Saturday, December 28, 2013

My most interesting arthropod photos of the year 2013

At his Scientific American blog, Alex Wild is curating a list of everyone's best science/nature photos from the year 2013.
I changed it to most interesting, making clear (to myself) that I wasn't looking for just the prettiest pictures. I didn't really remember a favorite photo that I took this year. But as always I remember the favorite that got away!
2013 was a great entomological year for me including a trip to Costa Rica in May, several three-to-four-day tours with clients into the sky islands and to the Mogollon Rim, the huge BugGuide meeting that I organized at the Santa Rita Research Range, half a dozen invited talks with black lighting at very nice locations, two bug parties with entomologists from all over the world and finally a biodiversity survey of two Sonora, Mexico Ranchos with a group of great biologists for the Sky Island Alliance. 
 I enjoyed searching through my 2013 flickr images that brought back a lot of fond memories. Of course I got hooked and spent much too long staring at thousands of photos organized in flickr's neat nesting system of sets and collections.
So here are twelve photos, in chronological, if not monthly sequence:

Megachile parallela (Leafcutter Bee) on Brittle bush in February. I like it because she is showing off the pollen load under her belly so nicely.

I had the chance to follow the molt of this male Olios giganteus (Giant Crab Spider) in our neighbor's olive tree. I posted the series of photos to my blog. The spider currently still lives in the same hollow tree post, nearly 10 months later.

This click beetle in the genus Semiotus did get his portrait in for being pretty, and the leaf was chosen as a nice background to show him off. But: this is one of the photos I took in early May in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. We tend to take for granted that tropical species are so much more colorful than their relatives from temperate zones but the question remains why?

Apiomerus barrocoloradoi (Bee Assassin) preying on Apoica pallens (night-active Vespid). Initially I was very proud that during my short visit to Costa Rica I found this only very recently described Assassin Bug. It turns out that these bugs were long known but had so far eluded description as one species because they are so  very variable in coloration.

And 'Ausnahmen bestaetigen die Regel': our own Arizona Bee Assassin Apiomerus flavivestris is more colorful than her tropical brother. But she made my list because of the pray she tackled here: a Pogomyrmex sp. Harvester Ant. Their sting is the worst I have experienced so far (I stayed respectfully clear of the Costa Rican Bullet Ants) It is said that Arizona would be completely uninhabitable if our Pogos where the size of Jackrabbits. I'd say that I'd move if they were the size of packrats.

For this shot I climbed down a steep embankment at Copper Canyon in Cochise County, and while I didn't loose my footing and roll down into the Mexican flatland, I did bang my little Olympus point-and-shoot against a rock and nicked the lens. James M. Carpenter  identified the pair as Parazumia tolteca.

I had watched the progress (or no changes rather) of this Sceliphron caementarium (Black and Yellow Mud Dauber) nest for months when finally little moist spots indicated activity. By the time I had my camera set up, I caught just about the last young wasps hatching. Here is the blog, complete with video.

When light-trapping insects, it's not always quality that impresses. During this night in Peppersauce Canyon on the north side of the Catalina Mountains the moths covered the sheet so densely that nothing new could land. The air was so saturated with scales from their wings that we could hardly breathe.

At a friend's house (luckily a coleopterist) Brachinus elongatulus (Bombadier Beetle) accumulates in great numbers. Just imagine they all get organized and let lose simultaneously! Beetle collectors beware!

Tylospilus acutissimus is a predatory stink bug. He got chosen because he is pretty, but also as a representative of the last great insect-photography opportunity of  the year, which comes around with the bloom of the Desert Broom Bushes in early November.

On a Sonora Mexico trip for the Sky Island Alliance, I found this tiny (3mm) bug in the genus Systelloderes at my light. It belongs to the family of the Unique-headed Bugs (Enicocephalidae), which occurs around the world, but the majority of species remains undescribed.

