This week’s destination for the WGNSS Botany Group outing was St. Joe State Park, where the western portion of the Bicyle/Hiking Trail runs along a prime example of dry post oak woodland. Such woodlands were common in Missouri during pre-settlement times but have been largely eliminated from the present-day landscape due to incompatible land management practices, including fire suppression. Post oak woodlands depend upon periodic fires to maintain an open canopy, allowing a rich ground layer of native grasses and forbs to flourish in the abundant sunlight. In pre-settlement times, this happened naturally as a result of lightning strikes; however, remnant post oak woodlands exist today largely as a result of active landscape management including the use of prescribed burns and selective thinning. Evidence of these practices was easy to find in this remarkably restored example of an original post oak woodland.
At the end of January, there is still a lot of winter left to endure—far too early to be thinking about the still-distant-spring even at our “middlin’ latitudes.” Nevertheless, even at this early date, the buds of Ulmus rubra (slippery elm) are noticeably swollen. (I’ve always felt “slippery” was a misnomer for this species. I know it refers to the slippery texture of the inner bark when chewed, but the leaves are rough, and the twigs are rough, and the buds are rough as well—and who even does that [chews the inner bark] anymore?!) It is this roughness to the leaves that most easily distinguishes U. rubra from the similar U. americana (American elm), but during winter it’s fuzzy, rusty-red buds provide the clue instead. If one has a pocketknife, a slice into the bark to look for alternating light/dark layers (the absence of which signifies U. rubra) can also be used.
The rich ground layer of a post oak woodland dazzles during spring and summer, the temporal sequence of floral displays belying the diversity that produces it. This diversity does not disappear during the winter, nor does the evidence of it—it merely expresses itself in different form. To recognize the plants that are there, one must train their eyes to see these different versions of them. Bright yellow flowers are replaced by dry seed boxes… fleshy green leaves with purple ball inflorescences are replaced by naked stems with dehiscent pods… delicate white petals are replaced by prickly pods. The ability to recognize the elements of a landscape at any moment—not just at their most beautiful—makes it easier to enjoy the landscape itself at any moment. Following are some of the plants we saw, no doubt distinctive when in bloom, but also recognizable when not if one knows what to look for.
During the previous week’s outing at Hawn State Park, the group spent a fair amount of time distinguishing Missouri’s five species of Betulaceae—all of which can be found growing together along the banks of Pickle Creek. One is not likely to see three of them along the margins of a dry post oak woodland, but the two remaining—Corylus americana (American hazelnut) and Ostrya virginiana (American hop hornbeam), both much more tolerant of drier situations—were seen in abundance. These two species also happen to be the two that are most often confused with each other—especially during winter, giving the group another opportunity to study their subtle differences. Both develop male catkins during the winter, but those of C. americana tend to be larger, lighter in color, and frequently occurring singly along the branch. The winter twigs are a bit more distinctive—with tiny hairs and rounded buds in the former, versus hairless with pointed buds in the latter. Of course, of the two, only O. virginiana produces the distinctive hops-like fruits that often persist into the winter, so their presence immediately identifies any plant possessing them.
Direct comparisons of winter twigs proves to be a useful identification technique for other similar species pairs—even those in the same genus. Acer saccharum (sugar maple) and A. rubrum (red maple) often grow in close proximity and are similar enough to be frequently confused. When twigs of the two are placed next to each other, however, the differences are apparent. Color alone—A. rubrum usually exhibiting a reddish tinge to the twigs and buds—is not always diagnostic, and both species have what could be called pointed buds. Touch the tips, however—the buds of A. saccharum are sharp enough to prick the finger, while those of A. rubrum are blunted just enough to avoid feeling the prick.
Along the length of the trail, I noted an abundance of dry, persistent flower stalks of Hydrangea arborescens (American hydrangea) colonizing the bordering rock ledges. Normally found in moist (and frequently inaccessible) situations, its presence in a dry post oak woodland suggests drainage through the layers of dolomite underneath the woodland reaches the surface in these exposed toe-slopes, keeping them persistently moist. While the promised floral display in June is reason enough to return, my interest in woodboring beetles provides additional motivation, as its flowers are a favorite of a diverse group of woodboring beetles call flower longhorns (subfamily Lepturinae)—some of which having been associated only with this plant. Time to mark the calendar!
This is the 10th “Collecting Trip iReport”; this one covering 13 days of collecting in western Texas, southern New Mexico, and southeastern Arizona July 19–31, 2021. This trip was a “two-parter”—the first week with frequent field mate Jeff Huether (our seventh joint collecting trip) as we made our way from western Texas through southern New Mexico and into southeastern Arizona on our way to a memorial celebration for Jim Wappes at the home of Steve Lingafelter and Norm Woodley (for which I took the day off from collecting), and the second week visiting various locations in the “Sky Islands” of southeastern Arizona with several other entomologists.
Day 1 – Monahans State Park, Texas This was my first stop on the previous trip back in late April and early May, and what a difference a couple of months with good rains makes—dry as a bone then but bursting with a great variety of wildflowers now. Like last time we stopped at the Shin Oak Picnic Area first, and almost immediately Jeff got an Acmaeodera gibbula on living Prosopis glandulosa (mesquite). I started beating the trees and got a good series of that species along with a good series of an Actenodes sp. (prob. A. mendax). There were also some mesquites that had been killed (apparently by herbicide), and when I started beating them I got several more A. gibbula and one Paratyndaris sp. It went from blazing hot when we arrived to raining about an hour later, and for a while after the rain moved through it stayed cloudy and quite comfortable. Eventually we decided to look for another spot with more mesquite to beat.
We found an area closer to the entrance (Equestrian Area) with lots of mesquite and also sunflowers, which Jeff was interested in looking at to search for meloids (blister beetles). Before I even reached the first mesquite I saw an Acmaeodera sp. (maybe A. obtusa) sitting on the flower of Thelosperma megapotamicum (rayless greenthread) and later found another plus one A. immaculata. Off the mesquite I beat just one Actenodes sp. prob. mendax and a few treehoppers, while another and a Chrysobothris sp. got away (it was by now quite hot and they bolted!). I continued beating mesquite but just wasn’t seeing anything, so we decided to take a look at the area around the main dunes and another picnic area.
At the Pump Jack Picnic Area, we saw a lot of Thelosperma megapotamicum (rayless greenthread) in bloom and decided to check the flowers for Acmaeodera. We each got a nice series of what appear to be A. obtusa and A. immaculata. Also, I finally found a single Acmaeodera immaculata on the flower of Hymenoppapus flavescens (collegeflower), which I’d been looking at all day thinking it must be a good Acmaeodera flower host. On the way back to the vehicle, I scared up a cicada that had been singing on a nearby plant—I’d been hearing them all day but assumed they were grasshoppers or katydids. I listened for another and saw it perched on the stem of Mentzelia nuda (bractless blazingstar), and netted it—a fine male, smallish and with a very white venter. I wanted to find one more—catching another A. gibbula in flight, and saw one singing in a mesquite tree. This time I took some photos of it (working carefully not to alarm it) and then hand-caught it (later identified as Diceroprocta texana). A nice end to the visit.
After dinner, we returned to Shin Oak Picnic Area for night collecting. I setup my new Mercury-vapor (MV) station (first time using the gas-powered generator and tripod—slick setup) and my two ultraviolet (UV) stations. Jeff set out three prionic acid lures. Large numbers of Polyphylla monahanensis (which came mostly to the UV stations) and P.pottsorum (which came mostly to the MV station), but otherwise few beetles showed up and not a single longhorn. Other insects were also limited mostly to large numbers of ground-nesting bees and several big grasshoppers. No Prionus came to the lures—not surprising since we are in the tail end of the season for P. arenarius (April to July) and too early for P. spinipennis (mostly August). I’ve only gotten a few P. monahanensis and P. pottsorum before now, so it’s nice to have good series of each, but I would have preferred to collect some longhorns.
Day 2 – Toyahvale, Texas We’re on our way to the Davis Mountains, and along the way I decided to stop at the “Agrilus cochisei” spot we found (on a tip from Jason) back during the April trip. I swept the roadsides—not just the host plant (Artemisia occidentalis, western ragweed) but a variety of other plants in bloom but did not find any A. cochisei. I did collect a few meloids (which were on Solanum eleagnifolium) and Zygogramma leaf beetles but nothing else.
A bit further down the road from the last stop, we noticed this memorial to the many horses that have been transported along this highway on their way to slaughter.
Davis Mountains, Ft. Davis, Texas Another roadside stop for one of the places where I collected during last April’s trip. I was hoping we would not be too late for Acmaeodera—there were plenty of plants in bloom but we did not see any. Senegalia greggii (formerly Acacia greggii, commonly called cat-claw acacia) and Vachellia constricta (formerly Acacia constricta, commonly called whitethorn acacia) were both in bloom, and off the former I got the obligatory Stenaspis solitaria male/female pair as well as a Lampetis drummondii, but I collected nothing off the latter. Tried for a couple of cicadas and missed ‘em both!
Davis Mountains,Boy Scout Rd, Texas This looked like a good spot, with water in the creek and lots of butterflies flying around. Beating, however, yielded nothing but lots of lep larvae. It seems we are in the mid-summer lull—too late for spring things, but too early for late summer-fall species. I think we’ll try some higher elevations and see what it is like.
We were headed back towards the highway when I spotted a stand of Thelosperma megapotamicum along the road. We got out so I could take a look at them and immediately encountered this Texas horned lizard who seems to be saying “WTF?!” I swept through the Thelosperma and picked up two Batyle sp., one Enocleris sp., and a couple of species of meloids. There were lots of other plants in bloom, too, including several that are typically attractive to beetles such as Sphaeralcea and Ratibida. However, nothing was seen on them, further reinforcing our desire to go to higher elevations to see if that would improve the collecting.
Davis Mountains, Madera Canyon, Texas We wanted to get up to higher elevation to see if that might improve the insect collecting. It is strange—the Davis Mountains are greener than I’ve ever seen them, yet there are almost no insects, no flowers. Jeff and I were wondering if the deep freeze Texas experienced this past winter might have knocked out insect populations. We beat along the way but just we’re not seeing anything on the beating sheets. We hiked our way up to the overlook, and up there I ran into a few species of tenebrionids running along the trail and doing their famous “headstands” when we disturbed them. On the way back down I saw a few large, red and black clytrine chrysomelids on what I take to be a fall-flowering helianthoid aster (old flowering stalks were 5–6 feet tall), so I picked up a few for Shawn (my scope of insects that I’ll collect expands greatly when I’m not finding anything in the groups that I study). I think we’ve had it with the Davis Mountains, and tomorrow we’ll travel further west and try our luck around Fabens.
