Summer Insect Collecting iRecap

At the beginning of the season I was planning to spend the first week of June collecting insects in southeastern New Mexico. Family issues intervened, however, and left me with a week of vacation time and no plans on how to use it. I’ve never been one to not use vacation time, so I quickly came up with a backup plan—a Friday here and a Monday there to create several 3–4 day weekends. Long weekends may not allow travel to far off and exotic places, but they do allow me to travel a bit further than I would for a regular weekend. I also took advantage of my frequent travel for work to stop off at favorite collecting sites for an evening of blacklighting (much more fun than sitting in a hotel room) or a half-day in the field before getting back home. I always have my big camera with me for serious insect photography when the opportunity arises, but I also take frequent iPhone snapshots to document the “flavor” of my time in the field. In previous years, I’ve collected snapshots from my extended trips into “iReports”, which were later followed by posts featuring subjects that I spent “quality camera time” with (see 2013 western Oklahoma, 2013 Great Basin, and 2014 Great Plains). I’ve decided to do the same thing now, only instead of a single trip this report covers an entire summer. I realize few people have the patience for long-reads; nevertheless, enough readers have told me that they like my trip reports and all of their gory details to make this a worthwhile exercise. If you’re not among them, scan the photos—all of which were taken with a stock iPhone 5S and processed using Photoshop Elements version 11—and you’re done!


Searching for the Ghost Tiger Beetle
Central/Northwest Missouri (12–14 June 2015)

In mid-June my good friend, colleague, and fellow cicindelophile Chris Brown and I followed the Missouri River Valley across the state and and up along its northwestern border to visit previously known and potentially new sites for Ellipsoptera lepida—the Ghost Tiger Beetle. We first saw this lovely white species back in 2000 while visiting some of the large sand deposits laid down in central and east-central Missouri by the 1993 flood. In the years since these sites have become increasingly encroached by forests of eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides), making them less and less suitable for the beetle (it also remains one of only two tiger beetles known to occur in Missouri that I have not yet photographed). In the meantime several new sand deposits have been laid down in northwestern Missouri by flooding in 2011, so the question has come up whether the beetle has yet occupied these new sites. We started out at a couple of potentially new sites in east-central Missouri (and did not find the beetle), then went to one of two known sites in central Missouri. We did not find the beetle there either, but we did find this eastern hognose snake  (Heterodon platirhinos).

Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos) | vic. Eagle Rock Conservation Area, Boone Co.

Hognose snakes are well known for their vaired repertoire of defensive behaviors—from flattening of the head and hissing to rolling over and playing dead (a behavior called thanatosis)—the latter behavior often accompanied by bleeding from the mouth and even defecating onto itself. This one, however, was content to simply flatten its head and hiss, its tongue constantly flickering.

Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

The flattened head is an attempt by the snake to make itself appear larger and more imposing.

Standing its ground as tenaciously as it did, I took advantage of the opportunity to close in tight and take a burst series of photos, which I used to create this animated gif of the snake’s constantly flickering tongue.

Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

After an evening of driving to northwest Missouri and a stay in one of our favorite local hotels (eh hem…), we awoke to find the scene below at our first destination.

Ted MacRae & Chris Brown look out over a flooded wildlife refuge

Ted MacRae & Chris Brown look out over a flooded Thurnau Conservation Area, Holt Co.

No tiger beetles there! What to do now. One thing I love about modern times is the ability to pull out the smart phone and scan satellite images of the nearby landscape. Doing this we were able to locate a large sand deposit just to the south and navigate local, often unmarked roads to eventually wind up at a spot where we could access the area on foot. But before we did this we needed gas, and the only gas station for miles was a Sinclair station with a bona fide, original green dinosaur—one of the most potent and iconic corporate symbols ever! I remember these from my childhood, but this is the first one I’ve seen in years.

Authentic Sinclair dinosaur

An authentic Sinclair dinosaur guards the only gas station for miles.

Rain the night before had made the roads muddy, and it was only with some difficulty that we finally located a way to access the sand deposits we had seen on the satellite images. Even then we needed to hike a half-mile to access the sand plain, but once we got there this is what we saw:

Sand plain deposited 2009

Sand plain deposited 2011 along Missouri River, Thurnau Conservation Area, Holt Co.

At first we were optimistic—the habitat looked perfect for not only E. lepida but also the more commonly seen Cicindela formosa generosa (Eastern Big Sand Tiger Beetle) and, at least in this area, C. scutellaris lecontei (LeConte’s Tiger Beetle). We saw no adults however, as we searched the plain, and we wondered if the cool, cloudy conditions that lingered from the previous evening’s storms were suppressing adult activity. After awhile, however, we noted that we hadn’t even found evidence of larval burrows, and that is when we began to think that maybe four years wasn’t long enough for populations to establish in such a vast expanse of new habitat. Eventually Chris did find a single E. lepida adult—a nice record but certainly not evidence of a healthy population.

Sand plain deposited 2009

Seemingly perfect habitat, but void of active adults or evidence of larval burrows.

The next sand plain we visited was a little further north at Corning Conservation Area, also in Holt Co. and also laid down by the 2011 flood. Once again we saw no active tiger beetles in the area, and by this point we were convinced that the species were not just inactive but had not yet even colonized the plains. It should be noted that large sand expanses such as these actually are not exactly a natural process, but rather the result of river channeling and the use of levees to protect adjacent farmland. Before such existed, the river existed as an intricate system of braided channels that rarely experienced catastrophic flooding. Nowadays, with the river confined to a single, narrow channel, the river valley doesn’t experience a normal ebb and flow of water. Only when water levels reach such extreme levels in the narrow channel that they breach a levee does the adjacent valley flood, with the area immediately downstream from the levee breach receiving huge amounts of sand and mud scoured from the breach zone. Tiger beetle species adapted to ephemeral sand plain habitats along big rivers probably

Sand plain deposited 2009

Another sand plain deposited in 2011 at Corning Conservation Area, Holt. Co.

Cottonwoods and willows were already colonizing the edge of the plain, and the latter were heavily infested by large blue leaf beetles. As far as I know the only species of Altica in Missouri associated with willow is A. subplicata, although admittedly it is a large, diverse genus and there could be other willow-associates within the state that I am unaware of. The beetles seemed especially fond of the smaller plants (1–3′ in height), while taller plants were relatively untouched.

Altica bimarginata (willow flea beetle)

Altica subplicata? (willow flea beetle) | Holt Co., Missouri

Altica bimarginata (willow flea beetle)

Beetles congregated heavily on smaller willow plants.

Altica bimarginata (willow flea beetle)

Despite the heavy adult feeding we could find no larvae on the foliage.

Few other insects were seen. I did see a large, standing, dead cottonwood (Populus deltoides) and checked it out hoping hoping to find a Buprestis confluenta adult or two on its naked trunk (a species I found for the first time last year and still have yet to find in Missouri, although it is known from the state). No such luck, but I did collect a couple of large mordellids off of the tree. Let me say also that there were some interesting other plants in the area…

Wild hemp (Cannabis sativa)

Wild hemp (Cannabis sativa)

After satisfying ourselves that Corning also was not yet colonized by the tiger beetles, we drove further north into Atchison Co., the northwesternmost county in the state, to check out one more sand plain deposited by the 2011 flood at Nishnabotna Conservation Area. The sand plain at this area was much smaller than the two previous plains we had visited, and it was also far less accessible, requiring a bushwhacking hike through thick vegetation that was quite rank in some areas. Nevertheless, we soldiered on, motivated by the hope that maybe the third time would be a charm and we would find the beetles that we were searching for. The hike was not all bad—eagles were abundant in the area, and in one distant tree we could see a female perched near her nest with two large nestlings sitting in it. The passing storm system and sinking sun combined to create a rainbow that arched gracefully over the tree with the nest, resulting in one of the more memorable visions from the trip.

