19 April 2010

Tiger Beetle Love Fest

IIII ) ll Tiger Beetle Love Fest (18Apr10)

1038 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - headed down into the big coulee at the confluence today with much to check on. Are the rattlers awake? Did the kakanottsstookii eggs hatch? How's the goose in the stump doing? Have the sapsuckers returned yet? And can I find those tiny black ants under the rocks on the ridge again, the ones whose identity has even the experts boggled?

1101 The mountain bluebirds are still around from last week, and now there are several meadowlarks singing from the fenceposts at the coulee rim. Duane Small Eyes and his rock-hunting crew are back out as well, like they are practically every weekend, looking for that one ammonite that'll line their pockets

1117 There's a significant snow drift along the uphill side of the trail I follow, left from the recent storm. At my feet, moss phlox and musineon are in flower. Clickhoppers shoot off in all directions with practically every step, and I see several seven- and two-spot lady bugs as well as other small beetles. The ground is teeming with new and renewed life, but I have a snake den to visit

1143 Well, I have to say I'm very happy. The first of my fanged, slithering friends is indeed awake. It is one of the middle-aged adults at the main den entrance, and she's a little bit groggy yet this morning, didn't even notice me standing beside her. I will come back in a few hours on my return hike up the slope to see who else may rise from the heat

1202 My next stop is on Omahkaaattsistaa Ridge overlooking the hibernaculum. Here there is what appears to me to be a stone effigy of some animal, though I can't make out just what. This is also the home of the tiny black ants, who live beneath the stones, and whose identity remains mysterious

1207 I don't set immediately to work trying to find the ants, because as I ascend the ridge I become distracted. In addition to the tiny white blooms of the moss phlox, two other flowers have emerged since last week's visit. Neither is familiar to me. One is a small, white aster surrounded by narrow, vein-like leaves. The other is an even smaller yellow-green bloom of some sort that could even be a species of moss

1218 The latter plant is woody and spiny, almost like creeping juniper, but minute. When I collect a stem to dry, I find that the yellow coloration is not so much a flower blossom as it is something else. They are like dots of spores on the leaves, reminding me of the reproductive organs of ferns

1308 For the next hour, my life is exclusively ants. It's amazing when you start looking around at insects. It's quickly learned that ants are here in amazing abundance. And I'm not just talking about the western thatcher with their highly visible mounds. I mean the less conspicuous as well. The ground beneath almost any rock the size of a baseball or larger may be home to an entire colony, and about eighty percent of the time is

1313 I can't remember how many ant species there are in our region. It is not an intimidating number, under fifty if I recall. Here on the ridge I can find at least three or four of them just turning rocks. There are the tiny black ants (dark brown actually), that I'm chasing today. There are also small (not tiny) black ants that don't bother with the rocks, keeping the entrances to their hives right at the surface. There are larger black ants below some of the proportionately larger rocks. And there is also a small (not tiny) orange species

1318 Today I've learned that the orange ants are hunted by the equal-sized black ants (the ones who keep their hive entrances at the surface). A few minutes ago, I turned over a rock the size of a small cantaloupe and exposed a massive hive of orange ants. Hundreds of them were surrounding their maggot-like larva. While I took pictures, hunters from a neighboring black ant colony moved-in, taking advantage of the exposure of the orange ant hive I've created. The black ones dragged off both larva and adults of their neighbors. I don't know if they plan to make slaves or meals of them, but the assault was wicked

1323 Turning only half a dozen rocks, I find one hive of larger black ants, two hives of the orange ants, and two hives of the tiny black ants I'm looking for. One of the entomologists in Calgary, an ant specialist, had seen photos I'd taken of them a couple weeks ago and requested that I send him some. Let me tell you, without an aspirator, the only way to collect these tiny critters is via that technology invented by the chimps - wet down a stem of grass with saliva and insert it into one of their burrows, bring it back out and you've got ants

1343 After nabbing a couple dozen of the ants I'd come looking for, I really want to get down the ridge and find some shade in the forest. But the beetles are having none of it. First I spot a large stink beetle scurrying underfoot. Then a mating pair of black tiger beetles both walks and fornicates across my path. And love must be in the air, because then a pair of brilliant, metallic-green tiger beetles come humping along as well. Now I'm almost afraid to leave the ridge, wondering what could be next

