Thursday, August 29, 2019

Carabidae from the Portal Coleoptera Course

Carabus auronitens, like the ones that I found in Kurler Busch, the forest behind our house in Germany
From earliest insect systematics classes at the University of Bochum, Germany, I had a special fascination for Carabid Beetles. In English, they are unimaginatively called Ground Beetles, but the German name Laufkaefer does a little more justice to these fast, fierce hunters. In Germany the genus Carabus dazzled with some rather large metallic, colorful species. 

Here in AZ, that genus is represented by only 2 species which are large and impressive, but comparatively dull in color.  During the course, I looked for them at Barfoot Park but this time, they were only found by some friends who really specialized on carabids and searched at night.

Calosoma scrutator
In Arizona the genus Calosoma with its several subgenera is much more prevalent than Carabus and at least one member also makes up for the lackluster appearance of the other large US Carabids. During the course, we saw surprisingly few, and mostly black species in a desert wash along Foothills Rd. I did not even photograph any. 

In the desert, we also had the largest diversity of Cicindelinae (Tiger Beetles), as shown above, not a lot. 

We also looked for the recently described   Cicindelidia melissa  that seems to be limited to the road to Barfoot Park, but we did not see any of those.

Scaphinotus petersi corvus from Rustler Park
Around Barfoot and Rustler I also found a few Cychrini under logs in moist places. With long heads and mouth-parts, they are adapted feed on snails. So in Arizona, their food source is limited to the high elevations of the Sky islands and they do not move away from those confined areas. I believe that they are flightless. Speciation  is beginning. 

Scaphinotus petersi grahami from Mount Graham
Currently the populations on Mount Graham, the Chiricahuas, the Huaschucas, the Sta. Ritas and the Catalinas are considered subspecies.
All those larger Carabids in the subfamily Carabinae are sought after by collectors. This time, to me they were mere by-catch. I was much more interested in the plethora of smaller species. I like the colorful Lebiini that are colorful day-active flower visitors but still oblige by coming to lights at night.

I also searched for Wendy Moore's Paussines that she had introduced in a very interesting talk during the course. I had found some at Pena Blanca Canyon and also in the Huachucas, but it would have been interesting to see them running up and down oak trees in the Chiricahuas. No such luck. We found Brachinus spp. along the creeks and at our lights, but none of these great, dangerous looking beetles.

This time I was after all those dark Harpalinae that are (to me) quite hard to identify all the way to the species. Luckily, I have an agreement with Peter Messer who has spent endless hours familiarizing himself with characters like single hairs on palps and groves on tiny foreheads. He lives in the eastern US, but as usual, the most interesting diversity is found here in AZ.  So I am collecting and photographing my beetles as well as possible, and place the result on The number that Bugguide assignes is included with the collection data, to be shipped with the specimen to Peter,  for species id and to stay in his voucher collection. He will add his id to my photo on BugGuide. It's perfect, because for my AZ Beetle book I need the reliably identified images, but I will also always know where my voucher specimens are curated.

Sericoda bembidioides
I was especially happy to find a small species whose elytra show an unusual pockmark pattern: the little Harpaline Sericoda bembidioides. I only found this species once before on Mount Lemmon. It is known to be attracted to areas that suffered an extensive forest fires. Mount Lemmon back then, just as Rustler Park now, were indeed heavily marked by fire. In both cases the time of the actual catastrophic burn was more than 5 years in the past.  But last year I watched forest rangers and firemen build pyramids of cut logs everywhere in the forest. The logs were from fallen trees and from those that were felled to thin the tree stands. The rangers told me that they would let the wood dry and then wait for wet winter days,  preferably with thick snow cover, to burn these piles of logs. They had in fact disappeared by now. This practice seems like a terrible waste and source of unnecessary CO2 emissions. But it seems to maintain pockets of habitat for this interesting beetle. 

