Saturday, October 1, 2016

A look around San Diego

A spotless ladybeetle, Cycloneda sanguinea, with
the morning dew.

This morning Cedric Lee called me up and asked if I wanted to tag along with him down to San Diego. Immediately, I said yes, without knowing what it was about! Not disappointed -- it was to be a meetup with some of So Cal's most enthusiastic malacologists around (that is the study of snails, slugs, and associated shells for those who don't know!).

First though we arrived a little early, so we had some time in the early daylight hours to snoop around some interesting habitat. Cedric had a few spots in mind and I figured we should go for the native corridor along Quail Hollow Drive, primarily because there were no iNaturalist observations from that area yet! We got out the car and delved into the fog, with no particular targets in mind. We found several shells of Helminthoglypta (or, embarrassingly, only he did for the most part!!) and scanned around for other interesting critters. A cluster of  prickly pear cactus were most interesting, holding a few personal firsts such as the tiny beetle Cybocephalus californicus, a scale insect called Diaspis echinocacti, and an unusual fly named Stictomyia longicornis, all three known to associate with cacti. The fly was a personal favourite...I mean, just look at this strange critter!

An unusual fly, Stictomyia longicornis.
The scale insect Diaspis echinocacti, at a glance easily dismissed as spots or markings on the
cactus itself.
Not new for me, but this sandy stilt-puffball, Battarrea phalloides, is always a fun sight.
The cover of spores on adjacent vegetation and surfaces is quite typical for this species.
We didn't have much more time here sadly but we did make sure to take a wander through a stand of Eucalyptus. With the mist, fog, dense shade, and soaked vegetation, it really felt like we were walking through the Australian rainforest at times.

Gum tree "rainforest".

A particular find was of what I can best describe as a fungus that looks like a series of coffee beans growing on a lichenized branch. "Coffee bean fungus" gave no proper search results in Google, but I since identified this as Hysterium pulicare. It is similar to H. angustatum, but differs in the shape and host. As we walked back, an excellent find by Cedric was a series of living decollate snails, Rumina decollata. I have seen the shells a few times, but never living specimens before!! For those who don't know, these introduced snails are actually carnivorous! What a cool find -- thanks Cedric!

I'm not going insane, right? They do look like coffee beans, don't they? Hysterium pulicare.
Decollate snail, Rumina decollata. These snails have a complete spire at birth, but
decapitate the end of their shell later in life, hence "decollate"!
We soon met with the "crew", namely Susan Hewitt, Jann Vendetti, BJ Stacey, and the two of us. The plan was to comb a local tideline named Cardiff Beach for interesting shells. Certainly I felt like the odd one out since I primarily focus on living organisms, not their remains, but there is a whole suite of unusual intertidal and beach-dwelling insects that are endemic to the Pacific coast. On the streets nearby I picked up the well-named yellow-striped armyworm, a caterpillar of a fairly widespread moth. 

Yellow-striped armyworm, Spodoptera ornithogalli.

At the beach the pressure was on to find some great species. I turned over a few bits of kelp and soon found a few species. The rove beetles Bledius sp. and Tarphiota geniculata, a beach-dwelling dance fly in the genus Chersodromia, as well as a Cercyon sp., and a sandhopper which I have since keyed out as Megalorchestia benedicti. A surprise find by Cedric was a very bedraggled looking saltmarsh tiger moth. I don't know how this moth was still able to walk!!

Tiny rove beetle, Tarphiota geniculata. Note the fine hairs across the body. Apparently, these
are specific to intertidal beetles and function as a "life-jacket" if they get swept
away accidentally!
Saltmarsh tiger moth, Estigmene acraea.
Not just any sandhopper; Megalorchestia benedicti, a name larger than the creature itself!
Chersodromia sp.

And to think, those were just the species that I identified! With the day falling short we parted ways with everyone and headed to the San Elijo Lagoon reserve. My first meeting was with a weed named Myoporum parvifolium, a sort of carpet version of the notorious ngaio tree. Down in the wetlands themselves I solved a personal mystery by discovering and capturing a grasshopper in the Salicornia. I had heard grasshoppers calling from this habitat in many parts of California, but this is the first time I've managed to see the singer in question. It is generally accepted that there was no saltmarsh grasshopper, so this really caught my interest!! There has been a bit of disagreement over what this is, but right now the verdict is Orphulella pelidna. A conversation with the rangers was a fun one and they set off warning us not to step onto the reserve itself -- fair enough, but I do wonder what other creatures lurk here, unknown to us. Not to mention the endemic ladybeetles that are known.