I usually don't set up photo opportunities by staging encounters of subjects that may or may not meet in natural surroundings or harm each other. In this case the millipede had been left in the sandbox from a previous photo shoot by accident when I introduced the Giant Vinegaroon (Mastigoproctus giganteus). But she tackled the millipede immediately, and although it managed to wiggle away once, in the end all that was left were the hard segmental rings of the exoskeleton with their pairs of legs and an even fatter vinegaroon.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Happy Holidays and a Mystery

All through December I have been too busy to blog. The art shows were busy and more originals sold than during the whole rest of the year. On the day before we drove out to California I was still working on tables for a paper on Buprestids for a friend and client in LA, a translation from English to German of an abstract for an Orthoptera  publication from Zagreb, a commissioned painting of the Pima County Courthouse for one of the judges who used to work there and waiting for the pick up of another little original as a last minute gift. Then some communication about a package with prints that should have reached Florida by the 20th, but didn't make it...meanwhile our house phone-line succumbed again to the influx of moisture and technicians have to come out to fix it... Not all of the xmas business is fun.

For 2 days we escaped to California to visit with Randy's family and take the dogs to the beach in Oceanside. It's our Christmas tradition that provides us with fine sand in the back of our car for the entire next year.

 There isn't much room for Trevor  and the 4 dogs in the back of our Toyota Fit, and I really admired Trevor's great patience on the way back to San Diego, when they were all quite wet.

Last night we came back from CA to AZ around 2 am. We were greeted by the most beautiful starry sky I've seen in a while and coyotes howling. When Cody ran to chase them and followed to bring him back I heard strange noises:  Randy called it a cross between a goose and a donkey. The bird or animal that makes them is definitely not small. The call is a very regular, repeated hunnn - hunnn - hunnn with about 5 sec intervalls. First I thought it might be a dog that's choking on something, but coming closer I realized it was clearly a call. Two weeks ago our neighbor Frank has described the same noise after he heard the sounds also at night on the other side of the property. A roadrunner with night mares and a very strange rhythm? My facebook friends suggested foxes or mule deer, but we have no deer here, and I would have seen them I think.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Caracaras of the Santa Cruz Flats

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway Photo by Ned Harris
 I liked those stately birds even as a child in Germany. Our zoo in Dortmund had a few that were walking freely (though probably with wing feathers clipped) among the visitors. Their dignified but curious demeanor appealed much more than the stately beauty of the peacocks or the aggressive gobbling of the turkeys that were also strutting around.
Last May in Costa Rica I saw Caracaras a couple of times in the wild, but we were always on our way to something more interesting, rare, or otherwise attractive, so I never got a good look...and while they were more common in Costa Rica, I also hoped that I would eventually see them in Arizona. Because, even though wikipedia and some other sources mention only US populations in Florida and Texas, I knew that a few pairs breed regularly in the area around Sells, Arizona, on the Tohono O'odam Nation. Access there can be difficult, though

Pima Cotton at Picacho Peak
 Yesterday my friend Ned Harris took me to the Santa Cruz Flats west of Picacho Peak where this year a group of Caracaras is wintering in the fields. He has seen as many as 50 there at a time. The wide open area is used to grow cotton, alfalfa  and sorghum. The fine clay soil is the source of dust storms that often cause deadly accidents in Interstate 10, and we got our share of the dust when trucks loaded with huge cotton bails raced by on dirt roads.

Juvenile caracaras in pecan trees
 Pecan trees grow along the roads, but they are neglected and suffer from lack of irrigation. For the Caracaras the bare top branches offered a perch which made for some unusual photos because these birds can more often be seen walking busily on the ground.

We found two groups of about 5 birds on a berm where they were feeding in the company of a bunch of ravens.
 The birds seemed social. They were not just feeding close to each other, they interacted. They watched and followed each other on the ground, and stole from each other. When one left, the others soon joined him. They are carrion eaters and, like vultures, probably profit from strength in numbers when they have to compete with other predators at a large carcass. Phylogenetically, they are now grouped with the true Falcons in the family Falconiformes, but they have little in common with them. In behavior and even appearance they reminded me much more of the small Egyptian Vultures that I often watched in Southern Europe.

