Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Border Bug Safari August 2016

'On August 8, Javier intensified into a 65 mph tropical storm near Cabo San Lucas.' That was on Monday. On Tuesday, my friends Joyce and Alice from CA and I met at Pena Blanca Canyon for our SE Arizona summer trip along the US Mexican Border. Just in time for the storm to come up north. It was  raining softly when I joined the two in their camp, so we decided to use the ramadas at the Ruby Road campground for shelter and to spread out our road maps.

Kuschelina jacobiana
A lucky choice: while Alice and Joyce photographed last night's bounty, I found some very nice Flea Beetles genus Kuschelina. The pretty beetles were sitting exposed, like waiting, on the pointed leaves of Desert Honeysuckle Anisacanthus thurberi. They flew easily when disturbed but kept landing on the same plant species. I soon located several mating couples. The species K. jacobiana is not observed very often, in fact, the only other entry in BugGuide is also from Patagonia. The reported host plant seems to be Desert Willow, but both the honeysuckle and the 'willow' are in the Acanthus family.  

Agrilus heterothecae
 The plant hosting  this Agrilus pair still needs to be identified, it's not the typical Heterotheca sp. either, but it's in the sunflower family and I've collected the buprestids from it before, at Sunnyside CG in the Chricahuas.

Stormy weather
We took Ruby Rd back to Rio Rico and connected there to River Rd and later to Duquesne Rd which starts at the 'Little Red Schoolhouse'.  From there on, there are endless stretches of dirt road closely paralleling the Mexican Border and therefore well maintained for US Border Patrol vehicles. Those officers were also the only human company we would keep for the next couple of days. The main reason: the weather. Javier had by now crossed into the US, legally or not, and was drenching the Canelo, Parker and Huachuca Mts.

While we were making our way along their southern water shed we were not ourselves being rained on, but we watched the clouds pile up north of us and around Lochiel the road had road turned into mud slides. Testing our cars' 4 wheel and all-wheel drives, getting acquainted with new warning beeps and lights when traction was lost. Glad it the worst was on downhill slopes.

Insects were hiding in this weather, but we still found them, gleaning, sweeping, or using a beating sheet. Arizona Claptrop, pink mimosas and white-blooming Acacias proved good places to look.

Cremastocheilus constricticollis
 Alice found a very nice Anteater Scarab Beetle that still sported a blond punk hair-do on its dark head: a very fresh specimen of Cremastocheilus constricticollis - they loose those hairs pretty soon after they emerge. This indicates that the second generation is already out - early for the season. 

The weather also brought out a few reptiles, though not as many as we would have hoped. The Desert Tortoise showed up early, along River Rd in Rio Rico, the Gophersnake was stretched across the dirt Road close to Lochiel and was smart enough to coil up tightly when my car straddled it. Alice called him 'one majorly pissed gopher'

The wash looked much more impressive in real life. It was very noisy, too.. That's the rancher's truck coming towards us Photo Joyce Gross

By late afternoon we hit the first deep wash south of the Huachucas. While we stood contemplating the already raging flood water a rancher came down from the other side and made clear in no uncertain gestures (we could not hear him over the noise of the stream) that we were not going to cross.

by Joyce Gross
 So we camped in the grassland above the crossing - set up our black lights and tents in a side road. Walking and searching, we found scores of insects and spiders - the spiders getting their webs ready for the night's hunt, the bees finding a grass blade to clamp onto to sleep.

At night , a BP agent stopped by and reported that the wash was now, with falling water, passable for his Ford Tahoe. He wanted to redirect us to Parker Lake along a ridge road to keep us from getting caught in some run-off.  But that would have taken us far of our planned route. In the morning,  the old rancher from the day before  came checking on us. He was still running cattle on his families original homestead. We then continued east following our original plan. At a couple of washes we had to move boulders and  avoid some deep ruts, but no problem. Thankfully the splashing water rinsed off some of the clay that our cars had accumulated the day before. I was too excited to take photos, though.

The south flank of the Huachucas was greener than I had ever seen it. Where I remembered tiger beetles running on bare soil, there were thick grasses harboring legions of chiggers. I was beyond caring because I'd been thoroughly exposed just a week before and still itching, but Joyce later stopped counting at 220 bites. As we climbed to higher elevations, Joyce got her first opportunity to look for gals on oaks. There were fewer flowers and hence fewer flower visiting insects than I had seen in other years.

