Sunday, July 28, 2019

Results of the Red Rock Canyon Open Space Bioblitz

View of Pikes Peak from eastern edge of Red Rock Canyon Open Space

Last Friday through Sunday, July 19-21, scientists and citizen scientists descended on one of the most popular recreation sites in Colorado Springs, Colorado: Red Rock Canyon Open Space. The goal was to find as many species of living things as possible in that short time period, and I dare say that we exceeded expectations.

Melissa Blue butterfly

Red Rock Canyon was the first Open Space to be dedicated in Colorado Springs, purchased by the city back in 2003. It took ten years to complete the master plan for the 1,474 acre area. It includes an abandoned quarry, a couple of small reservoirs, and several habitats, from dense coniferous forests in its upper reaches to shortgrass prairie and meadows on the lower slopes and plateaus. It is perhaps better known for its extinct animal life, preserved as fossils in the stone outcrops and uplifts, than it is for what lives there now.

Mule Deer drinking in the evening

Hiking, trail running, horseback riding, rock climbing, and limited mountain biking are all favorite activities for humans who frequent the park. This heavy activity usually presents conflicts with those trying to observe wildlife, but animals in the park are now so adapted to people traffic that the deer all but say "excuse me" as they hustle past you to get a drink at one of the reservoirs.

© Heidi Eaton
A male Blue-eyed Darner dragonfly over one of the reservoirs

When I first proposed the idea of doing a single bioblitz to then-TOPS (Trails, Open Spaces and Parks Program) Manager Chris Leiber back in 2016, he envisioned the event at Red Rock Canyon. That proposal morphed into four bioblitzes at other Open Spaces in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of TOPS in 2017. Finally, we come full circle.

Red-tailed Hawk circling over a meadow

Colorado Springs has endured an unusually wet, cool spring and early summer, making for lush vegetation, but a relative dearth of insect life. Wildflower blooms this year have been short, sporadic, and far-flung, the distances between clumps of flowers greater than normal. The cool weather turned immediately into a heat wave of 90-plus degrees, punctuated with near daily afternoon thunderstorms, and that is what we faced for the bioblitz.

A male Ten-lined June Beetle, Polyphylla decemlineata, one of the first arrivals at the blacklight

Thankfully, we had a dry, hot night Friday night (July 19) on which to do blacklighting for moths and other insects, and it was epic.

© Heidi Eaton
Blacklighting before it got intense

We had three stations, two featuring bright mercury vapor lights to draw insects from farther distances, and one that was outfitted "only" with an ultraviolet (UV) light. All three stations were humming with activity and no two people saw the same insects and arachnids.

A female Spotted Pine Sawyer, Monochamus clamator at the blacklight

During the day, participants fanned out from "base camp" under a pavilion near the reservoirs to explore the surrounding landscape. One of our entomologists, Rose Ludwig, made an exceptional discovery when she took photos of a small, male clearwing moth on Saturday. She revisited the same location on Sunday and got images of the female.

© Rose Ludwig
Male Carmenta wildishorum clearwing moth

All our images and observations were recorded in an iNaturalist project, and there was immediate interest in Rose's find. It turns out to be a Colorado state record for Carmenta wildishorum, a species described only two years ago from specimens taken in New Mexico.

©Rose Ludwig
Female Carmenta wildishorum clearwing moth

Tim Leppek, Aaron Driscoll, Kaya Woodall, Debbie Barnes-Shankster, Bill Shankster, Heidi Eaton, and myself added even more observations of various arthropods to complement the work of botanists, mammologists, birders, and mycologists.

Three-banded Grasshopper, Haddrotettix trifasciatus, a surprising find

With the results of mammal and fungi experts still pending, we have already amassed a stunning 481 taxa (classifications ranging from family-level to species-level) for less than three full days of exploration. Many family designations include more than one genus or species, so numbers are likely to increase as more specific identifications are made. Still, not every genus or species can be identified from images alone. The mushroom experts will be doing detailed DNA work to arrive at their conclusions, for example.