Day 3 – Van Horn, Texas Just a quick stop along the highway when we saw a variety of plants in bloom. Things are different at these lowers elevations compared to the Davis Mountains. Sweeping yielded a number of Agrilus sp. (vittate) and two Agaeocera gentilis—I suspect they were on the Sphaeralcea angustifolia (narrow-leaved globemallow), along with an Acmaeodera sp. and assorted other beetles. On a much taller globemallow I found two Tylosis jiminezi (male/female) perched on the foliage—a first for me! I did a little more sweeping further to the south but came up with only a few melyrids and a blister beetle (Epicauta segmenta). Nice stop!
San Felipe Park, El Paso Co., Texas When we first arrived, we were not at all optimistic—it looked like it hadn’t rained in years. However, the Larrea tridentata (creosote) and Prosopis glandulosa (mesquite) were both in full bloom, so we began looking about. Almost immediately I saw Stenaspis solitaria in the mesquites, which in itself is not exciting, but two of the first three I saw were the form that has the distinctly reddish-brown pronotum, which I’ve never seen before. I saw a couple more and tried to get photographs, but they were too skittish. As I searched for them, I caught one Aethecerinus latecinctus (a second got away), one Plionoma sp. (not sure if it’s suturalis or rubens), one Chrysobothris sp. (prob. C. octocola) and one Acmaeodera gibbula. The real fun began, though, when I walked by a creosote and saw a Gyascutus planicosta (should be subsp. obliteratus in this area) take flight. I tracked it to see where it landed, caught it, and then put most of my effort into getting a decent series of individuals. I succeeded, but it took more than four hours with the heat maxing out at 96°F! In addition to the Gyascutus, Jeff was quite excited to see the bright green and orange blister beetle Eupompha fissiceps abundant on the creosote in mating pairs and feeding on the petals of the flowers. I finished off the blister beetle fun by finding Cysteodemus wislizeni (black bladder-bodied meloid) crawling in the sand, which, despite the common name, was decidedly bluish.
After going into town to restock on supplies and catch some dinner, we returned to the park to do some lighting and night collecting. The moon is almost full, which generally puts the kibosh on longhorns coming to the lights, but we decided to try anyway because of the high amount of activity during the day in a rarely-visited location. I set up the Mercury-vapor (MV) light only and skipped going through the trouble to put up the ultraviolet lights also. I also wanted to beat the mesquite since I didn’t have much chance during the day, spending most of my time hunting Gyascutus with an aerial net, and once I got the MV setup going I started whacking the mesquite. Almost immediately, I got three Aethecerinus latecinctus, which came off the first two plants I beat. This motivated me further and caused me to commit to beating for the next hour or so—never even getting a single beetle of any kind! By then the lights had been going for awhile, and I was pleased to see several Derobrachus hovorei (palo verde root borer) crawling on the sand near the light. Even though it is a common species, I’ve not seen many myself, so I was happy to have a nice series to take up beaucoup room in one of my prionid drawers. Otherwise, very few beetles came to the lights, or most other insects as well—the sheet being covered primarily by dozens of white-lined Sphinx moths and lots of wasp/bee-type things. We did enjoy the evening, however, as we sat in our chairs and drank a cold brew between checkings of the light.
Day 4 – Chaparral, New Mexico We had planned to take NM-213 north to White Sands, but public access was blocked at Ft. Bliss. While backtracking, I spotted Sphaeralcea angustifolia (narrow-leaved globemallow) growing along the roadside and stopped to check it out. There was nothing on any of the plants, despite good growth and appearing to be coming into flowering. I did a little beating on Prosopis glandulosa (mesquite) as well—again very little going on, just a few treehoppers, tiny blister beetles, and one weevil. Larrea tridentata (creosote) was in full bloom, just like at Fabens, and here too there were many Eupompha fissiceps on the flowers and in mating pairs. I couldn’t resist collecting just a few and even made a short video of a mating pair engaged in some interesting behavior. I did see one Gyascutus planicosta as it flew by, but I could not track it to see where it landed. Otherwise all I picked up was another Cysteodemus wislizeni (black bladder-bodied meloid)—along with a photo, and a male cicada (maybe Diceroprocta texana) singing on a dry yucca stalk (hand-collected!).
Point of Sands, New Mexico Jeff wanted to stop here to look for Pleurospasta mirabilis, a really cool-looking blister beetle that looks unlike anything else. He found just one by disturbing the host plant (small purple blooms), and I found none—seems we are right at the tail end of their activity period. I looked around for other things also, but there was not much out. I did catch a couple more cicadas (males singing), and near an Ephedra sp. bush I found a mostly-intact carcass of Sphaerobothris ulkei. The most interesting find, however, was a couple of apparently lost pitfall traps—the barriers had fallen over, and the cops were filled with sand and the carcasses of numerous tenebrionids that had fallen into the traps and never been retrieved. I pulled up the cups and filled in the holes to prevent further loss, finding a few live tenebrionids and trogids and one Pasimachus sp. ground beetle that had not yet succumbed in the process.
Hatch, New Mexico While passing through the town of Hatch, I couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to stop and photograph some interesting town characters.
Deming, New Mexico Another roadside stop in an area that was green with flowers and also had Yucca (to look for Tragidion) and Ephedra (to look for Sphaerobothris). Neither of those insects were found, and no buprestids or cerambycids were seen on or swept from any of the many composite flowers about including Thelosperma megapotamicum. I did find a couple of the meloid Lytta biguttata, one on flowers of Cirsium sp. and another on an unidentified yellow composite flower, and Jeff found a huge aggregation of another meloid, Epicauta costata, on herbicide-treated Kali tragus (prickly Russian thistle). I finished off the stop by finding a spectacular ridged tenebrionid beetle walking about after the sinking sun went behind some clouds.
Day 5 – Sunshine, New Mexico We saw a nice stand of what proved to be Picradeniopsis absinthifolia (formerly Bahiaabsinthifolia, hairyseed bahia) and stopped to check them for buprestids/meloids. None were seen, just a few bees and lots of bee flies (genus Geron?). We did find a fair number of Cysteodemus wislizeni (black bladder-bodied meloid) crawling on the roadsides in a patch of Solanum elaeagnifolium (silverleaf nightshade).
Columbus, New Mexico We found a moist drainage along the roadside with plants blooming in abundance, including Isocoma tenuisecta (burroweed) and Sphaeralcea angustifolia (narrow-leaved globemallow); however, insects were very scarce. I didn’t see any buprestids or cerambycids at all on any of the plants, only picking up one Lytta biguttata and one Cotinis mutabilis on the Isocoma and sweeping single examples of a small black/red Cleridae from the latter and a yellow-flowered composite.
Animas, New Mexico We drove a fair distance west hoping to get into a different rainfall system in hope that insects would be present and saw a roadside in good bloom with the surrounding creosote scrub also green and blooming. As soon as we got out of the car we saw big beetles flying overhead and tracked them back to several creosote bushes very near the car with an aggregation of yet another blister beetle, Pyrota postica, which were mating and feeding on the flowers and leaves. After taking a few photos (and collecting my small series), I started sweeping through the variety of plants in bloom along the roadsides. I did not see anything on the flowers themselves (including Baileya multiradiata, pretty good buprestid flower) but collected a series of clytrine chrysomelids and one Dectes sp. While sweeping through Sphaeralcea hastulata (spear globemallow), I got one Agaeocera gentilis, and sweeping though a mix of S. hastulata and S. angustifolia (narrow-leaved globemallow) I got three Agrilus sp. (perhaps the same as I collected south of Van Horn, Texas). Finally, on the latter, I found one more A. gentilis perched on the leaf.
Portal, Arizona Finally made it to Arizona, and for the first stop I wanted to try a spot below Portal where I’ve had limited success finding Sphaerobothris ulkei on Ephedra. Last time I was I here I found a few, but not until after being distracted by Gyascutus caelatus and Hippomelas sphenicus in the acacias and mesquites. I vowed not to let that happen this time and weaved a zigzag pattern looking at every Ephedra I could find. While I was doing that. I did see one G. caelatus take flight and then caught another that I saw sitting on Vachellia constricta (white-thorn acacia) but remained focused on looking at the Ephedra. Eventually, after not seeing any S. ulkei, I started looking for other buprestids. The acacias were just beginning to flower—only a few plants had open flowers, and Jeff noticed the tiny silhouette of an insect in flight approaching the flowers. He netted it and showed it to me, and to my surprise it was one of the species in the A. stigmata group (black with two red apical spots)—none of which I have ever collected before but which I believe could be A. davidsoni. We spent the next hour watching for and netting the silhouettes on the few trees we could find with flowers, and then I got the beating sheet out and beat more off of the trees (whether in flower or not) to end up with a nice little series. I’ll be anxious to confirm whether these are A. davidsoni.
South of Willcox, Arizona We got to Willcox around dusk, and the cool, breezy conditions told my gut that it would be pointless to set up the lights. Still, I couldn’t let myself not try, and without much opportunity to look for a good place to set up I just went down Blu Sky Rd to E Moonlight Rd and hoped for the best. My optimism waned rapidly, as conditions continued getting colder and breezier, and not a single insect came to the light—I should’ve listened to my gut!
Day 6 – Jim Wappes Celebration, Hereford, Arizona Fun day with lots of fellow coleopterists at the home of Steven Lingafelter and Norm Woodley in memory of Jim Wappes. We got there in the early afternoon and enjoyed eats, conversation, and war stories from the field.
It was a good day for a party, as rain made insect collecting a no-go. As dusk settled, I admired the incredible view from Steve’s and Norm’s back patio!
The fun extended well into the evening hours. My thanks to Steve and Norm for hosting the celebration—what fun to see and talk to so many entomologists in one place.
