Botanizing at Prairie Fork Conservation Area

Restored claypan prairie around Crow Pond.

Today’s outing for the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) Botany Group was Prairie Fork Conservation Area, a newish Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) property that is open to the public only by appointment. The 911-acre property lies within the historic 9-mile long prairie of Callaway County, Missouri—namesake for Nine Mile Prairie Township. Prior to MDC ownership, the property was owned by Ted Jones, son of the founder of Edward Jones Financial Company, and his wife Pat, who began dedicated conservation practices beginning in the 1950s. Obviously, conservation in those days—with its reliance on plantings of many now-invasive exotics such as Lespedeza sericea (sericea lespedeza), Lonicera mackii (bush honeysuckle), and Elaeagnus angustifolia (Russion olive), meant something very different than it does today. Nevertheless, the foresight and generosity of Ted and Pat Jones ultimately led to the creation a conservation area where more than half of its area has been or is being restored to claypan prairie resembling as much as possible its presettlement character.

Crow Pond.

The group engaged in two short hikes—the first through several garden plantings and then at the interface between tallgrass prairie and upland forest surrounding the perimeter of Crow Pond. Almost immediately we were treated to the sight of Gentiana andrewsii (closed gentian) in bloom. To the uninitiated, the mature flowers appear to be still-unopened buds. In fact, the corolla in this species remains closed, and the flowers are pollinated by bumblebees, which must force their way through the closed corolla. We would see numerous plants as we traveled around the pond, with most being difficult to access and photograph due to the thick, surrounding vegetation.

Gentiana andrewsii (closed gentian) mature inflorescences.
Gentiana andrewsii (closed gentian) mature inflorescences.

At pond’s edge, we found several examples of Symphyotrichum laterifolium (calico aster), one of the few white fall asters that can be identified fairly easily in the field due to its profusion of smaller-than-average-sized flowers along lateral branches with relatively few rays (9–16) and disc florets turning from pale yellow to purple, lance-elliptic leaves with a “Mohawk” (i.e., hairs only along the midvein) on the underside, and stems covered in soft, white hairs.

Symphyotrichum laterifolium (calico aster).

At the far end of the pond, the group noticed Taxodium distichum (bald cypress) trees (native to southeastern Missouri but not this far north) with strange-looking galls on the twigs. There was some discussion about whether they were caused by an insect or a fungus—their rusty-brown color and numerous spikes brought to mind the galls on Juniperus virginiana (eastern red-cedar) caused by the fungus Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae (cedar-apple rust). The fact that both Taxodium and Juniperus are in the family Cupressaceae made the idea of a rust fungus being the culprit seem even more likely. Nevertheless, a little online sleuthing (thank goodness for smart phones!) revealed that the actual culprit was, indeed, and insect—specifically Taxodiomyia cupressiananassa (cypress twig gall midge), a tiny fly. The spongy galls are snow-white at first and then turn brown with age, eventually dropping from the tree as leaves are shed. Maggots pupate inside the galls and adults may emerge from galls that are still on the tree later in the season. Maggots usually overwinter inside fallen galls to pupate and emerge as adults the following spring.

Galls caused by Taxodiomyia cupressiananassa (cypress twig gall midge) on Taxodium distichum (bald cypress).
Galls start out snow-white but turn brown with age.

As we walked, some of the more adventurous among us partook in freshly fallen fruits of Diospyros virginiana (persimmon). Those that were plucked from trees just as they were ready to drop were found to be the tastiest and least stringent, and sucking on the five or so seeds per fruit stretched out the flavor as long as possible. As we enjoyed the impromptu snack, a few still-flowering plants of Bidens aristosa (bearded beggarsticks or tickseed sunflower) were seen near the pond margin.

Bidens aristosa (bearded beggarsticks or tickseed sunflower).
Bidens aristosa (bearded beggarsticks or tickseed sunflower).

Eventually, we spotted from afar a large patch of bright, yellow-flowered composites in the distance. Their brown-purple discs brought the genus Rudbeckia immediately to mind, and our initial thought was R. subtomentosa (sweet coneflower) after seeing some of the large leaves with lobes. Still, the time of bloom seemed very late, and the plants were not as tall nor the leaves as “gray” as would be expected for that species. In reality, the majority of leaves were not lobed, and we decided they instead represented a form of R. fulgida (orange coneflower)—a highly variable and taxonomically difficult complex of populations.

Rudbeckia fulgida (orange coneflower).
Rudbeckia fulgida (orange coneflower).
Rudbeckia fulgida (orange coneflower) involucre.
Rudbeckia fulgida (orange coneflower) leaf.
Rudbeckia fulgida (orange coneflower) stem.

After completing the circuit around Crow Pond, the group caravanned to the northernmost and most recently renovated quarter on the property. Most of the plants established in this large tract of now-tallgrass prairie were well on their way to fall seed (and, in fact, had been combine-harvested for such), but mowing along the gravel access road allowed some still-green regrow the—the most dramatic being Helianthus maximiliani (Maximilian sunflower). This uncommon sunflower is most similar to H. grosseserratus (sawtooth sunflower) due to its large attractive flowers and narrow, curved leaves. However, leaves of the former are grayish due to the presence of many tiny hairs covering the surface of the leaf (in the latter leaves are glabrous), and the stem is rough—also due to the presence of hairs (in the latter the stem is glabrous and has a glaucus coating that can be rubbed off).

Helianthus maximiliani (Maximilian sunflower).
Helianthus maximiliani (Maximilian sunflower) involucre.
Helianthus maximiliani (Maximilian sunflower) stem/leaves.
Helianthus maximiliani (Maximilian sunflower) leaf.

The group agreed that three weeks earlier would have been a good time to see the area, and next spring or summer would be even better!

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021

Hiking at Hughes Mountain Natural Area

Even though I ended the bait trapping season last weekend, I still plan to get out on a weekly basis to explore some areas that I haven’t been able to visit yet this season. Tops on the list for me is Hughes Mountain Natural Area, an exposed rhyolite dome in the St. Francois Mountains that features dry oak-hickory woodlands surrounding xeric igneous glades.

Hughes Mountain summit.

The main thing I was hoping to see was Tragidion coquus, a spectacular longhorned beetle that seems common in some areas (e.g., Texas) but is rarely seen in Missouri. I saw one here three years ago in late September at the woodland/glade interface, and a recent conversation with fellow cerambyciphile Dan Heffern, who mentioned that they seem to prefer recently burned oak woodlands, makes me think that is why I saw it here (the surrounding woodlands are managed with periodic prescribed burns to stave off woody encroachment of the glade proper).

Columnar fracturing of rhyolite dome.
Eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana) on the glade.

I hiked along the trail through the forest leading to the main glade, noting an abundance of many-rayed aster (Symphyotrichum anomalum) in bloom and a few persisting blooms on now-rank plants of slender false foxglove (Agalinis tenuifolia).

Many-rayed aster (Symphyotrichum anomalum). Note the photobombing ambush bug (Phymatodes sp.) on the stem in the lower left corner.
Slender false foxglove (Agalinis tenuifolia).
Slender false foxglove (Agalinis tenuifolia).
Common dittany (Cunila origanoides).

After reaching the main glade, I stayed along the interface around its entire perimeter, hoping to see one of the beetles either resting on foliage or in flight. It was a good day to look—sunny and relatively warm, but no beetles were seen. In fact, even though we haven’t yet had any frost, there was not a lot of insect activity in general with the exception of marvelously cryptic lichen grasshoppers (Trimerotropis saxatilis), which were common on the glade along with a variety of other grasshoppers.

The remarkably cryptic lichen grasshopper (Trimerotropis saxatilis).

There was also little blooming on the glade, which made the chances of seeing the beetle even lower since they are known to be attracted to flowers such as thoroughwort (Eupatorium spp.) and blazingstar (Liatris spp.). I did find a few persisting blooms of the hot-pink largeflower fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus), but most other plants were well past bloom. Eventually I completed the walk around the glade perimeter and worked my way back.

Largeflower fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus) flower.
Largeflower fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus) basal leaves.

At one point, I found a clump of small shagbark hickories (Carya ovata) that were oozing sap at several points along the main trunks and noted a variety of insects feeding at the sap flows. I checked carefully, thinking that they might include T. coquus, but none were seen—just flies, butterflies, and a wheel bug assassin bug (Arilus cristatus). Shortly afterwards, I reached the car—my bottles empty but my soul nourished by another day surrounded by nature.

An abnormal fall-blooming serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea).

