Thursday, April 3, 2014

The first Gambel's Quail chicks of the year!

Today we celebrated Randy's birthday with an early morning walk to the Red Tail Hawk nest. Finally, a chick, still white and fluffy, was visible. Of course we had the dogs with us and they discovered some great new toys: Our rodeo-riding neighbor had brought in a fresh herd of cattle.
So luckily everybody was nicely tired out when we returned home.

During our unusually calm entrance I noticed a male quail quietly guarding the corner of our brick patio. It made me curious, because these guys are usually boisterous and noisy. When I saw him slipping into a small raised bed of Barrio Petunias I was fairly sure that I would find a quail nest full of eggs in there.

The Barrio Petunias are among the few plants in our garden that we water regularly and generously. But before flooding whatever was in there, I wanted to carefully check. Well, not careful enough, because mom took off with a shriek. But when she was gone, I kept hearing little voices.

Quail nest some years ago in nearly the same location
 So I bent the plant stems apart. I didn't expect much of an actual nest. Quail really don't bother with a lot of nesting material, they just lay their many eggs in a tightly packed clutch on the ground. In this case, most or all of the eggs were empty shells already. But right next to them, something moved.

All the little hatchlings were still there, fresh out of the eggs but already dry and fluffy. I felt very privileged to witness this short moment that these precocious birds spend at the nest.

Can you see the little egg tooth on top of the beak? It's used to scrape open the eggshell from the inside, and is lost very soon after hatching.
The panicky exit of their mother had send some chicks hiding in the plants around the nest, but soon they all instinctively huddled together again in one tight clump. video click here

Being kids, they quickly forgot their scare and began pecking around, pecking at everything in their surroundings, including their siblings toes. I took some photos, resisting the idea to use the flash to brighten up the very deep shadows. The parents were calling close by, so I let them be. From a distance, I saw the female slip back under the Barrio Petunia. I know the family will not stay around the nest too long, they may be gone tomorrow.

Maybe I'll see them at the feeder or the bird bath, and hopefully in a bigger group than this one from last year.

When Randy checked the next morning, only broken egg shells were left behind. Empty Nest Syndrome!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Backyard Beauties in April

Fairy Duster seedpods with Santa Rita Prickly Pear background

Strawberry Hedgehog, Echinocereus engelmannii

Pencil Cholla, Cylindropuntia ramosissima

Hybrid between Beavertail and Santa Rita PP?

Texas Longthorn, Opuntia macrocentra

Another Hedgehog

Staghorn Cholla

Santa Rita Prickly Pear, Opuntia violaceae santa rita   

Chenille Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia aciculata).

Yellow Bird of Paradise


Catclaw Vine

Hybrid Palo Verde

Teddy Bear Cholla
Orange Bells, Tecoma alata

Sunday, March 30, 2014

March 2014 in Sabino Canyon

 I try to join Ned Harris and his naturalists tours in Sabino Canyon at least once a month. It's nice to be in like-minded company, even though I usually don't last very long in the group because I stop too often and too long for insects that are too small for most participants' eyes or camera lenses. 

This time, my first stop (before I met the group) was devoted to the resident Roadrunner.  When I found the nest, very well hidden in a Chain Fruit Cholla, I got a glimpse of some chicks and some as yet unhatched eggs. Roadrunners begin incubating right after the first egg is laid so the chicks are as different in size as organ pipes. Many birds with nestlings that are born blind, featherless and dependent on their parents (altricial) follow this strategy. For the youngest ones, this can be perilous. Their only chance of survival is a year with plenty of food. Under poor conditions the parents can decide to raise only the older, stronger siblings to ensure at least their survival. There seems to be a tuft of fur from a bunny or a rock squirrel tail in the nest. So this pair is bringing in rather big prey. That probably means good chances for all the chicks.

When I checked again on my way back, I was greeted by the angry stare of one of the parents. Altricial chicks are rarely left alone, and that means that in many species both parents share the nest duties.

Two lonely, very young Mallard chicks were dabbling in the small pond by the dam. They were contently feeding on the willow seeds that drifted into the water. Very different from roadrunners, ducks are precocious birds. The female only starts incubating after she has laid the whole clutch. So the chicks all hatch on approximately the same day even though some eggs are up to 2 weeks older than others. The chicks hatch with feathers, open eyes and ready to go. And they have to. The family, which means mother and chicks, the father is not involved, leaves the nest and the dangers of sedentary living and moves out right away. The two in the picture seemed actually to be on their own, no mother in sight. And yet, they still have a chance to grow up.

