BIRDS, BUBBLES, BUGS: MY FIRST FIELD TRIP OF 2009
Paul Bedell is a man of many talents. A double bassist for the Richmond Symphony, he is also a gifted naturalist. And he is a first-class birder, an indefatigable odonatololgist with a penchant for finding new state records and, as of late, Virginia’s leading authority on robber flies. Paul invited me to join him to today on a survey of rusty blackbirds for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on a plot of land along the James River near Bremo Bluff in Fluvanna County. The temperature was supposed to surge up to a relatively balmy 60 °F, so I jumped at the opportunity.
Some beetles in eastern North America come out for only a few weeks or so in early spring. They are sometimes considered rare simply because many entomologists have yet to emerge from their own winter torpor in time to find them. I didn’t think that it had warmed up enough for a sufficient period of time to trigger beetle activity of any kind, but figured this would be a good opportunity to get my kit together for the upcoming field season.
There might be other insects out, too. For example, I might happen upon the first mourning cloaks and question marks of the season. These butterflies tuck themselves under bark and other protected places for the winter and are quickly spurred into action by the sudden appearance of a warm winter day. Maybe today would be one of those days when I would see them rocketing from one sunny patch to the next, or sipping nectar oozing from freeze-cracked maple trunks. Or not.
At 9 AM the sky was clear and the temperature had already passed 40 °F as we headed west on Highway 6 on the north side of the James River. We passed through the little towns with names like Manakin, Crozier, and Goochland. Just past Columbia, we turned left toward Bremo Bluff. Our final destination was a plantation called Glenarvon about an hour drive or so from Richmond. The beautiful home with its three columns and four chimneys was built in 1832 by William Galt Jr.
The origin of the name “Glenarvon” is uncertain. There is speculation that it was inspired by the title of a book by the same name penned in 1816 by Lady Caroline Lamb. This quasi-fictional gothic novel was inspired by the author’s four month-long affair with British poet Lord Byron. Or perhaps it was the name of Galt’s birthplace in Scotland. But I digress.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by Glenarvon’s owner, Bill Winston. Knowing that I was an entomologist, Bill asked me if I knew what these large dark beetles were that he would find dead every now and again during the summer. I suggested a few possibilities, but nothing clicked with Bill. So, I suggested that he save the next one for me so I could identify it.
With a herd of curious cows looking on, Paul and I suited up with our birding, bugging, and photographic gear. We wandered down a narrow road into a ravine cut by a small creek as it flowed toward the James. The stands of trees mostly contained individuals with trunks no larger in diameter than the girth of my thigh. However, right along the creek’s edge stood several giant beeches. I imagined that the smooth, gray, and elephantine trunks of these trees were the legs of a small herd of long-necked sauropods that had come to drink. Again, I digress.
Finding one of these freshly downed trees of size with slightly loosened bark would be like hitting the mother lode. Many beetles and other wood-dwelling insects would find such a resource perfect for feeding, mating, and laying eggs. But I had no luck in finding such a tree. Instead, I contented myself with peeling back small patches of bark at the bases of several standing pine snags, none of which proved to be particularly productive.
I carried on down the road until it ended in a small field. Skirting the edge of this small opening was yet another small creek. I walked over to what looked like a mini-oxbow lake that was no more than three feet deep, 10 feet across, and about 25 feet long. Looking down from the bank, I could see right through the thin sheet of ice that covered the water down to the bottom of the creek.
In hopes of seeing some aquatic insect activity, I walked down to the water. As I approached the edge, a short series of marble-sized bubbles forced their way up from the depths of the submerged leaf pack. The rising spheres quivered like drops of quick silver as they rose up through the water column. Hitting the ice, these parcels of air were instantly pancaked and skittered along the ice, propelled by the current of the creek. No insects were in sight.
As I walked up the bank, a lone eastern boxelder bug flew past by and I watched it until it drifted out of sight. I thought that this colorful insect, pied with red and black, might prove to be the insect highlight of the day. But I was wrong.
Bill caught up with us later in the afternoon, plastic bag in hand. Inside was long dead female eastern Hercules beetle that he had found in the barn. A real beauty, she was. Bill said he had never seen a living one and wasn’t sure just how he would react if he ever did!
After investigating a few more fields and intervening woods, we decided to call it a day. Paul saw some good birds, but didn’t find his rusty blackbirds. But the relatively slow day failed to dampen our spirits. We both agreed that any day out in the field was a good day and began planning our next outing. Stay tuned.
©2009, A.V. Evans