Monday, October 31, 2011

Saguaro National Park BioBlitz: At the Madrona Ranger Station in the Rincon Mts.

Last weekend, citizens and scientists came together to assemble in 24 hours an inventory of all the species of plants and animals that inhabit the two parts of Saguaro National Park, one (West) where I live in the Tucson Mountains and the other (East), older and larger one that covers parts of the Rincon Mts. Of course, there was much more to it than that 24 h rush. There was of course the long and thorough preparation by the team of the National Park and National Geographics. Everything very efficiently planned and executed, as far as I could see from the remote outpost that I had signed up for: the oasis of Madrona in the foothills of the Rincons, an old ranger station without public access but with a fragile, beautiful riparian habitat at its heart. Several perennial pools are fed by bedrock springs and drain into Chimenea Creek.

Canyon Tree Frogs and Lowland Leopard Frog
Madrona has been the focus of a "Pulse Study" in 2003, of ongoing monitoring of water levels and chemistry, and of several herpetological studies since then. The pools proved their importance for the survival of several endangered species during the drought of 2005-6 when canyon tree frogs, lowland leopard frog, and Sonoran mud turtles survived in the Madrona Pools but disappeared from nearby streams that went completely dry.

I was driven up to Madrona by our group's coordinator  Mike Ward. Mike turned out to be the perfect person to keep going a camp full of up to 50 school kids, chaperoned by their teachers, and  a bunch of scientists who were at times probably all a little bit overwhelmed by the demands of teaching the kids, finding the species to inventory, and the rocky terrain that we were moving around in.  Mike stayed cheerful and kind, matching us up with our groups, getting everybody fed with interesting freeze dried meals, keeping an experienced first responder team around, and he still found breaks to quietly play his guitar at times.

Mating Buprestid Beetles and Skipperling
But mostly, breaks didn't exist. Right after we arrived, I tried to explore the area and actually found that the insect fauna was still much more active and prevalent than I had expected this late in October. Then the first school classes arrived and we were called to pick up our kids. From then on, we were supposed to return and switch groups about every half hour, so all students could accompany the turtle trapping group, butterfly and bird watchers, several general entomologists, and researchers who studied frog populations, measured water quality and more. After a short lunch, more of the same.

Ninth Graders of Sabino High
By then, many of the students had developed special interest in certain kinds of research and had moved from observers to active participants who contributed very actively to ongoing projects. The kids in my group  found many insect species that I would have overlooked on my own.

The caterpillar of Agrius cingulata (Pink-spotted Hawk Moth)
It is difficult to identify many arthropods to species level in the field. Instead, I tried to keep a continuous log of everything we observed with my camera. I don't think we covered much more than half a mile up and down stream and up one dry, rocky canyon, but repeated visits to the same locality soon revealed distinct changes of visibly active insect species during the progressing daylight hours.
Mexican Yellow,  Sleepy Orange and Southern Dogface Butterflies in a seep at noon, where we found hundreds of  Queen Butterflies in the morning
At night, I had two black lights set up, and most of the insects drawn to the illuminated sheets were different from what we found during the day. As the night progressed we also saw a shift from early visiting small moths (Actiids), grasshoppers and beetles to a few late arriving bigger sphinx moths  and water bugs.

Rustic Sphinx, black lighting sheet and Toe-biter
 The other attraction of the night was the bat station, where  four species of bats were recorded (sonograms) trapped, measured,  identified and released.We all marveled at their angry little faces, sharp teeth, big ears, translucent but strong wings, and listened to their clicking, squeaking voices. Bats that were released flapped close to the faces of giggling teenagers who very quickly turned into interested students as fascinating stories about some of the smallest mammals, their ecology and challenges unfolded.

Finally the night was too far gone to put up my tent, and I was still hoping to see the resident ringtail, so I lay down under the unbelievably bright stars, watched a huge shooting star, listened to great horned owls who kept hooting their duet right above me....