Myoporum parvifolium.
A grasshopper, Orphulella pelidna.
As we headed back to the car I stumbled across one of my personal favourites for the outing, an enormous caterpillar of the Carolina sphinx moth! Just look at this guy munching on Datura. This was the first non-white-lined sphinx moth caterpillar I had seen from the sphinx moth family, so very exciting!

Carolina sphinx moth, Manduca sexta.
Let's take a moment to look at those spiracles!
They may look like eyes, but spiracles are how caterpillars breathe!
Speaking of moths, Cedric was well equipped with something I wish I had myself (and I don't mean a car!), which was blacklight gear! We decided to wander around a little more until nightfall, which would give us a chance to see some cool wetland moths (hopefully!). But firset we drove by the north end of the reserve and had a look along that trail. It was surprisingly productive, and I found several new species such as the hoverfly Syritta flaviventris, the lichen Heterodemia leucomela, and a rust on Fremont cottonwood called Melampsora medusae.

A rust fungus is responsible for the fiery spots on this leaf. Specifically, Melampsora medusae.

In the open dried meadow spanning the north side of the reserve I encountered an unusual plume moth. I had a very good idea of what this was, but the only documentation of this species in the entire world is an image of a dead, pinned specimen from a museum. The moth I had was extremely different looking, but I knew it had to be it. No other plume moth had complete wings with this row of dark markings -- it was none other than Agdistis americana! This was easily one of the best species I have found in a while, and to my knowledge only the second photos of this species. Certainly, the first photos of the moth in living condition! 

Agdistis americana, an incredible plume moth limited to marshes on the Pacific Coast.
What's the host plant, I wonder? No one knows yet!
As dusk set in, a flock of 17 greater white-fronted geese flying over the horizon was another surprise. This is a rare bird in southern California on its own, let alone in a quantity that decent. The calls were similar to snow goose, but the birds were dark, and white-rumped. An orb weaving spider, Eustala conchlea, was not uncommon on some local shrubs, but they were extremely skittish and dropped if you made any approach.

The blacklight had its own share of fun, with great species like Tallula fieldi, Cisthene liberomacula, Chionodes lophosella, Bryolyminia viridata, Pelochrista williamsi, and, of all things, a mosquito on my arm which turns out to be Culex erythrothorax!

Tallula fieldi.

An incredible day out, and I have Cedric to thank for it. Thanks Cedric!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

California Tour pt. 2

The plan for today was to head towards the San Gabriel Mountains and meet up with a good contact of mine, Cedric Lee. Jason wanted native molluscs, and who better to involve the county's best malacologist!? Fortunately our detour to Thousand Palms was not too taxing, and we were not as behind schedule as we thought. There was still some time to spare, so we unfurled the map and scoured the terrain for suitable terrain -- suitable that is for life at what may be the most barren season in California. Fortunately desert species had a weakness, and that was water. Find areas that collect moisture, and you are good to go!

Our choice was the Coachella Valley Preserve, a bounty amidst the dry, barren stone of the desert. The waves of California fan palms were visible from a distance, and we had high hopes. Upon arriving I picked up an unusual katydid, Insara elegans ssp. consuetipes, surprisingly well camouflaged in the desert mesquite. Below it, a desert ironclad beetle, an unusual darkling-like critter that would rather play dead than release badly smelling chemicals. With a short note by the staff about the reserve we headed off through the arrowweed and fan palm and kept our eyes peeled for anything that moved. Or didn't, in the case of plants.

California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera.
Insara elegans ssp. consuetipes, neither grasshopper nor cricket, but katydid.
Desert ironclad beetle, Asbolus verrucosus.
The aptly named smoketree was of note in the dry wash areas, followed by Paiute dancer, the first damselfly of the trip. For me that was a much-needed break from my Argia resume, until now consisting solely of many hundreds of vivid dancers and naught else!

With time constraints gnawing at us, we picked up the pace. Canada spikesedge, Emory's indigo bush, sandpaper plant, alkali goldenbush were just a selection of interesting plants still showing at the reserve. With the sun beaming down the monotonous buzzing of citrus cicada quickly filled our eyes and in time others serenaded too, and indeed it became quite omnipresent. With some significant persistence I finally managed to get looks at one of these critters through the tangling spines and leaves of screwbean mesquite. Despite being large in size, these insects are quite difficult to observe.

