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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander


Today I am covering the period from late August to October, late summer to early fall here in the U.S.A. - more specifically, in the high desert of northern Arizona (Arid-zona, as I like to call it, for obvious reasons). What is fun in these parts is the variety of terrain, along with unique flora and fauna. This time I’m focusing on Orthoptera, specifically, grasshoppers.

Their quirky design splattered with multihued colors augment the richness of every habitat they reside. I enjoy watching children partaking in a game of tag with these restless creatures; stooping down for a closer look, then quickly hopping back up to pursue their fleeting subject, again and again! And here I am …still going at it!

Today’s hike is through open fields and adjacent scrub bordering a riparian reservoir that hosts some of the largest Fremont cottonwoods I’ve ever seen! The field is ablaze with color: bright orange globe mallows shelter beneath the field of sunflowers along the wooded edge.

The large flower stalks host a myriad of invertebrates. I find a large female Melanoplus bivittatus, Two-striped grasshopper. It probably spent the night sheltered beneath a protective leaf and now awaits to warm up with the first penetrating rays of light.

Further along, I find a copulating pair of Red-legged grasshoppers, M. femurrubrum, but it may be M. sanguinipes. The former is one of the most commonly encountered hoppers in North America. A key to its Identification is finding a male and looking at the end of its enlarged abdomen to find a subgenital plate that is "U"-shaped along the top edge, which is best when viewed from behind. Often it requires to have the specimen in-hand for identification. Enough said, time to move along - more surprises ahead.

A startled Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina) takes flight displaying its morning cloak wing-pattern. Their overall color ranges from gray to olive or brown to cinnamon. They’re abundant and found across the U.S. and southern Canada. Bugs of all sizes and colors actively rummage through the foliage. Bees

compete with flower flies and beetles for protein rich pollen and nectar. A Harlequin bug, wearing a coat of bright orange and black, ambles along. Skippers zip among the blooms. The flurried activity goes on unabated. “Mellow out guys! Check out that basking Lakin grasshopper, Melanoplus lakinus. Now that personifies contentment.”

Granite (Basin) Lake on the outskirts of Prescott, AZ is one of those picturesque mountain lakes saddled among rocky outcrops.

Reeds and various sedges and wildflowers rim the shoreline. I follow the grass-lined trail where in the shadow of a ponderosa pine I hear an incessant “ticking” sound;

it has a ventriloquistic quality and I do not know where to search among the blades of grass.

“Aha!” I spy the dark shape of a slant-faced grasshopper. Stridulatory pegs on its hind femur rub against inner wings to make this clatter. I rise, he freezes. Stepping back a few paces, wings raise, quiver and the ballad continues.

I try to stay on the path but if the habitat looks like it has potential, well… Carolina locusts take to the air at every open sunny location. Melanoplus shiver the stalks of grass as they leap for safety. “Ahh, It’s about time!” I tell myself as I zoom in on a Green bird grasshopper, Schistocerca shoshone. No, it appears to be S. lineate, with its dark eye but it lacks the diagnostic dorsal stripe. Alternatively, can it be another M. bivittatus? Even the authority’s in the field seem to be in some disagreement with this genus. “Damn!” It still bugs me when I can’t identify what I photograph. Such a circumstance dictates researching the web at – a great resource for identifying invertebrates.

I reach bottom, the sun crests the ridge, that’s my cue, I’m wading the stream towards its source. I enjoy the soft flights of damselflies through the vegetation while Roseate skimmers (dragonflies) cruise overhead.

Tadpoles ripple the surface of remnant pools - I know these to be Canyon tree frogs. I find an adult pair soaking up some rays among the boulder-strewn waters.

Wading along I disturb what I thought to be young frogs, instead it’s a mating pair of Tetrix grasshoppers. Its uncanny their resemblance to a drying clump of mud. On the way back to the car, I discover a grasshopper lounging atop an umbel flowerhead. I take some pix, a few footnotes: Melanoplus species with blue tibia and short wings, to research later.

As the weeks progress, I discover the uncanny resemblance of “hopping” to “birding.” No matter what facet of nature you pursue, identification is what it’s all about! The overall shape and size in birds can easily classify your subject into family or subfamily, e.g., a soaring falcon, the silhouette of a duck or the long-legged stance of a heron. As for hoppers: you have short-horned vs. long-horned in reference to the antennae, slant-faced or cone-headed or size, such as the large, lumbering lubber grasshoppers. Other similar field marks include color, sexual dimorphism, song, and physical properties of young, along with habitat preference, elevation and food source. Most important ‘difference’ of these two groups is warm blooded vs. cold blooded - the insect world does not function in freezing temperatures. The most interesting observation occurred in the fall. Within the pine-oak forests of Arizona you have numerous exposed areas among the trees; be it a wash, wind-break or fire-road. These exposed areas, often covered with grasses and other weedy vegetation, naturally are much warmer. Walking through entices all sorts of Orthoptera to take to the air. It reminded me of a “mixed flock” (bird) encounter while birding in the tropics.

