Thursday, June 22, 2017

Midsummer on Mount Lemmon

Admiring those tall stalks of Swertia radiata (Frasera speciosa)  Green Gentian
 With temperatures soaring above 115 Degrees Fahrenheit in Tucson, I was extremely happy to join Debbi Bird's Wednesday Walk-about on the mountain. Thank you, Debbie and Bill Kaufman for inviting me! We headed from Summer Haven (elevation above 8000 feet) up Turkey Run,  but the outings of that little group of naturalists are probably never runs or strenuous hikes but leisurely walks to observe birds and plants. With my enthusiasm for every crawling bug I slowed them down even more.

The lovely, melancholy song of the Hermit Thrush set the tone for our walk. But this individual was too busy for such frivolities 
 People and bugs were very gracious about it. Birds less so - they wanted us to move so they could get on with their business of raising chicks. There went my bugs!

Gasteruption sp. female and Polistes sp. male
 Heracleum lantanum, Cow Parsnip, those super-umbels, where in full bloom, yielding not the hoped-for longhorn beetles but delicate little Carrot Wasps (Gasteruptionsp.) and much sturdier Vespids. The larvae of Gasteruption are predators  or predators-inquilines (consume larval food, not the larvae) of other Hymenoptera that nest in twigs and in wood, hence the long ovipositor. Paper wasps are eusocial colony builders who hunt other insects as food for they larvae. But the guy in the picture is a drone, a male, just out for his own indulgence in sweet nectar (note the hooked antennae).

Saprophytic Orchid
More botanical treasures along the path: The little leafless, chlorophyll-less orchids are sprophyds, meaning that they are depending on decaying organic matter for all their  nutrients including sugars. I'm wondering how directly they can absorb anything like that - are they maybe relying on the mycelium of symbiotic fungi to do the work? Orchids often do ...

On the sloping forest floor a little Ericaceae is hiding  in deep shade. But Bumblebees love heather and all its relatives, so Bombus melanopygus (southern color form) zoomed in and put the flash of my mini camera to the test. Luckily, the photo turned out well enough for an identification by our bee-wizzard John Ascher.

Little Wasps, Encyrtus sp.

 On the leaves of Silver-leave oak little ant-like wasps were running about. There tiny wings seemed non-functional (?) enhancing the ant similarity (there will be a follow-up blog to this topic). 

Another Wasp, Tenthredinidae (Common Sawflies) - these are vegetarians and no threat to the beetle. The larvae feed on pine needles or leaves, looking like caterpillars with extra legs, usually feeding in groups. They take on  a characteristic s-shaped position when threatened  - and most predators recognize it as a warning of their high toxicity.

Lycus fulvellus femoratus
 The wasp probably landed on the beetle just because - there were so many of them. It seemed that the Superfamily of the Elateroidea  which includes Click, Firefly and Soldier Beetles was having a big party, or rather fertility ceremony on this first day of summer.  

Discodon bipunctatum, Ellychnia corrusca

We first found the Soldier Beetle Discodon bipunctatum, which I nearly mistook for a firefly. No wonder, he's a close mimic of a toxic beetle in that family (I'm not sure if the soldier beetle, a Cantharid, is toxic as well, it might be, it shares it's name with the substance Cantharidin, but that is supposed to be a historical misnomer)  . Soon we also found the Firefly Ellychnia corrusca (diurnal, no flight display of lights at night). Extremely common.

Lycus arizonensis
 More obvious even than the Fireflies were their other relatives, the Net-winged Beetles (Lycids). Not only are they all red or orange, they were also drifting leisurely in the warm summer air, landing on us and every other surface and congregating along water seeps.

Lygistopterus rubripennis
Our walk could not have been longer than a couple of miles, steadily but not too steeply gaining in elevation. Still, I had the distinct impression that we saw at first mostly Lycus sanguinipennis and
Lygistopterus rubripennis, then a little higher up mostly Lycus fulvellus femoratus. Of course, elevation was not the only changing parameter - we also came closer to some running water, the canopy cover increased and the temperature increased as the day progressed. Lycus arizonensis at least was not found on the way up, but rather common on the way back later in the day. 