Rainbow over eagle's nest

Rainbow over eagle’s nest (tree is located at left one-third of photo).

By the time we got close enough to get a better photograph of the nest the female had departed, but the two nestlings could still be seen sitting in the nest. Sadly, the rather great effort we made to hike to the sand plain was not rewarded with any tiger beetles, and in fact the sand plain was little more than a narrow, already highly vegetated ridge that will probably be completely encroached before the tiger beetles ever find it.

Eagles in nest

Eagles in nest

Ellipsoptera lepida was not the only tiger beetle we were hoping to see on the trip. The Sandy Stream Tiger Beetle, E. macra, has also been recorded from this part of the state, and being members of the genus Ellipsoptera both species can be attracted to lights at night. In one last effort to see either of these species, we went to Watson Access on the Nishnabotna River, near its confluence with the Missouri River. Thunder clouds retreating to the east were illuminated by the low hanging sun to the west, creating spectacular views in both directions. Unfortunately, the insect collecting at the blacklights after sunset was not near as interesting as the sky views that preceded it.

Sunset lit thunderclouds

Sunset lit thunderclouds to the east…

Sunset on the Nishnabotna River

… and a bright colored sunset to the west on the Nishnabotna River, Atchison Co.

The next day we had to start making our way back to St. Louis. But while we were in the area we decided to check on the status of one of Missouri’s rarest tiger beetlesParvindela celeripes (formerly Cylindera celeripes)—the Swift Tiger Beetle. Not known to occur in Missouri until 2010, this tiny, flightless species is apparently restricted in the state to just three small remnants of loess hilltop prairie in Atchison and Holt Counties. We were close to one of these—Brickyard Hill Conservation Area (where Chris and I first discovered the beetles) so stopped by to see if adults were active and how abundant they were. To our great surprise, we found adults active almost immediately upon entering the site, and even more pleasantly surprising the adults were found not just in the two small areas of the remnant where we had seen them before but also in the altered pasture (planted with brome for forage) on the hillside below the remnant (foreground in photo below). This was significant in our minds, as it was the very first time we have observed this beetle in substantially altered habitat. The beetle was observed in relatively good numbers as well, bolstering our hopes that the beetles were capabale of persisting in these small areas and possibly utilized altered pastureland adjacent to the remnants.

Loess hilltop prairie

Brickyard Hill Conservation Area, loess hilltop prairie habitat for Parvindela celeripes

As we made our way back towards St. Louis, there was one more site created by the 1993 flood where we observed E. lepida in the early 2000s that we wanted to check out and see how the beetle was doing. In the years since we first came to Overton Bottoms, much of its perimeter has converted to cottonwood forest; however, a large central plain with open sand exposures and bunch grasses persists—presumably providing acceptable habitat for the species. Chris had seen a few beetles here in a brief visit last summer, but this time we saw no beetles despite a rather thorough search of the central plain. It seemed untenable to think that the beetles were no longer present, and we eventually decided (hoped) that the season was still too young (E. lepida is a summer species, and the season, to this point, had been rather cool and wet). The photos below show what the central plain looks like—both from the human (first photo) and the beetle (second photo) perspective. I resolved to return later in the month to see if our hunch was correct.

Sand plain (people view)

Big Muddy NFWR, Overton Bottoms, south unit, sand plain habitat for Ellipsoptera lepida

Sand plain (tiger beetle view)

A tiger beetle’s eye view of its sand plain habitat

It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then I get caught by rain while out in the field, and this time we got caught by a rather ominous thunderstorm. The rain didn’t really become too heavy until shortly before we reached the car, but the lightning was a constant concern that made bushwhacking back more than a mile through thick brush one of the more unnerving experiences that I’ve had to date.


Trying for Prionus—part 1
South-central Kansas (26–29 June 2015)

Last summer Jeff Huether and I traveled to several locations in eastern Colorado and New Mexico and western Oklahoma to find several Great Plains species of longhorned beetles in the genus Prionus using recently developed lures impregnated with prionic acid—a principal sex pheromone component for the genus. These lures are extraordinarily attractive to males of all species in the genus, and on that trip we managed to attract P. integerP. fissicornis, and P. heroicus and progress further in our eventual goal to collect all of the species in the genus for an eventual molecular phylogenetic analysis. One species that remains uncollected by pheromones (or any other method) is P. simplex, known only from the type specimen labeled simply “Ks.” A number of Prionus species in the Great Plains are associated with sand dune habitats, so we had the idea that maybe P. simplex could be found at the dunes near Medora—a popular historical collecting site, especially with the help of prionic acid lures. Perhaps a long shot, but there’s only one way to find out, so we contacted scarab specialist Mary Liz Jameson at Wichita State University, who graciously hosted Jeff, his son Mark Huether, and I for a day in the field at Sand Hills State Park. We didn’t expect Prionus to be active until dusk, during which time we planned to place lure-baited pitfall traps and also setup blacklights as another method for attracting the adult males (females don’t fly). Until then, we occupied ourselves with some day collecting—always interesting in dune habitats because of the unique sand-adapted flora and the often unusual insects associated with them.

"Medora" Dunes

Sand Hills State Park (“Medora Dunes”), Kansas

Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) are a favorite of mine, and I was stunned to see a yellow-flowered form of butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosus). Eventually I would see plants with flowers ranging from yellow to light orange to the more familiar dark orange that I know from southern Missouri. I checked the plants whenever I saw them for the presence of milkweed beetles, longhorned beetles in the genus Tetraopes (in Missouri the diminutive T. quinquemaculatus is most often associated with this plant), but saw none.

Asclepias tuberosus "yellow form"

Asclepias tuberosus “yellow form”

In the drier areas of the dunes, however, we began to see another milkweed that I recognized as sand milkweed (A. arenicola). I mentioned to Jeff and Mary Liz that a much rarer species of milkweed beetle, T. pilosus, was associated with this plant and to be on the lookout for it (I had found a single adult on this plant at a dune in western Oklahoma a few years back). Both the beetle and the plant are restricted to the Quaternary sandhills of the midwestern U.S., and within minutes of me telling them to be on the alert we found the first adult! During the course of the afternoon we found the species to be quite common in the area, always in association with A. arenicola, and I was happy to finally have a nice series of these beetles for my collection.

Tetraopes pilosus

Two Sandhills specialties—Tetraopes pilosus on Asclepias arenaria

Milkweed beetles weren’t the only insects associated with sand milkweed in the area—on several plants we saw Monarch butterfly larvae, some nearing completion of the larval stage as the one shown in the photo below. Monarchs have been in the news quite a bit lately as their overwintering populations show declines in recent years for reasons that are not fully understood but may be related to recent droughts diminishing availability of nectaring plants for migrating adults and reduction of available food plants as agricultural lands in the U.S. become increasingly efficient.

Danaus plexippus larva

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) larva on Asclepias arenaria

We found some other interesting insects such as the spectacular Plectrodera scalator, cottonwood borer, and the southern Great Plains specialty scarab, Strigoderma knausi, both of which I took the time to photograph with the big camera—separate posts on those species will appear in the future. Sadly, no Prionus came to either our lures or our lights that evening, but some interesting other insects were seen during the day and even at the lights despite unseasonably cool temperatures and a bright moon. I’ll post photographs of these insects, taken with the “big” camera, in the coming weeks. In the meantime, my thanks to Mary Liz for hosting us—I look forward to our next chance to spend some time in the field together.

Ted MacRae, Mark Huether, Jeff Huether, Mary Liz Jameson

Ted MacRae shows Mark Huether, Jeff Huether, and Mary Liz Jameson how to take a panoramic selfie.