1420 Only after many stops and starts to observe the tiger beetles who continue to frolic and hunt along my route, do I finally make it down to the edge of the river. I doubt very much that I will make the time to hike over to the other side of this floodplain to check for sapsuckers today. My objectives, at this point, include checking the owl and goose nests, responding to whatever I may encounter between, then climbing right back up to look in on the hibernaculum again. Already a couple of warm hours have passed since I stopped there, and I would be surprised if none of the other snakes have emerged

1431 I sit for about twenty minutes at riverside, sandwiching slices of turkey between cheese and crackers, listening to a kakanottsstookii hooting in the forest on the opposite bank, and catching fleeting glimpses of passing butterflies (mourning cloaks and another that might be white cabbage) and wasps. The exposed gravels of the riverbed are, I know, a massive hunting ground for flying predatory insects as well as wolf spiders. I'll probably scout it out briefly before heading into the trees

1454 Just as I suspected, there are hundreds of tiger beetles sexing and hunting in the rocks. So far, all the ones I've seen are either black with a couple of yellow markings or the classic bronzed tiger beetles. It's so hot down here, I've taken my shirt off completely. Three mule deer, down for a drink at the river, are staring, clearly shocked at my lack of humility

1525 I follow the tiger beetles for the next half hour without figuring out what it is they're eating in the sand between river cobbles. I also find, on the bank, a new kind of medium-sized, winged grasshopper. They may be young road dusters, I'm not sure, but the pictures I took will no doubt help me sleuth-out the answer. Now I am on my way to check on the birds

1546 I was greeted at the tree-line by a kestrel, who gave a series of calls as she flew into the air from an unknown perch, circled three times above, and soared off to the other side of the floodplain

1549 My next stop is Goose Stump, which I really don't have a good feeling about. And as it turns out, my intuition is right on the mark. Something bizarre has happened at this nest. Not only is the goose gone and her single egg crushed into fragments among the down lining, but there are also several foreign pieces of bark on top of it all. I scan the surrounding trees for a source of this fallen detritus, but find nothing

1607 Seeing what happened to the goose nest, I don't have much confidence in what I'll find at the owl nest either. As I come into the meadow alongside which the nest is situated, I can hear the first mourning doves to arrive on this stretch of the river. I also hear starlings, house finches, a woodpecker or flicker pounding, and a hawk, redtail or swainson's or one of the others who make that typical hawk cry

1611 Mama kakanottsstookii is in her nest, and right away I'm excited to see that she's standing on one edge rather than hunkered down inside. This can only mean that incubation has concluded, as it well should have by now. But are there babies? This is another question entirely. I'm hopeful at first, but the longer I stand here below the nest without seeing at least one little fluff-ball peek out at me, the more concerned I grow

1619 Eventually I leave the nest without any confirmation one way or the other. There's still a chance that I will see young owls here when I stop by again next week. Mama obviously hasn't given up, so I see no reason why I should. All the same, it has been an awful long wait at this point. Incubation is definitely over. Either she has an owlet or two sleeping at her feet, out of view from my position below, or something has failed

1711 On the way up the slope, I could see there were a couple guys walking slowly into the hibernaculum area. I got there just as they were coming out, and one of them is a biologist from the University of Lethbridge. We chatted a bit. I showed them the few tiger beetles I'd caught today and told them about the Kainai phenology course series. They seemed entirely interested, and hopefully this will lead me into the contacts I'll need to pursue my PhD

1714 Thunder is calling overhead as I stand at the most popular entrance of the hibernaculum. There's a large rattlesnake in the hole, and I'm hoping it will come out again before the rain hits

1726 What a magical experience, standing here with this big snake, twelve buttons on its tail, tasting the air with its black, forked tongue, and all the while Thunder rumbling right overhead. The biologists has seen four snakes here just minutes ago. I see only the big one. But it's amazing, and a fine way to wrap this first week of the frog moon