Photo by Ned Harris
 Yesterday it was cloudy and cool, and most raptors were on the ground or perched with no soaring-thermals to be found. The Caracaras and some Ravens were walking on berms between irrigated cotton and alfalfa patches. While the ravens poked at the ground with their beaks, the caracaras used their strong yellow legs and feet to scratch and turn over whole chunks of vegetation and soil that may have been loosened by a plow. Ever now and then a caracara got lucky: he reached out and grabbed something with one foot and then elegantly lifted the morsel to his beak to eat it. I do not know of any other birds that eats like that except parrots....Does the gawky African grassland raptor, the Secretary,  do something like that? I approached three Caracaras that were busily scratching and digging to see what they were catching, but they kept slowly moving out of range. They didn't fly up, they just kept walking and searching. When I checked the soil that the birds had turned I thought I saw holes stemming from grubs or earthworms. I tried to get some video, but I had nothing to rest my camera on, so the tele-lens video turned out awfully jumpy.
I went back today when the light was better, but I only saw three caracaras on the ground and even they took off soon...later I saw them soaring high above. 

On the wide open Santa Cruz flats, telephone posts are the most appreciated perches for most raptors other than Caracaras and Northern Harriers. We spotted amazing numbers of Kestrels, several Merlins (not on the poles or wires), at least three color morphs of Red-tails, a Cooper's, a Ferruginous Hawk and several Prairie Falcons.

Ferruginous Hawk

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

All through November, we still have some butterflies in our backyard in Picture Rocks, AZ

Friday, November 22, 2013

Winter Rain in the Desert

Margie Wrye's 'Cats'
Finally rain blew in.  A couple of days ago, Fb friend Margie Wrye photographed beautiful lentil shaped clouds over the Catalinas, but today the Catalinas and even the Tucson Mountains were completely obscured by low hanging clouds, fog and sheets of rain. I had been wishing for weather like that for a long time. How romantic to see rain pour down the window pains and hear it drum on the roof while sitting by the fire place. Instead we were of course having breakfast and lunch outside on the patio with the dogs. Laika and Cody were wondering if their indoor beds wouldn't be more cozy? 

Even our Twinpeak is shrouded in  clouds.  The rain came to late for the Palo Verde on the right - we lost several over the last four years, but we also have some nice new seedlings growing up.

Friday morning rain gauge
The Saguaros are also quite skinny. Their root system is spreads close under the surface and absorbs water quickly. This one has a lot of room left in trunk and arms to store water and fill out the accordion-folded skin. But check out the light area underneath the chollas: that's  reflection form a little wash that formed. The rain gauge showed more than half an inch in the morning. It has been raining all day since.

mostly Mourning Doves and Gamble's Quail
 Temperatures fell when the storm rolled in so the birds are all hungry. Between showers, Randy quickly fed the ground-feeders their usual breakfast....they completely finish the seeds before they can get very wet and spoil.

Our resident Costa's Hummer seems to enjoy the rain. He has a perch under roof, but he keeps darting out into the open to sit in  the creosote bush (you should smell the aroma!), where he preens and spreads wings and tail feathers under the raindrops. Our hummers are all crazy about showers and often follow us around to bathe in the spray of the watering can or, even better, the hose. The little Costa's is the same guy that bumped into the studio window last week (the right photo shows his minute-long convalescence in my palm).

For the last week we had a steady influx of either Painted or Westcoast Ladies. I never got close enough to check and for now they have disappeared. But I did find this little Empress Leilia that had taken refuge from the rain among the needles  of a saguaro close to her Desert Hackberry bush.
At least two more rainy days are predicted, and now I'm already hoping for a few more sunny warm days to enjoy butterflies and harvest  tomatoes and bell peppers that are finally growing very nicely.

Rain gauge on Saturday morning

On Saturday morning Randy woke me up with the rain gauge in hand. Close to 7 centimeters! He assured me that he had emptied it after I took the Friday picture. That's more precipitation than we've ever had in this gauge in 10 years! More than this years total monsoon rain as well. 
The Tohono O'odam call the steady gentle winter rains female and the violent downpours of summer male. While a lot of the summer monsoons just quickly rushes off down the washes, the continuous drizzle of winter soaks deeply into the thirsty soil. Maybe it will bring us a good spring flower season.   

