Treasures in the Trans-Pecos

This past Monday found my family and I, along with Michael Smith, staying in Alpine, Texas in the upper Chihuahuan Desert, and it was here, on a walk from the hotel pool to the room, I stopped to pick up a small yellow-orange scarab that was lying on the ground by the entrance door. It was Euphoria castleberryi, one of the rarest beetles in Texas. Few naturalists have ever heard of it, and far fewer have laid eyes on one. It is so uncommon that an image search on bugguide.net will show only three specimens, all found in neighboring Jeff Davis county. The included literature states that 21 specimens occur in collections from the month of June, “plus a few July-August records”, with the type reference dating back to 1937. It also states that “Texas Parks & Wildlife considers this to be a species of greatest conservation need.”

While I was aware of the beetle’s existence here, I had never dreamed that I would actually get to see one, let alone stumble across one without even looking for it on an otherwise insignificant walk to change out of my swim trunks. It is moments like this that can turn even every-day, mundane activities into moments of wonder for a naturalist: a bird that has somehow escaped years on your lifelist suddenly winging its way from one place to another as you glance up at the sky in the grocery store parking lot; a rare orchid growing at trailside on a hike in a place you have visited a hundred times; a tropical migrant butterfly on a bloom in your flowerbed. Trips can be planned and sightings predicted by scrutinous study of habitat, season of peak activity, and habits of the species desired, but it is little spontaneous moments of unexpected discovery that really add flavor to a naturalist’s life.

Ironically, I could have made reservations at the Davis Mountains Resort (the sited locale of the few specimens of Castleberry’s flower scarab previously collected), hiked across the landscape in the heat of the day, poring over flowers with my eyes burning and squinted, attempting to pick out their inconspicuous pattern, repeating the process for days, with my chances at success minimal at best, and most likely walked away still not having seen a single one. Heaven knows I have planned entire week-long trips searching for other creatures in just such fashion. Yet the random decision to take my son for a swim instead of going hiking at all brought me into direct contact with one, and in a hotel parking lot of all places.

Euphoria castleberryi, Alpine Texas

On the other end of the spectrum, the evening found us hiking the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains, with my compulsive desire to locate two additional species of scarabs now in full swing after the Castleberry’s discovery. The higher elevations of the montane regions of Texas provide a specialized habitat where certain species of organisms exist that do not occur on the desert floor. These areas, collectively known as “sky islands”, typically enjoy a cooler, wetter, and more verdant isolation from the typical dry heat and aridity of the desert. Conifers such as pinyon pine and alligator juniper thrive in these conditions, as does a particular species of beetle that feeds on them. This is Chrysina gloriosa, a member of the genus of Ruteline beetles known as jewel scarabs. It has been described as “the most beautiful beetle in North America” in Simon & Schuster’s ‘Insects of the World’, and is highly sought by collectors for both its beauty and localized distribution. I had found its cousin, the larger and fluorescent green Wood’s jeweled scarab (Chrysina woodi), on several occasions in the Davis and Guadalupe mountains to the north, but never had I laid my eyes on a gloriosa.

Montane habitat on the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains

But today I was determined to change that. While I hadn’t included them in the original itinerary when planning the trip (we had actually headed to the Trans-Pecos after abandoning the lower Rio Grande Valley of south Texas due to an extensive drought that had made wildlife viewing dismally meager) they had certainly come to mind when deciding where we should hike earlier that morning. After all, it was June, their peak season, and the Lost Mine trail was prime habitat. So while Michael took his typical leisurely stroll along the trail, taking advantage of the benches and birdsong, Amber and Zev and I climbed toward the summit, scanning the outer branches of the trailside junipers for the elusive glorious scarab. Amber possesses a particularly keen eye for detail, as well as some type of supernatural ability to find uncommon species, and in a very short time she had picked up a couple of pieces of some glorious scarabs that birds had left over from breakfast on the trail. These were the worst of teasers, but they atleast confirmed the beetles’ presence here, and served to further goad my search into top gear.