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021

2018 Arizona Insect Collecting Trip “iReport”

Hot on the heels of the previous installment in this series, I present the sixth “Collecting Trip iReport”; this one covering a trip to Arizona during July/August 2018 with Art Evans and—like the previous installments in this series—illustrated exclusively with iPhone photographs (see previous installments for 2013 Oklahoma2013 Great Basin2014 Great Plains, 2015 Texas, and 2018 New Mexico/Texas).

This trip was a reunion of sorts—not only had it been 20 years since I’d collected in Arizona, it had also been 20 years since I’d spent time in the field with Art Evans—which just happened to be in southeast Arizona! For years I looked forward to our next opportunity, and when he told me of his plans for an extended trip to take photographs of his forthcoming Beetles of the Western United States, I couldn’t pass up the chance. Art had already been out west for five weeks by the time I landed in Phoenix on July 28th, and together we drove to Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains and spent the night before beginning a 7-day adventure in and around the “Sky Islands” of southeastern Arizona.

As with the recent New Mexico/Texas post, the material collected still has not been completely processed and curated, so I don’t have final numbers of taxa collected, but there were a number of species—some highly desirable—that I managed to find and collect for the first time, e.g., the buprestids Acmaeodera yuccavoraAgrilus restrictus, Agr. arizonicusChrysobothris chiricauhuaMastogenius puncticollis, and Lampetis webbii and the cerambycids Tetraopes discoideus and Stenaspis verticalis. Who knows what as-yet-unrecognized goodies await my discovery in the still unprocessed material?!


Day 1 – Chiricahua Mountains, Cave Creek Canyon
After arriving at Cave Creek Ranch late last night, we awoke to some stunning views right outside our room!

View of Cave Creek Canyon at Cave Creek Ranch, Chiricahua Mountains.

Cave Creek Ranch, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains.

Cave Creek Ranch, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains.

The first buprestid of the trip was a series of Pachyschelus secedens on Desmodium near Stewart Campground. We beat the oaks and acacia along the way to Sunny Flat Campground but didn’t find much. Once we got near Sunny Flat I did some sweeping in an area with new growth of Helianthus sp. and got a series of Agrilus huachucae, a few lycids, and one Leptinotarsa rubiginosa. I beat one Acmaeodera cazieri from Acacia greggii and found another on flower of prickly poppy (Argemone sp.). On the roadside at Sunny Flat I found several Acmaeodera spp. on a yellow-flowered composite – one A. rubronotata, one A. solitaria(?), and three A. cazieri. Also collected one A. cazieri on a rain gauge, Mecas rotundicollis and one as yet undetermined acanthocinine cerambycid on miscellaneous foliage, one tiger beetle (Cicindela sedecimpunctata?) on the roadside, and two orange lycids in flight.

Majestic peaks loom over the canyon.

Blue pleasing fungus beetle (Gibbifer californicus) – family Erotylidae.

Me with Margarethe Brummermann.

Reddish potato beetle (Leptinotarsa rubiginosa) is an uncommon relative of the much more well known (and despised) Colorado potato beetle (L. decemlineata).

Margarethe Brummermann searches for beetles in Sunny Flat Campground.

Bordered patch (Chlosyne lacinia) – family Nymphalidae.

Desert flats east of Portal, Arizona
We came to this spot to look for Sphaerobothris ulkei on joint-fir (Ephedra trifurca), but after not finding any for awhile I got distracted by some big buprestids flying around. Caught several Hippomelas sphenicus, one Gyascutus caelatus, and two Acmaeodera gibbula on Acacia rigida, and the first and third were also on Prosopis glandulosa along with Plionoma suturalis. We finally found S. ulkei – searched the area for almost three hours, and Art and I each caught two and Margarethe caught one – also one each of P. suturalis and A. gibbula. I also got a mating pair of A. gibbula on Acacia greggii. After dinner, we went back and placed an ultraviolet light – checked it a couple hours later and got a nice series of Cylindera lemniscata and a few meloids (for Jeff).

Desert flats below Portal, Arizona – dominant woody vegetation is mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), sweet acacia (Acacia constricta), and three-pronged joint-fir (Ephedra trifurca).

Art Evans photographing Hippomelas planicauda in the ‘studio’ afterwards.

Sphaerobothris ulkei, collected on Ephedra trifurca.

Day 1 of the trip ended in typical monsoon fashion – heavy, thunderous rainstorms moved into the area during late afternoon, dimming prospects for blacklighting. Still, we set them up anyway at several spots and checked them later in the evening (flood waters preventing us from going to all the spots we wanted to). Not surprisingly, the one trap that yielded interesting specimens was in the lowest (warmest) area and received the least amount of rain. For me it was a nice series of Cylindera lemniscata.


Day 2 – Southwestern Research Station, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona
There is a large stand of a narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias sp.) at the station, so we stopped by in our way up the mountain to check it for beetles. Got a nice little series of Tetraopes discoideus (tiny little guys!) on the stems as well as a few Rhopalophora meeskei, two Lycus spp., and one Pelonides humeralis on the flowers.

Tetraopes discoideus (family Cerambycidae).

Rhopalophora meeskei and Lycus sp. on Asclepias sp.

IMG_3151 (Edited)

At the Southwestern Research Station with Barbara Roth, Art Evans, and Margarethe Brummermann.

Road from Southwestern Research Station to Ruster Park
After leaving the SWRS on our way up to Rustler Park, we stopped to check a couple of bushes of New Mexico raspberry (Rubus neomexicanus). Margarethe thought there might be lepturines on the flowers, but instead we found a few Acmaeodera spp. and some Rhopalophora meeskei.

New Mexico raspberry (Rubus neomexicanus).

Further up the road we made another quick stop to check roadside flowers – just a single A. rubronotata on a yellow-flowered composite, but spectacular views of the valley below.

Looking west from the Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona.

Gayle Nelson once told me about finding Chrysobothris chiricahuae on pine slash at Rustler Park, so I was pleased to see several fresh slash piles when we arrived. I saw a Chrysobothris (presumably this species) on the very first branch in the very first pile that I looked at, but I missed it (damn!) and didn’t see any more in that pile. However, in the next pile I visited I saw two and got them both. I looked at a third pile and didn’t see any, nor did I see any more on the two previous piles that I looked at. Still, two is better than none (assuming this is, indeed, what they are!).

Rustler Park, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona.

Chiricahua National Monument
Not a bug collecting stop, but we wanted to drive into the monument and see the incredible rock formations which are best appreciated by driving through Bonita Canyon and then up to Massai Point. The unusual spires, columns, and balancing rocks are a result of erosion through vertical cracks in the compressed volcanic ash which was laid down in layers 25 million years ago and then uplifted. Tilting during uplift caused vertical fractures and slippage, into which water then worked its way to create today’s formations. One of the columns I saw is 143 feet tall and only 3 feet in diameter at one point near the base! Mexican jays were our constant, close companions as we hiked through the pinyon pine/oak/juniper woodland.

Vicinity Gleeson, Arizona
There is a wash across N Ghosttown Trail with stands of Baccharis sarothroides growing along the sides. Art previously collected a single Cotinis impia on one of the plants, so we came back to check them. We didn’t find any, but we did find two fine males and one female Trachyderes mandibularis on a couple of the plants. I also found a dead Polycesta aruensis.

Vicinity Tombstone, Arizona
Art saw Gyascutus caelatus here previously, so we came back and found them abundantly in sweet acacia (Acacia rigidula), which was in full bloom. They were extremely flighty and hard to catch, so we each got only four. I also collected one Stenaspis solitaria on the same and a Trachyderes mandibularis female in flight.

Trachyderes mandibularis female

At another spot nearby, we stopped to look for Lampetus webbii, which Art had seen but not been able to collect when he was here a couple of weeks ago. We did not see any (but read on…), and I saw but did not collect a Trachyderes mandibularis and two Stenaspis solitaria. I also saw and photographed some giant mesquite bugs (Thasus neocalifornicus).

Giant mesquite bugs (Thasus neocalifornicus).

Note the heavily armed and thickened hind legs of the male (L) versus the more slender and red/black banded hind legs of the female (R).

Not sure of the ID (other than ‘DYC’ – damned yellow composite).

The day ended enjoying steaks, Malbec, and Jameson with two of the best hosts ever!


Day 3 – Box Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona
Our first stop of the day was Box Canyon, a gorgeous, rugged canyon on the east side of the range. Mimosa dysocarpa was in bloom, off which I beat two Agrilus aeneocephalus, several Hippomelas planicauda, and one Stenaspis solitaria. Norm gave me an Acmaeodera cazieri that he’d collected on an unidentified yellow-flowered composite, and right afterwards I found some small, low-growing plants with purple flowers and sticky leaves (eventually ID’d as Allionia incarnata, or trailing four o’clock) to which Acmaeodera yuccavora and A. cazieri were flying in numbers. After that I crawled up top and beat the mesquites, getting one Chrysobothris sp., a mating pair of S. solitaria, and a couple of large clytrine leaf beetles.