When a group of National Park officials from Washington arrived in the morning they were treated to amazingly detailed reports of our activities given spontaneously by some of the students (who must have gotten more sleep than I) and a visit to a mist net set up at one of the pools to catch birds.

Red-naped Sap-sucker
 Our ornithologist demonstrated on  a  beautiful male Red-naped Sap-sucker how a bird in hand can be sexed, aged, and evaluated for its breeding status and fat reserves. We learned that surprisingly many species from the north interrupt their migration in Arizona to undergo a month-long molt before they move on to their wintering grounds further south.

I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at Madrona Ranger Station, in parts because it is a very rare and beautiful place, but mostly because of the great people whom I met there who all joined forces there to help protect this natural gem.

Dicromantispa sayi, a Mantis Fly
 Of course, the expectation was that we scientists would go into the field, find as many species as possible, identify,document and list  them and then deliver those data to the base camps to be counted and published in Saturday evening's news on television. The Rincon Base Camp had been asking for data repeatedly during our stay. I think most entomologists could not quite accommodate those requests: I spent all of Sunday formatting and choosing the relevant photos, identifying them and the few specimens that I had collected, and sending the questionable ones out for expert opinions. While I didn't come up with any totally unexpected or even new species I hope that with over 120 identified and photo-documented species I contributed a solid piece of data to the Saguaro National Park BioBlitz for the Madrona Ranger Station. Please click here to see all arthropods that are identified at least to genus level

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mt Lemmon Highway in October

American Lady Vanessa viginiensis
On October 18th the Desert Broom bushes at Molino Basin in the lower elevation of the Catalina Mountains are in full bloom and surrounded by clouds of insects. I am glad I stopped on my way to the top of Mt Lemmon.

Soldier Beetles Chauliognathus profundus

and Chauliognathus misellus

Female Longhorn Beetle Tragidion densiventre
I am only showing a few samples of the abundance of species here, I think I will devote a whole blog chapter to the annual event of the Baccharis bloom that is like a final feast of the year for all entomologists from Arizona to Texas.

Hummingbird Trumpet Zauschneria californica

Other wildflowers are putting on a great show because of the unusually late rains.At Molino (Oak zone) there are still Hummingbird Trumpet, Flee Bane and Turpentine  Bush.

Turpentine Bush (Ericameria laricifolia)

Higher up under the Ponderosa Pines along General Hitchcock Highway the air is filled with the fragrance of Tagetes lemmonii. It evokes childhood memories of catching butterflies in 'Studenten Knopf' (Tagetes) beds in my mother's garden.

Tagetes lemmonii
But at this elevation the floral show is out-competed by the colors of the autumn leaves. The dark conifers that are in the majority here form a beautiful contrasting backdrop for a sprinkling of Mapels.

The Maple trees are only just turning fiery orange. The photo below is from October 15th 2009, when the deep crimson color was already fully developed. This year a few cold nights will have to add the finishing touches.

At the ski run some Aspen are glowing golden, while others were still green. That's a rare sight, as the trees are genetically identical and clones off the same stock.

A beautiful palette and I am glad I didn't miss it this year. Luckily the Aspen and Maples of Ski Valley escaped the devastating firestorm that raced through Summerhaven some years ago. It is sad to see that for the safety of the rebuilt community many slopes are kept bare. The houses grew back much bigger than they used to be, but the forest is not allowed back.

On the narrow road from the ski run to the top of Mt Lemmon the low standing sun made driving a challenge but the light changed the young Aspen into pure enchanted gold.