The following day, Adam James Hefel—at the time a graduate student at Wichita State University—and I traveled northwest of Wichita to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Adam has recently become interested in tiger beetles and had observed several interesting species on the margins of the salt marshes at Quivira. Several of these species were on my “still to photograph” list (and one even on my “still to see” list), so I was happy to have access to some local knowledge to help me

Salt marsh

Quivira NWR – salt marsh habitat for halophilic tiger beetles

The saline flats of the central U.S. are hyperdiverse for tiger beetles. Adam has seen six species in the saling flats of Quivira, including the saline specialists Cicindela fulgida, C. wllistoni, Ellipsoptera nevadica knausi, Eunota togata, and E. circumpicta johnsonii (formerly Habroscelimorpha) (both red and green forms) and the ubiquitous Cicindelidia punctulata. We managed to find all of these except C. willistoni, which is a spring/fall species—unusual for a saline specialist, but the extreme heat of the day made them exceedingly difficult to approach (and virtually impossible to photograph).

Salt marsh

Tiger beetles are found most often in alkaline flats with sparse vegetation

Salt marsh

The wide open central flats are devoid of not only vegetation but tiger beetles (and life in general!).

Ever fascinated by the diversity of milkweeds to be found in the central U.S., an unfamiliar Asclepias growing in the higher, drier areas around a salt marsh caught my attention. Of course, I checked them for milkweed beetles and quickly found a number of Tetraopes tetraophthalmus individuals. John Oliver kindly identified the milkweed from my photos as Asclepias speciosa (showy milkweed), which does not occur in Missouri (hence the reason I was not familiar with it) but that gets common in the Great Plains and foothills of the Rocky Mountain.

Asclepias speciosa

Asclepias speciosa, or showy milkweed.

Asclepias speciosa

The specific epithet “specioosa” refers to the large, showy flowers.

Tiger beetles were not the only wildlife encountered on the saline flats. Killdeer and western snowy plover adults were abundant in the area, and we found this next with eggs along the lightly vegetated edge of a saline flat around Big Salt Marsh. Cheryl Miller suggested they are probably plover eggs, since killdeer don’t usually scrape out a cup or put debris around the eggs, while snowy plovers are known to nest on or near salt flats and frequently surround their eggs with twigs, small bones or other debris.

Western snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus) eggs

Western snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus) nest with eggs at the edge of an open flat

During the drive into the refuge, I noted several stands of large cottonwood (Populus deltoides), many of which were half- or completely dead. To some, these trees may be just ugly, half-dead trees. For me, however, they offer an opportunity to look for the gorgeous and rarely encountered Buprestis confluens, a species which I found for the first time just last year (not too far from hear in north-central Oklahoma). After getting our fill of tiger beetles, we drove to a parking lot surrounded by some of these trees, and even before I got out of the car I could see an adult B. confluens sitting on the trunk of a large, dead tree at the edge of the parking lot! I quickly secured the specimen, then spotted the half-dead tree in the photo below and walked towards it to look for more. I did not see any adults sitting on the trunk, but what I did see was truly incredible—two adults just beginning to emerge from the trunk! Waiting for one of the adults to emerge naturally (we “helped” the other one along) and photographing the sequence would occupy the next hour, but what an experience (and, of course, photos to come in a separate post).

Populus deltoides surrounded by hemp

This large, half-dead Populus deltoides “screams” Buprestis confluenta!

Wild hemp (Cannabis sativa)

Wild hemp (Cannabis sativa) fills the are with a pungent aroma.

After a break from the heat and something to eat in the nearest town (20 miles away), I returned to the cottonwoods, broke out the hatchet, and began chopping. Cottonwood is an amazingly soft wood compared to hardwoods such as oak and hickory, but dead cottonwood is still tough, and only after much effort did I manage to chop out two pupae (one of which later successfully emerged as an adult) and two unemerged adults, resulting in a nice, if still rather small, series of a species that until last year was not represented in my collection and until this time by only a single specimen.

Chopping Buprestis confluenta unemerged adults/pupae

Chopping Buprestis confluenta unemerged adults/pupae

Buprestis confluenta pupa

Exposed Buprestis confluenta pupa in its pupal chamber.

With the setting sun illuminating distant thunderclouds, I returned to the salt marshes to setup blacklights for the evening in hopes of attracting some of the tiger beetles that we had seen earlier in the day—not in attempt to collect more specimens, but rather to take advantage of their attraction to the lights and reduced skittishness in the cool, night air in an attempt to photograph them (I already had live specimens for studio photographs if necessary, but I prefer actual field photographs whenever possible). Eunota togata was not attracted to the lights, but both E. nevadica knausi and E. circumpicta johnsonii came to the lights in numbers (both red and green forms of the latter), and I succeeded in getting some real nice photographs as a result.

Thundercloud illuminated by setting sun

Thundercloud illuminated by setting sun

On the way back home, and again with the sun dropping close to the horizon, I stopped by Overton Bottoms again to look for Ellipsoptera lepida. Chris and I hadn’t see it here two weeks ago, and I was thinking (hoping) that it might have still a bit early in the season. This time I found them, and although they were not numerous and were apparently confined to the southernmost exposures of the central sand plain, they were still plentiful enough to allow me to get the field shots that I’ve wanted of this species for so long (and providing fodder for yet another future post). This species never seems to be encountered in great numbers, and although I have seen them on a number of occasions it always amazes me just how difficult they are to see!

Sand plain

Another pass through Overton Bottoms looking for Ellipsoptera lepida, this time with success!


Tryin’ for Prionus—part 2
South-central Kansas (11–12 July 2015)

Although our long-shot effort for Prionus simplex at the dunes near Medora, Kansas didn’t pan out, another species we hoped to see was P. debilis—a rather uncommonly collected species that occurs in the tallgrass prairies of the eastern Great Plains and, to our knowledge, had not yet been demonstrated to be attracted to prionic acid. I’d only seen this species once myself, some 30 years ago when I collected four males at lights near the southwestern edge of Missouri. As it happens, longtime cerambycid collector Dan Heffern grew up in P. debilis-land near Yates Center—not too far from where we were just a few weeks ago. When I mentioned my search for the species, he told me how commonly he used to see it around his home—especially around the 4th of July—and put me in contact with a friend who still lives in the area and has several tallgrass prairie remnants on his land. I made arrangements to visit the following weekend, and with prionic acid impregnated lures in the cooler and blacklights and sheets in the cargo area I set off. As I passed south through eastern Kansas I began to see nice tallgrass prairie remnants about 20 miles from my destination, so I took a chance and set a trap as a backup in case things didn’t pan out near Yates Center.

Trap baited with prionic acid lure

Trap baited with prionic acid lure

Things did pan out, however, although for a long time it did not appear they would. Dan’s friend kept me company while I placed a couple of traps and setup the blacklights, and for a couple of hours after sunset no beetles were seen (although we did enjoy good beer and better conversation). Just when I was ready to throw in the towel I saw a male crawling on the ground near one of the lights, and over the course of the next hour I found nearly a dozen males crawling on the ground in the general area around the lights but never actually at the lights. Interestingly, no males were actually seen in flight, nor were any attracted to the trap placed near one of the lights; however, after I took down the lights and checked the other trap there were five males in it. This likely represents the first demonstration of attraction to prionic acid by males P. debilis. I brought a couple of live males home for photography, taking this iPhone shot of a sleeping beetle in the meantime.

Prionus debilis "sleeping"

Prionus debilis “sleeping”in its cage after being taken near an ultraviolet light

One the way back home the next morning, success already “in the bag”, I stopped to check the trap I had placed the previous day. Filled with anticipation as I approached the trap, I was elated to find 21 males in the trap!

Prionus debilis

Prionus debilis in prionic acid lure-baited trap

The male antennae of this and other Prionus species show numerous adaptations that are all designed to maximize the ability to detect sex pheromones emitted into the air by females. They are both hyper-segmented and flabellate, providing maximum surface area for poriferous areas filled with chemical receptors. Larval habits for this species remain unknown, but Lingafelter (2007) states “Larvae may feed in living roots of primarily Quercus and Castanea, but also Vitis, Pyrus, and Zea mays.” I am not sure of the source of this information and don’t really believe it, either, as I think it much more likely that they feed on roots of bunch grasses such as bluestems (Andropogon spp.) and other grass species common in the tallgrass prairies.