Box Canyon from just above the dry falls.
Prickly poppy (Argemone mexicana) blooming along the roadside.

Hippomelas planicauda mating pair on Mimosa dysocarpa.

Allionia incarnata, flower host for Acmaeodera cazieri and Acm. yuccavora.

Acmaeodera cazieri (left-center).

Acmaeodera yuccavora.

Lubber grasshopper (Taenipoda eques). The striking coloration warns potential predators that it is chemically protected.

Datana sp. caterpillars.

Vicinity Duquesne, Arizona
We came here to look for Tetraopes skillmani (this is the type locality). We found the host plant (Sarcostemma sp.), but there were no beetles to be seen anywhere. Maybe another location nearby…

Sarcostemma sp. (family Asclepiadaceae).

Patagonia Pass, Patagonia Mountains, Arizona
We went up higher into the mountains to get into the oak woodland, where I hoped to find some of the harder-to-collect oak-associated Agrilus spp. Right away I beat one Agrilus restrictus off of Emory oak (Quercus emoryi), but no amount of beating produced anything more than a single Enoclerus sp.. I also beat the Arizona oak (Q. arizonica) and got only a single Macrosaigon sp. On Desmodium sp. I collected not only Pachyschelus secedens but a nice series of Agrilus arizonicus. For me it is the first time I’ve collected either A. restrictus and A. arizonicus, the former being quite uncommon as well, so all-in-all not a bad stop.

Agrilus arizonicus mating pair – the males are brighter green than the females, which are more coppery.

Unidentified plant.

Me, Art Evans, and Norm Woodley.

Sycamore Canyon, Santa Cruz Mountains, Arizona
We came here for night lighting, but while we still had light I did some sweeping in the low vegetation and collected a mixed series of Agrilus arizonicus (on Desmodium sp.) and Agrilus pulchellus – the latter a first for me, along with two small cerambyids that could be Anopliomorpha rinconia. Conditions were perfect (warm, humid, and no moon), and we had lots of lights (Art’s five LED units, Steve’s MV/UV combo setup, and my UV setup), but longhorned beetles were scarce – just one Prionus heroicus and one Lepturges sp. for me, and Steve got a few others including a nice Aegomorphus sp. I did also collect a few scarabs – Chrysina gloriosa and Strategus alous – because they’re just so irresistible!

A beacon in the night!

Art, Steve, and Norm checking the lights.

Chrysina gloriosa.

A male oz beetle (Strategus aloeus).

Eacles oslari is a western U.S. relative of the imperial moth (E. imperialis).

Insects whirring around my head!

Day 4 – Prologue
One of the downsides (if you can call it that) of having great collecting is the need to take periodic “breaks” to process all the specimens and make my field containers available for even more specimens. Thanks to Steve and Norm for making their place available to Art and I so we can do this before heading out to our next set of localities.

Copper Canyon, Huachuca Mountains, Arizona
Copper Canyon is the classic spot for finding the charismatic Agrilus cavatus (see photo), but first we did some sweeping in the low vegetation near the parking area, where Norm got one Agrilus arizonicus and two Agrilus latifrons – and gave them to me! (Thanks, Norm!) I did some beating of the oaks, and after much work I ended up with a single Agrilaxia sp. and pogonocherine cerambycid on Emory oak (Quercus emoryi) and a couple of giant clytrines on the Arizona oak (Q. arizonicus). I then started sweeping the low-growing Acaciella angustissima – right away I got two A. cavatus. They were in the area past the cattle guard on the right where lots of dead stems were sticking up, and although I continued to sweep the plants more broadly in the area I never saw another one. Finally, Norm called me up to a small Mimosa dysocarpa near the car off which he collected three Agrilus elenorae – and gave them to me! (Thanks, Norm!) I gave the tree a tap and got one more, and in my last round of sweeping I came up with a Taphrocerus sp. (must be some sedges growing amongst the grasses).

Copper Canyon to the northwest.

Copper Canyon to the north.

Agrilus cavatus on its host plant, prairie acacia (Acaciella angustissima).

Robber fly (family Asilidae) with prey (a ladybird beetle).

Bear Canyon Crossing, Huachuca Mountains, Arizona
There was quite a bit of Mimosa dysocarpa in bloom along the roadsides on the west side of the Bear Canyon crossing, which I beat hoping to find some more Agrilus elenorae. I didn’t find any, but I did get several more Hippomelas planicauda, which is a nice consolation prize – and a great photo of the last one! Other than that I did a lot of sweeping and found only a single Acmaeodera cazieri.

Bear Canyon to the south.

Bear Canyon to the north.

Hippomelas planicauda on one of its hosts, velvetpod mimosa (Mimosa dysocarpa).

Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch of the National Audubon Society, Elgin, Arizona
Cool temperatures and a blustery wind discouraged most insects from finding our blacklights. However, our blacklight did find some other interesting local residents. These two individuals could be the stripe-tailed scorpion, Paravaejovis (Hoffmannius) spinigerus, a common species in Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.


Day 5 – Miller Canyon Recreation Area, Huachuca Mountains, Arizona
There was a lot of Baccharis sarothroides growing in the lower canyon near the parking area, so I checked it all out hoping to find Tragidion annulatum. None were seen, and in fact there was very little insect life in general. I did pick up a couple of Acmaeodera solitaria by sweeping – not anything significant but the 15th species buprestid of the trip and found a dead Cotinis mutabilis, and Art got a nice series of Chalcolepidius click beetles on B. sarothroides and Prosopis glandulosa. Puzzling the lack of insect activity, given how green all the plants were and how fresh the growth looked. I guess we’ll have to look elsewhere.

Acanthocephala thomasi, a leaf-footed bug (family Coridae).

I was all lined up for a side shot of the bug when suddenly he took flight.

Turkey vultures hanging out waiting for me to die!

Actually they were all hanging out around a dead cat, some of which I scared up as they were feeding on it.

Vicinity Naco, Arizona
We decided to try some desert thorn-scrub habitat so headed east towards Bisbee. Just north of Naco we saw some habitat where it had rained recently – everything was green with the sweet acacia (Acacia rigidula) and creosote (Larrea tridentata) in full bloom. Immediately out of the car I found a Dendrobias mandibularis on Baccharis sarothroides (and when I came back to it later I found a big, major male on it – see photos). On the sweet acacia we found a handful of Gyascutus caelatus (one of which I got a nice photo of), a mating pair of Sphaenothecus bivittatus, and a Cymatodera sp. Finally, out along the roadsides a riot of different yellow composites were in full bloom, including Heliomeris longifolia off which Art got a couple of Acmaeodera solitaria and I got two specimens of a large Acmaeodera sp. (blue-black with numerous small irregular yellow spots).

Dendrobias mandibularis – major male.

Them’s some mandibles!

Gyascutus caelatus on Acacia rigidula.

A blister beetle (family Meloidae) in the genus Zonitis – either sayi or dunnianus – on Heliomeris longifolia.

Heliomeris longifolia – host flower for both the Zonitis blister beetle and Acmaeodera sp. jewel beetle.

Vicinity Tombstone, Arizona
We decided to go back to the spot north of Tombstone where Art had earlier seen Lampetis webbii and give that species another shot. We looked at the Rhus sp. tree that he’d seen them on, and then we each followed the wash in opposite directions looking at the Rhus trees along them, which growing above the banks but never further away than about 25 feet. Along the way I collected several more Gyascutus caelatus on sweet acacia (Acacia rigida), which were more abundant this time than last and also easier to catch. After walking about 1/4-mile down the wash I saw something fly from a Rhus tree and land low on the bushes nearby. I quickly netted it, pulled it out, and was elated to see that it was, indeed, Lampetis webbii! I searched the Rhus in the area more carefully but didn’t find any more, then found some Rhus growing up along the road. At one point, I saw a large buprestid fly and land high in the top of another Rhus tree. I couldn’t tell for sure if it was L. webbii, but I extended my net as far as I could, positioned it beneath the beetle, and tapped the branch hoping it would fall in. Unfortunately, it flew away instead of dropping, so I can’t say for sure whether it was L. webbii or just a wayward G. caelatus. At any rate, L. webbii is yet another species that I have not collected before now and the 17th buprestid species of the trip.

Lampetis webbii, collected on Rhus sp.

Stenaspis solitaria on Acacia rigidula.