A wing cover from the illustrious beetle in question, found along the Lost Mine Trail

As the trail began to ascend to steeper heights, I saw a glimmer of blue flash from a bush in the setting sunlight, and soon had another spectacular species of scarab in hand. This was Euphoria fuscocyanea, a frequenter of fermenting fruit that we had found with some regularity on this same trail last year. While some entomologists consider this to be only a color variant of the more common Euphoria fulgida, others consider this localized montane variety as a separate species. Whatever the taxonomy, it was a welcome find.

Euphoria fuscocyanea as viewed in situ and in hand in optimal sunlight

Eventually the sun fell behind the mountaintops, and we turned back and headed down the path in an attempt to make it back to the trailhead before it got completely dark. We continued seeing wildlife, even more so as dusk took over, and stopped to observe southwestern fence lizards and birds among the trees and rock scree. At one point Zev and I sat atop a large boulder overlooking the valley below, where the mountains of Mexico stood in the distance, their silhouettes enshrouded in the foggy haze of light brought on by the setting sun. We offered up a prayer of gratitude to the Creator for this place and moment and time, and I think I remember throwing in something about finding gloriosa as well, if it wasn’t too much trouble.

We found Michael sitting on a bench some distance up from the trailhead, writing in his notebook and enjoying the solitude. By this time it was past nine o’clock, and I was scanning the juniper branches by aide of flashlight. Fifteen minutes later the trail began to wind back down towards the parking lot, and as we rounded the last bend my truck came into view. I had all but given up hope when I saw a flying beetle circle lazily around the lower branches of the very last juniper, flashes of silver and emerald glinting from its extended wing covers in the dying afterglow of the sun.

“Gloriosa!” I shouted. “Get the aerial net!”

I know. I know. It is frowned upon, ill advised, and probably not entirely legal to sweep a beetle out of the air with a net in the Big Bend National Park, but I really didn’t see much harm in it. It wasn’t like I had toted the net along on the trail. It just so happened to be in the back of my truck, and Amber and Zev were already there. I hadn’t come all this way and done so much searching just to see a glimpse of a gloriosa, so I threw caution to the wind and netted the beetle easily out of the air. Before I could fish it out two more appeared from the surrounding foliage and circled around the tree. It was a gloriosa bonanza!

I reached down into the net and my fingers closed at long last upon the “most beautiful beetle in North America.” It had been on my life list since I was in elementary school, and now here it was in the flesh, the bright green exoskeleton striped with indented vertical strips of silver that literally looked indistinguishable from highly polished metal. It was even more magnificent in real life. Everyone crowded around this remarkable, unmatched jewel of coleopteran perfection, marveling at its beauty before taking photos. Then Zev and I took it back to the juniper tree to rejoin its brethren.

Chrysina gloriosa, diamond of the Lost Mine

From an unplanned encounter with the rare Castleberry’s scarab to a first class ticket to a gloriosa party around the juniper tree at the trailhead of the Lost Mine, it had been an exciting day in the Big Bend region of Texas, an area that never fails to provide the naturalist with moments of elation and discovery.

Thankfulness on the Lost Mine Trail

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Chisos Mountains, a view from the Lost Mine Trail

In one of Beethoven’s final string quartets (Op. 132), he wrote a slow, hymn-like movement titled, “Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity,” expressing his gratitude as he recovered from a serious illness. (An absolutely mind-blowing deconstruction and analysis of what Beethoven does in this incredible movement can be seen and heard here.) It is a profound, beautiful hymn, not sweet or sentimental, but exactly as I imagine how his soul would examine what it means to be alive in the full realization of how easily life could be gone.

I am hearing the opening notes of that quartet movement now, sitting on a bench in the Chisos Mountains. I have not had a close brush with death such as Beethoven had, but I do have deep gratitude for experiences like today’s walk up the Lost Mine Trail. Here, there is a sense of connection and healing of things that are broken, in a sanctuary where troubles cannot reach. No gift could be more appreciated than this.

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Within the mountain woodland

It is completely quiet except for occasional distant thunder, birdsong here and there, and the beginning sounds of insects here at the end of the day. I keep returning to this theme, how genuine quiet brings such tranquility. That is especially true here in the calm mountain woodland just before sunset. The hikers have gone. Even the knowledge that black bears live on these slopes does not cause concern, perhaps because it is one more indication of how raw and unspoiled this place is.

