Friday, November 20, 2015

New Mexico Dragonfly Blitz - Day 3

Saturday, August 29, found us wading up the Middle Fork of the Gila River, accessed at a point near the visitor center for Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. This is yet another scenic canyon, full of wonderful flora and fauna.

Middle Fork of the Gila River

Rubyspot damselflies were again abundant, but this time it was American Rubyspots, Hetaerina americana, that appeared to be most common. Despite how plentiful they were, I still can't seem to tell the difference between American and Canyon Rubyspot.

Male and female rubyspot damselflies

Our party quickly split up in different directions, so some folks saw dragonflies and damsels that others did not. Rather than dwell on what I missed, I delighted in what I saw, including another "lifer" species, the Pale-faced Clubskimmer, Brechmorhoga mendax. Someone netted a specimen the day before, but I was lucky enough to spot this specimen in flight and followed to where it perched. These dragonflies are in the skimmer family Libellulidae, but they look a lot more like clubtails (family Gomphidae). The fact that their eyes meet helps one to readily identify them as skimmers.

Pale-faced Clubskimmer dragonfly

I am also alert to non-odonate insects, and was pleased to find a couple of nice specimens of the Green Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca shoshone, clinging to cattails and grasses along the edge of the river, and on islands in the middle of the river.

Green Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca shoshone

A lovely metallic blue beetle with an orange pronotum (top segment of thorax) also caught my eye. I later determined it to be the V-marked Lady Beetle, Neoharmonia venusta ampla. This subspecies is found only from central Arizona to south Texas, and is not that commonly encountered.

V-marked Lady Beetle

There were animals other than insects, too. One of the cutest was an Arizona Toad that was hopping across a sand bar when we saw it.

Arizona Toad

Many of the dragonflies we saw were species we had seen the day before, but I managed better images of some of the clubtails, like the Dashed Ringtail, Erpetogomphus heterodon. The solid green thorax, with relatively few brown stripes, helps to identify this lovely species.

Dashed Ringtail dragonfly

The White-belted Ringtail, Erpetogomphus compositus, by contrast, has a heavily-striped thorax. It might be better called the Zebra Ringtail. The white "belt" refers to the central stripe on the side of the thorax, which is white, not yellow-green like the adjacent patches.

White-belted Ringtail dragonfly

A perfect male specimen of the Great Spreadwing damselfly, Archilestes grandis, perched on a reed right in front of some of us. This damselfly is so large that it could easily be mistaken for a dragonfly at first glance. This is a common species over much of the U.S., but was a "first" for at least a few members of our group.

Male Great Spreadwing damselfly

A bit more surprising was a male Powdered Dancer damselfly, Argia moesta, sharing mid-stream rocks with rubyspots and ringtails. Mature male specimens are covered in pale blue pruinosity, a kind of waxy bloom that easily rubs off. This was the only individual we saw the whole trip.

Male Powdered Dancer damselfly

Once again, threatening weather descended, and we had to exit the canyon a little sooner than we would have liked. On the way out, Heidi spotted a very cryptic flower scarab beetle, Euphoria sonorae, inside a flower.

Flower scarab beetle, Euphoria sonorae

After lunch, Heidi and I decided to see if the trail to the cliff dwellings was open. It is subject to closure in the face of impending electrical storms, but it was open, we paid the $5.00 entrance fee, and away we went. Crossing a bridge over a tributary of the Gila River, we found several caterpillars of a tiger moth in the genus Halysidota parading over the railings. Tents of the Fall Webworm, Hyphantria cunea, adorned many trees.

Caterpillar of Halysidota sp.

The trail is steep, with numerous switchbacks, but there are some nice views of the cliff dwellings.

There are benches to take a breather if you need it, but this one was already occupied by a ground squirrel when we got to it.

The cave dwellings are well worth the trip. The scale is quite surprising. Volunteers at the site help interpret the history and culture, and point the way to the exit, down a ladder!

Heidi at the cliff dwellings

The most obvious occupants of the site these days are the Crevice Spiny Lizards. The reptiles in turn provide a home to bright red mites that speckle various parts of the lizard, especially beneath its "collar."

Crevice Spiny Lizard

Wildflowers provide color at this time of year, too, and this catchfly, Silene laciniata, was one of the more intense blooms we saw as we descended from the cliff dwellings.

Cardinal Catchfly flower

We decided to spend the remaining daylight by exploring more of City of Rocks State Park before an evening group picnic and astronomy presentation. A Black-tailed Jackrabbit put in an appearance at dusk, and then we were treated to a "super moon" rising above the, um, mountains in the distance.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

After dark, other creatures venture out. The park visitor center and restrooms are modestly lit, enough to draw insects, and spiders and other predators like this Red-spotted Toad.

Red-spotted Toad

An Apache Recluse spider, Loxosceles apachea, and a large blister beetle in pinstripes, Epicauta costata, were among the other highlights of the evening.

Apache Recluse spider
Blister beetle, Epicauta costata

Our drive out of the park would have been spectacular were it not for a terribly unfortunate outcome to our encounter with a gorgeous Prairie Rattlesnake. It was stretched across our lane, soaking in the warmth of the asphalt. I got out to take pictures, and eventually move the snake to safety. Before I could do that, another vehicle approached from behind us. I had my insect net, and tried to wave the approaching car around us. Instead, the driver and his passengers assumed we might be in trouble, and they came to a stop in front of our car, after driving right over the poor serpent.

Miraculously, there was no external damage to the reptile, but it had to have sustained catastrophic internal injuries. I got the snake into my net and moved it off the road, hopefully to live out whatever remaining hours it had in peace.

It turned out the party in the other car were college students with intense interest in herpetology and entomology. We exchanged pleasant greetings (after my initial outburst because I thought they had intentionally hit the snake), and then parted ways.

It was a sad ending to an otherwise wonderful day, but more was yet to come.

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