Thursday, June 22, 2017

Blodgett Peak Bioblitz Report

Back on April 22, 2016, I sat down with a City of Colorado Springs parks official to discuss my idea for having a bioblitz at one of the parks or open spaces in the city. He was enthusiastic enough to turn that concept into four bioblitz events as part of this year's 20th anniversary of TOPS - Trails and Open Spaces. Our first event was held Friday and Saturday, June 16-17, at Blodgett Peak Open Space in the extreme northwest corner of Colorado Springs, up in the foothills and mountains. Here is what happened.

Blodgett Peak from "Base Camp"

First, let me express how grateful I am to City personnel for their organization, and furnishing everything from vehicles to food for the volunteer science teams. Without their hard work in planning, and in coordinating with other City departments, we could not have achieved any of our goals.

The Mammal Team checking traps

A bioblitz, for those not familiar, is usually a 24-hour event designed to record as many species of organisms in a given location as possible. The resulting data often sheds new light on what plants and animals occupy the ecosystem. County and state records for species are not uncommon; and even species new to science have been discovered at bioblitzes. The Blodgett Peak event included scientists looking at mammals, birds, plants, fungi, reptiles and amphibians, and of course invertebrates.

Observations are being recorded on the iNaturalist website. So far, the Blodgett Open Space Bioblitz project has recorded 419 observations tallying 279 "species," which range from actual species to genus-, tribe-, or family-level classification, or even higher. All of this has been accomplished with only seventeen people uploading their records and images. The identifications are vetted by Professional experts and citizen scientists from around the globe. Reports continue to trickle in, so keep an eye on this project.

The species tote boards filled up quickly

What did the invertebrate team discover? We started out by setting up three blacklight stations to attract moths and other nocturnal insects Friday night. We had a long wait for darkness, but just past dusk the insects started flying in. We also heard a Northern Pygmy Owl, which was something of a surprise in itself. One of our stations was at the entrance to the Open Space, right by the parking lot, and at the lowest elevation possible. Another station, unmanned, was placed well up the slope and just off of a trail in mostly scrub oat habitat. The last station was placed at an overlook even higher up, where mixed conifer forest habitat begins. Getting to the uphill stations was strenuous exercise.

Without a working flash on either of my two cameras, I was unable to document many of our nighttime visitors, but among our more spectacular species were these, imaged by my wife, Heidi:

Hesperophylax sp. caddisfly

Geometer moth, Euchlaena sp.

Owlet moth, Ulolonche disticha

Acrea Moth, Estigmene acrea

Vashti Sphinx moth, Sphinx vashti

Raspberry Pyrausta moth, Pyrausta signatalis

Spotted Tussock Moth, Lophocampa maculata

The next day came early, given the late night prior, but we persisted and found considerably more interesting species, from grassland habitats to thick forest:

A mating pair of Polyphemus Moths discovered by Tim Leppek

Erik Ostrum netted this gorgeous Two-tailed Swallowtail

Anicia (Variable) Checkerspots were abundant

Horse flies, family Tabanidae, found us!

One of the Vogels netted this male Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonfly

Putnam's Cicadad, Platypedia putnami was heard, but seldom seen

Pale Snaketail dragonfly, Ophiogomphus severus

Giant Lady Beetle, Anatis lecontei

Male robber fly, Cyrtopogon willistoni

Emerald Flower Scarab, Euphoria fulgida

Special thanks to: Tim Leppek for lending his amazing knack for spotting cryptic insects, and his quality images of them; Erik Ostrum for coming all the way down from the Ft. Collins area to share his expertise in Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths); Sam Johnson for his lifelong expertise in Lepidoptera; Emilie Gray for sharing her own expertise and some equipment; Bell Mead for manning our Mile High Bug Club Booth for the entire day on Saturday; the Vogel family for setting up one of the blacklight stations Friday, and energetically and enthusiastically searching for more species on Saturday.

Several organizations had booths at the bioblitz

We're just getting started with these bioblitzes, so hopefully some of you can join us for the next one, Friday and Saturday, July 14-15 at Jimmy Camp Creek Park on the eastern fringe of Colorado Springs. This is a grassland and sandstone bluffs ecosystem, with a quality riparian corridor and even stands of Ponderosa Pine on the ridges overlooking the creek. It is where we found that stray Mexican Silverspot butterfly this spring, so who knows what else awaits discovery there.

As close to the top as we got (and were allowed)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

What a Spider!

Sometimes you find something that you think might be a major discovery, only to learn that is not the case. Does it diminish your enthusiasm for the whole experience? Not at all. That is especially true when you find something as colorful as a male of the jumping spider Euophrys monadnock. Your expertise is in fact enhanced no matter what expectations you start out with.

The morning of June 8 I found myself granted access to part of Cheyenne Mountain State Park where the public is...."discouraged" from going. It is close, too close, to NORAD installations on the mountain, an important part of national security. One of the perks of being a park volunteer is getting opportunities like this to investigate more pristine and unique habitats.