Here I am, after sixty-seven years still able to climb this trail – not that it is an especially difficult feat – and sit in the silence, watching the shadows lengthen and listening to the song of this earth, uninterrupted by noise. It is a rare privilege in a world that spins and spins, this opportunity to sit still.

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Blue-green spikes of Havard agaves on the mountain slopes

A thunderhead builds, and I watch it expand and drift this way. The thunder is still distant, one of those sounds that can be so relaxing from afar. The long, slanting rays of the sun highlight the tops of piñon pine and Emory oak. A nearby solitary bird trills and occasionally chirps, as the clouds turn rose-colored and the last light glows on the mountaintops. Soon it will be dark, and I will have to go, but I will remember these moments of solitude in the Chisos Mountains.IMG_3030

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At Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

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A trail at Santa Ana NWR

Santa Ana was certainly greener than the Sabal Palms Sanctuary had been, and it had recently rained here, based on the clumps of wet leaves and chaff on the initial paved trail and the slightly muddy dirt trails. That was encouraging. The downside was that the refuge was a hot, wet sauna, and my camera lens needed wiping several times before it would quit fogging.

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Dekay’s brown snakes, courting

I needed that camera lens to be clear, right at the outset of our walk. Amber, whose observation skills are first-rate, immediately found a pair of Dekay’s brownsnakes preparing for mating, right outside the visitor center. These are handsome but unassuming little relatives of the gartersnakes, and they generally live around leaf litter and places where they can find slugs and earthworms to eat. The little pool in the shade of the entrance to the refuge must have seemed the perfect place for a nice pair of brownsnakes to raise a family. I was determined to get a photo, despite the fog on the lens that seemed to say, “Come on, would you give these guys some privacy?”

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A snail on the mesquite bark

Along the trail we walked, mesquites grew alongside a few other trees, and the trunks of the mesquites were dotted with numerous snails with banded or pale conical shells, presumably breakfasting on whatever algae grow on the damp, rough mesquite bark.

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Rose-bellied lizard

Last fall we found that the rose-bellied lizard was very common here, and on this day we saw at least a half-dozen. In overall form they are like a small version of the familiar Texas spiny lizard, and in their skill at tree climbing they are as accomplished as their bigger cousins. I have memories of catching rose-bellied lizards as a teenager in Corpus Christi, and I always associate them with mesquite branches several feet off the ground. The patterns of females are paler, while males sport light-edged dark spots on either side of the back, bordered by a light stripe.

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Texas spotted whiptail lizard

The other common lizard at Santa Ana NWR stays on the ground, often sunning on the trail and running off among the fallen branches and undergrowth off the trail. It is the Texas spotted whiptail lizard, and several of them were busily hunting insects or sunning in the open, eight or ten feet ahead of us. The one I photographed on this day was a big male, the pinkish color under his chin and the blue-black patches of color on the belly scales just visible at the edges. Seven or eight light stripes run down the backs of these lizards, with rows of light spots between the stripes.

We did not hike extensively at Santa Ana. Despite whatever rains had visited the place, most of the ponds were dry and wildlife activity was limited, and with the heat and the relative humidity in the 90’s, our motivation was flagging. Nevertheless, it was a privilege to visit again, as the 2,088-acre refuge still faces the possibility of being cut off from the rest of the country by the proposed border wall. The levee on which the wall would be built runs right behind the refuge entrance, and a fence would consign the place into a sort of “no-man’s-land” between fence and the Rio Grande. You can read more about the threat to the refuge in “Slicing a Corridor in Two: A Report from Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge” from the Wildlands Network blog.

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Black witch moth

Back at the visitor center, we saw a black witch moth, like the two we saw in our visit last year. These big, dark moths have wonderfully subtle patterns on their wings, but as they flutter around, they simply look big and dark. In parts of Mexico this moth is known as la mariposa de la muerte, or “the butterfly of death,” and the myth is that if it enters a house where someone is sick, that person will die. In that context, the frequency with which this insect arrives at the visitor center is a little ominous. But, here is a thought: It is not the refuge that is sick, and there are a lot of people who won’t let it die.

