Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bat and Bug Night at the Santa Rita Experimental Range

Last Saturday evening, Pima County Natural Resources and the Santa Rita Research Station of the University of Arizona hosted their annual insect event for the public, just one week after the spectacularly successful Arizona Insect Festival on Campus.

Carl Olson, Curator of the U of A Insect Collection for over 30 years, brought his vast experience plus a few Horse Lubbers left over from the festival.

 In addition, we were attracting and catching our own insects with the help of two black light stations on the grounds of the Experimental Range.

Florida Canyon lived up to its reputation and we got examples of many different orders of insects and several interesting spiders. I combined my photos in a set on flickr that you can access by clicking here. Click on 'detail' to see larger images with species identifications.

Mark Heitlinger, our gracious host, took most of the 'people photos' and also found a small tarantula that posed for many shots

Two impressive members of the order Orthoptera are usually present at Florida: the carnivorous katydid Capnobotes fuliginosus (Sooty Longwing) and the cute looking Jerusalem Cricket that can also bite quite fiercely (that round baby face is packed with muscles)

Rhonda Sidner was responsible for the 'bat' part of the evening. She added several specimens to the over thirty thousand that she has caught during her carrier and demonstrated gentle handling, not being bitten, identification, scientific processing, and finally releasing the little insectivores. I was surprised to learn that the order Chiroptera with 1240 species worldwide is one of the species-richest groups of the mammalian class. Rodents would have been my first guess, and indeed, they have over 2000 species. Oh, well, compare that to about 6000 known species of just beetles in Arizona alone!  

Next Saturday, September 29, 10 am, also at the Experimental Range at Florida Canyon,
you are invited to the

Discovery Saturday talk:  It's a dry heat for insects too! How do hawk moths survive the desert of southern Arizona? by

Goggy Davidowitz, Entomology, University of Arizona

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Dinner à laTucson

So I was planning to prepare fresh asparagus, new potatoes and chicken in a wine sauce with yogurt, champignons and herbes de provence.

When I was breaking off the bottom parts of the asparagus spears, Randy called me into the laundry room because he heard a noise from behind the washer. We got one of the cats to guard the mouse. Hopefully.

When the onions were sautéing (is that a word?) the dogs began barking outside. Rhythmical staccato. Now doubt, a rattle snake. This one turned out quite aggressive, avoiding the snake stick and striking at me instead. It took both of us to maneuver flash lights and sticks to get the snake into a bin til morning.

Frodo seemed quite subdued: the snake had ripped his ear. Snake bite number 7 for our coyote dog, the second one this summer. He'll never learn. To comfort him, he got the chicken carcass minus the weight-bearing bones. He finished it without hesitation. He'll survive. The onions were browned instead of caramelized. Oh well.

Superstitionia donensis Stahnke, 1940

When I took the asparagus pan out of the wall cupboard, I saw a speck in it, not much larger than a big mosquito. But it turned out to be a small scorpion instead. Of a species that is new to me, the pattern is unusual, but judging from his hiding spot, I first thought  he might be a bark scorpion, the others don't climb that well. (I was wrong) It is a Superstitionia donensis. All his relatives live in caves. Maybe that's why he was in the cupboard? (Later I found plenty of them in Sabino Canyon under dead wood) At any rate, I took photos before releasing him.

We had dinner a little later than planned, but it was very good! We ignored telemarketers on the phone and Great Horned Owls on the roof.

It turned out later that the scorpion was Superstitionia donensis

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Pena Blanca and Sycamore Canyon

Sycamore Canyon in the Atascosa Highlands of southern Arizona is one of my favorite places in late summer. And because it's so beautiful and interesting it wasn't very difficult to get Richard Hoyer, naturalist par excellence and Senior Leader for WINGS, Inc. to join me on this expedition. As usual, we had a hard time reaching our final destination, because Sycamore Canyon lies at the end of the beautiful and extremely critter-rich Ruby Road and we had to stop every half mile or so.

