Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bug Safari 2015 - Northern Arizona

I've been so busy lately that this blog was neglected. Lots of reasons. At least half a dozen public talks about our insect fauna needed to be prepared and presented. This is also the main season to collect bugs for breeders and scientists, so hundreds of ants and beetles had to be packed, shipped, declared ... Parties for entomologists like Pat Sullivan's Infestation came and went. An exciting new project with Art Evans involving my beetle photos is taking shape.

Navajo Horses. watercolor from an earlier trip north
But most of all, I got to spend several days in the field with a few of my best naturalist/entomologist friends. Robyn Waayers came from San Diego County,  Alice Abela and Aaron Shusteff all the way from northern CA.

Oak Creek Canyon, West Fork, Sedona, AZ
We all are very fascinated with the wonders of SE Arizona and we all had been there several (or many in my case) times. So this year, we headed to northern Arizona instead, knowing that the species and individual numbers of insects might be lower there, but all of us would find something new and probably unexpected. Luckily, Derek Uhey, a resident researcher of the NAU Forestry Department, invited us to join him at some of the research sites he knows so well.

Mydas xanthopterus
After settling in at Clear Creek Campground in the Verde Valley, our first excursion took us through terribly touristy and congested Sedona to Oak Creek Canyon's West Fork trail head. I have described the beauty of this area in another blog. This time, we did not get very far because our progress is slow: we turn over over just about every leaf along the path, check behind most sand corns, definitely look at every flower.

Eastern Box-elder Bugs, Lixus semivittatus, Asclera ruficollis (Red-necked False Blister Beetle), Paraphidippus aurantius, Bombus hunti
 Also, it was late in the day, especially for a shady canyon. But besides watching some crepuscular beetles, we soon discovered that sleeping bumble bees have a lot of charm and offer many photo ops. Hard to believe that Alice and I still found time to stuff ourselves with delicious black berries!  Aaron and Robyn indulged in a bath in Poison Ivy instead, but since nobody came down with any symptoms, our botanical knowledge seems to be lacking?

Black lighting at Clear Creek Campground attracted  mostly old acquaintances from southern Arizona. This also turned out to be our last night with temperatures warm enough to bring in multitudes of insects, the moth Eudesmia arida being the dominant species.

Derek, our local expert with his (or Hayduke's?) trusty blue Jeep. Photo by Robyn Waayers, another Abbey fan

Zygogramma continua, Collops bipunctatus (Two-spotted Melyrid), Megaphorus sp., Arethaea (Thread-legged Katydid)
In the Flagstaff area we followed Derek to one of NAU's garden arrays in a formerly heavily grazed, lava rock-rich habitat.  Garden arrays are fenced, controlled test sites where the progress of original vegetation and also of planted trees under the influence of the changing climate is monitored. Insect studies are mainly performed by pit trapping (Derek's amazingly demanding project), so with swipe net, cameras and simply gleaning we may have added a few species to the lists.

Next we headed towards the San Francisco Peaks, to a research site below Snow Bowl Ski resort.  A disturbed area along the road was covered in blooming thistles and made us curious enough to stop.

Bombus morrisoni (photo Derek Uhey)
 Were they native? Was this a field to grow bird seeds? We did not find out. Like most monoculture sites, this one did not offer too much of interest, but the bumble bees were of amazing size.

San Francisco Peaks, Arizona' highest
We then drove through miles of pine forest to our target site within a nature preserve. A beautiful mountain meadow surrounded by aspen and pines was rich in blooming yellow Sneeze Weed that was past its prime but still attractive to many interesting flies and bumble bees.

Chaetorellia sp., Xanthoepalpus bicolor, other tachinid, bumble bees
We camped outside the preserve at the border between open meadows and pine forest. While we set up camp, Common Night Hawks entertained us with loud nasal shrieks that I had never heard before. Then it got cold. We brought out all our warm clothes and feared that no insects would show.