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Young Cooper's Hawks hunting

The urban areas of Tucson have an overabundance of Cooper's Hawks that decimate the Dove and Pigeon population downtown and around the university campus (photo)

Out here, in the open desert west of the Tucson Mountains, Red Tails, Harris Hawks, and Kestrels are a more obvious presence than Cooper's Hawks.  But the Cooper's stealthy way of hunting from a hidden perch may have something to do with that.  For years we knew that a big female Cooper's was using our neighbors' big mesquite tree as her daytime roost.  Nearly every morning she makes one fast swoop at the doves and quail that enjoy a one-time feeding in our backyard (just a handful of seeds tossed on the ground). This usually results in a lot of fluttering, squaking and aggravation, and even our dogs join in the melee.

We rarely witness a catch. But we find telltale piles of feathers, mainly of doves, but once even the wings and tail of a screech owl. Over the last months, the big female and her mate must have been raising a clutch of young ones in another neighbor's big old pine tree.
During that time she was less visible. But lately got into some territorial disputes with the local group of Harris Hawks that was trying to take over her mesquite tree, so she's probably back to her old habit of spending the day in its cool, green canopy..  Several fledglings must be on their own, and  they are becoming a menace.

The young Cooper's in pursuit of  the Gila Woodpecker (Photo-montage!)
When we walked with our dogs this morning just after six, we heard a distress call from a Gila Woodpecker. It was flying erratically among the saguaros, trying to escape a smallish Cooper's that was matching its every turn. The Cooper's was relentless. We watched them for what seemed several minutes:  the Gila always nearly getting away, flying in tight curves to evade its pursuer, but the the Cooper's matching its desperate tactics in every turn. Eventually, when they were just out of sight, a last scream from the Gila told us how it ended.

Change of the guard at the Saguaro nest of a Gila pair (photo Dave March)
The Gila Woodpecker may have been an inexperienced youngster. We had  woodpecker nests in nearly every saguaro and the young ones only fledged some few weeks ago. It always seems that the cavity breeders like woodpeckers and Kestrels take their time growing up in the safety of their climate controlled saguaro holes. But now they are out and live is hard - the summer rains so far have not even really started, insect numbers are down, and only Prickly Pear fruit are available in unusual abundance.   

For years we had some established adult Gila Woodpeckers that frequented our hummingbird feeders. Individuals had their own special techniques to get to the sugar water, so we got to know them well. 
One male used to tip the feeder with his weight, causing messy drips under the feeder, another one used his long tongue to reach in, one female employed a very distinctive tremolo to induce sugar water to flow from the seams of the feeder. For years, a pair spent its resting time right in front of my studio window and brought their young ones to my feeder as soon as they could fly.

This August, all those patterns seem disturbed. When Robyn Waayers visited to photograph desert birds, I thought that the Gilas would be her easiest targets, but they made themselves rarer than the Gilded Flickers. I have been finding an ominous amount of plucking sites with black and white banded feathers - clearly from Gila Woodpeckers. Should one of the young Cooper's hawks be a Gila Killer?  This suspicion is not too far fetched.

In the eighties, my friend Erik Kretschmar and his ethology professor Eberhard Curio raised a number of the smallest European Accipiter species - the  Sperber (Accipiter nisu) to investigate how prey preferences were formed, as the prey base of the species includes many different animals from insects to birds to small mammals, but most individual birds are more specialized. I short, they found that the first hunting experiences of a youngster are quite determining for its further  career as a hunter.  Success in grabbing a tasty mouse during early trials may make a particular hawk a rodent specialist, while clashing into a nasty thorn bush in pursuit of a lizard may sour that kind of prey for this particular bird. I do not remember how specific that imprinting process was. It cannot be too narrow or it would limit the food supply for the bird too much, but it may keep partners (or for a while siblings) who share a territory from competing too much for resources.

When I  watch Gila Woodpeckers, our most common Picidae,  and I notice the very distinct flight pattern, choice of perch, pose while sitting, their noisy calls, and I can imagine that a hunter may consider them as a  prey group as distinct as 'small rodent', 'small bird', 'lizard', 'snake' etc. and specialize on them.