Lycus sanguinipennis, Lygistopterus rubripennis, Lycus fulvellus femoratus, Lycus arizonensis
Anyway - it was nice to see four of these rather impressive beetles in great numbers in short succession. I'd  like to point out that the red Lycid with black wingtips that is commonly found in lower Sabino Canyon is another species: Lycus sanguineus, the Blood-red Net Wing Beetle.

Lycus sanguineus
And not only the beetles had their midsummer night's rites scheduled for this hot June day and night. Adhering to old pagan traditions, there was also a lot of activity among fairies, elves, spirits and sprites of the fores and when they invited us into their garden, some of us seemed quite tempted to stay ...

Oh, no! They did!!!!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Black Bugs with red out-lines in Tucson

left: Seed Bug Melacoryphus lateralis. right: Kissing Bug Triatoma rubida
This year, we have lots of Kissing Bugs In the Tucson area. But not everything that reminds you of a Kissing Bug picture you've seen on the internet is really a Triatoma rubida (right), a blood sucking Kone-nose. (note: there is more than one species if you go into the mountains or towards Texas)

At the moment, we also have a proliferation of little black Seed Bugs Melacoryphus lateralis (left). These can occur in very large numbers on Sabino Canyon trails and under porch lights in town, so just about anywhere. While Kissing Bugs (not much smaller than 1 inch) are also not dangerous - we had NO proven, KB transmitted cases of Chagas disease in AZ - the little Seed Bugs (about a quarter of an inch) are completely harmless - not even a garden pest.

Reed more about Kissing Bugs and their look-alikes in my older blog on the theme

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A declaration of love

I know I have married the right guy when he wakes me up excitedly: 'You have to get your camera and get pictures of the Mesquite Tree Cactus - it's performing today!'

With nearly 30 flowers, our climbing Harrisia is really spectacular. It is also getting nearly too heavy for its small nurse Mesquite tree. The sun is not quite up, I need some more light for good photos, but Randy was afraid the flowers would wilt. Our short cold spell seems to be over.

There may be painting inspirations in these photos, but for now, I'm overwhelmed. I need to simplify but how to do that when the beauty is in multitude and profusion?

I know that I definitely married the best possible guy when a couple of hours later, he stands in my studio door (the Phippen Art Show is looming close): 'I hate to keep interrupting you, but you really have to get your camera again!' From his delighted tone, I think it's more flowers, though I also thought I heard him say something about 'very cute and pretty'.  Dove babies? No - they are neither. Baby quail? They would not wait for me to get my camera...

Of course he's right, the rattler at the door of the potting shed is small, pretty and cute. Tightly curled as he is, he would fit the palm of my hand. But Randy says: 'No, don't disturb him'. So we only drop a penny next to him for scale. He puts out a dark purple tongue once and then withdraws to his meditation.

The pattern is amazing. I don't think I've seen one with white eye brows before. The contrast of the pattern all along the body is amazing, maybe he's freshly molted?  We never got a look at tail and rattle because we did not want to disturb him.

When we checked on him an hour later, the penny marked the spot where he had been, now in full sunlight. But the little rattler had withdrawn to what shade remained and curled up even more tightly. Is he going to stay there all day? Or at least until quail or squirrels make so much fuss that he'll indignantly slither off?  Very soon our local snakes will be exclusively night active to avoid the scorching heat of the day.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Arizona Butterflies

Poster: Butterflies of Arizona

It's done!

To my insect poster collectors and bug friends: After publishing my first 4 arthropod posters (see below), I have been asked for a butterfly poster more times than I can remember. But there is so much good stuff out on Butterflies ... I was a little intimidated. Now I think I have put together a collection that does justice to the unique diversity of Arizona and at the same time looks beautiful.
Many thanks to Ken Kertell, who allowed me to use a number of his excellent photos!
So I'm introducing my new poster, 'Butterflies of Arizona', with numbered template and corresponding species list
The size is 18 in by 24 in, it is printed on heavy, semigloss art paper with my giclee printer. That's really art print quality, not poster quality, and it will not fade.
Cost: $25 plus shipping. 
Order at, pay through paypal.
 These are also still available, selling separately, of course. Same price as the new one.
Get a 10% discount if you order all 5!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Unusual Warbler - it's migration!