The easily overlooked Canada spikesedge, Eleocharis geniculata.
Smoketree, Psorothamnus spinosus, forms a large wispy tree.
Meanwhile the very closely related Emory's indigo bush, Psorothamnus emoryi, is a small
herbaceous shrub that barely raises off the ground!
Citrus cicada, Diceroprocta apache.
Views of a confiding zebra-tailed lizard were certainly one of the highlights of the expedition, but sadly it was time to hit the road. On the way to Thousand Palms a roadrunner dashed out in front of the car, and gave some very commendable views on the fence of the Palm Tree Nursery. This uncommon and irregular bird is always a great sight, but especially fantastic for Jason! 

Greater roadrunner.
It was a further two hours to meeting point at Marshall Canyon Regional Park, where we met Cedric, and apologized for our delay. Before checking other areas of the San Gabriel foothills we turned over debris in a nearby creek bed. This paid off with several gastropods, as well as the large rove beetle Quedius explanatus (not the introduced Ocypus olens, as was suspected). One particular slug matches well with the marsh slug, Deroceras laeve, thanks to the habitat, absence of all markings, and clear breathing pore.

Rove beetle, Quedius explanatus.
Marsh slug, Deroceras laeve.
Our next point of interest was Big Dalton Canyon, which had a series of interesting riparian and open forest habitats. Invertebrate life was quite widespread here, with the fly Minettia flaveolens, Thereva sp., mulberry whitefly, western box elder bug, and, unfortunately, the polyphagous shot hole borer. A seeding Johnston's bedstraw was the first of its kind that I had observed period. Shells of the rare native snail Helminthoglypta petricola were a great sign, but sadly no living individuals could be located.

On a coast live oak near the car I noted a series of unusual white..."things". Fortunate that these caught my eye, as they were actually a strange scale insect named Quernaspis quercus! Coast live oaks are common in this region, but never before have I seen these scale insects. Only one other photo existed before I found these ones! On nearby leaves, the jumping spider Colonus hesperus, and the stem gall Callirhytis quercussuttoni just added to the bounty of this foothill adventure.

Mulberry whitefly, Tetraleurodes mori, on Frangula californica.
Western box elder bug, Boisea rubrolineata.
Scale insects, Quernaspis quercus, on coast live oak.
A jumping spider with no English name, Colonus hesperus.

Polyphagous shot hole borer, Euwallacea n-sp, a rather destructive pest.

At Santa Anita Canyon the restrooms paid off again, with this exemplary Dichorda illustraria! After regrouping here we headed down the trail. With all 3 of us continually spotting interesting lifeforms, progress was much slower than it should have been! Tree spurge was a common introduced weed along the trailside, and a male of the white-banded crab spider was something I was waiting for find for quite some time. This gave me a long time to puzzle over its name, as there is nothing white-banded about any of the male or female forms. Turns out it is because of the white stripe over the eyes!

Dichorda illustraria.
White-banded crab spider, Misumenoides formosipes.
The rather abundant and varied vegetation along the trail was home to an Arizona mantis, which kindly let us all pester it with the camera. A moth, Eusarca venosaria, was something I noticed in one of the shady areas of the forest. This moth resembles the eastern E. confusaria, but is, well, western in distribution.

Arizona mantis, Stagmomantis limbata. Note the blue margin to the labrum, which is diagnostic of
this particular species.
Eusarca venosaria. This is the first time it has been photographed in the wild,
but I doubt it is really that rare.
Before night fell we made a final trek into some of the more remote canyons. Several areas still held water, which before long produced a wide variety of interesting creatures, ranging from California newt to California treefrog. Finding the giant water bug Abedus indentatus was a particular highlight for me personally, as this was my first ever encounter with this family of true bugs!

Abedus indentatus.
California newt, Taricha torosa.
Moments before turning back we lucked out with fallen wood on a particular damp slope, which on turning over revealed a congregation of San Gabriel chestnut, an impressive native snail! This was one of my bucket list species, so it was a great relief to find them. Before returning them Cedric spotted another micro snail in the mix, the even rarer slotted lancetooth! What more could we ask for? These snails were not the epitome of living, but in a state called aestivation. This is when they seal up the entrance to the shell, with the intention of retaining moisture, so they can survive drier periods of the year. Such a great find for everyone present,

San Gabriel chestnut, Glyptostoma gabrielnse.
Slotted lancetooth, Haplotrema caelatum.
With high spirits we all returned to car and bid farewell. Our goal was to find native gastropods, and that we did. Thanks Cedric!

