Re-emerging into the Warm Sunshine

On Monday, I took advantage of very pleasant weather to visit one of our Platte River Prairies I hadn’t seen for a while. The warm sunny day felt great to me, but apparently also invigorated a lot of other creatures. Wild turkeys were in full display mode, with males showing off to each other and to nearby females, and I flushed a prairie chicken from near where it and others had been lekking earlier in the day.

More interestingly, I saw all kinds of insect activity. Big green darner dragonflies were zipping around wetlands adjacent to the river, and nearby patches of bare sand were full of small hordes of brightly colored tiger beetles chasing after flies and other tiny insects.  I wondered whether the adult insects I was seeing had spent the winter as adults, and if so, how.  Green darner dragonflies are migratory, so the ones I saw might have moved back north from wherever they go during the winter.  I’m pretty sure the tiger beetles I saw had spent the winter as adults, sheltered in their burrows.

I’m pretty sure this is the bronze tiger beetle (Cicindela repanda) because it fits both the visual description and the habitat (bare moist sand near the river). This was the most common tiger beetle I saw.
There many fewer festive tiger beetles (Cicindela scutellaria), but they were certainly the most colorful.

As I was crawling through the sand on my belly, trying to get close enough to photograph tiger beetles, I occasionally flushed band-winged grasshoppers that were hanging around on the same patches of bare ground.  I managed to photograph both green and brown ones, which I assumed were different species until I got home and looked more closely at the photographs.  Despite the different colors, the patterns and textures of the grasshoppers looked identical to each other, so I sent the photos to a couple friends who have shown themselves willing to put up with my grasshopper questions in the past.

The brown form of the greenstriped grasshopper was much more common (and harder to see against the mostly still brown grass) in the prairies this week.

Both Ellen Welti and Angela Laws responded and let me know that both the green and brown grasshoppers were greenstriped grasshoppers (Chortophaga viridifasciata).  Greenstriped grasshoppers are band-winged grasshoppers, which are known for their colorful wings and their habitat of crepitation (loud snapping noise) as they are flushed and fly away.  Band-wings also tend to hang out in areas of bare ground, which matches where I found them this week.

The greenstripped grasshopper is very common and abundant in the eastern United States, but it is found in much more scattered populations out here in the west where it tends to be tied to areas of moist soil. The grasshoppers hatch from eggs in mid-summer and then overwinter as late stage nymphs.  Once they emerge in the spring, they molt into their adult form. During the winter they are in diapause (a kind of dormant state) that is apparently broken in the spring, not by temperature, but by increased photoperiod (daylength).  All of this means that greenstriped grasshoppers have to be extremely cold tolerant.  They have to survive the winter, of course, but even after they emerge in the spring they still have to face the kinds of spring cold snaps we’ve been dealing with this year.  During those cold periods, the grasshoppers find a place where they can nestle into some prairie thatch until temperatures rise again.  Then they bask in the sun until they’re warm enough to resume their regular activities.

In its green form, the greenstriped grasshopper is sure handsome, isn’t it?

Ellen shared a great anecdote about how cold tolerant the greenstriped grasshopper can be.  While doing grasshopper research at Konza Prairie (near Manhattan, KS), she put a batch of caught grasshoppers in the freezer – a standard way to kill insects before sorting, identifying, and pinning them.  Three days later, when she brought the bag of frozen insects out to work through them, a greenstriped grasshopper started kicking its legs!  Ellen said she felt bad for the grasshopper and ended up taking it back out to the prairie, where it seemed to be completely unphased by the whole experience and hopped back into the grass.

Seeing how quickly insect activity resumes after cold snaps during the spring is a great reminder of how resilient and well-adapted those creatures are.  We complain about having to put up with wild temperature swings, but we’ve got cozy homes and appropriate clothing to help us cope.  Birds, insects, and other animals don’t have the advantages we have – they’re just tougher than we are.  While not all of them can stand being frozen solid like the greenstriped grasshopper (though many of them can), they have been dealing with crazy weather events for many thousands of years, and will likely continue to do so in the distant future.  I bet they whine a lot less about it too.

That Predator Just Killed My Predator!

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.

The big sand tiger beetle (Cicindela formosa) has been eluding me this summer, but I finally get a good set of photos of one eating a recently captured ant.
The big sand tiger beetle (Cicindela formosa) has been eluding me most of this summer, but I finally got a good set of photos of one eating an ant.  Clicking on this and other photos from this post will give you a larger and more clear image to look at.  It’s worth it.

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.

The robber fly and tiger beetle landed upside down right after the initial attack.
The robber fly and tiger beetle landed upside down after the initial attack.  For scale, the tiger beetle is about 1/2 inch long.

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.

