“62nd” Annual “Season-Opener-Birthday-Bug-Collecting-Trip”

This past Tuesday was my birthday, and as I have done for my entire adult life I took the day off and went on my traditional “Season-Opener-Bug-Collecting-Trip”. In the past I’ve usually just had one friend go with me, but today I had three—Rich, Chris, and Bill!

We started off by heading south about 3½ hours to Tingler Prairie Natural Area in Howell Co.. I wanted to come here because: 1) it was a place I’d never visited before, and 2) there is a population here of the endemic Ozark trillium (Trillium viridescens) that I thought might be in bloom. Rain in the forecast and a patch of the real thing on the way down had us a little worried, but the day turned out spectacular with temps climbing to 80°F and skies partly to mostly sunny.

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Tingler Lake – the centerpiece of Tingler Prairie Natural Area.

We never did find the trillium—even calling another friend (Casey), who had seen them here before to find out exactly where he saw them. Turns out we hit the right spot, but apparently we were too early, especially given how late spring has been moving along this year. Nevertheless, we still found much to capture our interest, including a yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris)—too quick for photos—and a black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) that coiled up nicely under the end of a fallen log and tolerated my prodding and “cleaning” of the scene around him to get some good photos (albeit, only with the iPhone).

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Black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus).

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The “cloudy” eye is actually an artifact of the flash lighting reflected by the retina.

Unfortunately, insect activity was very light. We saw no tiger beetles and only the earliest spring forms of most other insects. I took about 10 specimens each of the early-spring jewel beetles Acmaeodera tubulus and Pachyschelus purpureus, which I found on flowers and foliage (respectively) of wild geranium, Geranium maculatum. It was the first time that I’d found the latter as abundant as this, so the series of specimens will be a welcome addition to my cabinet. I also took a couple of A. tubulus on a flower of violet wood sorrel, Oxalis violacea and showed the others the characteristic end of an oak twig pruned by a twig pruner (Anelaphus parallelus) larvae (and revealed the culprit for them to see). Despite the paucity of insects, it was a beautiful and high-quality spot, and I look forward to collecting here again sometime when the season is more advanced.

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Several adult Acmaeodera tubulus feeding on petals of wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) flowers.

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Twig pruner, Anelaphus parallelus, larva cut from its gallery near the base of a pruned oak twig.

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Revealing the culprit while Chris takes notes on some of the birds he’s been hearing.

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Redspotted purple butterfly, Limnetis arthemis astyanax (family Nymphalidae), caterpillar on black cherry (Prunus serotina), one of its favorite host plants. The caterpillar mimics bird droppings for protection.

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Fire pink, Silene virginica (family Caryophyllaceae) thrives on a dry, cherty hillside.

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Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum (family Berberidaceae) prefers the rich, more mesic hillsides (this is where we expected Trillium viridescens to occur).

After finishing up at Tingler Prairie, we drove east an hour and bushwhacked over rough Forest Service 2-track to Bald Hill Glade Natural Area in Ripley Co. It had been close to 10 years since my previous visit, but I remembered the roads well. We had to park, however, about a mile from the entrance to the glade due to fallen trees across the final stretch 2-track. The landscape had changed considerably since my last visit—gone was the dense, close forest lining the 2-track, and in its place stood open woodland brought to this condition by active management that included the use of prescribed burning apparently as recently as the past season.

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Dwarf iris (Iris cristata).

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These diminutive plants are distinguished from other members of the genus by their short stature and sepals with midline beards.

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Bald Knob Glade Natural Area.

After hoofing through the forest we reached the glade and found a beautiful—if somewhat sterile—scene before us. The recent burn included not only the woodland but also the glade itself, and no unburned refugia could be found anywhere. Floristically, this is beneficial for the glade, which needs periodic fire to prevent woody encroachment, but in my experience such burns also result in severely depressed insect populations for years afterwards. It takes time for the insects to find and recolonize the glade, and in this case the lack of unburned refugia will only increase the amount of time that will be needed for the insect populations to recover.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed our hike through the area, watched and listened to the calls and songs of a number of cool birds, including summer tanagers, indigo buntings, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and—a first for me—the splendidly yellow prairie warbler. We also took photographs of the glade and some of its plants (with the big camera), and on the way back to the car we found several of the Polistes wasp-mimicking light flies, Pyrgota undata (family Pyrgotidae). Interestingly, all were mating pairs, and the ones we observed closely (as we photographed them with the big camera) were engaged in a most curious “French kissing” behavior. I can’t wait to read up more on this when I prepare to post the photos of this behavior.

