Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Home and away, Part Two

For the "away" part of this two-part post, the other day we visited one of our hot spots that we try to hit two or three times a year, Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake WMA near Lynn in Lawrence County. Where we first enter, on a hill overlooking the area, we take a path through a damp woods which is  really good for robber flies (there is almost never a time we can't find at least seven species of robber fly,  including some species we don't find anywhere else), and also good for rare butterflies, for a number of other insects we don't see anywhere else, and for big spiders. Whenever we come, there are always surprises, and we almost always end up seeing something we have never seen before.

My first surprise came when I was on my hands and knees trying to photograph something and this huge, loudly buzzing, complicatedly structured thing rose up before me and went flying across the path and crash-landed into some tall grass. It took me a moment to realize it was so big because it was two things, both large. It was a pair of Swamp Darners, one of our largest dragonflies, in mating tandem, flying along hooked together, one doing all the work, the other hanging on and supplying so much dead weight they could scarcely get off the ground, and when they landed on some wispy stem of vegetation they weighted it down to the ground.

The female here, about four inches long, and with impossibly blue eyes, is upright, the male is lying on his back.

The next thing we saw trundling along the path was a Bess Beetle, harmless but imposing as it was as big as the last joint on my thumb. These feed on wood and are often to be found under the bark of fallen trees. They are famous for their good parenting, carefully feeding their larvae which live together with them and are completely dependent on them for food. They have a sort of language they use to communicate with each other, made up of different squeaks they make flexing their joints. Wood is mainly cellulose, and the beetles need lots of gut microorganisms to help digest it, and the adults hand the microorganisms on to the young by feeding them pulp pre-chewed and pre-mixed in their own guts. Very specialized mites live on the bodies of these beetles, seldom leaving them. These mites don't feed on the beetles. I guess they feed on decaying wood too and just use the beetles for transportation from one good log to the next. The relationship is called phoresis, from a Greek word for carrying, and is rather common among a number of insects.

The path (just by the skin of its teeth) lived up to its robber fly reputation. We quickly saw five very common species, and then for the sixth, we saw one of the specials for this habitat (shady and rather damp), a Machimus snowii, a rather slight and neatly dressed species that feeds on the moths that it finds in the shadows.

And for the seventh and last species of the day, we saw what looked like a very small bee (6-7 mm) but which we knew instantly from our years of searching for robbers was a robber with a banded bee-like abdomen (a robber fly in bee's clothing). This one was named Psilocurus birdii.

When we take this particular path there is one creature we are especially looking for. This is one of two known sites in Arkansas for a big woodland butterfly, the Appalachian Brown. It was not a good day for them. I myself didn't see any, but Cheryl, walking along parallel to the path but about thirty feet off in the rough, caught a glimpse of one flying away.

But all of these were not the most fun of the day. This path is often too wet and muddy to walk on, but on this day it had been dry for a long time and even the deep puddles in the middle of the path were dry, and they were full of abandoned crayfish holes and broken off chimneys. Cheryl was the first to notice that rather large creatures were diving down these tunnels as we approached, and when we looked into one of them, we could see a large spider disappearing underground.

We came to the end of the path and turned around to start back to our car, and this time we came up on the crayfish holes very quietly. We found the spiders outside the holes, very shy and ready to disappear in a flash, but we still managed to sneak up close enough for some photos. We were on our hands and knees, and finally on our stomachs.

These were all large wolf spiders in the genus Hogna, H. georgicola I am pretty sure.

Well, we were almost back to the car, thinking, or at least I was, rather smugly that there is not very much we miss with our special way of walking slowly, searching high and low, under and over, when Cheryl suddenly shouted at me to stop. I had nearly stepped on a small flower growing in the center of the path, I must nearly have stepped on it on the way down. It was bright pink, about a foot tall, standing in the open in plain sight. And I would have missed it again, walking straight past it again. It was one of the rarest orchids in the state, in full bloom. It was the Purple Fringeless Orchid.

Let's look at it from closer up.

It looks pretty much like it has a fringe at the lip, but it is called "fringeless" to distinguish it from the Purple Fringed Orchid, which evidently really has fringes.

This is our favorite way to spend the day (even though it means spending the evening picking off tiny nearly invisible ticks, and scratching our new sets of chigger bites).



    Apparently chiggers exist everywhere on earth except:
    the high Arctic
    A swath of Africa from Burkina Faso to Somalia (?)

  2. Years ago I went to Trinidad with my Swedish friend Ulf, and after our first day of birdwatching, he had his first experience with chigger bites. He said to me, in his best English, "Norman, these chiggers are not discreet."