Dressed in black

The first three days of this year’s Fall Tiger Beetle Trip had been fun, and finding a new state record jewel beetle and an unusual seasonal activity record for another were definitely icing on the cake. Still, tiger beetles (at least adults) had been notably absent, with my hunch that Cicindela pulchra (Beautiful Tiger Beetle) might occur in the Red Hills of northwestern Oklahoma not playing out. My next goal was to go down to northern Texas and look for Cicindelidia politula (Limestone Tiger Beetle)—a species I have not yet encountered in the field. When I saw that the route south took me through the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma, I recalled seeing this photo of Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina (Prairie Tiger Beetle) on BugGuide taken in these very mountains during the fall. I have seen on many occasions the greenish Missouri / Arkansas disjunct population of this subspecies, but I had not yet seen the main population and its decidedly black individuals, so this became my quarry for Day 4 of the trip. I had nothing more to go on for a locality than “Wichita Mountains NWR” and a sense of its habitat preferences based on my own experience with the MO/AR disjuncts, so after arriving at the refuge I began to look for access to a 2-track leading to higher, unforested ground (reminiscent of the dolomite glades of southwestern Missouri). I quickly found a parking lot with a 2-track leading from it, so I pulled off, geared up, and set out on what I figured was surely a wild goose chase. The track looked good, but no beetles were seen, and after walking about a half-mile I happened to look up and see this not too far ahead:

American bison | Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

Call me chicken, but bison can and will charge without warning. Even though they seemed unconcerned by my presence, I wasn’t with anybody that I knew I could outrun 🙂 and decided that a cautious, tip-toeing retreat would the best course of action (even taking the above photo—uncropped, I might add—made me nervous). What now? I was quickly back at the car and not sure what to do next when I saw a foot path leading into a cedar woods, behind which the land rose up to treeless heights. I decided that might be a good place to explore—as long as I didn’t run into any bison along the way! As I was hiking through the woodland—an open, obviously long ago planted grove of eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)—I passed by a small opening and almost by instinct veered into the opening to have a look. As soon as I stepped into the opening I saw the unmistakable escape flight of two large tiger beetles—what the…?! No doubt about it, they were C. o. vulturina, and they had been hanging out by a fairly fresh bovid chip (bison or cow, I don’t know). (I have seen this behavior also with the MO/AR disjuncts.) I watched them land and decided which one I would try to photograph. I guess I picked right, because the following photo was among the first few that I got:

Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina (prairie tiger beetle) | Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

Despite the jet-black dorsal surface (which contrasts with the green to greenish-black to bronzy dorsal surface of the MO/AR disjuncts), these were colorful beetles with gorgeous metallic blue genae (cheeks) and intense violaceous tibia (lower legs). This first individual was quite cooperative (usually it’s the tenth or more beetle that I try to photograph that actually allows me to do so), so I spent a bit of time trying to coax it back to the bovid chip from which it flew. Eventually I succeeded in this and took a few more photos, the following of which I liked the best:

Shade seeking next to a bovid chip.

I’m still a bit puzzled about the habitat in which I found these beetles. I would have considered it an anomaly had I not seen two beetles at the same time and then subsequently seen a mating pair in almost the exact same spot. Prairie tiger beetles are known for their preference of open grassland habitats rather than woodlands, and indeed I saw more individuals back along the 2-track that I had abandoned earlier (once I got the courage to stray down it again later in the day). The photo below shows almost the entirety of the opening where I found the beetles, with the bovid chip located on the ground in the lower center of the photo:

An unusually wooded habitat for Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina.

Seeing these two individuals in the small woodland opening gave me greater optimism that I would be able to find more on the grassy higher slopes above the cedar grove. I crossed the creek and climbed to the top of the first ridge, passing through what seemed to be ideal habitat for the beetle but seeing none. Although igneous in origin, the rocky landscape reminded me very much of the dolomite glades that lace through the White River Hills of southwestern Missouri and that harbour robust populations of this beetle (but occurring nowhere else in the state).

Rocky grasslands extend towards Mt. Scott.

After posting one of these landscape photos on my Facebook page, I got a comment from Thomas Shahan saying he had been to the area recently and seen a “dark Cicindela” atop nearby Elk Mountain. Low and behold, the beetle in the photo that he included was none other than this subspecies, so at least now I know they do occur in this more expected habitat despite my not having seen them on this day.

Failing to find the beetle on higher ground, and wanting to try for even closer photographs, I returned to “the opening” and immediately found another individual to photograph. A female, she may (or may not) have been the partner to the male I photographed earlier, but at any rate she was not nearly as cooperative. I chased her back and forth through the opening for about a half-hour before I finally got close enough to get a shot (my use of tube extensions required that I get even closer than before). As typically happens, however, she gradually became more and more accustomed to my presence, and eventually I was able to get a few photos with the beetle in fairly relaxed, candid poses. The following are my favorites:

A less trusting individual relunctantly allows herself to be photographed.

She looks angry, but in reality I caught her mandibles half open in the midst of chewing movements.

After photographing these individuals, I returned to the car and decided to wander (tentatively) down the 2-track that I had to abandon earlier in the day. This time I fouund the beetles easily, seeing perhaps half a dozen individuals in just the first quarter-mile. My wanderings, however, were once again cut short when I came around a tree bank and saw those same two bison, much closer to the road this time. I really wanted to get a better photograph than the one above, but common sense at first prevented me from getting any closer. I studied the two magnificent behemoths looking for any sign of annoyance, and seeing none I began to creep ever so tiny a bit closer. Eventually my heart rose too high in my throat to approach any closer, and I snapped the following photo and began a hasty, horse-eyed retreat—not even knowing for sure if the shot was good but feeling a little too proud of myself and my stupidity courage!