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Widow’s cross (Sedum pulchellum).

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Me, Rich, Bill, and Chris.

Eventually, impending dusk signaled a close to the day, and after driving east another 1½ hours to have pizza dinner in Poplar Bluff we made the long drive back to St. Louis (arriving at my home at 12:30 a.m.!).

NOTE: All photos in this post were taken and processed with an iPhone X. The “real” photos taken with our “real” cameras will be shared as they become available.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

When hardcore botany meets hardcore nature photography—nature geekery at its finest!

Last Saturday, the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) Nature Photography Group was joined by several members of the WGNSS Botany Group and Missouri Native Plant Society to look for one of Missouri’s rarest plants—Geocarpon minimum, a.k.a. tinytim or earth-fruit (family Caryophyllaceae). This diminutive, federally-threatened and state-endangered plant grows only on sandstone glades, primarily in west-central Missouri with a few populations known also from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. The window for finding this plant is short—it’s entire life cycle lasts only about 4 weeks, with an even shorter window for finding it in flower.

Our first stop to look for them was Bona (pronounced “Bonnie”) Glade Natural Area. I’d been here before, but it was about 10 years ago and at the wrong time to look for this plant (but I did find widowscross, Sedum pulchellum, in bloom). Some of the group had seen it here before and were able to coach us on the microhabitat where we would likely find them, and it didn’t take long before we did. Soon after finding the first plants, we found them in bloom as well—their almost microscopic flowers being the perfect subject for my macro lenses!

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Remnant sandstone glade at Bona Glade Natural Area, Dade Co., Missouri.

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Geocarpon minimum (tinytim or earth-fruit). Note the tiny open flowers just below center. (This is an iPhone photo—I have much better photos with my “big” camera.)

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Claytonia virginica (spring beauty) (family Montiaceae).

After getting plenty of shots of the plant and flowers, we moved to an adjacent plot of land across the highway, where we not only found more tinytim plants but also Corydalis aurea, commonly called golden corydalis (pronounced koor-ID-uh-lyss), in the family Papaveraceae—something I’d never seen before.

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Sedum pulchellum (widowscross) (family Crassulaceae).

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Corydalis aurea (golden corydalis).

Next the group moved on to Corry Branch Glade. It was originally our intent to look for more of the plant at this site, but immediately upon entering the glade we noticed a stunning display of Selenia aurea, or golden selenia. This small, striking species in the mustard family is restricted to just a handful of counties in the west-central part of the state, again primarily glade habitats. It was a surprising and pleasant find that occupied the groups’ attentions for some time before we finally decided to break for lunch (it was well into the afternoon!). While I was there, I not only photographed the plant but started having some success with my new 15-mm wide-angle macro lens, with which I had been experimenting all day (to that point without much success).

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Selenia aurea (golden selenia) (family Brassicaceae).

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Members of WGNSS & MoNPS go hunting for rare plants! Front to back: Ted MacRae (me), John Oliver, Casey & Anh Do Galvan, Steve Turner, Bill Duncan, David Seidensticker, Deb Tyler, Adam Rembert, and James Faupel.

After “lunch” (which was closer to dinner!), a few of us (Bill, David, and I) wanted to go back to Bona Glade to take another crack at photographing tinytim with our wide-angle macro lens. I especially was not satisfied with what I had gotten earlier, that being my first serious attempt at using the lens in the field. Having a better idea now of how to use the lens and what our compositional goals were, we scoured the area looking for just the right plants in just the right situations. I can honestly say I finally got a feel for how to use the lens, the trickiest part of it being how to balance use of flash on the subject with the amount of ambient light from the background (I’m not a stranger to this concept at all, frequently having combined flash with “blue sky” in much of the macrophotography I’ve done up to this point). We photographed several plants on different substrates looking for the right combination of plant, substrate, and background, and we all walked away pretty optimistic that we’d gotten the photos that we wanted.