Prionus debilis

Prionus debilis “looking” out over its tallgrass prairie habitat

Before reaching St. Louis, I decided to stop off at the last two known sites for Missouri’s endangered (possibly extirpated), disjunct, all-blue population of Eunota circumpicta johnsonii (Johnson’s Tiger Beetle). This didn’t go well—I first tried Blue Lick Conservation Area in Cooper County, where Chris Brown and I made the last known sighting of this beetle in the state 12 years ago at a salt spring about 500 yards further down the road in the photo below. I’m unsure what adaptations adults and larvae may have for surviving prolonged flooding, but it certainly cannot be helpful for the beetle. I then visited nearby Boone’s Lick State Historic Site in Howard County, and while the site was not flooded the two small areas where salt springs were located during our survey were even more heavily encroached by vegetation than before. Not only were no beetles seen, there did not even seem to be the slightest possibility that beetles could occur there. I keep hoping that the beetle will, someday, be seen again, but in reality I think I am just having trouble accepting the fact that I may have actually witnessed the extirpation of this incredibly beautiful and unusual population of beetles.

Flooded road leading to saline lick tiger beetle habitat

Flooded road leading to last known Missouri site for Eunota circumpicta johnsonii


Chillin’ after work
Sand Prairie – Scrub Oak Preserve, central Illinois (15 July 2015)

By the time mid-July rolls along, temperatures are not the only thing heating up. My travel for work also reaches a fever pitch as I begin traveling to research plots in Illinois and Tennessee every  two weeks. It takes three days to make the +1,000-mile round trip, which means that I have two nights and an occasional afternoon stop to collect insects—much more fun than checking into hotel right after work, eating dinner at Applebee’s, and spending the evening switching back and forth between FOX and MSNBC to see who can make the most outrageous statement because IFC just isn’t offered. One of my favorite spots along this route to set up a blacklight is Sand Prairie – Scrub Oak Preserve in Mason County, Illinois. Nothing too spectacular showed up at the lights there this season, but as they say a bad day (or night) of bug collecting is better than a good day of just about anything else.

Ted MacRae at the blacklight

Calling all insects—the blacklight awaits you!

On this particular night a number of hawk moths (family Sphingidae) came to the lights, among the prettier of which included this Paonias excaecata (blinded sphinx) (kindly identified by Robert Velten).

Blinded Sphinx, Paonias excaecata

Paonias excaecata (blinded sphinx) | Sand Prairie – Scrub Oak Preserve, Mason Co., Illinois


More chillin’ after work
Pinewoods Lake, southeast Missouri (28 July 2015)

Another species of Prionus that I hadn’t seen for many years was P. pocularis, a species found in the pineywoods across the southeastern U.S. and, thus, reaching its northwestern distributional limits in the shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) forests of the Ozark Highlands in southern Missouri. Like P. debilis, I had only seen this species once before—two males at a blacklight at Pinewoods Lake National Forest Recreation Area in Carter County many years ago. Unlike P. debilis, however, these were seen later in summer, as were a few other specimens known from the state. That being the case, I decided to try the prionic acid lures at Pinewoods Lake while traveling back up from Tennessee. I arrived at the lake shortly before sunset and, after getting the traps put out and the lights setup, had the chance to look out over the lake and its surrounding forests where I had collected so many insects back in the 1980s as a young, eager, budding coleopterist.

Pinewoods Lake at dusk

Pinewoods Lake at dusk

Quite some time passed and no Prionus beetles were seen at the light or in the trap (but several other longhorned beetles did occur). Recalling my experience with P. debilis in Kansas a few weeks earlier, I remained hopeful, and eventually my optimism was rewarded when I found this single male floating in the trap’s ethanol preservative. Curiously, it would be the only male seen that night, although several individuals of the related and much more common P. imbricornis were attracted to the prionic acid lures.

Prionus pocularis

Prionus pocularis in prionic acid lure-baited trap | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Several other insects did come to the blacklights, among the more photogenic being this underwing moth (genus Catacola, family Noctuidae) identified by Mathew L. Brust as Catocala neogama.

Catocala neogama

Catocala neogama at ultraviolet light | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Even more photogenic than underwings are royal moths (family Saturniidae), including this imperial moth, Eacles imperialis.

Eacles imperialis (imperial moth)

Eacles imperialis (imperial moth) at ultraviolet light | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Among the longhorned beetles I mentioned that did come to the lights was this Orthosoma brunneum (brown prionid). This species is closely related to prionid beetles (both are in the subfamily Prioninae). However, it is not a member of the genus Prionus, and, thus, is not attracted to prionic acid. It is perhaps no coincidence that males of this species do not exhibit the hypersegmentation and flabellate modifications of their antennae possessed by males in the genus Prionus, though they may still rely on sex pheromones for locating females.

Orthosoma brunneum

Orthosoma brunneum at ultraviolet light | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Even spiders were coming to the blacklights, perhaps attracted not by the light itself but by the ready availability of potential prey.

Black widow spider (Latrodectus mactans) female

Latrodectus mactans (black widow) at ultraviolet light | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri


Cicadamania!
White River Hills region, southwest Missouri (1–2 August 2015)

Although I had succeeded in finding Prionus pocularis earlier in the week at Pinewoods Lake, I wasn’t satisfied with having found just a single individual. I had nothing on the calendar the following weekend, so I decided to make a run down to one of my favorite areas in all of Missouri—the White River Hills of extreme southwest Missouri. The only other record of the species in Missouri is from that area, with its abundance of shortleaf pine forests (the species breeds in decadent pines), and I though how nice it would be to find more individuals in a part of the state that I love so much. The plan was to drive down, set a prionic acid trap or two once I got into the pine forests of the area, and then find a good spot to setup some blacklights with one more prionic acid trap that I could monitor. The plan was executed perfectly, and I ended up setting up the lights on a ridge just south of Roaring River State Park; however, the beetles never came. Nevertheless, like I said earlier a bad day/night of bug collecting is still better than just about anything else, and there was plenty at and near the lights to keep the night interesting. Once was this tiny walkingstick nymph that I found hanging out at the tip of a blade of grass. I was intrigued by the rather peculiar position adopted by the resting animal, with its forelegs and antennae extended straight out in front of the body with their tips resting on the grass blade.

Undet. juvenile walkingstick

Undetermined walkingstick nymph | Mark Twain N.F., Barry Co., Missouri

One thing I love about blacklighting for insects is the sounds of the night—katydids fill the black night with raspy calls while Whip-Poor-Wills and their country cousins the Poor-Will’s-Widows hoot and cluck in the distance.

Undet. adult katydid?

Undetermined katydid | Mark Twain N.F., Barry Co., Missouri

As I was photographing the walkingstick, I felt something crawling on my neck. After many years of doing this, I’ve learned not to freak out and slap wildly at something crawling on my neck, because 1) more often than not it is something interesting and 2) even if it isn’t particularly interesting it’s almost never capable of biting or stinging. Still, I don’t want to just grab it unseen or pin it against my neck—instead I kind of “scoop” it away with my fingers and toss it onto the ground beside me in one swift, assertive movement. This night’s mystery neck crawler was about as interesting as they get—Dynastes tityus (eastern Hercules beetle), the largest beetle in eastern North America. This one is a female by virtue of its lack of any horns on the head and pronotum.