Ramsey Canyon, Huachuca Mountains, Arizona
After returning from Tombstone, we visited Pat & Lisa Sullivan at their home at the end of Ramsey Canyon. Pat is a scarab collector who runs lights at his home nightly, and after a delicious dinner we spent the rest of the evening checking the lights. I was hoping to collect Prionus heroicus, and I got my wish. Also got Prionus californicus and several other non-cerambycid beetles such as Chrysina beyeri, C. gloriosa, Lucanus mazama, and Parabyrsopolis chihuahuae (the latter a first for me). I also placed a prionic acid lure (thanks Steve!) and got three more male P. heroicus. We also hunted around the rocks and roadsides hoping to find Amblycheila baroni but didn’t find any. Art did, however, find a female P. californicus and gave it to me (thanks!).

Meeting Pat Sullivan!

Darkling beetles (family Tenebrionidae) such as this one come out at night to feed on decaying vegetation.

Chrysina beyeri (family Scarabaeidae) is one of three species in the genus occurring in Ramsey Canyon.

Black-tailed rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), collected by Pat in Ramsey Canyon.

Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes lateropens), collected by Pat in Yuma County.

“Sometimes the best collecting is inside!”

Day 6 – Vicinity Sonoita, Arizona
Unsuccessful attempt to collect Hippomelas martini, only recently described (Bellamy & Nelson, 1998) and part of the type series taken somewhere near this spot (“20 mi NE Patagonia, Hwy 82”) by “sweeping roadside vegetation”. At other locations it had been recorded on Calliandra sp., and I found patches of the plant here along and on top of the road cuts. This gives me confidence that I found the right spot, but I didn’t encounter this or any other beetles by sweeping the patches or visually inspecting them.

Box Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona
We decided to come back to Box Canyon since we’d had such good luck last time. I started at the spot above the dry falls where I collected so many Acmaeodera cazieri and A. yuccavora on flowers of Allionia incarnata. This time it was hotter, drier, and windier, and the flowers were semi-closed. Still I found a few of each. I then started walking down the road towards the lower canyon crossing where I would meet up with Art. Things were really hopping on the Mimosa dysocarpa, with Hippomelas planicauda abundant (finally collected my fill) and several other Buprestidae also beaten from the plants: Agrilus aeneocepahlus, Acmaeodera scalaris, Acmaeodera cazieri, Chrysobothris sp., and a species of Spectralia! (seven species of Buprestidae at one location I think is the high for the trip.) I checked other plants and flowers along the way down but didn’t find much.

Halfway down from the “dry falls”.

The “dry falls” about halfway up the canyon.

Pseudovates arizonae – the aptly named Arizona unicorn mantis.

Lower Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona
Madera Canyon is perhaps the most famous insect collecting locality in Arizona – maybe in the country, and it is hard to make a visit to Arizona without stopping by here. We elected to work the lower canyon first in an area where Chrysobothris chalcophoroides has been taken on Arizona oaks (Quercus arizonicus). Hiking towards the oaks I found some Stenaspis solitaria in a Baccharis sarothroides and marveled at the variety of other insects active on the plants (see photos) – later I would also collect an elaphidiine cerambycid on the plant. Next I started working the oaks, beating every branch I could reach with my net handle. With one whack of the stick a single Paratyndaris sp. and a single Brachys sp. landed on my sheet – those would be the only buprestids I would collect off the oaks! Other than that I collected one Hippomelas planicauda on Mimosa dysocarpa for the record. While I was working the oaks up in the knoll, the weather started turning with blustery winds, and I could see the rain coming in the distance. By the time I got down from the knoll the rain had arrived, and I walked back to the car in a sunny downpour using my beating sheet as an umbrella!

Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains.

Acanthocephala thomasi on Baccharis sarothroides.

What appears to be a so-called “cricket killer” wasp (Chlorion aerarium) also feeds on sap on Baccharis sarothroides.

A longhorned beetle, probably in the genus Aneflus, rests on the foliage of Baccharis sarothroides.

Rain headed my way!

Rain passing into neighboring Florida Canyon.

Montosa Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona
Just to try something different, we went to Montosa Canyon – the next canyon south of Madera Canyon – for tonight’s blacklighting. We set my sheet up just E of the crossing and Arts ground units back to the west along a gravel road on the south side of the crossing. Moths came in numbers, but the beetles were light – I collected only blister beetles (Epicauta sp.) and a Cymatodera sp. checkered beetle at the sheet, a series of tiger beetles and a female Strategus cessus at the second ground unit, and a male Strategus aloeus and two Stenelaphus alienus at the third ground unit.

A gorgeous sunset to start the evening.

A deepening dusk brings the promise of insects at the lights. 

A bee assassin bug, Apiomerus flaviventris.

An ocotillo, or calleta, silkmoth – Eupackardia calleta.

One of the western riparian tiger beetles.

Day 7 (last day) – Vicinity Continental, Arizona
There was a photo posted on BugGuide of Stenaspis verticalis taken last week, so we decided to give it a shot and see if we could get lucky and find it ourselves. We checked all the Baccharis sarothroides within ½-mile if the spot but didn’t find it. I did, however, collect four Euphoria leucographa, two Chalcolepidius smaragdula, two Aneflus spp., and singletons of Stenaspis solitaria and Dendrobias mandibularis. I also took a couple of Hippomelas planicauda on Mimosa dysocarpa – just for the record!

Euphoria leucographa on Baccharis sarothroides.

Chalcolepidius smaragdinus on Baccharis sarothroides.

Lower Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona
We returned to work the lower canyon area. I’d heard that the tiger beetle Cicindelidia obsoleta santaclarae has been taken in the area last week so was hoping to run into it. While Art worked the east side of the road I worked the west, initially following FR-781 into what looked like grassland areas where the tiger beetle might occur. I didn’t see any but took Acmaeodera scalaris on Heterotheca sp. flowers and Acmaeodera solitaria on Argemone mexicana flowers. There was also a fresh wind-thrown mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) with a bunch of Chrysobothris octocola and one Chrysobothris rossi on it. Still the area looked abused from grazing and was uninteresting, so I looked for another area to explore.

Northwest of the parking lot I spotted another grassy area that was dotted with Baccharis sarothroides, so I decided to give that area a look. After clambering several times through barbed wire fence, I reached the area and began to give it a look. Still no tiger beetles, but every time I passed a B. sarothroides I inspected it closely. I’d looked at several plants when I came upon one with a Stenaspis solitaria sitting in the foliage, and when I looked down on one of the stems and saw a big male Tragidion sp. on the underside of the stem. After securing it, I looked closer at the plant and saw a pair of annulated antennae crawling up another stem – I knew right away it was a mating pair of Stenaspis verticalis! After carefully moving to the other side to confirm, I dared to take a few photos in situ (see below) and then secured the couple. Of course, this gave me newfound motivation to work the entire area to look for more. It was very hot by then, and I was already quite thirsty, but I summoned up all the stamina that I could and worked as many plants as I could, ending up with six Tragidion spp. and three Stenaspis verticalis. The latter was one of my top priority targets for this trips, and the only thing more satisfying than getting it is doing so on my last day on the field.

View to south edge of Madera Canyon – Elephant Head is at the right.

Chrysobothris octocola female ovipositing on freshly killed mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa).

Tragidion sp. mating pair on Baccharis sarothroides.

Mating pair of Stenaspis verticalis arizonensis on Baccharis sarothroides.

Chalcolepidius lenzi at a sap flow on Baccharis sarothroides.

Lateral view of Chalcolepidius lenzi.

Barrel cactus in bloom.

Montosa Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona
We  returned to Montosa Canyon and stopped at the Astronomy Vista partway up. It was hotter than bejeebuz! There was not an insect to be seen except giant cactus bugs and a single Euphoria leucographa that Art found on a sapping Baccharis sarothroides. Temp was 103°F even at this elevation!

Stunning vista during the day! 

We needed to escape the heat, and I wanted to see oaks for one more crack at Mastogenius, so we drove up to the 13-km marker and I collected on the way back down to below the 12-km marker. Conditions were much more agreeable (temps in the 80s), and near the top there was a Ceanothus sp. bush in bloom, off which I collected Rhopalophora meeskei and Stenosphenus sp. – both genera represented by individuals with black versus red pronotum. Then I started beating the (Mexican blue, I believe) oaks, and right away I got a Mastogenius sp.! Kinda small, so I’m thinking not M. robusta and, thus, probably M. puncticollis (another species new to my collection). I also beat a largish Agrilus sp. that I don’t recognize, a few clerids, two R. meeskei, one Stenosphenus sp., and a couple of leaf beetles. There was also another type of oak there – Arizona white, I believe, which I beat as well but only got one clerid.

Spectacular views from 7000 ft!

A lichen moth on flowers of Ceanothus sp.

The biggest, fattest, bristliest tachinid fly I have ever seen!

The spectacular vistas just keep on coming!