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Bill Duncan photographing tinytim with his wide-angle macro lens.

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Amelanchier arborea (serviceberry) (family Rosaceae).

My thanks to Casey and Ando Galvan for letting me ride down there with them, to David Seidensticker and Bill Duncan for letting me ride back with them, and for everyone in the group who so generously shared their great, collective knowledge of botany, photography, and natural history. What a fun day!

NOTE: The photos in this post were taken with an iPhone X. The “real” photos, taken with our “real” cameras, will be shared as they become available.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

T.G.I.Flyday—Black horse fly (Tabanus atratus)

In my previous post, I talked about a day trip to a sand scrub remnant in the Lake Wales Ridge of central Florida to find and photograph the endemic Highlands tiger beetle (Cicindelidia highlandensis). Ironically, the dry sand scrub/pine woodland habitats along this ridge are dotted with small lakes and ponds, allowing a rich aquatic flora and fauna to co-exist alongside the xeric specialists. Field mate Chris Brown and I had found and just finished photographing the tiger beetles when we encountered this rather largish lake—bright, white sand surrounding crisp, clear water reflecting white, puffy clouds in a deep, blue sky. ‘Twas a spectacular sight, indeed!

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Sand scrub remnant, Lake Wales Ridge, central Florida

As we stood looking at the scenery, I noticed something black on the stem of one of the sedges growing along the water’s edge. Something big and black! As I moved closer I could tell quickly that it was a large horse fly, but it was not simply perched and resting on the sedge—there was something else going on. Moving closer, ever so cautiously so as not to disturb the fly, I eventually realized that it was a female in the act of oviposition. How cool—I’d never witnessed this before with any species of horse fly, so to see it with such a large species was a real treat. I recognized it instantly as Tabanus atratus—commonly called the black horse fly and recognizable as such by its large size, all-black coloration, and distinctively hooked antennae (see 3rd photo below).

Tabanus atratus ovipositing

A Tabanus atratus female oviposits on a stem overhanging the water.

Before we get to the eggs, let’s dispel some misinformation that seems to persist regarding the size of this species (as it does with almost any large insect). Black horse flies are undeniably large, and in fact they are one of the largest horse flies in North America. The more credible sources (e.g., Pechuman et al. 1983, Long 2001) cite body length as ranging from 20–25 mm (up to a full inch in length). Incredibly, the species does not take the honors as North America’s largest horse fly, which goes instead to Tabanus americanus and it’s upper limit of 30 mm (in fact, T. americanus may be the world’s largest horse fly)! There are, however, on-line sources and a few popular field guides (as cited in BugGuide) that state a maximum length of 28 mm for T. atratus. How credible this figure is I cannot say, but I guarantee that the size indications of 30, 40, and even a whopping 50 mm in length found routinely among photos of this species on BugGuide were not derived from careful measurement and almost certainly instead reflect the astonished reactions that such an abnormally large insect can generate! In fact, there are precious few insects in North America that reach lengths as grand as 50 mm (i.e., two full inches)!

Tabanus atratus ovipositing

Lateral view of oviposition.

We approached carefully, again so as not to disturb the female in the middle of her act, and we watched and photographed as she laid the individual eggs one by one, using the tip of her abdomen to carefully arrange them neatly against each other in stacked layers. From a photographic perspective, balancing flash exposure of the all-black adult with the bright-white egg mass presented a real challenge. Added to that was an additional exposure challenge (my desire for a blue-sky background), making it a truly difficult-to-photograph subject. Long (2001) states that T. atratus egg masses can contain anywhere from one hundred to a thousand eggs each, always near water’s edge or somewhere quite close to water. Females are capable of laying three or four of these egg masses, which apparently gradually turn dark as the eggs develop and approach hatch.

Tabanus atratus egg mass

Freshly laid Tabanus atratus egg mass.