Back in familiar territory I wished Jason good luck on the rest of his forays on the west coast, and settled in for the night. I could not thank Jason enough for his time, nor Cedric, for some very memorable autumn adventures!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

California Tour pt. 1

It was an expedition to the San Jacinto Mountains this weekend as fellow iNatter Jason Crotchwell (aka berkshirenaturalist), had scheduled an extensive west coast trip. His goal, to find at least 1000 species, with 100 in each state, in a long, extended trip through CA, NV, UT, and perhaps even further afield. Besides appreciating his optimism, anyone that had the resources to take this much time out of their lives, and dedicate it solely to nature, well deserved my utmost respect!

It was quite late on the 23rd September when I finally met up with Jason. I had been camped outside of Starbucks with a few backpacks of supplies. Several people, finding the circumstances of a stranger with camping gear on the sidewalk unusual, had previously approached me asking if I was homeless, or needed help getting home! An interesting experience in itself and another reminder that we deserve more naturalists in the world who understand our efforts. After meeting we first made a quick stop at Home Depot to gather pipe frames, a necessity if we were to set up a black light and sheet. I could not join Jason for the entire expedition sadly, but I could help him out with the southern California portion of the trip. 

Myelopsis subtetricella.
Our trip would start properly tomorrow, so it was a quick visit to the nearby O'neill Campground for now. Jason's flight wasn't the smoothest sailing, so he deserved a lie in! Before hitting the hay I perused the local restroom lighting and picked up a couple of new moths, Schinia velaris and Myelopsis subtetricella, along with an antlion that will probably never be named. The grounds were a bit too congested for our liking, so we skipped the blacklight for now. Last thing we needed was a swarm of angry, light-attracted campers disturbed by the light!

The gossamer sheen of Schinia velaris is a wonder to behold.
It was bright and shine early next morning. Earlier in the week Jason came to me for advice on how to prioritize this portion of the trip. The fall is a difficult time of year in dry southern California, as the dry sun quickly desiccates vegetation and turns verdant wilderness into crackling brown clay. At this time of year even invertebrates can be few. After consulting weather reports and terrain maps my first thought was checking the local Holy Jim Canyon. The waterfall at this site is apparently permanent, and it looked sufficiently forested to distract us for a while. Jason's primary motive was native gastropods and herps, so finding permanent water was critical. I was quite surprised how bumpy the road to the Holy Jim Trail was. Luckily the 4WD Jason had hired was enough to handle it, but to say it was unsettling even with this vehicle was no exaggeration. We spent a small portion of the morning chasing up some local west coast birds before heading out, and sadly did not make the waterfall. We could have spent longer and tried to reach the falls itself, but the creeks nearby were bone dry so I figured it was better heading out earlier and dedicating more time to other locations.

Before abandoning Orange County entirely I called a stop in the nearby wash adjacent to Rose Canyon Road, after noticing duskywings attending flowering broomsage. This was evidently a good decision as only seconds in we were looking at one of the greatest congregations of nectaring insects one could ever hope for in California. The profuse canary yellow of scalebroom quite pleasantly gilded the cliff boundaries and crevices, and was worth a few photos in itself. Seeing the scale of hover flies, bee flies, butterflies and other inverts in such large numbers was a bonus! Of note for me was a tiny beetle, Attalus trimaculatus, that made up for its size with some stunning colouration. The large bumbling buzz of Copestylum, either mexicanum or violaceum, was also welcome.

California broomsage, Lepidospartum squamatum, pollinator paradise incarnate!
Mournful duskywing, Erynnis tristis.
Behr's metalmark, Apodemia virgulti.
White-crossed seed bug, Neacoryphus bicrucis.
Attalus trimaculatus.
Lest we forget one of the most important members of the pollinator community, the honey bee!
It was then a long drive on from here to reach the San Jacinto Mountains. On the way I called for a stop in Aguanga, a place where I had previously encountered cactus wren. Despite finding old nests, there was strangely no sign of the birds themselves. This site did pay off in other ways however, with great views of several reptiles, including orange-throated whiptail! In this desert habitat I picked up a few other bonuses, including small-flowered tamarisk, the longhorn beetle Crossideus discoideus, California matchweedrough harvester ant, coyote melon, and an interesting hopping true bug, known only by the cumbersome name of Coridromius chenopoderis which I located by beating roadside Atriplex canescens.

