the journal


Mojave National Preserve Trip Report (Part 2)

Filed Under bugshutterbug.com, entomology, local travel, photography

April 5th, 2009

Part 2 – Where are the insects??

If you missed part one of this two-part report, click here.

Those of you with fine-tuned observational skills might have noticed that the first part of this Mojave National Preserve trip report failed to mention any bugs. The fact is that I went most of Saturday without looking for insects to photograph. My goal was to explore on Saturday and concentrate on finding and photogging bugs on Sunday. I wouldn’t be disappointed!

I should admit now that the first photographed insect occurred around dusk on Saturday. While hiking around Shadow Valley in search for a campsite, I discovered the unmistakable silk tent of the Western tent caterpillar (Malacosoma californicum) on a creosote bush. A few caterpillars were out of the nest for me to photograph. This wouldn’t be the last time I’d see these colorful, social moth larvae today.

After a cold night of camping where temperatures dropped below 30°F (-1°C), I packed up and headed south on Cima Road. It was another beautiful day in the desert. It was a little breezy – gusts up to 20mph – but wouldn’t last beyond 8-9am. My goal for the day was to check out the Hole-in-the-Wall campsite and info center, but I was in no hurry. My first stop of the day was at the ghost town of Cima. It consisted of a half-dozen or so buildings and a dozen rusted vehicles. It also had a simple building still in use as a market and post office (closed on Sunday). I stopped and explored the remains of a small home. The ground around the building was covered in pieces of wood and metal from the home. Of the scraps of metal strewn across the desert, I could identify a metal mattress frame, screen door, and a heating duct- all possibly over 50 years old. I spent an hour turning over the remnants of the dilapidated material looking for insects. In that time I would find two centipedes, a nest of harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex), a beautiful desert spider and a small beetle with a blue sheen. I don’t know how, but I also spotted a tiny spider the size of a mite, no more than 1 mm in body length.

The large gray/black spider (Plectreuridae Plectreurys) measured about 13-15mm. It crawled in jerky movements based on vibrations or movement around it, which reminded me of how lizards move. The dark side of this wooden plank was obviously its lair for I found three dead beetles sucked dry in her trash.

The centipedes were not happy to have been disturbed. It has been years since I’ve captured a centipede, so I was a little intimidated by their speed and reflexes. I recently read up on the centipede and learned that they have unique “legs” called gnathosomes or gnathopods which are pincer-like appendages used to inject venom into their prey. They spend most of their time during the day under logs, stones, or in this case, a sheet of metal in order to keep from dehydrating. At night they hunt for anything they can catch and, based on how fast they move, that’s probably quite a bit. They eat mostly insects, but have been known to capture and eat lizards and small rodents as well. I’m having trouble identifying these centipedes, so if you can help, please leave a comment.

The small beetle I found measured about 7mm. It has a nice bluish-green tint to it in the light. It was very difficult to photograph, even in the small container I used to temporarily house it while I snapped away.

I could have spent all day in Cima looking for insects, but I was drawn by a desire to see more of the park. I headed west on Kelso Cima Road for five miles until I came to Mojave Road. This unpaved road has more history behind it than the nearby Route 66. In fact, Mojave Road was the Route 66 of its time before the Chicago-Santa Monica highway was built. This 138-mile trail is not much different today as it was when American pioneers traveled across it in their wagons in search of a new life and prosperity the decades following the Civil War. But even this layer of history can be peeled back. At one time, this was once used by Jedidiah Smith, John Fremont and other American pioneers. Before that, the Mojave Indians in the early 1800’s used this trail. And even before that, it is said that Spanish Franciscan Francisco Garces might have used this very trail around the time our forefathers were signing the Declaration of Independence.

The road is well groomed, thanks to local support, but with all dirt roads in the desert, it has become corrugated, making it a slow drive for my non-4WD vehicle. Going at speeds of about 15mph (24kph) allowed me to check out the scenery and keep an eye on the road for any crossing creatures. This is how I found my next insect.

It wasn’t hard to spot this large darkling beetle crossing the road. The black Eleodes measures about 4 cm from maxilla to pygidium. I found it just as it discovered its next meal, allowing me plenty of time to get out my gear to photograph it. I’ve seen Eleodes many times in the Mojave Desert, but this was the first that had striae along the elytra rather than a smooth abdomen. I believe this is an Eleodes obscura.

I drove 11 miles of dirt roads before arriving at Mid Hills Campground, one of the two “official” campgrounds in the Mohave National Preserve (“Moja”). The place was empty and it was immediately clear why. A 2005 wildfire had destroyed much of the woods in this area. Even today it still looks like the aftermath of a nuclear war, with blackened dead trees and dark brown earth. Life is slowly returning to the area, but I wouldn’t want to camp here given all of the other options. Besides, I don’t know who would pay $12 for a campsite when you can camp off the side of the road for free.

I continued south on Black Canyon Road which is still unpaved at this point. I assume most visitors on this road come up from the south, where the pavement ends immediately north of the Hole-in-the-Wall Campgrounds and Info Center. I wasn’t ready to check out the center quite yet. Just north of Hole-in-the-Wall, I took a mile detour down a dirt road. It was there I would spend the rest of my time in the park photographing a single creosote bush. For some reason, this bush had more life than anything I could see in the surrounding area.

If you’ve kept up with my blog, you’ll know that my favorite insect to photograph at the moment is the syrphid fly, more commonly called the hover fly. So you could only imagine how excited I was to find this single creosote bush covered in them! Along with 4-5 different syrphids attracted to the flowering bush were drone flies (Eristalis tenax), cactus flies (Copestylum Mexicana), flesh flies (Sarcophagidea), green bottle flies (Phaenicia sericata), and even spotted what looked like a fruit fly (Tephritidae) with their distinctly marked wings. Along with the flies were a few kinds of bees, most I’ve never seen before outside the covers of a field guide. Along with honey bees – by far the most represented at the bush of any insect – were 2-3 types of other bees. I spotted a few small mining bees (Andrenidae) and something that looked a lot like a leafcutter bee (Megachile sp.).

Here’s my favorite syrphid photo of the day. I’m not having any luck identifying it, so if you can help, please feel free to post a comment.

Winged insects weren’t the only visitors to this creosote bush. One or two families of Western tent caterpillars (Malacosoma californicum) could be found climbing on the bush, looking for food.

It was getting close to 3pm and I wanted to stay in front of the weekend Vegas visitors, so I reluctantly left the creosote and headed home. Before I left the park, I stopped in briefly at the Hole-in-the-Wall Info Center, where I gathered pamphlets to read in order to plan my next trip out to the Mojave National Preserve. I have a feeling the trip will be sooner than later!

Also coming soon will be more photos – lots of photos! – taken on this trip. Stay tuned!