Nebulatettix subgracilis, Blackland Baby?

by Eric Neubauer

This grasshopper wins the award for best Texas Blackland camouflage.  It is so good that it could well have evolved here. Nymphs are especially difficult to see.

iNaturalist observation by E. Neubauer

Unlike some other grasshopper species, its appearance is fairly consistent from individual to individual. It is also relatively common, at least in my neighborhood. Observations at iNaturalist suggest a range from just over the border in Mexico, north up through the center of Texas, and just into Oklahoma.

This was my first big ID challenge. I started noticing these last fall soon after I joined iNaturalist. There wasn’t much help on iNaturalist with less than 24 observations, most misidentified, and few if any research grade. How can this happen with an everyday species? Well, first this species was named Encoptolophus subgracilis until recently. A recent genetic study of the Chortophagini resulted in a new genus and realignment of several species. The second is that grasshoppers don’t have a lot of fans and people tend to concentrate on the easy ones.

The view that gives the accurate ID.

Eventually I found the published article on line which provided some guidance. While a lot of the focus was on genitalia, which are rarely visible in live photographs, there were also details of the cranial ridges between the eyes for this and a half dozen related species. From that point on, all that was necessary to confirm an ID was a sharp, overhead photograph (at right).

The cranial ridges look like a bottle with slightly curved sides an a short neck to me. Another characteristic is the bright blue tibia which stands out against the salt and pepper body when the hind legs are flicked out during mating displays (see photo below).

This species can probably be found throughout Milam County from at least May through October.

Fun times for the dusky grasshoppers – blue area visible.

Texas Terrors

by Eric Neubauer

The owlfly (Ululodes macleayanus) isn’t really that scary to humans. It’s just an insect whose lineage goes way back to when dragonflies ruled the skies. It hunts at night and is closely related to antlions. Antlion larva dig pits in sand and hide at the bottom waiting from prey to slide down the sloping sides. I knew about antlions and encountered pits dug by larva, but never heard anything about owlflies.

This becomes the first iNaturalist observation of the Ululodes for Milam County (there are 800 in Texas, so they’re pretty obscure. I only got a single photo and was lucky to get that since it was perched on a grass stalk in the wind. It was taken with the macro lens I just bought.

You may recall the Anthrax pluto fly specimen I observed a while back. It turns out that the next week, Sue Ann Kendall saw another one, Anthrax larrea. I saw the same kind the next day! Between the two of us, we had most of the verified iNat observations in the whole United States.

I went through the Anthrax observations for Texas and found four as yet to be identified ones. So now there are seven. That the neat thing about this kind of research. Eventually there can be a lot of positive fallout.

It does appear to be one of the rarer species though since that’s only 7 out of 121 Anthrax observations in Texas.

Anthrax larrea

Caterpillar Season

Cindy Travis and Sue Ann Kendall

From Cindy:

I found a dozen of these caterpillars devouring my dill. When there was nothing but a stem left, they crawled up the side of my planter and crawled away. I thought they might find the nearby parsley and ingest it too, but no sign of that and no sign if them.

I suppose they are somewhere nearby spinning their cocoons.  Maybe I’ll see some pretty black swallowtails around soon if my nesting phoebes and barn swallows or bluebirds don’t get them first!

From Sue Ann:

I have had many of these in my bronze fennel plant, and I hope they have gone off to pupate, too! The fennel also hosted the caterpillar of the cabbage looper moth. I’ll plant dill next year, for sure. The more black swallowtails, the better!

More about the Black Swallowtail, from Cindy

Papilio polyxenes, the black swallowtail, American swallowtail or parsnip swallowtail, is a butterfly found throughout much of North America. It is the state butterfly of Oklahoma and New Jersey. Wikipedia

Eastern black swallowtail. Photo by @AngelsLight via Twenty20. Licensed use.

Black Swallowtail Life Cycle: Overview and Timings

StageTypical Duration
Egg stageGenerally 4 to 10 days, depending on temperature and host plant
Caterpillar (larval) stage3 to 4 weeks
Chrysalis (pupal) stage10 to 20 days (except for overwintering pupae)
Adult butterfly stage6 to 14 days
Facts about the Black Swallowtail

And More from Sue Ann

I had to add this observation from last night, as I was dining outdoors at the Central Avenue Bistro in Cameron (with safe distancing and all that). I felt something prickling my ankle and looked down to find this fellow. It must be on the last instar, because it’s big! I believe it’s a live oak metria moth (Metria amelia) given that it and many friends were falling from the live oak tree we were sitting under, though iNaturalist has yet to confirm me.

Hard to tell the front from the back of this one!

The moth looks like this, which really would blend right in with an oak tree!

Live oak metria moth. iNaturalist photo by xylochic627 (CC-NY-NC)

Big Toad Little Toad

By Sue Ann Kendall

Ever since learning all about Houston toads last week, I’ve been wanting to find the toad currently hanging around our house in the Walker’s Creek community outside of Cameron. I was especially curious, because that toad has some BIG poop.

Yesterday, my niece sent me five pictures. It was a toad! I was already on my way home, so I got all excited. Must be a Master Naturalist thing.

When I got to the house, Kathleen showed me our new neighbor. She is one big mama Gulf Coast toad. She can’t be a dude toad, too big. She just hung around in the grass, and no dog was dumb enough to mess with her. (I have a feeling there are more toads by the house, judging by the nightly croaking.)

Very large toad. I didn’t pick her up for more ID, because I wanted her to continue to feel safe.

Later that evening, I was walking by the garage, which is near a little pond, when I saw something move. It was a fresh young toadlet!

Tiny toad up close.

This little fella is the opposite of Big Mama! As you can see, it’s smaller than a June bug.

Toad versus bug

I’m happy some of the pond tadpoles made it out and are heading for the big-filled world around our house and woods.

A Fly Named Anthrax pluto

by Eric Neubauer

When I review my photos and decide what to upload to iNaturalist, the first thing I do is separate them into broad categories such as flies aka Diptera, and today was the day to work on that group. One was this shaggy, spotted fly found in a wooded area near Alligator Creek.

Sue Ann now declares this her SECOND favorite fly.

I don’t know my flies very well, and trying to identify one I’ve never seen before is like going down Alice’s rabbit hole.

There are so many different kinds of flies. A fair number don’t even have a single observation at iNaturalist, but I thought this one was distinctive enough and I might get lucky. Way down in the low double digit observation totals of Texas flies, I finally found one with similar spots. It was in the Anthrax genus which I’ve never encountered before.

The word “similar” is a dangerous one and it has burned me before, so the next logical step was to search the genus Anthrax in Texas. And what do you know, there was another nearly identical species down in the single digits! Now, how am I going to tell them apart?

The only consistent difference I could see was that the leading edge of the wing of one was solid black and alternated between black and clear on the other. Mine was the one with 7 observations, now increased to 8. The only other observations for this species in North America are four in eastern Canada, oddly enough.