Male sand wasp, Steniolia elegans

The Red Rock Canyon Open Space bioblitz concluded appropriately when the volunteer organizer, Sharon Milito, was presented with a Spirit of the Springs Celebration Award by Mayor John Suthers. Sharon has become a great friend and mentor over the last three years, and without her we would not have bioblitzes and I would not have gotten to visit Jimmy Camp Creek Park and Corral Bluffs Open Space, parcels that are not yet open to the public. I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this honor.

An owlet moth, Xestia bolteri, from the blacklight

Please do check out the iNaturalist project page, hyperlinked a couple paragraphs back, to see the full results of this undertaking. I wish to thank Bell Mead, and Renee McDougal for facilitating involvement of the Mile High Bug Club in all the bioblitzes, and managing our club's booth at base camp.

Tree Swallow fledgling waiting to be fed

Saturday, July 6, 2019

My Kind of Fourth of July

While most folks enjoy fireworks spectacles and flag-waving on Independence Day here in the United States, I would rather turn on our backyard blacklight and see what comes to visit. The neighbors did have some surprisingly professional-looking explosions, albeit they are illegal here in the city of Colorado Springs. I did my best to tune-out the loud noise.

Ruddy-winged Dart, Euxoa mimallonis

The U.S. was founded by immigrants, and has prospered from ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity, though we seem to frown on "minorities" in our present political climate. Here under my ultraviolet light, I see plenty of biological diversity, a melting-pot of insects that makes the ecosystem run even more efficiently than capitalism fuels our economy. One cannot help but observe the similarities, though the niches in ecosystems are filled by a variety of species while niches in the economy are occupied by only one: Homo sapiens.

White miller caddisfly, Nectopsyche sp.

Nature does not recognize villains or criminals or classes or any other structure relevant to our human societies. Every species is equal, adapting as it is able to constantly-changing conditions of climate, habitat, and competition from other species. Yes, some immigrant insects do compete with native species for the same "job" in the ecosystem, that much is obvious.

Damsel bug, Nabis sp., with leafhopper prey

While some insects do come to the blacklight to prey on other insects, most coexist peacefully under the purple glow. Occasionally one will blunder into another, causing both animals to run erratically or fly abruptly, only to quickly settle again without armed conflict or undue protest. Still other insects make a brief appearance, flirting with my desire to take their picture. Sometimes I get the shot, often I do not.

Crambid moth, Pyrausta insequalis

Every color of the rainbow has arrived. White is among the rarest. There is green, red, yellow, orange, black, brown....There are plain, monochrome bugs, and those with patterns too intricate to imagine. The moths often lose their colors as the night wears on, the scales on their wings lost with each wingbeat, each collision with the abrasive netting protecting the blacklight, each collision with another insect. It does not hamper their flight in the least.

Ant-mimicking plant bug, Pilophorus sp.

This one night, our celebration of America's birthday, may also be an insect's final fling, its days as an adult all too brief, just long enough to find a mate and reproduce. Some moths flourish for only a week at most, sometimes even more briefly. They have spent the bulk of their lives as caterpillars, larvae that are feeding-and-growing machines. At the end of that worm-like stage they transform into the pupa. Apparently inert on the outside, the pupa is a frenzy of internal reorganization as cells are re-purposed, some genes are turned off, and other genes turned on. It is a microcosm of a rapidly-changing economy with employees re-trained, whole new industries born, with all the promise of positive change each would suggest.

Delphacid planthopper, Bostaera nasuta

Has my blacklight beacon derailed the destinies of these insects? Some will surely be diverted from their procreative goals, from their foraging missions if they feed as adults. I make a point of turning the light off before I, myself, turn in, to give the insects a chance to resume their lives without distraction, though in a city full of lights they may well end up concentrated at the neighbor's porch light, or a streetlight up the boulevard. It is a hazard of urban living for those insects that reside in cities.

Green lacewing, family Chrysopidae

At last the auditory noise has abated, and the attractiveness of the blacklight has reached a point of diminishing returns. I must sleep, and it will only be four or five hours until the sun peeks over the eastern horizon to put an end to the nocturnal adventures of these tiny arthropods. The summer days are long, the nights brief, and insects must make the most of that narrow window of darkness. The day shift will begin, and niches will transfer ownership accordingly. There is no timecard to punch, but there are no holidays, either, no middle management, just life, pulsing as it will.