Adventures in Alabama

(This post turned out to be a bit more long and rambling than I intended.  I won’t be offended if you just skip through and look at the pretty pictures.)

It was all going so well until we pulled into Mobile, Alabama last Friday afternoon and went looking for a place to get an oil change.  As my car came to rest at a stop sign, another car came whipping around the corner and crashed into the driver’s side front end of my car. The other driver apologized, explaining that his “brakes haven’t been working lately.”  He was able to drive off essentially unscathed, but my car was (is) undrivable and it took a full week to get the insurance appraiser’s report and start the process of shipping my car home to be fixed.  Luckily, Julia and I were warned that things would move slowly, so we got out of Mobile the next morning and continued on to Ohio.

My fellow BugGuide editor Robert Lord Zimlich was kind enough to let us stay with him Friday night, and he lent us his copy of Howard Ensign Evans’ Wasp Farm, which Julia read aloud in its entirety on the way up (saving us from the rental car’s inability to provide us with entertainment in the form of Radiolab podcasts).  It is an inspiring and fascinating look at the “higher” wasps, and I highly recommend it.

Over the weekend we visited Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and I’m grateful to Paul G. Davison of the University of North Alabama for letting me know about it.  The owners, Jim and Faye Lacefield, were very welcoming, generous, and knowledgeable about the abundant nature on their land.  In this post I’ve collected some highlights from our day spent exploring eight miles or so of the Preserve’s trails, which was enjoyable enough to make me forget my worries until we hit the road again.

The Preserve includes several striking sandstone cliffs and waterfalls:

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The cliffs provided plenty of good habitat for organ pipe mud daubers (Crabronidae: Trypoxylon politum) to build their nests.  Here’s a nice view of several with the internal structure exposed.  Each cell would have contained a single larva and a number of paralyzed spiders provided by its mother.

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There were extensive patches of mayapple leafing out, and a variety of spring wildflowers in bloom–a nice mix of familiar faces (flowers I’ll be seeing again in a few weeks in New England) and species I was encountering for the first time.

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A small patch of mutant trilliums grows along the path to one of the privies:

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Of course, the primary purpose of the trip was to look for leaf mines.  The first ones I found were some linear mines on the upper sides of coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) leaves.  The mines appeared empty from above, but when I flipped the leaves over, I found distinctive agromyzid fly puparia like these:

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The dark central stripe on a white puparium rang a bell, and when I checked my notes I found that everything about these mines and puparia perfectly matches Graham C. D. Griffiths’ 1974 description of Chromatomyia (now Phytomyza) nigrilineata… except that species is only known from Alberta and apparently only feeds on limber honeysuckle (Lonicera dioica), which does not occur in Alabama.  Possibly what I found is a closely related, undescribed species, or it may just be a new geographic and host record.

Jim and Faye directed us to some boulders covered with hepatica (Anemone americana), which we searched for mines of the sawfly Pseudodineura parva (Tenthredinidae).  This species is known to feed on hepatica but its mines have never been described.  Right off the bat, Julia spotted a sawfly that was clearly interested in the hepatica leaves, and as I was photographing it, it began to insert eggs in them.

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It seemed like it might be a bit large for a leafminer, though, and when I posted photos to BugGuide.net, sawfly authority Dave Smith informed me that it belongs to a different subfamily: “Not Pseudodineura parva (Nematinae). The wings put it in Blennocampinae and it most resembles a Periclista. Hepatica is not a known host for any blennocampines, and especially Periclista which feeds on oaks. Not sure what to say. Maybe I could see the specimen sometime?”  So apparently a new host record here too, which isn’t particularly surprising, since the host plants are only known for about a quarter of the North American sawfly species.

Sawfly eggs enlarge greatly as they absorb water from the plant tissue in which they are inserted.  Older eggs were easy to spot in some of the leaves adjacent to the ones where this female was ovipositing.

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Closely inspecting some wood vetch (Vicia caroliniana), Julia spotted this exquisite butterfly egg.  Given the host plant and the shape of the egg, it must belong to some kind of sulphur (Pieridae: Colias).

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One of these polka-dotted moths (Thyrididae: Thyris sepulchralis, the mournful thyris), kept fluttering along the path with us, challenging me to get a shot of it during the brief moments when it would alight on the ground.

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Once I’d finally gotten a decent shot, I came across a cluster of them feeding on some unseen substance:

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Evidently there was some attractive residue left from an animal that had died there.  This ridged carrion beetle (Silphidae: Oiceoptoma inaequale) was hanging out with them, and just above its head in this photo there seems to be a tuft of hairs from some small mammal.

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On a picnic table in the middle of the preserve, there is a water cooler that hikers can use to refill their bottles.  This furry-faced lunate zale (Erebidae: Zale lunata) spent the whole day resting in its shade:

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I encountered two different species of metallic wood-boring beetles (Buprestidae) on the Preserve.  This is the first redbud borer (Ptosima gibbicollis) I’ve seen:

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…whereas Acmaeodera tubulus is a species I often see climbing around on flowers (buttercups in this case).  I’d always thought they were attracted to the pollen, but here they were clearly munching on the petals.

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We met this brown elfin (Lycaenidae: Callophrys augustinus) while walking the Under Bluff Trail, which made us feel a little like mountain goats, making our way along a narrow ledge at the base of a series of cliffs and at the top of a steep slope.  The larvae of these butterflies mainly feed on plants in the heath family (Ericaceae).  There was abundant mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) nearby, and I wonder if that’s why this butterfly was there–but this doesn’t seem to be one of its known hosts.

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Finally, the token jumping spider portrait.

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About Charley Eiseman

I am a freelance naturalist, endlessly fascinated by the interconnections of all the living and nonliving things around me. I am the lead author of Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates (Stackpole Books, 2010), and continue to collect photographs and information on this subject. These days I am especially drawn to galls, leaf mines, and other plant-insect interactions.
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10 Responses to Adventures in Alabama

  1. Kathie Fiveash says:

    WOnderful, as in full of wonders.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for sharing your information on Cane Creek (my home away from home). It never ceases to amaze me how special this place really is.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great pictures and we too love exploring Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve!

  4. brown elfin (Lycaenidae: Callophrys augustinus) is a new butterfly for the preserve list and new county record. Would be nice to add a picture to the Butterflies of Cane Creek Canyon album:
    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.215707161778305.70866.126802417335447&type=3

    • Looks like I can’t add a photo to the album since I’m not an admin, but I’ll post one to the Cane Creek Canyon main page and maybe someone can move it there.

      • Anonymous says:

        I’ve create the album and can add the picture. You may email me vcharny/at/aol.com. I would be glad to know how many of the Elfins have you seen there. This is disjunct population of the species. One of 3 found in Alabama during last couple years. I visit the preserve April 13, but it was overcast, cold and windy. Thank you for the data.
        VC

  5. Pete says:

    Jim and Faye Lacefield are super nice and their property is beautiful. I’m glad you got a chance to see their place.

  6. Karen Pick says:

    Just discovered your blog. All your posts are making great reading on this cold, cloudy Sunday morning. I’m learning so much! Thank you!

  7. Pingback: Sweater-wearing Springtail | BugTracks

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