Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Some Sphinx Moths of Costa Rica

I’ve been too swamped with showing some fabulous birds and critters to tour participants in Costa Rica and Brazil these past five weeks to post to my blog. And the more cool stuff I see, the more I have to blog about, and the farther behind I get.

Here’s a very quick sampling of the sphinx moths (family Sphingidae) that I managed to photograph and identify on the Costa Rica in July tour.

Xylophanes is the largest genus of sphingids, and I can usually recognize them by their sleek, aerodynamic look, often with longitudinal lines and lack of complex patterns.

Xylophanes libya has that classic look and seems to be very common.

Xylophanes anubus is one of the duller ones, but with enough pattern to be quite distinctive.

Xylophanes cyrene is a little more colorful and has a gorgeous pattern.

I was surprised to find that this one is also in this genus; it’s Xylophanes zurcheri. It comes last in the alphabetically organized list for northwestern Costa Rica (, so it took me a while to find it.

Adhemarius gannascus is a very large and very common species.

If I can, I usually grab any sphinx moth to get a photo of the hind wing pattern, which is often very useful in the identification. Sometimes it’s strikingly beautiful, too.

This big dull one is Cocytius antaeus, closely related to the hawkmoths in the genus Manduca (to which the familiar “tobacco hornworm” or Carolina Sphinx belongs).

This tattered one is Erinnyis ello, nicely showing its hind wing without my having to grab it. It occurs in the southern United States, with strays well north, even into SE Canada.

This strangely shaped and very compact one is Nyceryx tacita.

This last one is Pachylioides resumens, the only member of its genus.

Friday, July 18, 2014

White-tailed Ptarmigan in Taos County, New Mexico

These photos are from my short weekend visit to northern New Mexico over the Four of July weekend. Last time I visited my friends Cathy and Gabe here, we drove to Roswell in the southeastern part of the state for Lesser Prairie-Chickens. Finally, more than five years later, we reunited for another chicken, this time the White-tailed Ptarmigan.

We started on the east side of Santa Barbara Ridge on a well-used trail that takes hikers up to Serpent Lake and beyond it to Jicarita Peak in the Pecos Wilderness.

We were joined by New Mexico birders John Parmeter and Wyatt Egelhoff. John had been here several times before, while Wyatt’s first time was only 10 days ago. One of the strategies in finding the ptarmigan is to have several pairs of eyes, with birders spreading out over the tundra-like ridge above treeline, scanning for cryptic lumps of feathers. Wyatt missed it on his hike here alone.

It was about 4 miles to the point where one might start looking for ptarmigan, and we had at least a half mile more to go before splitting up for the serious search; it had taken John a few hours of searching in the past.

I stopped to photograph this Yellow-bellied Marmot when I heard John yelling my name from only about 50 yards up the trail.

He flushed this White-tailed Ptarmigan from right in the trail, nearly stepping on it.

Characteristically unconcerned with humans, it walked only a few feet off the trail and watched a bit. When I arrived it sat only for a few more minutes before strolling slowly, browsing on plant shoots among the boulders.

It was only another couple hundred yards up to the windswept saddle to the south of Jicarita Peak. This is looking west towards the Jemez Mountains.

With amazingly early success in finding White-tailed Ptarmigan, we had time to photograph the fabulous wildflowers here. This is Ross's Avens, Geum rossii (thanks to Jerry Oldenettel for the names of some of these plants).

Arctic Alpine Forget-me-not, Eritrichium nanum

Cushion Phlox, Phlox pulvinata

This Rocky Mountain Nailwort, Paronychia pulvinata was a bit tricky to identify, but the papery sheaths around the leaf clusters convinced me to browse members of the family Caryophyllaceae in the Taos County list. It’s at the very southern end of its range here.

We also decided to take the short trail spur to Serpent Lake, something John had never had the time to do.

On the way down the transition zone from krumholz to pine-fir forest, we stopped for more wildflowers.

Colorado Blue Columbine, Aquilegia coerulea being visited by a syrphid fly

Mountain Deathcamas, Zigadenus elegans

Ledge Stonecrop, Rhodiola integrifolia

Matted Saxifrage, Saxifraga bronchialis

Alpine Clover, Trifolium dasyphyllum

Here we are at Serpent Lake.