A little too close for comfort!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Revisiting the Swift Tiger Beetle – Part 1

Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens with 68mm extension on a Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power through diffuser caps

Photo 1 - Cylindera celeripes at Alabaster Caverns State Park in northwestern Oklahoma.

When my hymenopterist friend, Mike Arduser, came back from his first trip to Oklahoma’s Four Canyon Preserve last September, my first thought upon seeing his photos of the area was, “Ooh, that looks like a good place for tiger beetles!” Its rugged red clay and gypsum exposures reminded me of similar country I had seen in the not-too-distant Gypsum Hills of south-central Kansas, where I was fortunate enough to observe a nice population of the fantastically beautiful Cicindela pulchra (beautiful tiger beetle) back in 2005. When I later realized that the area was only 30 miles southwest of a confirmed recent sighting of Cicindela celeripes (swift tiger beetle, now Cylindera celeripes), I thought, “Ooh, I wonder if celeripes might occur there also.”

Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens with 68mm extension tube on a Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power through diffuser caps

Photo 2 - Cylindera celeripes on lichen-encrusted clay soil at Alabaster Caverns State Park.

Recall that C. celeripes is one of North America’s rarest and least understood tiger beetles. This tiny, flightless, ant-like species has been recorded historically from eastern Nebraska south to north-central Texas, but its range appears to have become highly restricted over the past century. It hasn’t been seen in Nebraska for nearly 100 years now, and most recent records have come from its last known stronghold in the Flint Hills of Kansas. In 2003, however, a photographer by the name of Charles Schurch Lewallen posted on BugGuide a photograph of this species taken at Alabaster Caverns State Park in northwestern Oklahoma, and last year small numbers of adults were seen in the Loess Hills of western Iowa. This last sighting triggered an immediate trip to the site by myself and Chris Brown, who has been co-investigating the tiger beetle fauna of Missouri with me for several years now. The occurrence of this species in Iowa’s Loess Hills had reignited our hopes – faint as they were – that the beetle might yet occur in extreme northwestern Missouri, where the Loess Hills reach their southern terminus. We wanted to see the beetle in the wild to better understand its habitat requirements before resuming our search for this species in northwestern Missouri. We succeeded in finding the beetle – an amazing experience in itself – and brought three adults of this never-before-reared species back to the lab for photographs and an attempt at rearing. We did manage to obtain viable eggs, but we were not successful in rearing the larvae beyond first instar. I wrote about that experience last August in a post entitled, “The hunt for Cicindela celeripes” (that post is now currently in press as an article in the journal CICINDELA).

Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens with 68mm extension tube on a Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/11, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power through diffuser caps

Photo 3 - Cylindera celeripes on gypsum exposure at Alabaster Caverns State Park.

Thus, when my friend Mike asked me earlier this year if I might be interested in joining him on his return trip to Four Canyon Preserve in June, I jumped at the chance. I figured I could look for celeripes at the preserve, and if I failed to find it there then I would go to Alabaster Caverns and see if I could relocate the beetle where it had been photographed in 2003. My goals were modest – I simply wanted to find the beetle and voucher its current presence in northwestern Oklahoma (and if possible photograph it in the field with my new camera!). Before leaving, I wrote to Charles Lewallen, who graciously responded with details regarding the precise location and time of day that he had seen the beetle at Alabaster Caverns, and on the first Friday of June I followed behind Mike and his lovely wife Jane during our ten-hour drive out to Four Canyon Preserve. For three days, I roamed the mixed-grass prairie atop the narrow ridges and dry woodland on the steep, rugged canyon slopes of the preserve – always on the lookout for that telltale “flash” between the clumps of bluestem and grama, ever hopeful that one would prove not to be the ant or spider that it appeared to be (and, indeed, always was). Many tiger beetles would be seen – chiefly the annoyingly ubiquitous Cicindela punctulata (punctured tiger beetle), but celeripes would not be among them. Whether this is due to historical absence from the site or a more recent consequence of the wildfires that swept the area a year earlier is hard to say, but its absence at Four Canyon meant that I would need to make a quick, 1-day detour to Alabaster Caverns before rejoining Mike and Jane at Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma, where we planned to spend the second half of the week.

Photo details: Canon 65mm 1-5X macro lens on a Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power through diffuser caps

Photo 4 - Cylindera celeripes on gypsum exposure at Alabaster Caverns State Park.