Leaf Beetles: Leptinotarsa haldemani, Leptinotarsa rubiginosa, Chelymorpha phytophagica, Zygogramma continua

Metallic Wood-boring Beetles: Lampetis drummondi, Acmaeodera gibbula, Hippomelas sphenicus

Phidippus carneus feeding on Border Patch (Chlosyne lacinia), Peucetia viridans (Green Lynx Spider) feeding on Ammophila wasp, Perillus splendidus feeding on Zygogramma opifera

From below Pena Blanca Lake all the way to the higher elevations of Sycamore Canyon the road sides were alive with butterflies, grasshoppers, leaf beetles, buprestids and all the predators that these vegetarians attract.

Along Ruby Road, Photo Rich Hoyer
We kept stopping for interesting flowers in side canyons and on sun exposed slopes of the dirt road part of Ruby Road. At one point, a Golden Eagle circled low. 

 Picking Datana caterpillars from Manzanita

I had a request from Dave Wagner to collect Datana caterpillars that feed on Manzanita. Rich knew exactly where to look so we found several clutches of the brightly colored guys.  They seem to stay together in protective groups. Their defensive pose reminds strongly of that of very poisonous sawfly larvae.

Prolimacodes trigona (Western Skiff Moth - Hodges#4670) Photo David Wagner
 As I am writing this,  the caterpillars already arrived at the University of Connecticut. It turned out that I had inadvertently included another interesting species, a slug caterpillar. You can easily see why we missed it.

Rich Hoyer just stirred up hundreds of butterflies,  Dogfaces, Sulfurs, Mexican and Tailed Yellows from a puddle
We found Sycamore Canyon  quite changed by heavy floods. Those early monsoon storms sent enough water through the narrows to pile up big cottonwood trunks and rip deep-routed willows from the banks. Now it was green and lush, smelled of decay, and was extremely muggy.

Taeniopoda eques (Horse Lubber)
 Horse Lubbers were everywhere, many of them with very light markings and nearly yellow heads. The constant buzz of mosquitoes reminded me that chiggers were probably lurking, too. I rarely use insect repellent in Arizona, but this summer I'm going through a can rather quickly.

Looking down into Sycamore Canyon
Shortly after we arrived, dark clouds pushed over the mountains and thunder grumbled. We convinced ourselves that the storm was moving around us and that we were uphill from any rainfall. Still, we soon climbed out of the canyon.

Lichen Grasshopper, Photo Bob Behrstock
Most rocks were lichen covered and the ideal habitat for the cryptic Lichen Grasshopper. We found countless grasshoppers of many other species instead. Maybe the lichen hopper is an early summer species. For the first time I saw a Cactus Longhorn Beetle on a cactus that isn't part of the Opuntia/Cylindropuntia Group, on a  Rainbow Hedgehog. But no chew-marks yet.

Cactus Longhorn Moneilema appressum
Eventually the storm did come at us -  we just barely made it back to the truck when it began to pour. The curvy dirt road was wet, but not slick and the washes were running but not yet deep when we rushed to get down the mountain.
The heavy rainfall was rather local, so down at Pena Blanca Canyon it was still dry and warm enough to set up the black lights. Before it got dark, Rich imitated the call of a Whiskered Screech Owl. I had witnessed that spectacle before: all kinds of small birds mobbing him and eventually even an owl coming to meet him. But the numbers and the variety of birds at Pena Blanca was still amazing. There were Summer Tanagers, Bridled Titmice, Anna's Hummers, several Flycatcher spp., White-breasted Nuthatches,  several spp. of Warblers, painted Redstarts, Black-headed Grosbeaks, a very pretty Varied Bunting, Lesser Goldfinches, Gnat Catchers -- all of them close enough to make me wish I had traded in my trusted old Leitz binoculars for a modern pair with closer focus.