Young Cooper's after an unsuccessful swoop (photo Glenn Seplak) 
I love our noisy agile drummers. I hope they will not be decimated too much!  While we had breakfast on the patio, there was another attack from a small Cooper's Hawk, this time wreaking havoc among Quail, doves and our dogs while he was chasing a Curvebilled Thrasher. He was unsuccessful and landed quite close to our table to take an extended brake. I'm pretty sure the he wasn't the Gila hunter, who should have been still full of his earlier meal, but a sibling (is clutch-mate a word?)

Luckily, Gila Woodpeckers are not always helpless victims. During the breeding season I saw heroic parents take on our top predator, the Great Horned Owl, who came to close to the saguaro hole with its chicks. The Owl did not stay long.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The First Coleoptera Course at the SWRS in Portal

I just returned home from the inaugural, 10 day Coleoptera Course at the South West Research Station in Portal, AZ. We hardly noticed that this was a first - it ran so smoothly.

The man who organized it all Steven Lingafelter
Brittany, Rich and Steve finally at rest

Steven Lingafelter was the Lead Coordinator and did most of the planning and preparations for the 2019 Coleoptera Course at the Research Station in Portal, Arizona:  After he took and enjoyed the long established Moth Course in 2018, he brought the idea for a Beetle Course to the station management and then devoted weeks (months?) of work to the project. It must have been a huge undertaking and it turned out so well!

 Reference literature and synoptic collection of relevant beetle families
Among all the other things, Steve prepared a reference library, a teaching collection representing all relevant beetle families, and 14 Smith Boxes with examples of 50 families for all students to practice their identification skills on. I helped to collect the specimens for those boxes - that's mainly how I became a course assistant.

Images for the Book Arizona Beetles were also available as references
I had printed out over 30 pages of images that I have prepared for my and Art Evan's Book Arizona Beetles. Before the course, I only made it to family Tenebrionidae (my PC crashed a week before),  which means there were 1267 identified species depicted (of the about 2000 that will be in the book). During the first days of the class, the ring binder with those images was used quite a lot for species identifications. Later people got more involved and confident with the keys, and were working mostly with difficult to photograph small specimens.  I tried to photograph those during the course to the abilities of my camera equipment to later add them to the book.

Rich Leschen 

Every day started with a lecture. Richard Leschen flew in from New Zealand to be the Lead Instructor. He gave a series of very focused lectures on diversity, morphology, classification, and identification of beetles. I am no systematist, but I feel that I learned a great deal. I am grateful that he made the lectures available in print and file. It relieved us from painstaking note-taking and provides a useful base for further study.
Rich was supported by knowledgeable input from Matt Gimmel. Matt also introduced an electronic interactive identification key. Differing from the usual dichotomus keys that are based on a fixed series of character couplets, this key lets the user decide on the approach that seems most accessible. A very interesting tool that I will have to explore further.

Chris and Brittany collecting leaf litter for a Berlese Funnel
Matt Gimmel and Chris Carlton servicing a Flight Intercept Trap
Christopher Carlton, supported by  Brittany Owens, instructed us in the use of a diversity of traps for collection: V-Flight intercept, Malaise Trap, Pheromone traps, insitu sleeve contaiment,  Berlese funnel were demonstrated and put to use.  He also explained special preparation methods of delicate specimens that made somewhat hidden components of the exoskeleton more visible under the compound microscope..

Guest lectures  Wendy Moore (Paussinae, UoA) Gene Hall (Ptiliidae, UoA) and Andrew Johnston (Tenebrionidae ASU) introduced their fields of research.

On the first day, I wrote on the white board a list of the 100 beetle families that we were most likely to find according to Matt's predictions.
Brittany, Rich Leschen, Matt Gimmel, Andrew Johnston discussing THE LIST
 When beetles were collected, the relevant families were tagged. As to be expected, he large, most obvious beetles were soon found and tags appeared on the first 50 families rather quickly. Further families were added more slowly, after tiny beetles that many of us tend to overlook or ignore where found and analyzed.