Anyway, on the ground beneath Ponderosa Pines and understory thickets of Gambel's Oak and other shrubs, I spotted a little (3-4 millimeters) jumping spider hopping over the grass and leaf litter. My initial assumption was that it had to be a species of Habronattus. Members of that genus are often about the same size, usually ground-dwellers rather than arboreal, and frequently adorned with ornate colors in the male gender. Colorado also appears to be an epicenter of Habronattus diversity. I captured the spider in a plastic vial so I could get better images later.

Imagine how puzzled I was when, back at home, an internet search could find no matches with any Habronattus species. I think I finally "Googled" something like "Salticidae, black, orange legs," and lo and behold, I got some image results for Euophrys monadnock. It was not recorded (yet) for Colorado in Bugguide, by online standby. Additional research did find several records of the species for Colorado, even of recent vintage.

The Colorado Spider Survey, based at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science* and supervised by Dr. Paula Cushing, is an amazing resource. There, I found records of this species from Roxborough State Park in Douglas County, on August 9, 2014; Upper Maxwell Falls in Jefferson County, July 29, 2010; Lump Gulch in Gilpin County, June 24, 2009; and 1.6 miles along FR 175 NW of Mt. Pisgah, also in Gilpin County, on August 10, 2009. Using the World Spider Catalog, which has PDF files of almost all the scientific publications devoted to spiders, I found perhaps the original record of Euophrys monadnock for Colorado: collected in the 1890s in "West Cliff," now spelled "Westcliffe," by Theodore Cockerell. The species is one of northerly latitudes and high elevation, found across Canada and south to California, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and along the Rockies.

A Wikipedia article on the species explains the species was first described in 1891 by James Henry Emerton, a preeminent arachnologist of his day. The male gender, anyway, certainly cannot be confused with any other spider. The female is more....subdued, shall we say, but that is the case for most jumping spiders where there is often extreme sexual dimorphism (graphic differences between genders).

The male makes full use of his contrasting colors in displaying to a female. He lifts his front legs, which are adorned with thick brushes of black hair. He also lifts his third pair of legs to expose those bright orange femora, and orients the fourth pair of legs such that the female can see those orange femora as well. Jumping spiders are, unlike web-building spiders, highly visual, with acute eyesight that is not approached by any other land invertebrate.

My wife and I managed to get a few pictures of this highly active spider inside a casserole dish at home, before she released the spider outside the park, but at roughly the same elevation, same habitat, and same mountain for that matter. From a scientific perspective, it is usually preferable to retain the specimen, but considering the utter uniqueness of this species, we felt it was unnecessary to sacrifice this one.

Sources: Banks, Nathan. 1895. "The Arachnida of Colorado," Annals of the New York Academy of Science. 8: 415-434.
Bradley, Richard A. 2013. Common Spiders of North America. Berkeley: University of California Press. 271 pp.
Kaston, B.J. 1972. How to Know the Spiders (3rd edition). Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers. 272 pp.
Jumping spiders (Arachnida: Araneae: Salticidae) of the worldWorld Spider Catalog

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Window-winged Moths

One is not accustomed to thinking of moths as day-flying creatures, but a surprising number are indeed diurnal. You may simply not always recognize them as moths. A good example are the window-winged moths in the family Thyrididae. They are named for square or rectangular translucent spots in their wings, which may appear to be white or amber in color.

I encountered one of these diminutive insects just the other day, Monday, May 29, in Aiken Canyon Preserve, a property of The Nature Conservancy that features mixed conifer (mostly Ponderosa Pine and juniper) forest, impressive sandstone bluffs and formations, and extensive glades of prairie grasses, yucca, cacti, and herbs. The trail crossed a dry stream bed at one point and I caught sight of something I first thought was just another fly. It landed briefly and revealed itself to be Thyris maculata, a relatively uncommon western insect, but much more widespread in the eastern U.S.

The little moth was perhaps seeking water and/or minerals and was barely pausing, preventing me from getting really crisp images. When I returned home I did a bit of research and found that there are only twelve (12) species in the family Thyrididae known in North America, and few of those are western. The family is mostly pantropical (Old World and New World tropics), and the total number of world species exceeds 760. There are, in fact, over 400 additional species awaiting description at the London Museum of Natural History alone. While our domestic species have a wingspan varying from 6-16 millimeters, many tropical species are larger, with wingspans of 26-34 millimeters.

Thyris maculata from Massachusetts

Thyris maculata does visit flowers for nectar, as I observed in the town of Athol in western Massachusetts in 2015. Even then, the little moths defy attempts to get in-focus pictures. You are more apt to find at least some species, like the "Mournful Thyris," Thyris sepulchralis, licking animal scat. Fresh dung is a real treasure to lots of insects, including many butterflies and true bugs.