Arriving at Alabaster Caverns I was filled with nervous, excited anticipation. Would I find the species, as Charles Lewallen had, or would I get skunked? I kitted up and started walking towards the area where Charles wrote that he had seen the beetle, noting the annoying “Removal of plants and animals prohibited” sign along the way. I hadn’t taken ten steps off the parking lot when I saw it! I froze at first, hardly believing that I had found it that quickly, then started watching the tiny beetle as it bolted urgently from one grass clump to the next. Recalling my experience with this beetle in Iowa (and fearing I would lose it amongst the vegetation), I captured the specimen and placed it live in a vial – I would talk to the park staff later about taking the beetle, but for now I needed to guarantee I had a backup for the lab in case I was unable to get field photographs of the beetle. I started walking again, and within a few minutes I saw another one – okay, they’re here in numbers. I carefully took off my camera bag and assembled the components, all the while keeping my eye on the beetle, and then I began trying to do what last year had seemed impossible – getting field photographs. It was easier this time – the vegetation was not so dense, so I could keep an eye on the beetle as he darted from one clump to another. I tried to wait until he settled in an open spot, but it soon became apparent that just wasn’t gonna happen without a “helping” hand. I started blocking the path of the beetle as he tried to dart away and then removing my hand to see if he would stay put. There were a few false starts, where the beetle looked like he would sit still and then dart just as I was set to take the shot, but eventually it wore down and started sitting still long enough for me to shoot a few frames. Torn between the need to get as many photographs as possible and the desire to look for more beetles, I decided to look around more to see how common the beetle was. As I walked out into the shortgrass prairie above the canyons, I began to see adults quite commonly. Most often they were seen as they bolted out into the open from a clump of vegetation when disturbed by my approach. The substrate was red clay and gypsum – just as I had seen in Four Canyon Preserve, but unlike that area the clay exposures were heavily colonized by a mottling of green, blue, and gray lichens. It made the beetles almost impossible to see when they were not moving – even at close range! I spent about an hour taking photographs of several individuals, even managing to photograph one that appeared to be parasitized by what I take to be a dryinid hymenopteran.

Photo 5 - Cylindera celeripes with parasite (dryinid hymenopteran?).  Note also the ant head attached to right antenna.

Photo 5: Cylindera celeripes with parasite (dryinid hymenopteran?). Note also the ant head attached to right antenna.

After getting a sufficient series of photographs (is there really such thing?), I went to the park office hoping to convey the significance of this find to the Park Naturalist and to convince him/her to let me take some live individuals with me for another attempt at rearing. The Park Naturalist was out of the office, but the Park Historian was there. I could hardly contain my excitement as I explained to her what I had found, why it was so important, and my hope to try to rear the species with adults collected in the field. She not only responded as positively as I had hoped, but accompanied back out into the field so that I could show her the beetles. She told me it would be no problem to take some live individuals for rearing and to please let them know if there was anything else they could do to help me.  She then provided me with the day’s natural history “dessert” by pointing out a Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) – Oklahoma’s state flying mammal – roosting up in the top of a nearby picnic shelter. Standing atop the picnic table put me within arm’s length of the little chiropteran – close enough to see his tiny little eyes looking quizzically back at me.

Photo 6 - Cylindera celeripes macrohabitat, Alabaster Caverns State Park, Oklahoma.  Note rather widely spaced clumps of vegetation (photo details: Canon 17-85mm zoom lens (17mm) on a Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/64 sec, f/8).

Photo 6 - Cylindera celeripes macrohabitat at Alabaster Caverns State Park. Note rather widely spaced clumps of vegetation.

It had begun sprinkling rain by then, so with some urgency I got my tools, extracted a couple of chunks of native soil and transferred them to the small “Critter Totes” that I had brought for the purpose, and began searching for live individuals to place within them. The beetles had become scarce as the drizzle turned to light rain, and by the time I had split about a dozen individuals between the two containers the rain was coming down hard enough to start puddling. I continued a last ditch effort to find “just one more,” but a lightning strike within a mile of the park put an end to that – the air now felt electric as I hurriedly walked back to the car (gloating unabashedly inside) and began the three-hour drive towards Tallgrass Prairie Preserve… (to be continued).

IMG_0580_1200x800

Photo 7 - Cylindera celeripes microhabitat at Alabaster Caverns State Park. Note thick encrustation of lichens on clay substrate amidst white gypsum exposures.

Photo details:
#1-3, 5: Canon 100mm macro lens w/ 68mm extension on Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13 (photo 3, f/11), MT-24EX flash 1/4 power through diffuser caps.
#4: Same except Canon 65mm 1-5X macro lens, flash 1/8 power.
#6: Same except Canon 17-85mm zoom lens (17mm), 1/64 sec, f/8, natural light.
#7: Same except Canon 17-85mm zoom lens (35mm), 1/100 sec, f/7, natural light.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Glades of Jefferson County

We stood a moment to contemplate the sublime and beautiful scene before us, which was such an assembly of rocks and water—of hill and valley—of verdant woods and naked peaks—of native fertility and barren magnificence… – Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, 1818-1819

In the Ozark Border south of St. Louis, a series of natural openings punctuate the dry, rocky forests of Jefferson County. Commonly called “glades” or “cedar glades,” these islands of prairie in a sea of forest are home to plants and animals more commonly associated with the Great Plains region further to the west. Extending in a narrow arc from central Jefferson County east and south into northern Ste. Genevieve County, these glades occur most commonly on south and southwest-facing slopes below forested ridges and are characterized by thin soils and exposed dolomite bedrock of Ordovician age. Glades are, in fact, a common natural feature throughout much of the Ozark Highlands, an extraordinary plateau where the great eastern deciduous forest begins to yield to the western grasslands. A much more extensive system of dolomite glades occurs in the White River Hills of southwest Missouri, where they often extend up steep slopes and over the tops of knobs to form what Schoolcraft called “naked peaks” and are now called “balds” (and spawning the “Baldknobbers” of Branson fame). Additional glade complexes occur throughout the Ozark Highlands on different rock substrates – igneous glades abound in the St. Francois Mountains, sandstone glades dot the Lamotte landscape in Ste. Genevieve County and the northern and western Ozarks, limestone glades can be found in the northern Ozarks near Danville and Lake of the Ozarks, and chert glades occur in extreme southwest Missouri. These different glade systems share a common feature – shallow soils where tree establishment is limited due to summer moisture stress. They differ vegetationally, however, due to differences in hydrology and soil chemistry as a result of their different substrates. Floristically, dolomite glades exhibit a high degree of diversity relative to other glade types.