Despite this being the first time I’ve ever witnessed oviposition by this species, it seems to be encountered regularly. There are several photos of ovipositing females among the many photos of this species that have been posted to BugGuide. Moreover, descriptions of the egg mass of T. atatus appeared very early in the literature, first by Hart (1895) and then in photographs by Schwardt (1936). The latter author also states “T. atatus deposits its eggs in masses which are so constant in structural plan as to make specific determination of the egg mass readily possible” (as quoted in Bailey 1948). Thus, even if this female had already finished and left her egg mass, it still could have been identified to species.

REFERENCES:

Bailey, N. S. 1948. Notes on Tabanus atratus subsp. nantuckensis Hine (Diptera). Psyche 55(3):131–138 [pdf].

Hart, C. A. 1895. On the entomology of the Illinois River and adjacent water. Illinois State Laboratory of Natural History Bulletin 4:149–273 [eBook].

Jones, C. M. & D. W. Anthony. 1964. The Tabanidae (Diptera) of Florida. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Technical Bulletin No. 1295, 85 pp. [pdf].

Long, W. 2001. Tabanus atratus (on-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed 20 March 2019 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Tabanus_atratus/

Pechuman, L. L., D. W. Webb & H. J. Teskey. 1983. The Diptera, or true flies, of Illinois 1. Tabanidae. Illinois Natural History Survey Bulletin 33(1):1–121 [pdf].

Schwardt, H. I. 1936. Horseflies of Arkansas. Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 332:14–15, 27–32.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

 

Revisiting the Highlands tiger beetle (Cicindelidia highlandensis)

In September 2016, I had the opportunity to attend the Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America in Orlando, Florida, which was being held in conjunction with the International Congress of Entomology. My first thought when I made plans to attend these meetings was that this would be a chance for me to get another look at the Highlands tiger beetle (Cicindelidia highlandensis). One of Florida’s rarest endemic tiger beetles, this species is restricted entirely to remnant sand scrub and pine woodland habitats along the Lake Wales Ridge of Polk and Highlands Counties in central Florida (Choate 2003). I was thrilled to have found adults (in good numbers) on my first attempt back in 2009, and I was also thrilled to have successfully managed to photograph the beetle at that time. However, in the years since, I have become increasingly dissatisfied with those photographs—taken during what was my very first year of insect macrophotography. I’ve learned a lot since then about lighting, diffusion, and composition, but perhaps the biggest annoyance of those photographs is the fact that in every one the antennae and/or legs are “clipped”—a result of my being so enamored with my newfound macrophotographic capabilities that I nearly completely ignored other aspects of photographic composition.

Chris Brown photographing Cicindelidia highlandensis

Chris Brown photographs a Highlands tiger beetle.

Chris Brown—long-time field accomplice and himself a tiger beetle aficionado and insect macrophotographer—was also at the meetings, and since he had never seen the Highlands tiger beetle before we made plans to slip away one day and visit the spot where I had seen them back in 2009. I knew our chances of finding them were slim—it was very late in the season (late September), and the species is a so-called “summer species” with peak of adult activity in July and August. We figured, however, that even if we didn’t find adults we would still enjoy the day in the field, and for some time after arriving at the site that’s all it was. Finally, in an open sandy area near a small lake we saw the first adult. I let Chris take his shots, as this was his first opportunity (see photo above), while I continued to search for additional adults. Eventually I found one and began the long process of “whispering” to it to coax it into allowing me the photographs I desired.

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Highlands tiger beetle (Cicindelidia highlandensis).

As you can see in the photograph above, my compositional preferences have changed since I took those first photographs back in 2009. In contrast to the “as close as possible” style that I initially adopted, I now prefer to back off from the beetle enough to include elements of the habitat in which it occurs. While this compositional style may show less detail on the beetle itself, I believe it adds perspective and results in a more interesting and aesthetically pleasing photograph. I also now like to get down as low as I can, often placing the camera directly on the ground rather than always shooting from “elbow-height”, for a more unique perspective of the beetle, and my use of better flash diffusion results in more even lighting and minimizes the distracting specular highlights that are often the hallmark of flash macrophotography.

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This individual demonstrates the thermoregulatory “stilting” behavior of the adults.