What do they eat in the caterpillar stage? They are surprisingly cosmopolitan in their tastes, being generalist feeders. Among their host plants are beans, grapes, cotton, and thoroughworts. The larvae typically roll the leaves of the host plant and tie them with silk; some species bore in the stems or twigs of the host. Thyris maculata has been reared from Clematis and Houstonia. This might explain the moth's extensive range, from Ontario and Quebec south and west to Georgia, Texas, Missouri, New Mexico, Colorado, and even Idaho and Montana. The adult flies anytime between March and October, but especially May through July. Samuel Johnson, a friend and moth expert here in Colorado deduced from my record yesterday that the species has two broods in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado. His own record is from August, 2003.

Dysodia sp. from Rio Rico, Arizona

Yet another genus of window-winged moths that I have come to know is Dysodia. These are slightly larger, heavier-bodied moths which are nocturnal. I have seen them attracted to lights in southern Arizona and the Lower Rio Grande Valley in southernmost Texas. The caterpillars typically roll the leaves of their host plant, forming both a shelter and a comfortable place to dine. There are at least four species of Dysodia in the U.S., and the one in south Texas is likely an undescribed species. So much yet to learn....

Thyris maculata from Massachusetts

Sources: Beadle, David and Seabrooke Leckie. 2012. Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 611 pp.
Covell, Charles V., Jr. 1984. A Field Guide to Moths of Eastern North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 496 pp.
Powell, Jerry A. and Paul A. Opler. 2009. Moths of Western North America. Berkeley: University of California Press. 369 pp.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Another Rarity: Nysa Roadside-Skipper in Colorado

This is what you get for exploring, observing, recording, and being curious: Surprises. I am not well-versed in things butterfly, but I do know when I haven't seen a particular species before. Even if I cannot say anything about a creature in the field, I can go and research it later. Such was the case of the Nysa Roadside-Skipper encountered on Monday, May 15, in Lamar, Prowers County, Colorado.

It always starts innocently enough, and sometimes results from disappointment over something else. I would much rather find interesting wasps, beetles, grasshoppers, and true bugs instead of butterflies, but it so happened that recent bad weather (a cold snap a couple weeks ago and heavy rains more recently) left little to find besides Lepidoptera in Lamar. Some Lepidopterist out there is going to make me envious by finding a cool wasp now.

So, my wife, Heidi, and our mutual friend Jill White Smith, took the field looking for birds and whatever other wildlife we could see. Jill is a very accomplished photographer. You can see her work at Nature Made Photography on Facebook, in fact. She does "people photography," too, as she puts it. She is also very generous and welcoming, and eagerly showed us around to her favorite haunts.

One of those habitats is an abandoned, unpaved road that is quickly becoming part of a dune or sandhill adjacent to the riparian corridor of Willow Creek, south of the Lamar Community College campus. Flies, damselflies, a few bees, and butterflies flew up every few steps. I happened to notice one small one land in the road, and I focused my camera. I could tell it was a skipper, but not one I had ever seen before. I had left my field guides at home, but that only served to build suspense.

We got home from the three-plus hour drive around eleven at night. After unloading the car, I consulted my Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America. Thanks to Jim Brock and Kenn Kaufman, I quickly found my mystery skipper: the Nysa Roadside-skipper, Amblyscirtes nysa. The only "problem" was that the range map for the species does not include Colorado. Heidi did a bit more research and found only one Colorado record online at Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA), and no Colorado records on Bugguide.net. I consulted an old book, Butterflies and Moths of the Rocky Mountain States, and found no historical records for Colorado.

What do we know about this insect? Its known range is from Mexico, southeast Arizona, southern New Mexico, and the western two-thirds of Texas north and east through Oklahoma and the eastern two-thirds of Kansas, barely crossing into Missouri. There are between one and three generations ("broods") each year, depending on the geographic location of a given population. The caterpillars feed on grasses. The Kaufman guide adds: "Males perch in wash bottoms, road depressions, or along trails very early n the morning before retiring to shade for the afternoon." This guy was overdue for a nap, then, at almost 10:00 AM.

We also saw what I thought was a small Common Sootywing, but it turns out what I saw was the dorsal (top) view of this same skipper. I narrowly missed an opportunity to get a shot, but here is one of a specimen in Arizona:

© Philip Kline via Bugguide.net

Lastly, while taking images of the skipper, I noticed what might be the cutest beetle ever. I had to bring it home to get images. As near as I can tell, it is a darkling beetle in the genus Edrotes, for which there are also no Bugguide records for Colorado.

Discoveries like these await you, too. You do not have to know what you are looking at to enjoy the moment, capture it in pixels or digital video, and share it with others. You explore and observe often enough and long enough, and you are almost guaranteed to find something truly unusual, or even unknown.

Sources: Brock, Jim P. and Kenn Kaufman. 2003. Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 384 pp.
Ferris, Clifford D. and F. Martin Brown. 1981. Butterflies of the Rocky Mountain States. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 442 pp.