Conchylodes ovulalis, Choristostigma roseopennalis, Pero flavisaria

Palpita quadristigmalis, Grotella tricolor, Hypercompe suffusa,  Dichordophora phoenix,  Terastia meticulosalis, Cirrhophanus dyari, Theroa zethus

I am still new enough to moth-watching that every black-lighting event brings me something new and exciting, even though the big impressive moths seem to be gone now. I also found a couple of new Cerambycids.

Rich had brought a UV flashlight to look for scorpions. Scorpions reflect uv-light radiantly in purple or green. He wasn't disappointed and he also found another Arachnid, a spider surrounded by bright luminescence that was coming from the egg sack that she was guarding.

Chiricahua Leopard Frog, Rana chiricahuensis, and Great Plains Narrow-mouthed Toad, Gastrophryne olivacea
Juvenile amphibians were slipping through the grass everywhere. A nice green frog turned out to be the rare, endangered Chiricahua Leopard Frog. We also found an adult Narrow-mouth Plains Toad. I have seen that species only once before, also at Pena Blanca. It may not be as rare as the Leopard Frog, but its life style is much more secretive.

Giant Desert Centipede, Scolopendra heros
 I hope the amphibians didn't meet this guy - he's able to catch prey as big as a mouse. His bite is also very painful to humans and he's very quick. Some don't believe that, as Rich is demonstrating.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Dynastes Quest

Dynastes granti, male
 Early this summer two little boys from New York were all set to hunt for charismatic, big beetles in the forests of Japan. But due to a terrible political decision, radioactive material from the
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster had been spread to the area of the beetle camp that they were planning to attend, and they had to cancel their trip. So their mother contacted me through Eric Eaton, and I got to organize a 'Dynastes granti Quest' in Arizona for them.

 Last Sunday, I picked up the two boys and their mother at the Arizona Desert Museum where they had attended the Rattlesnake and Gila Monster presentation. The whole little group was delightful. So full of enthusiasm and energy!

Dynastes beetles occur in the mountains around Tucson, but they are not very common. Since I had to be sure to find at least a couple for each boy, we headed north to the Colorado Plateau. A long drive that showed off some of Arizona's best landscape types.

Still close to Tucson, we crossed some beautiful desert, studded with chollas and saguaros, but I noticed that this wasn't quite the typical desert the kids had expected: It was much too lush and green.

Driving north on Highway 77 we were soon gained elevation, passing an old copper mine, then following the San Pedro River to its confluence with the Gila River - all great habitat for Dynastes with lots of ash, cottonwood, sycamore and oak, but rather inaccessible.

 So we went further north through Globe and crossed the dramatic Salt River Canyon, where everyone who wasn't too deeply asleep got to stare down into the gorge. Storm clouds were piling up and it had began to drizzle. I was getting little worried...

Salt River Canyon
North of Salt River Canyon reddish rocks beautifully set off the abundance of road-side sunflowers and the fresh green of trees and bushes along creeks spilling down from the mountains. In good monsoon years like this one, we really get a second spring in August. No photo ops now, we were pressing on to our destination, a prosaic little gas station in the middle of nowhere. But that's the point: the gas station lights are the only ones as far as the eye can see and they attract the beetles without any competition from street lights or houses. Also, the station is private property and the owners are friendly enough with us weird bug lovers to allow us to collect. The customers, all Apaches, some of them tribal policemen, were amused, but interested.  There were friendly greetings from everyone and lots of tips where else we could find the big, grey-green beetles.

In a meadow across the street, under an illuminated casino sign, the kids found grasshoppers and lots of beetle wings and heads. I noticed Javelina scat full of exoskeleton pieces. Two Apache ladies stopped to tell us that a mountain lion had been seen there for several nights.

Javelina and Mountain Lion. Included for my New York visitors who didn't get to see either
 I figured the food chain like this: huge beetles and moths dropping down from the lights of the sign, javelinas coming to feast on them, and a mountain lion stalking the javelinas. Ok, kids, stay close!

Soon Mom found the first big female Dynastes granti hiding in the ashtray of the gas station. Did I call our hunting ground prosaic? Two boys plus one beetle equals a fight.

