab Prominent caterpillar (named for the dull adult moth, not the handsome larva). Next was a Powdered Dancer (Argia moesta) damselfly seen against its early morning shadow, then a Microbembix wasp scrabbling in the sand, then a tiny but heavily armored Short-legged Pygmy Grasshopper. None of these were big enough or dramatic enough to notice if we had not slowed ourselves down enough to see them.

 The next morning we left Mountain View and headed north on hwy 5, and turned off at Culp Road (shortly before crossing the bridge into Calico Rock). This led us directly to our favorite glade. As soon as we got out of the car we saw that something new had joined the assemblage of animals there since our last visit: The Large Grassland Tiger Beetles had emerged and were running around at our feet. These handsome and fierce beetles are only found, in Arkansas, here in this very local population, and they are always fun to see.

Here is one that has run down a beetle larva and is tearing it to shreds.

We were finding all the same grasshoppers here that we had found on our previous visit, so we went exploring much farther down the glade, and instead of a terrain of mostly bare rock, we were now (for some subtle reason we didn't understand) walking over rock more or less covered with lichens. While before, among the other grasshoppers, we had seen the occasional Rock-loving (or "lichen") Grasshopper, here they dominated, and we tried to capture in our photographs how amazingly they disappeared into their background.

We drove a few miles farther down Culp Road and stopped when we saw a rattlesnake on the side of the road in a posture of alertness, its head and tail slightly raised. We stopped because we love to see snakes of all kinds, and stopped especially because when a poisonous snake comes out on the road a surprisingly high percentage of people will either try to run it over, or will stop and get a stick and try to kill it that way. So what we do is get our own stick and chivvy it off the road out of sight before the next car comes by.

We got out of the car and saw it was a beautiful Pygmy Rattlesnake. I got a quick snap of it, then got a stick to move it. That's when I found out it was dead. A citizen had already bashed it on the head.

We drove on farther and came to a glade which was in fact the the flat top of a high bluff over the White River. The view was wonderful, though a bit scary to stand near the edge, especially when we saw a piton driven into the sheer side of the cliff, and tried to imagine (or tried not to imagine) that little thing supporting our weight.

We explored the glade for living things, and just before we got in our car to head back to Jonesboro,  we saw another fine reptile: A young Collared Lizard. This one was alive and well, and we hope it continues so.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Unfinished business

First, unfinished business from my last post, where I reported that we had had an unprecedented two Long-tailed Skippers hanging out in our garden, one with both tails broken off, and one with a perfect set of tails. The new development is, Mitchell Pruitt came by the house to see and photograph them, and the one that appeared had one tail broken off. We thought our perfect-tailed one must have had an accident, but later on the perfect-tailed one reappeared, so what we had been seeing was a third Long-tail. In fact the perfect-tailed and the one-tailed were on the lantana together, and I tried to get what would surely be the only photo ever of two Long-tails together in Arkansas, but they were so flighty I could never quite get them side by side. Here is a picture of the one-tailed by himself,  looking, actually, a little bit beat up.

For new unfinished business, we have been on two quests, which have involved us in some driving, and in much slogging around in the heat, and these quests are ongoing because we haven't quite finished them satisfactorily yet. As I contemplate writing about them here, I begin to realize what a hard job I am going to have to try to make these quests seem (to normal people) worth the effort we are expending.

To begin with, there is a robber fly called Psilocurus nudiusculus. The name might sound intriguing, but the fly doesn't live up to it. It's so tiny it is very difficult to see. And when you do see it, it is frankly rather plain. Well, it is so difficult ever to spot one that we hadn't seen the species for years, and we didn't have any very good photos of it, so I made one of my goals for the year to get some better photos. The species occurs in wetlands on bare, somewhat weed-grown paths along the edge of canals or ponds. I remembered a path where I had seen them before on the edge of a floodway of the St. Francis River a few miles south of Marked Tree in Poinsett County.

We drove there and to our chagrin the first part of the path had been "improved" by Game and Fish. They had dumped tons of gravel (big white sharp-pointed pieces) to make a parking lot for the boat launch there. Farther on, what was left of the path was so overgrown with weeds it did not have the bare patches of ground that the robber flies wanted. We walked the path anyway, but found nothing.

We came back to the parking lot (admittedly, it was a convenient place to park) and stood by our car eating our lunch while we decided what to do next. At that point Cheryl looked down on the gravel and noticed a male P. nudiusculus doing a courtship flight. We spent some time crawling around on our hands and knees under the pickups and boat trailers trying to photograph them, and hoping none of the fishermen would return prematurely. The robbers were so small, and so skitzy, it was very difficult to get them focused in our lenses, and the dark flies against the white gravel were difficult to expose for. We got much better pictures than we had previously had, but I still wasn't satisfied with mine. Here is a not bad photo of Cheryl's, showing a male (even tinier than the female) with its prey, some kind of large red mite.

A couple of days later we went to Big Lake NWR in Mississippi County to visit their Moist Soils Unit. It is one of only two sites in the state where Bronze Coppers sometimes occur, and we wanted to see if there were any around this year. Also there are some grasshopper species that occur around wetlands, and the Reserve is a particularly good place to look for them. When we got there we saw that one of the paths, which had been torn up by last year's flooding, had been rebuilt and covered with new gravel, big white sharp-pointed pieces of gravel. We looked at each other, then walked up the path with our eyes glued to the ground. We had never seen nuduisculus here before, but perhaps that was because we had not strained our eyes looking for them. On this day we immediately found one, but I still didn't get very good pictures. Partly it was because the gravel was cutting into my knees so much I couldn't concentrate on such a delicate thing as focusing on the tiny dots in front of me. Here is a picture Cheryl took of me. You can see the fly on the gravel to get a sense of his size.