Day 7 – Superstition Mountains, Weaver’s Needle Vista Viewpoint, Arizona We awoke to rain yesterday morning in Willcox, and it has stayed with us since—first on our way to Hereford for the Wappes Celebration, then up to Phoenix this morning—our efforts to escape the rain by coming north thus proving futile. I came to this spot on a tip that I might find Agrilus cavifrons on Celtis pallida (spiny hackberry) (although maybe a bit early), and I’d hoped despite the light rain I would still be able to find it. I did not—though I found the plants, but I did get a Chrysobothris sp. that I don’t recognize while beating Senegalia greggii (formerly Acacia greggii, cat-claw acacia). Of course, it was on the first plant that I beat, so I ended up beating for another hour with nothing to show for it! While walking the short paved trail, I found Cercidium sp. (palo verde) tree that had been cut up and showed evidence of buprestid infestation in one of the larger branches, so I retrieved and cut it up for rearing.
Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona We made a quick stop here to admire its incredible scenery before heading back south.
Upper Tanque Verde Falls Trailhead, Tucson, Arizona The rain finally moved out and it was sunny for the drive back to Tucson, but with still-cool temps we weren’t sure if lighting would be worthwhile. We decided to try this spot—not too high (based on a tip by Bill Warner), and I setup the lights using a technique recommended by Roy Morris that involved placing one ultraviolet (UV) light on each side of the sheet, extending the Mercury-vapor lamp above to the top of the sheet, and periodically shutting off the latter to allow the UV lights the pull in the “shyer” insects before turning it back on. While I waited for the lights to started pulling things in, I did some beating around the area. I only collected one specimen, but it was a Cleridae that I don’t recognize, which was beaten off of Prosopis glandulosa (mesquite). Temps ended up in the lower 70s to upper 60s, but at the lights we still got a few longhorned beetles (Aneflomorpha sp.), a few melolonthine scarabs, and a nice series of two species of Pachybrachis (that I will send to Bob Barney).
Day 8 – Atascosa Mountains, Ruby Rd near Atascosa Lookout Trailhead, Arizona The primary quarry here was Acmaeodera chuckbellamyi, a species I described in 2014 from a single specimen collected by my friend and hymenopterist, Mike Arduser, at this location on flowers of Aloysia sp. Several people have tried to find it since—without success, and in June 2011 the area was severely burned by the 27,550-hectare Murphy Fire. I was hoping enough time has passed to allow the area (and beetle population) to recover in this, my first attempt, at finding the species myself. I knew it was a long-shot, and long sorry short I did not find either the beetle or it’s Aloysia host flowers. I did collect a number of other beetles, however, including Lycus lorises, a few longhorned beetles and pachybrachine leaf beetles, and one Acmaeodera quadrivittatoides on flowers of Eysenhardtia orthocarpa (desert kidneywood), several Aneflomorpha sp. and a few pachybrachines on Quercus oblongifolia (Mexican blue oak), and more pachybrachines on Senegalia greggii (catclaw acacia), Mimosa dysocarpa (velvetpod mimosa)—the latter also yielding a few tiny Chrysobothris spp. (one looking like C. lucanus), and Propopis glandulosa (mesquite). Jeff also collected and gave to me a couple of Acmaeodera parkeri on flowers of Talinum aurantiacum (orange flameflower). I hiked 0.7 mi E on Ruby Rd to a spot where I swept a few beetles from low vegetation, and on the underside of a large, fallen branch of Q. oblingifolium I found a large female Polycesta arizonica. Finally, about halfway back to the trailhead I encountered a few tiger beetles on the road near standing puddles of water from the recent rains.
Atascosa Mountains, Peña Blanca Lake, Arizona We came here to look for Deltaspis tumacacorii, which like many rare beetles the odds are against finding it despite it having been taken in the area on several occasions. Again, this would not be one of those occasions, but I was happy to find a tiny tiger beetle (Cylindera viridisticta arizonensis) along the creek and even happier to beat a series of two species of Paratyndaris, one large Lampetis webbii (only my fifth specimen). and one Aneflomorpha sp. from mostly dead Senegalia greggii (catclaw acacia).
Huachuca Mountains, lower Carr Canyon, Arizona After dropping Jeff off at his hotel in Tucson (he flies home in the morning), I high-tailed it down to Carr Canyon to do some light collecting. It has been a long time since I’ve seen my sheet covered so quickly and thoroughly with insects! My quarry was longhorned beetles—of which I got a nice variety, but who can resist also the variety of scarabs, ground beetles, tenebrionids, blister beetles, and even planthoppers that flock to the lights in the mountains of southeastern Arizona? I’ll have to control myself a little better in the coming nights! Walking about along the roadsides (hoping to see Amblycheila giant tiger beetles), I encountered a gorgeous male Aphonopelma chalcodes (Arizona blonde tarantula).
Day 9 – Huachuca Mountains, Copper Canyon, Arizona I met Steve Lingafelter and Norm Woodley at their house, and together we drove to the famed Copper Canyon on the south side of the Huachucas. On the way I got a nice primer about the species that have been collected there and the plants they have been collected on. Steve and I started out walking the trail up the canyon while Norm swept the area down below. I pretty much beat every oak along the way, for a while only getting a smattering of beetles—Agrilaxia sp. on Quercus emoryi (Emory oak) and also on Q. arizonica (Arizona white oak) along with Sternidius decorus?. About a half-mile up the trail I beat dead branches of Q. hypoleucoides (silverleaf oak) and, not seeing anything at first, said “I’m going back; I’m literally not getting anything.” Right then, a small black beetle on the sheet caught my eye. I looked at it closely and realized it was a Mastogenius (prob. M. robustus)! I popped it in the bottle and beat more dead branches from the same tree and got not only another Mastogenius but also Tigrinestola tigrina. Freshly motivated, I spent the next half-hour working all the oaks in the area—and, as often happens, did not see another beetle! Nevertheless, it was hard not to be happy with the beetles that I’d gotten.
I walked back down the trail and met Norm, who was just starting up. He filled me in on the results from below, which included sweeping a few Agrilaxia hespenheidei—one of my target species—and an Agrilus sp. on Bouvardia ternifolia (firecrackerbush). I decided to work the slope under the road, reasoning that Norm had likely already worked the flat ground below. On the first B. ternifolia I approached, I saw an A. hespenheidei on the flower, gave the plant a sweep, and caught not only the A. hespenheidei but also an Agrilus sp. (maybe A. latifrons). Over the next hour I would sweep a nice series of A. hespenheidei from B. ternifolia (but not another Agrilus sp.). While I was doing that, I also swept the numerous stands of Acaciella angustissima (formerly Acacia angustissima, prairie acacia) looking for the large, spectacular Agrilus cavatus. I would find two, and considering that I swept perhaps 50 or more stands they were well earned. Also, in the meantime, I noticed Acmaeodera parkeri on small blue flowers that I eventually identified as Evolvulus arizonicus (Arizona blue-eyes). The flowers were few in number and the beetles difficult to catch, so I only ended up with two specimens. Further down the slope the flowers much more abundant, but there was not a beetle to be found on them. In the waning moments of my visit, I encountered two Trichodes peninsularis horni on flowers of Lasianthaea podocephala (San Pedro daisy).
Eventually we all met up at the car, compared our catches (not surprisingly, Norm did very well with buprestids and Steve did very well with cerambycids), and I did okay in both counts. We headed back over Montezuma Pass and were greeted with stunning views looking down into the Coronado National Monument!
Huachuca Mountains, Miller Canyon, Arizona After dropping Steve off, Norm and I went to nearby Miller Canyon to look at a spot where he has collected three species of Taphrocerus (I’ve only collected two, but only once way back in 1987 at a spot in the lower canyon). We thought it might be too late in the season, but it was at least worth a shot. The sedges were lush and green, but the “sedgy wedgies” were absent. Looks like I’ll have to just come back out in April or May!
After striking out with Taphrocerus, I went back down to the lower elevations of the canyon to look for Tragidion on the stand of Baccharis sarothroides (desert broom) that occurs there. Once again, I was likely too late to find them, but as with Taphrocerus it was certainly worth a shot, and again I would not find any despite looking and most of the large plants in the area. I did find a few Euphoria leucographa feeding on the sap flows and a very large red/black clytrine, so it wasn’t all for naught. Just another reason to come out earlier in the season.
Day 10 – Santa Rita Mountains, upper Box Canyon, Arizona After getting reports of buprestid activity near Madera Canyon, I decided to head to the Santa Rita Mountains today instead of continuing in the Huachucas. The shortest route to this most famous of canyons in the Santa Ritas goes down Box Canyon, a less-well-known but still-fantastic canyon in its own right and where I’ve had good luck collecting the two previous times I’ve been there (August 2018 w/ Art Evans, Steve Lingafelter, and Norm Woodley; and September 2019 w/ Jeff Huether). I stopped at the “dry falls” and worked my way back up the road to a point where I’ve collected the majority of my insects there. Along the way, I beat the flowering Eysenhardtiaorthocarpa (desert kidneywood)—insects were not numerous on the plants, but over the course of the trips up and back I got Acmaeodera gibbula, A. cazieri, two Aneflomorpha sp., and a few Lycus sp. I also swept the just-beginning-to-flower Mimosa dysocarpa (velvetpod mimosa) but got just a single Sphaenothecus bivittatus. When I reached the top of the canyon, I looked for a small patch of Allionia incarnata (creeping four-o’clock) in the steep road bank, off the flowers of which I have previously collected Acmaeodera cazieri, A. parkeri, and A. yuccavora. I found the patch, but the plants were not yet in flower. What was in flower on the flats above the bank, however, was Talinum aurantiacum (orange flameflower), off which I collected all three species (A. cazieri being the most abundant and only a single A. cazieri). As at previous stops this week, it seems that insect activity is beginning but is still a bit shy of coming into full peak.
While I was collecting, a caravan of cars came by. They turned out to be filled with entomologists attending the Invertebrates in Education Conference, one of whom I knew—Tad Yankoski of the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House in my hometown of St. Louis. He handed me a vial containing a large, live individual of Polycesta aruensis. I was excited to see this, especially when he told me he found it and saw many more in the flats below Madera Canyon, where I had planned to go next!