Sadly, my flash unit failed soon after I began photographing the beetle, which is a real shame because the beetle began demonstrating the characteristic “stilting” behavior that the adults use for thermoregulation in their hot environment. The photograph above is the only one that I could “rescue” through some rather heavy-handed post-processing to make up for the failure of the flash unit to fire (it is fortunate that I have shifted to routinely using a combination of ambient light and fill-flash rather than flash only, or I would have had not even this photograph to rescue!). I suppose this means I’ll just have to revisit this species once again (now that I have not one but two new flash units!), which isn’t all bad because I would also love to see and photograph once again the moustached tiger beetle (Ellipsoptera hirtilabris), another Florida endemic (or near so) that I saw here also during my first visit but not during this one.

The Highlands tiger beetle belongs to a group of species called the abdominalis species-group, with all four of the included species (C. abdominalis, C. floridana, C. highlandensis, C. scabrosa) occurring in Florida (three of which are endemic or near-endemic to Florida). For those interested, I have seen and photographed all four of the species and presented a “mini-review” with photographs and links to posts with more detailed information about each species, along with a key to the species to allow for their identification.

REFERENCES:

Choate, P. M., Jr. 2003. A Field Guide and Identification Manual for Florida and Eastern U.S. Tiger Beetles.  University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 224 pp.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

Another look at North America’s most beautiful longhorned beetle

My love affair with the bumelia borer, Plinthocoelium suaveolens, has been well-chronicled on this blog. The combination of its large size, striking iridescent green elytra, brilliant coppery head and pronotum, and marvelously elongate antennae and legs – both black but the latter with contrasting orange femora – even led me to declare it as “North America’s most beautiful longhorned beetle“. For all its charisma, however, I never did succeed in getting field photographs that I felt did justice to the beauty of this wary and difficult-to-approach species. Yes, I did photograph a live adult in a white box, a technique that is especially useful for such colorful subjects. However, I still desired that ‘perfect’ photo of a live adult, unconfined in the field on its host plant.

Plinthocoelium suaveolens suaveolens

Plinthocoelium suaveolens – photographed 29 July 2017 on foliage of living Sideroxylon lanuginosum at Shaw Nature Reserve, Franklin Co., Missouri.

Some years would pass before I gave photographing this species another try. In 2015 and 2016, I discovered healthy populations of the species at two locations surprisingly close to my home while conducting fermenting bait trap surveys – one at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri (just 14 miles from my home), and the other at Victoria Glades Natural Area near Hillsboro, Missouri (slightly further away – only 40 miles from my home). During these surveys, I not only caught the beetles in my traps, but I was able to find them on their host plant, Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia), and learn their habits and behavior – important to know when trying to photograph living, unconfined insects. Still, it wasn’t easy! On 29 July 2017, I and several other nature photographers went to Shaw Nature Reserve to find and photograph this species, and through our collective efforts we found only a single individual – at first resting high up on the foliage of a living tree but later flying down to a branch that was (just barely) within reach of our lenses. I used my 100-mm macro, and the photograph above is the only one that I was satisfied with – yes, the tips of the elytra and left hind leg are somewhat obscured, but exposure is good, the focus spot on, and the background a pleasing blur of green that contrasts nicely with the sharply iridescent beetle (achieved with settings that allowed a combination of ambient light and flash illumination of the subject).

Plinthocoelium suaveolens suaveolens

Plinthocoelium suaveolens – photographed 29 July 2017 on a dead branch of Sideroxylon lanuginosum at Victoria Glades Natural Area, Jefferson Co., Missouri.

My luck turned later that day when I went down to Victoria Glades to check my fermenting bait traps – and found an adult on the trunk of one of the trees in which a trap was hanging! In this case, I was able to use my “beetle whisperer” skills to coax the beetle onto a dead branch of the tree and positioned it with the sky in the background. As the beetle roamed back and forth on the branch (rarely stopping!), I used the “left hand technique” to keep it in the frame and fired a shot after shot, hoping against hope that I would get at least one in which all of the required elements – exposure, lighting, focus, and most importantly composition – were what I wanted. And that is exactly what I got – one photograph (out of about 75 shots) in which all of those elements worked (second photo above)!

