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…