 Luckily lots of Rhinoceros Beetles started to literally fall out of the sky right around sunset. The bigger Dynastes took their time, but eventually we got them too, plus a few Chrysina gloriosa and a White-lined June Beetle who kept hissing at us. When the gas station closed at 10 pm, we had 10 females Dynastes and a nice major male. We got another female at the little church in Carizzo.

Some of our beetles are well received at the Arizona Desert Museum by keeper Catherine Bartlett
 At home I had another very frisky Dynastes male in reserve, provided by  Catherine Bartlett from the Arizona Desert Museum, just in case we wouldn't find any. In return, she got 6 of the females we collected for the ASDM breeding program. Thanks for helping out Cathy!

 But back to our trip: After sleeping a few hours in a hotel in Globe, Mom got tied up in a conference-call with her office in New York, and the rest of us spent the morning relaxing in a friendly little park in the historic down town. It's nice and cool in Globe! The boys turned at least one local kid into a bug-lover.

Another long drive took us back to my house in Picture Rocks (NW Tucson) where our beetles were transferred from the camping cooler to the safer refrigerator.
After that, we were on the road again. This may seem like an awful lot of driving and we did get to hear the proverbial 'Are we there yet' a couple of times, but with temps hovering above 100 F airconditioned cars are a real haven. Also, we were all turning as night-active as the beetles by now.

Our next destination: the cute, if overly decorated, KuBo B and B in Madera Canyon. It turned out that we were actually staying in an older cabins accross the street. We really enjoyed it there: the little patio directly overlooks Madera Creek which was running.

 What a great place for New York kids to explore! The boys, 5 and 7 years old, impressed me with their sure-footedness and athleticism. The kids' mother was absolutely great with her perfect mixture of letting them go (jump the creek, climb the steep banks, throw huge rocks), and still always being right there to the rescue if necessary. The hours at the  creek were definitely a high point of the trip.

At night we had my mercury vapor /  black light set-up right in front of the cabin. Just before we arrived, two big storms had cooled the air in Madera Canyon so much that for hours not many moths or beetles appeared. So we spent time in the cabin, snacked on the provided bananas and apples, and studied Eric Eaton's 'Field Guide to Insects of North America '...

Watching a huge at-faced Orb Weaver Spider

Chrysina gloriosa

Chrysina beyeri photo by Laurent Lecerf
 Around 10pm the temperature began to rise again and we finally got to see several of the charming big Chrysina beyeri that kids always love. In the end I was the only one a little disappointed with the black lighting results. Everyone else seemed impressed and delighted. I wished they could have seen the black lights on a warmer night in July.

Tuesday morning after packing we hit the gift shop of the Santa Rita Lodge. Lots of nature books went home with the kids. We learned that all summer long a bear had used a well at 'our cabin' as a place to find water before the creek started running a couple of weeks ago (that's very late, because we are still in a drought, even after our latest monsoon storms).

In the grassland of lower Madera Canyon, we found Horse Lubbers, Giant Mesquite Bugs, Big Long-horn Beetles on Baccharis, mating buprestids, Flannel Moth caterpillars on Mimosas, and hundreds of puddeling butterflies. Even though the 5 year old was nearly falling asleep on his feet, we had a hard time tearing ourselves away for the ride home. Well, home for me, for my new friends just another stop on the way to the airport and the flight back to New York.

Safely in New York enjoying Japanese beetle food
I shipped the beetles over night by fedex, as the airline did not allow to bring them on board. All the bugs got to New York alive and immediately took to the specially imported Japanese Beetle Jelly. The White-lined June Bug began to lay eggs an hour and a half after she landed on the NY doorstep and hopefully the Dynastes beetles will soon follow suit.

Here's one of the emails I received  on Thursday:

Margarethe, thank you so much your kindness.
Kids said"Arizona trip was a best in the world!!!!"
It was a great experience for us.
They won't forget it forever!
They already ask me to stay longer in Arizona next year.
Beetles are very well and seems very happy.