For the Sabal Palms, No Sanctuary From Drought

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Sabal Palm frond, turning yellow

The second stop on our Lower Rio Grande Valley trip was to the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, 527 acres of relict sabal palm habitat tucked away in a bend of the Rio Grande just south of Brownsville. We had visited in October of last year (and blogged about it here), and we looked forward to seeing it again so soon. There was the prospect of seeing a regal black-striped snake, perhaps in the fallen palm fronds and other material on the forest floor, or finding a Texas indigo snake cruising among the acacias and palm trees. The sanctuary is a subtropical wonderland like no other place in Texas (except perhaps the Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve, located next door).

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On the trail to the resaca

However, as we followed the trail into the old butterfly garden, it was hard to recognize the garden plots and little pond that formed a little pollinator oasis in previous years. The plots were still there, with withered pollinator plants shedding most of their leaves under the similarly dessicated trees that usually provide dappled shade. Bees landed on the duckweed-choked puddle that had been part of a man-made pool provided for the butterflies. The trail led away past triangle cactus whose green color stood out against the brown grass and dead leaves, making the cactus seem much more prominent than its usual role, tucked away among dozens of species of green plants.

The promise of water in the resaca pulled us forward; if there was any water in the little oxbow pond, we could focus on wildlife around that little oasis. The margins were still green, but the water was gone, and so was the wildlife except for a green anole lizard and one swallowtail butterfly.

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A resaca, still green but dry

Call it inadequate planning (we could have checked recent rainfall patterns better) or the luck of the draw in a place where rainfall is inconsistent and the climate arid. Outside the immediate area of the river delta is the thorn scrub of south Texas and northeastern Mexico, places that can alternate between desert aridity and pulses of tropical moisture. Clint has visited the Sabal Palms Sanctuary more often than I have, and he said he has never seen it this dry and seemingly lifeless. The one significant finding, one that burns my fingers in envy to type it, is this: While Clint, Zev, and I were making our way to the dry resaca, Amber observed a groove-billed ani on the trail. This is one of those tropical bird species that birders travel to see in south Texas, considering any day when they see a groove-billed ani a lucky day indeed. Meanwhile, the rest of us will try to be content with our sighting of a green anole!

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Green anole, in its brown color at the moment

Black Lights Matter

As we pulled down the driveway that led up to the Darling House in Harlingen, which was to be our home away from home for the next few days, the sun was setting to our west, bathing the lower Rio Grande Valley in the dusky hue of late evening. A waxing crescent moon was still nowhere in sight, but the shadows of the pecan and live oak trees had fallen in long, accentuated slants across the yard, and the resident harvester ants were scurrying about our feet, wrapping up another hard day’s work of lawn maintenance and seed gathering. All about us the day life was winding down to make way for the night crew, and I had been anticipating our arrival at an early enough hour that I could set up my ultraviolet lights to advertise for nocturnal flying invertebrates.

The word “vacation” is a broad term. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as ‘an extended period of recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling.’

In that context is where my wife and I possess different opinions. I tend to focus on the ‘away from home or in traveling’ part, while she places emphasis on “recreation.” The term “recreation” refers to ‘activity done for enjoyment when one is not working.’ Just how my ‘vacation’ can provide ‘recreation’ (aka enjoyment) in the form of setting up massive lighting systems to attract bugs (the construction of which often takes an hour or more to build), then getting up every half hour throughout the night to see what has shown up, then getting up early the next morning before the birds pick the sheets clean before tearing the whole thing down, only to repeat the process nightly for the duration of our stay, is beyond her. Tedious, time-consuming, and monomaniacal, she would likely agree with. But recreational? Hardly. Nevertheless, we had arrived later than I had expected, and what should have been my chance to finally relax and unwind after a ten-hour drive south to the Valley had now turned into a high-speed, nervous rush to get everything set up as quickly as possible. So while Michael put on some 9:00 coffee, I dug through the back packs and duffel bags and suitcases like a madman, searching for tools and other items necessary to employ this oft-used strategy in the world of entomological eccentrics.