By Saturday afternoon the sun was shining again, but  this little Costa's girl still thought that it was quite cold.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Nature Illustrated at Tohono Chul Park

When I gave a power point presentation about pollinators at Tohono Chull Park last spring, I used several of my watercolor paintings as illustrations. Preparing the exhibit Nature Illustrated, curator Ben Johnson remembered those images and invited me to participate. Thank you so much, Ben!

My contributions are watercolors of beetles and bugs as well as photo collages of Arizona beetle species.

I missed the show opening last Friday evening because I was still preparing for the weekend art show at La Encantada - autumn and winter are our busiest seasons in Arizona.  But in a way, I am glad that Randy and I went today in the morning to see the show:

 The exhibit room is in one of the historic buildings of the park.Beautiful windows overlook desert vegetation, courtyards, fountains and bird feeders, and instead of distracting from the artwork, this background added a very fitting dimension. I think that speaks for the skill of the exhibit designer as well as for the strength of the artwork. This photographer, unfortunately, is unable to balance wall-art and window-views with her camera...  

 The emphasis of the exhibit was on nature illustrations that are esthetically pleasing and scientifically accurate, created to educate and inspire interest in our complex desert ecosystem.

The works of Linda Feltner, Paul Mirocha, Lois McLane, Rachel Ivanyi, Narca Moore-Craig, Margaret Pope, and Manabu Saito fulfilled this requirement in exemplary fashion and I am very proud that my pieces are part of the show.

The exhibit will be open til February 16, 2014, so there is a lot of time to see it, but right now you get the added bonus of some late blooming flowers in the gardens that are still drawing a surprising abundance of butterflies.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Seasonal changes

Morning has broken....OK, no Blackbirds speaking here in the desert, just Curved-billed Thrashers. But many of you might think that the desert is also devoid of seasonal changes. Far from that, we actually have at least 5 seasons: winters with freezes and sometimes snow, springs with or without wildflowers, hot, dry, pre-monsoon summers, then distinctly different hot, wet monsoon months with a second, rich, growing season, followed by sunny, pleasant autumn months that can last until after the winter holidays.

My bell peppers grow in containers, partly to keep out other critters
 This is when I harvest most of my garden vegetables like bell peppers, tomatoes and lattice.

And while we don't have any trees that drop their leaves in autumn (they do it in April instead when it gets really hot and dry) autumn is one of the two seasons when wolfdog Laika and coydog Frodo blow their coats.

You think raking leaves is frustrating work? Try to keep control of fluffs of soft white and black fur floating on our perpetual breeze or clinging to cloths and car seats due to the static electricity build-up that accompanies the dry season.

So we work hard to keep the flurry at a minimum. At sunrise, we walk into the desert adjacent to our land carrying brushes and  a double-sided shedding blade. The dogs get ecstatic when they see the preparations.

In the wide open cactus free space of a dry wash Randy first tackles Laika. She loves it and tries to wiggle in closer to get her favorite spots scratched only to be replaced by another dog who can't wait his turn, so we end up using leashes to keep some order.

Big clumps of soft hair soon dot the sand, but the wind quickly distributes them. Square miles of Thrasher and Cactus Wren nests will be well cushioned and insulated for another year. Hummingbird nests may look a little like snowballs. Some hair gets caught with the other flotsam in the washes and turns into precious organic humus that is in such short supply in the desert (I use some of it in my compost bin, too).

Treats for everyone of course, even though Cody (left) and Bilbo (right) didn't really need the brushing
 Of course, the old summer coats of our wolf and coyote 'hybrids' only make room for much more luxurious winter coats, even here in Arizona. Desert-born. Frodo is an exclusive out-door (coy)dog. Laika enjoys her evenings inside with us, but around midnight she regularly asks to leave the house to spend the rest of the night under the stars. So they will make good use of their new thick, warm undercoats and they will be ready for another extensive round of shedding next spring.