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  

Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter walk at Saguaro National Park West

It was dry and hot and dusty. Of the wildflowers that the rainy (or here, not so rainy) winter had produced, only dry stalks and seed pods remained. Chollas and prickly pair were blooming, but I've seen better.

Insects were scarce. A bee fly with the ominous genus name Anthrax found the moisture and salt of my hand irresistible.

Foothills Palo Verdes, in beautiful bloom all over Picture Rocks, hardly showed any flowers here. But Ironwood trees were loaded with bursting buds.

There are few Mesquite Trees in the park and their flowers were past their prime. Still, they were the best source for beetles that I could find.

Megalostomis subfasciata

Coleothorpa axillaris
 Clytrin Leaf Beetles were flying around the fresh leaves, maybe searching spots to lay eggs.

Some mesquite catkins were covered in huge aggregations of mating Lycids. Often there are 2 species involved, but this time all I could find were Lucaina marginata , no L. discoidalis.

Lucaina marginata

They shared the catkins with many tiny Dermestid, Melyrid beetles and tiny Perdita Bees whose color is so close to that of the Mesquite flowers that it may take a second look to find them.

With its bee-like flight (the dark elytra stay folded over the body) Acmaeodera griffithi  could be overlooked by the beetle collector. Because I was trying to photograph solitary bees, I inadvertently focused on the Buprestid.

 While manipulating the Mesquite flowers to photograph the Perdita Bee, 2 tiny beetles landed on my hand. They are both  Dasytinae in the family Melyridae genus Trichochrous, the smaller one likely to be T. ferrugineus. (Thnks to Doug Yanega for getting this information from Adriean Mayor)

After only a quarter mile along the dusty road, our dogs were quite ready to go home to a drink and a bath in the tub. So this was a very short 'Osterspaziergang' but I could not completely let go of that lovely tradition.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

As thick as thieves - a bee and a moth

The sky islands of Arizona are treasure islands for naturalists. When the desert wildflowers wilt in the per-summer heat of April and May, in these mountain ranges spring is only beginning. One of my favorite mountains is Mount Graham in eastern Arizona. On its highest elevations, it has beautiful mixed conifer areas and mountain meadows.

Mertensia macdougalii.
 in early summer, a herbaceousl plant in the family Borraginaceae covers acres of these meadows: Mertensia macdougalii. The flowers are set in swirls typical for this family. They are blue when fresh but change color to purple and pink when they age - probably due to ph changes in the aging flowers. They remind me very much of  Pulmonaria, an early spring herald of European forests.
Studying those flowers (looking for bugs on them) I soon noticed little injuries on the upper part most of the drooping flowers. The culprits were obvious too: bees were chewing through the side of the flower's throat to get to the nectar, instead of laboriously crawling into the flower. Easier on the bees, but of course this way, the flowers were probably left unpollinated. The bees that I observed were all of one species in the genus Colletes.

Colletes sp. bee chewing into the side of the flower to get to the nectar
Many Colletes are specialists, foraging for pollen on only one group of plants (Wilson and Messinger Carril). Even though my Mnt. Graham species is not identified and Mertensia is not mentioned in the bee-plant pairings of the book by Wilson and Merringer Carril, I may have stumbled on another such pair, or I just happened upon a group of bees (they are non-social but often nest in aggregations) that had found a good easy nectar source and stuck to it for the time being for reasons of efficiency (constancy principle).

middle: Colletes bee. right: damaged flower; left: moth
But I may have observed a clue that points to a long established relationship, which in this case is based on thievery: After trying to photograph the thieving bees for a while and thus establishing a search image for them, I realized that I was repeatedly looking not at a bee, but at a moth that was using the bee-created access to the nectar source.  Interstingly, the moth (Caloreas apocynoglossa) was always sitting head down while the bees would sit head-up. However, the moths' wing pattern 'took that into account': a dark hind-end  gave the impression of the dark head of the bee, even including antennae, and  a light patch imitated the  reflection on the bee's wings.

Moth Caloreas apocynoglossa
Two  interpretations are possible:
The bees may be armed with a painful sting - at least in comparison with a helpless moth. Predators would avoid bees and moths. So this would be direct Batesian mimicry.
But solitary bees are not usually heavily defended and many birds feed on them.

Another possibility is that the moth gains some protection from its head-down orientation: Flycatchers tend to grab their prey by head and thorax, in this case the pretend-bee-thorax - so the moth may be able to escape from the misdirected attack with minor hind-wing injuries (same idea as in hairstreaks).

But: If the relationship between bee and moth is old and established enough to have resulted in adaptive changes in behavior and pattern of the moth, it may be save to assume that the relationship of this Colletes species and Mertensia macdougalii is even older and that the bees are specialists. Too bad for the plant then, that these bees are specialized thieves!

Quoted: Thee Bees in your Backyard by JS Wilson, OM Carril, Priceton University Press 2016