The term “glade” is derived from the Old English “glad,” meaning a shining place – perhaps the early settlers found their open landscapes a welcome respite after emerging from the confining vastness of the eastern deciduous forest. Whatever the meaning, the glades of Jefferson County hold a special place in my heart, for I “grew up,” entomologically speaking, in those glades. As a young entomologist, fresh out of school, I spent many a day scrambling through the glades and surrounding woodlands. It was here where my interest in beetles, especially woodboring beetles, was born and later grew into a passion. For eight years I visited these glades often – attracted by the extraordinary diversity of insects living within the glades and congregating around its edges. My earliest buprestid and cerambycid papers contain numerous records from “Victoria Glades” and “Valley View Glades” – the two best-preserved examples of the glades that once occurred extensively throughout the area (more on this later). My visits to these glades ended in 1990 when I moved to California, and although I moved back to the St. Louis area in 1995, the focus of my beetle research has more often taken me to places outside of Missouri. It had, in fact, been some 10 years since my last visit to these glades until last week, when I was able to once again spend some time in them.

Ozark glades differ from the true cedar glades of the southeastern U.S. in that they are not a climax habitat – they depend upon periodic fires to prevent succession to forest. Some recent authors have suggested the term “xeric dolomite/limestone prairie” be used to distinguish the fire-dependent glades of the Ozarks from the edaphic climax cedar glades of the southeast (Baskin & Baskin 2000, Baskin et al. 2007). Fires have been largely suppressed throughout Missouri since European settlement, leading to encroachment upon the glades by eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Pure stands of red-cedar have developed on many former glades, crowding out the herbaceous plants that depend upon full sun and leading to soil formation that supports further encroachment by additional woody plant species such as post oak (Quercus stellata), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), and fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) from the surrounding woodlands. Fire has returned to many of the Ozark glades situated on lands owned or managed by state and federal agencies such as the Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and U.S. Forest Service, as well as private conservation-minded organizations such as The Nature Conservancy. These agencies have begun adopting cedar removal and fire management techniques to bring back the pre-settlement look and diversity of the Ozark Glades. This is particularly true at Victoria Glades and Valley View Glades, the two largest and most pristine examples of the Jefferson County dolomite glade complex. Fires have been used to kill small red-cedars in the glades, as well as rejuvenate their herbaceous plant communities. Larger red-cedar trees are not killed outright by fire and must be removed by chainsaws. This above distant view of the TNC parcel at Victoria Glades shows many such burned red-cedars. The glades themselves are not the only habitat to benefit from this aggressive management – when I was doing my fieldwork here in the 1980’s the surrounding woodlands were a closed post oak forest bordered by fragrant sumac and with little or no understory in the interior. The photo at right now shows an open savanna with a rich understory of not only sumac and other shrubs, but also many herbaceous plants as well such as black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and American feverfew (Parthenium integrifolium). Such open woodland more closely resembles what Schoolcraft saw across much of the Ozarks during his journey almost two centuries ago.

Victoria and Valley View Glades are dominated by little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). A smaller but highly charismatic non-grass flora is also found on the glades – species such as Missouri evening primrose (Oenethera macrocarpa) (left), pale purple coneflower (Echinacea simulata) (pictured above and below), and prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) not only add beautiful color but also support both vertebrate and invertebrate wildlife. The Fremont’s leather flower (Clematis fremontii) is a true endemic, occurring only in this part of Missouri and entirely dependent upon these glades for its survival. Less well studied is the vast insect fauna associated with the glades. It is here where I first discovered the occurrence of Acmaeodera neglecta in Missouri. This small jewel beetle is similar to the broadly occurring A. tubulus but at the time was known only from Texas and surrounding states. In collecting what I thought were adults of A. tubulus on various flowers in the glades, I noticed that some of them were less shining, more strongly punctate, and exhibited elytral patterning that was often coalesced into longitudinal “C-shaped” markings rather than the scattered small spots typical of A. tubulus. These proved to be A. neglecta, which I have since found on many glade habitats throughout the Ozark Highlands. Both species can be seen in this photo feeding on a flower of hairy wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) – the lower individual is A. neglecta, while the upper individual and two inside the flower are A. tubulus. Another interesting insect-plant association I discovered at these glades was the strikingly beautiful Dicerca pugionata – another species of jewel beetle – and its host plant ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius). Only a single Missouri occurrence had been reported for D. pugionata, despite the common occurrence of its host plant along rocky streams and rivers throughout the Ozark Highlands. This plant also grows at Victoria and Valley View Glades along the intermittent streams that drain the glades and in the moist toeslopes along the lower edges of the glades where water that has percolated through the rocks and down the slopes is forced to the surface by an impermeable layer of bedrock. Unlike the tall, robust, lush plants that can be found in more optimal streamside habitats with good moisture availability, the ninebark plants of Victoria and Valley View Glades are small and scraggly, usually with some dieback that results from suboptimal growing conditions. I surmise these plants have reduced capabilities for fending off attacks by insects, including D. pugionata, and as a result a healthy population of the insect thrives at these glades. Some might be inclined to call this beetle a pest, threatening the health of one of the glade’s plants. In reality, the insect finds refuge in these glades – unable to effectively colonize the vast reserves of healthy plants that grow along streams throughout the rest of the Ozarks, it strikes a tenuous balance with plants that are themselves on the edge of survival.