Dynastes tityus female

Female Dynastes tityus (eastern Hercules beetle) | Mark Twain N.F., Barry Co., Missouri

After pulling the lights down for the night, I drove to Mincy Conservation Area, one of the many dolomite glades in the area in the next county over and one that I had not visited for some time. There are no hotels in the area, and my bones are a little too old to be sleeping on the ground, so I just pulled into the campground, took off my shoes, changed into PJs, and laid the driver’s seat all the way back for a surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep. My frugalness would have its reward, although I did not know it until I awoke early the next morning to a hauntingly beautiful fog. I’d never seen the glades in such manner—so serene. I knew the rising sun would quickly burn off the fog and and the moment would be lost if I didn’t act quickly, so I grabbed both big camera and iPhone and, put on some shoes (didn’t bother with changing out of my PJs), and walked the glade taking as many photos as I could. While the quality of the iPhone snaps doesn’t compare with those taken with the big camera, they nevertheless convey the quiet beauty of the glade.

Morning fog over the dolomite glade

Morning fog over the dolomite glade | Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri

Missouri coneflower (Rudbeckia missouriensis) is a characteristic plant of limestone and dolomite glades in the Ozark Highlands of southern Missouri.

Morning fog over the dolomite glade

Missouri coneflower (Rudbeckia missouriensis) | Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri

Morning dew makes spider webs abundantly conspicuous.

Morning fog on a spider web

Morning fog on a spider web | Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri

Eventually the rising sun began to burn through the cool, damp fog, portending another day of searing heat in the xeric glade landscape.

Morning fog over the dolomite glade

The rising sun begins to burn off the fog | Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri

Heading back to my car as temperatures began to rise quickly, I was struck by the cacophony of cicadas that were already getting into high gear with their droning buzz calls. As I passed underneath one particular tree I noticed the song was coming from a branch very near my head. I like cicadas, but I was there to look for the spectacular Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer), a glade species associated with gum bumelia (Sideroxylon lanuginosum). Had it been the song of a “normal” cicada like Neotibicen lyricen (lyric cicada) or N. pruinosus (scissor grinder cicada) I would have paid it no mind. It was, instead, unfamiliar and distinctive, and when I searched the branches above me I recognized the beautiful insect responsible for the call as Neotibicen superbus (superb cicada), a southwest Missouri specialty—sumptuous lime-green above and bright white pruinose beneath. I had not seen this spectacular species since the mid 1980s (most of my visits to the area have been in the spring or the fall rather than high summer), so I spent the next couple of hours attempting to photograph an individual in situ with the big camera. This is much, much easier said than done—the bulging eyes of cicadas give them exceptional vision, and they are very skittish and quick to take flight. I knew I had the iPhone photo shown below if all else failed, and for some time every individual I tried to approach ended up fluttering off with a screech before I could even compose a shot, much less press the shutter. Persistence paid off, however, and I eventually succeeded in locating, approaching, and photographing an unusually calm female resting at chest height on the trunk of a persimmon tree. Along the way I checked the gum bumelia trees hoping to spot one of the beautiful longhorned beetles associated with that tree, but none were seen.

Neotibicen superbus

Neotibicen superbus

It was already high noon by the time I finished up at the Mincy glades, so I began to retrace my steps to check the prionic acid traps that I had set out the day before. Along the way I stopped by Chute Ridge Glade Natural Area in Roaring River State Park, another place where I have seen bumelia borers, so I stopped to try my luck there before continuing on to pick up the traps. Again, none were seen, but in addition to numerous individuals of N. superbus I found another species of cicada, still undetermined by more robust and nearly blackish and with a throatier call that sounding a bit like a machine gun (or table saw hitting a nail!). Despite the lack of bumelia borers, I enjoyed my time on the glade immensely and eventually had to call it quits if I was to get to all of my traps before nightfall.

IMG_6373_enh_1230x720


Still more chillin’ after work
Pinewoods Lake, southeast Missouri (11 August 2015)

Two attempts at Prionus pocularis in the past two weeks had netted me but a single specimen—this species was becoming my summer nemesis. So when I found myself back in Tennessee for field trial work and the timing still right I decided to spend the evening at Pinewoods Lake once again before heading back to St. Louis and see if the third time would be a charm. I found a new restaurant in the tiny nearby town of Ellsinore, and the dinner special that evening was fried catfish—hoo boy! My belly was in a good place after that, filling me with optimism that I would have success tonight. I got to the lake at dusk, quick setup the blacklights and put the prionic acid traps in place, and waited for the bugs to come in.

Pinewoods Lake at dusk

Pinewoods Lake at dusk, again!

The evening’s first visitor to the lights was a parandrine cerambycid—Neandra brunnea. Believe it or not, this was the first time I have ever seen the species alive (once before finding a dead specimen in a Japanese beetle trap waaaay back in the mid-1980s!)—a pretty nice find. In fact, Pinewoods Lake produced a number of good finds during those days back in the 1980s when I was collecting here regularly—longhorned beetles such as Acanthocinus nodosus, Enaphalodes hispicornis, and the aforementioned Prionus pocularis, male Lucanus elaphus stage beetles, the jewel beetle Dicerca pugionata on ninebark in the draws, and the seldom seen tiger beetle Apterodela unipunctata (formerly Cylindera unipunctata), just to name a few.

Neandra brunnea

Neandra brunnea | Mark Twain N.F., Pinewods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Seeing N. brunnea and the prospects of collecting P. pocularis weren’t the only things putting me in a good mood…

Blacklighting w/ beer

Blacklighting is better with beer!

My optimism, unfortunately, would eventually prove to be unfounded, as not only did P. pocularis never show up—either at the blacklights or the prionic acid traps, no other beetles showed up as well, longhorned or otherwise. When that happens, I have no choice but to start paying attention to other insects that show up at the lights. It was slim pickings on this night for some reason, making this already striking moth identified by Alex Harman as Panthea furcilla  (tufted white pine caterpillar or eastern panthea) in the family Noctuidae stand out even more so. 

Panthea furcilla

Panthea furcilla | Mark Twain N.F., Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

While walking between the blacklights and the prionic acid traps, something suspended between two trees caught my eye. I recognized it quickly as some type of orb weaver spider (family Araneidae), but I couldn’t exactly figure out exactly what was going on until I took a closer look and saw that there were actually two spiders! I’d never seen orb weaver courtship before, so I excitedly took a few quick shots with the iPhone and then hurried back to the car to get the big camera.

Neoscona sp. courtship

Be very, very careful boy!

Sadly, the male had already departed by the time I got back, so the quick iPhone photos I took are the only record I have of that encounter. Still, I got some good photos of just the female with the big camera, along with the quicker, dirtier iPhone shots—one of which is shown below. According to Eric Eaton these are likely a species in the genus Neoscona.

Neoscona sp.

Neoscona sp. | Mark Twain N.F., Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri


Checking out a fen
Coonville Creek Natural Area, southeast Missouri (3 September 2015)

On yet another trip back to St. Louis from Tennessee, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit Coonville Creek Natural Area in St. Francois State Park, an area I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years and the outstanding feature being the calcareous wet meadow, or “fen”, that dominates the upper reaches of the creek drainage. Fen soils are constantly saturated, a result of groundwater from surrounding hills percolating through porous dolomite bedrock before hitting a resistant layer (in this case, sandstone) and seeping out onto the lower slopes. Constantly saturated soils and occasional fires (at least historically) have kept the fen open and treeless, with the cool groundwater allowing “glacial relicts” (i.e., plants common when glaciers covered the area) to persist. 

Calcareous wet meadow

Calcareous wet meadow | Coonville Creek, St. Francois State Park, St. Francois Co., Missouri

I saw a few Cicindela splendida (Splendid Tiger Beetles) on the rocky, clay 2-track leading to the area—a sure sign that fall was just around the corner, a female cicada on herbaceous vegetation in the fen (small, I think it’s not a species of Neotibicen), and a huge, fecund black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia)—I love seeing the latter at this time of year when they have grown to their largest and the females are full of eggs. In reality, however, this visit turned into more of a botanical than an insect collecting experience. Insect activity in general was low, and my attention drifted instead to the diversity of wildflowers that were present on the fen—most new to me. False dragonhead (Physostegia virginiana), great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), and Spiranthes lacera (slender ladies’-tresses orchid)—its tiny white blossoms spiraling up the leafless spike were the most interesting, resulting in lots of time spent looking at them through the big camera.