Santa Rita Mountains, flats below Madera Canyon, Arizona It was a frustrating afternoon on several fronts. Starting off, I had trouble finding the Polycesta aruensis locality, and when I finally did find it there was nary a Polycesta to be seen. Perhaps they sleep during the heat of the day.🤷 After that, there was little time to go anywhere but Madera Canyon, where I spent a half-hour beating Quercus oblongifolia (Mexican blue oak) hoping to see Chrysobothris chalcophoroides (I didn’t) and another two hours checking out Baccharis sarothroides (desert broom) in the area where I collected Stenaspis verticalis and Tragidion deceptus two years ago (also fruitless). Of course, the dreadfully common Stenaspis solitaria was everywhere, but all I ended up collecting was a tenebrionid on the 2-track, a clytrine beaten from Cercidium aculeata (retama), and one Euphoria leucographa along with a nondescript cerambycid (Heaperophanini maybe) on B. sarothroides. On the way back to the vehicle, I encountered a dead, mostly skeletonized deer, and while I rarely collect from carcasses, I noticed a little green beetle crawling on the jaw bone. I figured it must be the cosmopolitan clerid, Necrobia rufipes—something I’d not seen before, so I collected it and tried to collect but missed another one.
Santa Rita Mountains, lower Florida Canyon,Arizona I suppose I can credit my frustrating afternoon for one of my best nights of lighting ever. I stumbled upon this spot at the bottom of Florida Canyon during this afternoon’s Polycesta wild-goose chase and immediately thought, “Wow, what a perfect spot to set up a light!” A nice place to pull off the road with a small, level clearing embedded within low-elevation oak woodland. There was even a babbling creek in the background! It was close to dark by the time I returned and set up the lights (would’ve been even later if I’d gone into town for a “real” dinner). Ironically, there were neither the diversity nor quantity of beetles as two nights ago in lower Carr Canyon. But the cerambycids brought it… and kept bringing it! It seemed like every time I got up to check the sheet there were another 4–5 individuals. I ended up leaving the sheet up for four full hours and collected perhaps 40–50 specimens representing a dozen or more species. A few I don’t recognize, and most of those that I do recognize have resided in my cabinet in precious few numbers until now. It’s been years literally since I’ve had a night like this, and it’s a nice shot of motivation leading into the last few days of what is starting to feel like a long trip.
Day 11 – Madera Canyon Rd, Continental, Arizona I came back to the spot where Tad Yankoski had seen Polycesta aruensis so abundantly yesterday morning but which was completely absent by the time I got there in the afternoon. I did not see any adults on the trees this morning either and was about to give up when I spotted a few partially dead trees with very large, apparently fresh emergence holes in the main trunks that were the perfect size for P. aruensis—good thing I brought my chainsaw! I cut a trunk with its branches and segregated the cut up wood into age (fresh dead versus older) and size (twigs, medium branches, and main trunk) classes. While I was doing this, a Polycesta adult dropped off one of the fresh-dead, medium-sized branches! I beat the remaining branches on the tree and on nearby trees but did not see any more, so whatever Tad witnessed yesterday morning must have been an ephemeral event, perhaps related to synchronized emergence from the very trees among which I collected the wood. NOTE: don’t let anyone tell you that cutting up wood for rearing beetles is anything but a sweaty, exhausting endeavor, even with temps still in the mid-80s and decent cloud cover!
Santa Rita Mountains, lower Florida Canyon, Arizona I had such good night collecting here last night that I thought I’d come back and see what I could find during the day in this ribbon of riparian oak/hackberry woodland. Almost immediately I beat a Paratyndaris sp. off of dead Celtis reticulata (netleaf hackberry). The tree was very dead, but I knew Paratyndaris spp. like old, dead wood, so I split open some of the branches and found larvae inside and also a dead and unemerged but perfectly intact adult of a very tiny Chrysobothris sp. inside one of the smaller branches. Beating on other plants in the area was, in general, fruitless, but occasionally (and just often enough) I encountered something of interest that motivated me to continue working: Paratyndaris sp. and Agrilus sp. on Quercus oblongifolia (Arizona white oak), a small red/brown elaterid on Prosopis glandulosa (mesquite), and Acmaeoderopsis sp., Paratyndaris sp., and a few clytrines on Senegalia greggii (cat-claw acacia).
Santa Rita Mountains, Gardner Canyon, Arizona Last night, I got a message from fellow buprestophile Robert Velten, who told me that he would be in Gardner Canyon the next day, so after finishing at Florida Canyon I drove over to Gardner Canyon to meet up with him. Despite being longtime correspondents, Rob and I had never actually met face-to-face, so I was thrilled to have the chance to do so and spend some time with him in the field. Joining him were his mothing buddies Steve McElfresh and Paul Tuskes, and a little later our mutual friend and Arizona coleopterist-extraordinaire, Margarethe Brummermann, also joined us for a night of lighting. It was great to spend time at the lights with so many like-minded folks! There were three light stations between us, but the weather was less than cooperative—a persistent cool breeze accompanied constant lighting and thunder in the mountains above. Eventually, the threat was realized when the skies opened up, prompting a hasty dismantling and storage of all my lighting equipment safely inside the vehicle. Nevertheless, in the time that I was able to collect, I got a small number of longhorned beetles (half of which came to my light in the moments I was taking it down—longhorns typically become very active right before a storm) along with a variety of showy scarabs and clerids. The rain ended as quickly as it began, so the socializing continued. The entire evening I was continuously taunted, however, by a large prionid sitting inside its emergence hole on the trunk of a large Quercus emoryi (Emory oak). It only showed its jaws and antennae, and if I even touched the tree to boost myself up for a closer look it withdrew deep into the hole. I’m convinced it was Nothopleura madericus—a species I’ve never collected. I can still hear it laughing at me! My attempt to find one out and about by scanning the trunks and branches of of the other oaks in the area with my headlight was not successful, although I did collect another elaphidiine longhorn in such manner.
Day 12 – Santa Rita Mountains, Gardner Canyon, Arizona Rob had noticed a stand of Anisacanthus thurberi (desert honeysuckle)—a host for Spectralia cuprescens—along the road into Gardner Canyon, so together (after morning coffee!) we checked the spot on the way out. The plants were in the early stages of leafing out, and after visually inspecting them for a while and not seeing anything I decided to get out the beating sheet to sample the stand more thoroughly. My eyes did not deceive me—neither one of us found any. Too early? Low population? Who knows! I did beat one clytrine off the plants and collected a few weevils by beating Prosopis glandulosa (mesquite) before finding Acmaeodera parkeri and A. cazieri on the flowers of Allionia incarnata (creeping four o’clock). The flowers were common in the area around the road, but no Acmaeodera were seen until I started scaling the steep hillside nearby—a similar situation in which I’ve found these species on this flower in Box Canyon.
Huachuca Mountains, upper Carr Canyon, Reef Township Campground, Arizona I’ve been wanting to explore the higher reaches of Carr Canyon ever since I arrived in Arizona a full week ago. It is the only high canyon in the Huachucas that has a road leading all the way into its upper reaches. At these high elevations the forest is Pinus ponderosa (ponderosa pine) and Quercus hypoleucoides (silverleaf oak). There are many species of woodboring beetles at these high elevations that simply aren’t found down below. Another reason is the recent discovery up here of one of the rarest and most enigmatic of North American longhorned beetles, Placoschema dimorpha. Not even know to science until it was described from Mexico in 2007, it has since popped up here and a few other places in southeast Arizona—some of which have been heavily studied by coleopterists or many decades. Now, I didn’t actually <u>expect</u> to find such a rare thing, but maybe I could get lucky or at least find some other unusual species. The specimen at this location was photographed on a burned pine tree; however, I do not think that is the host (as far as I am aware, no species in the tribe utilizes gymnosperms as larval hosts). I think the host must be oak, as is the case for many trachderines. So, while I kept an eye out for burned pine trees, I also looked for oak, and especially recently dead oaks showing signs of woodboring beetle infestation. I did some of beating on Q. hypoleucoides and had collected just a clerid (Enoclerus bimaculatus) when I came upon a recently fallen Q. hypoleucoides that showed a few buprestid(ish) emergence holes and looked to be “the right age.” Cutting away the bark of the trunk revealed galleries, and chopping into sapwood revealed buprestid larvae in their galleries. I tagged it for retrieval, eventually cutting it up and segregating the trunk sections from the branches. Very nearby, I found another dead Q. hypoleucoides, this one much smaller and apparently cut rather than fallen. Unlike the previous one, however, this one showed the round holes with ejecting frass that indicated infestation by cerambycid rather than buprestid larvae. Cutting into the wood confirmed the presence of such, and so this one also was later cut up and bundled for bringing back. I saw no beetles on the trunks of any of the many fire-scarred pines lofting overhead, but at one point I spotted in the distance the telltale brown flagging of a recently died pine up the slope. Hiking up to it took some effort, but when I reached it the first thing I saw was a giant click beetle—Chalcolepidius apacheanus (Apache click beetle)—nestled against the ground at the base of the trunk (apparently ovipositing?). Inspecting the trunk of the tree itself, I noted just a few buprestid emergence holes that seemed fresh. Once again, chopping away the bark revealed the frass-packed galleries, and chopping into the heartwood revealed a large pre-pupal buprestid larvae. This was put into a vial, and I noted the location so I could return with the chainsaw and “bring ‘er down.” As I was cutting up the oaks, I found some small, recently cut pine branches near where I had parked the car. I found (and accidentally killed) a woodboring beetle larva of some type (I mangled it pretty good, but I think it was a buprestid) in one of them, so that was good enough to earn a spot in the rearing tubs. Unfortunately, I was not able to retrieve the dead pine tree—cutting up the oaks took a fair bit of time, during which darkening clouds gathered over the nearby peaks. Eventually cracks of thunder began piercing the air. It was all I could do to get the oaks into the car and all of the equipment put away before heavy rain drops began pelting the car. I had no idea what the storm would bring, but the last thing I wanted to be was stranded on the top of a mountain on my last full day of field collecting. As it turned out, the storm was more bark than bite (although the sharp drop in temperatures would kill lighting later in the evening). Perhaps I’ll be able to get back up the mountain in the morning and retrieve the pine tree.
Huachuca Mountains, lower Carr Canyon, Arizona It seems like forever ago that I began this trip, and now the last night of collecting has arrived. I decided to come back to this spot where I’d had such good luck earlier this week, but I wasn’t optimistic given how rain chased me out of the canyon earlier. My pessimism was warranted, and while I did picked up a variety of things, it included only two longhorns—both rather pedestrian species. No, the real charm of the night came not from collecting insects, but after the lights were down and my mind was free to wander as I leaned back in my chair and gazed into the crisp, dark, starry Arizona sky—its perimeter along the horizon bound by a craggy silhouette of nearby oak trees and distant peaks; from listening to the sounds of the night, alternately focusing on the individual cricket or distant coyote versus the chorus as a whole. Only to the north could I see the faint glow of city lights—the only sign that anything beyond me and this moment exist. These moments happen only once on a trip (maybe twice), and they are to be savored; indelibly stamped into the memory banks for future enjoyment; one of those experiences that, when recalled, is guaranteed to trigger euphoric recall.
