Dressed in black

The first three days of this year’s Fall Tiger Beetle Trip had been fun, and finding a new state record jewel beetle and an unusual seasonal activity record for another were definitely icing on the cake. Still, tiger beetles (at least adults) had been notably absent, with my hunch that Cicindela pulchra (Beautiful Tiger Beetle) might occur in the Red Hills of northwestern Oklahoma not playing out. My next goal was to go down to northern Texas and look for Cicindelidia politula (Limestone Tiger Beetle)—a species I have not yet encountered in the field. When I saw that the route south took me through the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma, I recalled seeing this photo of Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina (Prairie Tiger Beetle) on BugGuide taken in these very mountains during the fall. I have seen on many occasions the greenish Missouri / Arkansas disjunct population of this subspecies, but I had not yet seen the main population and its decidedly black individuals, so this became my quarry for Day 4 of the trip. I had nothing more to go on for a locality than “Wichita Mountains NWR” and a sense of its habitat preferences based on my own experience with the MO/AR disjuncts, so after arriving at the refuge I began to look for access to a 2-track leading to higher, unforested ground (reminiscent of the dolomite glades of southwestern Missouri). I quickly found a parking lot with a 2-track leading from it, so I pulled off, geared up, and set out on what I figured was surely a wild goose chase. The track looked good, but no beetles were seen, and after walking about a half-mile I happened to look up and see this not too far ahead:

American bison | Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

Call me chicken, but bison can and will charge without warning. Even though they seemed unconcerned by my presence, I wasn’t with anybody that I knew I could outrun :) and decided that a cautious, tip-toeing retreat would the best course of action (even taking the above photo—uncropped, I might add—made me nervous). What now? I was quickly back at the car and not sure what to do next when I saw a foot path leading into a cedar woods, behind which the land rose up to treeless heights. I decided that might be a good place to explore—as long as I didn’t run into any bison along the way! As I was hiking through the woodland—an open, obviously long ago planted grove of eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)—I passed by a small opening and almost by instinct veered into the opening to have a look. As soon as I stepped into the opening I saw the unmistakable escape flight of two large tiger beetles—what the…?! No doubt about it, they were C. o. vulturina, and they had been hanging out by a fairly fresh bovid chip (bison or cow, I don’t know). (I have seen this behavior also with the MO/AR disjuncts.) I watched them land and decided which one I would try to photograph. I guess I picked right, because the following photo was among the first few that I got:

Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina (prairie tiger beetle) | Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

Despite the jet-black dorsal surface (which contrasts with the green to greenish-black to bronzy dorsal surface of the MO/AR disjuncts), these were colorful beetles with gorgeous metallic blue genae (cheeks) and intense violaceous tibia (lower legs). This first individual was quite cooperative (usually it’s the tenth or more beetle that I try to photograph that actually allows me to do so), so I spent a bit of time trying to coax it back to the bovid chip from which it flew. Eventually I succeeded in this and took a few more photos, the following of which I liked the best:

Shade seeking next to a bovid chip.

I’m still a bit puzzled about the habitat in which I found these beetles. I would have considered it an anomaly had I not seen two beetles at the same time and then subsequently seen a mating pair in almost the exact same spot. Prairie tiger beetles are known for their preference of open grassland habitats rather than woodlands, and indeed I saw more individuals back along the 2-track that I had abandoned earlier (once I got the courage to stray down it again later in the day). The photo below shows almost the entirety of the opening where I found the beetles, with the bovid chip located on the ground in the lower center of the photo:

An unusually wooded habitat for Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina.

Seeing these two individuals in the small woodland opening gave me greater optimism that I would be able to find more on the grassy higher slopes above the cedar grove. I crossed the creek and climbed to the top of the first ridge, passing through what seemed to be ideal habitat for the beetle but seeing none. Although igneous in origin, the rocky landscape reminded me very much of the dolomite glades that lace through the White River Hills of southwestern Missouri and that harbour robust populations of this beetle (but occurring nowhere else in the state).