  A little orange-blooming clover  was full of nectaring insects.  If I'm not mistaken, that's the plant that years ago stirred Doug Yanega's curiosity because he thought he had observed a close relationship between the flower anatomy and a certain bee. I did see only one species of little bees in attendance. these bees are in the genus Calliopsis (John Ascher det.) Most species in this genus are oligolectic or monolectic (they collect pollen from a few related species or just one species). In addition, there also many individuals of a bee fly species that also seemed, for the moment, specialized on the orange flowers. Skippers were visiting as well.

We had planned to spend our first night in Copper Canyon, but now arrived there in the early afternoon. So we first made a trip up to Montezuma Pass. Behind us the view includes the Hereford/Sierra Vista area on the left and Mexican borderland on the right. Coronado marched through here on his tryst towards northern cities of gold.

Beetles from Montezuma Pass and Montezuma Canyon Road
For us, greater riches lay in the diversity of insects that we found at the top and then again in the lower part of Montezuma Canyon Rd. The area in between is not only off limits for collecting, it was also where the ever threatening cloud bursts finally caught up with us.

Montezuma Canyon Rd descending through Coronado National Monument
The next night we finally got to spend at Copper Canyon. That place is usually very rich in diversity quite special because it's so open towards Mexico. But this time, I found it rather disappointing. The very recent rains may have dropped the temperature below the activity threshold for many beetles.

Our MV/UV set up by Joyce Gross
But we also had to deal with what I can only describe as a case of unpleasant bullying from a group of moth collectors who arrived after we had already set up out lights and our sleeping arrangements for the night. Those 3 guys, actually led by an acquaintance of mine,  set up 5 generators and 7 MV lights all around us. Then they kept driving up and down the roads with blindingly bright light bars on the top of their truck to check on all those light traps. Their noisiest generator ended up only about 20 yards from our camp, on higher ground than our light, with no buffering vegetation in between. Out complaints only caused them to bring in a quieter generator and the remark 'We are all in this together, you are welcome to take the bugs we don't want from our lights.'

A sample of Alice's haul at Copper Canyon at night
  For me, that night was pretty much spoiled. And the beetles did not oblige either, they probably do not like bullies any more than I do. Alice, however, proved that adversity like that cannot impress a true bug enthusiast, and produced a series of beautiful photos. Joyce and I eventually just switched off  the intruding light. So we all got our deserved night sleep and in the morning we got another good load of day active bugs in the grassland of the canyon, all under the curious eyes of the local cattle.

Copper Canyon day-activity
After so much mountain rain we headed  for the hot and sunny Willcox Playa, hoping to find it drenched by last week's rains, so the puddles would be full, the flowers blooming and the tiger beetles hatched.  All that proved to be true to a degree. I've seen the playa more covered in flowers but also more dried up.

We first stopped at the Railway Road where only some Milkweed patches were buzzing. Clerids, Tarantula Hawks, and little Milkweed Longhorns posed nicely. Sleeping colorful blister beetles hugged fleabane flowers like feather beds

Alice and I, fishing in murky water. Photo by Joyce

Flat puddles of the color of coffee au lait bubbled with the activity of air-gulping tadpoles - baby spadefoods are huge and ravenous, not shy of biting off the tails of smaller toad larvae.

Several freshwater shrimp species were bobbing up and down, impossible to photograph. But when we found triops, I remembered Piotr Naskrecki's beautiful photos and got out a bowl with clear, fresh water. It was worth it. I had never seen the red underside, nor seen their gills constantly fanning.

Even in the dunes along Blue Sky Road, Tiger beetles were rather scarce. Not too surprising, as other entomologists had reported the main emergence by the end of July. But a few were still mating and thus not too easily disturbed.

 We spend a lot of time on the hot sand under the merciless sun with them. After that, we were ready to head back to the closest mountains - the Chiricahuas Mts.

Driving up Pinery Canyon Road we were greeted by a male Montezuma Quail who was not afraid at all and posed willingly with different backgrounds. In fact, he was back 2 days later when we had to say good bye to his mountain range.

Our campsite in the oak belt allowed Joyce to search for more galls. As the night was humid and warmer than at Copper Canyon, and our light was the only one around, we  had a nice variety of bugs flying in.

Alice's  oatmeal trail also brought a nice number of Jerusalem crickets, camel crickets, shieldbacks,  and and an impressive Rove Beetle.

In the middle of the night a huge boulder, dislodged by all the previous rain, rolled down the mountain slope towards our camp, but luckily its momentum ended harmlessly on the other side of the creek. I saw my first snake fly, ever, also thanks to that creek.

