Monday, October 10, 2005

ENV: On finding new things

i've been at this watching critters thing for a long time now (in and around hiatuses i take for music, sports, film, teaching and various other things i do), 50 years by some measures, but i always manage to find new things and see things i've not seen before. i spend so much time afield that i often have the (usually mistaken) notion that i'm discovering completely new behaviors or situations. a posting on a listserv will usually dispel that idea quickly, though i am often unnerved at what the most casual of observers claim as their own.

nevertheless i've seen a number of things recently that cause me to wonder where i've been in those 50 years.

here's some of those things (many of which obviously are not new, but which i wanted to discuss anyway). let me say too, in advance, that i hate anthropomorphizing, but sometimes i subconsciously slip into it --please pardon me in advance. also, anything that i might venture as a reason something is happening is pure speculation on my part -- i have undertaken no creative scientific effort to actually prove anything about any of my observations -- they are just that, observations, sometimes with added educated conjecture . . .

after many years of avoiding them like the plague, i've become much more interested lately in the moths. in my effort to document the complete fauna of Kerr County i shied from them thinking it was going to be impossible to identify any but the most showy individuals. but i knew that to do a complete fauna would require tackling them at some point.

several folks on the Tx-Butterfly listserv have quite some expertise in working with moths. i found this out when Dr. James K. Adams IDed several bugs i had posted as unknowns on the original Kerr Fauna website. Charlie Sassine, Charles Bordelon, Mike Quinn and Ed Knudson, among others, have been most helpful.

and then recently Brush Freeman found a quite rare moth, quite out of place at Port O'Connor, and though i'd been familiar somewhat with, and had linked to, several moth ID sites, for the first time i found myself looking at hundreds, maybe thousands of moth photos for IDs. in the process i identified several of my local critters, and i guess i was hooked. (and since then have spent more time with quite a few other insects -- Robber Flies, Wasps, Beetles, Orthopterans, etc., partly because i was sparked by friends, partly because that's hat shows up long enough to be photographed).

so i started taking pictures of everything i saw, rather than just the things that caught my eye. it was a short hop to setting up a light station (to be fair to myself, i had actually bought the gear for this about three or four years ago, but never had the guts to actually set it up . . .). i worked a few nights here at home, getting mostly mayflies and june bugs, but an occasional cool moth showed up.

then i took the gear to west Texas on the Chinatis trip and, knowing i might not ever get there again, spent three straight nights, all night, lighting for bugs and taking photos (the results from that trip are at Fauna and Flora of the Trans-Pecos and are not quite done at this writing, but close).

when i returned home, i went at it in earnest. so, as i make a few observations here, you'll note that i am new to this. nevertheless some things intrigue me.

one of the first things i discovered (with about 30 actual nights of lighting behind me now) is that despite some similarities, every night is different. different enough that i turn the lights on and generally visit three or four times a night -- about every three hours.

there is a huge mercury-vapor light on a pole in the field behind my house, so i did not go to the expense (more like the trouble) to make a portable set up. at the pole i can see well what's attracted, and although some things get so high up i can't get a decent photo, with a scope or binoculars i can make an ID on the sphinxes i am intrigued by.

my usual set is, has been, a pair of high intensity halogen lamps. they seem to drag most everything in. i thought. sometimes i use those in tandem with a black light. and i photograph a lot that come to the windows at the office when i'm working late at night -- that would be fluorescent lights at work.

well, first, as i said, every night, often every trip to the lights is different. and we went through a weekend of exactly two bugs -- green Hemiptera -- because it was cold, and because i couldn't use the lights at peak time. so the point i'm about to make is based entirely on the background that there was a near disapperance of insects for the weekend.

then last night (and now tonight) i used a black light solo at the light set.

under the blacklight, of the bugs assembled, about 85% were moths. previously i had lots of moths some nights, but there were also myriad beetles, bugs, crickets, mayflies, and a handful of katydids, tree crickets, and other assorted oddball critters. the major different bugs tonight were a battery of odd beetles i have not seen before (more about them later).

now whether this was based on using the solo blacklight or not i don't know. i do know that i suddenly had a significant number of moth species i had not seen before -- again, was that because of the cold snap, or the fact i was using just a blacklight. tonight, the result is about the same -- lots of moths, a few beetles (though small Carabids this time instead of the mystery beetles i'll talk about in a second).

what i plan to do, is on my first run after midnight, switch back to the combination of blacklight and halogens to see what else i might drag in. i don't know if that will solve the riddle, but i'll at least know if there is more out tonight than moths and a few beetles.

