Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Pros and cons of private Insect collections

Insect collecting At the moment, huge Dynastes grantii and pretty Chrysina spp are flying in our sky islands and landing under bright lights. They are tempting many nature-lovers even from out of state, to begin an insect collection. Indeed, collecting is a great way to learn about insects, and this knowledge hopefully leads to understanding and protection of environment and habitat. A well curated collection can be a valuable teaching tool to draw in others, especially kids. But: anybody who thinks he or she needs a collection should really consider the scientific validity of that enterprise. I am not saying that the ecosystem gets damaged by the withdrawal of a few individual insects. Where you find some, there usually are many more and as imagoes (adults) their lifespan is very limited. Any individual producing offspring produces such number that any dents in the population (by collecting) are easily filled. But to feel good your about collected insects, you need to prepare them carefully, label each one with collection data (more important than species ids!), dry them properly and keep them in a protective drawer (and those will be accumulated in cabinets, then whole bug rooms!) away from carpet beetles etc. For killing and preservation, toxic chemicals are used. This is some great effort, but it should be undertaken out of respect if you are going out to kill animals. Even today It is still possible, especially out west, to find new species or contribute important data to ecological surveys. Of course, the hobbyist has to understand that the large, showy species are usually well known and new data and exciting research results are rare. With the enormous diversity of insects, not many hobbyists can become knowledgeable experts of the whole phylum. Compare species numbers to those of birds or mammals and you see what I mean. However, specialization on families within orders allows even a lay person to accumulate enough knowledge to contribute. But you have to make yourself appreciate smaller, less charismatic specimens than just the big scarabs and longhorn beetles. Detailed observation and inclusion of the small and overlooked species will make a collection relevant and important beyond just a pretty wall decoration. In due course, If the collection is well cared for and scientifically interesting material is accumulated, it should later be made available to research and teaching in a museum or university setting. Collecting used to be the only way to really learn about insects, because reliable identifications in the field are difficult. Optical instruments and dissections may be needed, and good field guides are hardly available when compared to what’s out there for birders. To a certain degree, this situation is changing. With easy access to good macro-photographic equipment (even I phones!) much can be recorded and identified without the actual specimen in hand. Internet platforms like BugGuide and INaturalis and even our SW Arthropods group on Face Book (I am NOT suggesting to ‘just google it’) connect the naturalist to experts who are willing to help with their knowledge and who in turn gain access to data from the crowd of observers. Of course whenever something interesting is shown on those platforms, the experts will clamor for specimens, not just photos (with good reason). But still the beginner should probably use photography and internet platforms to learn the basics before he or she starts collecting and gets stuck with a pretty, showy, but in the end not very interesting collection of just Hercules Beetles, Silk Moths and pretty butterflies. That way, the collection may eventually become much more satisfying than just a wall decoration.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Gila Woodpeckers in Saguaro Boots

On the 7th of May, a friend visited with her family to look for nests in Saguaros. Tucson Audubon had offered some kind of sponsorship reward for finding those. So we looked at Raptor nests, a White-winged Dove, House Sparrows. The dad of the family heard fine chirps from above: deep inside the stem of a saguaro a clutch of Gila Woodpeckers had just hatched. Gila Woodpeckers and Gilded Flickers hammer holes deep into the stem or a big arm of our giant cacti. This nesting cavity is not used in the year when it's built. But soon the cactus encloses the cavity with heavy sclerotized layer of scar tissue. So now there is this hard, inverted bag hanging inside the cactus, reaching in, then curving down, as big as a boot. It is surrounded by the moist, water-storing tissue of the cactus and parts of the wooden saguaro skeleton. It's impenetrable to most predators. Most importantly, it's isolated from temperature fluctuations by the huge amount of water-holding material around it. Desert nights can be cold, daytime temperatures are extremely hot. Eldon Braun of the UoA found in his master-thesis research that the daily fluctuations inside of several Gila Woodpecker nests never exceeded 14C, even if the nights hovered around 10C and the daytime high was way over 40C (scientists use Celsius measurements). Great conditions for the woodpecker brood to grow up in. At the same time young dove chicks in their flimsy nests nearby experienced the full impact of heat and cold. Surprisingly, most dove nests produce fledglings anyway. But not surprisingly, the baby doves develop very quickly (high protein crop milk helps) and then they are out of the nest. Precocious quail chicks run from their ground nests even faster - on the day of hatching! However, the Gila Woodpeckers that we heard chirping faintly on the 7th of May are still in their 'Saguaro boot' today on the 15th of July! Now their chirping is not faint anymore, but loud and demanding! They are probably close to fledging, but still holding out. Who would be eager to leave the climatized safety of the inside of a huge cactus column for the punishing heat that the outside desert is experiencing right now? But when they do decide to fledge, monsoon rains will hopefully be right around the corner to cause scores of insects to emerge that the young woodpeckers will devour. Still, the juveniles also learn very quickly to get refreshments from our hummingbird feeders. Soon!

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Pre-Monsoon Ordeal

Our Patio has a deeply overhanging roof. At 110F it becomes a shady retreat for all kinds of animals close to heat exhaustion. I just went outside to spray the floor so the evaporating water will cool it down even more. There are flies on the walls. Whiptail lizards moving between some planters. An Antelope Squirrel appearing shortly between the pots. Not used to being so close to the house, it nervously hides from view. Two Cottontail Rabbits stay in the periphery. They may be aware that 3 big, fast dogs live here (indoors today). And scores of birds. They are annoying the Costa's Hummingbird that always lives here, for nearly a decade now (does an individual get that old or is he part of a dynasty? Cactus wrens investigate every corner. Mourning Doves sit quietly. Verdins are part of the army that seems intent on denuding my pepper plants of their last leaves. The female Cardinal has just raised a demanding brood. She'd deserve some rest. Instead she pants with her parrot beak wide open. A Say's Phoebe flutters along the wall. No 'burgfrieden' for the flies on the wall. Last year, in a window niche I saw a form of that (look up the German word if you must) A rattler tucked into one corner, a Sonoran Desert Toad sitting in the other one, a packrat nervously running between them, oblivious to the rattler that she occasionally stepped on. But back to today. No snakes so far. Sharp whistles announce Curvebilled Thrashers, a youngster and a parent. A family of House Finches occupies table and chairs. Abert's Towhee is a very unusual visitor though years ago we had nesting Canyon Towhees who long since gave up on this dry part of desert. Several Gila Woodpeckers divide their time between our Hummingbird Feeder and the last Saguaro Fruit (we have a huge pair of saguaros very close to the patio roof and can only hope that they never fall down on us) Ashthroated Flycatchers grab last nights drowned scarabs from a water dish on the window sill. I follow with my eyes and suddenly realize that I am looking at a sleeping Screech owl in the corner of our bathroom window. A sound erupts close to the ground - like the call of the Flycatcher, but less self-assured and loud. A Red-spotted Toad. So the monsoon IS coming?