Despite the success in moving Victoria and Valley View Glades closer to their pre-settlement character, the integrity of these areas continues to be challenged. Poachers take anything of real or perceived value, and ATV enthusiasts view the open spaces as nothing more than tarmac. Pale purple coneflower occurs abundantly on these Jefferson County glades (but sparingly in other habitats – primarily rocky roadsides), where they provide a stunning floral display during June and sustain innumerable insect pollinators. Plants in the genus Echinacea also have perceived medicinal value, as herbalists believe their roots contain an effective blood purifier and antibiotic. There are no conclusive human clinical trials to date that fully substantiate this purported immune stimulating effect (McKeown 1999). Nevertheless, demand for herbal use has skyrocketed in recent decades, prompting widespread illegal harvesting of several coneflower species throughout their collective range across the Great Plains and Ozark Highlands. I witnessed massive removals of this plant from both Victoria and Valley View Glades during the 1980’s, but the pictures I took this year suggest that such illegal harvests have been suppressed and that the populations at both sites are recovering nicely.

The same cannot be said for the practice of rock flipping. This was a problem I witnessed back in the 1980’s, and I saw fresh evidence of its continued occurrence at both sites. The thin soils and sloping terrain leave successive layers of dolomite bedrock exposed, the edges of which shatter from repeated freeze-thaw cycles to create rows of loose, flat rocks along the bedrock strata. Lizards, snakes, tarantulas, and scorpions find refuge under these loose rocks, only to be ripped from their homes by flippers and transferred to a dark, cold terrarium to endure a slow, lingering death. As if poaching the glade’s fauna and watching them slowly die isn’t bad enough, the flippers add insult to injury by not even bothering to replace the rock in its original position after stealing its inhabitant, amounting to habitat destruction three times greater than the area of the rock itself. Firstly, the habitat under the rock is destroyed by sudden exposure of the diverse and formerly sheltered microfauna to deadly sunlight. Next, the habitat onto which the rock is flipped is also destroyed, as the plants growing there begin a slow, smothering death. Lastly, the upper surface of the rock, sometimes colonized by mosses and lichens that might have required decades or longer to grow, usually ends up against the ground – its white, sterile underside becoming the new upper surface. Rock flipper scars take years to heal, and nearly all of the flat, loose rocks seen in the more accessible areas of the glades exhibit scars of varying ages next to them. If a scar is fresh (first photo), I generally return to the rock to its original position – the former inhabitants cannot be brought back, but at least the original habitats are saved and can recover quickly. However, if a scar is too old (2nd photo) it is best to leave the rock in its new position – replacing it only prolongs the time required for recovery.

Even more damaging is ATV use. Herbaceous plants and thin soils are no match for the aggressive tread of ATV tires, and it doesn’t take too many passes over an area before the delicate plants are killed and loose soils ripped apart. I witnessed this become a big problem particularly on Victoria Glades during the 1980’s – actually finding myself once in a face-to-face confrontation with an ATV’er. Fortunately, he turned tail and ran, and it appears (for now) that such abuses have stopped, as I saw no evidence of more recent tracks during this visit. But the scars of those tracks laid down more than two decades ago still remain painfully visible. I expect several more decades will pass before they are healed completely.

My return to Victoria and Valley View Glades was a homecoming of sorts, and I was genuinely pleased to see the progress that has been made in managing these areas while revisiting the sites where my love affair with beetles was first kindled. Sadly, however, the larger glade complex of Jefferson County continues to deteriorate. Restoration acreage aside, red-cedar encroachment continues unabated on many of the remaining glade parcels – large and small – that dot the south and southwest facing slopes in this area. It has been conservatively estimated that as much as 70% of the original high quality glades in Missouri are now covered in red-cedar. Many of these are privately held – their owners either do not recognize their ecological significance or are loathe to set fire to them. An example can be seen in the picture here – this small parcel is part of the Victoria Glades complex but lies on private land in red-cedar choked contrast to the Nature Conservancy parcel immediately to the south. Small numbers of herbaceous plants persist here, but without intervention by fire or chainsaw their numbers will continue to dwindle and the glade will die. Aside from the loss of these glades, the continuing reduction of glade habitat complicates management options for preserved glades as well. Many glade associated invertebrates are “fire-sensitive” – i.e., they overwinter in the duff and leaf litter above the soil and are thus vulnerable to spring or fall fires. While these fires are profoundly useful for invigorating the herbaceous flora, they can lead to local extirpation of fire-sensitive invertebrate species within the burn area. Recolonization normally occurs quickly from unburned glades in proximity to the burned areas but can be hampered if source habitat exists as small, highly-fragmented remnants separated by extensive tracts of hostile environment. Grazing also continues to threaten existing remnants in the Jefferson County complex. Grazing rates are higher now than ever before, with greater negative impact due to the use of fencing that prevents grazers from moving to “greener pastures”. Over-grazing eliminates native vegetation through constant depletion of nutrient reserves and disturbance of the delicate soil structure, leading to invasion and establishment of undesirable plant species. Eventually, the glade becomes unproductive for pasture and is abandoned – coupled with fire suppression this leads to rapid woody encroachment. It is truly depressing to drive through Jefferson County and recognize these cedar-choked glades for what they were, able to do nothing but watch in dismay as yet another aspect of Missouri’s natural heritage gradually disappears. The continued loss of these remnant glades makes careful use of fire management on Victoria and Valley View Glades all the more critical – ensuring that a patchwork of unburned, lightly burned, and more heavily burned areas exists at a given time will be critical for preventing invertebrate extirpations within these managed areas.