Things went wrong from the start, as they tend to do whenever I get in a hurry. I misplaced the flashlights, the clothes pins for the sheets, and then the wrenches I needed to get the framework connected. After all this had finally been found, I was faced with the task of selecting a choice locality in which to place the sheets. The wind was blowing, seemingly from every direction at once, which caused the white bedsheet I was trying to fasten to the frame to flap like a sail. I tried to pin one up to the clothesline, draping the blacklight over the top, but then it bumped against the vibrating sheet. The cord was about three inches too short, and couldn’t be stretched a millimeter. I had a fifty foot extension cord, but it was reserved for my new 275 watt mercury vapor lamp. So I just hung it like it was and ran a loop of wire through the cloth in the sheet’s center, then tied it back to a nail that was protruding from the exterior wall of the back deck. This left the light to dangle freely about a foot away from the sheet, illuminating it ideally.

Mercury vapor light setup on the veranda of the Darling House

Feeling like the MacGyver of bug nerds, I then proceeded to the mercury vapor light, which held in store for me its own can of woeful worms. I got the framework set up quickly enough, even with the aide of a hand-held flashlight and a motion light that kept going out just about the time I would get a grip on the next bolt. But then the extension cord was too short for where I wanted to set it up. It seemed that every good place that would successfully buffet the sheet from the wind would hide the light behind a bunch of foliage, or would be too close to competing lights shining out through the windows of the house. But by this time the better part of an hour had passed, and I could see Michael and Amber sitting at the dining room table through the window, drinking coffee. I wondered if he was giving her advice on marital counseling, and so I just stuck the setup by the kitchen window, plugged in the vapor lamp directly to the plug on the side of the house, and washed my hands of the mess, for better or worse.

Makeshift blacklight setup on the back porch

For all this toil and trouble I was eventually rewarded for my efforts. The wind kept the bugs at bay until midnight, but I stayed up and snuck out of the house after everyone else was asleep, and in so doing feasted my eyes at long last on the veritable beetle bonanza I had gone to such obsessive lengths to bring in. I selected a few of the most notable fruits of my labor for my collection, and photographed the rest. By this time it was nearly one o’clock in the morning, and we had to get up bright and early to hit Boca Chica beach and then the Sabal Palm sanctuary, so I turned in at last and called it a night, leaving the lights running strong to keep bringing in the bugs until morning, when I would rise before the rest and set about deconstructing my setup until the next evening. Vacation indeed.

Unicorn mantis, a border specialty

Eburia stigmatica

Enaphalodes mimeticus

Phaneropterine katydid

Temnoscheila acuta

Repipta taurus

A Morning at Boca Chica Beach

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A dune at Boca Chica

I tagged along with Clint and his family on a return to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and the opening chapter of this trip was a visit to a wonderful stretch of beach at the bottom of Texas. The land is owned by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and leased to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The dunes back of the beach support a healthy population of the keeled earless lizards, and while they occasionally sit still and stare up at you to see what you’ll do next, most often they are seen zipping over the sand as a pale blur, to take shelter in a burrow or under some of the beach morning glory and railroad vine that trace their way across the sand.

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Keeled earless lizard (photo by Clint King)

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Railroad vine

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Beach morning glory

We got there about 8:30am in order to avoid the worst of the day’s heat, and the tide was high on the beach. While I took a few photos of the vegetation in the dunes, and Clint got a couple of photos of the keeled earless lizards, for the most part we walked through the edge of the surf and listened to the thunder of the breakers coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. It was, at least for this morning, Zev’s favorite place on earth, and watching him jump into the breakers or settle into the water and sand as the waves retreated, we remembered how wonderful the world can look when you are nine years old.

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Dunes at Boca Chica

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Delirium & Dehydration at Colorado Bend State Park

‘Our nature hikes have become grim death marches’

– Lisa Simpson

Amber and I found ourselves at Colorado Bend State Park last week, in the middle of a high pressure heat wave that had long since driven all sane people and animals into their air conditioned houses and subterranean shelters. But we were made of stronger stuff. True grit. or so we told ourselves upon setting out.