Upright again, the robber fly tried to hang on to the beetle while injecting it with toxic saliva.
Upright again, the robber fly tried to hang on to the beetle while injecting it with toxic saliva.
The robber fly had to periodically readjust its grip as the tiger beetle struggled to escape.
The robber fly had to periodically readjust its grip as the tiger beetle struggled to escape.

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…

A final look at these two magnificent predators.
A final look at these two magnificent and beautiful predators.

The Prairie Ecologist Goes to the Beach

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent last week on a family vacation near Corpus Christi, Texas.  The kids really liked swimming in the ocean, looking for shells, and playing in the sand.  I enjoyed all of those things too, but I also spent quite a bit of time wandering the beaches and adjacent dunes with my camera.

Hermit crab
Along the beach near our hotel in Corpus Christi, we found several largish intact shells and didn’t immediately realize that all of them hosted hermit crabs.  Once we figured that out, we put them back on the beach and watched them crawl back into the water.
Waiting for hermit crabs
My wife and stepson waiting for hermit crabs to emerge and start moving around.

It was fun to see what the waves were washing up on the beach.  Even the trash – and there was a lot of that – was interesting.

Sea shell on beach. San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.
Sea shell on beach.  I know that some snails drill holes into mollusk shells and feed on the animal inside, but I don’t know how to explain the high abundance of holes in this particular shell.  San Jose Island near Port Aransas, Texas.
Barnacles on driftwood.  On the beach at San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.
Barnacle shells on a big driftwood log. San Jose Island near Port Aransas, Texas.

There were others walking the beach too – especially gulls and various shorebirds.  I was just looking for interesting objects and photo subjects.  The birds were looking for food.

Gull at Padre Island National Seashore.  Corpus Christi, Texas.
Laughing gulls and other birds were walking the edge of the surf at Padre Island National Seashore, feeding on various small animals washed up on the beach.
Stink bug washed up on beach at Padre Island National Seashore.  Corpus Christi, Texas.  Seemed to be major food source for gulls.
As I followed gulls to see what they were eating, much of what they seemed to be feeding on were small terrestrial invertebrates that had apparently gotten caught in the water and washed ashore.  Stinkbugs were very abundant, along with a few different beetle species.  I saw 20 or 30 stinkbugs washed up in a pretty short stretch of beach.

The starkest reminders that I was far from the prairies of Nebraska were the crabs.  Those of you who have followed this blog for a while know about my minor obsession about photographing crab spiders in prairies.  I think I could probably develop a similar addiction to photographing crabs.  They’re just so otherworldly and fantastic.

Crab at Padre Island National Seashore.  Corpus Christi, Texas.
Ghost crabs (and other species?) were very common on the beaches at Padre Island National Seashore and San Jose Island.  They seemed to spend a lot of time carrying sand out of their holes, and skittered back into those holes quickly as we approached them.  This one eventually came back out after I sat quietly next to its burrow.
Crab.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.
The crabs along the beaches ranged from very small (this one was about an inch or inch and a half wide – including legs) to maybe 5 or 6 inches wide.
Crab at Padre Island National Seashore.  Corpus Christi, Texas.
A larger crab at Padre Island National Seashore.  I don’t know how many species are there, and couldn’t find much information on them.  Maybe they are all ghost crabs, but the coloration patterns seemed to vary somewhat between individuals.
Crab larva(?) the beach at Padre Island National Seashore.  Gulf coast of Texas near Corpus Christi.
I’m guessing this is a larval crab, but I really don’t know.  It was only about 1/2 inch wide and was moving around by squirting water out a tiny jet engine-like appendage coming out its rear end.  Padre Island National Seashore.

Tiger beetles were a more familiar sight to me than the crabs.  I know tiger beetles, though not the species I was seeing on the beach last week.  It turns out beach tiger beetles are just as fun to stalk with a camera as those in prairies.  And their faces are just as cute.

Tiger beetle.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.
Tiger beetle. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.
Tiger beetle.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.
Tiger beetle. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

Unfortunately, much of what we saw washed up along the beaches was debris from the human race.  A huge range of objects, especially plastic ones, were strewn about along the base of the dunes.  I tried for a while to compose photos that avoided the trash, but eventually gave up and just photographed the trash itself.

Trash washed in on beach.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.
Trash washed in on beach. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

While the beaches were pretty different from prairies, the dunes right next to them felt much more like home.  As I walked through them, I felt as if I should know the plants I was seeing.  They looked just like prairie plants I am familiar with in Nebraska except that they weren’t quite.  I saw grasses that were almost prairie sandreed, wildflowers that were almost purple prairie clover, and many others.  If I squinted my eyes, it felt like home.

Padre Island National Seashore.  Corpus Christi, Texas.
Dunes at Padre Island National Seashore. Corpus Christi, Texas.
Ldunes along the beach at Padre Island National Seashore.  Gulf coast of Texas near Corpus Christi.
The plant community in the dunes looked and felt just like the sandhills prairie of Nebraska.

