Sunday, July 26, 2015

3 Lifer Tiger Beetles!

"I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order."

– John Burroughs

Wisconsin River near Sauk City

I've held an inordinate fondness for tiger beetles as long as I can remember. I believe I saw my first many decades ago as a young boy at my uncle's farm in Wood County. I think it may have been Cowpath Tiger Beetle (Cicindela purpurea), but I can't say for sure. I spent both Saturday and Sunday morning along the Wisconsin River near Sauk City seeking out the ferocious little insects on beaches and sandbars. To my surprise and astonishment, I picked up three lifers: Bronzed, Hairy-necked, and Sandy Stream Tiger Beetles. Plus, there were also Oblique-lined, Punctured, and Big Sand in the general area. What an absolute thrill for a tiger beetle geek!

As I scanned the large sandbar at the canoe launch, I could hear a grand diversity of songbirds vocalizing from the nearby woods and vegetation along the shore. An Eastern Towhee was singing from the other side of the river, but on my side I heard Great Crested Flycatcher, Field Sparrow, Yellow Warbler, American Redstart, Warbling Vireo, Eastern Bluebird, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Baltimore Oriole. Flying over the sandbar were Purple Martins, Barn Swallows, and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. Both Green and Great Blue Herons were present, as well as a flock of Ring-billed Gulls that contained at least two Bonaparte's. Though I enjoyed hearing their familiar calls and voices, I came for the beetles.

Gull Feather

Lifer #1 was Sandy Stream Tiger Beetle (Cicindela macra). They were the most abundant of the species present on the sandbar. Early in the morning they were slower but flew further distances, like up to 10 meters or more. As morning progressed they became quicker and more active, but made shorter escape flights making them easier to track. After an hour of hunting prey, a few of them began mating, which made photographing them considerably easier.

Sandy Stream Tiger Beetle (Cicindela macra)


And even more mating...

Lifer #2 was Bronzed Tiger Beetle (Cicindela repanda), which were fewer in number and quite a bit more difficult to track down. This species came out about 30 minutes after Sandy Stream and consistently flew long escape flights. Though less wary than Sandy Stream, they were very challenging subjects compared to other tiger beetle species I've photographed.

Bronzed Tiger Beetle (Cicindela repanda)

This next Bronzed Tiger Beetle is holding itself as high as it can and at an angle to the sun in order to keep its body away from the warming sand and reduce surface area. This behavior is “stilting” combined with “sun facing” that tiger beetles use to help regulate body temperature.

Lifer #3 was Hairy-necked Tiger Beelte (Cicindela hirticollis). Owing to its lower frequency (perhaps just one individual), I was unable to obtain a front-view photograph; I just couldn't get in front of this little beast. No matter how much I shifted position, it either kept its back or side to me. This species has rather formidable mandibles, but that portrait will have to wait for a future opportunity. Something to look forward to!

Hairy-necked Tiger Beelte (Cicindela hirticollis)

Including last week's Ghost mission up north, I've now observed and photographed 11 tiger beetle species in Wisconsin. According to Mike Reese's website there are 16 species documented in the Badger state, leaving 5 remaining to be found. From reading species accounts, it looks like I may have to venture even further north should desire to get them all.

Two Tiger Beetle Facts:

  • They can run almost 6 miles per hour. Relative to their size, this is equivalent to a human running almost 500 miles per hour or around 50 tiger beetle body lengths per second. You try and photograph one!
  • Belonging to the suborder Adephaga, tiger beetle common ancestry with ground beetles dates back some 200 million years. Yeah – they've been around a lot longer than we have.

Dotted Horsemint

Dotted Horsemint

After yesterday's tiger beetle mission, I spent a few hours at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. As I suspected, a few Sedge Wrens have moved into the prairie on account of sufficient forby plant development over the course of summer. Wildflowers are thick, but some of the more common species appear to be past peak. From near the parking lot I heard Dickcissel, Orchard Oriole, Common Yellowthroat, Willow Flycatcher, Indigo Bunting, Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Song Sparrow, and Red-winged Blackbirds.


Sedge Wren

Nodding Onion

My last stop for the day was to check out the creek corridor. Nesting species there included Eastern Wood-Pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Tufted Titmouse, Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, and more of the usual corridor species. I didn't carry my scope through the corridor, but instead brought along my macro lens. It was a good thing, too. I found a beautiful Red-spotted Purple butterfly at one of the creek crossings

Nymph - species undetermined.