The original day’s plans had not included a hike at all. We had driven down to Lampasas to partake of some fine spinach enchiladas as can only be found at Alfredo’s Mexican Restaurant off Highway 281, after meeting Dr. Jesse Meiks at Tarleton State University to discuss rattlesnake research, a topic we are both equally passionate about. In all honesty I had a summer mycology class to attend at one o’clock, but the pull of those enchiladas was too strong, and it was only an eighty-five mile drive from Stephenville…

Needless to say, the myco class was a student short that day. I’m not sure what mycorrhizal fungi tastes like with beans and rice, but I highly doubt it compares to spinach enchiladas. As we pulled out of the parking lot of the restaurant, our hunger satiated once again at the expense of obligation and responsibility, I spied with my little eye a sign that beckoned me to turn left should I fancy a detour to the Colorado Bend State Park.

“You want to go hike Gorman Falls?” I mentioned to Amber, trying to sound casual, knowing we had no water canteens, no sunscreen, no bug spray…

“If you want,” she replied. And that was all it took. A mere forty-five minutes later and we turned off of the gravel entrance road to the park at another sign that directed us to the trailhead to the falls.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Amber questioned as we stepped out of the truck and into the sweltering afternoon sun. “You’re not supposed to be in direct sunlight between 2 and 5 you know.”

“That’s a myth,” I assured her.

“Especially without water,” she added.

“Well we’re already here,” I said. “Plus we just had two huge glasses of water at the restaurant, and some salty enchiladas for electrolyte replenishment. The hike is only 1.5 miles. That should hold us off for that long. See how I always think two steps ahead? I’m so good at it I do it subconsciously.”

Amber only rolled her eyes and headed for the porta-john. “Wait for me,” she instructed. “Don’t go chasing off some bug. I’ll be out in a second.”

As she entered the restroom I noticed a large, rotund orthopteran clinging to the wall in the shade. It was a beautiful leaf green, and its craftily concealed outer wings even mimicked a leaf to a tee, right down to the venation. It was a Central Texas leaf katydid, a species formerly considered to be a Lone Star endemic until a population turned up in Oklahoma (thanks, Brandon Woo @ inat for both the identification and the information). I had barely had time to snap a quick pic of this amazing insect when I heard a distinctive retching sound echoing from inside the restroom. A second later Amber came flying out shaking her head violently.

“No way,” she said, her face wrinkled in disgust. “That restroom is filthy. People are pigs. Pigs, I tell you. Let’s just get on with the hike.”

We should have taken the unkempt porta-potty as a bad omen, but I was eager to break in the last day of May in style with some hill country hiking, 100 degrees or not. As we left the parking lot behind, heat waves shimmered over the open prairie, above the withered heads of Mexican hat and coneflowers. Mesquite cicadas droned their shrill warning for us to take heed and turn back, or else abandon all hope. A sign placed along the trail warned travelers that rugged terrain lay ahead. ‘Bring Water’ it suggested. We passed it without a word between us. ‘Mountain Lions are known to inhabit this area’, the second sign read. ‘Use caution.’

“Mountain lions, great,” Amber muttered. “After we tire and weaken from thirst we’ll be hunted down like lame deer.”

“Nonsense,” I assured her. “Mountain lions are way too smart to be out in these conditions.”

And so we walked on, down the dusty trail devoid of shade and hope and potable water, with the cicadas singing our deathsong and the turkey vultures circling above us impatiently. Overhead, the cruel sun stared down at us with timeless indifference.

In the beginning everything seemed fine. The heat was nothing more than a minor discomfort; I began to sweat and could feel a slight burn on my exposed arms and the back of my neck, which I remedied by pulling my shirt up over my head through the hole and securing it over my forehead, like Beavis, whenever we crossed a patch of shadeless prairie, which was often. The trail to Gorman Falls consists of wide open spaces of prickly pear, Ashe juniper, honey mesquite, agarita, and various grasses growing from limestone-rich soil, with mottes of Texas live oak and scraggly elm trees that offer dappled relief all-too-sparingly. I insisted on checking every live oak tree with scarred bark, as this is the breeding medium for the large buprestid beetle Polycesta elata. Unlike Amber, buprestid beetles seem to enjoy the heat, the hotter the better, and can be found basking in full sunlight on exposed portions of the bark scars. There were plenty of these here, and in a surprisingly short time I spotted one. While many buprestids are quick to take flight upon approach, members of the genus Polycesta are not too wary, and can easily be caught by hand, as this one was.