From here it is an increase in elevation, roughly 6000 feet. Perhaps a traverse through mixed forest may create additional opportunities. A relentless fluttering of wings grabs my attention from the start – a Carolina locust is impaled in a mantid death grip. Even with slow decapitation, the struggle went on. A variety of cryptic Trimeratropis species, or Band-winged grasshoppers, seem abundant. The darker gray specimens appear to be T. verruculatta. Those inhabiting red rock substrate flash blue wings, Blue-winged

grasshoppers, T. cyaneipennis and

those among the paler substrate are Pallid-winged grasshoppers, T. pallidipennis. It is also interesting to hear each species as it takes flight. This wing snapping, referred as ‘crepitations,’ is unique to this family of grasshoppers.

Rummaging through old images taken at the same location (month of June) resulted in physically different cryptic colored specimens. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall wing color or crepitation pattern that could aid identification. In other words, "Take notes!" Today’s digital cameras are also an excellent, and now inexpensive, way to take and retrieve data. You should be able to focus in on and capture those key field marks. So, practice your stalking skills and be patient. Enjoy observation; it may even disclose an unforeseen behavior that aids in identification. Besides, is that not what it is all about!?

Lynx Lake is another mountain reservoir surrounded by Ponderosa pines. Natural windbreaks and fire roads are great places to find some 'hopping' activity. The short grasses and brush seem to be most ideal for the Three-banded grasshopper, Hadrotettix trifasciatus; they seem to be everywhere!

I find the ubiquitous Carolina grasshopper, once again, in a deadly circumstance - entangled in the sticky strands of a spider's web.

Time to go south into the valley. The desert sun is intense even at this early hour. Atop a large rock, looking just as weathered beaten as the terrain, is a Gray bird grasshopper (Schistocerca nitens).

It takes flight as I press too close for an image. A few others take to the air as buzzing band-winged grasshoppers add color to the stark landscape. I choose to go green and follow the lowest point among the rocks. Slim reeds and grasses harbor flies, bees and wasps along with multi-eyed spiders looking for a meal. Skippers add their Midas touch probing into the damp soil for dissolved minerals. It appears that there is not much going on in these parts.

Willow Lake… Late September still had temps in the 80’s. The cool nights allowed close approach to sun-seeking critters. I was fascinated to find so many color variants of Melanoplus bivittatus. A deep yellow female, with her elongated abdomen, was most striking.

This trail saw a lot of traffic, hikers and bikers, resulting in a lot of insect fatalities – a rove beetle buffet, as it were.

Another interesting find came dressed in the most brilliant green, a Green birdwing. Its pronotum armament would make a medieval knight blush! A sedentary Great-horned owl tracks my way through a stand of cottonwoods. I quickly relinquish the cool shadows and enter a lowland of cracked mud with tufted mounds of withering vegetation. Once submerged, it is now dry and cracked; crayfish ghosts dot the parched landscape. Cormorant nests, basically stacked twigs among the dead snags, now abandoned, augment the eerie feel of the place.

Much like the Phoenix rising from its ashes, an oasis unfolds in the form of an enormous sunflower ‘bush’. Its fiery fluorescence attracting an assortment of activity: bees and wasps hover about,

ladybugs gorge on aphids, a sulfur butterfly pauses, as if to inspect the goings on, before departing, a katydid on the main stalk is undeterred by a marauding spider, along with the ubiquitous ant constantly on the move. And, of course, I find another M. bivittatus, but brown in color. This sunflower banquet is like its own mini ecosystem!

A drive around to the other side of the lake seems like a good idea. Little did I know – military maneuvers were underway. Like crackling gunfire, Red-winged grasshoppers dressed in black, take to the air, flashing their namesake banner. Army green Meadow grasshoppers and katydids leap and bound every which way and

heavy-armored Plains lubber grasshoppers cruise thru the grass like miniature tanks.

My presence has Carolina locust exploding out of the trenches. Like an orange beacon swaying in the breeze, a Convergent ladybug, Hippodamia convergens, cowers in atop a feathery grass spikelet.