I just saw a 'lifer' right outside my studio window in Picture Rocks, AZ.
Dark head, olive green wings, eye ring flashing in the dark face: an adult male MacGilivray's Warbler
  It was searching for and finding bugs in the Palo Verde that is usually the perch of a pair of Gila Woodpeckers but those are busy raising a brood in a Saguaro right now.
I went outside, but the warbler was gone. Pyrrhuloxia and a Blackheaded Gross-beak in the blooming Ironwood instead. The pair of Kestrels is displaying and flirting above. In May? Did they loose their brood?  The dark Redtail female is faithfully guarding her nest with two or even three chicks

 Rattlers are active day and night right now as the temperatures are creeping up towards three digits. Unfortunately, Bilbo got bitten and then went into hiding. We missed him and searched the neighborhood for hours, until he came finally limping up from the backyard, too late for effective antivenom.

So he got antibiotics and pain pills instead. His paw was oozing and bloated and he touched no food for three days. Was drinking well though. Today he suddenly ravenously chewed down a rib bone from yesterday's dinner followed by a chicken breast. I think he's recovering well now, but still limping. He's been such a smart well trained dog for 12 years, always stayed well away from snakes. But we always had a snake-wise alpha dog o watch out for the others. Since first Cody and then Frodo died the snake barking and avoidance has been less reliable - we heard nothing at all when this happened.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Madrean Discovery Expedition Cajón Bonito April 2017

Camping at Ranchos los Ojos
Camping? In Mexico??? The US customs officer in Douglas, AZ asked in a very offended tone when we got back from our expedition. He and his colleges waved us away from our vehicle and sorted through coolers, sleeping bags, tents, camera bags and dirty underwear. No, we did not transport back any beetles or plants. Not even in our gas tank. Our specimens were transported and declared by Tom Van Devender who by now has ample experience with permits, legalities, paperwork, and office hours on both sides of the border and who safely  brought back everything to pass on to the respective experts for identification. All I brought back are photos.

Our expedition took us to the Cuenca Los Ojos Foundation properties in the Sierra San Luis. So From the border crossing in Douglas, we headed southeast, through Agua Prieta, Sonora, and then continued on highway 2 not quite to the border with Chihuahua. A winding dirt road took us to the main house of the Rancho los Ojos. Beautiful big cottonwoods shaded our campsite close to the river, but as the wind picked up towards the end of our stay it was more comfortable to move into the ranch house. After roughing it on a deflated air mattress, a room with original art on the walls and a great modern bathroom were a welcome change.

The huge area that is owned by the Cuenca Los Ojos Foundation consists mainly of rolling high elevation grasslands that are dotted with mesquite, juniper and 8 species of oaks. Smaller neighboring ranches that have been acquired recently include also pine forest, but we did not get that far on our tours because we were too engaged in exploring creeks, washes and slot canyons on the way.

Canyon at el Pinito

Claret Cup Cactus, el Pinito

In these parts, April is definitely part of the dry pre-summer time.  The mesquites were fresh and just greening out, but the grasses were brown and brittle.

Result of careful grazing management on Rancho los Ojos, left, overgrazed neighboring land, right
 It could be (and was) much worse. Since buying the land, the owners of the Cuenca los Ojos have used exemplary methods to revitalize the area, conscious that it contains the hinterland and the headwaters of the Rio Yaqui and therefore determines the health of this enormous drainage system with effects far downstream in other parts of Mexico.

The Ranch owner (standing) explaining her conservation procedures and plans for the land
Of course, the ranchos were originally cattle grazing grounds. But we hardly saw any cattle. There were active salt licks everywhere, indicating the presence of some cows, but. access to the river tributaries was fenced off.

The main feature of the foundation property are thousands of check‐dams or gabiones. They reminded me of artificial beaver dams (without the beavers' tree harvesting, though). But like beaver dams, these structures retain water, turning grassland into swampy cienegas, preventing erosion by seasonal flood-runoffs and instead allow permeation of water into the soil.

Punta del Agua
We saw some old photos of the property: rather barren grassland cut through by dry arroyos. Today, lush galleries of cottonwoods and willows accompany permanent water flow. The owner who considers this restoration her legacy, hopes that this 'sponge' in the head-waters will benefit the entire Rio Yaqui and sees the rancho as a model for other restoration projects. So students and scientists are welcome visitors.