Polycesta elata

On the other side of the tree was a large section of bare bark that had been split by lightning, its surface pock-marked by the emergence holes of various borers, both the rounded ones made by Buprestids and the slanted, slightly ovate ones made by longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). A fine example of the latter of these was sitting in the middle of the scar, its two-inch long burnt orange elytra standing out in sharp contrast against the bonemeal grey-white of the dead bark. At first glance it resembled a tarantula hawk wasp (Pepsis) in both size and coloration; this was precisely the point. The creature was a tarantula hawk mimic, the black pronotum and head equipped with thin black slightly curled antennae and the elytral apices tapering to resemble the abdomen of its dangerous lookalike. This was Stenelytrana gigas, a common (though seldom seen) species. Normally a high flier in the crowns of various hardwoods, it typically only ventures in the lower canopy to either feed at sap flows or lay its eggs. This one may have just emerged, for it was simply sitting on the trunk of the tree above eye level. It certainly wasn’t laying eggs, for the antennae were long enough to identify it as a male, and there was no sap coming from the tree. Maybe it had been burned by the intense sun and fallen to Earth like Icarus.

Stenelytrana gigas male on live oak

The trail began to ascend, becoming steadily more rocky, with jagged, porous granite boulders rising up from the crumbling thin layer of topsoil. A lone Texas kidneywood tree was the only thing blooming. It stood in the middle of a grassy clearing in full sunshine, its tiny white clustered flowers attracting a multitude of pollinators. I had been introduced to this delightful leguminous plant last fall, on a trip to La Sal de Rey in the Rio Grande Valley with Michael, and had spent a good half hour perusing among the blooms looking at bees, butterflies, and beetles that had been drawn in by its pungent aroma. This plant had been growing by itself as well, with no others like it in sight.

While Amber moved on ahead in her usual restless, impatient manner, I stopped for a minute to once again see what invertebrates were doing their part in the pollination process. The air was alive with the buzzing of wasps and bees, and the distal tips of the blossoms were being kissed by many juniper hairstreak butterflies (Callophrys gryneus). Nearby, a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus), a member of the assassin bug family, waited for one to venture too closely. But the star of the show was a huge tarantula hawk wasp, its copper colored forewings glinting in the sunlight, the bright metallic body reflecting turquoise.

Tarantula hawk wasp on Texas kidneywood

The tarantula hawk’s name says enough. Most species of spiders must contend with some form of predatory wasp that hunts it, paralyzes it and drags it away to be stuffed in some underground catacomb for its larvae to feed on. It is only befitting that the tarantula have a nemesis large enough to balance the scales as well. Tarantula hawk wasps are known for possessing one of the most powerful stings in the insect world, and it ranks among the top painful stings a person can experience. Luckily the genus is quite placid unless physically handled, although I have only met one man with enough nerve and alcohol in him to attempt this, and the end result ensured he wasn’t foolish enough to repeat it.

I left the wasp to continue taking its pollen bath undisturbed, and by the time I had caught up with Amber she was nearly to the end of the trail. By this time over an hour had passed, and we were beginning to feel the effects of minor dehydration. My mouth had become dry, and I was sweating profusely. I could only imagine how my wife felt, in her black long-sleeve shirt and blue jeans she had donned in an attempt to thwart the sun and ticks. Beneath her wide-brimmed straw hat she gazed out at the Colorado River below us, where a shady grove of huge elm trees grew above the fern-skirted crystal clear pool formed at the base of the falls. The comforting, consistent rush of the falling water over moss-slick rocks whispered for us to descend into this lush utopia, situated less than fifty feet below the prairie. A handrail rope to our right aided us on our way down, preventing a nasty fall on the boulders worn slick from years of humidity and foot traffic. At the trail’s end we enjoyed a brief rest on a bench on the wooden platform, where the increased humidity and accompanying mosquitoes went largely unnoticed as we enjoyed our break from the oppressive afternoon sun. After resting we walked part of a small trail that ran parallel between the river and the cliff face from which we had descended. Amber noticed several more Stenelytrana gigas females ovipositing in a massive half-dead live oak, and we were able to approach these quite closely for some good shots.

(panorama of Gorman Falls)

S. gigas female in hollow live oak

“I’m getting low on energy,” Amber announced as my camera snapped away at the busy beetles. “My skin is dry in spite of the humidity. I think we had better leave now if we’re going to get out of here alive. We have a long hike back ahead of us.”