Trichocnemis spiculatus neomexicanus          Alice, Aaron and me (Photo Robyn)                       Tragosoma harrisii
Alice, undiscouraged, laid endless trails of cereal. To me, she seemed to turn into a fairy tale character, and darkling and ground beetles as well as many camel crickets soon fell for her magic.

Catocala grotiana ,Pseudohemihyalea ambigua, Estigmene albida, Hypercompe permaculata (Many-spotted Tiger Moth) Bertholdia trigona (Grote's Bertholdia), Lophocampa ingens, Grammia williamsii
But our lights also were successful despite the low temps. I guess bugs that live up in the Flag area are used to the cold. From the coniferous forest we drew some large Cerambycids. Moths in the family Eribidae which now includes the Tiger Moths added a lot of color. I saw my first Pandora Moth.

At Navajo Bridge
The next morning we made our way towards the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We drove through some of the most amazing red rock and badland country of the Navajo Reservation without stopping or photographing. Did I mention that our lead driver had just been on a trip through Utah's Canyon Lands and got oversaturated with that kind of beauty?  We also thought that on the way back ....

This week our newspaper reported record tourist crowds that choked traffic at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We saw none of that. With the famous cookie shop inn in Jacob Lake, we left all of it behind. The mixed conifer forest was majestic the dirt roads were empty. At Nankoweep, our first choice camp site right on the rim was taken, but with three tents plus Derek's hammock  we were better off some 50 m from the rim anyway. Promising wild flowers, fallen trees with loose bark, thickets of raspberry bushes - the site was ideal and seemed very rich. But rather soon, dramatic storm clouds were rolling through the canyon, obscuring parts of the incredible view. Derek, experienced with the land, pointed north, away from the Canyon: those clouds were coming right at us. We put up lights at protected spots among Aspen and Alice laid her cereal trail.

If Alice had not forgotten to bring the white table cloth, her cereal buffet would have looked like this
We got little, but what came was good. Before turning in for the night we still had to move Robyn's and my big coolers, full of of food and bugs, from Robyn's canvas-top truck into Alice's sturdier vehicle - it's bear country after all. Derek sang us to sleep accompanied by Aaron's tiny traveling guitar. During the howling storm and pelting rain of the night, poor Derek in his hammock did not get a lot of rest and no bear ventured out.

Canyon view in the morning
 In the morning Derek had to visit his research sites in the area but we did not, as planned, accompany him; the weather was just too bad. So we looked longingly through our truck windows at beautiful wildflowers nodding with dripping wetness and searched  the road in front of us for salamanders - shouldn't they, at least, be out and about in this weather? Very impressive lightning strikes close by. Robyn raised the question if it's really safe in a car? I chose to firmly believe in Faraday's cage right then and there.

Charlie Brown Blister Beetle and Pandora Moth
We stopped for breakfast at Jacob Lake and found the outside walls covered in Pandora Moths and a few good beetles - those had come to the lights of the gas station at night. Definitely a spot to spend some more time, next time.

I wanted to look for Sage (Artemisia sp.) specialists on the way back, but again, the rain got us as soon as we left the cars.

 Beautiful red rocks shrouded by rain, no photo stops possible on this leg of the trip.

At the Little Colorado River: next to the water the sandy area where the tiger beetles would be.  Between Aaron and the cliff dead and dying Tamarisk trees all along the river
Aaron knew about a rare Tiger Beetle on the banks of the Little Colorado River. No access at Navajo Bridge, but more luck at Cameron. We did not get the Tiger (who was probably hiding from howling wind and pelting rain). But we were hardly out of the trucks when Robyn pointed: 'Weren't you looking for those bio-control leaf beetles that kill tamarisk?