Not only did walking the dunes feel familiar, photographing the little creatures living in them did too.  I heard this cicada before I saw it, and was able to slowly creep up close enough for a photo.

Cicada. San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.
Cicada. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

Grasshoppers were very abundant in the dunes.  Every time I stopped to photograph one, I’d see several others right next to it.  The result was a kind of neverending cascade of photographic opportunities.  Even with a stiff breeze blowing, I managed to get a few decent portraits taken.

Grasshopper.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.
Grasshopper. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

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Grasshopper.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.
Grasshopper. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

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Grasshopper.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.
Grasshopper. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

Lizards were also a comforting sight.  The habitat looked like it should have lizards in it, and sure enough, there they were.  I had to look up the species online (I think I got it right)?

Lizard.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.
Keeled earless lizard (Holbrookia propinqua). San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.
Lizard in the dunes along the beach at Padre Island National Seashore.  Gulf coast of Texas near Corpus Christi.
Another keeled earless lizard.  (You can tell they’re related by their identical facial expressions…?)  I’m not sure if the more colorful one is a juvenile or different gender – I couldn’t figure that out online, but I’m sure readers can help me out.  Padre Island National Seashore. Gulf coast of Texas near Corpus Christi.
Atticus Miller (stepson of photographer) looking at a lizard found on the beach.  San Jose Island.  Gulf of Mexico.  Port Aransas, Texas.
Atticus (my stepson) looking at a lizard found on the beach. San Jose Island. Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas, Texas.

As always, it was great to be on vacation but nice to be home again.  I enjoyed walking through the familiar black-eyed susans and big bluestem of the Platte River Prairies yesterday.

Though I do miss those crabs…

 

 

 

 

 

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The Wrong Tiger Beetle

Last week, we had a gathering of biologists out at The Nature Conservancy’s Little Salt Fork Marsh Preserve, a saline wetland we own and manage north of Lincoln, Nebraska.  Saline wetlands are an important ecosystem that are found in very limited numbers in Nebraska – mostly right around the city of Lincoln.  Because the ecosystem is rare in Nebraska, so are many of the species associated with it.  Those species include several plants – including saltwort (Salicornia rubra) and sea blite (Suaeda depressa) – and the salt creek tiger beetle (Cicindela nevadica lincolniana).  The beetle is found only in the saline wetlands around Lincoln and is federally-listed as an endangered species (it’s population is thought to be less than 500 individuals).  To address the conservation needs of the saline wetlands and the species within them, the Conservancy helped assemble local government and conservation entities into the Saline Wetlands Conservation Partnership in 2003.

On this particular day, a couple people spotted some tiger beetles along a saline seep on the creek that runs through our property.  The habitat was ideal for the salt creek tiger beetle, but there has never been a  record of the species being found on our property.  As we tried to get a good look at these tiger beetles, we couldn’t tell which of the dozen or so possible species they were.  I doubted they were the endangered species, but the habitat WAS just what they’re supposed to use, so after the larger group of biologists left, I walked back down to the creek with my camera to see if I could get a better look – and hopefully a few photos.

The seep was only about the size of a compact car, so it wasn’t hard to find the beetles, which were running around hunting and mating.  The trick to photographing them, though, was that the mud in the seep was so soft that it wasn’t possible to step or kneel in it without sinking quickly.  I had to wait for the beetles to come close enough to the edge for me to photograph them – something they were reluctant to do.  The temperature was in the 90’s and the nice breeze that had earlier made the day tolerable didn’t reach down into the stream bank where I was kneeling in the mud.  There were some diffuse clouds that provided good light, but didn’t do much to cut down on the heat of the sun.  Oh, and I forgot to mention the mosquitoes.

The longer I waited and sweated in the heat, the more I talked myself into the idea that these just had to be the endangered salt creek tiger beetes.  I even saw a couple of burrows in the vertical bank of the stream, which fits the profile of where the tiger beetle larvae hang out.  At long last, after about 20 minutes, one of the beetles finally came within range, and I was able to get a few photos before it scurried off again.  Relieved, I decided to stop supplementing the salinity of the wetlands with my own sweat and head home.

The final result of my hot and sweaty efforts to get a tiger beetle to come within range of my camera.

When I got home, I pulled up my photo and compared it to those on the excellent Tiger Beetles of Nebraska website to confirm that I had just gotten some photos of a very rare insect.

…And I was wrong.

It looked relatively similar, but the insect I’d sweated for was actually the twelve-spotted tiger beetle (Cicindela duodecimguttata) – an uncommon but fairly widespread species.

I’m sure the twelve-spotted tiger beetle is a very nice species, and probably has an extremely interesting natural history story to go along with it.  I’m sure some day I’ll take the time to look it up and learn all about it.  I’m sure I’ll be really glad I took the time to photograph it.

I’m sure that’ll happen.

But not yet.