Argiope aurantia

Argiope aurantia | Coonville Creek, St. Francois Co., Missouri


The always exciting amorpha borer
Otter Slough Conservation Area, southeast Missouri (23 September 2015)

As the dog-days of summer gave way to bright, blue skies and crisp, fall air, a distinctive insect fauna takes advantage of the explosion of goldenrod that blooms across a landscape morphing from shades of green to orange, yellow, and tawny. Many of these insects are widespread and super-abundant—soldier beetles, tachinid flies, bumble and honey bees, and scoliid, tiphiid, and vespid wasps are among the most conspicuous. Megacyllene robiniae, longhorned beetles commonly called locust borers  are also common on goldenrod during fall, but much less common is a closely related species that breeds in false indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa)—Megacyllene decora, or the amorpha borer. I’ve seen this species several times, yet uncommonly enough that I still target it when I get the chance. One such place is Otter Slough Conservation Area—yet another interesting place along the way between Tennessee and St. Louis. On one of my final trips back this way I stopped by to see if these spectacular beetles would be out. My attention was first caught by egrets congregating in a mud flat exposed by recent dry weather. However, they were not what I was looking for.

Egrets congregating on mud flats

Egrets congregating on mud flats | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

There is no shortage of interesting insects to look at as I begin scanning the goldenrod flowers growing along the roadsides and around the edges of the shallow pools managed for fishing and shore birds. A fat, female Stagmomantis carolina (Carolina mantis) sat on one of the first inflorescences that I checked, but she also was not what I was looking for.

Undet. mantid

Stagmomantis carolina | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

After a bit of searching, I found what I was looking for! Over the course of the next two hours (all the time I had left before sundown) I would a total of three adults on goldenrod flowers at three disparate locations within the area—again not very many, making those that I did see a real treat.

Megacyllene decora

Megacyllene decora on goldenrod | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

As dusk fell over the area, insects began bedding down for the night. I was lucky to find the last amorpha borer in the dwindling light as it bedded down next to a bumblebee—perhaps the likely model for the beetle apparent mimetic coloration.

Megacyllene decora

Megacyllene decora and a bumble bee bed down together | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

The sun sinking over the horizon behind the wetlands put an end to the collecting, not only for the day but for the season, at least here in Missouri and surrounding states. It would not be the final day of collecting for me, however, as I managed to scrape together some free time amidst my hectic travel schedule and spend a week in eastern Texas for the Annual Fall Tiger Beetle Hunt. I’ll save that trip for another report and close this one out here, but be on the lookout for higher quality photos over the coming months of the really interesting insects that I encountered over this past season. Let me also say that if you’re still reading at this point, you have my deepest admiration for having the persistence to wade through all 8,376 of the words contained within this post!

Dusk over Plover Pond

Sunset over Plover Pond | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

2014 Great Plains Collecting Trip iReport

During the past year or so I’ve followed up my longer (one week or more) insect collecting trips with a synoptic “iReport”—so named because they are illustrated exclusively with iPhone photographs. It may come as a surprise to some, but iPhones actually take pretty good pictures (especially if you pay attention to their strengths and weaknesses), and their small, compact size makes it easy to take lots of photos while trying to use time in the field wisely. I find the iPhone to be a great tool for documenting the general flavor of a trip and for taking quick photos of subjects before getting out the big rig. I will, of course, feature photographs taken with the ‘real’ camera in future posts.

For this trip, I teamed up with Jeff Huether for the third time since 2012. Our quarry for this trip was longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae) in the genus Prionus. Larvae of these beetles are subterranean, with some species feeding on roots of woody plants and others on roots of grasses and other herbaceous plants. Among the latter are an array of species occurring in the Great Plains, many of which have been very uncommonly collected. However, in recent years lures have been produced that are impregnated with prionic acid—the principal component of sex pheromones emitted by females in the genus. Originally produced for use in commercial orchards (which are sometimes attacked by P. laticollis in the east and P. californicus in the west), these lures are proving themselves to be useful for us taxonomist-types who wish to augment the limited amount of available material of other, non-economic species in the genus. While Prionus was our main goal, rest assured that I did not pass on the opportunity to find and photograph other beetles of interest.

I began the trip by driving from St. Louis to Wichita, Kansas to meet up with Jeff, who had flown there from his home in upstate New York. Our plan was to visit sites in southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico, where several of the Prionus spp. that we were looking for were known to occur. Before doing this, however, we stopped in Hardtner, Kansas to see “Beetle Bill” Smith and tour his amazing natural history tribute, Bill and Janet’s Nature Museum.

"Beetle" Bill Smith, founder of Bill & Janet's Nature Museum, Hardtner, Kansas.

“Beetle Bill” Smith, founder of Bill & Janet’s Nature Museum, Hardtner, Kansas.

After the tour (and a delicious lunch at his house of fried crappie prepared by his wife Janet), we headed west of town and then south just across the state line into Oklahoma to a spot where Bill had found a blister beetle (family Meloidae) that Jeff was interested in finding. During lunch I mentioned a jewel beetle (family Buprestidae) that I had looked for in the area several times, but which had so far eluded me—Buprestis confluenta. Emerald green with a dense splattering of bright yellow flecks on the elytra, it is one of North America’s most striking jewel beetles and is known to breed in the trunks of dead cottonwoods (Populus deltoides). Bill mentioned that he had collected this species at the very spot where we were going, and when we arrived I was enticed by the sight of a cottonwood grove containing several large, dead standing trunks—perfect for B. confluenta.

Buprestis spp. love large, dead, barkless cottonwood trunks.

Buprestis spp. love large, dead, barkless cottonwood trunks.

I searched for more than one hour without seeing the species, though I did find a few individuals of the related (and equally striking) B. rufipes on the trunks of the large, dead trees. Once that amount of time passes I’m no longer really expecting to see what I’m looking for, but suddenly there it was in all of its unmistakable glory! It would be the only individual seen despite another hour of searching, but it still felt good for the first beetle of the trip to be one I’d been looking for more than 30 years!

Buprestis (Knulliobuprestis) confluenta, on large, dead Populus deltoides trunk | Woods Col., Oklahoma| USA: Oklahoma

Buprestis confluenta, on the trunk of a large, dead cottonwood (Populus deltoides) | Woods Col., Oklahoma| USA: Oklahoma

I usually wait until near the end of a collecting trip to take the requisite selfie, but on this trip I was sporting new headgear and anxious to document its maiden voyage. My previous headgear of choice, a vintage Mambosok (impossible to get now), finally disintegrated after 20 years of field use, and on the way out-of-town I picked up a genuine Buff® do-rag. I know many collectors prefer a brim, but I don’t like they way brims limit my field of vision or get in the way when I’m using a camera. Besides, I’m usually looking down on the ground or on vegetation, so sun on my face is not a big issue. And do I be stylin’ or wut?

A "selfie" makes the trip official.

A “selfie” makes the trip official.

We made it to our first locality in southeast Colorado by noon the next day—the vast, dry grasslands north of Las Animas. Jeff had collected a blister beetle of interest here on an earlier trip, but as I looked out across the desolate landscape I wondered what on Earth I could find here that would be even remotely interesting to me.

Shortgrass prairie habitat for Prionus integer.

Shortgrass prairie habitat for Prionus integer.

Letting Jeff have some time to look for his blister beetle, I started down the roadside and after a short time found a live female Prionus sp. (later determined to represent P. integer). The only female Prionus I had ever collected before was P. heroicus, a giant species out in Arizona, and that was almost 30 years ago, so I wasn’t immediately sure what it was. Eventually I decided it must be Prionus, and a quick stop to kick the dirt while Jeff looked for his beetle turned into an intense search for more Prionus that surely were there. I did find two male carcasses shortly thereafter, and then nothing more was seen for the next hour or so.