I close by sharing with you a few more of the many photographs I took during this visit – stiff tickseed (Coreopsis palmata), three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis), climbing milkweed (Matelea decipiens – see the excellent post about this plant on Ozark Highlands of Missouri), downy phlox (Phlox pilosa), green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), and a “deerly” departed native browser.

Lake Tahoe, California

…at last the Lake burst upon us — a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still! It was a vast oval, and one would have to use up eighty or a hundred good miles in traveling around it. As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords. – Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872)


Mark Twain may not have liked the name “Lake Tahoe” – preferring its then-official, patronimic designation as “Lake Bigler.” However, he was clearly overwhelmed by its beauty, and surely no person who has ever seen this place can find fault with the words he so eloquently penned almost a century and a half ago. The view above of Emerald Bay, on the south side of the lake, may not be where Twain first viewed Lake Tahoe, but for me it is the most iconic place from which to view it. I first fell in love with Lake Tahoe almost 18 years ago, when my then fiancée and I first moved to Sacramento. We married up there, and for the 5 years we lived in California we spent many a weekend enjoying Tahoe’s 4-season charm. It has been 12 years since we moved back to St. Louis, and I hadn’t been back — until this past weekend. The reasons for the delay are many, but returning to this place reminded me why I consider it the most beautiful place in the world. I shall not let so long a time pass before my next visit.

Lake Tahoe is a relatively young lake, forming within the last several million years (in contrast, the block of granite that was to become the Sierra Nevada mountains – and in which Lake Tahoe lies – began forming during the Paleozoic Era and was then exposed by erosion beginning about 130 million years ago). The basin in which the lake lies was formed by fault-induced block slippage between two uplifted blocks, with the lake itself forming after magma upwellings dammed the northern part of the basin. Glacial action in more recent years (2 million to 20,000 years ago) caused additional damming, causing drastic fluctuations in the lake level — maximum levels reached nearly 800 feet higher than present. The most recent glaciations (~10,000 years ago) carved out Donner Lake (just east of Lake Tahoe), Emerald Bay (above), and nearby Fallen Leaf Lake (below — the frozen lake surface can just be seen above the trees in the foreground).


Emerald Bay is actually part of a glacial “staircase” featuring intermittent flat stretches containing lakes and meadows before ultimately ending at Emerald Bay. Eagle Lake lies immediately above Emerald Bay on one of these “steps,” and the 1-mile trail to it is one of the most popular hikes in the area — below is a view towards Eagle Lake from Emerald Bay:


On the day we arrived (Sat 3/15), a late winter storm was dumping new snow on the surrounding mountains, as seen in this view across the south end of the lake towards the city of South Lake Tahoe. Heavenly Ski Resort was shrouded from view on this day, but the fresh powder being dumped there would provide for some delightful spring skiing over the next few days.


In the meantime, there would be plenty of activities to keep ourselves occupied. With the amount of snow on the ground, one might think there would be little opportunity for botanizing. However, I favor the woody flora, and I was excited about the chance to begin reacquainting myself with some of the western conifers for a change. Of these, one of my favorites is incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) — mature trees develop thick, deeply furrowed, brick red bark that stands out in beautiful contrast from the other trees. Even dead trees maintain a rustic and majestic beauty, and this large dead snag is as stately as any I’ve seen:


On Monday we rented snowshoes and hiked the cross-country ski trails at Camp Richardson. None of us had ever snowshoed before, but the girls quickly got the hang of it (note the live incense-cedar in the background):


We encountered a few cross-country skiers during our hike, but for the most part we spent the day in solitude. Shortly after beginning our hike, however, we came upon this impression in the snow. At first we thought someone had attempted to make a “snow angel,” but after studying it more carefully we realized it was made by a cross-country skier who had fallen and then struggled to get back up:


At this altitude, conifers dominate the flora. I was a little rusty on my knowledge of western U.S. plants, but I think I have things figured out (please let me know if you see any needed corrections to my identifications). The aforementioned incense-cedar was a conspicuous component of this lake-level forest, and its foliage – arranged in flattened, elongated, rumpled sprays – makes this tree easily identifiable amongst the other coniferous genera with which it grows:


Huge pine trees also dominanted the forest in this area. At first I thought they were ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa) due to their large size, irregular crown, and large plate-like patterns on the trunk caused by deep cross-checked fissuring of the bark. Eventually, however, I decided they must instead be Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi), a closely related species (that was once considered a variety of ponderosa pine), since the bark was more orange than yellow.


A closeup of the needles, which are in bundles of three and measure around 6-8 inches in length:


Another dominant coniferous component of this forest, also reaching massive size, was white fir (Abies concolor). The first photo below shows a large, mature tree in the distance, while the second shows a closeup of the foliage. At first I thought this might be Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), as the needles appeared to be irregularly 2-ranked; however, I asked Prof. Ronald Lanner to take a look, and he confirmed it is white fir. He said Douglas-fir needles are shorter, thinner, darker green, and have a skinny stalk, while fir needles have a fat round base and are wider and flatter. The latter also have a citrusy smell when crushed, which he describes as one of the best smells in the woods! Too bad I did not try it.



