…continued from Revisiting the Swift Tiger Beetle – Part 1.
The rain that cut short my visit to Alabaster Caverns in northwestern Oklahoma followed me as I drove east towards Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma. I had called Mike when I began my drive to tell him the great news – I had located Cylindera celeripes at Alabaster Caverns, and the population appeared to be quite robust. This was great news for the species, which seems to have disappeared from many parts of its range and is holding out primarily in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Mike and Jane had just arrived at Tallgrass Prairie when I called, and I told them to expect me to show up in about three hours. Tallgrass Prairie preserve is the largest intact tallgrass prairie remnant in the world, but my interest in it was due to the fact that ecologically it lies within the southern realm of the Flint Hills. I thought there might be a chance of finding C. celeripes in the preserve, extending its currently known distribution further south into northeastern Oklahoma as well. As I continued the drive, however, the rain came down harder and harder, and after I had driven about halfway to the preserve, I got a call from Mike. It had started raining there as well, and the weather forecast was calling for rain through tomorrow and possibly into Friday. They had decided to call it quits and start heading back towards St. Louis.
Me? I wasn’t nearly ready to punt on the trip. However, I hadn’t made any contingency plans and, thus, didn’t have a clue what to do next. I decided to drive into the next town and look for a coffee house where I might get a wi-fi connection, study the weather forecasts for surrounding areas, and then decide what to do next. There were several possibilities – I could drive north up into Kansas to look for the Flint Hills population of C. celeripes, but that area still seemed in the path of the frontal disturbances that would be ripping through Oklahoma and Texas for the next day or two. Or, I could continue on into southern Missouri and do some blacklighting in the Ozarks, but that just seemed like spending time without a real purpose, and eventually the rain would make it there as well. While studying my map of Oklahoma, I noticed that Alabaster Caverns was actually one of a cluster of state parks in Woodward and adjacent Major Counties. I thought maybe I could look for similar habitats in or near these other parks to see if C. celeripes might actually be more broadly distributed in northwestern Oklahoma. There was also Salt Plain National Wildlife Refuge in the area, which had impressed me during two recent October trips with its diversity of tiger beetles associated with saline habitats. Thus, I decided to head back west over the very roads that took me to the east earlier in the day.
The following day, my plan was to visit the three state parks I had seen on the map and assess their habitat – if any looked promising I would try to obtain permission to collect, and failing that I would try to hunt out similar habitats in areas adjacent to but outside of the parks. One of these parks is located on a feature called the “Gloss (Glass) Mountains,” and the highway that cut through the area was designated on my map as a scenic route. I don’t know why this place picqued my interest above the others – perhaps it was the idea of “mountains” in Oklahoma, but I pretty much made a bee line for the Gloss Mountains in the morning. As I approached coming from the east on Hwy 412, I saw the massive, flat-topped mesas rising above the surrounding landscape and knew, if nothing else, it would be interesting scenery. At the entrance to the state park there was a parking lot right along the highway for a designated scenic overlook – yeah, maybe I could find some good habitat to kick around in outside of the park. I spent some time walking along the roadsides – there was plenty of exposed clay that would be a typical situation to look for tiger beetles, but I didn’t see anything in these areas. Across the highway there were two mesas – a small one (visible in the photo above on the left side) accessible in its entirety and another very large one (also visible in distance at center) that was accessible only on its northern flank. I walked to the smaller one first and looked it over but didn’t find much – certainly none of the little “flashes” that I was hoping to see that would confirm a broader occurrence of C. celeripes in northwestern Oklahoma (although I did find one Dromochorus pruinina – another flightless tiger beetle that just sneaks into Missouri as a highly disjunct population). After looking over the smaller mesa, I walked over the the large mesa and cut across the lower talus slope – much of it seemed disturbed, probably from when the highway was constructed, and still I saw little of interest.