Some may snicker at my spending a whole day just to get two photographs of a single species, but I relish the challenge and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that these photographs represent field photographs of live, unconfined beetles. Could I do better? Sure, and I will probably try again sometime. But for now, these will do.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

A “superb” southwestern Missouri cicada

Back in the summer of 2015, I made an early August trip to the White River Hills region of extreme southwestern Missouri. I was actually looking for one of Missouri’s more uncommon cerambycid beetles – Prionus pocularis, associated with shortleaf pine in the mixed hardwood/pine forests across the southern part of the state. I did not encounter the beetle in either my prionic acid-baited pitfall traps or at the ultraviolet lights I had set up the evening before, but while I was in the area I thought I would visit one of my favorite places in the region – Drury-Mincy Conservation Area in Taney Co. Sitting right on the border with Arkansas, the rolling hills of this area feature high-quality dolomite glades and post oak savannas. I’ve had some excellent collecting here in the past and hoped I would find something of interest this time as well. I didn’t arrive until after midnight, and since there are no hotels in the area I just slept in the car.

Neotibicen superbus

Neotibicen superbus

The next morning temperatures began to rise quickly, and with it so did the cacophony of cicadas 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 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), and I managed to catch it and take a quick iPhone photograph for documentation. A species this beautiful, however, deserves ‘real’ photos, so I spent the next couple of hours attempting to photograph an individual in situ with the big camera. Of course, this is much, much easier said than done, especially with this species—their bulging eyes give them exceptional vision, and they are very skittish and quick to take flight. Most of the individuals that I located were too high up in the canopy to allow a shot, and each individual that was low enough for me to approach ended up fluttering off with a screech before I could even compose a shot, much less press the shutter. Persistence paid, however, and I eventually managed to approach and photograph an unusually calm female resting – quite conveniently – at chest height on the trunk of a persimmon tree.

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Source: Sanborn & Phillips (2013).

According to Sanborn & Phillips (2013, Figure 16 – reproduced above), Neotibicen superbus, is found in trees within grassland environments primarily in eastern Texas and Oklahoma, although records of it exist from each of the surrounding states – especially southern Missouri and northern Arkansas (Figure 16 below, Sanborn & Phillips 2013). Later the same day I would see the species abundantly again in another of the region’s dolomite glades – this one in Roaring River State Park further west in Barry Co., suggesting that dolomite glades are the preferred habitat in this part of its range. Interestingly, I think the Missouri records at least must be relatively recent, as Froeschner (1952) did not include the species in his synopsis of Missouri cicadas. This was all the information I had back in the 1980s when I first encountered the species in southwestern Missouri, its apparent unrecorded status in the state making it an even more exciting find at the time.

Neotibicen superbus

Neotibicen superbus

REFERENCES:

Froeschner, R. C.  1952. A synopsis of the Cicadidae of Missouri. Journal of the New York Entomological Society 60:1–14 [pdf].

Sanborn, A. F. & P. K. Phillips. 2013. Biogeography of the cicadas (Hemiptera: Cicadidae) of North America, north of Mexico. Diversity 5(2):166–239 [abstractpdf].

© Ted C. MacRae 2018

When is an ant not an ant? When it’s a jumping spider, of course!

Peckhamia sp.

This past weekend my good friend and long-time collecting partner Rich and I visited one of our favorite insect collecting spots in all of Missouri – Victoria Glades Conservation Area. Together with an adjacent parcel owned by The Nature Conservancy, these represent one of the finest remaining examples of the glades – more properly called xeric limestone prairies – that once extended in an arc through Jefferson Co. south of St. Louis on south and west facing exposures of dolomitic limestone1.

For a more detailed description of the geology and natural history of these glades, see my post The Glades of Jefferson County.

Spring was late this season, with cool and wet conditions persisting into the early part of May. During the past two weeks, however, it has warmed and dried considerably (too much, almost), and thus the cacophony of life has begun in earnest. Still, despite the heat, we found the abundance of insects rather sparing, which in combination with the suite of wildflowers that were seen in bloom gave a feel of early spring (I mentioned to Rich that it “seemed like May 10th”). There were a few good species to be found though, the first being a single Agrilus fuscipennis, beaten off of its host persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Continued beating of persimmon turned up little else, at which point I turned my attention to the post oak (Quercus stellata) trees lining the margins of the glades. The first couple of branches that I whacked turned up little of interest, but an “ant” that fell on my sheet from the third branch gave me pause – it was a little “too big”, and the manner it which it scampered across the sheet was a little “too urgent” and “too halting”. When I looked at it more closely, I realized that it was, of course, not an ant at all, but a jumping spider (family Salticidae), and more specifically a species in one of several genera within the family that are known for their striking mimicry of ants.