Prionus integer male | Bent Co., Colorado

Prionus integer male (found dead) | Bent Co., Colorado

During the time that I was searching, however, I started noticing strange burrows in the ground. I excavated a few—they were shallow but contained nothing. Nevertheless, they matched the size of the beetles perfectly—surely there was a connection?

Prionus integer adult burrow.

Prionus integer adult burrow.

I wondered if Jeff knew about the beetles occurring here, but when I showed him what I had found the surprised look on his face told me this was not the case. I showed him the burrows, and we both agreed they had to be connected. I got the shovel out of the truck and walked back to the area where I had seen the live female, then sunk the shovel deep into the ground next to one of the burrows and pried up a chuck of the soil containing the burrow in its entirety. As we broke apart the soil another female was revealed, and we immediately decided to set out some traps baited with prionic acid lures. We expected the beetles to become active during dusk, so we went into town to get something to eat and then check out another nearby locality before returning to the site at dusk. While we were gone it rained heavily at the site, so we weren’t sure if or how this would affect beetle activity and their possible attraction to the traps. However, as we approached the site (slipping and sliding on the muddy 2-track), we could actually see beetles crawling on the road from afar. What we found when we got out of the car was nothing short of mind-blowing—the beetles were everywhere, crawling on the road, crawling through the grass, and overflowing in the flooded traps! The vast majority were males, as expected, but we also found a fair number of the much more rarely collected females. This was significant, as the chance to observe mating and oviposition behavior made the encounter far more informative than if we had only found and collected the much more numerous males.

Prionus integer mating pair.

Prionus integer mating pair.

The following day we headed south into northeastern New Mexico to look at some shortgrass prairie sites near Gladstone (Union Co.) where two species of Prionus had been collected in recent years: P. fissicornis (the lone member of the subgenus Antennalia) and P. emarginatus (one of eight species in the poorly known subgenus Homaesthesis, found primarily in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains). Fresh off of our experience the previous day, we were on the lookout for any suspicious looking “burrows” as we checked the roadsides at several spots in the area but found nothing, and while a few blister beetles piqued the interest of Jeff at one site, the complete absence of woody vegetation or flowering plants in general in the stark grassland landscape made the chances of me finding any other woodboring beetles remote. Eventually I became distracted by the lizards that darted through the vegetation around us, including this lesser earless lizard (Holbrookia maculata) and a collared lizard (better photos of both forthcoming).

Holbrookia maculata (lesser earless lizard) | Union Co., New Mexico.

Holbrookia maculata (lesser earless lizard) | Union Co., New Mexico.

Despite no clues to suggest that Prionus beetles were active in the area, we set out some traps at two sites with soil exposures that seemed similar to those seen the day before. As Jeff set the last pair of traps in place, my distraction with saurian subjects continued with a dusty hognose snake (Heterodon nasicus gloydi). While photographing the animal I looked down to my side, and what did I see but a male Prionus fissicornis crawling through the vegetation! I called out to Jeff, and for the next half an hour or so we scoured the surrounding area in a failed attempt to find more. We would not be back until the next morning to check the traps, so our curiosity about how abundant the beetles might be would have to wait another 18 hours. We cast an eye towards the north and watched late afternoon thunderstorms roll across the expansive landscape and decided to check out the habitat in nearby Mills Rim.

Thunderstorms over shortgrass prairie.

Thunderstorms over shortgrass prairie.

The rocky terrain with oak/pine/juniper woodlands at Mills Rim was a dramatic contrast to the gently rolling grasslands of the surrounding areas. We came here mostly out of curiosity, without any specific goal, but almost immediately after getting out of the car a huge Prionus male flew up to us—almost surely attracted by the scent of the lures we were carrying. Within a few minutes another male flew in, and then another. Because of their huge size and occurrence within oak woodland habitat, we concluded they must represent P. heroicus, more commonly encountered in the “Sky Islands” of southeastern Arizona. We stuck around to collect a few more, but as dusk approached we returned to the surrounding grasslands to set out some lures to see if we could attract other Prionus species. The frontal system that had waved across the landscape during the afternoon had left in its wake textured layers of clouds, producing spectacular colors as the sun sank inexorably below the horizon.

Sunset over shortgrass prairie.

Sunset over shortgrass prairie.

This attempt to collect grassland Prionus beetles would not be successful, and as dusk progressed we became distracted collecting cactus beetles (Moneilema sp., family Cerambycidae) from prickly pear cactus plants (Opuntia sp.) before darkness ended our day’s efforts. This did not mean, however, that all of our efforts were done—there are still night active insects, and in the Great Plains what better nocturnal insect to look for than North America’s largest tiger beetle, the Great Plains giant tiger beetle (Amblycheila cylindriformis, family Cicindelidae—or subfamily Cicindelinae—or supertribe Cicindelitae, depending on who you talk to)?! We kept our eyes on the headlamp illuminated 2-track as we drove back to the highway and then turned down another road that led into promising looking habitat. Within a half-mile of the highway we saw one, so I got out to pick it up and then started walking. I walked another half-mile or so on the road but didn’t see anything except a few Eleodes darkling beetles (family Tenebrionidae), then turned around and walked the habitat alongside the road on the way back. As I walked, tiny little rodents—looking like a cross between a mouse and a vole—flashed in and out of my headlight beam as they hopped and scurried through the vegetation in front of me. Most fled frantically in response to my attempted approach, but one, for some reason, froze long enough under my lamp to allow me this one photo. When I posted the photo on my Facebook page, opinions on its identity ranged from kangaroo rat (Dipodomys sp.) silky pocket mouse (Perognathus flavus) to jumping mouse (Zapus sp.). Beats me.

silky pocket mouse? Zapus sp., jumping mouse? | Union Co., New Mexico.

Kangaroo rat? Silky pocket mouse? Jumping mouse? | Union Co., New Mexico.

Almost as if by command, it rained during the early evening hours where we had set the traps, and the following morning we were rewarded with traps brimming with Prionus fissicornis males. Not only were the traps full, but males were still running around in the vicinity, and we even found a few females, one of which was in the act of ovipositing into the soil at the base of a plant.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionus fissicornis male | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Prionus fissicornis male | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Prionus fissicornis oviposition hole.

Prionus fissicornis oviposition hole.

Eventually P. fissicornis activity subsided, and we decided to go back to the area around Mills Rim to see what beetles we might find in the woodland habitats. We also still were not sure about the Prionus beetles we had collected there the previous day and whether they truly represented P. heroicus. The scrubby oaks and conifers screamed “Beat me!”, and doing so proved extraordinarily productive, with at least a half-dozen species of jewel beetles collected—including a nice series of a rather large Chrysobothris sp. from the oaks that I do not recognize and a single specimen of the uncommonly collected Phaenops piniedulis off of the pines.

Oak/juniper woodland at Mills Canyon, habitat for Prionus heroicus.

Oak/juniper woodland at Mills Canyon, habitat for Prionus heroicus.

Not only is the scenery at Mills Rim Campground beyond spectacular, it also boasts some of the most adoringly cute reptiles known to man—such as this delightfully spiky horned lizard (I prefer the more colloquial name “horny toad”!). I’m probably going to regret not having photographed this fine specimen with the big camera.

Phrynosoma cornutum (Texas horned lizard) | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Phrynosoma cornutum (Texas horned lizard) | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Fresh diggings beside a rock always invite a peek inside. You never know who might be peeking out.

Who's home?

Who’s home?

Peek-a-boo!

Peek-a-boo!