Rhagoletis sp. (Maggot Fly)
The first interesting insect was a little fruit fly that I had never seen before in the Tucson area. Some of these flies can become invasive destructive pests of agriculture. That's what those controls between CA and AZ are about, to stop the cross border transport of infected fruit. So I sent this photo to a friend who works at USAD. Just in case. We all thought that it looks quite similar to the Apple Maggot Fly, Rhagoletis pomonella (which would not find a lot of suitable food in Sabino, I'd say, not many rosacean plants there). Unlike the apple Maggot Fly, it has no white scutellum. Martin Hauser then pointed out that it could be  Procecidochares atra, in which case it would be a gall producer rather than a fruit maggot fly. As the common host, Golden Rod, doesn't grow at the elevation, I will be looking for similar galls on related plant species.

Dufourea sp. male on  Brittle Bush, Encelia farinosa

Dufourea sp. female
 In the canyon, Brittle Bush was still blooming where it thrives on water run-off from the road. The dominant bees here were Dufourea sp. in the Sweat Bee family Halictidae. 

Red and yellow Trichodes ornatus
 The bees were joined by a great number of Checkered Beetles, Clerids,  who were feeding on pollen and trying to find mates. Both striking color morphs were present, the bright yellow-black and the red-black version. The two forms mate freely and either color-type occurs in both sexes. I have no idea how the genetics work in this case.

Haplorhynchites planifrons
A greenish black Tooth-nosed Snout Weevil occurs every spring on the brittle bush flowers in Sabino, but I have yet to find it anywhere else. 

Acmaeodera sphaeralceae
The Metallic Wood-boring Beetle Acmaeodera sphaeralceae is also a springtime regular of Sabino Canyon, but before I've found it more often on Globe mallows.

Monoxia sordida
 A leaf beetle on Brittle Bush leaves turned out to be a new species for my photo collection. The species is one of a few in this difficult western genus with 16 to 18 species that can be identified from a photo.

Trirhabda sp., probably T. geminata
This other leaf beetle is so common on Brittle Bush that I find it every year, but its wing coloration is very variable, so the identifications on BugGuide have triggered a lot of discussion. Some years ago, I collected some in the larval stage and watched them for a while after the metamorphosis to the adult beetle: The wing pigmentation kept changing for weeks, way beyond the usual teneral stage. T. geminata seems to be the most likely species id. 

Some New Mexico Thistles were covered in Honey Bees, others hosted loads of Blister Beetles in the genus Nemognatha. 

I don't think the beetles would cause a problem for Honey Bees, but the solitary Diasdasia bee above was certainly in danger of picking up a beetle larvae that would then live as a cleptoparasite in her nest and feed on the provisions that she had accumulated for her own brood.

On this beautiful spring day, larvae and nymphs were everywhere. One of my favorites is the young Mexican  Bush Katydid. The adult Katydids are just green and have long wings.

  I also found the first hatched clutches of  Giant Mesquite Bugs, Thasus neocalifornicus, whose mother had left the eggs in a sheltered spot under the bark of a mesquite tree before the winter. These little guys will molt one more time and then, always as tight-nit  a group of siblings, try to reach the freshly thriving mesquite leaves.  I followed the life-cycle of Thasus in an earlier blog.

Lema daturaphila
Lema daturaphila eggs
Leafbeetles on the Datura plants in the shadow of the willows by the creek were starting the next generation.

Dolichodynerus tanynotus
 Just when the wind was kicking up in unpleasant gusts I found a couple of specimens of a rarely photographed Mason Bee. I wished my photos had come out better, but by then everything was too windswept.

Ornate Tree Lizards were trying to warm up on light colored rocks to get ready to pounce on all those bugs.

It was after noon when I was finally back on the tram road approaching the entrance, and I remembered the turn circle for school buses where we usually found Ironcross Blister Beetles at this time of the year. Maybe it's still too early, although the little blue star flowers that attract them were  blooming. 

Walking along with my eyes on the ground I saw something hop that seemed to slender to be a grasshopper nymph. I found that it had to be a fulgorid planthopper, but one that I had never seen before.
Lois O'Brien confirmed it: It's Rhabdocephala brunnea, a species that is not common, even Lois has only 3 specimens in her collection.

So as always, Sabino Canyon was worth the long drive across town.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Mining Bees under the bedroom window

Our house is built on sand. It sits on a little mesa (elevation) consisting of soil the excavated to put in the basement. Over the years I found out that we share this site with many sand loving, digging insects, tarantulas and scorpions. And please don't think that that is a problem. Some of these guys may even keep out others that we would like less.

The little dark parasitic bee, waiting close to the nest entrance
 Yesterday I was reading at the bedroom window when I noticed a dark little bee zigzagging and descending repeatedly out of sight under the window. Time to investigate.
When I got outside, she was resting on a flat rock. In the soil around it were several small, round holes about 5 mm in diameter. Another bee buzzed closer, circled, landed next to one of the holes and slipped inside.