Day 13 – Huachuca Mountains, upper Carr Canyon, Reef Township Campground, Arizona I went back up to the top of Carr Canyon to retrieve the dead Pinus ponderosa that I found yesterday. Good thing I did, as I also found my favorite hatchet (which I’d inadvertently left behind yesterday). The 9” diameter trunk was almost too big a job for my Stihl MiniBoss chainsaw, but I kept at it and finally felled the the 25’ tall tree. It took three trips up and down the steep slope—each round trip almost a half-mile—to haul out the upper 10 ft of trunk and associated branches, which I segregated into three batches for rearing: trunk, 1–2” día. branches, and <1” dia. twigs. Now let’s hope the effort was worth it and I get some good species out of the wood.
Huachuca Mountains, near Carr Canyon, Waterfall, Arizona One last stop to take in the terrifyingly magnificent views from atop Carr Canyon! You can see the road that I traveled up this morning snaking back down the right side of the mountain. The massif to the left is the highest point that you can see from the valley below, but there are much higher peaks behind me.
Epilogue Sadly, I could squeeze no more stops into the trip—I’d allowed myself two days to make the 24-hour drive back to St. Louis, and it was already almost noon on the first of the two days. I left, however, with a rack full of vials filled with insects and a renewed love for Arizona and the desert southwest that first captured my heart some 37 years ago!
Alternative title: Rich and Ted’s “Excellenter” Adventure.
This is the ninth “Collecting Trip iReport”; this one covering a 10-day trip to western Texas from April 27 to May 6, 2021 with friend and local collecting buddy Rich Thoma. Rich and I have done many shorter collecting trips (up to five days) throughout Missouri and in the neighboring states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma (in fact, our first joint trip was to Barber County, Kansas way back in May 1986!). This trip, however, was our first truly long one together—10 days of collecting plus a travel day on each end. To take full advantage of the amount of time we had, we chose western Texas; an area that I have visited several times from the mid-90s through 2004 but not since. We wanted to make the trip during early to mid-May, but scheduling conflicts forced us to go earlier. I reasoned that even if it was a bit too early in the season, I could still collect infested wood for rearing—as I did with great success during my April 2004 trip. For Rich, who is more of a general insect collector, the trip provided him an opportunity for extended collecting in an area that he’d not previously spent a lot of time.
Day 1 – Monahans State Park, Shin Oak Picnic Area First stop of the trip. I was hoping to see beetles on flowers and maybe some tiger beetles, but unfortunately the area hasn’t had any rain yet this spring (according to the ranger). The mesquite was in bloom, but the only beetles I beat from it were a few tiny weevils. A few other plants were in bloom, but only one—Hymenopappus flavescens—had beetles on it (mordellids, which I picked up for Enrico Ruzzier). After a lot of walking I noticed Quercus havardii (shin oak) with flagged branches of dead leaves—a bit of investigation revealed it had been attacked by what must be Chrysobothris mescalero, so I collected as many flagged branches as I could find (7 total) and will bring them back for rearing.
Monahans State Park, Sandhills Picnic Area The big dunes are in this area. We didn’t expect to see any insects but brought our nets anyway. As we were walking the ridge we saw two grouse-like birds in the distance. We tracked them for a bit before I decided to go back and get my binoculars. They kept us at bay, but eventually I was able to get close enough to get a good look at them—they turned out to be scaled quail, a new bird for me. We continued tracking them and eventually they were joined by two more individuals. Handsome birds!
Monahans State Park, Shin Oak Picnic Area After going into town and picking up some dinner, we came back out to the park and setup the ultraviolet lights. I didn’t have much optimism based on the lack of insect activity we saw during the day, but the temperatures were still plenty warm (well into the 80s) and we had nothing better to do. We returned to the Shin Oak Picnic Area since it had a mix of open and more vegetated dunes. Glad we did because two male Prionus arenarius, one Megacyllene antennata, and a tiny, unidentified elaphidiine came to the lights. I also found two small darkling beetles crawling on the sand nearby. I searched the surrounding sand hoping to find more males looking for females, or perhaps even a female herself, but found none. Wolf spiders, however, were common on the sand, their glowing eyes drawing attention beyond their abundance. I guess they are a species of Hogna, but I’m not certain—I photographed two individuals. Also got a large bostrichid (Apatides fortis?) at the light. Before we took down the lights, Rich called me over to see a tiny, slender, worm-like snake that we eventually determined was one of the blind snakes (Leptotyphlum sp.)—definitely a first for me.
Day 2 – Toyahyale We stopped here on a tip from Jason Hansen and Tyler Hedlund, who swept good numbers of Agrilus cochisei off of Ambrosia psilostachya (western ragweed)—albeit, a few weeks later during May. I found the plants, but they were very small and low to the ground. Nevertheless, adults could be swept abundantly from the plants, and I was able to take good photos of singles and a mating pair with the big camera (iPhone photo here just to show what they loook like). Also got a single specimen of an apparently undescribed Acmaeodera sp. while sweeping for A. cochisei and one of two A. cochisei adults that I saw on flowers of Sphaeralcea sp.
Davis Mountains, 15.8 mi NE Ft. Davis We stopped here to look for the undescribed species of Acmaeodera, which Jason had found in good numbers during May on blooms of Lygodesmia and Convolvulus. Both plants were present, but neither was in bloom. Still, I found one adult on flowers of Verbina sp. and swept another from roadside vegetation. Ambrosia polystachia (western ragweed) was also present—I looked visually for Agrilus cochisei and did not see any, but I did get one adult and a couple of cryptocephalines in the sweeping that produced the second Acmaeodera.
Day 3 – Point of Rocks Roadside Park The weather turned decidedly cool in the Davis Mountains—first time I’ve ever frozen camping out on a collecting trip. The high temps are expected to stay in the 50s to 60s with a chance of rain for the next few days, so we decided to head down to the Big Bend area where there is still a chance of rain but warmer temps (up to the high 70s). Maybe we’ll come back to this area next week. Before leaving, however, I wanted to check the Quercus vasseyana (vassey oak) at Point of Rocks, where in the past I collected a good series of Mastogenius texanus even earlier in April (it was actually undescribed at the time). I’ve also collected Elytroleptus lycid-mimicking cerambycids on soapberry flowers here in June, although I knew the soapberry would not be in bloom. There was nothing on the oaks, but I did collect a few miscellaneous beetles beating Prosopis glandulosa (mesquite) and found one vassey oak branch with evidence of wood-boring beetle larval feeding and which I collected for rearing.
17 mi S Alpine This is the first of two picnic areas along Hwy 118 going south from Alpine towards Big Bend National Park. There are lots of big Quercus vasseyana and Q. grisea here, so I stopped to see if I could find any infested wood. Bingo—one of the Q. grisea had a dead branch hanging from it that looked recently dead, and breaking apart a few of its smaller branches revealed fresh larval workings of some kind of buprestid (perhaps Polycesta arizonica). I cut of the branch and will bring back the bundle for rearing.
26 mi S Alpine This is the second of two picnic areas south of Alpine on Hwy 118 towards Big Bend National Park. Rich and I have both stopped here before, and Rich brought back infested wood (apparently Juglans sp.) from which I reared Chrysobothris comanche, so that was the plan again unless we saw active insects. We did not, so I scanned the trees and found a small Celtis laevigata (sugarberry) that had recently died—the bark was peeling, but there were no emergence holes that I could see. I started chopping into the trunk wood and quickly encountered a large buprestid larvae in its “pre-pupal fold”. This could be Texania fulleri based on host and location, so I cut a couple of bolts from the trunk to bring back for rearing. The branches also showed fresh larval workings, so I cut up one along with its smaller branchlets to also bring back for rearing.
3.3 mi W of Hwy 118 on Agua Fria Rd. Last stop of the day, which I was told could have water with tiger beetles. The creekbed was bone dry, and I collected but a single Chrysobothris sp. beating Prosopis glandulosa in flower—amazing given the proliferation of wildflowers that were in bloom. We did find a nautiloid/ammonite-type fossil in the bone-dry creekbed, which Rich says is of Cretaceous origin based on clam fossils in the underlying layer, and I tracked a common poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) for a little bit, eventually getting close enough for the rare iPhone bird photo. Interesting position it assumed upon landing with its wings outstretched above its back.
Big Bend Ranch State Park, West Contrabondo Campground We arrived in Study Butte with just enough time to check into a motel and get dinner before heading out to Big Bend Ranch State Park. The drive through the park was incredible as we searched for a spot to setup the lights. After finding such spot, however, we were greeted as we got out of the car by a stiff, chilly wind. I knew there was no point in going through the trouble to setup, so instead we drove further down the 2-track to an amazing scenic overlook into an impressive box canyon. Words cannot describe the contortions this acrophobiac took to find good position for these photos, but it was well worth the views.
Day 4 – Big Bend National Park, Boquillas Canyon Trail Well, the rain and cold continue to follow us. Rather than trying once again to drive somewhere else to escape, we decided to just sit this day out and visit the national park (not a bad Plan B!). Boquillas Canyon is an amazing slice through the rocks along the course of the Rio Grande River, and we hiked as far into the canyon as we could before sheet rock on the left and deep water on the right prevented any further progress. We saw only two insects—a tiger beetle larva that I “fished” out of one of the many larval burrows we saw (definitely Tetracha, and likely T. carolina) and a velvet ant (black head and pronotum, red abdomen).
Big Bend National Park, near Panther Junction Driving towards the Chisos Mountains after hiking the Boquillas Canyon Trail, we encountered this fine adult male Aphonopelmis hentzii (Texas tarantula) crossing the road.