This decaying stump also represents white fir based on the scaly gray bark. I suspect the outer layers of the lower portion of the trunk (core still standing) were ripped off over time by animals looking for grubs and insects as decay progressed, eventually weakening it to the point that the upper portion (laying on the ground) finally broke off and fell:


As we hiked, I realized what an important part fire plays in the ecology of these forests. During the drive up from Sacramento, we passed several areas along Hwy 50 that had suffered severe damage due to the wildfires that swept through Lake Tahoe recently. One such area was even seen in the far eastern slopes of Heavenly Ski Resort itself. The forests around Camp Richardson had largely escaped these fires, and I wondered if fire management had contributed to this. Along the trail, evidence of fire was common on the trunks of trees, but few trees – even small ones – had been killed. I presumed the charring was evidence of fires that had been intentionally set and managed by the Forest Service with the objective of preventing fuel accumulation that could lead to the larger conflagrations that caused so much damage in other parts of the basin. These small incense-cedars trunks show obvious fire charring but otherwise looked healthy:


In a few areas it appears even these “cool” fires burned a little hot, killing some of the smaller trees but still avoiding the “torched-earth” damage seen in areas affected by uncontrolled burns:


I’m not much of a birder, but I do love woodpeckers. I got a glimpse of one during our hike, but I didn’t see it well enough to identify it. We did find this woodpecker hole in the trunk of a large, dead Jeffrey pine — a feather can even be seen clinging to the upper rim of the hole. The Lake Tahoe basin is home to several species of woodpeckers — whether this hole belongs to the black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus), white-headed woodpecker (P. albolarvatus), or (more likely) hairy woodpecker (P. villosus) I can’t say for sure:


At the beginning of our hike, signs warning of bears and pleading not to feed them caught the girls attention. I told them it was winter and that they would be hibernating, but I wondered if at this late stage they might actually be starting to become active. It wasn’t long before we encountered these unmistakably bear tracks, made fresh in the new-fallen snow, and the more we looked the more abundant the tracks were to be found. I secretly (and the girls outwardly!) hoped we would see a live bear, but I don’t think the girls would have handled such an encounter very calmly:


I had intended to photograph some of the conifers seen at higher elevations while skiing at Heavenly Ski Resort, but I decided not to bring my camera. Pity, as I not only saw nearly pure stands of what I presume to be red fir (Abies magnifica), but also beautifully twisted and wind-gnarled pines at the highest elevations (+10,000 ft) that probably represent whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), judging by their highly forked trunks and upswept limbs. These magically grotesque trees were made even more beautiful by the previous day’s storms, which had deposited thick cakes of ice on their windward sides.

We coudn’t leave Lake Tahoe without one final visit to Emerald Bay. Below is a close up photograph of Fannette Island, the only island to be found in all of Lake Tahoe, and its famed “Tea House”:


We concluded our visit to Lake Tahoe by driving up Hwy 89 to Tahoe City for dinner at the Bridgetender Cafe before heading back to Sacramento. Next up — Muir Woods!

Ozark Trail – lower Courtois Section

The Courtois Section is the northern terminus of the Ozark Trail (OT). Despite its proximity to the St. Louis metro area, it feels just as remote and wild as the more southern sections. Rich and I played hooky from work on Friday and made our first visit to this stretch of the Ozark Trail. At 40 miles in length, we’ll need to break it up into at least three parts, so for our first attempt we hiked the lower portion from Hazel Creek (where the Trace Creek section begins) north to the Hwy 8 trailhead. Apparently this portion of the OT is very popular with mountain bikers and equestrians; however, we didn’t encounter a single person all day.

I expected the terrain to be rather mild at this northern end of the OT, but the first few miles were quite up and down. There was still some snow on the ground from a big storm a few days earlier – mild temps and sunny skies since then had caused a lot of melt. As a result, south facing slopes were completely devoid of snow cover, while north facing slopes still had and inch or two of snow, creating “split” scenes such as this:


Right away we noticed a lot of fresh woodpecker damage on oak trees. This is likely the result of infestations by the red oak borer (Enaphalodes rufulus), a cerambycid beetle that preferentially attacks red and black oaks suffering from drought or other environmentally-induced stress. The larvae of these beetles mine beneath the bark on the trunks of these trees before tunneling into the sapwood to pass the winter. Overwintering larvae are tasty morsels for woodpeckers, who hammer into the trunks with their beaks and extract the larvae with their barbed tongues. Interestingly, conventional wisdom has it that the tongue “stabs” the larva, and the barbs aid in pulling the larva out of its gallery. However, recent experiments with a West Indian species suggest this is not the case. Rather, the larva “sticks” to saliva on the tongue, and the barbs help to grab the larva as the tongue is wrapped around it. This picture shows a small black oak (Quercus velutinus) tree with fresh damage, probably from a pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) judging by the size, going after one of these larvae.


A few miles into the trail, we came upon some curious “pits” covering one hillside. We speculated what they might be – sinks was an early thought, but I didn’t think that was so because the ground was mounded around the edge like they had been intentionally dug. Rich then remembered reading something about miners digging such pits in past years looking for minerals – we decided that must be what they were, and this was later confirmed in our Ozark Trail guidebook. Certain hillsides were literally covered with these pits, spaced ~10-15 feet apart.

After passing through Snapps Branch (where we noticed a small calcareous wet meadow, or fen – thankfully fenced), the trail leveled out for awhile before descending down to Boiling Springs Hollow where we stopped for lunch. Many of the larger valleys along the OT show some evidence of prior habitation – either by remains of old structures or by the stage of succession exhibited by the bottomland forest. Right at Boiling Springs, I noticed this large, old oak tree along with several large sugar maples (Acer saccharum) surrounded by younger forest – I suspect these “founder trees” were planted at some point when people lived near the spring (or at least spared from “the saw”) and remain as the only evidence of the people who lived here in the past.