I have long wanted to photograph one of these gems, having seen them once or twice before but thus far not successful in photographing them. In this particular case, I had the advantage of somebody to help me, so I coaxed the spider onto a stick and had Rich hold it while I got my camera ready. Unfortunately, the ant… er, spider just kept running up and down the stick from one end to the other, forcing me to repeatedly grab the stick on alternating ends with one hand after the other (and quickly or it would run onto my hands!) and never really having an opportunity to attempt some shots. After a time of this, I decided to coax it onto a leaf instead to see if the larger, flatter surface might be of some help. It really didn’t, though, as the ant JUST. WOULD. NOT. STOP. RUNNING! Eventually, I resorted to simply trying to track the spider through the lens – holding the camera with my right hand and the leaf with my left, and firing shots whenever I thought the spider might be even close to in focus. I can be patient when photographing insects (and their kin), but this spider certainly tested my limits, and I eventually ended the session not at all confident that I had any usable photos. To my surprise, I managed to get one image (above) that wasn’t half bad and another that was at least serviceable (below – focus a bit too much in “front”).

Peckhamia sp.

As far as I can tell, this individual is a species of the genus Peckhamia, which Cutler (1988) distinguishes from the related genus Synageles by the carapace being more convex in the cephalic area and sharply declivous (downward sloping) behind the third row of eyes. The individual in these photos seems to agree with these characters, if I am interpreting them correctly. He also mentions the habit of species in these two genera to hold their second pair of legs aloft to give the illusion of them being antennae, which we noted for this individual and can attest to its effectiveness!

For more about ant mimics that I have found in Missouri, see my previous posts Flower ants? Check again! and North America’s itsiest bitsiest longhorned beetle.

REFERENCE:

Cutler, B. 1988. A revision of the American species of the antlike jumping spider genus Synageles (Araneae, Salticidae). Journal of Arachnology 15(3) [1987]:321–348 [pdf].

© Ted C. MacRae 2018

Ellipsoptera lepida – ghost tiger beetle

In the early 2000s, Chris Brown and I were beginning our general survey of Missouri tiger beetles. Our goal was to characterize the occurrence and distribution of all species within the state. At the time, 22 species were known to occur in Missouri, and our work would uncover the presence of two more—one being a vagrant occurrence of the widespread Cicindelidia trifasciata ascendens (ascendent tiger beetle) (Brown & MacRae 2005); the other being the rare Cylindera celeripes (swift tiger beetle) (MacRae & Brown 2011). Of the species already known from the state, however, some were known from only a few records and hadn’t been seen in the field by either Chris or myself. One such species was Ellipsoptera lepida (ghost tiger beetle), an almost pure white species known to occur in deep, dry sand habitats over most of central North America (Pearson et al. 2015). At that time, I had still seen only the more common species in Missouri, and the combination of its name and unusual, mostly-white color put this species high on my “must see” list.

Ellipsoptera lepida (ghost tiger beetle)

My first experience would come quickly. In June 2001, Chris and I visited a recent addition to Weldon Spring Conservation Area on the north side of the Missouri River in St. Charles Co. called Darst Bottoms. The area at one time was productive farmland, but the “Great Floods” of 1993 and 1995 left deep deposits of sand over the area. While no longer suitable for agriculture, the process of succession allowed valuable wildlife habitat to develop, and the area was purchased and added to the Conservation Area. By the time of our visit in 2001, early succession had resulted in young forests of mostly eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) surrounding a vast central plain of white sand. Chris and I didn’t know what to expect on that first visit, both of us being in the early stages of our survey of Missouri tiger beetles, but we figured we would find something interesting.