The burned slopes further up are a stark contrast but they allow for a beautiful view over the valley. It must have been quite cold up here already: there were nearly no grasshoppers, bees, or robberflies around even though a few flowers were still holding out.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Seining for native Arizona fish at Empire Cienegas Creek

Thanks to Bob Beatson, last Tuesday I had the opportunity to tag along with Jeff Simms (BLM), Ross Timmons (AZ Game and Fish), Adam Barkalow and Bob for a part of the annual BLM fish survey of Cienegas Creek. This creek flows through the rich grassland of the Empire State Ranch (now BLM). The creek is clear and fresh and seems to find an ever-changing bed under the shading canopy of mostly Cotton Wood trees. The creek varies from a few feed in width, easily stepped over, and flat areas with lively ripples to wide quiet pools that are over five feet deep.
Under BLM management that reduced the grazing impact, the ecological health of this little creek has actually been improving over the last years. This maybe a unique situation among Arizona riparian habitats. But the planned site of the Rosemont Coppermine is not far away, just across Highway 83. If those deep pits go in, water flow of this watershed may reverse its direction and that would be the end of this paradise.

Seining is hard work. I was impressed with the organized protocol and efficient teamwork of the group of biologists, and even more with their obvious enthusiasm  for this beautiful habitat and its creatures.

Add caption
The fish were of three native species: Long-finned Dace, Agosia chrysogaster, Gila Chub, Gila intermedia, Gila Topminnow, Poeciliopsis occidentalis. The species, though their niches overlap, seemed to favor different conditions concerning temperature and light (canopy cover), cover within the creek, flow velocity etc. I did not learn to identify the distinguishing features of  the species because the fish  had to be returned to their element as quickly as possible. Bob used a smal tank to take photos. Maybe he'll share some images with this blog later.
To everyone's relieve, no exotics like for example Mosquito Fish were found. The competitive pressure of introduced species is a great problem for native fish in most other Arizona streams and creeks.

Orange Sulphur, Colias eurytheme
The insect fauna of this beautiful intact riparian area seemed extremely rich, even in October. I was not well equipped to capture any comprehensive records, but this visit was hopefully just a first glimpse.
Several interesting species of darners (that I wasn't familiar with) were patrolling along the creek, but I only got a photo of the a very common one.

Libellula saturata, the Flame Skimmer stayed rather close to the water and several males kept coming back to their individual perches.

Sympetrum signiferum, Spot-winged Meadowhawk
A smaller red dragon and his yellowish female frequented the riparian forest, but came out into the open grassland in the late afternoon when it got cooler and shadier under the trees. I chased them for a long time before I got identifiable pictures but it was worth it, as the distribution of the Spot-winged Meadowhawk is only a tiny dot in SE Arizona in Sidney Dunkle's Dragonfly book.

Spreadwings, Archilestes grandis,. were still mating. Above a female and a pair in tandem.

The females of the striking Painted Damsel Hesperagrion heterodoxum still showed immature orange color while the males were in full blue ad red regalia.

I was told that there are Clubtails at the creek, and we may have seen some larvae. We also found larvae of Stoneflies (we thought) and some unidentifiable Diptera larvae clinging to the underside of rocks. I really need to figure out how to take images of wet, reflective subjects in dark places that require a flash.

As seigning by-catch we found Toebiters (Lethocerus medius) and Giant Water Bugs (Abedus herberti), Backswimmers (Notonecta shooteri), and Waterscorpions (Ranatra quadridentata).

Big Fishing Spiders (Dolomedes triton) scuttled out of the way all along the creek.

There were scores of small Whirligig Beetles (Gyrinus sp.) dancing in sunny spots. I mistook the one smooth black water beetle  for a Dytiscid until I had it at home and it showed its clubbed antennae: Tropisternus ellipticus, a Hydrophilid.

A Differential Grasshopper on my sweep net
The most prevalent group: Orthoptera, the Grasshoppers and Katydids. I counted at least 15  species between the grassland of the ranch, a rocky slope on the way, and the true riparian meadows. Here is my flickr gallery of Las Cienegas Orthoptera. I have added a few images from other locations of species that I identified without doubt but didn't photograph.