The trip having reached the halfway point, we debated whether to continue further south to the sand dunes of southern New Mexico (with its consequential solid two-day drive back to Wichita) or turn back north and have the ability to collect our way back. We chose the latter, primarily because we had not yet had a chance to explore the area around Vogel Canyon south of Las Animas, Colorado. We had actually planned to visit this area on the day we encountered P. integer in the shortgrass prairie north of town, and a quick visit before going back to check the traps that evening showed that the area had apparently experienced good rains as shown by the cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia imbricata) in full bloom.

Cylindropuntia imbricata | Otero Co., Colorado.

Cylindropuntia imbricata | Otero Co., Colorado.

Whenever I see cholla plants I can’t help myself—I have to look for cactus beetles (Moneilema spp.). It had rained even more since our previous visit a few days ago, and accordingly insects were much more abundant. Several Moneilema adults were seen on the cholla, one of which I spent a good bit of time photographing. The iPhone photo below is just a preview of the photos I got with the big camera (which also included some very impressive-sized cicadas—both singing males and ovipositing females). The cactus spines impaled in the camera’s flash control unit serve as a fitting testament to the hazards of photographing cactus insects!

Moneilema sp. on Cylindropuntia imbracata } Otero Co., Colorado.

Moneilema sp. on Cylindropuntia imbracata } Otero Co., Colorado.

The hazards of photographing cactus beetles.

The hazards of photographing cactus beetles.

Later in the afternoon we hiked down into the canyon itself, and while insects were active we didn’t find much out of the ordinary. We did observe some petroglyphs on the sandstone walls of the canyon dating from the 1200s to the 1700s—all, sadly, defaced by vandals. Despite the rather uninspiring collecting, we stayed in the area for two reasons: 1) Jeff wanted to setup blacklights at the canyon head in hopes of collecting a blister beetle that had been caught there on an earlier trip, and 2) I had noted numerous Amblycheila larval burrows in the area (and even fished out a very large larva from one of them) and wanted to search the area at night to see if I could find adults. Jeff was not successful in his goal, and for a time I thought I would also not succeed in mine until we closed up shop and started driving the road out of the canyon. By then it was after 11 p.m. and we managed to find about a half-dozen A. cylindriformis adults. This was now the third time that I’ve found adults of this species, and interestingly all three times I’ve not seen any beetles despite intense searching until after 11 p.m and up until around midnight.

Lithographs on canyon wall | Mills Canyon, Colorado.

Lithographs on canyon wall | Mills Canyon, Colorado.

The next morning we found ourselves with two days left in the trip but several hundred miles west of Wichita, where I needed to drop Jeff off for his flight back home before I continued on home to St. Louis. I had hoped we could make it to the Glass Mountains just east of the Oklahoma panhandle to see what Prionus species might be living in the shortgrass prairies there (and also to show Jeff this remarkable place where I’ve found several new state records over the past few years). As we headed in that direction, I realized our path would take us near Black Mesa at the western tip of the Oklahoma pandhandle, and having been skunked on my first visit to the area last year due to dry conditions but nevertheless intrigued by its very un-Oklahoma terrain and habitat I suggested we stop by the area and have a look around before continuing on to the Glass Mountains. We arrived in the area mid-afternoon and headed straight for a rock outcropping colonized by scrub oak (Quercus sp.) and pinyon pine (Pinus sp.)—very unusual for western Oklahoma—that I had found during my previous trip.

The author looks pensively out over the Black Mesa landscape.

The area around Black Mesa couldn’t be more unlike the perception that most people have of Oklahoma.

I wanted to beat the oaks for buprestids—surely there would be a state record or two just sitting there waiting for me to find them, but as I started walking from the car towards the oaks the approach of a loud buzz caught my attention. I turned around to see—would you believe—a large Prionus beetle circling the air around me and was fortunate to net it despite its fast and agile flight. I hurried back to the car to show Jeff what I had found; we looked at each other and said, “Let’s collect here for a while.” The beetle had apparently been attracted to the lures in the car, so we got them out, set them up with some traps, and went about beating the oaks and watching for beetles to fly to the lure. Sadly, no  jewel beetles were collected on the oaks, although I did find evidence of their larval workings in some dead branches (which were promptly collected for rearing). Every once in a while, however, a Prionus beetle would fly in, apparently attracted to the lure but, curiously, never flying directly to it and falling into the trap. Many times they would land nearby and crawl through the vegetation as if searching but never actually find the trap. However, just as often they would approach the trap in flight and not land, but rather continue circling around in the air for a short time and before suddenly turning and flying away (forcing me to watch forlornly as they disappeared in the distance). Based on their very large size, blackish coloration and broad pronotum, we surmised (and later confirmed) these must also be P. heroicus, despite thinking (and later confirming) that the species was not known as far east as Oklahoma. Not only had we found a new state record, but we had also recorded a significant eastern range extension for the species. And to think that we only came to Black Mesa because I wanted to beat the oaks!

Prionus heroicus male

Prionus heroicus male

Bite from Prionus heroicus male.

Proof that Prionus heroicus males can bite hard enough to draw blood!

We each collected a nice series of the beetles, and despite never witnessing the beetles actually going to the traps a few more were found in the traps the next morning after spending the night in a local bed & breakfast. I also found a dove’s nest with two eggs hidden in the vegetation, and as we were arranging for our room at the bed & breakfast a fellow drove up and dropped off a freshly quarried dinosaur footprint (the sandstone, mudstone, and shale deposits around Black Mesa are the same dinosaur fossil bearing deposits made more famous at places like Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument).

Dove's nest w/ eggs.

Dove’s nest w/ eggs.

Dinosaur fossil footprint

Freshly quarried dinosaur fossil footprint

By the way, if you ever visit the area, the Hitching Post at Black Mesa is a great place to stay. A longhorn skull on the barn above an authentic 1882 stagecoach give a hint at the ambiance, and breakfast was almost as good as what my wife Lynne can do (almost! 🙂 ).

Longhorn skull on barn at our Bead and Breakfast.

Longhorn skull on barn at our Bead and Breakfast.

132-year-old stagecoach - model!

132-year-old stagecoach – model!

After breakfast we contemplated the long drive that lay between us and our arrival in Wichita that evening—our longer than expected stay in the area had virtually eliminated the possibility to collect in the Glass Mountains. Nevertheless, there was one more thing that I wanted to see before we left—the dinosaur footprints laying in a trackway along Carrizo Creek north of the mesa. I only knew they were in the area based on a note on a map, but as there were no signs our attempt to find them the previous day was not successful. Armed with detailed directions from the B&B owners, however, we decided to give it one more shot. Again, even after we found the site I didn’t see them immediately, I suppose because I was expecting to see distinct depressions in dry, solid rock. Only after the reflections of light from an alternating series of small puddles—each measuring a good 10–12″ in diameter—did I realize we had found them. Recent rains had left the normally dry creek bed filled with mud, with the footprints themselves still filled with water.

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

It is not surprising that I would be so excited to find the tracks, but what did surprise me was the effect they had on me. Seeing the actual signs of near mythical beasts that lived an incomprehensible 100 million years ago invites contemplation and reminds us that our time here on Earth has, indeed, been short!

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

By this time, we had no choice but to succumb to the long drive ahead. We did manage to carve out a short stop at the very first locality of the trip in an effort to find more Buprestis confluens (finding only a few more B. rufipes), but otherwise the day was spent adhering to our goal of reaching Wichita before nightfall. Jeff was home and sipping tea before lunchtime the next day, while I endured one more solid day of driving before making it back to St. Louis in time for dinner with the family. At that point, the trip already could have been considered a success, but how successful it ultimately ends up being depends on what beetles emerge during the next season or two from these batches of infested wood that I collected at the various spots we visited.

Wood collected for rearing wood-boring beetles.

Wood collected for rearing wood-boring beetles.

If you like this Collecting Trip iReport, you might also like the iReports that I posted for my 2013 Oklahoma and 2013 Great Basin collecting trips as well.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014