An ancient alligator juniper stares down yet another sunset (perhaps its 50 thousandth!).

We stopped by the Astronomy Vista again on our way back down the canyon, and I found a pair of Moneilema gigas on cholla (Opuntia imbricata).

Obligatory dusk shot of Moneilema gigas on Opuntia imbricata.

Another individual on the same plant.

Sunset over “Las Cuatro Hermanas”.

It was a fantastic seven days in the field with Arthur, and it was a great pleasure to (in some cases, finally) meet Margarethe, Barbara, Steven, Norm, and Pat. I appreciate the warmth, generosity, and hospitality that all of them displayed to me and look forward to our next encounter, hopefully in the near future. Now, for some light reading during the plane ride home!

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

Backyard gems

I’ve been fortunate to have the chance to travel far and wide in my searches for insects—from the Gypsum Hills of the Great Plains and Sky Islands of the desert southwest to the subtropical riparian woodlands of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, tropical thorn forests of southern Mexico and veld of southern Africa. No matter how far I travel, however, I’m always happy to return to the Missouri Ozarks. It is here where I cut my entomological teeth so many years ago, and though I’ve now scrabbled around these ancient hills for more than three decades it continues to satisfy my thirst for natural history. Though not nearly as expansive as the Great Plains, there are nevertheless innumerable nooks and crannies nestled in the Ozarks, and I find myself constantly torn between looking for new spots (it would take several lifetimes to find them all) and going back to old favorites. Living in the northeastern “foothills” in the outskirts of St. Louis provides an ideal vantage for exploration; however, sometimes I am truly amazed at the natural history gems that can be found within a stone’s throw from my house. Some examples I’ve featured previously include Shaw Nature Reserve, home to a hotspot of the one-spotted tiger beetle, Castlewood State Park, where I found a gorgeously reddish population of the eastern big sand tiger beetle, and Victoria Glades Natural Area, site of the very first new species (and perhaps also the most beautiful) that I ever collected.

Englemann Woods Natural Area | Franklin Co., Missouri

Today I found another such area—Englemann Woods Natural Area, and at only 5 miles from my doorstep it is the closest natural gem that I have yet encountered. One of the last old-growth forests in the state, its deep loess deposits on dolomite bedrock overlooking the Missouri River valley support rich, mesic forests on the moister north and east facing slopes and dry-mesic forests on the drier west-facing slopes dissected by rich, wet-mesic forests with their hundreds-of-years-old trees. A remarkable forest of white oak, ash, basswood and maple in an area dominated by monotonous second-growth oak/hickory forests.

Englemann Woods Natural Area

Steep north-facing slopes border the Missouri River valley.

It is not, however, the 200-year-old trees that will bring me back to this spot, but rather the understory on the north and east-facing slopes. Here occur some of the richest stands of eastern hornbean (Ostrya virginiana) that I have ever seen. This diminutive forest understory inhabitant is not particularly rare in Missouri, but as it prefers rather moist upland situations it is not commonly encountered in the dry-mesic forests that dominate much of the Ozarks. Stands of this tree, a member of the birch family (Betulaceae) are easy to spot in winter due to their habit of holding onto their dried canopy of tawny-brown leaves (see photo below).

Englemann Woods Natural Area

Rich stands of eastern hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) dominate the north- and east-slope understory.

Why am I so interested in this plant? It is the primary host of the jewel beetle species Agrilus champlaini. Unlike most other members of the genus, this species breeds in living trees rather than dead wood, their larvae creating characteristic swellings (galls, if you will) on the twigs and stems as they spiral around under the bark feeding on the cambium tissues before entering the wood to pupate and emerge as adults in spring. This species is known in Missouri from just two specimens, both collected by me way back in the 1980s as they emerged from galls that I had collected during the winter at two locations much further away from St. Louis. The presence of this rich stand of hornbeam just 5 miles from my home gives me the opportunity to not only search the area more thoroughly to look for the presence of galls from which I might rear additional specimens, but also to look for adults on their hosts during spring and (possibly, hopefully) succeed in photographing them alive.

Englemann Woods Natural Area

Inside the “hornbeam forest.”

Another “draw” for me is the restoration work that has begun on some of the west-facing slopes in the areas. Pre-settlement Missouri was a far less wooded place than it is today, as evidenced by the richly descriptive writings penned by Henry Schoolcraft during his horseback journey through the Ozarks in the early 1800’s. At the interface between the great deciduous forests to the east and the expansive grasslands to the west, the forests of Missouri were historically a shifting mosaic of savanna and woodland mediated by fire. Relatively drier west-facing slopes were more prone to the occurrence of these fires, resulting in open woodlands with more diverse herbaceous and shrub layers. At the far extreme these habitats are most properly called “xeric dolomite/limestone prairie” but nearly universally referred to by Missourians as “glades”—islands of prairie in a sea of forest! I have sampled glades extensively in Missouri over the years, and they are perhaps my favorite of all Missouri habitats. However, it is not future glades or savannas that have me excited about Englemann Woods but rather the availability of freshly dead wood for jewel beetles and longhorned beetles resulting from the selective logging that has taken place as a first step towards restoration of such habitats on these west-slopes. The downed trees on these slopes and subsequent mortality of some still standing trees that is likely to result from the sudden exposure of their shade adapted trunks to full sun are likely to serve as a sink for these beetles for several years to come. I will want to use all the tools at my disposal for sampling them while I have this opportunity—beating, attraction to ultraviolet lights, and fermenting bait traps being the primary ones. It looks like I’d better stock up on molasses and cheap beer!

Englemann Woods Natural Area

Restoration efforts on the west-facing slopes begins with selective logging.

Eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is native to Missouri, but in our time it has become a major, invasive pest tree. The suppression of fire that came with settlement also freed this tree from a major constraining influence on its establishment in various habitats around the state, primarily dolomite/limestone glades. Nowadays most former glade habitats, unless actively managed to prevent it, have become choked with stands of this tree, resulting in shading out of the sun-loving plants that historically occurred much more commonly in the state. Untold dollars are spent each year by landscape managers on mechanical removal and controlled burns to remove red-cedar and prevent its reestablishment in these habitats. There is one habitat in Missouri, however, in which eastern red-cedar has reigned supreme for centuries or possibly millenia—dolomite/limestone bluff faces.

Juniperus virginiana

Craggly, old Eastern red-cedars (Juniperus virginiana) cling tenaciously to the towering dolomite bluffs.

With little more than a crack in the rock to serve as a toehold, red-cedars thrive where no other tree can, growing slowly, their gnarled trunks contorted and branches twisted by exposure to sun and wind and chronic lack of moisture. Some of the oldest trees in Missouri are red-cedars living on bluffs, with the oldest example reported coming from Missouri at an incredible 750–800 years old. There is something awe-inspiring about seeing a living organism that existed in my home state before there were roads and cars and guns. These ancient trees are now an easy drive from my house (though a rather strenuous 300-ft bushwhacking ascent to reach the bluff tops)—they seem ironically vulnerable now after having endured for so long against the forces of nature. For me, they will serve as a spiritual draw—a reason to return to this place again regardless of what success I might have at finding insects in the coming months.

Juniperus virginiana

This tree may pre-date Eurpoean settlement.

Aplectrum hyemale

Adam-and-Eve orchid (Aplectrum hyemale).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Bicycle ride around Lake Tahoe

Overlooking Emerald Bay from Emerald Bay Pass.

Perhaps some of you have by now deduced that, in addition to insects and natural history, I have a second passion – cycling! In fact, I raced bikes competitively as an amateur for seven years (going by the local nickname “BugMan“) before hanging it up at the end of 2008.  However, even though I’m not racing anymore, I still ride as much as ever, only now it’s purely for the fun of it!  I’m a dedicated roadie, riding year-round and averaging around 5,000-6,000 miles a year.  I love the speed and the smoothness of the road and the opportunity it provides to cover long distances and enjoy the sights (not to mention the resulting freedom to eat like a horse and stay relatively trim!).

One of my most memorable cycling experiences was in 1995, when I joined a group that rode the entire circuit around Lake Tahoe.  I was living in Sacramento at the time and was a relative newbie – the 72-mile ride with 3,500 feet of climbing at elevations ranging from 6,200 feet at lake level to more than 7,000 feet near Carson Pass was without question the most difficult ride I had ever attempted at that point.  Now, as a seasoned ex-racer, such a ride is not extraordinarily difficult for me – in fact, I do rides in the 60-80 mile range with as much climbing or more almost every weekend.  Still, my memories of the challenge and the unbelievable scenery have kept that ride high in the ranks of my most epic, and since we began going back to Lake Tahoe two spring ago I’ve wanted to do it again.  It would not have been possible during our first trip back, as the roads still had quite a bit of snow on them; however, last year the roads were clean and dry, and I resolved to bring my bike with me on this year’s trip in the event that such was again the case.  Madonna del Ghisallo (patron saint of cycling) must have been smiling down upon me, because this year the roads were again in beautiful condition, despite the amount of snow blanketing the surrounding landscapes.  It made for one of the most beautiful bike rides I have ever done in my life.