I found only a few terrestrial beetles, some small Epicauta, The Long-horn Sphenotecus bivittata, and very few Carabids under dead wood. The area had been upset by recent violent floods and many ground beetles may have been flushed out.

On high ground a number of Pinacate Stink Beetles Eleodes longicollis appeared just before sunset. From herbs in the grassland I swept big numbers of Striped Ladybugs, Corn Root Worm and,  closer to the river the Melyrid Collops grandis. Please visit my Flickr gallery for more pictures.

On the way home deer and  coatimundi watched our trucks rumbling by, more curious than afraid, but not obliging for a photo....

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Gem of a Grasshopper, lost for 70 years, rediscovered!

 Last week my Flickr/ Bugguide friend Bob Beatson invited me to go to Sycamore Canyon. I thoroughly enjoyed his company and the trip! The dirt part of Ruby Road was much longer than I remembered but it took us through country that had burned earlier and is very green now after the rains.

In the canyon Cloudless Sulfurs fluttered among Cardinal Flowers and large congregations of male butterflies were sipping minerals from the moist soil.

A mantis surrounded by the colorful wings of her victims and a big paw print in the mud (it's a mountain lion, the claws are visible because he was slipping in the mud) reminded us that we shared this paradise with some formidable predators.

A beautiful, but very aggravated Black-tailed Rattler announced his presence from across the creek. Very unusual behavior for that species,  we would have missed him otherwise.

Rounded Toad Bug and Neon Skimmer
The creek and its banks were full of life: Leopard Frogs, too shy to reveal their species, small endemic chubs, big-eyed toad bugs,  predatory water beetles, and beautiful dragonflies - I tried to photograph them all....

Leuronotina ritensis by Robert Behrstock
I paid special attention to the grasshoppers of the area, because several friends had sent me their spectacular images of a Lichen Grasshopper that lives on the rocks of the canyon.

Free standing rock needles rising up like small versions of Spider Rock in Canyon De Chelly on the Navajo Reservation had plenty of lichen cover, but I didn't find the elusive camouflaged hopper.

The Atascosa Gem Grasshopper
Instead there was a bright green, short-winged hopper with accents of a striking, complementary-contrast red, a little azure blue on the hind tibias thrown in for balance. Because the wings were so short I wasn't even sure that it was an adult. But I did take a series of photos, and so did Bob.
Back at the university Carl Olson was rather sure that my photo showed a mature individual and thought it might be of a mostly Mexican genus. I posted an image on Bugguide and then left for the Sierra Vista art show. There, in the evening, I met with Pat Sullivan who casually mentioned that he and Bob Behrstock were planning to search for a long lost grasshopper in Sycamore Canyon. Guess what he described?
We checked my pictures (it's so good to have my images accessible wherever I am) then called Bob Behrstock with the news: the Atascosa Gem Grasshopper Aztecacris gloriosus was rediscovered after 70 years! On Bugguide , David Ferguson had also already identified our pictures.

Enoclerus decussatus Klug
This is the second time that Sycamore canyon surprised me with such a treasure. In August of 2008 I was black-lighting with Fred Skillman and found a little Checkered Beetle. I couldn't identify it with the available information about Arizona Clerids, so I sent it to  Jaques Rifkind. He wrote back: "Your beetle arrived safely today. It is indeed Enoclerus decussatus (Klug). I looked into the literature, and it seems that Horn made a note in 1885 about a darkened specimen collected in Arizona. More recent checklists assumed this was an incorrect record, and the species hasn't been considered part of the US fauna since Corporaal's 1950s catalogue. So, you may have collected the first specimen of this in AZ since the late 19th century! And so it is now officially part of the US fauna. I will get a note out on the record soon."
Jaques Rifkind wrote up my rediscovery of Enoclerus decussatus in the Pan-Pacific Entomologist and Behrstock and Sullivan will post the grasshopper find (they managed to collect several specimens last Sunday) in one of the orthopterist journals.
I can't wait to get back to Sycamore Canyon for more surprises!