Rocky grasslands extend towards Mt. Scott.

After posting one of these landscape photos on my Facebook page, I got a comment from Thomas Shahan saying he had been to the area recently and seen a “dark Cicindela” atop nearby Elk Mountain. Low and behold, the beetle in the photo that he included was none other than this subspecies, so at least now I know they do occur in this more expected habitat despite my not having seen them on this day.

Failing to find the beetle on higher ground, and wanting to try for even closer photographs, I returned to “the opening” and immediately found another individual to photograph. A female, she may (or may not) have been the partner to the male I photographed earlier, but at any rate she was not nearly as cooperative. I chased her back and forth through the opening for about a half-hour before I finally got close enough to get a shot (my use of tube extensions required that I get even closer than before). As typically happens, however, she gradually became more and more accustomed to my presence, and eventually I was able to get a few photos with the beetle in fairly relaxed, candid poses. The following are my favorites:

A less trusting individual relunctantly allows herself to be photographed.

She looks angry, but in reality I caught her mandibles half open in the midst of chewing movements.

After photographing these individuals, I returned to the car and decided to wander (tentatively) down the 2-track that I had to abandon earlier in the day. This time I fouund the beetles easily, seeing perhaps half a dozen individuals in just the first quarter-mile. My wanderings, however, were once again cut short when I came around a tree bank and saw those same two bison, much closer to the road this time. I really wanted to get a better photograph than the one above, but common sense at first prevented me from getting any closer. I studied the two magnificent behemoths looking for any sign of annoyance, and seeing none I began to creep ever so tiny a bit closer. Eventually my heart rose too high in my throat to approach any closer, and I snapped the following photo and began a hasty, horse-eyed retreat—not even knowing for sure if the shot was good but feeling a little too proud of myself and my stupidity courage!

A little too close for comfort!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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14 Responses to Dressed in black

  1. Laura says:

    A wonderful story, full of adventure and beauty!

  2. Matthew Gill says:

    Sounds like a great trip.. great pictures, too.

  3. James C. Trager says:

    These travel logs are a great read, Ted. They always make me want to go there!

  4. Dave says:

    Bison plops do look remarkably like cow patties. The first one I encountered was in Elk Island National Park as I meandered down a trail indignantly wondering what was wrong with these Canadians letting cattle graze in their national parks! Then we went around a bend in the trail and were confronted by our first bull bison, placidly munching, but very demonic looking. A snort and a hoof thump was all it took for us to back-up and decide that really the Park belongs to the animals too and we could find another trail.

  5. Jon Quist says:

    those tigers sure are pretty. And don’t feel bad about the bison, I find myself getting nervous around bulls when there are cows around xD

  6. I really enjoyed this post, and the photos were awesome to! I usually visit the Wichitas a few times each year but haven’t seen this species of tiger beetle before. I’ll have to keep my eye out for them next time.

  7. Thanks all. This really was one of the more memorable days of the trip.

  8. I recall in my more fool-hardy days, before I had a telephoto lens, moving carefully through a small herd of bison to photograph one was fully engaged rolling in a dust-bath. No reaction, and I was able to move out of the area safely. My brother, on the other hand, has been charged twice on trails in Elk Island. Panicked retreat and stepping behind trees saved him…

    • It was my first time “bumping” into one of these magnificent beasts – I was really torn between the urge to get closer and fear of having what had been a good trip suddenly go very wrong!

  9. Beautiful tiger beetles, BTW!

  10. M. Barton says:

    I love Wichita Mountains NWR! I fell irrevocably in love with dragonflies there, starting the slippery slope into entomological obsession. Although I will admit to feeling nervous about a bull bison crossing the road in front of us while we were INSIDE an SUV. Bison are just…very large and unpredictable.

    Didn’t know to look for tiger beetles back then, though. Great photos, as always.

    • I will definitely be back. It’s a beautiful, scenic place with lots of areas to explore, and I suspect there are some other tiger beetle species that might occur there earlier in the summer.

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