Sangmi Lee and Fred Skillman with morning coffee and visions of great bug collecting
We were there to continue the exploration that earlier expeditions had begun. Birds, mammals, Fish, herps  and plants, even moths to some degree,  had  already been listed. But for most insects, the project is certainly still ongoing. Many of our finds might even be first records for Sonora.  So it was great to join a substantial group of ASU,  UA, and U of Hermosillo  scientists in one of the world's hot spots for biodiversity.

John Palting's moth collection already stretched, pinned and  baked, ready for presentation

Not carrying a kite, but an unusually small beating sheet. Nico's was three times as big, so he got more beetles, obviously!
 We collected insects with our beating sheets and nets (ouch, my right shoulder!), flight-intercept traps and light traps appeared all around camp, Berlese funnels crowded the barn, trails of oat meal were luring Darkling Beetles and crickets, ant nests were invaded with spades, individual ants checked for mites, and all night long bright Mercury Vapor lights attracted moths and beetles. -

So the place temporarily became rather dangerous for the local bug population, especially when during  daylight hours opportunistic Thrashers and Orioles joined in and cleaned up the black lights  at the kitchen door of the ranch house.

True Bugs, Heteroptera

We had moth and micro-moth, Curculionid, Cerambycid and Tenebrionid, Odonata, Ant and Butterfly experts, but True Bugs were nobody's favorites. But we encountered a great number of interesting species.

During an hour-long stop at Punta del Agua Doug Danforth contributed nearly 20 species of Dragon and Damselflies to the lists.

We had several people who specialized in mites. Other Arachnids were also plentiful.

Beetles, all - what, 6000 + (?) - Sonoran species of them, are my main interest. Sonora is considered one of the world's most species rich locations, but so far there are few good data available. So even species that are well-known from Arizona may get their first valid record for Sonora from our collection efforts. That really makes it a lot of fun. I also found a few that will be useful for my Arizona Beetle Book - those are species that are known to occur in AZ but I saw them for the first time on this trip. Surprisingly, we found a number of species that in the US don't occur west of Texas.
Over all, I personally ended up with over 70 species of beetles. The numbers would have been higher if windy conditions hadn't made collecting difficult on the last days. We are also way into the dry season. During the summer monsoons this area must be extremely rich.

Patchnose Snake, Herper, Birder, Botanist, Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar

The vegetation on the way to the hot springs of Ojos Calientes was especially lush (even after our botanists were through collecting)  and revealed a number of interesting reptiles: First a Patchnose Snake and a Sonoran Whipsnake (that one escaped without having its picture taken).

 After a very pleasant soaking in the natural hot tub, Anna Lilia and I ran into a pretty little Gila Monster, the first of three that were eventually found.

'Herpers' like Tom van Devender and Jim Rorabaugh do not let these lizards and snakes go without providing teachable moments. Touching and comparing the smooth scales of snakes and the hard, beady ones (each with a bony core) of the monster's back was a memorable first for several participants.

Night Snake
Gopher Snake (Photo by M. McNulty)

Clark's Spiny Lizard
The impressive Blacktail Rattler had just eaten (Photo Jim Rorabaugh)

Little Red-spotted Toad in the rancho's kitchen garden
Carne Asada dinner on day one (photo Jim Rorabaugh)
On our Sonora excursion, we are always cared for by la Comisiòn Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas, CONANP. Their cooks prepare our meals, and I often come home with new simple, but nicely spiced recipes. So Randy benefits at least a little from my travels. 

This year, our Mexican hosts had prepared an Earth Day and birthday (for several participants) surprise: a big pinata was gruesomely slaughtered. I leave the id of that thing to your imagination. 

Chip Hedgecock took the obligatory group photo with all of us perching on the huge trunk of a dead Cottonwood that had been hardly diminished by a three-day axe-attack on it by our tenebroid people. 

This memorable expedition was sponsored by Greater Goods Foundation, hosted by the Cuenca Los Ojos Foundation and prepared and led by Tom Van DeVender and Analilia Reina - thank you so much for making this possible! 

To learn more about the Cuenca los Ojos Foundation, its history and goals, and to see some beautiful art inspired by the landscape go to