I couldn’t argue. My skin was dry as well, and the left side of my head had developed a serious pulsing ache, the telltale signs of dehydration. We left the beetles behind, with a large female buzzing around my head, looking even more like a tarantula hawk in flight, and we ascended the steep cliff face, pulling tightly on the rope-rail with the muscles in our legs groaning and cramping.

It was four o’clock, and the sun was beaming down so brightly and intensely that it obliterated the path in front of us. “Ten feet at a time,” Amber mumbled to herself ahead of me, amid my own exasperated sighs. As we broke forth from a crop of closely-growing junipers I felt my head began to swim. My vision grew suddenly hazy, and I stopped in what little patchwork shade was available.

“I can’t stop,” Amber said. “If I stop I don’t know if I will be able to start going again.”

I knew what she meant all too well. The ground looked suddenly tempting, soft and alluring beneath a bed of juniper needles. It would be easy to just lay down and sleep.

But that would prove deadly, a voice assured me in the back of my mind. No, my wife was right. We had to keep going. “Just ten feet,” I muttered, adopting her survival method as I roused myself from between the shaggy juniper trunks with some difficulty.

But the worst part was yet to come. We still had that wide open treeless savannah to trek across, with the radiant heat from the piping hot granite boulders baking our legs while the sun cooked us from above as if we were in a giant oven.

“I feel chills,” Amber said.

“We are on the verge of total collapse,” I replied. “Heat exhaustion. This was a dumb idea.”

“How far to the truck?”

“Just a few thousand more yards,” I replied, but my humor was lost in the fact that we were in the red zone of hyperthermia.

To my right the Texas kidneywood loomed, its blossoms still bustling with arthropod activity. For some stupid reason I stopped to see if there were any longhorn beetles in the bunch, but found it hard to focus in the blinding light, so I staggered over to the shade of a dying live oak tree. My breathing had become laborious, and when I looked up into the canopy a bout of vertigo engulfed me. Something buzzed loudly by my head, sounding very buprestidesque, but on the verge of total mental and physical shutdown I was past bug-hunting at last.

When I focused my attention back to the trail I found that my wife was nowhere in sight, but I could hear her cracked lips croaking out my name, presumably with her final dying gasps. I mustered up my last bit of strength and jogged around the bend, where I found her plodding onward across the last section of baking chapparal.

“The truck is just ahead,” I told her. We pushed forward on sheer fortitude and willpower, dredging up the last bits of our energy reserves, my mind reeling with thoughts of snowcones, iced tea, frosty mugs of Shiner drafts, and water…glorious water…

Eventually the high stone wall that marks the trailhead came into view, its substance shimmering as I subconsciously rooted through the pocket of my shorts with shaking hands, the fingers cramping from severe dehydration.

“Thank God,” I said aloud as our feet at last touched the gravel of the parking lot.

“We made it,” I stated. “That was a nice hike!”

“You’re insane,” Amber replied.

“So what, you’re saying you’re not down for a walk along the Cedar Chopper Loop after we find some water?”

“We’re leaving. Now.”

And without further ado we left the Colorado Bend State Park behind, to burn and dessicate in the hateful late spring drought. We had defied all odds, and came out alive and breathing (if barely) on the other side. We had lived to tell the tale, a tale of why one must NEVER go hiking in such conditions without being well-prepared.

“Don’t let me do that again,” I told Amber as we sat in the parking lot of a gas station back in Lampasas among bottles of Ozarka and Gatorade.

“I won’t.”

“In fact, I insist on your accompaniment in my future adventures afield, just to keep me from doing anything so dumb…or dumber, if that’s possible.”

“For bugs,” she mumbled, staring out of the window of the truck with glazed eyes. “We nearly died to find bugs.”

“Find bugs…good idea,” I said, my own stinging eyes falling on a dead post oak whose upper branches were

stretching upward above the roof of the Citgo.

“I’ll be right back,” I said. “But I’m taking my water with me.”

Needless to say, I went unaccompanied.

Ornate tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus) photographed along the Gorman Falls Trail, just before dehydration made the transition to hyperthermia and coherence withered up and died