Big Bend National Park, Chisos Basin, Window Trail After lunching at Panther Junction, we headed up the into the Chisos Mountains towards Chisos Basin. Heavy clouds shrouded the peaks, so we weren’t sure what we would encounter up there, and once in the cloud zone and then heading down into the basin we could hardly see anything. Suddenly the western side of the basin came into view, still overcast and drizzly but at least free from the heavy fog that shrouded the eastern half of the basin. That made our decision of which trail to hike easy—the Lost Mines Trail under heavy fog versus the Window Trail with semi-clear views. I’ve hiked the Window Trail several times, but the last time was 17 years ago, and Rich in his single attempt a year or two later did not make it to the “Window” due to an impatient 10-year old son in tow. The views on the way down the canyon were spectacular—not despite the rain and clouds but because of it. It is a rare opportunity to see richly moist desert mountains shrouded in mist. At one point on the way down, a Woodhouse’s scrub jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) caught our attention—sitting very nearby in a tree before hopping down to the ground and nonchalantly pecking for bugs. Another soon joined him, first landing on a branch just a few feet above me and returning my captivated stare for a few moments before joining his mate on the trail ahead of us… followed shortly by a third individual. Their soft chirpings were a charming contrast to their more familiar raucous calls, and Rich and I soaked in the moment until they moved on. The trail is not an easy hike—nearly 7 miles round trip, dropping over a thousand feet on the way down, and then gaining over a thousand feet on the way back. The “Window,” however, is a sight to behold—a narrow gap in the rocks soaring high overhead with a view out onto the desert floor almost a thousand feet below. There is tempting danger at the window—its smooth, water-carved rocks are deceptively slippery even in dry conditions, and with the rain of the day they were especially so. I would not be surprised to learn that at least one person had made a fatal error in judging how close to the window one can get. They would have had plenty of time to think about that mistake on the way down! The views on the way back up were even more breathtaking, as fog enshrouded the high peaks towering above us. Periodically the sun attempted to push through the clouds, creating surreal lighting in a battle of sun versus rain, but eventually the rain won out and fell steadily on us for the last, switchback-laden mile back to the trailhead. As for insects, we actually did see some despite the rain—a few blister beetles resting torpidly on yellow composite flowers.
Day 5 – Big Bend National Park, Sotol Overlook We’re on our way to Santa Elena Canyon and stopped at this overlook. From a distance of 14 air miles, the canyon entrance looks like a tiny split in the rocks, belying the 1000-foot canyon walls that await us. Cacti were nicely in bloom, if a bit rain battered—two species of yellow-flowered Opuntia (pricklypear) and the always extraordinary pink flowers of Cylindropuntia imbricata (tree cholla). No insects were to be found, but we did find a live Orthoporus ornatus (desert millipede)—the first that we’ve seen on this trip—who obliged us by coiling into its classic defensive pose.
Big Bend National Park, Santa Elena Canyon From 14 air miles away, Santa Elena Canyon looks like a tiny split in a little cliff (see previous post). Up close, however, it’s soaring walls tower 1000 feet overhead! The hike into the canyon features a tortuous staircase to bypass a narrows, followed by a leisurely stroll along the canyon bottoms along the Rio Grande River. Rain last night has triggered an en masse millipede emergence, and even a few insects were seen: velvet ant; Acmaeodera mixta, Trichodes sp. and Gnathium sp. on yellow composite flowers; and Omorgus sp. crawling in the sand.
Big Bend National Park, Cerro Castellan (Castolon Peak) The layers visible in Cerro Castellan reveal millions of years of volcanic events. Stacked in this tower are several lava flows and volcanic tuffs (ash deposits), with layers of gravel and clay from periods of erosion between eruptions. Cerro Castellan’s cap rock is the same lava that formed the Chisos’ South Rim. The lighter orange and gray layers beneath are tuffs.
Big Bend National Park, Tuff CanyonTrail Some of the oldest layers of volcanic rocks lie at the bottom of Tuff Canyon. It is dry most of the time, but summer thunderstorm runoff churns through the canyon, cutting it deeper. This canyon is narrower and deeper than most others in Big Bend, partly because the light gray volcanic tuff is relatively cohesive. Swift, powerful floodwaters will cut down through any kind of bedrock, but the tuff is better able to resist the widening effects of sideward erosion.
4.6 mi W of Langtry After leaving Big Bend National Park we started making our way towards the Del Rio area in Val Verde Co., where we plan to meet up tomorrow with a few other beetle collectors (Dan Heffern, Brian Raber, and Ed Riley). I noted that our path took us right by the type locality of the recently described tiger beetle, Amblycheila katzi. I didn’t have much hope of actually seeing the species, given that the season seems to have even really started yet and the earliest record of the species is the 23rd of May. Nevertheless, since we happened by the spot right as dusk was falling it seems a good idea to at least try. First we walked the limestone 2-track just to see what was out and about (just a few darkling beetles), then we started checking the limestone ledges where the tiger beetle can be found. We checked about 100 m of ledge without seeing any, and I was about ready to call it a night when we finally spotted one. It was running in a seam about 2 m above the ground and was unmistakable. My attempt tiger an in situ photo failed at first, and it almost escaped deep into a crevice before I pulled out my long forceps and pulled him out by a tarsus. It gave me a healthy pinch when I grabbed it while fumbling in my pack for a bottle, but eventually I prevailed. Later on I placed it back on the ledge and covered it with the Nalgene bottle cap, waited for it to calm down, then carefully lifted the cap and got a couple of shots before it began scurrying again. We checked another 50 m of ledge without seeing any and decided to call it a night.
Day 6 – Comstock (prologue) The owner of the motel in which we stayed was super friendly and kind enough to leave a key in the door for our very late arrival last night. Settling up this morning, I saw this on the wall (right next to his vaccination card—two doses) and just had to get a pic. He was only too happy to oblige when I told him how awesome it was and could I get a picture. Hey, no reason to reveal true political leanings if it means we can all just get along.
Amistad National Recreation Area, Spur 406 Campground A quick stop here on the way to meet up with Dan, Brian, and Ed near Devil’s River. There were lots of dead and dying Acacia constricta (whitethorn acacias), off of which I beat a diversity of cerambycids and buprestids from both the dead and dying branches. I found one small sapling of the same with evidence of fresh woodboring beetle larval feeding, so I collected it as well for rearing. Other than that I just collected a few weevils off of living Prosopis glandulosa (mesquite) for weevil-specialist Bob Anderson.
Devils River near Dry Devils River We met up with Dan, Brian, and Ed north of Del Rio and, after exchanging peasantries, followed them into a private resort surrounding a stretch of the Devils River*—considered by some to be the most unspoiled river in Texas. Dan had arranged for access after befriending Dave Barker, a commercial herpetologist who had built a home on property overlooking the Devils River and also a guest cabin on property overlooking nearby Gold Mine Canyon. We met up at the cabin and then carpooled to a spot along the Devils River where Dan and Brian had placed a variety of traps that needed servicing. While they took care of that, Rich, Ed, and I collected in the area around where the traps had been placed. I started off beating dead branches of Vachellia farnesiana (huisache), sweeping blooming Salvia sp. (sage), and beating dead branches of Acacia rigidula (blackbrush acacia) down by the river but collected only a smattering of beetles. I then clambered up the rocks and found good numbers of Acmaeodera spp. visiting flowers of Echinocereus enneacanthus (strawberry cactus) and Opuntia engelmannii (Engelmann’s pricklypear). After collecting my fill of those beetles, I returned to the riverbanks and noticed some large Carya illinoensis (pecan), from which I beat a few Anthaxia (Haplanthaxia) sp. (hoping they are one of the recently described taxa). By then, Dan and Brian had finished servicing their traps and gave me a few specimens that had been collected in their ethanol-baited Lingren funnel trap.
* The accepted usage of the name is without an apostrophe, although the reason for this is a matter of debate.
After finishing along the Devils River, Dave invited us to his home for a few post-collecting beers. Spectacular views overlooking the river.
GoldMine Canyon We setup a variety of light stations at Dave’s cabin a little east of the river. It was warm and dry, so conditions were good, if a bit windy. My two ultraviolet light stations a bit north of the cabin ended up catching the lion’s share of cerambycids, although it was mostly elaphidiines and a Lepturges sp. We also picked up a few tenebrionids and a Carabidae crawling on the ground near the lights. Ed’s mercury vapor/ ultraviolet station on the road west of the cabin attracted a few more cerambycids, including a Lagocheirus sp. Dan, however, got the catch of the night—a Goes that came to Dan’s $6 battery-powered lantern on the road south of Ed’s station. We at first thought it might be G. novus, but that Dan later decided it was just a very lightly marked G. tesselatus. Zephyranthes chlorosolen (Brazos rain lily) blossoms were beautiful at night, their stark whiteness catching the beam of the headlamp.
Day 7 – Gold Mine Canyon Rich and I spent the morning walking the grounds around Dave’s cabin while the others packed up and got ready to leave. I found some oak (Quercus vasseyana) saplings infested with cerambycid larvae, which I cut and bundled to bring back for rearing. Acmaeodera were already coming to the flowers—a couple of small ones on an undetermined white composite, three different species on Opuntia engelmannii (Engelmann’s pricklypear) and Echinocereus enneacanthus (strawberry cactus) flowers, and a couple on Coreopsis? flowers. I beat some of the Diospyros texana (Texas persimmon) looking for Spectralia robusta but did not find any. It got hotter than blazes real quick!
After Dan, Brian, and Ed left, Rich and I went down to the canyon entrance to beat on the oaks and Texas persimmons that dot the sides of the canyon. Nothing was on either plant, however, and I ended up again concentrating on the diversity of Acmaeodera that were coming to flowers of Coreopsis sp., Opuntia engelmannii, and an unidentified yellow composite. I did beat a single Cleridae off a dead branch of mesquite.
Devils Rivernear Dry Devils River After finishing at Gold Mine Canyon, we came back to the Devils River crossing near the first stop we made here for our final stop of the day. Temperatures had maxed out at 99°F! and I wasn’t too motivated to collect much more today, but when we arrived at the spot I noticed some declining Platanus occidentalis (American sycamore) with large emergence holes suggestive of Mallodon dasystomus and old fallen branches with the same suggestive of Polycesta elata. The tree with the Mallodon holes was much too large to cut (and embedded within a thicket of poison ivy), so I occupied myself by collecting a few more Acmaeodera off of Opuntia engelmannii flowers. As I walked the roadway I noticed more sycamore with some smaller trees in the grove that looked recently dead. One was dead from about three feet up and had buprestid workings under loose, peeling bark. I cut just above the live portion (3–4” diameter) and took three 4-ft sections of the trunk above that point, each cut showing internal galleries. If P. elata emerges from these pieces of wood I will be “elated” [Later edit: I did rear the species!].
