Another Progress Report (Goofing Off in the Desert)

Remember at the beginning of last year when I announced that I had finished making keys to the known leaf mines on every plant genus in the US and Canada? I noted that “this project can never really be finished, because more species and life histories are being discovered all the time.  But I’ll consider it to be time to start looking into publishing this thing when I’ve finished writing all the introductory chapters, which could conceivably happen by the end of this winter.”

Well, it didn’t happen by the end of that winter. I did do some work on the introductory chapters, but then I got bogged down in writing several large papers describing new species and documenting new information about already named ones. Then it was time to go back to working full-time, which (because much of my work is outdoors) resulted in the collection of ever more leafminers to rear, and dealing with those left little time in the summer for making progress on the book. Some time in December things wound down enough for me to focus on writing again, but once again I gave priority to properly documenting new discoveries. I planned to get to the book later in the winter and in early spring, but then Eric LoPresti invited me and Julia to come and play in the California desert during the “super bloom”. The New England winter was seeming unnecessarily cold and dark and long, so we didn’t take much persuading.

On the way out, we spent some time exploring New Mexico and Arizona, with a little time in Arizona and Texas on the way back. Everywhere we went, we found previously unknown leafminers. In fact, now that I’ve finally had a chance over the past few weeks to sort through my pictures from the trip, I’d say at least 90% of the things we found required adding something to the book. So in a way, I’m making lots of progress, but it’s in the form of expanding what I’ve already written rather than writing those introductory chapters. But wouldn’t it be a shame if I published a “complete” guide to leaf mines that left out so many easily observed southwestern species?

We’ll see how this winter goes—I’ve still got six months of photos to sort through and more papers to write, but I’m optimistic that some substantial forward progress will be made. In the meantime, here are some pretty pictures from the desert (all taken at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California, between March 8 and 11).





A sawfly (Tenthredinidae) visiting flowers of Phacelia (Boraginaceae) or something similar.


This moth is Noctueliopsis aridalis (Crambidae).


Dry, cracking mud in this wash was all that remained of the downpour that brought on the bloom.


Lupine shadow.


There was a variety of fancy blister beetles (Meloidae) out and about. This one is Eupompha elegans elegans.


As I wrote about here, the tiny larvae of blister beetles ride solitary bees back to their nests, where they devour the bees’ provisions. One of the known hosts of E. elegansHesperapis (Melittidae), was visiting a flower not far from this beetle.


Julia in Coyote Canyon.


Further down Coyote Canyon, I found these tracks and bill marks of what must have been a snipe probing for food in the mud along a creek. In the east I’ve seen similar feeding sign left by woodcocks.


Another blister beetle, Cysteodemus armatus.


Desert five-spot (Malvaceae: Eremalche rotundifolia), a little mallow on which we found occasional leaf mines.


Sand-verbena (Nyctaginaceae: Abronia), a plant for which Eric has unrelenting enthusiasm. It also has its share of leafminers, one of which we discovered with Eric a few days earlier in another part of California.


A hillside in Hawk Canyon covered with lupine and… oh, one of those evening primroses I could never get straight. There were so many new plants to learn that if something didn’t have any leafminers on it, the name just went in one ear and out the other.


Blister beetle #3: Lytta magister. A number of these were buzzing around on top of a ridge.



In some places the ground was carpeted with these monkey flowers—I think Mimulus bigelovii (Phrymaceae).


Justicia californica (Acanthaceae), known as chuparosa or hummingbird bush.


Jewel beetles (Buprestidae: Acmaeodera vernalis).


Desert harvestman (Sclerosomatidae: Eurybunus).


Eric found this mating pair of Timema (Timematidae), a type of stubby walkingstick that occurs only in the Southwest.


John Ascher, who has identified pretty much every bee I’ve posted on this blog, says the bee in this photo is a male of either Dufourea (Halictidae) or Hesperapis.


More and more Lytta magister.


Ornate checkered beetle (Cleridae: Trichodes ornatus) in a flower of desert chicory (Asteraceae: Rafinesquia neomexicana).


Tiny checkerspot (Nymphalidae: Microtia dymas).


Yellow brittlebush (Asteraceae: Encelia farinosa), red chuparosa, the bluish ones are probably Phacelia crenulata, and the pink ones are more monkey flower.


Megandrena enceliae (Andrenidae).


Red-eared blister beetle (Lytta auriculata), turning pink petals into poop.


Sand blazing star (Loasaceae: Mentzelia involucrata).


These little Perdita bees were big fans of the Mentzelia.


And finally, a leafminer. This “ribbed cocoon maker moth” (Bucculatricidae) was found on desert globemallow (Malvaceae: Sphaeralcea ambigua) and appears to be Bucculatrix sphaeralceae.


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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16 Responses to Another Progress Report (Goofing Off in the Desert)

  1. rcannon992 says:

    What a beautiful place and so many interesting insects!

  2. Robert Mercer says:

    Ever consider an east book and a west book?

    • I’m afraid it’s already going to be very difficult to finance the publication of this esoteric tome… splitting the already small potential market in half doesn’t seem feasible. Also, there is considerable overlap between east and west.

  3. Virginia says:

    Well, I feel a bit better in having a back-up of unidentified plants and insects! At least I have no deadlines to meet — only my own curiosity! I am a bit jealous of your blister beetle finds!

  4. pat says:

    wow. i can hardly wait to see your book. wonderful, beautiful, awesome images.
    thanks so much for sharing this. i’ve got so many images that i filled the library on my imac.

  5. Jim Durbin says:

    Wow on the pictures. Maybe the book will have to be titled The Incomplete Book of Leafminers, with a note that more are being found. I sometimes wonder if the books should be in a 3 ring binder. That way additions could just be added.

    • That does seem to be the ideal format for me… Even with my journal articles of limited scope, I almost always have something to add by the time I get them back from review, and often want to sneak something else in when I get the proofs, and by the time the paper is published (or not long after) I have something else I wish I could have added.

  6. Pat says:

    You’re a good man, Charley Eiseman. Thanks for sharing your amazing photography and your in-sights into the ecosystem.

  7. Brian Stewart says:

    The California desert is extraordinary, and I think Anza-Borrego is my favorite spot. I didn’t make it out there for this year’s superbloom, but for a number of years I took my son Graham to the desert for several days every March. I know it was the right thing to do: he has just started a graduate program in ecology (in a department of entomology!)

    Thank you, Charley, for sharing your lovely photographs. They bring back fond memories and make me want to return to the desert.

  8. susantcloutier says:

    Charley, this is called ‘love of life…’ so it is unending for us. Thank you for sharing!

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