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