Rustler Park was our high elevation goal for the next day. I had been up there shortly with Robyn and Gary the week before. Since then much of the Sneezeweed in the meadow had wilted, but many other flowers were still in their prime. But there was little insect activity.

Interestingly, I found my second ever Calligrapha multiguttata on a flower in the exact spot where I'd seen my first in 2008.

 Also just like back then, a Pine Sawyer came flying to our parked cars.

Content of my aspirator vial after collecting under bark
Most of the other interesting bugs of this day were found under the loose bark of dead trees that were still standing from the huge forest fire some years ago.  There were Tenebrionidae and little Rove Beetles, Clown Beetles and Weevils, Bark Gnawing Beetles, and Dry Bark Beetles. Most of them shared the sames cigar shape that allows them to move around

We stopped at many promising oak-gall-sites on the way down, always with an eye on building thunderheads. While Joyce searched for galls, a little Short-horned Lizard played hide and seek with us.

We gave Willcox Playa another chance - this time at the bird viewing area at the golf course. There were lots of Black-necked Stilts and other wading birds, but I've rarely payed as little attention to them before. Instead we were again tiger beetle hunting. They tantalized us with all shades of blue, but in the end, none of them was the famous Black Sky Tiger Beetle. Alice and Joyce found an amphibian friend, though. And you can see we were rather sun-baked by then, but quite happy.

Our last stop as gang of three was in Picture Rocks. Home, for me! The dirt roads had a thick new layer of loose sand and Randy said that we had gotten a lot of rain over the last 2 days. We showered, gave Randy some short account of our exploits, played with the dogs, and heated some Pizza - and all the while the MV light was already shining out over the Creosote flats and Ironwood washes of our property.

 And the bugs came! Some surprises even for me, and I've black lighted in that spot pretty regularly since 2007.

In the morning,  when Alice and Joyce left for some more days of adventure, I was quite envious. Let's do something like this again, soon! But I had to process (photograph on white back ground) the score of beetles that I'd brought home with me. That took at least as long as the whole trip. - and then there was this blog to write ... but now I'm ready for my next trip, too - It'll be to Sonora, Mexico.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Cicadas emerge

In Arizona, we do not have any synchronized 17 year cicada shows of the eastern United States. Instead, our cicada emerge year after year, each of our many species according to its own schedule and in its special habitat. Among our multitude of species are desert species and some that live in riparian habitats or mountain forests.

Their songs also vary from species to species: some shriek, some buzz, some only bang their wings, others sing in big orchestras that overpower any human communication. But all appear in the heat of summer and their singing seems to be the sound of heat, sunshine, and the longest days ....


All cicada develop from eggs that the females lay into the ground. Nymphs hatch and feed underground, sucking plant juices from tree roots.

At this age their front legs are specialized digging tools as can be seen in the exuvia above. Invisible to humans, but sometimes pursued by digging predators like moles or rooting pigs, the nymphs steadily grow, molt when their inflexible skin becomes too tight, and thus go through four or five stages of development (instars), typical for hemimetabolic species that lack a pupal stage.

Fully grown, they finally surface. Now the nymphs climb up on surfaces rough enough to securely anchor the claws of their tarsi. They need to hang perfectly still during the next act, their last molt leading from nymph to adulthood.

The exoskeleton bursts open in the back of the thorax. This slit widens, the insect pushes out until head  and upper body is free. Hydraulic pressure is generated and expands the body out of the old shell. Linings of the old tracheae that are also chitinous and are pulled out and turned inside out like the fingers of a glove. Those are the white strings hanging off the exuvia.

The young cicada hangs backwards out of its anchored old skin. Eventually gravity pulls it out even further and faster.

Teneral imago of an unidentified cicada species from Pena Blanca Canyon

 Below: Linings of the old tracheae that are also chitinous and are pulled out and turned inside out like the fingers of a glove. Those are the white strings hanging off the exuvia.

Neotibicen cultriformis (Grand Western Flood Plain Cicada) from Empire Gulch
Some photographers like to straighten up images of this stage for easier viewing. But for the animal, an upright position would simply not work and for any naturalist or biologist those images are obvious fakes.

Neotibicen cultriformis (Grand Western Flood Plain Cicada) teneral (fresh and soft) on the left, middle and right hardening and maturing
Eventually, hydraulic  pressure inflates the 4 little folded appendages on the back of the thorax into fully functional wings that are able to transport the heavy body as soon as they are hardened.

Another generation of cicadas is ready to join the chorus of summer.