Small-flowered tamarisk, Tamarix parviflora, has finer and greener foliage than the usual species.
Crossideus discoideus, a longhorn beetle.
Rough harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex rugosus.
Coyote melon, Cucurbita palmata.
The unusual hopping Mirid, Coridromius chenopoderis.
Our next stop was along the southern portion of the San Jacinto Mountains, in the wilderness adjacent to the Paradise Valley Cafe. Here lies a record of the rare pinyon pine, Pinus edulis, apparently close to the road. Given this seems to be the only easy-to-access sighting in California, and given the potential of the habitat, I thought it was a good shout. The pines in question were actually quite easily found, and, sure enough had the diagnostic 2-needle bunches. Since then however I see that there has been speculation about Pinus edulis in California, and now they are considered relict hybrids between the common pinyon pine and Pinus juarezensis from Mexico. Not the species I had hoped for, but in some ways even more interesting! The soft autumnal wisps of redshanks were common in this area, one of my favourite California shrubs. I find them very photogenic!

Hybrid pinyon pine.
This pinyon pine has two needles per bunch.
Redshanks, Adenostoma sparsifolium.
This spot was actually quite rewarding, and before we knew it we had spent more than an hour here! This was primarily an invertebrate session, with Scolops, the yucca plant bug Halticotoma validis, the gall midge Asteromyia gutierrezae, the whitefly Aleuropleurocelus on manzanita, and a mealybug on chamise that matches Anisococcus adenostomae. By sheer luck we bumped into one of Jason's hoped for insects, the monkey grasshopper Morsea californica! There was one plant I had not seen before though, pointleaf manzanita.

A partridge bug, Scolops sp.
Yucca plant bugs, Halticotoma valida, on Yucca schidigera.
The matchweed stem gout gall, Asteromyia gutierreziae, is formed by an
orange midge larvae. From the outside the only indication that this insect is
there is by looking for a slightly raised black portion of the stem.
Mealybug on chamise, most certainly Anisococcus adenostomae due to the paired tail filaments
and overall appearance.
The rather non-descript pupa of the whitefly genus Aleuropleurocelus. There are at least 3 species in
CA on this host plant, pointleaf manzanita.
With that eventful stop, we headed down into the Jacintos themselves. It was getting a little late in the day now so we stopped by a few other roadside areas, before descending into Mountain Center. In the town itself I heard one of my much-needed katydids, Microcentrum californicum, calling from some low residential trees. By some sheer turn of luck I found this katydid, and at no more than head height. Generally these live in the canopy, which I blame for the long delay in getting to see one in person. On the same birch tree a small moth, apparently Ypsolopha nella, was another welcome sight.

California angle-winged katydid, Microcentrum californicum.
Before heading to the campsite we dropped a blacklight and setup a white sheet along an elevated ridge nearby. Although not bursting with moths, we found a great selection of species. Sympistis linda, Cryphia nana, Henricus umbrabasana, Drepanulatrix nevadaria, Arta epicoenalis, Sabulodes spoliata, Eudonia echo, and the stunning Edward's glassy-wing were just those that we could identify. Other insect highlights included the green lacewing Chrysopa coloradensis, the distinctive fruit fly Valentibulla californica, and a beetle called Aphorista morosa. With lights in Southern California you always attract a myriad of little micros, some colourful some not, that you can't identify. Given that so much of what we have seen has only a handful or even no photographs before our trip, I can only imagine what we were overlooking.

Sympistis linda.
Cryphia nana.
Arta epicoenalis.
Drepanulatrix nevadaria.
Edward's glassy-wing, Pseudohemihyalea edwardsii!!
Sabulodes spoliata.
A green lacewing, Chrysopa coloradensis.
An interesting fruit fly, Valentibulla californica.
In the darkness I noticed an odd creature scrambling across the trail. It was another of Jason's most wanted critters, a Jerusalem cricket! These strange creatures are unlike anything else. See for yourself:

Jerusalem cricket, Stenopalmatus sp.
We hit camp in the nearby mountains, but it was not quite what we had hoped. Maybe we were too picky, but there was just not enough space, the terrain was rather rocky, and the tent site was on a very steep incline that even the vehicle struggled to climb. With all nearby towns booked for the night, we made the tough decision of heading another hour north to Thousand Palms, where one motel had rooms open. It was not what we planned, but sleeping in proper beds was exactly what we needed. Plus, couldn't dismiss that it put us very close to some other great desert locations for the next morning!