Gold Mine Canyon For blacklighting tonight we decided to bring the lights down to the mouth of the canyon where we collected this afternoon so we could have acces to anything associated with the oaks. Unfortunately it was a much slower night than last night and cooled off quickly despite the high heat earlier in the day. I only got three cerambycids (one Ecyrus and two Aneflomorpha) and a few clerids at the lights. I also walked the jeep track leading to the mouth of the canyon and the main road outside and didn’t see anything until I almost got back, when I noticed a beetle sitting on the trail that looked a bit odd. When I picked it up I realized it was a buprestid in the genus Melanophila—what the heck?! Totally unexpected to see this beetle at night and especially on the ground instead of on a tree. I suppose it is one of the juniper-feeding species (since pine doesn’t occur here).
Day 8 – Gold Mine Canyon Our plan today was to head over to some spots further west in Val Verde Co., but before leaving the cabin we did a bit of walking around and took a last few photographs.
22 mi N Del Rio I had noted a few scattered plants of Senna roemeriana (two-leaved senna) at this spot a couple of days ago when meeting up with Dan but didn’t have the chance to sample them for Agrilus obtusus—one of my target species for the trip. I found one on the second plant I checked, so I went back to the truck to get my big camera hoping to photograph one in situ. I didn’t see anything on the next plant, but when I tapped it over my net there was another one! I did that for the next hour or so—inspecting and tapping—and never saw another one. Rich did get one sweeping the S. roemeriana (in an area I’d already worked) and was gracious enough to give it to me. There were also tiny bruchids and clerids on the plant. Other than that I got a couple of Acmaeodera mixta sweeping, a couple of Canthon sp. in flight, and a Euphoria kerni on the flower of Zephyranthes chlorosolen.
Hwy 90 at Del Rio River I first visited this spot nearby 30 years ago based on a tip by Dan Heffern, who had reared a Polycesta elata from Fraxinus greggii (Gregg ash). I found the ash on that visit, though I didn’t find any wood infested with that species here, but what I did find was Diospyros texana (Texas persimmon) infested with Spectralia robusta and managed to rear out a few individuals. That was my quarry today, but when I arrived the abandoned road on the northwest side of the bridge was fenced and posted. I took a look on the southwest side and found open access up top and decided to hike down towards the ravine from that point. Things seems to be about as far along here as they were at Devils River, with not much activity except for Acmaeodera coming to the Opuntia engelmannii flowers, albeit not quite the diversity. I found a few more also on flowers of an undetermined yellow composite, Coreposis sp., and an undetermined white composite. Closer towards the ravine I found just a single large F. microphylla (with no signs of infestation) and several D. texana—two of which had the half-live/half-dead branches in which S. robusta larvae live and showing the emergence holes of adults. I collected both branches and will bring them back for rearing.
Amistad National Recreation Area, Pecos River Access Nature Trail Just a quick stop at the Pecos River Access on the east side to walk the short nature trail and gaze at the 300-ft high, 100 million-year-old (Cretaceous Period) limestone bluffs that the Pecos River has cut near the junction with the Rio Grande River (the latter can be seen on the left side of photo 2). The first photo also shows the old road that was originally used to cross the river snaking down the west bluff—traffic today uses the tall bridge in the right side of the photo.
Seminole Canyon State Park, Canyon Rim Trail We came here looking for oak potentially infested with Spectralia roburella. We didn’t find any oak on this trail, but I did find a Acacia rigidula (blackbrush acacia) showing signs of infestation by buprestid larvae (difficult to find such this year because the freeze in February apparently killed or severely knocked back most of this species). I cut up and bundled the wood to bring back for rearing.
Amistad National Recreation Area, Spur 406 Campground We got to Seminole Canyon State Park too late to check with the supervisor about setting up our blacklights at the park, so we came back to Spur 406 Campground where we’d collected a few things two days earlier. Temps were okay and there was no moon or wind, but it was still a very slow night—for me just a couple of elaphidiines, two trogids, two Digitinthophagus gazella (why do I continue to pick these things up?), and a bostrichid.
Day 9 – Seminole Canyon State Park, Windmill Trail We came back to the state park since we ran out of time to look for oak yesterday. The park staff were extraordinarily helpful—both in getting me checked in with my permit and in directing me to the spots where I might be able to find oak. Their first tip—along the Window Trail—paid off, where we found a nice cluster of Quercus fusiformis (plateau live oak) clinging to the upper canyon walls. Most of them had dead branches on them, and I did some beating to see if by some chance the beetles would be out already. They were not, but on the second tree that I examined I found a main branch from near the base with the outer 4–6 ft dead but the bark not peeling and small living sprouts about 2 ft from the base. Pulling apart the dead portion revealed buprestid larval workings, likely my quarry—Spectralia roburella, but these could be old. I cut the branch at the base, however, and found fresh larval galleries in the sapwood of the still-living portion even extending into the trunk—success! I’ll bring this back for rearing and will hopefully get S. roburella out of it. Further along the trail I found a single Senna roemeriana (two-leaved senna), inspected it carefully and didn’t see anything, then tapped the plant over my beating sheet and a single Agrilus obtusus fell onto it to add to the three that I got yesterday. I really wish I could see these things before I beat them off the plants so I could take an in situ photo!
Seminole Canyon State Park, Canyon Rim Trail Another place the park staff recommended to find oaks was along the Canyon Rim Trail. We hiked that trail yesterday for a bit and didn’t see any oaks, but it turns out they were farther down the trail then we went. We headed back out on the trail to find them, along the way checking Opuntia engelmannii flowers for Acmaeodera and seeing only one for the time being. Just past the first of two east-facing ravines where we expected to find oaks, we found one on the canyon edge that looked rather bedraggled. There were some completely dead branches with bark already sloughed but also one large fresher-looking dead branch that had one live branchlet coming out of it about a third of the way up (meaning there was at least a strip of live wood within the branch). I broke of one of the dead branches near the live/dead junction, and there in its gallery was a smallish buprestid larva that almost certainly is Spectralia roburella! I took the entire branch and cut it up to bring back for rearing. We continued hiking along the canyon rim and saw the most amazing views—sheer Cretaceous limestone walls towering 300 feet above the narrow canyon bottoms! Farther down the trail we finally started seeing Acmaeodera on O. engelmannii flowers. By then we’d hiked more than a mile and a half down the trail and temps were beginning to soar, so we turned back, picked up the wood we’d cut as we came back by, and finished the long, hot slog back to the truck.
Comstock As Rich and I were lunching after our last stop, I got a text from Ed Riley about a spot near Comstock where he’d collected what he believed to be Acmaeodera starrae—a species I’ve never encountered. It just so happened that we would be passing by Comstock on our way back east this afternoon, so we stopped to see if we could find it. Bingo—right where and in the flowers he said it would be (an undetermined white composite that I later determined to be Aphanostephus ramosissimus [lazy daisy]). Together we found about 15 specimens, and interestingly about 25% have red rather than yellow elytra markings. [EDIT: I’m not convinced these are A. starrae, but I do not yet know what they are.]
Day 10 – Garner State Park, Wild Horse Creek/Highway/Campos Trails It’s the final day of collecting for the trip, and for our last stop we picked Garner State Park along the Frío River. I was last here back in the mid 90s—nearly 30 years ago, Acmaeodera ornatoides and Polycesta elata being the two species of note that I remember finding. I remember during that first visit that the area reminded me of my beloved Ozark Mountains, especially the White River Hills region in southwestern Missouri—scraggly forests of oak and juniper on steep, rocky slopes over craggy hill and lazy dale. It still does, although the species are a bit different—Juniperus ashei (Ashe juniper) dominates instead of J. virginiana (eastern red-cedar), and a variety of other oaks replace the familiar Ozarkian Quercus stellata and Q. marilandica (post and blackjack oaks, respectively). We hiked a series of trails on the western side of the park, thinking the west-facing slopes would tend to be drier and result in more open, glade-like habitats, and for the most part this was true. Almost immediately after reaching the first glade along Wild Horse Creek Trail, we found A. ornatoides and at least two smaller congeners on flowers of Coreopsis sp. Flowers of Viguiera dentata have been uncharacteristically depauperate of buprestids on this trip, but I picked up a couple of Acmaeodera neglecta/neoneglecta nearby as well. On the Highway Trail a good series of Acmaeodera was found on flowers of an undetermined small white composite, and a few were also found on flowers of Senna roemeriana (two-leaved senna)—though no Agrilus obtusus. The Campos Trail ascended steeply and ruggedly to a nice overlook, where I found one Acmaeodera sp. on the flower of Zephyranthes chlorosolen and then the mother-load—the biggest diversity and abundance of Acmaeodera I’ve ever seen on cactus flowers occurred nearby in a single flowering Opuntia engelmannii. The final specimen of the day’s “Acmaeodera-a-thon” was taken a bit further up the trail on the flower of Echinocereus enneacanthus (strawberry cactus). Fortunately, the trail was all downhill from there (albeit a bit too steep and rocky at times for these no-longer-nimble legs!). We finished off the hike back along the Wild Horse Creek Trail by collecting a branch off a fallen oak that I hope proves fruitful in the rearing box back home and had some lunch. As we were getting ready to leave, I noticed most of the trees in the camping area were Carya illinoensis (pecans)—a great host for buprestids (especially Xenorhipis brendeli), so I picked up several fallen branches from under the trees to complete the wood collecting portion of the trip.
Garner State Park, Brazos River (epilogue) We visited the nearby Frio River for one last look at the park, took a shower, and settled in for the 15-hour trek back to St. Louis.
The term Mountains in Miniature is the most expressive one to describe these bluffs. They have all the irregularity in shape, and in valleys that mountains have, they have no rocks and rarely timber. – Thaddeus Culbertson, missionary, 1852
One of the things I enjoy most about the natural history of Missouri is its diversity. Lying in the middle of the North American continent, it is here where the eastern deciduous forest yields to the western grasslands. Coinciding with this transition between two great biomes is a complex intersection of landforms – the northern plains, recently scoured by glaciers; the southeastern lowlands, where the great Mississippi River embayment reaches its northern extent; the Ozark Highlands, whose craggy old rocks comprise the only major landform elevation between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains; and the eastern realm of the vast Great Plains. This nexus of east and west, of north and south, of lowlands and highlands, has given rise to a rich diversity of natural communities – 85 in all according to Paul Nelson (2005, Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri). Despite the overwhelming changes wrought upon Missouri’s landscape during the past 200 years, passable examples of most of these communities still exist in many parts of the state and provide a glimpse of Missouri’s rich natural heritage.