The dense willow thickets here are home to one of the southernmost breeding populations of  Wilson’s Warbler.

We were surprised to see the lake full of Tiger Salamander larvae. This is apparently about as high in elevation that the species can occur, about 12,000 feet (3650 m).

The moist meadow and slightly protected basin was good for butterflies. This is Draco Skipper, Polites draco.

Mustard White, Pieris oleracea

Purplish Fritillary, Boloria chariclea

We stopped to pish and attract birds with our Northern Pygmy-Owl imitations a few times, usually bringing in just Mountain Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos (Gray-headed), and a few other nice things such as Olive-sided Flycatcher and Cassin’s Finch. Once we heard a pygmy-owl tooting back, but it didn’t take long for us to realize it was this Gray Jay imitating one in response to my whistles.  This is a very rare type of mimicry in birds, certainly requiring a relatively high level of intelligence.

The forest on the hike back was in general very quiet, so we hiked back quickly, stopping for only a few wildflowers.

Fern-leaved Lousewort, Pedicularis procera

Sickletop Lousewort, Pedicularis racemosa

Western Red Columbine, Aquilegia elegantula

Single Delight, Moneses uniflora

Near the parking lot was this Hoary Anglewing, Polygonia gracilis.

And a Sleepy Duskywing, Erynnis brizo.

We took the scenic drive back to Bernalillo on the southern end of the Taos High Road. I made Gabe stop for road cut with some beautiful composites.

Beautiful Fleabane, Erigeron formosissimus

Newberry's Hymenopappus, Hymenopappus newberryi

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Monsoon is Here!

This past Thursday morning, dawning typically sunny and already 80°F (27C), I had my coffee in the back yard, watching the 3 or 4 hummers fight over 16 feeders, noted the Verdins giving their “dzrr dzrr dzrr” call to warn everyone of the approaching Cooper’s Hawk, and wondered if the lone male Gambel’s Quail above was acting as sentinel for his mate that might be setting on a clutch of eggs. Just a few days ago they were a pair, walking through the yard together each morning.

By early afternoon it reached 105°F (41C), but there might be some clouds building up to the south. And then by 3:00 p.m. it looked like this. All dark overcast, lightning not far away (I quickly shut down my computer and unplugged everything in the house), and the wind howling through the neighbor’s Red River Gum, throwing huge curls of peeling bark all over the place.

We got about 0.2 of an inch in a moderate downpour, but it continued to drizzle for about an hour or more, which is a very good kind of soaking rain. And then in the early evening before it got dark, the hummingbirds descended on the yard. It was amazing show, with perhaps 50 (or 100?) individuals zipping and zinging, chasing and chipping. A large majority of them was more or less divided evenly between Anna’s and Black-chinned, with there being a few Broad-bills and at least one Costa’s, a juvenile that appeared today for the first time this summer. It was already too dark for any good photos, but in these shots (the first without flash, the second with) you can barely make out three hummers fighting over this feeder.

This Anna’s Hummingbird (on top of the garden hook) was trying to hoard this feeder for himself.

Another feeder was possessed by this Broad-billed.

With the cooler, moist air signaling a potential shutdown, our lone yard colony of Rough Harvester Ants (Pogonomyrmex rugosus) were out in huge numbers, collecting seeds from all over the yard, up to 20 or more meters away.

I couldn’t stand anywhere with out one eventually crawling up onto my feet. Though they are slow and docile, usually turning back as soon as they sense skin, they will sting (yes, sting, not bite) if truly perturbed. One got me on the toe, and it’s a very unpleasant pain that lasts about 10 minutes. On the other side of the yard we have a small colony of Pogonomyrmex barbatus, the Red Harvester Ant. I’ve been stung by that one once (I picked one up to see its beard), and later learned that it has been considered one of the most painful hymenopteran stings you could possibly experience. I can vouch for that. The worst is that from a Tarantula Wasp. Good thing to keep in mind, and I won't be trying to see its beard any time soon.