As I reached the western edge of the talus slope, I began walking along a natural drainage down towards the roadside – and I saw it! The appearance and movement were unmistakable and didn’t fool me for a second. I bolted straight for it and slapped at the ground as it zig-zagged erratically amongst the grass clumps before finally eluding me. Arghh! However, my frustration at missing the capture was completely overshadowed by my excitement at having found the species at an entirely new locality. This prompted a much more deliberate and thorough examination of the surrounding area, and it wasn’t long before I saw another, and another… While not quite as abundant as I had seen them at Alabaster Caverns, they certainly weren’t uncommon, and it wasn’t long before I had collected a sufficient voucher series to allow spending some time observing the behavior of the beetles in their habitat. The beetles were primarily on the lower (and milder) talus slopes and away from the roadside in more undisturbed areas. They appeared to prefer areas of moderate vegetation cover with grass clumps spaced approximately 12-24 inches while avoiding more barren areas. As I had observed the previous day at Alabaster Caverns, the beetles were first noticed primarily upon being disturbed by my approach as they ran from the grass clumps against which they were hiding and into the open. They look very much like large ants when running, but the style is a little more urgent and erratic.
After several hours at this site, I decided that I should check the two other State Parks that I had seen on the map. Niether had promising habitat. The first of these – Little Sahara State Park – lies midway along the Cimmaron River between Alabaster Caverns and the Gloss Mountains, but in contrast to the red clay/gypsum exposures that characterized Alabaster Caverns and Gloss Mountains, Little Sahara featured primarily sand substrates – great for other tiger beetles such as Cicindela formosa (big sand tiger beetle) and C. scutellaris (festive tiger beetle), but not for C. celeripes. The other one – Boiling Springs State Park, lies in another drainage system along the Canadian River and features a wooded, riparian habitat with mostly sandy substrates along the northern slopes of the river valley (where I did spend some time looking around). Between these parks and Gloss Mountains, however, along Hwy 412 I saw vast expanses of the same red clay/gypsum exposures that characterized the two localities where I had seen C. celeripes. About 20 miles west of Gloss Mountains, I stopped at a rather unspectacular example of one of these exposures along the roadside – just to see if I could find the beetle in as pedestrian-looking a place as that. I didn’t take 20 steps from the car when I saw the first one, and as before, I quickly encountered enough individuals to adequately voucher the site and allow some time for observation. This site was very similar to Alabaster Caverns, with numerous lichens encrusting the clay substrate between the white gypsum exposures. I looked out onto the broad expanse of clay supporting shortgrass prairie as far as the eye could see, and I knew the beetles were running around out there in untold numbers. Cylindera celeripes not only occurs in northwestern Oklahoma, but its population is robust and likely extends throughout the red clay/gypsum exposure that characterizes the Cimarron River Valley in this part of the state.
With some time left in the day, I decided to head back to Gloss Mountains State Park – I hadn’t even looked in the park proper, and with the beetles occurring abundantly at three other nearby sites offering similar habitat, it seemed a sure bet that I would find them there as well. The park offers no real facilities but for an incredibly scenic trail that ascends the steep southern flank of a large mesa to allow access to the top. Once on top, it was only a matter of minutes before I saw the first beetle, and I would eventually see numerous beetles running between the grass clumps over the lichen-encrusted clay. The views from the mesa top were spectacular as well, and only the impending dusk chased me from enjoying both the site and the beetles. I had a tremendous feeling of satisfaction – not just from finding the beetles, but also in the newfound knowledge that the beetles were doing so well in this part of its range.
The next day I looked for tiger beetle species associated with saline habitats at nearby Salt Plain National Wildlife Refuge – that will be the subject of a future post, and it the evening I completed the drive over to northeastern Oklahoma to resume the originally planned itinerary at Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Like Four Canyon Preserve, this TNC property is heavily managed with prescribed burns to maintain diversity of the prairie flora and prevent invasion by woody plants. And likewise I observed verdent seas of grass interspersed with classic prairie forbs – and few insects. I won’t blame this on the burns because I lack any empirical basis for making such claim. However, each visit I make to freqently burned prairies further increases my skepticism that the invertebrate fauna isn’t somehow being impacted. The lack of litter and absence of lichens on the soil surface results in an almost ‘sterile’ look that I don’t see in areas where fires occur with less frequency. I looked at a few different places within the vast preserve but didn’t find much, and midday I sighed and began the 7-hour drive back to St. Louis. The trip was over, and so was the hunt for C. celeripes. Or so I thought… (to be continued).
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009