I love bones and pick them up whenever I get the chance. After leaving Boiling Springs I noticed this half mandible of a white tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) laying on the trail, still partially embedded in the snow. It was remarkably clean and complete, containing all of its dentition and with no remaining tissue except for a small piece attached to the nerve fossa. It’s completeness begged the question – where was the other half? We looked around and couldn’t find it. We then wondered if it had been dragged there by a scavenger, although we thought that if that was the case it should show signs of gnawing or at least have lost some of its dentition. At any rate, I have a white tailed deer cranium in my collection but not a mandible, so this will be a welcome addition.


Eventually we entered Machell Hollow, where we followed a beautiful stretch through the upper reaches of the valley. In this area we noticed a large number of dead white oaks (Quercus alba) that were all about the same size (~4-8″ dbh) and in about the same stage of decay, as if they had all died about the same time (maybe 4-5 years ago). There were still plenty of larger living trees, and I began to suspect that a fire had moved through this area and began looking for the evidence. Soon we found several larger trees showing some blackening around the base of the trunk that seemed to confirm this thought. We had a lot of fun “pushing over” some of these trees, with one in particular probably representing our champion pushover to this point. I didn’t think it was gonna go, but Rich chipped in, and against our formidable combined weight the tree gave way and came down with a crash. I noticed evidence of tunneling by wood boring beetles (probably a species of Buprestidae) inside the trunk of this tree where it cracked upon falling and lamented that I could not take a piece with me for rearing. All of the dead white oaks had this one type of shelf fungus growing from their trunks, which were particularly numerous on this already fallen tree:


Climbing up (briefly) out of Machell Hollow, we saw this cut shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) laying by the side of the trail. Interestingly, the accumulated ice on the cut end of the trunk was not the result of water running off the trunk, but through the trunk, apparently through insect galleries and perhaps even the vascular bundles of the wood itself. The slow melt and freeze resulted in these interesting little ice columns joining the trunk to the moss-covered ground below.


Back down into the lower reaches of Machell Hollow, evidence of prior settlement was obvious, as the bottomland forest in this area was replaced by young successional forest comprised primarily of chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), and brambles (Rubus sp.). We saw this lone little fruticose lichen growing on a small honey locust. Apparently, of the three main groups of lichens, fruticose lichens are the most sensitive to environmental disturbance. Perhaps the existence of this one colony suggests that the health of this bottomland forest is returning as succession proceeds along the path to maturity.


Here’s a picture of Rich taking his own picture of the lichen. I don’t know why he didn’t just wait and steal mine once it got posted 😉


Much more abundant on the honey locust trees were these foliose lichens. Lichens in this group are probably the most commonly noticed lichens in the Missouri Ozarks (although the less conspicuous crustose lichens may actually be more diverse). If you click on the photo to see the full-sized version, you can see long, black “hairs” around the margin of each “leaf” – if anyone knows the identity of this or any of the other lichens pictured on this site please let me know.


While ascending out of Machell Hollow, we noticed this small canyon about a hundred yards off to the left and decided to go investigate. Along the way we noticed the small creek coming from it was actually a ‘losing creek’ – which means that the water flows into the ground at certain points and is ‘lost.’ This is another feature of the limestone/dolomite-based Karst geology so common here in southern Missouri that results in its abundance of caves and springs. When we got to the canyon we saw it was comprised of a layer of sandstone. This must be a rare western exposure of the LaMotte sandstones that are more common just to the east in Ste. Genevieve County (see earlier posts on Hawn State Park and Pickle Springs Natural Area). This sandstone layer overlying dolomite has created an interesting geological feature, where a losing creek originates from a box canyon. Ice stalactites were dripping from the north facing slope of the canyon walls.


Back down into another hollow leading to Lost Creek we saw more dead white oaks with shelf fungi growing from the trunks. This one was interesting in that the shelf fungi were themselves supporting the growth of algae on their surface – an exquisite example of the interconnectedness of life.


We had seen a flock of wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) moving through the forest earlier in our hike. We were too clumsily noisy to get close enough for more than a cursory look at them as they trotted off on high alert, but evidence of their activity was obvious as we saw their fresh “scratchings” over a wide swath through the forest as they searched for acorns to eat. Tracks were abundant in the snow around the area also, but I couldn’t get a good picture of them. Later, as we neared Lost Creek, I saw more tracks in the mud, so I was able to get a good picture of one. It looked fairly fresh (well defined, with nail holes evident):

Lost Creek represented the end of our hike, but it proved to be a more than insigificant final hurdle, as the water level was quite high due to all the recent snow melt. There was no choice, we would have to get wet. Rich is smarter than I and had thought to bring along some flip flops, so he took off his boots and socks, rolled up his pants, and forded the creek. I let him go first to see how deep the water was – it reached above his knees and got is rolled up pants wet. I decided to get my boots wet – I didn’t want to walk on those rocks barefoot, which would slow me down far more than I wanted in that cold water. I could handle wet boots for the final quarter mile in exchange for the comfort and speed they would provide on the rocks. Rich may be smarter, but I took a better line and didn’t even get my pants wet, so for me it was only a matter of changing into my comfy shoes back at the car, with no need for a change of clothes (which I also wasn’t smart enough to bring, either). We completed the hike in 7 hours – yes, we’re lollygaggers, constantly distracted by little things that most people either don’t see or don’t care about. It was a wonderful hike on another beautiful day, and we ended it with another traditional post-hike visit to the nearest pizza parlor before the short drive back to St. Louis.