A milkweed bug sentinel follows suit atop its namesake plant. I decide to hunker down myself with a brilliant Green bird G.; its body armor appears virtually impervious to any onslaught it should encounter!

One last trip this week up to Williamson Valley. My hopes are that the hoppers will increase my odds to find some herps (snakes, lizards). The trailhead, right off the parking lot, has Plateau whiptail lizards sprinting for cover. “Looks good!” Care is taken with every step as stones and rocks have been baked into the orange-red soil. It is deceiving with the lushness of grasses, goldenrod and prickly pear skirting around the local junipers. I break from the main trail and head toward a tree-lined ridge. I notice a thistle head appeared a bit irregular. “Cool!” It is a Mantid fly, Climaciella brunnea! This is my first encounter. Its massive forelegs are cocked and ready to strike any creature it feels it can overpower.

Off to my left I detect the clambering of hooves across the parched terrain. I capture a glimpse before it skirts behind a juniper. I continue my slow gait, pre-focus my camera and reveal myself to this magnificent animal. It is an old friend, an impressive male pronghorn, Antilocapra americana, that I have seen here on numerous occasions. The top of his horns is hooked inward, midway, a thick prong curves outward like a huge thorn. We stare each other down; he stands proud, almost regal. Then, he quietly vanishes into the landscape.

I come to a ridge, down below is my goal, to follow the stream along this tree studded rocky outcrop. Rather than ‘rock jump’ my way down I decided to continue my course where the trail opens to another field with a much easier traverse to the creek bed. Besides, it might reveal some more surprises. It was not long when a flash of color had me zigzagging through the brush. “Damn, those catclaws are nasty!” The thorns tear right thru your jeans! I managed to maneuver close enough for some snapshots of a Purple hairstreak butterfly, Atlides halesus, Even with its wings closed, it is still a brilliantly, colored creature.

Finally, the brush ends, and the riparian habitat begins. I track a Arizona sister butterfly, until it lands and manage a nice shot. In my haste, several small G’s flush, I stop when a large Red-shanked grasshopper, Xanthippus corallippes, lands in a nearby oak. Its bulk, large head and red inner legs allowed for an easy I.D.

I can see tadpoles pooling about in the water as I rummage thru the undergrowth. Often, I must climb up a boulder or two to follow the course of the water. Other times it becomes a necessity to avoid the swarm of mosquitos. In a clearing I manage to watch the courtship of a pair of Three-banded grasshoppers, Hardotettix trifasciatus. The male pauses, stidulating his back legs like a bow on a violin, and then crawls his way towards the larger female. She advances forward each time on his approach, over and over; he continues, but she… and on it goes.

Continuing, I find an American snout-nosed butterfly, Libytheana carinenta, hanging upside down from a branch.

The vegetation gets thicker and more difficult, and the skeeters just get nastier. I relinquish and turn back. Back out in the field, things have heated up. My first encounter is with the Handsome grasshopper, Syrbula admirabilis, its blend of green and brown superbly replicates both the living and dead strands of grass it calls home.

It seems the next specimen’s colors has faded from too much time spent in the sun. This Snakeweed grasshopper, can be quite stunning, however, the orange clay creates a nice contrast.

On the other end of the spectrum is the sleek Two-striped mermira (grasshopper), Mermiria bivitatta, lined in shades of brown and outlined boldly in black.

Looking forward while at the same time carefully watching where I place each step, a lizard suddenly jerks ahead of me. It advances as do I, we pause, we advance, pause, advance… "Enough already!” I make a sudden rush to cut it off before it holds its position. In an attempt to intimidate this would be threat, it raises its inflated body to show off its spiky armament.

The coup de gras comes with its mouth agape, revealing the bright orange lining of its jaws. Classic behavior for the Greater short-horned lizard, Phrynosoms hernandesi.

How ironic that my last photo op is of one of my favorites, the Spotted bird grasshopper, Schistocerca lineata. The sun shining on such a meticulous design of greens and yellows captures the eye. At the top, a yellow symmetrical line divides the veined wings of silvery-gray, then continues down the length of the body. Spots of yellow adorn the pronotum, connecting the head to the body. Its robust hindlegs has chevrons, underscored in yellow, running the femur’s length. Shaded in black at the knee is a large yellow patch, topped with a large white spot. This dramatically contrasts with purplish-pink tibia armed with ivory spikes tipped in black. Oh, how can I leave out the blues! Those large compound eyes, striped in black and the delicate touch of powder blue where the legs meet the body (coxa). Quite the specimen, eh?!

Location: Yavapai County - Prescott, Arizona USA

Date: Fall of 2014

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