Last month I talked about the critically imperiled sand prairie community in extreme southeast Missouri. This month, we travel 500 miles to the distant northwestern corner of the state to visit another critically imperiled community – the dry loess prairie. These communities are confined to thin slivers of bluff top along the Missouri River in Atchison and Holt Counties. The bluffs on which they lie are themselves part of a unique landform called the Loess Hills. Like the sand prairies of the southeastern lowlands, this angular landscape owes its birth to the glacial advances of the Pleistocene epoch (2.5 million to 10,000 years ago), when streams of meltwater – swollen and heavily laden with finely ground sediments (i.e., glacial “flour”) – filled river valleys throughout the Midwest during Pleistocene summers. Brutal cold during winter reduced these flows to a trickle, allowing the prevailing westerly winds to pick up the sediments, left high and dry, and drop them on leeward upland surfaces across Iowa and northern Missouri. The thickest deposits occurred along the abrupt eastern border of the Missouri River valley – at least 60 feet deep, and in places up to 200 feet. Loess (pronounced “luss”) is a homogeneous, fine-grained, quartz silt – undisturbed it is highly cohesive and able to stand in near vertical bluffs. It is also extremely prone to erosion, and as a result for 10,000 years now the forces of water have reshaped the Loess Hills into the landform we see today. Loess itself is not rare – thick deposits can be found in many parts of the world and over thousands of square miles across the Midwest. It is here, however, along the western edge of Iowa and northern Missouri – and nowhere else in North America – where loess deposits are deep enough and extensive enough to obliterate any influence by the underlying bedrock and dictate the form of the landscape.
It is this form that makes the Loess Hills so unique. The depth of the soil, its cohesiveness, its natural tendency to slump on steep slopes and sheer in vertical planes, and the action of water over the past several millenia have created a landscape of narrow undulating ridges flanked by steep slopes and numerous side spurs, intricate drainages with sharply cut gullies, and long, narrow terraces called “catsteps” cutting across the steep upper hillsides. It’s a sharp, angular, corrugated landscape, stretching 200 miles north and south in a narrow band of varying width from north of Souix City, Iowa, to its southern terminus in northwestern Missouri. Its western boundary is sharply delimited by the Missouri River valley, where lateral erosion (now halted by channelization of the river) and vertical sheering have created precipitous bluff faces. The eastern boundary is harder to delimit and is dependent upon the thickness of the loess. Deposits that fall below 60 feet in depth are unable to mask and reshape the rolling terrain of the eroded glacial till lying beneath. In general, this happens at distances of only 3 to 10 miles from the western edge of the landform.
Its southern terminus in Missouri, however, is the most arbitrary boundary. Discontinuous patches of deep loess terrain do occur as far south as Kansas City, but the dry hilltop prairies, common in the north, are gradually replaced by woodland in the south and disappear completely just north of St. Joseph. It is this interdigitation of two great biomes – the great deciduous forest to the east, and the expansive grasslands stretching far to the west – that give the Loess Hills such a fascinating natural history. This is due as much to the physical character of the Loess Hills themselves as to their ecotonal position at the center of the continent. Rapid drainage of rainwater off the steep slopes combines with direct sun and prevailing southwesterly summer winds to create very dry conditions on hilltops and south and west facing slopes, especially on the steeper slopes along the landform’s western edge. Such xeric conditions favor the growth of more drought-tolerant species derived from the western grasslands. North and east facing slopes and valley floors, protected from direct sun and drying winds, are able to retain more moisture, favoring the growth of woody plant species more common in the eastern forests. Seasonal moisture also shows a north-south gradient, with southern latitudes receiving higher annual rainfall totals that also favors the growth of woody plants, while the lower rainfall totals further north result in larger, more expansive grassland habitats. The steep slopes and rapid drainage create much more xeric conditions than those found further south in the flat to rolling terrain of the unglaciated Osage Plain, resulting in a more drought-tolerant mixed-grass prairie rather than the tallgrass prairie of western and southwestern Missouri. The distribution patterns of prairie versus woodland are dynamic and ever-changing, influenced by both natural and anthropogenic processes. Climatic conditions over much of the Loess Hills are capable of supporting either community type, both of which repeatedly expand and shrink as the balance tips in favor of one versus the other. In the past, the major influence was shifting periods of greater or lesser rainfall. During drier periods, grasslands expanded and woodlands shrank, finding refuge in only the moistest streamside habitats. Wetter periods allowed woody plants to migrate out of the valleys and up the slopes, especially those facing north and east. One particular very dry “hypsithermal” began about 9,000 years ago and lasted for several thousand years. Tallgrass prairies expanded as far east as present day Ohio, and todays tallgrass praires in the eastern Great Plains were invaded by even more drought-tolerant species from the shortgrass prairies further west. Eventually the hypsithermal abated, moisture levels increased, and the grasslands retreated in the face of the advanding forest. Not all of the drought-tolerant species were driven back, however, and scattered populations of these “hypsithermal relicts” still remain on locally dry sites far to the east of their normal range of distribution. Conspicuous examples of such in Missouri’s Loess Hills are soapweed yucca (Yucca glauca var. glauca) and the leafless-appearing skeletonweed (Lygodesmia juncea) (plant above, flower right). Both of these plants are normally found further west in the mixed grass prairies of the western Great Plains but are considered endangered in Missouri due to the great rarity of the dry loess prairies on which their survival depends. (Incidentally, note the crab spider legs extending from behind the petals of the skeletonweed flower). In total, more than a dozen plant species occurring in Missouri’s dry loess prairies are listed as species of conservation concern, along with one reptile (Great Plains skink) and one mammal (Plains pocket mouse).
As is typical, the insect fauna of the Loess Hills has been far less studied than its plants, but many of the species that have been documented in its prairies also show affinity to the Great Plains fauna. Both soapweed and skeletonweed have insect associates that rely exclusively on these hosts for reproduction, and as a result they are also highly restricted in Missouri. Evidence of one of these – a tiny cynipid wasp (Anistrophus pisum) that forms small spherical galls on the stems of skeletonweed – can be seen in the photo above. However, my purpose for visiting the Loess Hills this summer was to look for the rare and possibly endangered tiger beetle, Cicindela celeripes (see this post). Cicindela celeripes has not yet been recorded from Missouri but is known to occur in the Loess Hills of southwestern Iowa, and while I have not succeeded in finding it (yet!) I did observe several adults of this unusual May beetle species, Phyllophaga lanceolata. This May beetle occurs throughout the Great Plains in shortgrass prairie communities. Larvae feed in the soil on roots of grasses and other plants, while adults feed above ground on flowers and foliage. The heavy-bodied adults are unusual in the genus due to their conspicuous covering of scales (most species of Phyllophaga are glabrous or with sparsely scattered and indistinct setae) and by being active during the day. They are also relatively poorer fliers and are thus usually observed moving about on foot – as seen with this individual who was found on bare soil below a vertical cut. This snakeweed grasshopper (Hesperotettix viridis, ID by Eric R. Eaton) is another species more typically seen in the western United States, although populations have been found from across the continent. Preferred host plants include a variety of asteraceous shrubs, but as suggested by the common name snakeweeds (Xanthocephalum spp.) are highly preferred and account for its greater abundance in the west. Populations in northern and eastern portions of its range, which would include northern Missouri, are considered subspecies pratensis, while the more southern and western populations are considered the nominotypical subspecies. Interestingly (and unlike many grasshoppers), this species is considered beneficial by ranchers, since the plants on which it prefers to feed are either poisonous to livestock or offer little nutritional value while competing with more desirable forage plants for soil moisture. While exploring the upper slopes, I encountered sporadic plants of two of Missouri’s more interesting species of milkweed – whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) and green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), raising my hopes that I might encounter one of the many Great Plains species of milkweed beetles (genus Tetraopes). However, the only species I observed was the common milkweed beetle, Tetraopes tetrophthalmus, which occurs broadly across eastern North America on the equally broadly distributed common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).
It is a familiar refrain, but Missouri’s dry loess hill prairie communities are critically endangered. Historically, these communities were probably never as well developed as those further north, and only a few small remnants remain today due to significant woody encroachment following decades of fire suppression. Much of this encroachment has occurred in the past 50 years – Heinman (Woody Plant Invasion of the Loess Hill Bluff Prairies. M. A. Thesis, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 1982) used aerial photographs to show a 66 percent encroachment of shrubs and trees into the loess hill mixed-grass prairies between 1940 and 1981. Additional threats include overgrazing, erosion, invasion by exotic plant species and homesite development. Fewer than 50 acres of native dry loess hill prairie remain in Missouri – only half of which are now in conservation ownership. The majority of these can be found at Star School Hill Praire and Brickyard Hill Conservation Areas in Atchison County and at McCormack Conservation Area just to the south in Holt County. Controlled burning and selective cutting are being used at these sites to control woody plant invasions, but even these management techniques present challenges. Spring burns have been shown to promote the growth of big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), which could allow it to encroach drier areas where mid-grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) typically dominate (Rushin 2005). Increases in tall grasses could shade out and eliminate some of the rarer low-growing forbs such as downy painted cup (Castilleja sessiliflora), locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii) and low milkvetch (Astragalus lotiflorus). Fall or winter burns may be more beneficial to forbs because the plants are allowed to complete flowering and seed set, but the steep slopes on which these communities occur make erosion a potential concern. Clearly, all factors must be considered when designing management plans for this rare and significant slice of Missouri’s natural heritage.
In addition to the links and references provided above, I highly recommend Fragile Giants: A Natural History of the Loess Hills, by Cornelia F. Mutel (1989). All of the above photographs were taken at Star School Hill Prairie Conservation Area on July 12, 2008. Additional photographs of Loess Hill habitats in extreme southwestern Iowa appeared in my earlier post, The hunt for Cicindela celeripes. The plants shown in photographs 5-7 are purple praire clover (Dalea purpurea), white prairie clover (D. candida), and lead plant (Amorpha canescens), respectively. Lastly, I would like to apologize for the length of this post – a consequence of my inability to temper my utter fascination with the natural world and desire to understand the depths its connectedness.