A mining bee exiting the nest entrance
 This bee was larger, plumper, and lighter than the little observer. It stayed in the hole for a long time. While I was watching, two more bees arrived and crawled in. for over 10 min no bees left as far as I could see. Then the smaller bee flew up, circled shortly and also crawled into the hole. Several other bees of the bigger kind entered 5 other holes, all in an area of less than a square meter.  Eventually bees also exited the hole that I was watching, but too fast to get any good pictures. Peak activity seemed to be around 10 to 11 am.
Today I came better prepared. For example, I found a way to sit instead of crouching over the hole for what turned out to be long waiting times. So I got some video of the larger bees that clearly shows that several bees are using the same entrance and are under ground simultaneously. Incidentally, the little bee was inside during that time as well. This time I trapped her and three exiting larger bees to get a closer look. I had an idea by now that I was dealing with mining bees and a clepto-parasite, but I found that I didn't have these guys in my photo collection yet.

Ancylandrena sp. Doug Yanega det.
 Indoors, I put each bee into a white ceramic bowl and covered it with a clear plastic container. It took a while for them to calm down. If they had been beetles, they would have experienced a short cool-down in the fridge by now, but bees just don't look right when they are cold. So instead, I got the chance to take a few quick photos, some OK, some blurred and some out of focus, of each bee before she took off for the window. No harm done, they were easily coaxed back into the container.

Hexepeolus rhodogyne, Doug Yanega det.
In the close-ups, the parasitic bee looked somewhat beat-up. Maybe her life as an uninvited guest was not quite as easy as it seems. But her visits in the nest, concurrent with those of several 'owners' did not seem to create any disturbance.

Several of my Flickr and facebook connections are bee specialists, so I posted the photos there and on BugGuide.

From Doug Yanega came the response:  "The latter is Hexepeolus rhodogyne, and it is a cleptoparasite in nests of Ancylandrena (the first bee). It wasn't until the 1990's that the host-parasite association of these taxa was confirmed, as I recall. The genus Hexepeolus contains only that one species".

John Ascher added a link to the 1994 paper: Biologies of the bee genera Ancylandrena (Andrenidae, Andreninae) and Hexepeolus (Apidae, Nomadinae) : and phylogenetic relationships of Ancylandrena based on its mature larva (Hymenoptera, Apoidea). American Museum novitates ; no. 3108

It turned out that BugGuide had an image of a mounted specimen of the parasite, but only an empty, prepared, page for the host. So I was able to fill in both with white backgound-life-close-ups and action in situ shots:

BugGuide Info Page

As for the species id, in Discover Life I found a description of a rare Tucson specialty, A. rozeni, but it would be difficult to identify it without comparative material:  A. rozeni - This is a rare species with records restricted to Arizona, specifically known from the Tuscon area - The male appears closest to that of A. larreae though slightly smaller, has a shorter clypeus, has shorter antennae, has smaller light markings in the paraocular area, is less densely pitted anteriorly on the scutum, hairs sparser in the anterior of the scutum, and has a greater proportion of dark hair on the upper areas of the head - The female appears most similar to that of A. timberlakei, although it may be differentiated by the presence of some degree of a tan or yellowish brown mound on the base of the mandible, a greater proportion of dark hairs in the upper areas of the head, the fact that all hairs anterior to the middle of the tegulae are white, and that there is a greater proportion of light-colored hairs on the scopa (2)
 Anyway, I preserved a specimen.

So to summarize, Ancylandrena is a mining bee. In spring males and females emerge from underground cells. They mate, and the females dig nest burrows in sandy soil. Mining bees collect pollen in the long hairs of the tibial scopa of the hind legs. (They do not  have a 'pollen basket' like honey bees and bumble bees). They construct small cells containing a ball of pollen mixed with nectar, upon which an egg is laid, before each cell is sealed. Although not social, several individuals seem to be sharing at least a nest entrance (Solitary, communal ground-nesting). As many insects do, they provide provisions for their offspring, but they are not around to guard the larvae while these are growing up. Clepto-parasites like the one I observed commonly make use of this arrangement to raise their own brood. Many of these clepto-parasites, like this one, are in the subfamily Nomadinae (Cuckoo Bees). They usually lack the hairs that are used by their relatives to collect and transport pollen. There are a number of strategies to get parasitic eggs into a provisioned nest. In this case the cleptoparasitic bee just followed the host bees to get her eggs into the brood chambers before they were closed. In Rozen's study several eggs of Hexepeolus rhodogyne were attached to the inner wall of the brood chambers while the larger egg of the host bee was sitting on the pollen ball. This explains why Hexepeolus was around for several days entering the same nest repeatedly: she had to access the chambers that were just in the right stage of construction. 

PS: I was busy at an art show for three days, but when I checked again on Monday, 3/24/2014 there were still Ancylandrenas entering the same nest. I also found another nest about 60 meters south on a berm planted with cacti and creosote bushes.