Ellipsoptera lepida (ghost tiger beetle)

I still remember the moment I first saw E. lepida and realized what it was. We had already found Cicindela formosa generosa (eastern big sand tiger beetle)—the first time I had seen that species in Missouri outside the southeastern lowlands (we would eventually find it at many sites along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and a few smaller interior rivers)—and were searching for additional specimens. We were in a small opening adjacent to the larger central plain when I thought I saw something move near my feet. I stopped to look down but didn’t see anything, so I began walking again while scanning the ground ahead of me. Again, I thought I saw movement nearby and stopped to look, this time pausing a little longer and doing so a little more carefully. That’s when I saw it, and even though I had seen only photographs of the species and museum specimens I recognized it instantly for what it was and yelled out “lepida!” Chris came over to see for himself, and we marveled at the effectiveness of their camouflage—they seemingly were able to disappear right before our eyes even though we were looking right at them.

Sand plain habitat for Ellipsoptera lepida (ghost tiger beetle).

Over the next few years, Chris and I found the species at several sites along or not too distant from the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers—always on sand deposits deep enough to become dry. We never found them in great numbers, sometimes just single individuals while other sand residents were abundant, and not at all sites where we did find more reliable species such as C. f. generosa and C. tranquebarica (oblique-lined tiger beetle). Pearson et al. (2015) mention that despite the broad distribution of this species across central North America that its actual occurrence is rather spotty and localized and that it has disappeared from many sites where it was previously known to occur. This was our experience in Missouri as well, as many of the museum records we had gleaned for the species no longer appeared to support populations of the beetle. This is likely due, at least in part, to the ephemeral nature of the habitats on which the species depends, at least those along the big rivers that are vulnerable to revegetation and succession back to bottomland forest.

Ellipsoptera lepida (ghost tiger beetle)

Of course, all of this occurred long before I took up insect macrophotography in 2009, and while I had managed to photograph most of the tiger beetle species in Missouri in the years that followed, E. lepida was one that I continued to lack. In the summer of 2015 I decided to rectify that situation and, when the time was right, returned to Darst Bottoms in hopes of finding and photographing this species. Imagine my surprise when I hiked into the area and, instead of young cottonwood stands surrounding a vast, barren sand plain, I found mature cottonwood forests surrounding a thickly vegetated sand prairie with only isolated patches of barren sand. Needless to say, with such little suitable habitat for the beetles they were neither abundant nor even common. In fact, the only evidence I found that told me they were still there at all was coyote scat containing unmistakable remains of the adult beetles. Skunked on my first effort, I decided to try another spot where we had seen good populations of the beetle—Overton Bottoms Conservation Area along the Missouri River in Cooper and Monteau Counties in central Missouri, now Overton Bottoms South Unit and part of the Big Muddy National Wildlife Area. Like Darst Bottoms, this area had experienced revegetation and succession in the decade+ since my previous visit; however, unlike the former there still remained a vast central plain that, while vegetated, was sparsely vegetated enough to continue providing suitable habitat for the beetle. It took some work, but I eventually found the beetles localized in one part of the sand plain (see photograph #3), and there were enough of them out at the time of my visit that I succeeded in getting the series of photographs shown in this post.

Ellipsoptera lepida (ghost tiger beetle)

I have fond memories of all 24 tiger beetle species in Missouri—each one presenting a unique collection of experiences that will fuel my love affair with the group for years to come. With E. lepida, the jubilance and excitement of that first, unexpected encounter remains near the top of the list for me.

REFERENCES:

Brown, C. R. & T. C. MacRae. 2005. Occurrence of Cicindela (Cicindelidia) trifasciata ascendens (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae) in Missouri. Cicindela 37(1–2):17–19 [pdf].

MacRae, T. C. & C. R. Brown. 2011. Historical and contemporary occurrence of Cylindera (s. str.) celeripes (LeConte) (Coleoptera: Carabidae: Cicindelinae) and implications for its conservation. The Coleopterists Bulletin 65(3):230–241 [pdf].

Pearson, D. L., C. B. Knisley, D. P. Duran & C. J. Kazilek. 2015. A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada. 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, New York, 264 pp. [Oxford description].

© Ted C. MacRae 2017