There was a comforting familiarity to the ride, despite the 15 years since the last – the stunning landscape that I have come to cherish so dearly, the massively shaded solitude of the west shore, lunching on California cuisine in a quaint village along the north shore, and the long climbs and screaming descents through open Jeffrey pine forests along the east shore.  It was also different – I was by myself, yet despite that I was stronger and briming with confidence; not only a seasoned cyclist, but also much more knowledgeable of and closely attuned to the natural history of the area.  I didn’t fear the climbing, I relished it!  I didn’t overcome the challenge, I enjoyed it!  I stopped at a few places to take photographs (taken with my small point-and-shoot, for obvious reasons) and share some of them here – I hope they give you a tiny taste of the flavor of that day.

Near the summit of Emerald Bay Pass, looking back at Mt. Tallac.

High point on Emerald Bay Pass.

The descent to Eagle Falls at Emerald Bay.

 This is an avalanche zone (note deep snow deposits on steep slopes on left side – these extend high up the mountain here).  Moments after taking this photo, an avalanche fell onto the road right as I was descending by this spot. At ~35 mph there was no stopping – I rode right through it as the initial snow drop hit the pavement and then watched in amazement as the main drop dumped onto the road behind me.  It was not big enough to bury anything, but I surely would have crashed had I gotten there just a moment or two later!

Overlooking Emerald Bay from Emerald Bay Pass.

Emerald Bay is a glacial scour formed during the last glacial period ending only 10,000 years ago. Fannette Island, Lake Tahoe’s only island, is thought to be a resistant rib of granite rock that was overridden by the glacial ice. Lateral glacial morraines enclose each side of the bay, and an incomplete terminal morraine connects Emerald Bay to the main lake. Last year, I stood atop the outermost rock of the left side of the terminal morraine and took photographs looking back in this direction

Grove of sugar pines at D. L. Bliss State Park.

Sugar pine, Pinus lambertiana, is among my favorite of all pines.  More common on the west shore due to their preference for higher levels of moisture, their towering, ragged, asymmetrical crowns with long, pendulous cones (usually a foot or more in length) hanging from the branch tips are immediately recognizable from afar.  These majestic trees are the world’s tallest pine and bear the longest cones in the genus; they stand in defiant contrast to the uniformly symmetrical crowns of the more common Jeffrey pines (Pinus jeffreyi) and white firs (Abies concolor) that surrounded them.  For a more thorough treatment of the trees of Lake Tahoe, please visit my three-part series covering the pines, the “other” conifers, and the deciduous trees.

Some might think it was still a little too early in the season for bike riding.

Looking west across Lake Tahoe from Logan Shoals Overlook.

The east shore in Nevada is decidedly drier than California’s west shore.  The forest on the Nevada side is a more open, fire-mediated landscape dominated by Jeffrey pine, as opposed to the denser forests on the west shore with higher incidence of shade-tolerant trees such as white fir and incense-cedar (Libocedrus decurrens).

View of Cave Rock (left center) from Logan Shoals Overlook.

Cave Rock was and still is a sacred place for people of the Washoe tribe, whose ancestors occupied Lake Tahoe during the summers and performed religious ceremonies inside the largest of its caves.  These caves, sitting several hundred feet above the current lake level, were carved by wave action shortly after Lake Tahoe’s formation nearly 3 million years ago when lake levels were much higher than they are today.  The first of two highway tunnels was blasted through the rock in 1931 (much to the dismay of the Washoes), and the second was added in 1957.

Looking north along Lake Tahoe's east shore from atop Logan Shoals Overlook.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Trees of Lake Tahoe – The “Other” Conifers

The inviting openness of the Sierra woods is one of their most distinguishing characteristics. The trees of all the species stand more or less apart in groves, or in small, irregular groups, enabling one to find a way nearly everywhere, along sunny colonnades and through openings that have a smooth, parklike surface.–John Muir, The Mountains of California (1894)

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In a previous post (Trees of Lake Tahoe – The Pines), I discussed the six species of pine that can be found within the Tahoe Basin. These include Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi) – dominant around the lake at lower elevations, lodgepole pine (P. contorta ssp. murrayana) – common in meadows at lower elevations and replacing Jeffrey pine at higher elevations, ponderosa pine (P. ponderosa) – uncommon in the basin due to its preference for lower elevations, sugar pine (P. lambertiana) – the magnificent giant of high quality mesic sites along the western shore, western white pine (P. monticola) – co-occurring with lodgepole pine at higher elevations, and whitebark pine (P. albicaulis) – covering the highest peaks with its gnarled and twisted form.  In this post, I will cover the five “other” coniferous trees that can be found growing in the Tahoe Basin.  These other conifers belong to several different genera in two gymnospermous families – the Pinaceae and the Cuppressaceae.  Together with the pines, these trees comprise what John Muir described as one of the most diverse and appealing coniferous forests in the world. I am most inclined to agree with him.  The diversity of conifers found in the Tahoe Basin is reflective of the wide range of conditions occurring there as a result of differences in elevation (from 6,200 ft to more than 10,000 ft), exposure, and moisture.

Family-level identification of Tahoe Basin conifers is relatively straightforward – those with needle-shaped leaves belong to the Pinaceae (the pine family), while those with scale-like leaves belong to the Cuppressaceae (the cypress family).  There are other characters that distinguish members of these two families, but leaf shape is the most useful for purposes of field identification.  Nine of the eleven species of conifers found in the Tahoe Basin belong to the Pinaceae, while only two are members of the Cuppressaceae.  Within the families, the genera can be distinguished most readily by the following characters:

Pinaceae

  • Pines (Pinus) – needles linear, arranged in bundles or clusters of up to 5 needles held together at the base by sheath of papery bark (discussed in Trees of Lake Tahoe – The Pines).
  • Firs (Abies) – needles more or less flattened, growing directly and singly from the branch and with a plump base that leaves a round depression on the branch.  Cones upright, on upper branches.
  • Hemlocks (Tsuga) – needles more or less flattened and growing directly and singly from the branch like firs, but narrowly stalk-like at the base where they are joined to tiny wooden pegs.  Cones pendant, on outer branches.

Cuppressaceae

  • Incense-cedars (Calocedrus) – scale-like leaves 4-ranked, twigs branching in one plane to form flat sprays, cones > ½” in length, consisting of two large scales separated from a closed center.
  • Junipers (Juniperus) – scale-like leaves arranged in circles of 3, twigs not forming flat sprays, cones < ½” in length, berrylike.

There are three additional coniferous genera in the Sierra Nevada – each represented by a single species and found along the western slope – that do not occur in the Tahoe Basin.  These include: Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) – widespread at elevations from 2,500 ft to 6,000 ft (higher at the southern end of its range); giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) – primarily in Giant Sequoia National Monument, and California nutmeg (Torreya californica) – of scattered occurrence.

White fir (Abies concolor)

As old age creeps on, the bark becomes rougher and grayer, the branches lose their exact regularity, many are snow-bent or broken off,…but throughout all the vicissitudes of its life on the mountains, come what may, the noble grandeur of the species is patent to every eye.

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White fir is second only to Jeffrey pine as the dominant conifer at the lower elevations within the Tahoe Basin¹.  It is immediately recognizable as the only non-pine member of the Pinaceae to occur at these elevations – red fir and mountain hemlock are found only at higher elevations in the basin.  Young trees have a nearly perfect pyramidal shape, with silvery gray bark that is thin, smooth, and p1020588_2covered with resin-filled blisters that can be “popped” to shoot out the resin. Older trees develop a more cylindrical and slightly irregular crown, and the bark becomes thick and roughly furrowed, changing to a dark gray or brown color. The foliage has a gray frosted appearance from below, and crushing the needles releases a delightful citrus smell that I found myself partaking in repeatedly. In the narrow elevational zone where white fir and red fir co-exist, white fir may be recognized by its more flattened needles (cannot be “rolled” in the fingers) which are distinctly twisted near the base, causing them to appear 2-ranked. White fir was seen throughout the Tahoe Basin at elevations below around 7,500 ft, and especially along the western shore and southern shores where the greater moisture and protection of north and east facing slopes are to this species liking.

¹ This post by Watching The World Wake Up provides an excellent introduction to the characteristics and distribution of white fir and its relatives. It also contains what must be the best tangent to ever appear in a botanical blog – the connection made between white fir and the alluring Salma Hayek (annoyingly mispelled “Selma” Hayek), softly singing Siente Mi Amor, is pure brilliance!