Diorhabda carinulata (Northern Tamarisk Beetle)
 That tree does not look too good!' The tree turned out to be literally covered in beetles. As I described in one of my first blogs,  Tamarisk is an introduced, invasive tree that displaces many riparian plant communities. Efforts to fight it with beetles and scale insects introduced from its countries of origin have proven to be successful in Colorado and Utah. In AZ the release of the 'agents' was not allowed: The birding community feared for the protected Willow Flycatcher that had switched in some areas to breeding in Tamarisk. Some Tamarisk thickets also offer resting places to large concentrations of migrating birds, and birders do not want to loose those great observation opportunities. Another argument was that mature, established Tamarisk thickets would have made the soil permanently unsuitable for willows and other pioneers due to salt accumulation. The question arises of course if it is better then to let the invasive trees spread unchecked? So no leaf beetle release in AZ. Well, the bugs do not respect state borders - they are here. And they are chewing up Tamarisk. Being established in flood planes and riparian corridors, they will probably spread throughout the state pretty quickly. Lets hope that the results are catastrophic only for the invasive Tamarisk.

Going through Flagstaff, we encountered down-poors so strong that the windshield wipers threatened to give up.  And no silver lining anywhere, just more heavy clouds and lightning. So we kept going south, to Prescott. That way, we missed our planned visit to the insect collection of the NAU and did not see Derek again for now. Too bad,we had very much looked forward to both.

In Prescott, the sky finally cleared. We black lighted at Watson Lake Campground, but found that the tall, bright lights of the park drew the larger scarabs. A nice big male Strategus aloeus crash landed right next to the bath room (hot showers!). There was still enough of a light show to inspire Robyn to try and photograph lightning bolts instead of yet more beetles.

Leptinotarsa rubiginosa (Reddish Potato Beetle)
Alice found a Reddish Potato Beetle, one of the two species that I still needed for Sean Shoville's research project which includes all 7 AZ Leptinotarsa species. In the morning we explored the banks of Watson Lake and Granite Creek first from the campground side, then from the path through the Granite Creek Nature Preserve.

photographing bugs at Watson Lake (photo Robyn Waayers)
 I know the area very well, but it always has something new and interesting to offer. For example, I had never found Euphoria inda anywhere except in Portal, in the very SE corner of AZ. Now we found 2 of them, and just like the one in Portal, they were clinging to narrow-leaf milkweed flowers.

Cicindela obsoleta santaclarae
Beautiful, very large Tiger Beetles Cicindela obsoleta santaclarae appeared on vegetation free patches along the lake, and a smaller, also emerald-green ones, kept getting away from my lens. Finally the heat (!) wore us out and over a nice Mexican lunch we said good bye until we can hopefully do something like this again.

Nemognatha sp. with eggs, Apiomeris flaviventris, Batyle ignicollis oblonga, Neoalbertia constans, Euphoria indaHemipepsis toussainti
Since I'm back in southern Arizona, Derek, who is not only an extremely hard working field biologist but also a remarkable artist with his camera, keeps tantalizing me with the most beautiful landscape and night-sky-scape photos from up north, and I feel a great urge to load my van to drive back up. Lets see how long I can resist.    
Night sky over the badlands by Derek Uhey


  1. What a great idea to use cereal to attract the beetles. Makes me want to bring some to use on my upcoming trip. What kind did Alice use?

    1. Oat meal I believe, and yes, I was amazed how well it worked.

    2. Great blog! I'd definitely love a repeat :o) Yes, it was oatmeal. I recommend minute oats if there you're in k-rat county; it has small fragments that get left behind for the inverts after the rodents clean up the big pieces ;o)

  2. Thanks for the beautiful photos and commentary. Makes me want to visit AZ again in 2016!

  3. Very nice summary of the adventure. My memories of it were being threatened in the last week by TOO many school meetings and syllabus preps! Derek's photo is fantastic. I have been dabbling in might sky photography (star-scapes and so forth) and his photo provides inspiration to keep at it! And your photos are excellent as always! The Navajo horses' backdrop is certainly familiar...