Red-banded Leafhopper

Red-spotted Purple (White Admiral)

What great weekend fun!

It's coming...

All images © 2015 Mike McDowell

Friday, July 24, 2015

Fall Migration!

Least Sandpiper

Fall migration? It’s on! Actually, migrating shorebirds were spotted in southern Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago. So far I’ve seen reports of Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers, Stilt Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, etc. Southbound eastern populations of Least Sandpipers likely migrate by undertaking nonstop transoceanic migrations of 1,800 to 2,500 miles from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and New England to wintering grounds in northeastern South America. That’s an amazing journey for such a tiny peep!

Least Sandpiper - Range Map 

Me, on the other hand ... meh! I haven’t birded Pheasant Branch Conservancy since July 3rd, but I may try and get out tomorrow morning for a little while. It all depends on how strong my leg feels, but I probably won’t do any digiscoping unless there’s something close to the parking lot. I can walk comfortably for a little while, but I don’t want to overdo it and set myself back now that songbird migration is just around the corner.

Insect and wildflower photography is easier to manage because I only have to carry my camera and macro lens. Plus, I can find a decent quantity of subjects in a comparatively smaller area. There are a couple of tiger beetle spots I might check, too. If things go well this weekend, blog activity should increase again. But if not, I may go on hiatus until sometime mid to late August. As a regular long-distance walker/hiker, this injury has been a real test of my perseverance and will. I need to be outside and getting exercise during the warm months!

Least Sandpiper © 2015 Mike McDowell

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Ghost in the Sand...

Based on a tip I received via email from Mark Johnson, I decided to act on a very promising Ghost Tiger Beetle (Cicindela lepida) report at a big sand dune up north. Since I felt somewhat improved this morning and the weather was going to be absolutely gorgeous, I made the trip to see the beetles and visit family in Wausau as well. Upon arrival, the habitat looked excellent and I was thrilled about the prospect of viewing and photographing a tiger beetle species I'd been hoping to see for over a decade.

It only took a few minutes to find my very first Ghost Tiger Beetle. My initial impression was remarking at just how small they are (9-11mm) compared to other tiger beetles. For example, Big Sand is 14-21mm long, Oblique-lined is 11-15mm, and even the petite Punctured Tiger Beetle is 11-13mm.

I noticed there were more of them on the sandy slopes. Patiently, I decided to study the first few to take in the moment of observing a new tiger beetle species. Getting to know them is part of the process of learning how to photograph them. Some of them were super active while others were somewhat docile and fairly easy to approach. When they did fly, they were difficult to reacquire on account of how well they blended into their sandy surroundings. Thankfully, they typically didn't fly very far.

And then I got down to business...

And then some of the beetles got down to business!

The Ghost Tiger Beetle! So aptly named! They're actually easier to spot by their shadows.

Intense camouflage!

Thanks Dave and Alex!

Link: Ghost Tiger Beetle Conservation Status

All images © 2015 Mike McDowell

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Keeping it low key...

Behaviorally speaking, nearly on the opposite side of Coleoptera from tiger beetles is the docile Dogbane Leaf Beetle Chrysochus auratus (from aurat meaning "gold" or "golden"). Other than going to work, I've pretty much been cooped up on account of my recent muscle injury. Though it was really hot and humid this afternoon, I needed to get outside and do something nature-y. I decided to explore a nearby prairie by Esser Pond where dogbane grows, figuring I would likely encounter some of the golden leaf beetles at work.

There's no intense searching or stealthy stalking involved; these shiny plant eating insects are one of the easiest beetles to photograph. Though they bear some resemblence to the exotic and invasive Japanese Beetle, the Dogbane Leaf Beetle is a native species and have no known negative economic impacts on humans.

Though I've photographed this species on numerous occasions, I've never actually observed them eat until this particular outing. I missed the entire process in the following three shots, but caught this one walking backwards dragging the plant's sap...

Chilling after eating...

Here it is again...

But with this next series I got the entire sequence. First, the beetle chews away an area on the edge of a leaf...

Then the milky sap begins to emerge...

Next, the beetle grabs some of the sap and walks backwards with it, pulling as it goes...

And then down the hatch!

The Dogbane Leaf Beetle!

All images © 2015 Mike McDowell