I spent last week in the Nebraska Sandhills, possibly the greatest grassland in the world. Last week’s trip was one of several I’ve gotten to make around that landscape this summer. It’s been great to see a much wider swath of the Sandhills than I have in previous years, and my appreciation for the area has grown even stronger than before.
In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of Sandhills blowouts as habitat for species that thrive in bare sand. I’ve been trying to document and photograph as many of those creatures as I can this summer. Some of the most difficult to photograph have been tiger beetles. These incredible predators run very quickly along the sand in search of small insect prey, but can also fly easily when they see me or other scary things approaching. It’s been fun to chase them around, but the vast majority of attempts to photograph them end in them flying away just before I’m close enough.
One of the species I’ve been unable to photograph so far is a beautiful metallic blue tiger beetle called the sandy tiger beetle, aka Cicindela limbata. You can read more about this critter in a great blog post by Ted MacRae. I had seen and admired the beetle, but was running out of time to photograph it before my trip ended. Finally, I spotted it again, and started stalking it. (I should mention that I was doing this while 7 other people were watching and waiting for me, semi-patiently, so we could move to another location.)
I edged close to the beetle, but (as usual) just as I got almost within photo range, it took off and flew about 15 feet away. I let out a small sigh and starting creeping toward its new location. This time, it took off when I was still five feet away. However, just as the tiger beetle left the earth, a big gray robber fly streaked up from the ground nearby and knocked the beetle right out of the air. It was like a ground-to-air missile attack, but much faster. The two tumbled back to the sand together, the tiger beetle firmly in the clutches of the robber fly.
As I watched, the robber fly got back to its feet and struggled to keep a hold on the beetle. Though I couldn’t see it happening, I knew the fly was also injecting the beetle with toxic saliva to immobilize it. Eventually, the saliva would also liquefy the innards of the beetle so fly could consume the resulting beetle soup.
Within a few minutes, the beetle seemed to stop moving. Having taken approximately 10,000 photos of the scene (from the perspective of my waiting colleagues), I grudgingly got up off the sand and backed slowly away to move on to our next site. I still don’t have a stand alone photo of C. limbata, but I’ll get one someday. In the meantime, I feel like I had a front row seat for a miniature version of the kind of predator/prey attack usually seen in nature documentaries from the Serengeti. I can live with that. As I’ve said numerous times before, I’ve got a pretty good job…
Great post. Thank you!
Having grown up in the Sandhills and wandered there many years ago with my dog – I enjoyed these photos of Nature at work.
Excellent photos nature at its best.
There’s not much in their size range that is a match for the predatory skill of the Promachus hinei robber fly. I did see one of the flies tangled up in a a black and yellow garden spider’s orb web once.
My 11 year old son and I observed numerous Big Sand Tiger Beetles a couple of weeks ago that were sharing the Salt Creek Tiger Beetle’s lair North of Lincoln. Being a tiger beetle novice, I thought they were Salt Creek Tiger beetles initially. They do look similar. But, after a little research, they were clearly not, as the Salt Creek Tiger Beetles apparently aren’t about this time of year. I got a few pictures. But, none as good as yours.
Correction – As noted, I am a tiger beetle novice, so I get a mulligan or two (or more). Looking back at my pictures, I think it could have been a Crimson Saltflat Tiger Beetle. Although it didn’t look red at all. But neither does the picture on the “Tiger Beetles of Nebraska” website you’ve posted a link to in a previous tiger beetle post. As I’d mentioned, the location of my sightings are from the saline wetlands north of Lincoln. So, the salt part makes some sense.
If my identification is correct, would these buggers be rare as the ecosystem is?
No – the Crimson Saltflat tiger beetle – Cicindela fulgida – is very common. As you noted the population at Arbor Lake has a lot of brown individuals. There is some red individuals there though but you have to look for them.
Bob – so far I’ve recorded 6 species of tiger beetles from the salt flats on the north side of Lincoln. That is an awesome place to take your son.
These are amazing photos, and an amazing story. Thanks.
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On Mon, Aug 29, 2016 at 11:11 AM, The Prairie Ecologist wrote:
> Chris Helzer posted: “I spent last week in the Nebraska Sandhills, > possibly the greatest grassland in the world. Last week’s trip was one of > several I’ve gotten to make around that landscape this summer. It’s been > great to see a much wider swath of the Sandhills than I have ” >
Always seems for every predator, there is a bigger, badder predator lurking somewhere waiting to make a meal of it…
That was gruesome in a science fiction kind of way.
Very cool Chris – I’ve been out there photographing bugs, both tigers and robbers, and you did well.
Wow! Thank you for sharing your amazing photographs.
Nice hi res images on those critters.
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Your story and photos cause me to feel like I’m back in my beloved Sandhills. Thanks!