Despite its “noble grandeur,” white fir may be regarded as somewhat of a pest species. The suppression of fires that have been the hallmark of 20th century forest management have encouraged the replacement of pines throughout the Sierra Nevada by this species. White fir does not tolerate fire as well as the pines with which it occurs, but unlike those species it does well in shadier conditions. The suppression of fires has resulted in dense stands of white firs growing up in the spaces between the pines. Since it tends to retain its lower branches as it grows, when fires do occur the white firs can act as “fire ladders” that allow the fires to reach the upper canopies of the pines. Pines are not as shade tolerant as firs and are thus unlikely to become established beneath the dense canopy of firs. The result of these fire suppression policies are mixed-conifer forests that are denser and contain a much higher proportion of white fir than in the past, making the forests more vulnerable to stand-replacing fires as well as stress-induced insect and disease outbreaks. These counterproductive management policies are beginning to change – and I saw two controlled burns taking place during the week while I was in Lake Tahoe – but there is still much progress yet to be done if we are to once again see large expanses of the “inviting openness” that so captivated John Muir.

Red fir (Abies magnifica)

This is the most charmingly symmetrical of all the giants of the Sierra woods, far surpassing its companion species [white fir] in this respect… Happy the man with the freedom and the love to climb one of these superb trees in full flower and fruit.

p1020785_2I suspected I had seen this magnificent relative of the white fir in the higher elevations at Heavenly Ski Resort on my first trip back to the area last year, but lacking any real knowledge or field guides at the time it remained only a suspicion. When I returned to Heavenly this year, I was ready for it, and I recognized it instantly when I reached elevations around 8,000 ft. The massive trees with deeply reddish bark were unmistakable, and my only disappointment in seeing this species was that I was unable to approach them closely enough to allow a more thorough examination of their needles and bark. Like the white firs I saw at lower elevations, these massive trees had developed a bit of irregularity in their long, cylindrical crowns.

Younger trees can appear more similar to white fir because of their thin, smooth gray bark with elliptical resin blisters. However, in trees both young and old, the foliage is a more boldly colored blue-green than the paler foliage of white fir. p1020784_2Both species develop thick, deeply furrowed bark as they age, but the bark of red fir is distinctly reddish-brown or reddish purple, compared to the dark gray or brown bark of white fir – almost ashen in appearance. In the hand, the needles are not so flattened as white fir – almost quadrangular in cross-section and able to be rolled in the fingers – nor are they distinctly twisted near the base. The photo at right shows a stately red fir on the left next to a Jeffrey pine on the right at Lakeview Lodge on the California side of Heavenly (elevation 8,250 ft – the highest at which I saw the latter species).  I found this species growing in the company of western white pine (Pinus monticola), lodgepole pine (P. contorta ssp. murrayana), and mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), as well as in groves of its own kind (unfortunately, seen only from my perch upon a ski lift).

Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana)

The Hemlock Spruce is the most singularly beautiful of all the California coniferæ. So slender is its axis at the top, that it bends over and droops like the stalk of a nodding lily. The branches droop also, and divide into innumerable slender, waving sprays, which are arranged in a varied, eloquent harmony that is wholly indescribable.

p1020804_2I hadn’t a clue whether I would succeed in finding mountain hemlock – I knew it was a denizon of the snowy high mountains, though less common than some of the other high country conifers, and I didn’t recall noticing anything that might be this species during last year’s visit to the slopes of Heavenly. Of course, being a long-time resident of the Midwest I have little experience with hemlocks in general – eastern hemlock (T. canadensis) is on occasion planted in urban landscapes here, but mountain hemlock is markedly different from that species, as well as its Pacific counterpart western hemlock (T. heterophylla), due to its needles growing out of the twigs in all directions rather than in two flat planar sprays. Additionally, the needles are square in cross-section like spruce (Picea), a genus that does not now occur in the Sierra Nevada. These features caused 19th century botanists to suspect that mountain hemlock might have originated from an intergeneric hybridization event, as evidence by John Muir’s reference to it as “Hemlock Spruce.” However, no crosses between genera in the Pinaceae have ever been substantiated, and no compelling evidence of the presumed crossing events proposed for mountain hemlock has been brought forth (Lanner 1999).

p1020803_2Perhaps being primed by the readings I had done beforehand, I knew instantly I had found this species while riding a ski lift and seeing what looked at first like small junipers, but with a Tolkienesque appearance due to the gracefully nodding leader and drooping branch tips.  My hurried attempts to snap photographs of the trees from the moving ski lift produced nothing but skewed views marred by lift cables and passing cars, but once at the summit I was able to ski down to a little grove next to the ski run for closer inspection.  I immediately noticed the many cones clustered at the branch tips and was struck by their pine cone-like appearance. They were quite large – nearly 2” long (massive by hemlock standards).  Sadly, the only examples I would see of this species would be these small trees that only hinted at the charms of the massive specimens with trunks up to six feet in diameter that so enamoured John Muir.  Like the rare Washoe pine (Pinus washoensis) that occurs just outside Tahoe Basin on the eastern slopes of Mt. Rose, attempts to find some of these graceful 100-footers will have to await my next year’s visit.

Incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens)

Casting your eye over the general forest from some ridge-top, the color alone of its spiry summits is sufficient to identify it in any company.

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The incense-cedar is my favorite of all the Tahoe Basin conifers. The bright, cinnamon-red bark of mature trees, deeply-furrowed, fibrous and peeling, is reminiscent of California’s two most iconic conifers – redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), respectively the world’s tallest and most massive trees. Incense-cedar is neither as tall as redwood nor as massive as giant sequoia – p1020590_2indeed, it is not even very closely related (redwood and giant sequoia belong to yet another coniferous family, the Taxodiaceae, containing also the graceful but much smaller resident of southeastern U.S. swamps, baldcypress – Taxodium distichum). Nevertheless, old trees – veterans of centuries of fires and storm damage – are stunning specimens to behold, their massive, buttressed trunks often draped in yellow-green mosses and bearing deep basal fire scars, their spired crowns often broken and forked.  Their flattened sprays of foliage give the tree a delicate, lacy appearance in beautiful contrast to its grizzled, gnarled bark. Indeed, even in death these trees stand out for their stark beauty.

Incense-cedar is common at lower elevations in the Tahoe Basin, especially down close to the lake and in the communities ringing the shore. It rarely forms “stands” like white fir and the pines, p1020670_2but rather most often occurs singly – as if to emphasize their distinctiveness. I found it most common along the western shore, where it grows scattered amongst white fir and Jeffrey, sugar, and ponderosa pines. Some of the most massive incense-cedars I have ever seen were found down near the lakeshore along the Rubicon Trail in Emerald Bay State Park. Common on these trees were what I take to be incense-cedar mistletoe (Phoradendron libocedri) (family Santalaceae), which is apparently rare in the Tahoe Basin but known to occur in the mesic forests of the west shore.

Incense-cedar is another of the so-called “wrongly named” conifers – it is not a true cedar (thus, the hyphen in the name), a group of conifers belonging to the genus Cedrus in the family Pinaceae that is found across Eurasia². While somewhat resembling the true cedars, incense-cedar’s closest relatives are restricted to China and Taiwan. p1020640_2Early botanist-explorers, when they first encountered this tree, named it for what it most resembled to them – the old world cedars. This distinctiveness makes older trees the easiest Tahoe Basin conifer to identify. Even it’s cones that litter the ground under mature trees are unique – slender, spindle-shaped, and about an inch long, with the two longest scales bending back at maturity in a manner resembling a wide-open duck’s bill with the tongue sticking out. Young trees resemble Sierra juniper by their scale-like leaves and peeling bark, but the flattened, yellow-green sprays of incense-cedar and shiny reddish coloration of the bark of twigs and younger branches are immediately distinctive.

² There are actually numerous examples of such wrongly named conifers – Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is not a true fir; eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), western redcedar (Thuja plicata) and Alaska-cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) are not true cedars; and baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) is not a true cypress. Long live scientific names!

Like white fir, the Sierra Nevada has seen a bit of a population explosion of incense-cedar due to the fire-suppressive forest management practices of the past century. Despite the thick, fire-resistant bark of older trees, the thin-barked seedlings and saplings are intolerant of fire and grow more slowly than the fire-adapted pines. As a result, the frequent low-intensity fires of the past kept seedling establishment to a minimum, resulting in spot occurrences of mature, fire-resistant specimens. The suppression of these fires, combined with the ability of incense-cedar to germinate in shade and thick layers of duff, have allowed this species to increase in incidence throughout the Sierra Nevada. Along with white fir, it is gradually replacing the pines. This may seem like a good thing from the perspective of foresters and loggers, who value the wood of incense-cedar for its use in making pencils and cedar chests, but from an ecological perspective this has the same negative consequences discussed above for white fir.

