Maps have been prepared. Relevant emails from my esteemed colleagues to the northwest have been read and re-read. Summary sheets on the distribution, biology, and biogeography of the many different species I hope to encounter are in hand. Google Earth images of each locality I plan to visit – annotated with potential species occurrences and pinpointing precise locations of their likely habitats – have been assembled into a Powerpoint presentation, and detailed driving directions from Point “A” to Point “B”… all the way to Point “X” (home!) have been determined. All of this has been printed out and organized into a 3-ring binder. Why the extraordinary attention to detail? Because…
The annual fall tiger beetle trip started several years ago when I, along with my friend and colleague Chris, began studying Missouri’s tiger beetle fauna. At first it was a diversion – buprestids and cerambycids are pretty well played out by fall, but tiger beetles across much of the U.S. exhibit a unique spring/fall fauna that is quite distinct from the summer fauna. Chris and I would go to different parts of Missouri, documenting the species encountered to fill in distributional data gaps. It was on these trips that I discovered how much I truly love early fall collecting – the cool air, the crisp smells, the long sharp shadows, and a landscape of foliage ever so lightly tinged with shades of red and yellow while grasses morph into fields of gold. In recent years, I’ve begun adventuring beyond Missouri’s borders on these fall trips, allured by the diversity of species found in the Great Plains – species alien to Missouri in an equally alien landscape. First, it was Barber County, Kansas, with its red gypsum hills inhabited by the aptly named Cicindela pulchra (beautiful tiger beetle) – deep wine-red and iridescent purple flashing across the barren red clay. Then last year I got my first taste of the Sand Hills of Nebraska at their farthest eastern extent. I watched in amazement as Cicindela limbata (sandy tiger beetle) – vivid white and metallic green – danced across the surface of sand blows, undaunted by scouring 30 mph winds. It was on that trip that I decided a long weekend wasn’t cutting it – I needed to take a whole week and get myself into the heart of the Great Plains. The annual fall tiger beetle weekend has just become the annual fall tiger beetle week.
As the map above indicates, I’ve got a rather ambitious itinerary of locations that I’d like to visit – 22 in all. I leave tomorrow, and if I have planned properly (and have a little luck) I might be able to visit all of them in the 9 days I have set aside for the trip. My “trip bible” will be my constant companion, along with my already worn copy of the newly issued Tiger Beetles of South Dakota & Nebraska (Spomer et al. 2008), as I explore deep into the Sand Hills and experience for the first time ever the Black Hills of South Dakota. I’ll even sneak over into Colorado and Wyoming for a spot or two. Unfortunately, my faithful colleague isn’t able to join me. I tried to seduce him with visions of Cicindela limbata and C. lengi (blowout tiger beetle) in the numerous sand blows, C. fulgida (crimson saltflat tiger beetle) around countless alkaline lakes, C. longilabris (Boreal long-lipped tiger beetle) in the high pine forests, and C. nebraskana (prairie long-lipped tiger beetle) and (if we’re really really lucky) C. decemnotata (Badlands tiger beetle) just sneaking into the shortgrass prairies of the extreme northwestern corner of Nebraska. I reminded him of my (wanting) photographic skills and the images we would have to settle for if his talent and equipment didn’t accompany me. I almost had him, but in the end he muttered some lame excuse about his 15-month old baby and wife needing him (just kidding, Chris!).
The map above should be fully interactive, so give it a click and follow me along on this adventure. If you happen to be at any of the spots marked by a balloon and see a khaki-clad fellow – insect net in one hand, camera in the other – how’s about joining me for a bit of tiger beetle hunting.