THE LIST, nearly complete
Searching different habitats (creek and ponds) and the catch from traps and filters added many of the more elusive families. End result: 71 families in 9 days. Pretty impressive!

Class of 2019 at work
The lab was well equipped with a good modern microscope and light source for every student, and we spend many hours bent over tiny specimens. The class dynamic brought back memories from field stations during my student years -  concentration, cooperation and long hours.

People appeared before breakfast and stayed long after the last black lights outside had been checked. Personal collections, beetles pinned neatly on styrophone boards, grew on every desk. (I only identified and photographed my specimens)

after lunch at the cafeteria, talking bugs, I'm sure
The station has convenient lodging and dining facilities, making it perfect for courses and also individual researchers. Meal times and procedures are quite strictly regimented and announced by a deafening noise, produced ranch style by banging on a metal triangle. Long lines form. The food is well worth it.

Matt Gimmel sampling Dasytine Melyridae at Barfoot Park 
Beetles collected at Rustler Park, around 9000 feet elev.

Flickr album of beetles in situ - from excursions during the course 
The Research Station in Portal is located in the heart of  one of the high-diversity areas on the planet.  A main component of the course were field trips into the higher Chiricahua Mountains and the surrounding desert. I think that the breathtaking beauty of the surroundings cannot be underestimated as an inspiration to unlimited exploration.

Sphaerobothris ulkei on Ephedra sp.
Despite the full schedule, students with interest in special families, like Buprestids, did find time for their own excursions. The famous Buprestid from Desert Willow Rd was found in small numbers by several participants.

The south-fork of Cave Creek provided riparian habitat right on the station's property, and frog ponds added the still water component.

Gymnetina howdeni
I fished the usually terrestrial scarab Gymnetina howdeni out of the swimming pool. It's the first time I got hold of a living specimen. They usually fly high in the tree canopy and seem to only fall to the ground at the end of their lives.

The desert habitat along Foothills Road provided very different beetles from those of canyons and forested mountain tops. We black-lighted there in a wash - rain was not in the forecast, otherwise flash floods could have surprised us. The photo above is from last year.

Coenopoeus palmei and  Moneilema appressum
Folks to whom desert habitat is as exotic as rain forest would be to me returned during the day to check out Barrel Cactus and Opuntia patches surrounded by vast stretches of Creosote and Mesquite.  Perennial flowers that usually bloom there at this time were still delayed by the late onset of the summer rains. I hope they will be ready in time for the bee course that directly follows  our beetle course.

Mary Jane with moths
Every night UV and Mercury vapor lights attracted beetles and rather competitive collectors alike.  For the next course, we may want to slow down the sheet collection somewhat, so more students can actually see and enjoy the beetles. Moth will remain free for grabs, though.

Friendly Striped Skunk
Wren eating moth (Chris Carlton)
We also had some uninvited guests helping themselves to 'our' bugs. Skunks, visiting at night, became quite habituated and never threatened to spray us. Acorn Woodpeckers, Canyon Wrens and Summer Tanagers could be seen at sunrise, cleaning the sheets off last night's bugs.

Musicians Michele Lanan, Mary Jane Epps, Charles Hart and Rich Leschen
The classroom was open 24/7 and although I slept very little, I never found it empty. Some people seemed to be at workaround the clock. We did have some party time off, but by then we were all so tired, that only the great blue grass music played by 4 very talented members of the group rescued the evening. Loved it! Here is a link to Flickr because my recording is too long to be posted directly to this blog

The students in this first class were nearly all all professionals with a good deal of experience. Most were identifiers or entomology professors. This was a hand-picked group that will hopefully give valuable feed-back after this first run.

The Bee Course at the SWRS, which is the oldest of the courses and a model for the newer ones, is now in it's 35rd year and still has long waiting lists for applicants. So - lets see how our Coleoptera Course is doing in 35 years!