Sierra juniper (Juniperus occidentalis ssp. australis)

Its fine color and odd picturesqueness always catch an artist’s eye, but to me the Juniper seems a singularly dull and taciturn tree, never speaking to one’s heart.

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This was another conifer that I didn’t recall seeing on my previous visits, but from what I had read I really hoped I did. Gnarly and burly, mature specimens have a weather-beaten, picturesque quality that is unmatched by any other Tahoe Basin conifer save whitebark pine (P. albicaulis). While I did not find this tree to be common in the Tahoe Basin, I did find it in the most surprising of places – Emerald Bay overlook, where I had gazed in admiration at Lake Tahoe on so many previous occassions. This enduring dweller of exposed granite crags grows where no other trees can, anchored to crevices with only the tracest amounts of soil, p1020613_2seemingly thriving on nothing more than rock, snow, and sunshine. Old trees, with their massively short trunks supporting wind-pruned crowns, cannot be mistaken for any other Tahoe Basin conifer. The wood, it seems, is almost as hard as the granite upon which the trees grow, accounting for John Muir’s impression of this tree as without expression – not even the strongest Sierra winds evoke the slightest of shudders or the quietest of whispers in its unyielding bows.

I did not find this species commonly in the areas of the Tahoe Basin that I visited (which were mostly lower elevation sites below 7,000 ft). In addition to the specimens seen at Emerald Bay State Park, I also found this species near Upper Truckee River before the climb to Echo Summit, and I found a number of fine mature specimens outside of the basin proper at Pyramid Creek Geological Area.  Where I did find it, Jeffrey pine was the most common associate, but in most cases the trees stood alone in their own starkness.  Among the Tahoe Basin conifers, the small scale-like leaves are recognizable to almost any easterner as those of juniper, immediately placing it in the family Cuppressaceae alongside incense-cedar.  Even the young trees can be distinguished from that species by their non-glossy foliage borne on twigs that radiate out from the branches in all directions.  p1020602_21The bark of young trees is shreddy and peeling like that of incense-cedar, but it is dull brown to reddish-brown rather than the shiny purple-red color of incense-cedars.

Sierra Nevada populations of Juniperus occidentalis are considered a separate subspecies due to differences in reproduction and elevational preference.  Trees in nominotypical populations, found in northeastern California and up through eastern Oregon and Washington, are found at somewhat lower elevations (4,000 ft to 5,000 ft) and have cones of both sexes on the same tree; while those of subspecies australis, limited to higher elevations (usually from 6,500 ft to over 10,000 ft) in the Sierra Nevada, have either all male cones or all female cones.

REFERENCES:

Arno, S. F. 1973. Discovering Sierra Trees. Yosemite Association, Yosemite National Park, California, 89 pp.

Graf, M. 1999. Plants of the Tahoe Basin. Flowering Plants, Trees, and Ferns. A Photographic Guide. California Native Plant Society Press, Berkeley, 308 pp.

Muir, J. 1894. The Mountains of California. The Century Co., New York, xiii+381 pp.

Lanner, R. M. 1999. Conifers of California. Cachuma Press, Los Olivos, California, 274 pp.

Peterson, P. V., and P. V. Peterson, Jr. 1975. Native Trees of the Sierra Nevada. University of California Press, Berkeley, 147 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Winter botany quiz #4

Back to botany mode¹, and in that vein there are a couple of botanically-oriented carnivals with new issues just out.  The first is Berry Go Round #15 at Mary Farmer’s A Neotropical Savanna. An expert botanist herself, Mary presents a nice selection of March blog posts with themes ranging from spring (or not), tropics and the Southern Hemisphere, evolution and extinction, research, and food. The second is Festival of the Trees #34 at Seabrooke Leckie’s the Marvelous in Nature. A naturalist of many talents, Seabrooke has collected posts on trees from around the world and introduces them with her usual sagacity.  I have contributions in both of these carnivals, but of course, you’ve already read them!

¹ One caveat – it occurs to me that I needn’t be apologetic every time I switch to botany mode – the name of my blog is, after all, Beetles In The Bush 🙂

On to business – it’s quiz time again, and while much of the country moves into spring mode, winter hasn’t yet lost its snowy grip completely.  These pictures were taken in the waning days of winter, and I have my suspicions that somebody out there is going to ace this test considering the abundance of clues that have been dropped over the past week or so. In addition to the plant identities, bonus points to anyone who can identify a key commonality among them. As usual, comment moderation has been turned on for the next couple of days or so to give all an equal shot.

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Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Pyramid Creek Geological Area

On the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, Hwy 50 follows the American River Valley on its way up to Echo Summit before dropping precipitously into Lake Tahoe Basin. A few miles from the summit and 13 miles east of the quaint mountain town of Strawberry lies a spectacular gorge – born of glaciers and boasting one of California’s top ten waterfalls. During the warmer months, the small Forest Service parking lot that provides access to the gorge is constantly choked with cars, and throngs of people can be seen milling about. I have passed this place many times during the five years I lived in Sacramento, and though the crowds suggest that the area truly is spectacular, the idea of sharing a visit with so many strangers and their dogs was always out of the question. Yesterday, as daughter Madison and I drove down Hwy 50 to that very spot, I wondered what crowds we might encounter, hopeful that during this winter “off-season” we might luck out and enjoy at least some fragments of the kind of solitude that befits such a magnificent example of California wilderness.

At 6,200 feet elevation, there was still plenty of snow on the ground, and unbeknown to me this USDA Recreation Site is officially closed during the winter months. The parking lot gates were locked, and there was not a car nor a person to be seen anywhere in the vicinity. That did not deter us – despite the many “No Parking” signs along each side of the highway – necessary during the summer months to prevent the throngs from creating chaos – we found a small turnoff in which we were able to tuck away the car and begin our little adventure to see Pyramid Creek Geological Area and its main attractions – Horsetail Falls and Cascade Vista. The gorge – named for the creek that originates at the base of the falls – was formed during the same late Pleistocene glaciations that formed Emerald Bay in Lake Tahoe. Vertical cliffs of granite tower above the U-shaped gorge, whose smooth granite domes remain littered with glacial scree (boulders and smaller rocks of assorted sizes). We lost the trail almost immediately due to snow, but since we knew we could not get lost (with a mountain on each side of us) we decided to bushwhack as far as we could. It was rough going, and with a hiking partner only 4′ in height the deep snow was a formidable obstacle. Still, we soldiered on, zigzagging from this granite exposure to that, testing (and often sinking) into the snow-covered plains between them, and splashing along the many meltwater streams that were gushing on this warm, early-spring day, until finally we could go no further. We were still a quarter mile from the falls (only a 1.25-miles hike from the trailhead if one uses the established trail), yet still the view was mesmerizing! As a father, I should probably be glad we did not make it all the way to the falls, as a number of people have been killed over the years when they got too close to the edge of the constantly wet rocks. On the way back, we spotted some granite exposures that we hadn’t seen earlier that suggested we might be able to get all the way up next to the Cascade Vista, and in this we were successful. We scrambled over the rocks and snow, ever careful but proud for giving the effort, before retracing our tracks back to a clear shot out of the gorge.

Words cannot express the overwhelming beauty of the landscape we explored, the joy in doing so without ever encountering another human being and the expansive feeling of solitude that that allows, and the exhausted satisfaction that results from hiking over rough, snowy terrain for more than 5 hours. Daughter Madison did great, and I almost had to rip her from the area she was having so much fun. She asked question after question as I showed her cracks in the rocks and explained the carving actions of water over the millennia, how water can create such a landscape. “Water always wins,” I told her. My botanizing trip to Emerald Bay two days before had also prepared me well for this trip, as I was able to recognize every single woody plant I encountered in the gorge (the mosses and ferns will have to wait for another day).

Of the many photographs I took during the day, I share with you here some of my favorites:

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Jeffrey pine and white fir soften the stark, towering granite walls

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Evidence of glacial carvings can be seen in the American River valley below.

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A small waterfall flanked by Jeffrey pine and Sierra juniper previews what is still to come.

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Another view south into the American River valley from a little higher up.

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Horsetail Falls is gushing from the snowmelt.

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A distant view of Horsetail Falls.

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Looking down on the Cascade Vista and the American River valley.

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A distant view of Horsetail Falls from the Cascade Vista.

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Pyramid Creek sheets in a continuous cascade over the granite bedrock.

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Deep snow was a continuous obstacle for myself, and for 4'-tall Madison.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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