We did by the way find a pretty little Bronze Copper, nectaring on the frog fruit beside the path.

We had however this other task we had set ourselves. We took another path along the water, and this one featured numerous Obscure Grasshoppers (though why a strong-flying, bright green and yellow, three-inch-long grasshopper would be called obscure I have no idea). Now, another grasshopper, the Leather-colored Grasshopper, apparently has a green phase that so exactly resembles the Obscure that it is difficult to tell them apart. One way, we read, is that the Obscure has black hind tibiae, and the Leather-colored has brown hind tibiae. Just to make things even trickier, the two species regularly occur together.  So we walked down this path, bright green and yellow grasshoppers flying up at every step and disappearing behind the tall aquatic grass growing just offshore. When they landed in view, we scrutinized them with our binoculars, trying to see the hind tibiae, and when we saw brown rather than black, we tried to photograph them. We did find a few among the predominantly black hind tibiae. Here's one.

I sent a picture to Herschel Raney and said "here's a Leather-colored Grasshopper" and he rather doubted it, and the truth is, so did I. (For a reminder of what an Obscure looks like, here's a photo of one I had on a previous blog.)

What I needed was some absolute mark, not something as iffy as leg color. When you want positive identification of insects, almost always it involves a careful study of male genitalia (we don't like to mention this to non-entomologists). There is a part called the "subgenital plate." The back of this plate is partially split into two flanges. On the Obscure, the split is very deep and "V" shaped; on the Leather-colored it is shallow and "U" shaped. So, we returned to Big Lake, and first of all, I put on heavy knee pads, which allowed me to crawl on the gravel painlessly and concentrate on my focusing. I got a better, an almost satisfactory, picture of a female nudiusculus.

But the females are rather plain, and the males, more interesting looking, kept skittering away from me. So, unfinished business.

I had also brought a net with me, and I now went down to the Obscure path and began catching every male I saw. When I caught them I would check for leg color, and then for the shape of the flanges, take a photograph, and then release them. Here, for example, is how the Obscure males looked. In the first photo you can see the black hind tibiae, and a side view of the two flanges at the very end of the abdomen on the ventral side. In the second picture, taken from below, you can see the V shaped gap between the flanges.

Now, the big question is, what do the brown-legged ones look like from this view? Well, I didn't find a single brown-legged male.  So I guess I'm going back there.

Monday, August 13, 2012

An exotic stranger

A report went out on the Arkansas butterfly chat room that a Long-tailed Skipper had appeared in someone's garden. Years ago about once every three or four years we would have one of these pretty butterflies appear in our garden, but we had not seen one for years. They're a subtropical species, southern Texas, Louisiana, Florida, that from time to time heads north and can appear anywhere. So, we envied the finders' good luck, walked out in our front yard, and there was a Long-tailed Skipper nectaring at a lantana bush.

This one had lost its long tails in some accident, perhaps a bird trying to catch it, but it still had the brilliant blue upperparts against the otherwise black body and wings that helped to make it such a striking insect.

We were pleased to see it, and took a number of pictures. Then we went in the house and had a cup of tea, and when we checked later, there was a second Long-tailed Skipper, this one with perfect tails, feeding at the same lantana bush.

All this probably is not just bizarre coincidence. Probably right now the state is flooded with Long-tails. The alert has been sent out, and interested people will be checking their own gardens.

In fact there has been a sort of uptick in butterfly activity lately. Tiny little orange Least Skippers, usually rather common here in the Delta, had been scarce all year. But suddenly they are swarming in our garden. Maybe it's because the temperature is relenting slightly, as if the season has come unstuck and started moving forward again. A few days ago when I got up in the morning and checked my thermometer, it was 61.

There have been some good moths around as well. We had a big handsome Tulip-tree Beauty on our bedroom window, and sitting on the edge of the pond was a Peachtree Borer, one of that group of moths that bore into fruit trees and cause no end of damage but are forgiven by us for all the imaginative ways they mimic wasps.

A big Obscure Bird Grasshopper (Schistocerca obscura) showed up in our yard the other day. It can be pretty destructive to plants too, but we readily forgive it. (Cheryl says she doesn't forgive it quite as readily.) Despite its unsuitable name it's as exotic and gorgeous as anything that can irrupt into the state from Florida or southern Texas, and it's just our Arkansas run-of-the-mill.

Genuinely pestiferous things, our mosquitoes, amuse us too with their idea of a roosting site. Years ago we extended the size of our kitchen, and where it comes forward from the front of the house, there is an inward pointing angle, and funnel-web spiders build their nets across the gap. During the day dozens of mosquitoes roost there, hanging to the web. The spiders are right there, manning their webs, but the mosquitoes, that would make a nice snack for them, somehow don't count as food, and sit there immune to attack. The mosquitoes must have an immensely light touch. Perhaps they land on the web as they land on our skin while we are sleeping.

I planted some spider lilies in the backyard years ago, and they have continued growing and spreading. This spring their strap-like leaves came up, grew vigorously for a while, then died off and disappeared, and we forgot all about them. Then seemingly overnight, the other day their flower stalks shot up out of the ground, buds clustered at the top. Like many white flowers, they flower at night, and attract moths as their pollinators. You can see when a bud is fat and ready to open. In the past I would occasionally get a folding chair and a glass of wine, and sit by the bud just at dusk, and watch the fragile skin break so the flower can spring open. This year we were doing other things, but we noticed that only a few days after the buds came up, they were in full bloom. The flowers will just as quickly die and shrivel up and be gone until next year.

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.