about this mystery beetle: i don't believe i've ever seen this thing before. it has the vague outline of a Cotinis but is about half the size, solid, dark brown, and with a protruding end of the abdomen. all the ones on the sheet had their wing partially flared. since i had not seen them before i immediately suspected that the black light was bringing them in from the treetops or underground or something. there were numbers of these things.

my speculation was dispelled this morning when, in broad daylight, i was passing the gym and noticed lots of bugs laying on the floor (this location is about 100 yards from my light set). they were this same species of beetle, all were alive still but laying on their backs. every one i turned over immediately turned on its back again and flailed.

i suspect insecticide at work here, the boss has probably sprayed something. i know he's actively working on fire ants, but most of those are worked with sprinkling of a powder that i think is diazinon. in any case, these bugs were obviously dying. and a long ways from the black light.

and tonight there have been exactly zero of them show up at the lights. so a one-night blitz of a strange bug . . .

there was also another Obscure Sphinx at the sheet last night -- that's the third certain, and probably the fourth, of this species i've had here.

About deer

there's been a couple of things happen with deer in the last couple of weeks that i'm just now getting around to discussing.

the night that i first saw the first (young) Red Fox at the lights, i returned a few hours later to watch it again. when i got there there were two White-tailed Deer, a doe and a yearling, standing under the light staring directly at the fox. i could see a small buck standing off in the shadows.

the two watched the fox intently for a couple of minutes and then the doe charged the fox. they both went a few feet. the fox stared for a minute at the doe and then cautiously went back to chasing crickets, but facing the doe. after a couple more minutes the doe charged again but this time kept up the chase and for 20 or 30 seconds i could see the doe darting in and out of the shadows by the cabins. the young buck was snorting and stamping its foreleg during all this.

then the doe trotted back to the light and the yearling met it and they walked out into the field. normally the deer don't stand under the light.

i returned near dawn to close down the lights and found the fox back under the light chasing crickets -- i hadn't expected to see it again. i guess a hot food source can't be ignored.

the second deer story involves a ghost of sorts.

there is a huge (by our standards) buck White-tailed Deer that hangs out in the shadows beyond the big light pole. i see him, on average, about once a month, but in the fall, especially as mating season rolls around, i see him more often. i've been watching him for at least four years -- he was big when i started seeing him.

i have tried to get a picture of the brute, doing my best sneaks, and occasionally trying to wait him out from before dusk, all to no avail.

most of the deer here will watch me from as close as 30 feet when i walk around in the dark -- i think they have detected that i am no threat and simply aren't bothered by me. sometimes i have to talk to them to get their attention so they'll move out of the road.

but this one buck will have nothing to do with my presence (old time hunters will say that that's why he's gotten so big . . .).

i can see him at a quarter-mile when i leave the office, and if i'm careful i can get a scope on him from that distance. but if i make a move in that direction, he slides away into the darkness -- he just is gone.

i don't believe i've ever seen him closer than that quarter-mile. until a couple of weeks ago.

now, John Wootters, perhaps the most knowledgeable deer man ever -- and certainly the most prolific writer about deer -- lives just down the road here and i probably ought to shoot this one by him to see just how novel it is. but i have to say that, although i don't hunt anymore, i am literally in the presence of deer every day and have never seen this. and i used to be one of those fanatics who bowhunted and knew every scrape in the 5000 acre plot i hunted, etc. and i have never seen this.

i stepped out of the office one night last week to head down to check the lights and almost immediately heard the crack of deer antlers smacking. it wasn't loud or deep and i figure it was two youngsters checking things out. as i looked out into the field to see if i could find the culprits i saw a deer in the road about 50 yards away.

yep, it was the big boy. i figure he was coming to check the fight out for himself. but now i'd caught him -- close and in the open.

he quickly, but not appearing panicked exactly, he quickly turned and started running away from me down the road. now i see deer run everyday, and i don't know how to describe this well, but it looked like he was crawling at a run. he was running low to the ground, and not at a dead run, but a kind of half run. it was very funny-looking. funny as in strange, or the old definition of queer. and at about 150 yards he seemed to be getting lower and lower and then -- here's the really new part for me -- he abruptly slid to the ground and lay flat out, his neck and head flat on the ground, his chin on the asphalt, as though he were in tall grass and completely hidden from view, camouflaged. i've seen fawns do this -- you've at least seen pictures of fawns doing this -- when ma snorts and stamps. it was just plain odd -- like seeing a grown man in a crib with a pacifier. i snorted myself trying to hold in the laughter.

of course, i wanted a closer look -- i wasn't entirely sure the thing wasn't dead, a heart attack or some such. but no, as i moved another 25-30 yards closer, he lunged to his feet and was off in a thankfully normal, fast run, off into the shadows a few seconds later. i haven't seen him since.

more observations coming up . . .


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